The Search for Roots

Aided by technology, Canadians are scrambling to fill out their family trees

John Nicol September 20 1999

The Search for Roots

Aided by technology, Canadians are scrambling to fill out their family trees

John Nicol September 20 1999

The Search for Roots


Aided by technology, Canadians are scrambling to fill out their family trees

John Nicol

Jim Hill left his home on Vancouver Island last month for a two-day drive to Utah. For the next eight nights, the 63-year-old retiree bedded down in a sleeping bag he bought for moose-hunting 40 years ago. But his quarry was not moose, it was ancestors. Within hours of arriving at the Mormon church’s Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the largest genealogical library in the world, he suddenly found himself alive with discovery. For a few moments there he was—in the shoes of teenager James Edmund Hill, afloat on the ironclad, SS North American, on a 12-day journey to Quebec City in 1869. “At 16, he set out across the Atlantic without any family,” says Hill, elated about stumbling upon the details of his great-grandfather’s emigration from Ireland. “I bet he didn’t sleep too much at night, all excited, wondering, ‘What am I going to do when I get there?’ But he was a real go-getter. Within five years, he had a wife and his own

business.” That business, which started life as Hills Machine Shop in Toronto, is now in the hands of a third generation—a proud legacy and the springboard for the kind of personal journey that so many are now embarking upon,

At the end of a century awash with humanity’s comings and goings, Hill’s immigrant tale is not uncommon, nor is his fascination with tracing his roots. Genealogy has become almost a sacred mission for tens of thousands of Canadians, and millions of people worldwide. Canada’s Centennial in 1967 and Alex Haley’s 1976 book, Roots, fuelled earlier explosions in searching out family trees. This latest phenomenon springs from the Internet. With only minimal coaching, people are flocking to Web sites such as the Mormons’ new or to transport themselves back in time (page 44). Genealogy has become second to pornography as the most popular use of the World Wide Web, with two million sites and counting. When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, set up their free Internet site in May, it received a staggering 30 million electronic hits its first day of operation.

The Mormons, whose mission it is to link the human chain all the way from Adam, have turned their Salt Lake City archives into the mecca of family searches. Two billion names, mostly from European countries but with a steady influx of data from Asia and Africa, are available free of charge through its genealogical library. Four hundred million vital statistics are on its Web site, which is accessed each day by 3,500 Canadians.

For many, of course, genealogy is purely a hobby, a way for empty nesters to pass their leisure years or to prepare for holidays in the old country. For some, it can become an all-consuming passion to find out who they are and where they came from, induced perhaps by end-of-century reflection or a chance to experience the ultimate voyage—back through time. But for a significant number, this quest is a matter of life and death.

The explosion of electronic data banks has given birth to a new profession: biotechnicians who can use the worlds vital statistics to home in on the genetic connection underpinning heart disease, cancer and maladies like Alzheimer’s—and the new drugs that may be specifically tailored to combat them (page 47). For certain middleaged women, who see friends and relatives suffering from breast cancer, it is becoming vital to know what is in their genes—what a detailed family history can tell them—before they undergo radical preventive surgeries.

Surprisingly, the most dedicated questors, according to a survey for American Demographics magazine, are 35 to 44 years old, a group whose nomadic days are over and who are often raising young kids. Stephen Young, a London, Ont., native now in charge of the Canada-U.S. reference section at the Mormon library in Salt Lake City, says those in that age group show a strong desire to reconnect to their roots. “People live farther away from their families,” says Young, 43, “so they lose contact with the older family members who typically pass on the oral history. They want to fill in the gaps.”

Young’s own experience hints at the highs and lows of the genealogical journey. His research led him to England and a disused church in a Yorkshire hamlet, where he scaled the bell tower to find the name of an ancestor from the 1700s cast on the bell. His search also took him to the gallows of a jail in Milton, Ont., where a relative was hanged for murdering two women. “You have to be prepared for whatever you find,” says Young. Or, as the old joke among genealogists goes: “I’ll give you $50 to look up my family tree, and $500 to hush it up.”

Don Treble, 67, had no fear fleshing out his family tree. Over the past 10 years, the retired Ottawa bureaucrat and engineer travelled to France, Ireland, England and Australia researching his ancestors; he then followed the leads to unearth distant cousins. Among his ancestral family: an Elizabethan spy, a lawyer-convict who was in jail while his wife and mistress were pregnant with his babies, and a knight who fought alongside William the Conqueror in the 1066 Norman takeover of England. Along the way, Treble accumulated his great-great-grandfather’s Bible and discovered the family name mentioned in a Saxon charter of 739 AD. “What turns me on,” says Treble, who meets regularly with a distant cousin who is a British earl, “is not so much who these ancestors of mine were, but what was happening at the time, and how they fit in.”

Erik LeGendre, 27, of Toronto gave no thought to his ancestors until someone mentioned his last name translated as “The In-law” and was probably meant as a slur. That was enough motivation for LeGendre to find a connection to French math genius Adrien-Marie Legendre, and to a family crest symbolizing ancient French roots and aristocracy. LeGendre had the crest tattooed on his back out of “a sense of pride, and in part because of a foolish notion that it would somehow help me with my identity,” he says. “The more I discovered about the adventures of the first LeGendres in Canada, and from what I understand about Adrien, I feel that if I didn’t make some sort of contribution, it would be a great waste.”

LeGendre reconstructed his past at the National Archives in Ottawa. Along with Salle Gagnon in Montreal’s central library, North York Central Library in Toronto, the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society Library in Regina, and the Nova Scotia Archives in Halifax, it has been overrun with family detectives. Two of the Halifax regulars are Barbara and William Verge, who make the annual trek from their home in Grand Bend, Ont., each summer in pursuit of ancestors. “I try to imagine what they lived like,” says Barbara, a 64-year-old retired secretary, of the 7,000 relatives she has discovered going back 11 generations. “It’s like a disease—it gets under your skin.”

Skin has long been a factor in genealogy searches. Available written records were mosdy of white races, but that is changing. The Mormons have microfilmed records from 105 countries including the Philippines and Sri Lanka, where Mormon technicians stepped in as decay threatened to destroy the vital statistics of birth, marriage and death. Some nationalities, such as the Chinese and Koreans, have their lineage embedded in their names. Individuals can trace their family tree back hundreds of years by the use of time-honoured words and knowledge of the ancestral home (page 46).

The Mormons’ genealogical gift

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, founded in 1830 by American prophet Joseph Smith Jr., has just completed filming the vital records of Newfoundland. It is filming Crown land records in British Columbia, vital records and wills in Prince Edward Island, and it has ongoing projects in Ontario and Quebec. Overall, the Mormons, as they are commonly known, have 300 microfilm-producing cameras operating in 47 countries. Their climate-controlled vault carved into the Rocky Mountains of Utah holds the world s most complete master list of dates of births, deaths and marriages. The ultimate objective, begun in 1894, is a grand link of the human chain. But for the moment, the great list is just there for people to use as they see fit.

Two billion names from the list are available free of charge at the Mormons’ Salt Lake City library, part of a huge downtown complex. The library, with two floors of Canada-U.S. material and separate floors for international data, is swarmed by 2,400 visitors each day. The information can also be ordered on microfilm from any of the church’s 3,411 Family History Centers around the world.

Since May, there have also been 400 million names on the Mormons’ www. FamilySearch. org Web site; another 200 million will be added this fall, all free of charge. The Web page has 7,000 links to other sites, and prompted Tracey from Alberta to write: “What a great site this is. Trying to research my history was impossible before now. Today, I managed to go back five generations on my paternal grandmother’s side! Thank you!!!”

The generosity of the Mormons has astounded the genealogical world. Elder Todd Christofferson, executive director of the family history department, allows that while it’s “un-American” to offer such a service for free, it is part of the church’s mission to have its 11 million adherents identify their ancestors and baptize them into the faith. An affront sometimes to relatives of a different belief when a long-dead common ancestor is baptized by proxy as a Mormon, the practice is to bind families—ultimately the human family—for eternity.


The gathering of the clans—whether Acadians or Yorkshire émigrés—brings in the tourist dollars

Still, for groups like North American blacks descended from slaves, the search is particularly arduous. Tracing black roots is hampered by the haphazard way surnames were chosen upon release from slavery, not to mention the horrors of slavery itself. “Slavery breeding was like cattle breeding—there were no vital statistics,” notes Sharon Oliver, a retired health-care executive in Wolfville, N.S., who now owns a consulting business aimed at developing black enterprises. “Anything we extract comes from slave-owners’ diaries or ships’ logs.”

Oliver’s firm would like to establish a data bank of genetic information from Africa that could be matched to people whose ancestors were taken from the continent in chains 400 years ago. Finances and other obstacles have stalled the project, but she maintains it is scientifically feasible. One problem, she admits: “How do you walk into 48 African countries and say, ‘Were here for your DNA?’ ” What is an obstacle for some, however, can mean business for others. Rick and Sandra Roberts began Global Genealogy Supply as a sideline in 1992, but within only a few years it prompted Sandra, then Rick, to give up their full-time jobs. In 1997, the company earned $80,000 distributing maps, charts, archival supplies, genealogy books, software and CDs; this year, they are on track for nearly $ 1 million in sales. “It’s not that we’re that smart,” said Rick, 46, a former trucking company executive whose Web site magazine now has

10.000 active subscribers and up to 41,000 casual readers. “More and more baby boomers, empty nesters with disposable income and disposable time, are getting into it. They see an urgency in getting their family tree done, what with their parents and grandparents getting on in years.”

Even governments have come to recognize the allure of cash-laden, roots-searching tourists. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are helping sponsor 80 different family reunions tied to Yorkshire 2000, the gathering next summer in Sackville, N.B., of descendants from the celebrated English county. The Acadians regular get-together every five years drew 500,000 to Louisiana last month. Other entrepreneurs are selling books or magazines geared to particular ethnic groups, or non-acid inks to help preserve documents until at least the next millennium. This fall, the University of Toronto is offering Canada’s first full-certification program in genealogical studies for the growing number of professional family trackers. While in Hanley, Sask., Lewis and Dorothy Lockhart are swamped trying to help those with native blood establish their roots. Especially for native women who were disfranchised for marrying non-natives, establishing their legitimacy can be a valuable first step in gaining housing or other benefits from band councils or recent land-claim settlements.

The insights into Canadian history, gleaned from family searching, fascinate Yvon Cyr, an expert on Acadian heritage. When the British expelled Acadians from the Maritimes in the 1750s, Cyr says, “they weren’t allowed to take much with them—men went in one ship, women in another, and children went wherever the hell they got shipped to. The problem in searching is that some of the ships went down, and children and their families and husbands and wives never got back together again. Its quite a story.” Based in Guelph, Ont., Cyr has compiled CDs of Acadian families and traced some of the 110.000 names in his tree through family Bibles and other heirlooms. Other Canadian searches are complicated by the transient nature of immigrants, especially in the 1800s. Another problem is that all Canadian census information after 1901 is protected by privacy guarantees in the Statistics Act, which genealogists are lobbying the federal government to change. In Quebec, which has the oldest genealogy society in Canada and the most comprehensive vital records, searches are muddled by frequent migration across the American border right up until the 1950s.

For Louise St. Denis, a leading expert on French-Canadian genealogy, it is not enough to record dates and names of ancestors. She has made videos and calendars marking the births, marriages and deaths of generations of ancestors, and she creates wreaths out of keepsakes. One, surrounding a photo of her grandparents, includes her grandfather’s pipe, shaving brush and razor kit and her grandmother’s glasses, rosary beads and scarf. “If you keep them in a drawer, someone will clean up when you go, and throw them out, and no one will know their significance,” says St. Denis, 44, who is a sought-after speaker across North America and offers one hard-learned piece of advice: “Record everything.”

