30 January 2009

Winter Conditions

Winter is on our minds. Whose minds, you might ask? Well, almost everyone who lives in North America except perhaps for a few spots below, say, the 35th parallel. Mother Nature is giving us a modern taste of what some of our pioneer ancestors experienced. Record snowfalls, ice storms, power outages, snarled traffic, dangerous walking on treacherous, slippery sidewalks. I speak for the big cities where it’s become good to keep the flashlights and candles handy. Of course you can’t boil a potato or roast a piece of meat over a candle. Barbecues would suffice if they are not used indoors to put the inhabitants to sleep forever, but the problem is attending them in sub-zero weather with frozen fingers.

We are fortunate that we have mod cons and will not suffer long. Let’s face it: do we really suffer at all? We have snowploughs and telephones and canned goods. In Canadian cities we have good medical services at times like this. In rural areas, I betcha most homes and cars have emergency kits and stockpiles for just such events. When I lived on a farm, a “snow day” was a holiday from work and the everyday humdrum.

I’ve been re-reading the (First) Statistical Account of Scotland about Coll, written in 1793 by the assistant minister of the Tiree and Coll parish.(1) My Scottish ancestors on the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides lived through miserable winters year after year as an accepted matter of course. The climate, while not necessarily receiving heavy snow, was always damp from the sea air and the collection of rain water in its low points. The island soil and weather were barely suitable for farming and the quality of life deteriorated as the population increased. Their cattle and sheep did not always survive the inevitable winter starvation. Houses of the average labourer and crofter had a double stone wall four to six feet thick, filled with the prevailing sand for insulation. Heating and cooking relied on smoky peat fires because trees do not survive and thus no firewood anywhere.

Not having a doctor on the island was a considerable disadvantage, but the 1793 writer adds “the healthy sea air generally drives away whatever is noxious.” He paints a conflicting picture in the following:
“The people are lively, industrious, and chearful [sic], and often engaged in active employments, in the open air; yet the dampness of the place, the want of proper firing, and the poor living of many, seem to be the greatest causes of frequent rheumatisms, dysentaries, and nervous fevers.”

By the 1820s the inhabitants fared scarcely better than their livestock. Crofters could not produce enough to pay their rents. Alexander Maclean, Laird of Coll, was one of the few Highland chieftains who honoured the old clan system. He depleted much of his own resources to feed the islanders during the worst times, and to subsidize passage for those who chose to leave for Australia or Canada.

Would we make it in those deplorable conditions? It’s debatable. They did. They gave us some of their genes. We have not been truly tested.

(1) Donald J Withrington and Ian R Grant, ed. “The Western Isles,” The Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol XX, (UK: EP Publishing Limited, 1983), reissue of John Sinclair, ed. The Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1799). The Account can also be read online at

22 January 2009

Welcome Back, Brenda

Welcome back, Brenda, to the Internet. You have mail. This is a self-therapy letter, touted by shrinks as being healthy and healing.

It has been eleven days since a gross mix-up began with the telephone company and its allied Internet server. Ten days of mind-warping confusion over a simple request to change the name on the account. The confusion was entirely of their making ... not only mass interdepartmental mis-communication, but a string of downright errors and time-consuming, misguided advice. Official telephone representatives and a series of distant technicians at the other end of the phone line eventually succeeded in transferring a sort of Stockholm syndrome into my acknowledged low-tech, miserably co-dependent head. It was not my phone/Internet system in derangement as one polite message put it, it became me. As cunningly effective as skilled surgeons, they managed to amputate my sense of humour, destroy my central nervous system and eviscerate my guts. All systems flatlined there for a while. A truly empathetic IT Guy took pity on my dissolving persona and finally sorted much of it out with only a few cuss words uttered (unlike moi).

I spare you the dreary details. Everyone has had similar crashes and aggravating conflict with various personnel, I know. Overreaction some might say? Certainly reflects the fragility of my crisis management and less than healthy dependency on all invisible cyber things. Damage done, probably five years off what’s left of the rest of my life. What used to be the excitement of the learning curve has lost some of its joy. Nevertheless, up and at ‘em again.

Thank you for listening.

11 January 2009

Frasers Part 5: John Fraser, Missing in Action

Well, I have to believe he was active somewhere when he went missing. Of the several John Frasers I have, I speak of the blacksmith at St. Andrews East (St-André Est) in Argenteuil County, Quebec. He was only about 40 years old or less when he disappeared from the genealogical radar.

There are few facts to cling to. He was baptized 12 April 1808 in Killin parish, Perthshire, Scotland.(1) He married in Canada in 1832 Nancy (formally, Anne) Fraser, the daughter of another John Fraser. In the Presbyterian Church at St. Andrews four children of John Fraser, blacksmith, are duly recorded with dates of birth and baptism. The last child Elizabeth Fraser was born 4 February 1839. That at least tells me John was living in 1838 at the time of her conception.
St Andrews East, October 1844 by Solomon, at Alain Chebroux, Comte d’Argenteuil ( accessed : 22 June 2008); original oil painting in the Argenteuil Regional Museum collection.

John Fraser dropped from sight after that. No more children born locally. Nancy was a widow in the 1851 census with the three younger children. In the 1842 census for St. Andrews, the two John Frasers can be identified as other men (one being Nancy’s father). John the blacksmith, or for that matter his widow Nancy, is not recorded in St. Andrews Protestant cemetery.(2) Deaths and burials were not registered as vital records in Quebec in that time period. The cemetery transcribers noted:
“This is a very old cemetery. Some of the graves date from the early 1800's and some of the people were born in the mid 1700's. This graveyard is well looked after but the stones are very old and many are laying on the ground, are buried in the ground, as well as many which have parts cracked or missing. A few are so old that the writing has disappeared altogether.”

Did the transcribers poke and prod for the buried stones? Could John and Nancy be there, and their grave markers have not survived? None of their children stayed in the area. Are they even “resting” together? Nancy died half a century later in 1895 and her grave has not been located. Was John buried on the family farm on the River Rouge Road despite the local cemetery? Not too likely, I think.

Moving to other scenarios, did John die away from home? Was he away on business, as we say today? Where would he have gone? Was he visiting his brother, Dr. William Fraser, in Montreal? Did additional siblings emigrate to Canada whom he went to visit, and an accident or terrible illness did him in? Had he decided to visit his aged parents in Scotland and he succumbed to something fatal there? Death and cemetery records records for Killin parish are scarce.

Even the date and place of John’s marriage is nebulous. A marriage bond exists, dated 5 January 1832.(3) It was taken out and signed in Longeuil Township, Prescott County, a location across the Ottawa River in Upper Canada. On the Canadian Genealogy Centre database for Upper and Lower Canada marriage bonds, this entry has a notation “married in Longeuil” but the bond itself does not say that. The bondsmen were two men called James McIntosh, one a tailor and the other addressed as “Esq.” The witness was Alexander Fraser, probably Nancy’s eldest half-brother. So far, the actual church marriage record eludes me. A Presbyterian Church opened in 1832 at L’Orignal, the seat of Prescott County, and could be the likely venue. I have not been able to discover where its records are now. The church itself (and its Scottish congregation) are long gone.

Map of southern Quebec and Ottawa River from Microsoft Map Point.

Eagle-eyed genealogists will spot the clues and potential pathways here. I’m making a list.


(1) Killin parish extraction, International Genealogical Index ( accessed : 10 February 2006).
(2) Suzanne LeRossignol and Pennie Redmile, transcribers, St. Andrew’s East Protestant Cemetery (Pointe Claire, QC: Quebec Family History Society, 1990-1991).
(3) Fraser-Fraser bond, no. 3322 (1832), Upper Canada Marriage Bonds 1803-1865, RG 5 B9; Library and Archives Canada microfilm C-6782.

04 January 2009

Silent Sunday

Fresco, Qasr el-Amra, Jordan, photograph, ( accessed : March 2008). Site visited October 2007.

01 January 2009

Degrees of Separation

Family can mean close or distant relationships, ranging far and wide in kinship degrees, but also in geographic and emotional terms. The closing of another year made me think fondly of my extended family. I began to take stock. The extent of the connections soon troubled my left brain where math skills reside in most people. It was my impression I had a quite small family. Two siblings. Three children. Let me tell you, they start to add up and no-one was more surprised than me.

I have one grandchild and therefore it’s easy to remember the name and the birthday. The significant others of my children count, so including myself that’s nine.

Then there are the five nephews and three nieces by blood. By marriage, there are more: four nephews and three nieces. Most of the nieces and nephews are regularly having children and I will even count those who lack red hair. That comes to fifteen plus another nine.

And I had five first cousins. My first cousins had eight children who are my first cousins once removed, and they soldier on producing children too. The cousin tally for three generations looks like nineteen. We are up to about 56 people by now and the rest gets fuzzy.

My father had siblings; my mother none. But both also had cousins of their own. I’d have to haul out some boxes and files or charts to find them although I know they’re there because we write to each other even if they are the children of my mother’s cousins. I’m starting to lose it here. Did I count my parents? Did I count myself? Nevertheless, I am connected to all these people in theory, but also to many of them in real time.

Entering the outlaw field, there have been some ten sisters-in-law and eight brothers-in-law (sequential partners have transpired, you understand). That’s allowing for traditional liaisons and decently sustained periods of cohabitation.

Each of those cousins and in-laws has cousins unrelated to me and they don’t count, but still, there’s a connection. Looks to me like we are nudging the concept of six degrees of separation. There has to be a board game.

Some curiosa from my family connections:
• Sense of humour is not necessarily inherited or equitably distributed.
• Ditto regarding the ability to play the piano.
• Multiple university degrees do not guarantee earning a living.
• Grandparents in Florida trailer parks cleverly avoid overnight guests.
• Putting a touch of vaseline in your nostrils will help prevent painful cracking from dry winter air.
• If you can pronounce Musqodoboit you are a native of Nova Scotia.
• If Charles Stewart had rightfully become King Charles III, the U.S. would be a province of Canada.
• When you hit a moose with a car, only the moose survives.
• If you blog, the cousins will come.

The last week of 2008 brought me genealogy news on very different levels. When I first jotted down that last point, I couldn’t have been more prescient. Two hitherto unknown cousins, both deeply into family history (on different lines of mine), contacted me. What a thrilling Christmas present!

I meant to close this post by saying, “At any moment someone will have another baby. Somewhere in this horde, I confidently expect one future genealogist.” And I’ll let it stand, despite the other news. Two of my connections became grandparents for the first time. Their son informed them that the baby was registered with a brand new surname unrelated to the parents or grandparents or anyone at all. Actually, the name was chosen from a botanical species. How’s that for wiping out family history? Anyone ever heard of this happening before?