Category Archives: Genealogy

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…



Genealogical Journeys – Regarding Henry, and Thomas

As I noted in the introductory post to this series, researching one’s genealogy using modern tools like is for the most part about making inferences from data, as well as exercising judgment about which inferences to trust and which to ignore.  In this post, I’ll share two case studies of distant 19th-century relatives I encountered in my work where I was faced with difficult choices on what to believe:   Thomas Bell, and Henry Bell.

Comments on Sources

In internet-enabled genealogy, there are two main tools of the trade:  primary sources; and other researchers’ family trees.

By primary sources, I’m talking about databases and digitized images of such historical documents as census records, death records, marriage records, birth records, military draft or service records, and the like.  It is amazing how useful these records can be, particularly in establishing links between generations.  The presence of “mother’s maiden name” as a field in death, marriage, and birth records is particularly helpful.

Most of my ancestors lived in Ontario, Canada, for which I’ve had access to a rich set of records:  census records for every 10 years from 1851 through 1921; birth registrations, primarily from 1869-1913; death registrations, primarily from 1869-1936; and marriage registrations, primarily from 1869-1927.   For other jurisdictions, the nature of available records varies.  For the U.S., decennial census records are currently available up through 1940, while Social Security death records are currently available through 2014.

While I’ve tried to focus my research as much as possible on looking to primary sources, the existence of other researchers’ family trees is a temptation that is difficult to resist and often can streamline matters.  On, you can search to see if a dead person in your own family tree appears in others’ family trees; this feature doesn’t work for living people on others’ family trees, due to privacy considerations.

The difficulty here is, how do you determine whether other researchers’ conclusions are necessarily reliable?   Particularly when different researchers may have reached conflicting conclusions as to when someone was born or died, or who their siblings or parents were, or who they married and what children they had.  At some level, one needs to look to the direct sources – which may themselves be contradictory or otherwise unclear – and apply one’s own judgment to determine what to believe.

Thomas Bell

As one example, we’ll consider the case of Thomas Bell.

I’ll discuss the Bell line at length in the next post in this series, but my great-great-great-grandfather George Bell immigrated from County Cavan, Ireland to Leeds County, Ontario sometime in the mid-1840s.   He and his wife had 9 children, the first of 6 of whom were born in Ireland, and the last three of whom were born in Ontario.   The second-oldest child, William, was my great-great-grandfather.

Thomas was the youngest child.  We first learn about Thomas in the historical record via the 1861 census of what was then still called Canada West, where we see a household consisting of:  George & Elizabeth, the parents; three sons that also appear in the 1851 census record; and Thomas, who is listed in the 1861 census as being 14, but doesn’t appear in the 1851 census listing of Canada West for George & Elizabeth Bell’s household.  We see Thomas again in the 1871 census of Ontario, as it had been rechristened in 1867.  Elizabeth had passed away in 1869, so now the household consists of:  father George; two of the sons that had appeared in both the 1861 and 1851 census records; a 24-year-old daughter Hester, who appeared in 1851 but not in 1861; and Thomas, now listed as being 18.

So, already we’ve got  some contradictory evidence to contend with.  If Thomas was really 14 in 1861, then why doesn’t he appear in the 1851 census, and why is his age wrong in the 1871 census?  And if Hester was 24 in 1871 and 4 in 1851, then why doesn’t she appear in the 1861 census?  I think the simplest solution is to assume that the 1851 and 1871 census records are accurate, and infer that the census-taker in 1861 got confused and conflated Thomas and Hester:  Instead of reporting a 14-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, he simply reported a 14-year-old son.  As such, I think it’s clear to believe that Thomas Bell was born circa 1853, at which point his mother Elizabeth would have been about 43.

After the 1871 census, Thomas vanishes, at least insofar as Ontario records are concerned.  I can’t locate him in the 1881 census of Ontario, or any subsequent census.  I can’t locate any Ontario death or marriage records for him.  He’s not buried in the Anglican cemetery in Newboro, Ontario where his mother and some of his brothers are buried.

But:  There is a man named Thomas Bell, born in 1853, who died in 1936 and is buried in Toledo, Ohio.  Let’s call him “Toledo Thomas.”   We have census records from 1930, 1920, 1910, and 1900 for Toledo Thomas; he was living in Toledo in each of those years.  Those four census records all indicate that he was born in Canada, and that both of his parents were born in Ireland.  They also all indicate that he immigrated to the U.S. sometime in the 1870s, although different years of immigration are stated in different census records:  In 1930 it’s given as 1871; in both 1920 and 1910 it’s given as 1876;  and in 1900 it’s given as 1870.   He’s shown as widowed in 1930, and married to Lucy Bell in the previous three censuses; Ohio death records show that a Lucy Bell, born in 1857, died in 1927.  Lucy is also known from the censuses to be Canadian-born, immigrating to the U.S. as a child in the late 1860s.  In the 1900 census Thomas and Lucy are living with 8 children, ages 2 through 17; the first 7 of those children are born in Michigan, with the youngest having been born in Ohio.

And:  In the 1880 U.S. census, we find a Thomas and Lucy Bell living in Saginaw County, Michigan, with Thomas being 27 and Lucy 22, plus a 2-year-old child James born in Michigan in 1878.   Let’s call this Thomas Bell “Saginaw Thomas”.  Both Saginaw Thomas and his wife are listed as being Canadian-born, and it’s noted that both of Thomas’ parents were born in Ireland.  And while not noted in the census, Lucy appears to have been with child when the census taker came around, as I’ve also found what is probably one of the saddest records I’ve come across in my researches:  A death record in Saginaw County, dated Christmas Day 1881, for a 13-month-old baby named George T. Bell, son of Thomas and Lucy Bell.  Other researchers indicate that little James would die in September 1880, two months before George was born, although I’ve not seen a primary source for that.

Now, to cut to the chase:  Other researchers believe that Toledo Thomas, Saginaw Thomas, and my original Ontario Thomas are all the same person.

That is, they paint the story of Thomas Bell, born in 1853 in Leeds County, Ontario as the youngest child of Irish parents; who makes his way to Saginaw County, Michigan around 1876; who shortly thereafter marries a slightly younger Canadian immigrant named Lucy Mitchell; who sees his first two children die in infancy before having seven more children born in Saginaw County between 1882 and 1895; who moved to Toledo, Ohio in the late 1890s, in time to see his youngest child born there in 1898; and who lived in Toledo for the rest of his days, seeing his wife pass in 1927 before dying in 1936.

That story coheres.  I’m aware of no piece of evidence that contradicts it, other than the fact that the 1900 and 1930 U.S. census records for Toledo Thomas suggest he immigrated in 1870-71, which would make it difficult for him to have been counted in the 1871 Canadian census – but as noted above, the 1910 and 1920 U.S. census records say he immigrated in 1876.

However, at the same time we’re missing the crucial evidence that would make the progression from Ontario Thomas to Saginaw Thomas to Toledo Thomas airtight, as these things go.  I’d feel better if I could find a 1890 U.S. census record that shows a Thomas and Lucy Bell living in Saginaw County with some of the same children that appear in the 1900 U.S. census record from Toledo.  And I’d really love to see a Michigan marriage record for Thomas and Lucy that might show the names of Thomas’ parents.  But, I haven’t been able to find either of those.

We also need to assess:  Is the story believable?  Is it plausible that a young Irish-Canadian man in his early 20s, born and raised in Leeds County, Ontario, would have traveled almost 500 miles to seek his fortune in Saginaw County, Michigan in the mid-1870s?

On balance, I think it’s plausible enough that I’m willing to accept it as canon.  There certainly seems to have been a lot of Canadian immigration to Saginaw County in the 1860s and 1870s:  Of the 41 people listed on the same page of the 1880 U.S. census as Saginaw Thomas, 13 were born in Canada.  My limited understanding is that there was a lumber boom in Saginaw at this time, which led to a lot of French-Canadian migration (Lucy appears to have been born in Montreal), but some English-Canadian migration as well.   Indeed, while 7 out of Ontario Thomas’ 8 siblings remained in Leeds County, the eighth – Thomas’ brother Robert, older by about 16 years – migrated to Saginaw County around 1878-1879, dying there in 1914.  That tips me towards believing the story, as does the fact that if you believe that Ontario Thomas and Saginaw Thomas are the same person, then the two children born in Saginaw County to Thomas and Lucy and who died in infancy share names with Thomas’ uncle and grandfather, respectively.

