May 202009

I was always destined to be the family genealogist. When I was younger, I had a “Family History” notebook where I had diligently filled out what was known of my family tree in my child’s handwriting. In Grade 10, I wrote a family history for the Bray family which encompassed several generations and told the story of their emigration from Cornwall to Ontario.

In my 20s, I travelled to England and Scotland for the first time. I was going through my new age stage and I decided to travel by “intuition.” (Basically, I had a train pass and no itinerary). My intuition/inclination led me to Cornwall – Penzance, to be exact. There, I signed up for a tour with “Harry Safari.” Harry is a local who makes a living showing tourists the wonders of Cornwall. He was quick to point out that I must be a “Cornish girl” with a name like Bray. I had never identified myself as Cornish before, but I had noticed the surprising prevalence of people who had the same watery blue eyes as many of my family members. These eyes, the mysterious Cornish coastline, and Cornish pasties made me think: hmmm, maybe I am a Cornish girl.

Harry Safari must get his fill of New World visitors looking for their Old World pasts. He must have seen that that was what my “intuition” was looking for – a taste of connection to the mystical rocks and ancient places (new age phase remember!). After his tour, Harry asked me if I wanted to have a look at Billy Bray’s chapel. Billy Bray was a powerful figure in 19th century Cornwall. He was a preacher who led the Bible Christian movement – a movement which advocated strict temperance, exuberant worship and careful reading of the Bible.

Billy Bray
Billy Bray

Harry Safari and his wife very, very graciously offered me dinner and drove me out to Billy Bray’s chapel. Part of our tour included a stop at a graveyard where I was convinced that my “intuition” had led me to discover the graves of my Bray ancestors. As for Billy, I was sure that I must be related to him too because I could remember vague stories about my ancestors’ tee totalling ways.

I was deluded of course. Utterly and embarrassingly mad. But I do want to point out that, until recently, almost all of my family’s ideas about the origins of our Bray ancestors were, uh, totally wrong. To say the least. It was long-standing lore in my family that the William Bray (the Bray who made the “crossing”) was from a family of tin miners in Redruth, Cornwall. I am told that this fact is inscribed in a family Bible. My brilliant aunt, also predestined to succumb to the genealogy virus, set about to find our Bray ancestors in Redruth. She travelled to Cornwall more than once, not only because she loves it there but also because she hoped to learn more about our elusive Brays.

View Cornish Relatives in a larger map

The internet changed everything. Within weeks of discovering Google’s ability to cough up (ir)relevant information about my ancestors, I had located John, a not-so-distant cousin who is the Chief Wizard of Bray-lore. He quickly straightened out my side of the family. Redruth? Not a chance! Not even close! No, our Brays are from Northern Cornwall. Our Brays are from St. Teath and Lanteglos-by-Camelford. A few odd strays in places like Morwenstow and Tintagel, but look at the Camelford area closely and it is hard to find the Brays who aren’t related to us. (Figuring out the exact nature of these relationships is another story all together, but I’ll save that for a future post!)

The irony of our genealogical follies is made more delicious by the fact that my side of the family is, how shall I put it, a touch over-educated. Fortunately, I think that we have been blessed with a compensating dose of self-deprecation, and I can appreciate the “eggheads gone wrong — really wrong” humour here. I do wonder, however, how this wonderfully misleading Redruth rumour started. Was there some connection to this city? Was it a stop along the way to Canada? OK, OK, I know. I have to let this one go.

Surprisingly (at least to me), this ass-whooping has turned out to be a somewhat common experience in my journey through my family’s history. The story told by the bureaucrats and their records is never quite the same story as the one that has trickled down through the generations. My research often feels like a cat-and-mouse game with history; and it is me, I am afraid, who is batted around and tossed into the air by the wily and always invincible past.

May 122009

The internet is ruthless with the secrets of the past. I discovered the extent of the power of the internet to reveal our secrets as I turned my attention to the Bray family. I noticed, as had other Bray researchers, two mysterious Emma Brays who were, according to census returns, living with my great-great-great grandparents William Bray and Betsey Bath.

William and Betsey were married in Michaelstow, Cornwall in Mar 1850. Shortly after their marriage (the journey to Canada most often began in the spring), they emigrated to Canada and settled in Hope Township in Durham County, Ontario.

In the 1851 and 1861 Ontario censuses, an Emma is listed as a daughter of William and Betsey. However, she is quite a bit older than their next eldest daughter Anna Maria. Emma disappears from the 1871 census and it is uncertain what happened to her, although William purchased a grave at Welcome Church in 1868. This is, perhaps, Emma’s grave. It is also possible that Emma married and simply disappeared into life with a new last name.

