Monthly Archives: December 2017

Genealogical Journeys – Branch #3 – Stillman

Having covered my father’s father’s family in the previous two posts in this series, we now turn to my father’s mother’s family, starting with her paternal branch, the Stillmans.

My grandmother Edna [Stillman] Bell (1910-1998) spent her adult life as a Grade 1 teacher in the village of Stirling, Ontario, but originally hailed from Seymour Township, which is about 15 miles to the west of Stirling near the slightly larger village of Campbellford.  Between Stirling and Campbellford lies the boundary between Hastings County and Northumberland County,  which is also the boundary between the 613 and 705 area codes, and which many people would argue represents the boundary between Eastern Ontario and Central Ontario.

She was the oldest of three children of David Stillman (1867-1936), and his wife Mabel [McConnell] Stillman whose family we’ll discuss in the next post.  David & Mabel Stillman had a farm in Seymour Township,  on which my grandmother grew up; however the farm was no longer in the family in my living memory.   Growing up, we always knew the three Stillman children by the names of Edna, Gordon, and Herbert.  It came as a quite a shock, then, when we learned from birth records that for all three children the name we thought was their given name was actually their second name!  My grandmother’s name at birth was Sarah Edna Marion Stillman, and in the 1911 census she appears as “Sarah Stillman”.  Similarly, Gordon’s first name at birth was actually William, and Herbert’s first name at birth was actually David.  By the 1921 census, both Edna and Herbert were listed by their middle names, while Gordon had already passed away, at age 6 in the influenza pandemic of 1918.  As it turns out, mother Mabel’s first name was actually Rebecca, so perhaps this was (as they say) the style at the time, at least in that family!  Still, it was surprising to learn from genealogical records that my grandmother had a first name that none of us ever knew about.

David was one of ten children of William Stillman (1834-1905) and his wife Sarah Archer (1834?-1899), who were also farmers in Seymour Township.   (Note, therefore, that the ‘ceremonial’ first names given to my grandmother and her brothers were actually names of parents and grandparents.)  I believe that all of William & Sarah’s children made it to adulthood.  As someone who has spent more than half my life living in Chicago and assumed I’d had no previous family ties to that area, I was intrigued by what I was able to learn from genealogical records about the youngest of those 10 children, Harry Ward Stillman (1880-1945).  He was a preacher who emigrated to rural Illinois in his early 20s and married a local woman, Genevieve Austin, who bore him three Illinois-born children before dying in 1916 at the age of 31.  From what I can tell, he got remarried to another Illinois-born woman, and then in his mid-40s the entire family returned to Ontario, although on his death his body was returned for burial to his first wife’s hometown of Mendon, Illinois.

William Stillman had been born in Seymour Township, but census records indicate that Sarah Archer was born in Ireland.   Before returning to the Stillmans, a brief detour is in order to discuss what little I know about the Archer line.

There is a single page from the 1851 census of Seymour Township that shows three different adjacent households of Archers.  Sarah, age 18, is shown living in the household of John, age 30, and his wife and three young children.  The heads of the other two households are Joshua (age 27) and James (age 25).    These four Archers are all shown as having been born in Ireland, while all of the children involved are shown as having been born in Canada.  The natural inference I want to draw here is that John, Joshua, James, and my great-great-grandmother Sarah were siblings who emigrated from Ireland.

But, is that true, and if so from whence in Ireland did the Archers emigrate, and did their parents come with them or stay behind?  I don’t have definitive answers to these questions yet.   I’ve located  baptismal records from the village of Magheralin in County Down (in modern-day Northern Ireland) for a John Archer and a Joshua Archer, in years that would be consistent with their reported ages in the 1851 census, and with their parents’ names listed as David and Sarah.  I’ve not located similar records for James or for Sarah.   I haven’t located marriage registries for either John or Joshua, but I have for James and Sarah:  In James’ his parents names are listed as Carl and Sarah; and Sarah’s doesn’t list her parents’ names.    So, there’s still some mysteries here to resolve, but it seems reasonable to believe that my Sarah Archer came from County Down.

Returning to Sarah’s husband, my great-great-grandfather William Stillman:  He was one of 10 children of Robert Stillman (1802?-188?) and Mary Margaret [Gamble] Stillman (1810?-1888?), immigrants from Ireland.  I’ve seen a purported picture of Robert and Margaret, with a handwritten note that he was born in 1802 and she was born in 1810; those birthyears are consistent with the census data.  Both Robert and Margaret appear in the 1881 census, but I’ve found neither in the 1891 census.

