31 December 2011

The Annual Letter

Right now my only New Year’s resolution is getting past the struggle with wording my Annual Letter. It used to be my Christmas letter until the kids left home. Now it comes out in January. Actually, last time it appeared was March ... pause ... two years ago. I have become a Biennial Letter writer. If it gets later and later, those distant friends and family will think I’m dead. The kind of dead for which reports have been greatly exaggerated (M. Twain, I believe) but that really happened to my doctor twenty years ago. Back when doctors impersonated human beings and had time to chat with you. I cried over the loss for at least an hour. Luckily his office knew it was a mistake because he was right there interrogating patients and tickling babies. Seems the deceased was a person of the same name. Fancy that. Genealogy rears its head everywhere.

Back to the struggle. If I want to say the family is thriving despite individual problems, should I just say they are thriving? That’s so 1980s—like everyone had a functional family. Or should I lightly mention they are either poor, jobless, or depressed, whichever applies where? But that’s sort of a teaser, right? Must be another way. For all I know, the recipients could be poor, jobless, and/or depressed too. You don’t want to rub it in. Empathy at all times.

Does Mexican friend want to hear what a great city I live in? Not when he’s battling annual floods and fighting for turtle rights. Does cousin Agnes want to hear she’ll have to buy the family history? Likely not. Does my high school friend want to hear I went to Scotland without her? What about Uncle Sydney when he hears I was in his town last year and didn’t visit him? And worst of all, who wants to hear about more camels

So why am I doing this and what will I “talk” about? Should I repeat stuff from my blog that they never read? You don’t have to remind me that not everyone gets thrills and chills from genealogical problem-solving.  

But wait. Speaking of thrills and chills. How about medical reports. Everyone likes a little of that. For advanced hypochondriacs who enjoy a good colonoscopy, maybe I could prepare a separate handout, you know: a blow-by-blow account of various symptoms, diagnoses, and operations; contrast and compare emergencies rooms; number up the friends in rehab centres (physical and mental). Mere cataracts and bunions don’t count. Slipping on the sidewalk doesn’t count unless it led to a hip replacement. Coronary stents and pacemakers should have a good audience. Funerals. Bedbugs. Now I’m thinking I could really go to town here.

I should probably omit events such as the outdoor café in Edinburgh where the stupid pigeon crapped on my stupid sandwich plate when I went indoors for the stupid salt and pepper. Or the time all the fake barnboard had to be peeled off my door. Or anything to do with Karaoke. Or the persistent man to whom I never properly explained the War of 1812. Or Amethyst cocktails and driving in your nightgown. Things like that.
It’s a delicate thing, the Annual Letter.

But a lot of fun. Oh what the hell. Throw tact and diplomacy to the winds! Happy New Year!

© 2011 Brenda Dougall Merriman

19 December 2011


Peter Dougall family home, Renfrew, Ontario. Photograph BDM family collection.

Like many GeneaBloggers, I have decided to pay tribute to the ancestors by remembering them more often in my blog. It will be monthly, minimally, in my case. Starting in January. Perhaps not always regularly (the old CYA principle) in case I get caught up in something else displacing all other rational thought. It happens. A writer must go with any sudden new creative current and paddle like mad or perish.

Renfrew. A place I have never seen. My great-grandparents--Peter and Catherine “Kate” Dougall--spent the majority of their lives there. I've pored over Renfrew newspapers. I did the usual census returns, vital stats registrations, Presbyterian church records, cemeteries, wills/estate files, local correspondence, and family papers and reminiscences. I've contributed to a local history of the place. I'm lucky enough to have old photographs showing Peter and Kate at different stages of their lives.

I regret I still don't really know them. Peter and Kate raised nine children during the late nineteenth century when Peter adapted his blacksmithing trade to carriage-building. Some of the sons took it up and eventually adapted the trade to motor vehicles. It seems the couple had their share of progeny who either prospered, sadly stumbled, or quietly carried on.

As a preview for my proposed monthly discipline, Kate (Fraser) Dougall was born and died in December. My favourite photo of her was previously shown here.

© 2011 Brenda Dougall Merriman

08 December 2011

Loyalists: Eligibility - Taken for Granted?

This is the fourth in an occasional series about United Empire Loyalists.

So I don’t lose sight of what I’m doing, a DISCLAIMER: I am an independent genealogist and family historian; my opinions or practice may not always coincide or agree with those of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada (UELAC)—their Genealogists’ Handbook, or the Branch Genealogists, or the Dominion Genealogist. While I’ve studied documents and stories of the Loyalist period for many years, I greatly respect those who are more knowledgeable than I. Do we all sometimes find ourselves in comfortable ruts searching for evidence of Loyalist ancestors? Yes.  