Because Emma was born in 1844, six years before William and Betsey’s marriage, it seemed unlikely that she was their biological daughter. I assumed for a long time that she was simply the child of a sibling who, for some reason, could not look after her. Eventually it occurred to me (OK, I know: duh!) to search English baptismal records for a Emma Bath (Betsey’s maiden name). Sure enough, Emma Bath was the “bastard” child of Betsey Bath, baptized in Trevalga, Cornwall in 1844. (This is most certainly our Emma as Betsey was from Trevalga and can be found living there with her family in the 1841 census.)

Family of William Bray and Betsey Bath
Family of William Bray and Betsey Bath circa 1870. Back row, left to right: Thomas, Sarah, William. Middle row: Anna Maria, William, Betsy, Adelaide. Front row: Annabelle, Harry, Eliza.

The existence of Emma came as a complete surprise to us. Her life seemed somehow obscured and possibly even hidden. She was not present in any family photos or on an elaborate family tree that had been completed in the 1950s. I find myself wanting to make some assumptions about the plight of an illegitimate child, but I am wary of jumping to conclusions. But I am fascinated to say the least. What did this mean for Emma? What did it mean for Betsey? Was William Betsey’s saviour? Were they motivated to emigrate so that this “sin” could be erased from the memory of the community where they lived? Or was this a commonplace event, understood to be something that happened and that should be survived in some way or another?

This story does not end with our Emma born in 1844. Interestingly enough, another mysterious Emma Bray is living with William and Betsey according to the 1881 census. In this case, it was rather easy to discover that Emma #2, born in 1873, was the illegitimate daughter of Sarah Jane Bray, William and Betsey’s daughter. Emma #2’s birth was duly recorded by an (undoubtedly sour and judgmental) Ontario bureaucrat. We do know that Emma #2 was raised by William and Betsey as their daughter. She died at the age of 16 of a bowel obstruction. Again, this Emma does appear in a photo nor is she is listed on a family tree. But I am inclined to believe that this Emma was much loved as she is buried beside William and Betsey in Gardiner’s United Cemetery in Cavan, the headstone engraved with her nickname Bena. I find this to be a tender gesture.

Wait! There’s more. A couple of weeks after I discover the birth certificate of Emma #2, I looked more closely at it. I discovered that the illegitimate child born one month after Emma and listed beside Emma’s entry is also a member of my family! This child is the daughter of Mary Ann Johnson who was the sister of my g-g-grandmother Martha Johnson. Martha married William and Betsey’s son Thomas Glenfield. The Brays and the Johnsons lived next to each other on Concession 3 in Hope Township. To top it off, a third illegitimate child was born near this concession that summer and is also listed next to the Bray and Johnson children on the birth record. (This third child is not on my family tree, but two out of three isn’t bad!) What was happening that year on Concession 3 in Hope Township? Were three local girls seduced by a rural Ontario Lothario? Was there a serial rapist afoot? Or were the harvest festivals of 1872 simply out of control? Now this is a tantalizing mystery worthy of much more of my attention, I would say!

The discovery of the two Emmas has made me think about how we understand families and how we draw boundaries around the family unit based on cultural rather than biological ideas of relatedness. The Emmas fell off of my family tree because they were culturally unacceptable relations, products — most likely — of scandal and “untoward” behaviour. This deliberate forgetting was aided and abetted by time and distance, forces which could not be overcome by the communications technologies of the past. But these secrets are easily revealed again by the forces of mass digitization and indexing. My ancestors’ hidden lives (and hidden children) are laid bare thanks to the penetrating power of Google, and now that illegitimacy is no longer an embarrassment, these family members can be reclaimed and joyfully added to the family tree. As a parent, I would like to think that this brings some comfort to the souls of Betsey and Sarah Jane, the mothers of the two Emmas.

May 102009

Image from flickr

Yes, it’s true. I have been moving things and cleaning up around here. I have been maintaining two genealogy-related blogs for over a year now (well, the word “maintaining” might be a bit of an exaggeration!). I have decided to consolidate the two blogs (Familiar Strangers and Twigged) onto my Twigged web site which, as you can see, is now up and running.

I have been meaning to set this site up for a while, but I haven’t had the time work on the site design. Finally, with the completion of my last course for my MA, some time appeared in my life! The genealogy database doesn’t include all of my research. Currently, it is only my research on the Bray family. I realized as I was going through my research that some of it was rather shoddy so I am going through branch by branch and cleaning it up. As I do this it will appear on the site. I’ll post my updates here.

In the meantime, enjoy the blog and the new site. Let me know if you encounter any issues or problems.