Robert and Margaret Stillman have a staggering number of descendants.   Their first-born, a daughter Jane, appears to have died in her mid-20s without issue.  However, next in the birth order were twin brothers:  my ancestor William,  and his twin James.  James Stillman (1834-1917) was, to put it mildly, prodigious.  He got married at age 24 to Eliza Anne Waters, who bore him 10 children between 1860 and 1875, although at least 3 and probably a 4th died in childhood.  James and Eliza’s 11th child was born in May 1876, and something seems to have gone wrong.  Eliza would pass away on July 10th, with the cause of death listed as “suppression of urine”; her infant daughter survived only another 8 days without her.  Six months later, James got re-married to a woman 20 years younger than him, Elizabeth Toms.  She bore him another 10 children between 1877 and 1893, although again at least 4 of them died in childhood.

As such, between the twin brothers William and James alone, Robert had something like 22 grandchildren reach adulthood, to say nothing of numerous other grandchildren from the 7 other children younger than the twins!  There a lot of distant Stillman cousins out there, with many of them living in the area of Peterborough, Ontario (about 30 miles W of Seymour Township).  I’m told that former NHL star Cory Stillman is one of those distant Peterborough cousins, although I haven’t worked out exactly how he fits into the family tree.  Far less distantly related to me through this branch is another former NHL player, Rob Davison; he’s a grandson of my grandmother’s younger brother Herbert Stillman, making him my 2nd cousin.

I know less than I would like about the origins of my great-great-great-grandmother Margaret Gamble.  The photograph of Robert and Margaret noted above has a handwritten note that they were married in 1830 in Perth, Ontario, which is about 90 miles NE of Seymour Township.  Interestingly, Margaret’s eldest grandchild – William Stillman’s first-born, Margaret Ann Stillman (1859-1914) – would marry a man named William Gamble (1853-1904) who was born in Bathurst Township, which is adjacent to Perth in Lanark County.  It seems overwhelmingly likely to me that this William Gamble is related to his wife’s grandmother.   William’s father Andrew Gamble (1817?-1894) was born in Ireland; I’d like to believe that he and Margaret are siblings who emigrated sometime in the 1820s, but that is purely my speculation.

As for my great-great-great-grandfather Robert Stillman, there is a widely circulated story of his origins, but I can’t vouch for its accuracy.  The story goes that Robert is the son of one William Stillman, born in the 1770s in Enniscorthy in County Wexford, and a soldier in the 7th Veterans Battalion.  I imagine that battalion would have fought in the Napoleonic Wars, but I’m not sure of that.  William supposedly died in Seymour Township in 1851.  And, the story goes, William is the son of one John Stillman of Enniscorthy, also a soldier by profession, and who died in somewhat gruesome fashion at the age of 80 in May 1798 during the Wexford Rebellion.

However, I’ve located no independent evidence to support any of this.  I have found a note that one William Stillman emigrated from Ireland to Canada in 1827, accompanied by his wife, 3 sons, and 5 daughters.  Was Robert Stillman one of those sons?  How did Robert end up in the Perth area, where he courted Margaret Gamble, and then what made Robert & Margaret relocate to Seymour Township?  And where did the other Stillman siblings end up (as I’m not aware of any Stillmans in mid-19th century Seymour Township that aren’t Robert’s descendants)?  Mysteries.

The stats on David Stillman:

  • National Origin.  100% Irish
  • Religion.  Wesleyan Methodist
  • Immigration Status.  3rd-generation on his father’s side (both of father’s parents were Irish immigrants), 2nd-generation on his mother’s side (mother was Irish immigrant)


Genealogical Journeys – Branch #2 – Black

In my last post, I discussed my father’s paternal grandfather, George Bell – the son of Irish immigrants to Canada, born in the Newboro, Ontario area in about 1866.  In this post, the second of a planned series of eight posts discussing the family origins of each of my eight great grand-parents, we turn the focus to George’s wife:  Frances Black.

