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.
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.
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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.