Finding Your Roots

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 30, -0001 12:00 AM
The oldest photo John Ridgley has found of his ancestors. Pictured are his great-grandparents, Bridget Rose Ryan and Thomas Ryan.

By Ashley Colombe

Nearly 30 years ago, John Ridgley was in North Harbour, Newfoundland, taking a last look around his grandfather's house before it was abandoned. Nailed to one of the walls inside the old home were pieces of paper rolled into a scroll and tied with a piece of fishing twine. Carefully, he removed the pages from their place on the wall and read the words that remained bold despite the yellowing of the aged pages. Listed were the names and birth dates of several of his maternal ancestors, a sort of basic family tree. Even today John can only guess at who of his ancestors might have penned those words all those years ago, but one thing's for certain: It couldn't have fallen into better hands.

John, who lives in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, has been delving into his family history for the last three decades, uncovering nine generations and the names of approximately 1,300 of his ancestors including the Ridgleys and his mother's side of the family, the Ryans.

"I spent many summers in North Harbour, St. Mary's Bay, with my maternal aunts and uncles. They were folk with heavy Irish brogues, who lived off the land, and I grew to have great respect for their values and way of life," says John. "I guess that it was this contact with, and respect for, my ancestors, as well as the sense of family my parents gave me, which led me to find out more about my family."

And although he admits he's no expert, John has successfully navigated through the murky and sometimes downright overwhelming genealogical process.

John Ridgley shows a page he found nailed to the wall of his grandfather's home, which contained important family tree information.

"I just started with my own family...I started from there and then I sort of worked out," says John. One of his first orders of business was to record both of his parents and one of his uncles, talking about their families and their own childhoods. Looking back today, these rusty recordings of relatives who've since passed away are among John's most precious possessions.

"You can't put a value on it," he says.

Something else John can't put a value on is the thrill of the hunt. And it's a good thing, because for John "the hunt" isn't over yet; there is always more to be found, he says. But as anyone who has ever attempted to research their family tree will also know, John admits that researching genealogy is not without its challenges.

Debbie Jeans, a certified genealogist who has been researching family history in Newfoundland for 30 years, says one of the biggest hurdles in family history research stems from the churches' control of Newfoundland's records prior to the 20th century. The clash of dialects between the priests, who penned the records, and the settlers (many of whom could neither read nor write) often translated into errors that are still baffling those trying to fill in the blanks on their family trees more than a century later.

"I did research many years ago for the O'Brien family and they had 16 children, and in 13 of the records their (sur)name was spelled differently," recalls Debbie. "They didn't care, they weren't worried about the registers for 100 years down the road. They were worried about 'now.'"

To overcome this problem, says Debbie, it's important to "think phonetically" when looking at church records. Imagine how a name may sound completely different (and thus be written down differently) when said, say, in a hearty Irish brogue or a thick French accent. And, if you notice odd-looking or extremely hard-to-read words while perusing original records, familiarize yourself with the lettering and shorthand from the old English tradition, which was commonly used in combination with modern handwriting in those days.

Another hurdle arises from the tradition of ministers and priests travelling from their home parish to preach in churches in the various rural settlements scattered around the island's coast; any records drawn up in those settlements were usually left with the priest or minister rather than remaining in their respective communities. As a result, records at the Provincial Archives aren't always where geography says they should be - but that shouldn't stop you.

"You have to think coastal in Newfoundland. If a record you're looking for is not in a particular set, you have to go to (the records from) all the communities around that area," says Debbie. "For instance, if I can't find a record way back in the Old Perlican records, I'm going to look to Trinity - straight across, by boat."

In some unfortunate cases, however, whole communities are missing records prior to 1892 (before civil registration came into effect) - usually because of fires breaking out at the churches where the sole copies were kept. Fires in Brigus and Harbour Grace destroyed decades worth of records, and the great fire of 1892 burned just about all of the Methodist records in St. John's up to that date.

But fires weren't the only culprits. In 30 years of researching his family history, John has heard his share of anecdotes, too:

"There was one instance where I went looking for a particular set of church records and was advised by the person at the Provincial Archives that the parish priest used to keep all the records in a little notebook which he carried with him - until it fell over the side of a boat."

Luckily, some of the gaps in information due to loss of records can be filled in by other sources, like Newfoundland's earliest censuses, from the years 1921, 1935 and 1945. (Bit by bit, parts of a census taken in Newfoundland in 1911 are also being uncovered.)

Making Connections
Rather than jump these hurdles on their own, some people choose to enlist the help of a professional, like Debbie. In some cases, you can even hire a genealogist who specializes in the area your ancestors came from. Jill Marshall is a genealogist who specializes in the Notre Dame Bay area of Newfoundland, for instance, and has researched (or is at least familiar with) families of nearly all the communities in that region. Enlisting a professional's help can certainly be an asset, says Jill.

