27 August 2011


This blog is free for the reading.

In case a disclaimer is needed in the face of recent concerns, here is … no business model, no registering, no terms of service, no hidden costs, no annoying ads, nothing to smack you in the face later on when you didn't expect it. It's enough to manage what little I do do.

Mind you, I don't offer databases (unless you count my labels) or family-tree-building. Some of those Internet sites are free but when is free really free? And what happens when what used to be free goes sideways? I've seen “free” compared to lunches, happy hour, bring your own lunch, sandwiches, gift horses, horses to water, freemium, and just plain sharing. Such issues are causing sore heads lately. That's one thing.

Another thing, I'm not exactly growing a family tree (fingernails screeching across a blackboard, that one) for The World's Answer To an All-inclusive Family Tree. TWATAFT, my shorthand. The what? … well, one enormous shared family tree for everyone who ever lived, the concept that has competing techie outfits feverishly growing things. TWATAFT is the new sharing. The faster our voluntarily submitted relationships arrive at headquarters, the sooner we have a universal kinship hug-fest. Get it? Send your trees into the maw of the behemoth.

I'm happy I'm not responsible for tons of incoming information and then figuring out how free the access will be. Free access may not necessarily entail free control of your material, i.e. updating, revising, and flagging your new cousins' mistakes. Who overrides whom? Even as user-generated resources, consensus seems the user will pay one way or another for access.

Did I mention quality control? As trees pour into the content of free sites? Ah! … the content. Some sites I've seen are more akin to a pub brawl. Product … it becomes a product, people. Then again, some will say that committee work produces a better result than a lone voice.

Brings us back to micro-managing our own research and software (and blogs) where each of us alone is responsible for being as accurate as we can. Our “mere” concerns are when our writing, or our research, turns up elsewhere. As appearing (ignorantly or stealthily) on someone else's website, tree, or blog. Like the stuff we share in good faith one-on-one with that new cousin who then grafts it onto their own public tree and sometimes into TWATAFT. Often in the wrong context. Really, I don't feel like hugging them. Never heard of copyright and/or attribution, the dickheads.

Where am sardonic I going with this? Xenophobia? O me of little faith (and admittedly, little technology comprehension). You can tell I'm not ready to dispatch my work-in-progress to acquisitions and mergers. Once your charts are merged into TWATAFT for the benefit of all mankind … along with sillier, undocumented family trees ... you may be flying blind in cyberspace. Collaboration with strangers is as collaboration with strangers does.

Till then, I say do what you do as well as you can. And then some. Genealogical education is widely available for the name-collectors if they have a wit to look for it. Lots of it free. Just like blog reading is free.

My books, on the other hand, are not free.
(Clear faith that books will survive for another generation or two :-)

25 August 2011

George Porter Farewell

“Same name” problems fascinate me. Dedicated family historians will usually come across at least one such challenge. For this writer, opportunities just keep arising. In the June 2011 (vol. 99, no. 2) of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, I wrote about a similar but “reverse” occurrence where one woman was known by three different names at different stages of her life.          

I’m saying good-bye to George Porter, i.e. “The Carpenter” of Niagara and York, and George Porter “The Prisoner” of the London District. For the time being ... since one never knows when new information or sources might surface. None of the sidetracks into contemporary Porters—the rifleman, the blacksmith, the surveyor, the doctor, odds and ends—contribute directly to identifying either George Porter. Or whether they could be the same man.

The Carpenter
George the Carpenter disappeared suddenly from his young family; he simply may have died and been buried in a Town of York cemetery with no surviving record. Names for the earliest burials at the “established” church of St James have been lost, unless a rare newspaper item or manuscript source exists. Since George eschewed Anglican baptisms for his children, St James does not seem a likely location—if he did indeed succumb in York and not on travels elsewhere. Other burial places did exist without records we can find, such as the fort’s earliest military grounds, and occasional family plots. Recently my astute colleague Jane has shown that Duchess Street, aka Presbyterian, cemetery existed since 1795—but interment records are unknown if they even survived somewhere.[1] The Carpenter left a wife never documented as a widow, and small children who were apparently farmed out.

The Prisoner
George Porter in jail at York in 1814 was anxious to be released from the York jail for certain events in the London District during the War of 1812. A misunderstanding, he alleged. He said he could retrieve government cattle hidden by the Indians, and wished ultimately to join the Indian Department. The scant records that exist for a decade or two after the War of 1812 have no indication of his presence. He may have headed across the border upon release. If I assume this man stayed in the province and later died here, no less than 63 George Porters are in the database of the Ontario Cemeteries Finding Aid but searches of burial places in the western counties were unrevealing for potential identification or links. A George Porter in Delaware of the London District in 1809 might be the same man, but again, no joy in connecting him to anyone!

Herewith a crazy momentary flash to Occam’s Razor. The oft-used definition is all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is preferred. Which explanation would be: despite the same name and the same (stretching it a bit) general time period, these were two different men. But are all other things equal? For the life of me, I cannot reconcile the enigma of each man claiming a similar lot of land in York Township.

A more scholarly definition of Occam gives pause: One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.[2] Two parts are considered the basis of Occam's razor:
* The Principle of Plurality - Plurality should not be posited without necessity;
* The Principle of Parsimony - It is pointless to do with more what is done with less.[3]

Should genealogy pay attention to Occam’s principle? Do we quote the glibbest interpretation? The more scholarly definition is seriously at odds with the GPS principle of a reasonably exhaustive search. Yet I went so far afield, unsuccessfully, it does seem pointless to continue accumulating negative findings. ... When can we say it’s enough?

For now, the last days of both George Porters remain clouded in mystery.
[1] Jane E. MacNamara, “Discovering the Duchess Street Burial Ground,” OGS Toronto Branch Projects (http://torontofamilyhistory.org/projects/ : accessed 10 March 2011).
[2] “Occam’s Razor,” Principia Cybernetica (http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/OCCAMRAZ.html : accessed 10 August 2011)
[3] “How Occam’s Razor Works,” How Stuff Works (http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/scientific-experiments/occams-razor.htm : accessed 10 August 2011).

© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2011.

07 August 2011

Frasers Part 16: Robertson Connections

Speaking of John Fraser’s FAN Club (friends, associates, neighbours of my Inverness-shire farmer in St Andrews East, Quebec—related posts here and here—a previously unmentioned neighbour in the 1851 census raised a green flag (gentlemen, start your engines). Dear readers, it should have been the yellow flag (drivers, do not change positions) but let me explain. 

The neighbour was Dr. William Robertson (ca.1800-1871) from Perthshire, Scotland, who took his medical training in London, England.[1] After emigrating about 1834, he practised in Williamsburg, Ontario, then Lachute and Montreal, moving permanently to St. Andrews in 1847. Dr. Robertson died there 6 March 1871. Local history compiler Thomas mentions a half-brother, Colin Robertson, “who represented the people of this County [Deux-Montagnes] in Parliament.”

Brenda liked the green flag aspect for two reasons. The doctor struck a chord because my Perthshire John Fraser (the blacksmith) had Robertson connections: namely, his mother Katharine Robertson (perhaps the female baptized 29 May 1791). And he happened to have a brother William Fraser (1810-1872), a doctor who emigrated about 1834 to live in Montreal. What are chances of the two doctors from Perthshire being cousins? Secondly, a good friend of mine by the name of Robertson experienced a mystical connection when viewing the portrait of a Robertson in the Argenteuil Museum—sort of a Hank Z. Jones moment. How cool would it be if we were related by blood?

Information about Colin Robertson (1793-1842) is greatly expanded in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.[2] He was born 1793 “in Perth,” son of weaver William Robertson and Catherine Sharp. Colin became a rather flamboyant, extravagant, and sometimes controversial figure in the North West [Fur] Company. In 1832 he suffered a stroke that left him incapacitated for several years, but by 1841 he was recovered and elected as an MLA. His legislative career was short lived; he died in February 1842 after a fall from a carriage.

The DCB entry cites for Colin’s birth: GRO (Edinburgh), Perth, reg. of births and baptisms, 27 July 1783. The first time around, I did not locate this entry in the old parish registers (OPRs) so conveniently available on ScotlandsPeople. Granted, Robertson is hardly an uncommon surname in Scotland. Even I knew that. The word weaver (Colin’s father) reminded me that Chris Paton of the popular blog Scottish Genealogy News had created a major study of Perth weavers between 1770 and 1844. His kind assistance led me in the right direction; as I’d learned before (I thought), it’s wise to consult more than one database, e.g. FamilySearch as well, in this case. Moreover, Robertson was the most common name in the burgh of Perth!   

Colin’s birth and baptismal dates are indeed recorded in the Perth OPRs, son of William Robertson and Cathrine Sharp. The parents’ marriage is also duly recorded on 9 March 1770, followed by a string of children. This is one parish where the Church of Scotland minister fortunately recorded baptisms and marriages by “non-conformist” (dissenting) ministers. The marriage and various baptisms were performed by clergy of either the Associate Congregation or the Secession Church. Paton already knew from his study that over 55% of the weavers’ group were non-Church of Scotland.
A son appropriately named William was born 18 August 1785, baptized 21 August 1785, to the same parents. He appears to be the last child of this couple. It’s clear this child was not a “half” brother of Colin. It’s not clear if this son became the doctor in St Andrews. The doctor’s age (51) in 1851 indicates a birth year of ca.1800, a wide discrepancy even by the sloppiest of census enumerations. Deep suspicion enters when ten years later Dr Robertson’s age miraculously reversed to 48!

Either “half-brother” was a loose term of the day, or the father married again and had another son William—a tentative matter complicated by the abundance of William Robertsons in Perth. Or could be the local historian and his sources confused the brother issue.

The Perth weaver in question, William Robertson and his wife, did not have a daughter Catharine or Katharine, therefore my potential connection disintegrates. What a shame. As a distant relative, Colin Robertson would have provided immense colour for family stories. His biographer states “... his favourite maxim was ‘When you are among wolves, howl!’ ... a striking man, six feet tall, with a long aquiline nose, a crest of undisciplined red hair, and a fondness for quoting Shakespeare and drinking Madeira.” 

So much for mystical experiences: my friend’s ancestors settled in Halton County, Ontario, many miles and years away. Here’s a throw-away line: Dr William Fraser, brother of my Perthshire John, married Quebec-born Miranda Robertson Charles. Here comes an extra Robertson headache!

[1] Cyrus Thomas, History of the Counties of Argenteuil, Quebec and Prescott, Ontario, 101.
[2] George Woodcock, “Robertson, Colin,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (http://www.biographi.ca/index-e.html : accessed 2 July 2011).

© Brenda Dougall Merriman 2011