I’m never going to hide the fact that I am a history nerd. When I go I travel to new places, the first thing that I do is search the museum lists in the guide book and fold down the corner of the page for easy reference. I studied history at university and was not terrified but rather excited over the prospect of writing two dissertations. They thought it would be nice to give us a practice shot at it before the real deal in the final year of the course. The first dissertation I wrote was on the Salem Witch Crisis. I focussed on the people and the possible outside causes of the hysteria. Yes, everyone knows that some girls were ‘bewitched’ and 19 people were hanged and poor old Giles Corey was crushed to death instead of confessing to witchcraft. But to me the interesting factor of this story is that when you look into it – you sort out the accusers and the accused (in the initial stages of the crisis), you can see a clear definition of sides and families. People from one side of town accusing others, people from Salem Town accusing people from Salem Village, people with adjoining plots of land accusing their neighbours.
For the second and final year dissertation I kept it a bit closer to home and wrote about the Canadian Home Front in the Second World War. If I had to pick ‘my’ time period, it would be the Second World War. For me again, it’s not about the battles or the fighting, it’s about the people. The individuals on both sides who lived and died, who suffered unimaginable horrors and who held onto glorious victories whether they fought on a battlefield or not. Also for me, the Second World War is tangible. The people are still here. You can still hear their stories and learn from them. Like most people my age, my grandparents lived through the war. My Canadian Nana being born in 1914 lived through both of them. Members of my family landed on D-Day and my great-uncle died in Holland. I sent away a request to the Canadian War Records to get the Uncle Mervin’s service record so I knew who he was. He died of diphtheria, two days after Christmas 1945. It wasn’t a glorious death saving his platoon from certain demise, he was a scared 21-year-old boy who slowly suffocated as his throat closed up.
It was after finding out this information that I became obsessed with learning more about my family, who were these people who had passed down the stuff that makes me. Did I look like any of them? Did anyone have the same sarcastic personality traits? Just who did I have to thank for my great boobs?
My Cananana (Canadian Nana) was the family historian. She was the one who knew the stories and the people. That said when you grow up in a town of about 60 people and you are related to the majority of them it’s pretty easy to know the family history. Singhampton is a two road village about a two-hour drive from Toronto. It’s in an area of Ontario that has historically been farming country and apart from the small villages and pockets of ‘civilization’ which randomly appear there’s not really a lot of anything around. So much nothing that most of the roads aren’t even named, well, they do have names but they catchy titles like ‘Concession Road 4′ and “County Line 12’. When I was a kid, The size the town didn’t bother me. I was there for the summer and there was always something to do. You could go swimming in the Madd River across the road and field from my Nana’s house only if you remembered the salt because there were leeches in the river. Or we would go play in the County Cemetary and hang out with the family. If you have ever been in a cemetary in a small town, one thing becomes abundantly clear; there isn’t a lot of diversity in the names on the gravestones and Singhampton is no different. Hammills, Taylors, Bells, and McLeans mark a good proportion of the older stones and with the exception of Bell (although I am sure that they creep in somewhere), these are the names that grace this branch of my family tree.
One day while shuffling through some papers, I came across a hand written document. My nana had drawn out the family tree for her and my Grampa Ferguson’s families. The Ferguson side was woefully short and sketchy in details. There were some great grandparents mentioned but there wasn’t a lot of information about the Fergusons themselves. They lived in the Singhampton area but by the Great Depression Great Grandma and Grandpa Ferg had packed up and moved to Saskatchewan leaving my Grandpa behind. I never met Ferg but I am assured that I would have loved him.
Getting into Nana’s side is where it really starts to get interesting. My family is not different from the millions of other families in Canada, we are from somewhere else. With the exception of the First Nations, everyone in Canada is from somewhere else. I think that is why there is such a boom in recent years in genealogy. Yes, we can feel Canadian or American but we are missing that belonging, the knowing where you fit in. Us Fergusons/Hammills, we are of Scottish and Irish heritage and it shows in our inability to get a suntan even in the height of summer. And like millions of other families; the Hammills, Taylors, McCorkells, Gosnells and McLeans left the old country when times got bad. Leaving during the height of The Potato Famine, my family is no different to the countless others that decided to try to make a new life for themselves in Canada. Annie Jane McCorkell, my Great great great grandma left Ireland with her family, when she was 14 years old. They entered Canada in Quebec City and stayed there for a number of years. Here she met John Taylor, a son of an immigrant, and married him before moving west to Ontario. I obviously never met Annie, and I have only ever seen one picture of her when she was an old woman probably around 1915/16. I’m estimating the year by the age of my nana. This picture is one of my most prized possessions as it shows 4 generations of my family: my nana Helen, my great-grandmother Clara, my great great grandmother Lydia and lastly Annie. Since finding this information about Annie, I’ve felt an affinity with her because when I was the same age I packed up my life and moved back across the ocean to England with my mother. Obviously, the circumstances were completely different, we weren’t escaping from certain desperate starvation, but just like the McCorkells we were moving to start a new life. Annie might not have been a historical figure, people outside or inside my family for that matter might not ever know her name but to me she is extraordinary, to me she is the personification of thousands of stories that joined to make Canada the place it is. And she is one piece of what makes me Kate.
Now with every family there needs to be that slight bit of mystery, that one name who pops up and you know that yes, very distantly you are related to, but it’s still cool to say they are in the family. I’ve never made any move to be posh or at all classy but when I found out that about 400 years ago there were Sirs in the family it made me wish I had brushed my hair that day, you know? The Gosnolds (Gosnells)were quite the bunch. Bartholomew Gosnold, was an English lawyer/explorer who was instrumental in founding the Virginia Company and the colonisation of Jamestown. He sailed the coast of Massachusetts and names Martha’s Vineyard after his daughter. He was part of the Gosnolds of Otley Hall in Suffolk and was cousin to my 16 times great-grandfather Henry Gosnold, who had quite the story himself. Henry studied to be a lawyer in London and under the reign of Elizabeth I, was appointed Chief Justice of Munster in Ireland. I told this to my friend and she searched for him on the internet and found the following quote; ‘He was known for his great wit’ …..400 years later and it’s still in the family, Hank, don’t worry. Sadly…or fortunately for me…there was an Irish rebellion in 1641 which left Henry almost bankrupt. I say fortunately for me because it was this bankruptcy that led to all the small happenings/meetings that got me here today.
I feel that this should be a two parter. So I will continue with the other side tomorrow.