"When you're in the business for a long time you know a lot of other people who have records at their fingertips, and who are familiar with certain parts of the province, and you ask them for help. So a lot of us share our information," she says. "After you've been doing genealogy for a few years, when you hear a surname, you say 'well they're probably from such and such a place,'" she explains.

But if you are going it alone, one of the factors working on the side of genealogical gurus in this province might just be the hospitable nature of the people who live here. After all, making headway with your family tree sometimes means telephoning and knocking on doors of complete strangers.

A few years ago, John discovered a family of Ridgleys living in Harbour Breton. He'd never met them before, but hoped these people might have some answers for him.

"I gave a call down to Harbour Breton before I went. I told them who I was, told them I'd like to do a bit of research on family tree stuff and they said, 'Oh my gosh, not a problem. Drop in and see us!'" recalls John.

"We had the grandest kind of conversation, typical Newfoundland conversation - 'Can I get you a cup of tea?' type thing," says John of his encounter with the people who turned out to be his distant relatives.

And it's lucky for John these strangers were so inviting, because his trip to see them turned up more answers than he could have hoped for.

"One of them said, 'I'll be back in a minute,' and she went down over the hill and came back a couple of minutes later and opened up (their family Bible), and there was the genealogy of their part of the family," says John.

The information written in that Bible turned out to be the source that would prove to him that every Ridgley in Newfoundland is related, explains John with the same amount of enthusiasm one might expect from someone who just won the lottery. For John, the prize he found that day - after 30 years of searching - was priceless.

Finding meaning
Debbie's hours of research in Newfoundland (whether about her own ancestors or others') have taught her much more than the locations where different families originated. She's also gained an understanding of the type of people we come from in this province - no matter what your family name.

"The amount of travelling they had to do (in the 1800s), and the livelihood they had to keep with the fishing seasons and going to Labrador all the time - and the thought that you're going to get married and have children and the majority of them might not live. When you do see some burial records, occasionally you will see causes of death and when you've got children dying of measles and whooping cough and sore throat - these days you get a cold, you shrug it off. But in those days a cold could very well mean that you would come down with consumption," says Debbie. "It tells a lot for the stamina and the perseverance - and maybe a bit of stubbornness - to make this work."

John agrees. And he firmly believes that the lives our ancestors lived hundreds of years ago are, in some way, living on in us now.

"I am part of all the people that have come before me. There's some of their blood running through my veins," says John. "They impacted my I raise my children impacted them; it's also impacting how they're raising their children."

When he gives up his research (which he says won't be any time soon), John just hopes there's someone in his family interested enough to pick up where he leaves off.

"At least what I have done is there for whoever wants it," he says. Kind of like the tattered, yellowed pages left for him on the wall of his grandfather's home - like a message from his ancestors, who evidently did not want to be forgotten.


Quick Tips for Budding Genealogists

• Start with your own family. Ask for relatives' names, dates (of birth, marriage, death), the communities they hailed from, pictures, old letters, Bibles, etc.

• Think phonetic spellings. Remember the majority of our relatives could not read or write; the way a name was recorded by a minister or priest often depended upon the way the name sounded when spoken in your ancestors' dialect.

• Always consult original documents. Information available on the Internet isn't necessarily correct. It is put there by well-meaning people who have provided their interpretation of what they've found. Try to look at original records (or photocopies of originals) so you'll be working with your own interpretation.

• Capitalize the surname. Always write surnames in upper case to avoid confusion that may arise from surnames that are also frequently first names (i.e. ROSE or GEORGE).

• Note your sources. Whether you found a piece of information from a church record, census, or even your great-grandma, you never know when you might need to refer back to them.

• Protect people's privacy. Many people choose to share their family trees publicly, by posting the information on a Web site. With the possibility of identity theft in this day and age, be selective with the details you share.

• Record all instances of the surname in question. Even if you aren't able to make the connection at the time, further research may forge the link down the road. Also, take note of all information on a record, including the names of witnesses, who were often relatives.

• Search all religions. Although your ancestors may be predominantly affiliated with a particular faith, inter-marriage was not uncommon. So check records from all religions in a community.

• Familiarize yourself with old English lettering. It was often used in combination with modern-day handwriting and can be quite confusing to the untrained eye. (Visit click here for a helpful resource.)

• Know where to look. Visit the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador for records dated prior to 1892. (While you will not be permitted to photocopy any of these records, you can obtain a "true copy," which is a written interpretation by the archivist.) Here is a list of other sources you may find helpful:
- Census records
- Cemetery records
- City/Province directories
- Newspaper articles (especially obituaries)
- Voters' lists
- Books (especially community histories)
- Wills
- Colonial office records (especially the Plantation book)
- Deeds
- Shipping records
- Headstones
- Births, Deaths and Marrriages in Newfoundland Newspapers, 1810-1890, by Gert Crosbie. Available on CD Rom.

• On the Internet:

A photographic database of headstones on the island portion of the province.

Association of Newfoundland and Labrador Archives

Genealogical and historical data from the Province of Newfoundland a Labrador

Family History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador