Friday, June 13, 2014

What I've Learned So Far

In the fall, I will write about Stanley Bagg's role in building the Lachine Canal.

Last September, at a genealogy conference, speaker Lisa Louise Cooke recommended I write a blog. “A blog is a good cousin-catcher,” she said. So I started a blog. 

Eight months and 34 blog posts later, I am still amazed by the tales I’ve been discovering about my ancestors, however, it is time to assess what I’ve learned so far from writing the blog. 

Writinguptheancestors has helped me get in touch with at least two very distant relations. But even more important than catching cousins, it is helping me get started on what I hope will eventually be a two family history books, one about my father’s Scottish ancestors, the other about my mother’s roots in Montreal. That is a big undertaking but, just like any big project, it isn’t so bad when you break it down into small tasks -- say, 500 words a week.

These stories require a lot of work. Checking all the facts is particularly time consuming. By the time I’ve finished editing, I usually run out of steam and tell myself I will do the references later. That has been a mistake. Even if I don’t put the complete references on the blog, I should be writing up them for myself, while I have all my files in front of me. I will catch up with them over the summer, and I have promised myself I will take care of them weekly when I resume writing regularly.

It is hard to assess the blog’s success. I am pleased with it in that I am basically writing it for myself and making progress towards my long-term goals. As for readership, by mid-June 2014, I’ve had  5,200 post views, which is not stellar, but I’m satisfied. I made an effort when I created this blog to ensure it could be found on Google. And if those who discover it enjoy it, I think that is because I try to focus as much on my process of discovery as on my ancestors’ stories. 

Finally, sitting in front of the computer is great in the winter, but now that summer is finally here, I want to be outside, gardening and enjoying the sunshine. Also, I need to prepare for a fall research trip to England. So, I may post occasionally, but for now, it is time for a break. À bientôt.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

John Clark, of Durham, England

John Clark
 For a man with such a common name, John Clark had several secrets, some of which remain mysteries today. 

The first mystery was, where and when he was born? According to family lore, my four-times great-grandfather was a butcher who had come to Canada from County Durham, England, but a search of the baptismal records of Durham for the late 1700s brought up more than a dozen John Clarks. Which one was he?

Fortunately, another descendant did some genealogy research about 100 years ago and he left a note in the family Bible: “John Clark, pork butcher, 9-6-1767.” I checked the parish records again, and there it was: John Clark, of Wingate Grange, was baptized at Kelloe parish church, County Durham, on 9 June, 1767. County Durham was later known for its coal mines, but the region was mostly farmland when John was born, and Wingate Grange was a farm.

John’s parents, Ralph Clark and Margaret Pearson, were married in nearby Kirk Merrington parish in 1746. Why the family moved to Kelloe, and whether Ralph was a small landowner or a tenant farmer, I do not know. John appears to have been the seventh of their nine children.  

Several years ago, my husband and I visited the city of Durham, where we walked the steep streets of old town and toured the ancient cathedral. We had to leave the city to find the churches and cemeteries where John Clark and his wife’s family members had been baptized, married and buried, so I arranged for retired genealogist Geoff Nicholson to drive us around. Not only did Geoff take us to all those out-of-the-way places without getting lost, he told us about the area’s history.   

Our first stop was the old church of St. Giles parish, on a hill above the Wear River, where John and Mary Mitchinson (also spelled Mitcheson), of Lanchester, Durham, were married on 10 June, 1794. The Marriage Bonds and Allegations of their union revealed a surprising fact: John was a widower when he married Mary. According to the Bishop’s Transcripts for Kelloe, a John Robson Clerk had married Eleanor House in 1785. If this was my John, he would have been just 18 years old. I have so far been unable to learn anything about Eleanor, including where and when she died.

St Giles parish church, Durham, England
In 1795, Mary Mitchinson gave birth to the couple’s only daughter, Mary Ann Clark. Sometime between then and 1798, the family left for a new life in Canada. 

But here’s the mystery: according to family stories, John Clark owned a freehold estate in Durham that was later sold by his grandson, Stanley Clark Bagg. I wondered whether this was just a myth, but I have found documents in Canada, including John Clark's 1825 will and other notarial records dating from the 1840s, that prove John did own property in Durham. 

But why did John leave England if he owned property there? And how did he acquire it? Was he a successful businessman who invested his profits in property? That is what he did in Montreal. 

Did he inherit the property from his parents? That seems unlikely, since his parents do not appear to have been wealthy, and he had an older brother, Robert, who would probably have inherited whatever there was. Or did he inherit from his first wife? Much more research is needed. 

Photo credits: Portrait of John Clark, private collection. It may have been painted after his death from a miniature. The artist was Sir Martin Archer Shee RA, (1769-1850), a British portrait painter. Photo of St. Giles parish church, Durham by Janice Hamilton  

Research remarks: I found the record of John’s birth in Kelloe parish in the Northumberland and Durham Baptisms, on 

The Bishops Transcripts were copies, made annually, of the original parish records. I found a record of the marriage of John Robson Clerk and Eleanor House in Kelloe parish in the Bishop Transcripts, on John did not usually use his middle name, but he is remembered as John R. Clark on a plaque in the Bagg family mausoleum in Montreal.

Prior to most marriages in England, banns were read and people could express their opposition to the union. Couples could bypass this step by paying a fee for a marriage license. A marriage allegation is a sworn statement in connection with the license application, in which the couple state there is no known reason for the marriage not to take place. The Durham Diocese, England, Calendar of Marriage Bonds and Allegations, 1494-1815, can be browsed on Ancestry, while has the records for the years 1692-1900. Both names and places are indexed.

John Clark's will can be found in the records of notary Henry Griffin, #5989, 29 Aug. 1825, on microfilm at the Bibliotheque et Archives nationales du Quebec in Montreal. 

In the future, I will write about John Clark's life in Montreal.