St. Denis remembers taking a shoebox full of photos to a great aunt in Quebec who was nine months shy of 100. “Her memory was as sharp as anything. ‘Oh my goodness,’ she said, ‘I haven’t seen these photos in years.’ She died three months later. I was so pleased that I had recorded her telling us all sorts of stories, things my grandfather did that my father had never heard of. On the drive home my Dad said: ‘Louise, I have never been to so many cemeteries in my life.’ That’s what it’s all about, getting your knees dirty, cleaning up headstones and putting together all the pieces of our lives.”

Korea: where each name is a family tree

Unlike Europeans and North Americans, many Asians carry their lineage with them in their names in a system that is as flexible and subtle as a Chinese brush stroke. Maclean’s Asocíate Editor Susan Oh explains:

What is in a neune? A lot, if your ancestors hail from China or Korea.

Like most Koreans, I have my family tree built into my name. Jok-bo, as it is called, is a system that identifies and helps maintain family lineage by the use of naming schemes. And it is as commonly used today by ordinary Koreans as it was by the ruling elite when the practice was first recorded during the last years of the Koryo Kingdom more than 600 years ago.

Under Jok-bo, long-ago clan elders chose which scheme their descendants would follow. Each Korean has two personal names, one of which denotes the generation and position on the family tree. The generational name is a word

from an established source such as a famous poem or a Confucian proverb whose well-known phrases establish the order of successive generations. This is why siblings have one other name in common besides the family name. For instance, my Korean name is Oh Se Jung; my younger sister and brother are Oh Se

Eun and Oh Se Won. All my paternal cousins—however distant— also have Se as a generational name.

Such a system makes it easy to track down relatives or ancestors, as long as you know from which town or area your forebears came. It also has an essential func-

tion: it averts marriage within the same family lineage. Common surnames like Kim or Lee flow from several different clan lines that are differentiated by the region in which that branch started.

What’s more, in historical times, when war, famine and disease nearly wiped out entire families, your name became your calling card, away to establish a sometimes precarious social position. In Korea today, Jok-bo—though it doesn’t have legal status—is still used as a critical system for tracing people, jokbo information is listed by the Korean census bureau and is used by the government as an administrative tool. It can even lead to a socially and materially rewarding marriage through a matchmaker.

But for those of us scattered around the world, Jok-bo is simply a way to maintain ties with a fading past. It is easy to lose a sense of identity when people move from rice paddies to skyscrapers, or change countries, within one generation. But I’ll always have my good name.

Building a family tree

How to start

Alex Haley of Roots fame traced his family’s history largely through word-of-mouth stories, which is still the best information to have at hand. The next step is to explore how-to books or such free Web sites as the Mormons’ or the community-run People searching for a lost ancestor can leave a under a family name on one of the popular genealogical Web sites for a possible e-mail response. Sometimes all it takes is to punch in a family name on an Internet search to open a promising trail. The Web is full of professional genealogists who will search for a fee. An old census can reveal how much land an ancestor owned, how it was divided and whether it had a stone or wood house; it can also provide family religion, education level, nationality or ethnic background, and certain health information. The almost universal advice from the pros: take careful notes.

Most popular sites

Bob’s Your Uncle, eh!, a search engine of the Toronto Reference Library

Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites

Canadian Genealogy and History Links

Ontario Genealogical Society

National Archives of Canada

Canada GenWeb Project, a communal enterprise for a global library


Genealogy Gateway to the Web

Journal of Online Genealogy

Jewish Genealogy


For the advanced searcher

• Passenger lists of ships arriving at major Canadian ports between 1865 and 1935 are available at the National Archives and local ports. Halifax’s Pier 21 will post the names of 900,000 people arriving at all ports between 1925 and 1935 on the Internet by next spring.

• The Hudson’s Bay Co. kept exhaustive records on the earliest fur traders and settlers in the West from 1670 to 1870.

A selected list is at

• Names of more than 100,000 children who were sent to Canada from Great Britain between 1869 and the 1930s have been indexed by the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa at

the National Archives.

• The Canadian Virtual War Memorial lists names, death dates and final resting places of more than 1 10,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who died in the First and Second World Wars. virtualmem

• Aboriginal Peoples guide to government records at,dll?fs&0201200l&e&top&O