Category Archives for Family History Writing Challenge

What does researching our ancestors tell us?

The first ancestor I chose to research in detail lived in Quebec City two centuries ago. Her birth took place during a war. She married a carpenter at 18, bore 10 children, grieved the death of four children, and died at 38 years old.

Other than feeling grateful for an easier and longer life than hers, what did I gain by learning her story?

More importantly, why should you, my reader, care about her?

There are lots of answers to this, depending on who you are, what you’re doing and what you need. For me, all these reasons can be described in a single word: hope.


Why hope?

As I write about the lives of women who lived in Canada so long again, it’s impossible not to compare their lives to mine. They made fewer choices, bore more children and faced more illness, war, and turmoil than I have so far.

Yet the lives of my ancestors in a long-ago Canada match those of many women in countries around the world now. I can’t help but hope that we can share good food, technology, and resources to improve their lives too. Everyone should have infinitely easier, varied and more diverse lives than that of our ancestors.

Discover who we are

I also write to learn about myself. If you’re one of my relatives, perhaps you read my stories hoping to learn something about yourself too. We both want to know how the lives of our ancestors affected those of our grandparents and parents. At the very least, their choices affected where we grew up, our mentors as children and the culture we were borne into.

Our ancestors choices, their children’s survival, and their genetic health risks continue through us and our children.

Their stories, if we can discover them, might illuminate some of the personality quirks in our family. I suspect our long line of strong independent women began with the woman featured in my first story.

Connecting to Others

The more I research my ancestors, the more links I find to cousins and other people connected to my family either through blood, historic friendship or past quarrels. Anyone in the world might be related somehow.

Judy Russell wrote about discovering some of these lost family members via genealogical research and new DNA tools a few years ago in “Oh Charlie” at Her article makes me consider genetic testing.

Researching our ancestors and sharing about the experience enables all of us to contribute to a wider understanding about who we are, what we’ve been and where we live in a bigger context too.

Learning about our World

Even if we aren’t related in any way, the stories genealogists tell have lessons for anyone interested in righting past wrongs, illuminating communities or exploring a particular place. Janice Hamilton’s research on one of her ancestors, for example, has provided helpful background to a group of locals who provide tours of the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. You can read her stories about the Baggs and the community they helped found at

Understanding Circumstances

So often, the stories we hear about the past are myths made up of half-truths. Looking into the details of an actual person’s life reveals a series of events that are complicated, nuanced and full of foibles. Circumstances often carry people in different directions than what might have otherwise been expected.

By figuring out what actually happened to whom and sharing any surprises we discover widely, we all get closer to the truth. Getting closer to truth creates possibilities for beauty, understanding and diversity.

Then again, maybe you’re different? Why do you research your family history?

Continue reading

Genealogy Tips from Thomas W. Jones

I’ve been listening to tapes from the 2013 Federation of Genealogical Society conference.

One of my favourite speakers is Thomas W. Jones, who specializes in Fairfax, Virginia research. Jones also wrote the book Mastering Genealogical Proof.

In his presentation about Genealogical Documentation, Jones made three comments I think are important:

Documentation is all about communicating clearly and you can’t communicate something you don’t understand. You have to start by understanding the source you’re using. What is it? Where did it come from? Why was it created?”

There are many ways to cite right. Will the reader understand clearly the context from your citation? That’s what important.”

We use conventions that are short cuts. Italicizing a name of something means that it was published. If we quote something from an unpublished manuscript, we don’t italicize it.”

Continue reading

RootsTech Happens Next Weekend, the genealogy website hosted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) are teaming up to host RootsTech, a two-day educational extravaganza next weekend, from Thursday February 11 until Sunday, February 14.

I’m so disappointed not to be going to Salt Lake City, Utah to attend in person, but at least I’ll be able to attend virtually, via a multitude of seminars that will be live-streamed via the website.

According to the RootsTech Facebook page, the sessions that will be live streamed in Eastern Standard Time are:


10:30 a.m. Keynote speakers
1:00 p.m. The Future of Genealogy – panel
3:45 p.m. Tell it Again – Kim Weitkamp
5:00 p.m. The Genealogists Gadget Bag – Jill Ball and panel
6:15 p.m. Finding the Obscure and Elusive…- James Tanner


10:30 a.m. Keynote speakers
11:45 a.m. Researching Ancestors Online – Laura Prescott
1:00 p.m. FamilySearch Family Tree – Ron Tanner
3:45 p.m. Google Search…and Beyond – Dave Barney
5:00 p.m. From Paper Piles to Digital Files – Valerie Elkins


10:30 a.m. Keynote speakers
11:45 a.m. Using Technology to Solve Research… – Karen Clifford
1:000 p.m. Digital Storytelling: More than Bullet Points – Denise Olson

Family history fairs around the world will also stream some of the sessions. Check the website to see if there’s one near you.

After watching as many of these as I can, I’ll be trying to figure out how to attend next year’s RootsTech. It will take place February 3–6, 2016, again at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Continue reading

Moonlight Serenade

How did they meet?

She once told me of all the dances she used to enjoy as a young woman, so I like to imagine them dancing to Glen Millers’ Moonlight Serenade, which was top of the charts then. The tall red-headed soldier and diminutive brunette with sparkling eyes and a ready smile would have made a striking couple on the dance floor.

