Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Family Stories, Fact or Fiction

In the summer of 1971, I spent most of the summer painting our grandparents house on Maude Street in Point Edward. Why it took me most of the summer to paint a relatively small house that was mostly covered in aluminum siding is a story in itself. I was heading off to university in September and having saved enough for at least the first year, I was in no particular rush to finish the painting and be required to find a real job. As an added inducement to my slothful behaviour, our southern neighbours had ratified the 26th Amendment to their Constitution on July 1, 1971, suspending the court challenges to Richard Nixon's Amendments to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The result of which was to reduce the voting age to eighteen in the US. Within days the Ontario government upped the ante, and reduced both the voting and the drinking age to eighteen. 

Painting a small house now meant a summer of sleeping in, a few hours of painting, afternoons at nearby Canatara beach, and cash for evenings at the previously off limits nightclubs with my high school buddies.

The actual painting started most days around ten AM and often included a family story by our grandfather Ernie over a long lunch on the back porch, which generally consisted of sandwiches made from canned salmon on spongy white bread, butter tarts, and an ice cold Labatt’s 50. Ernie had his pipe and I typically made it to beach by two PM. What a life!

The Stories

Ernie told me his grand-mother’s family had originally traveled by oxcart from New York to Canada and had settled on a log cabin on Sarnia Bay in the approximate area bounded by what is now London Road, Durand Street and Christina Street. The log cabin was sold, replaced by the Lambton County Courthouse and Goal (jail) in 1852, which in turn was demolished in 1963. By 1971 the farm was the site of the Chalet Motel, now the Super 8 Motel.

Another story had his great-grandmother daubing red paint on the cheeks of her children in the hopes that the local Indians would be fooled into thinking the children were infected with contagious smallpox and leave them alone.

Yet another tale had relatives from the US showing up at his grand-mother’s funeral, which was held during the Great Depression, in their own private rail car. Ernie thought they were in the lumber business, but his details were rather sketchy.

Ernie also told me that he had traveled west to Alberta as a young man and had worked as a cowboy on a ranch near Carmangay, Alberta. As the tale went, they always carried extra tobacco when riding the range so as to be able to distribute it to the local Indians, in order to encourage the Indians to leave them, and their cattle, alone.

The fifth and final story that I remember had Ernie, and his younger brother Russell, homesteading near Bentley, Alberta just prior to the First Wold War. He could not stand the cold, which varied from 40 below to 40 above in a single day, so he returned to Sarnia to a job as a “still man” in the Imperial Oil refinery in order to keep warm.

Oddly, he never me told any stories from either his youth in Petrolia, or his military service in the 1st World War. Other than a faded picture in the dining room of a town in Belgium, I can't recall any mention any of his wartime experiences. Also absent was any mention of his parents or siblings. At the time this didn't seem strange to me, as other than his younger brother Cec, I had never met any of his siblings. My limited interview skills resulted in me erroneously concluding that our family was quite small.

Why Am I Doing This?

These snippets of history pretty well summed up my understanding of the Hayes family history for the next 25 years or so. After graduating with a BA in history and political science in 1975, I managed a side trip to visit Carmangay, Alberta next spring on a ski trip to Banff. However other than some rusting farm equipment and a few decaying grain elevators, there was not much to see. Ernie had passed away a few months earlier and as I did not have any idea of what I was looking for, I just took a couple of snapshots and moved on. I did not think about our ancestry for over 20 years with the possible exception of a business dinner in 1986 with my boss, who, as a Utah Mormon, thought it was within his right to interrogate me on my ancestry. Several years later, at dinner with another Utah Mormon, a client from Salt Lake City whose mother's maiden name was Hayes, I was questioned on our family. At the time I failed to understand why they were so intrigued by our long lost relatives.