While my father has boyhood memories of his grandfather George, his grandmother Frances had died two decades before he was born.  She died of influenza in February 1923, in her home in North Crosby Township near Newboro, leaving behind 5 children ranging in age from 12 (my grandfather Bruce) to 15 months (my father’s uncle Charles, who as noted previously would die at 19 in World War II).  While her gravestone says 1924, that appears to be incorrect.  The death registry says she was born in December 1891, but that is contradicted by other records and I don’t believe that datum.  The death registry says that both of Frances’ parents were born in England, but no first name for her father or maiden name for her mother is given.

I’ve seen George & Frances’ marriage registry, from February 1909 (almost exactly nine months before my grandfather’s birth).  It lists Frances’ age as being 22, which places her birth in December 1886; this is consistent with what is listed on the 1911 census, and on her gravestone.  The marriage registry states that Frances was born in England, and gives her parents’ names as Henry & Sarah Black.

The information above is the sum total of what I’ve been able to learn about Frances Black and her ancestors.  And there’s a very specific reason for this lack of information about my great-grandmother:  Frances Black was a British Home Child.

Quoting from a Government of Canada website:

Between 1869 and the late 1930s, over 100,000 juvenile migrants were sent to Canada from the British Isles during the child emigration movement. Motivated by social and economic forces, churches and philanthropic organizations sent orphaned, abandoned and pauper children to Canada. Many believed that these children would have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural Canada, where families welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help.

After arriving by ship, the children were sent to distributing and receiving homes, such as Fairknowe in Brockville, and then sent on to farmers in the area. Although many of the children were poorly treated and abused, others experienced a better life here than if they had remained in the urban slums of England.

My great-grandmother arrived in North America in 1902 as a passenger on the S.S. Colonian, which sailed from Liverpool to Portland, Maine.  The U.S. immigration records of the Colonian’s passenger list includes Frances Black, age 15, with a note that she belongs to a “special party in transit to Canada.”  Most of the other passengers listed on the same page as Frances are girls between the ages of 7 and 15.

I’ve learned that Frances was sent abroad by a philanthropic organization then known as Dr. Barnardo’s Homes and now called Barnardo’s.   A newsletter published by Dr. Barnardo’s Homes in late 1902 discusses the journey of the Colonian, as follows:

There has been an increase in our family of 316 souls.  The party, under the usual escort, left London on September 25th and, crossing by the Dominion Line steamer Colonian, disembarked in Portland on October 6th.  Our lads and lasses had a pleasant experience on the ocean, the weather being remarkably fine for the season.  We arrived, thank God, all well, and the distribution of the party to situations or foster-homes was accomplished with the usual expedition.  Our total for the season's emigration is thus 1,060, surpassing last year's number by 47, a modest increase, but none the less a step in advance.

I believe that Frances was sent to Barnardo’s distribution home for girls in Peterborough, Ontario, to await placement.  What that placement for 15-year-old Frances was in late 1902, and how she ended up in Newboro by 1909, is probably lost to the mists of time.  Her marriage registry lists her profession as “domestic servant.”

Also lost would be any context around how the 22-year-old Frances would have met, and agreed to marry, 42-year-old bachelor George Bell.  A minor clue is provided by the marriage registry, where the two witnesses are listed as Ernest Bell and Florence Donohoe, both of Newboro.  My research indicates that Ernest, born in 1887, was the illegitimate son of George’s younger sister Martha, while Florence, born in 1890, was the daughter of George’s older sister Mary Ann.  As such, Frances Black would have been roughly the same age as George’s nephew Ernest and niece Florence, which might have been how the connection was made.

Although I’ve not yet done it, there’s a possibility that by contacting Barnardo’s I might be able to learn more about how Frances Black came to be placed with them and sent abroad.  Was she an orphan?  Or perhaps not?  Quoting from a leading website about the British Home Children in Canada:

For the most part, these children were not picked up from the streets but came from intact families, who, through sickness or even death of one of their parents, had fallen on hard times. Because there was no social system in place to help them get through these difficult circumstances, the family had no other way than to surrender their offspring to the organizations.

Sometimes this was meant to be a temporary solution until the family got back on their feet and there are cases on record where some parents went back to pick their children up, only to find that they had already been sent away. Sometimes the parents received an ‘after sailing’ notification, informing that their children had been emigrated a week before.

But for now, I know far less about this one-eighth of my origins than I’ve been able to learn about the other seven-eighths.  The stats on Frances Black:

  • National Origin:  100% English (presumptive)
  • Religion:  Church of England
  • Immigration Status:  1st-generation immigrant (at age 15, as a British Home Child)


In the next post we’ll shift attention to my father’s maternal grandfather, David Stillman (1867-1936).

Genealogical Journeys – Branch #1 – Bell

After a longer-than-expected time lapse from my last post in this series, I’m finally turning my attention to the meat of  my “Genealogical Journeys” project.  This post will be in the first in a series of eight posts, one for each branch of my family corresponding to my great-grandparents.   We’re starting with the Bell branch, which obviously is my father’s paternal grandfather’s branch.

My father’s father, Robert Bruce Bell (1909-1981), grew up in the small village of Newboro in Eastern Ontario, in what has been known since 1850 as the United Counties of Leeds & Grenville but historically was part of Leeds County as opposed to Grenville County.   The Newboro area is picturesque, although only about 300 people live in the village today.  Relative to other parts of Eastern Ontario, there are a large number of lakes near Newboro, and the Rideau Canal – which opened in 1832 and connects Ottawa to Lake Ontario – runs through the area.

Bruce (as everyone called him) was the eldest of five children of George Bell (1866?-1954).  Two of the children died fighting for the Allied forces in World War II.  Two others immigrated to upstate New York and spent their adult lives there; and that’s where George would die, having moved to live with his daughter Ida and her young family in the Syracuse area.  My grandfather had also left the area, spending his adult life in the Ontario village of Stirling, about 80 miles from Newboro as the crow flies.   As a result, my family had more or less lost its ties to the Newboro area.  However in recent years we’ve been in touch with a 2nd cousin of mine from around Newboro, whose grandfather died in aerial combat in Germany in 1941 at age 19, leaving behind a 3-month-old daughter.

I’ve seen George’s gravestone in the cemetery of the Anglican church in Newboro, and it says 1867-1954.  However, the historical records I can find contain conflicting information about his birthyear.  When he got married in February 1909, he was listed in the registry as being 41; having said that, I’ve seen a number of lies about marital ages in my research…  In the 1911 census he is shown as having been born in September 1866, and in the 1921 census he is shown as being 55.   The piece of information that tips the balance for me is that George has a younger sister, Martha (but known to my father as “Aunt Matilda” Warren), who was born in either June of 1867 or 1868.  To my mind, the only way to make sense of all this information is to assume that George was born in September 1866, and Martha in June 1868.

George was the sixth child, but the first son, of William Bell (1832-189?) and Johanna Shea (1827-1920).  Both William and Johanna had immigrated to Canada from Ireland as children together with their respective parents.  Johanna Shea’s death registry notes that her father, Denis Shea, was originally from County Kerry, and also lists her mother’s name as being Mary Sullivan.  In the 1871 census, Denis and Mary are living in the same household as William and Johanna and their children.  Interestingly, that census indicates that Denis & Mary and Johanna were Catholic, while William and all of William & Johanna’s children were Church of England.  Indeed, as we’ll see by the end of this series, the Sheas are to best of my knowledge my only Catholic ancestors; there’s an awful lot of Irish in me, but it’s all Irish Protestant.

I know little else about the Sheas.  In 1871, Denis was 69 and Mary 62.  I don’t know when they emigrated, other than it has to be after Johanna’s birth in 1827 and before the birth of William & Johanna’s first child in 1857.  I don’t know if Johanna had any siblings.  And I don’t know for sure where in County Kerry the Sheas came from, although there is a Catholic baptismal record in August 1802 for a Denis Shea in Killarney; that might well be my 3x-great-grandfather, but might not.

With respect to William & Johanna’s family, I’m more than a little frustrated about how little I’ve been able to learn about them.  I know from census records that there were 8 children, born between 1857 and 1873.  However, I can only locate 2 of George’s siblings as adults – Martha/Matilda as noted earlier, and also the eldest child Mary Ann (who would marry a man named Donohue and then, when he died leaving her with 3 minor children, marrry a man named Moore and bear 2 more children).  But there are four other girls born between 1859 and 1864 – Honor, Ellen, Hester, and Elizabeth – that are mentioned in the 1871 and/or 1881 census but whom I can’t locate as adults.  There’s a similar story with George’s only brother, the youngest child, William; he was still living at home at the time of the 1891 census, but that’s the last record I can find of him.  Nor do I know precisely when the elder William died, but I believe it to have been sometime in the 1890s, as he appears in the 1891 census while Johanna is listed as widowed in 1901 census.