In posting here, and in my book, I am primarily reaching to the newly-curious about their Loyalist heritage. But also to those descendants who were fortunate enough to find solid ancestral evidence without too much time and trouble. Maybe I can prompt a deeper attitude to historical (and research) understanding. Too often I see the focus only on a target ancestor—tunnel vision leading to the desirable certificate—ignoring the potential for a richer family history. Stepping back from a tree to view the forest is needed for fresh perspectives.
    Genealogists both within and without the society who assist applicants and/or offer services to the public are behoved to understand the contemporary circumstances AND the society’s requirements for (full) membership.
... a statement I made in my first post about Loyalists.
There are two not-always coinciding elements here, and both involve eligibility, i.e. qualifications.
One: Contemporary circumstances: Who “qualified” as a Loyalist?
Two: Society requirements: Who qualifies as a full member of UELAC?

Part One again concerns the area that became Upper Canada; there, the administration notably applied Lord Dorchester’s privilege of recognizing Loyalists. His original resolution was straightforward. Those who deserved “distinguished benefits and privileges” had:
● “adhered to the Unity of the Empire, and
● joined the Royal Standard in America before the Treaty of Separation in the year 1783.”

A perspicacious reader will likely ask what does adhere to the Unity of the Empire mean? The phrase has had its debatable moments, but for now we will say it meant at the time—the 1780s—someone who left the rebel colonies to be within the British King’s domain. Joining the Royal Standard, i.e. “signing up” for military service, further delineated the qualification.

How was privilege administered? In practical terms, it meant the Loyalist’s land grant was free of all fees when title was transferred from the Crown. But that was the final step in a developing system of regulations. Initially, land allocation gave only temporary “custody” of a piece of land to a nominee—a specific location on a ticket or certificate. Concomitant obligations included the standard clearing, cultivating, and building.

The first district land boards1789-1794 were established to ease the work of the overloaded Executive Council. Board members handled petitions and assignments of land; in most cases, local Loyalists would be personally known to them. By 1796 Loyalists were required to confirm their allegiance on district rolls, turning in their former tickets or certificates for the official crown patent (title deed). Some did not live long enough; others neglected to complete the process for various reasons (both situations caused complications in confirming Loyalist status/eligibility among officialdom and for later researchers).

It is well worth noting that Loyalists knew who they were although it’s unlikely they ever pinned that label on themselves. So many of their neighbours and kinsmen shared the same upheaval of starting life again in new territory that it was taken for granted “everyone knew” their background—their migration, their losses, their loyalty. They had land to work; a piece of paper signified their right to occupy it; “everyone knew” it was theirs. Who had time for a trip to the district town and more government paperwork when subsistence was their daily concern? For subsequent generations, in the absence of overt documentation about the target ancestor, trickle-down family memory played an insistent role.

The land-granting system and Loyalist privilege/eligibility are inseparable. I’ve not even mentioned the confusion that arose in resolving how much acreage to grant, the problems sometimes caused by the status of military claimants, or discrepancies in the lists that were underway in different offices. For sure, it’s eighteenth-century immersion for dedicated family historians. To be continued? More space and energy are needed to address Number Two!

It should be clear thus far in my rambling that the well-known petitions for land grants, as genealogical sources, are not necessarily available for each individual Loyalist. True, petitions and other documents exist after the fact when titles and claims had to be sorted out. But ultimately, the most benign effect of privilege was the 200-acre grants to the sons and daughters. In fact, it is their records—petitions—that speak most often to the Loyalist status of their fathers.

© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2011  

04 December 2011


It's a mouthful just to say the initials. It's the Society of West Highland & Island Historical Research. Herewith an example of how we try to expand our genealogical minds.

Serious family historians look for detailed context about their ancestors' lives---geographic, cultural, social, political, economic, religious, legal, and so on. What did the family breadwinner's occupation mean to them in terms of location, income level, housing? What influences would they have felt from cultural pressures?

Searching for such information takes us well beyond surname targeting and building a family “tree.” And so we seek out resources not restricted to online searching or genealogical societies, although they can assist. Somehow I doubt that academic and/or scholarly sources are frequently consulted. It takes more time and trouble to find them.

That brings me to my example ... one of the “extras” that enrich my understanding, and thus my family history. The non-profit SWHIHR is fairly locale-specific with a journal three times per year: West Highland Notes & Queries. Contributors delve into all historical time periods of Scotland's western Highlands and islands (Argyllshire, Inverness-shire, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and more). Scholarly discussion, dialogue, and nuance go back and forth among contributors who are mainly historians (with an occasional genealogist), many of them with a lifetime of expertise in esoteric, private manuscript collections that you and I could scarcely hope to access. 

There is a point at which, in every Highland family history, the ancestral line blurs into the localized clan mass. And clan history is instructive through its leading figures---and the lesser-known---because their activities include the shades of our forebears. Besides, it feels good to engage one's intellect in a slightly alternative perspective.

West Highland Notes & Queries is not a high-tech production. It is only available in paper form, and the small print requires a large magnifier. Enquiries about current rates can be directed to the secretary at I can't let it go without saying the editor is Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, based on the Isle of Coll, author of the brilliant From Clan to Regiment: Six Hundred Years in the Hebrides, 1400-2000 ... and numerous smaller but important works.

May you all find your own gems to add depth to your family research!