It was only after the funeral of my father, Ted in 1997 that I realized that not only did I not know if Ernie's stories were accurate, but I did not have a clue about who our ancestors were. My uncle Laverne provided me with a brief family tree for the Wray side of my family that had been prepared by my 3rd cousin from Oil Springs, but the Hayes side was pretty much a blank page. Nonetheless, I dutifully bought a computer program and recorded what I knew over the next 14 years. I wrote letters to Ottawa and obtained the military records of Ernie, Ted, my mother Mabel, as well as my father in law, Norm. But the story was still skinny as most of my research had resulted in dead ends, or “brick walls” in genealogy speak.

What have we found so far?

In the spring of 2011, while cleaning out some old files on the family computer, I came across the family tree that I had created years ago. Realizing that software does not last forever, I picked up a copy of the latest version of the software. Gone were the old CD’s, now replaced by an Internet search feature which included trial  access to a database of family trees, census records and other historical documents. Within a month I had found several hundred relatives to populate our tree, as well as several living relatives who were also researching the same families. However it was the discovery of the death certificates of our 2nd great grandmother Harriett Mellen and our 2nd great grandfather William Pole that led me to a number of previously unknown surnames, including Jones, Bradbeare, Hawley, and Mellen, as well as numerous new place names in both the US and Great Britain. In June of 2011 I travelled to Brantford, Ontario where I discovered the graveyard that contains the remains of the first of our Hawley ancestors to immigrate to Canada from New York in 1812. My sister Pat discovered a passenger list from 1860 that placed Silas Hayes on a ship that landed in New York. My cousin Mike and his wife Carolyn assisted by travelling to Oscoda, Michigan where they confirmed a critical link by finding the graves of John Mellen and Sarah Hawley. Cousins Jill and Marcia have also done some on the ground research in Lambton County on our Pole ancestors. Last but not least, John Bayly, our second cousin, once removed, was able to shed some valuable information from his years of research that supports our linkage to the Mellen, Hawley and Raymond families. As of last count, I have now identified about 9,000 relatives and have collected about 2,000 pages of notes on our ancestors.

Most of our ancestors have now been traced back to Great Britain, some as far back to the 16th century. Much work remains to done to confirm the lineage as much of the material was downloaded from various out of copyright history and genealogy books written in the nineteenth century. It probably is not of sufficient quality to survive vetting by serious genealogists should anyone wish to pursue an application to such organisations such as the Winthrop Society or the Sons/Daughters of the American Revolution, although I believe we are eligible for membership in all three, should we be able to collect the appropriate paper (primarily some birth and marriage records from nineteenth century Ontario) to support an application. The trail weakens considerably in Great Britain where, unlike the USA and Canada, much of the census information is still held at the parish level and has not been transcribed to a search able database. But at least we know where to start in the event we want to pursue this further in Great Britain.

I have tried to retain most of the writing intact to reflect the era in which it was written, however I have attempted to remove duplicate information and correct the obvious scanning errors to make our story somewhat more readable, particularly for those of you that lack my enthusiasm for historical trivia. I have written the narratives specifically from the perspective of the first post World War II descendants of Ernie Hayes, namely Jill, Pat, Mike, Brian, Marcia and Lori. I have used myself as the “home person”when identifying relationships. Younger family members will need to adjust relationships by at least one generation, or contact me for access to our family tree which can be read using a number of free apps.

The blog is designed to be shared, critiqued, edited, and hopefully improved upon by any and all family members who share my interest in our family's history. I have tried to document the sources of information wherever possible, but I acknowledge that it is very possible that errors remain. It is also still a work in progress in that I continue to add names to the database.

What to Expect

Over the next few years I will tell you what I have found out about Ernie's stories, as passed down to him and onward to me in the summer of 1971, and whether they are historically accurate. I will also introduce you to a few of our more interesting relatives, as chosen by me. First a word of warning. Most of our ancestors appear to have been good people, but like most families, we have several "black sheep". I have no specific agenda in the selection of who is profiled, other than to share and preserve what I have discovered about our ancestors.

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