My great-grandfather’s other grandfather – William’s father – was also named George Bell (1808-1888).  George and his wife, born Elizabeth Foster (1809-1869), were immigrants from County Cavan, one of the 3 Ulster counties that is in modern-day Ireland as opposed to Northern Ireland.    The 1851 census for North Crosby Township, which is immediately north of Newboro, shows a household consisting of:  42-year-old George & 40-year-old Elizabeth; 6 children born in Ireland, ages 10 through 20, including 18-year-old William; 2 children born in Ontario, ages 7 and 5; and a 23-year-old named Thomas Foster.  Thomas would later marry William’s younger sister Mary Ann, who was 10 in the 1851 census.  I have presumed that Thomas is Elizabeth’s younger brother, although I have no proof of that.

From this, we see that my Bell ancestors emigrated from Ireland to Canada sometime in the early 1840’s, slightly before the Irish Potato Famine, which transpired in 1845-1852.  (William’s younger brother James was born in Ontario in June 1845; but, Mary Ann was born in Ireland in December 1841.)  I have not been able to trace the Bells or the Fosters in Ireland.

Unlike the situation with William’s own children, I’ve actually been able to learn quite a bit about William’s siblings and their own progeny.  Most of William’s siblings stayed around the Newboro area, although as I mentioned in a previous post William’s younger brothers Robert Bell (1837-1914) and Thomas Bell (1853-1936) emigrated to Saginaw, Michigan in the late 1870s, presumably in connection with the lumber boom there, and lived out their lives in Michigan/Ohio.

As I’ve learned what I can from historical records about these long-lost branches of the descendants of George & Elizabeth Bell, the main theme of what I’ve found can be summarized succinctly:  I’m not as special as I thought I was.

You see, while I was growing up the only Bell-branch relatives we knew about were concentrated in Eastern Ontario and Upstate New York.  Whereas, my parents and I moved around a lot, making it as far afield as Southern California before returning back to Ontario; and then ultimately I would leave Canada to build my life in Chicago.  In that context, it was easy for me to imagine that, at these various stages of life, we were continually breaking new ground with respect to the Bell-branch.


When we moved to Southern California in 1985, surely we were the only Bell-branch descendants living there, right?  Nope.  Unbeknownst to us, my grandfather’s 2nd cousin William Stirling Foster (1899-1989) – a grandson of Mary Ann & Thomas Foster – had been living in L.A. for over four decades.  (Interestingly, he and his brother both enlisted in the U.S. Army in November 1942 in their early 40s, were honorably discharged after serving for about 4 months, and 2 months thereafter parlayed their military service into U.S. citizenship!)

When we moved to Ancaster, Ontario (about 50 miles SW of Toronto) two years later, surely I became the first Bell-branch descendant to graduate from Ancaster High School, right?  Nope.     Unbeknownst to us, my father had three 3rd cousins named Brown who had graduated from Ancaster High in the 1960s and 1970s; their mother Margaret Eulalia [Foster] Brown (1913-2008) was also a granddaughter of Mary Ann & Thomas Foster.

When I settled in Chicago in the 1990s and my eldest child was born there, surely he became the first Bell-branch descendant to be born in Chicago, right?  Nope.  Unbeknownst to us, my grandfather’s 2nd cousin Mary Lucy [Bell] Kogstad (1921-2006), a granddaughter of William’s youngest brother Thomas, had ticked that box several decades earlier.

In short, George & Elizabeth Bell’s descendants spread out, rather more widely than we ever knew growing up.  I suppose that’s the story of North American immigration in a nutshell, isn’t it.

I’m going to conclude each of these posts with some basic summary facts about my great-grandparent, which ultimately I’ll meld together in order to summarize what I’ve learned about my ancestry.  Before I do that, I need to adopt a convention as to what I mean by “1st-generation Canadian” – is the person who immigrates to Canada “1st-generation”, or is that person’s Canadian-born child “1st-generation”?  While both usages are common, I’m going to pick the former usage.

So, the stats on George Bell:

  • National Origin:  100% Irish
  • Religion:  Church of England (but, mother was Catholic)
  • Immigration Status:  2nd-generation Canadian (both parents were born in Ireland and immigrated)

I didn’t ever mention George’s wife above, but she’ll be the focus of my next post.  Which, I promise, will be much shorter, as sadly there’s not that much to say…