Can I prove it?

Prove?  What does that mean exactly, in this context?

I don’t know that I can prove it.  But I believe it.

Henry Bell

But, belief may have its limits, as we’ll see in the strange case of Henry Bell, one of Thomas Bell’s nephews.

Henry was the eldest son of Thomas’ older brother Robert, the one who as noted above would also migrate from Ontario to Saginaw County, Michigan in the late 1870s.  We first encounter Henry in the 1871 census of Ontario.  Robert Bell and his wife are living in Leeds County with 5 children, of which 11-year-old Henry is the oldest.  Robert’s wife’s name appears in this census record as “Adelia,” but in most other places it appears as “Lydia,” and I’ve noticed other situations where census takers have not gotten names quite right.  Indeed, Henry’s name is spelled “Henery” in this census record.

There’s a marriage record for Robert in Leeds County, in November 1859, that lists his wife’s name as Lydia Dier, also born in Ireland.  As such, evidence points to Henry as having been born in Leeds County in 1860, although I haven’t located an 1861 Ontario census record for the young family of Robert, Lydia, and Henry.

The next historical record I can find for Henry is a marriage license issued in Saginaw County, Michigan on June 18, 1888.  It lists as the groom one Henry Bell, age 27, born in Canada, son of Robert Bell and Lydia Dier, and living in Saginaw.  The bride is one Josephine Thompson, age 27, born in Canada, son of Edward Thompson and an unknown mother, and living in East Saginaw (which was then an independent city but would get merged into Saginaw in 1889).  The marriage took place in Buena Vista Township, to the east of East Saginaw; the witnesses were Edward Thompson of Buena Vista, and Jennie Bell of Saginaw (one of Henry’s sisters, albeit listed as “Jane” in the 1871 census record).  Another record, which hasn’t been digitized but whose main fields have been included in a database, indicates the marriage itself took place on June 27, 1888.

So, there is zero doubt in my mind that the Henry Bell in my family tree who was born in Leeds County in 1860 immigrated to Saginaw County at some point, and ultimately married a Canadian immigrant named Josephine Thompson.

However, I can find no subsequent record of this Henry Bell.   No census records in the U.S. or Canada, no death records, no mentions as being the father in any birth/marriage/death records of little Bells.

Josephine Thompson, on the other hand…

There is a Josephine Thompson about whom, using the historical records, one can build the following picture:

  • She was born in October 1860 in Huron County, Ontario, in a place called Stephen Township that is about 30 miles north of London.  Her parents were Edward and Mary Thompson, who would die in 1899 and 1891, respectively.
  • In the 1870 U.S. census, she is living in East Saginaw, with her parents and 3 siblings, of which she’s the 2nd-oldest.
  • In the 1880 U.S. census, she is living in Buena Vista, with her parents and 3 siblings (the oldest sister having moved away, and a younger sibling having been born in the 1870s).
  • In the 1900 U.S. census, she is living in Menomenee Falls, Wisconsin (incorporated in 1892 and today a suburb of Milwaukee) with her husband Henry and three children, the oldest of which was born in February 1890.  Henry is listed as having been born in Canada in September 1860 and having immigrated to the U.S. in 1878.
  • In the 1910 U.S. census, she and Henry and the three children are still in Menomenee Falls.
  • By the 1920 U.S. census, she and Henry have moved to Detroit, sharing a household with two of their children and a daughter-in-law.
  • By the 1930 U.S. census, Henry has passed away and Josephine is living with her son and his family in the suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County.
  • Josephine would live until the age of 91, and is buried in Oakland County.

This sure sounds like the Josephine Thompson who got a license to marry Henry Bell in 1888 in Saginaw County, doesn’t it?  Her age is right; her father’s name is right; the geography is reasonable (she was living in the same place in the 1870 census that the marriage license says she was living in 1888); Henry’s age is right; both of them were born in Canada.  There is the minor nag of why Josephine’s mother was listed as “unknown” in the marriage license, given that Mary Thompson was still alive in 1888; but I suppose we could overlook that.

There’s just one teeny problem that is somewhat harder to overlook:   In all of the records listed above, Josephine Thompson’s married name is not Bell, but Blair.

So, we’ve got two competing narratives.

One is that Henry Bell, the oldest son of Robert and Lydia Bell, decided to change his name from Bell to Blair as he and his wife moved 400 miles away to southeastern Wisconsin to build their life there.   Hardly impossible, but it strikes me as a rather unusual thing for the eldest son to do!

The other is that maybe there were two Edward Thompsons who immigrated from Canada to Michigan in the 1860s, and each had a daughter named Josephine in 1860, each of whom would marry a Canadian immigrant named Henry – leading to the conclusion that Henry Bell and Henry Blair are different people.  Far-fetched?  Maybe; maybe not.  One of Josephine’s brothers was named George W. Thompson, and I found evidence of a second George W. Thompson, born at roughly the same time to a different Canadian immigrant named Edward Thompson, and living in Bay City, Michigan, which is north of Saginaw.

As I was mulling this over, I observed that in the 1905 Wisconsin census for Menomenee Falls, where we again see Henry & Josephine Blair and their three children, Henry Blair is listed on the top of the page as being the town clerk.  That got me thinking: if Henry Blair was involved in civic affairs, then maybe he left some other traces of his life behind?   And that observation led me to a book published in 1907 called Memoirs of Waukesha County.  (It’s amazing what you can find on the internet these days…)  The book includes hundreds of pages of biographical sketches written by selected Waukesha County residents, including Menomonee Falls’ town clerk Henry Blair.

Here’s what Henry Blair had to say about himself, in 1907:

HENRY BLAIR, of Menomonee Falls, was born in Leeds county, Ontario, Canada, Sept. 2, 1860.  His father Henry Blair Sr., was born in Scotland and immigrated to Canada.  From that country he came to Wisconsin to 1865 to engage in the lumber business, but after a residence of two years returned.  In 1879 he came to the United States a second time locating in Saginaw county, Mich., where he again engaged in the lumber business and where he still resides, although now retired from active business life.  The mother of Henry Blair, Jr., is a native of Ireland.  She is still living and both she and her husband are in the enjoyment of excellent health.  The subject of this sketch received his education in Canada and began life for himself at the age of eighteen, when he worked in a lumber camp in Michigan as a scaler...  Mr. Blair was married on June 27, 1887, to Miss Josephine Thompson, a native of London, Canada, and daughter of Edward and Mary (Edwards) Thompson, both now deceased. ..."

So, what to make of this?

If we assume that Henry Blair is really Henry Bell, then it’s interesting to note the half-truths in this description of his life:

  1. He really was born in Leeds County in 1860, and was educated in Canada.  Note that Robert Bell and Lydia Dier were married in November 1859, so an early September 1860 birthdate for Henry makes eminent sense.
  2. His father (Robert Bell) really did immigrate to Saginaw for good around 1878.  I’ve found no evidence that Robert Bell had spent a couple of years in Michigan in the mid-1860s, though.  It appears that Robert Bell did move away from Leeds County for a time in the mid-1860s, as several of Henry’s young siblings were born in Cobourg, Ontario, which is on Lake Ontario about 125 miles from where Henry was born.  So, possibly he was traveling back and forth to Michigan at that time in the lumber trade while his young family remained in the port city of Cobourg; who knows.
  3. As of 1907, I believe that Robert Bell was still alive and living in Saginaw County.
  4. His mother (Lydia Dier) was born in Ireland, and was still alive in 1907.
  5. The wedding anniversary is consistent, although the year is off by one.

On the other hand, we’re still left with the “big lie” about Scottish ancestry and his last name being Blair.

I should note that if we look through the U.S. census records, Henry Blair’s stated parental origins are inconsistent from one census to the next.  In 1900, he says his father was from Scotland and his mother from Ireland; in the 1905 Wisconsin census, which contains only one column for “birthplace of parents” instead of separate columns for each parent, he filled out “Ireland” for the single column; in 1910, he’s back to saying his father was from Scotland and his mother from Ireland; but in 1920 – after he’s left Menomenee Falls – he says that both his father and mother are from Ireland.

After reading this, I decided to look for Henry Blairs in Leeds County in the 1860s.  Maybe there really was a Henry Blair Sr.?  In the 1861 census for the same township where the Bells lived, I found a Henry Blair that would be the right age and national origin to be our putative “Henry Blair Sr.”  Alas, he was unmarried in 1861, and appears to have lived out his days in Leeds County, without siring a “Henry Blair Jr.”

That’s the data.  What do I believe?

As I sat down to go through the act of writing this saga up, I felt that the proposition that Henry Bell and Henry Blair were the same person was “not proven” – plausible, but not likely enough for me to treat it as canon and integrate it into my family tree.

Having written everything up, though, I think I’m getting convinced.  The piece of data that is pushing me over the edge is that Henry Blair’s biographical sketch cites his wedding anniversary as being June 27th, which is consistent with the Michigan microfiche record (which I haven’t seen but is included in a non-digitized database) saying Henry Bell was married on June 27th, 9 days after the marriage license that I have seen was issued.  Given that, if we still wanted to argue that there were two Josephine Thompsons born in 1860 who married two different Canadian immigrants named Henry, we’d need to pile a shared wedding anniversary on top of all the other coincidences we’d need to accept.

It’s a strange story, and I’ll never know what would have motivated Henry Bell to change his name and turn his back on the Bells.  But, I think I’m willing to accept that the Blairs born in Menomenee Falls in the 1890s are part of the Bell family tree.

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk more generally about what I’ve learned about my Bell lineage, in the first of eight planned posts associated with my eight great-grandparents.

Genealogical Journeys – Introduction

This is the first in a planned series of posts about my researches over the past few years into my family history.

Although I’d always had a mild interest in genealogy going back to my childhood years, it wasn’t until about 2010 that I really delved into it.  Like many people, my renewed interest in genealogy was stoked by recent advances in technology – specifically, vastly improved access to historical records over the internet via such sites as    Not that long ago, pursuing genealogical research as a hobby required trips to libraries and cemeteries, and writing letters to other researchers.  Today, it’s something that one can do sitting on the couch, and with far greater efficiency!

By the middle of 2011, after several months of weekends and evenings, I’d been able to trace all of my ancestors back to at least the point of immigration to the New World, with the trail often running cold at that point.   Three of my eight great-grandparents were relatively recent immigrants from England & Wales to Canada, arriving in the first two decades of the 20th century.  I learned that the remaining five great-grandparents were each descended primarily or entirely from people who immigrated from Ireland & England to Canada in the period 1825-1850.  The New World wasn’t that much of a melting pot, in my case! In total, by my reckoning I am about 48% Irish, 34% English, 13% Welsh, and 5% Dutch.  I’ve not yet taken a home DNA ancestry test, but it would be interesting to see how closely its results would match my research conclusions.

I’d set the genealogical research aside for a few years, but recently decided to come back to it and see what loose ends I might be able to tie up.  In this new technologically-enhanced world, the process of drawing inferences about long-dead individuals from records is something I find intrinsically fascinating.  Sorting through data to identify potentially relevant information, evaluating that information’s reliability, drawing conclusions from contradictory indicators – these are skills I draw on in my day job as an actuary, and it’s nice to have a hobby that is interesting in its own rights while leveraging the same skills.

My tentative gameplan for this series of blog posts is to write one post for each of my eight great-grandparents (all of whom have been dead for at least two decades), discussing what I believe I’ve learned about their ancestors, and the limitations and uncertainties inherent in my conclusions.  But before I launch into that, in my next post I’ll provide a couple of interesting case studies, illustrating the ambiguities one faces in this type of endeavor.