They lived within two blocks of one another in Silverthorne, where they also wed.

She had lived in the same Toronto neighbourhood, between the train tracks and Calendonia, north of St. Claire West and south of Eglinton since her birth on February 3, 1921. Her parents lived at 117 Laughton Avenue then.

By the time Evelyn and Richard married in the Baptist Church at the corner of Weston Road and Rowntree on January 28, 1942, her parents had moved to a duplex just south of the church on Weston Road. His parents lived in a cottage at 179 Dunraven Drive just north of there.

The church in which they married no longer stands, but his parents’ home still exists, as does her parents’ duplex, 663 Old Weston Road. It was there that Evelyn received three telegrams and 11 letters from the Department of National Defence when he was in Italy.

Richard was still in Halifax when they got married. He was granted furlough and given permission to fly home to Toronto on January 19 to attend their wedding nine days later. They only had two nights beyond their wedding night together before he was back on base taking a junior leader’s CSE.

She turned 21 a week later. He turned 22 two days after that.

They only saw each other once more before he died, in August 1942. Their daughter Marilyn, my mother, was born the following April. He was posted to Britain by then and then Italy. He served as a Sapper with the Irish Regiment.

After my mother turned one, the Minister of National Defence began sending letters and telegrams to Mrs. Evelyn Doris Himphen. The first arrived on June 16, 1944.

“I am directed to inform you that official information now received from Canadian Military Headquarters, Overseas, advises that he was accidentally wounded in action on the 4th of May 1944” wrote Colonel C. L. Laurin.

Richard healed fully from that injury and the summer was bright.

A pink telegram from Canadian Pacific Telegraph arrived on September 23, 1944. It carried tough news.


Richard never recovered.

Colonel Laurin continued updating Evelyn via letters on September 29 and October 5th before a blue telegram arrived on October 10th.


Richard died of his wounds on October 12, 1944.

Thirteen days later, another pink telegram arrived for Evelyn at 663 Old Weston Road:

Colonel Laurin followed up with a letter dated the 10th of November to provide all the documents that Evelyn would have to fill out to make claims on Richard’s estate.

Continue reading

Scoundrel’s Wife

Marie-Louise Allard’s married life lasted only 13 years. In that time, she produced eight children, helped her husband start a business, and dealt with 17 different court battles.

Eventually, paying a series of claims against her husband took everything Marie-Louise had—their land, their building and all their furniture. It was all sold on June 14, 1774 to pay her husband’s debts. Marie-Louise and her children had to move in to the Notre Dame poor house. Her 32nd birthday took place there the following December.

Her former husband, Jean-Baptiste Mathieu Arial, was long gone by then. The scoundrel abandoned his family and left Canada in the autumn of 1773, when their youngest child Michel was only three months old.

The couple’s life together hadn’t started out so badly.

Jean and Marie-Louise were married by a missionary priest Father Morisseaux on July 13, 1761, two years after Quebec City surrendered to the British and the government of New France moved to Montreal. With her families’ help, they bought land and sent up a small inn on rue de la Montagne. Their daughter Marie Louise was born five months after the wedding. Their first son and a daughter eventually died, but six children survived, two into their sixties.

If the court cases are accurate, while Marie-Louise took care of their children, Jean specialized in getting inn-goers drunk so that he could scam them out of land and money.

She had had no warning of her husband’s character when they married.

Marie-Louise was 18 years old when she married a newcomer to Charlesbourg. She and her family all believed the story Jean told to the priest who married them. He told them he had just come from spending four years in a British jail, which I very readily believe.

The rest of the story may or may not be true.

The wedding record says that Jean was a “fils mineur” (underage son) of Charles Arial and Marie Moreau, which implies he was younger than 25 years old. Yet Marcel Founier’s records in Fichier Origine show Jean Arial’s birth in France as February 5, 1735. If that’s true, he would have been 26 years old the day he wed Marie-Louise.

Jean told the priest he was a French soldier captured by the British on the outskirts of the French colony of Cap-St-Domingue, on the island of Hispaniola, which is now known as a divided place of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Cap-St-Domingue was a French slave colony and a world source for sugar, coffee and indigo until a slave revolt in 1758 caused Britain and Spain to attack the French.

Jean’s story about four years in a British jail may well have been accurate, but the timing about St. Domingue seems tight. I can’t help but wonder whether he simply used the story as a colourful explanation for an English accent. Britain was still shipping convicts to America until 1780. He might have been one of them. We have only the notes of a priest about what he said to figure out who he was.

Five years after the wedding, Jean Ariail (his spelling, which was different than the priest’s spelling and the court case spellings) advertised in the Quebec Gazette at least three times. Two ads expressed a desire to settle his accounts and a third offered to sell a house to raise funds. In all three, Ariail said he intended to sail for Europe.

This hint at a complicated scam later detailed in a series of court cases against Arial by Aylwin, Hasen, Lee, Levesque, Struckling and others.

Many men claimed to be defrauded by Arial while they were drunk.

Meanwhile Arial or Ariaille left Quebec in October 1773. He began calling himself Jean Baptiste Ariail. He moved to Southington, a community in Hartford, Connecticut where he somehow found enough money to purchase a home. By the time his youngest daughter turned a year old, he had already met and married Hannah Rich. By March 1775, their first son was born.

By the time a third child with Hannah arrived, Marie-Louise was dead. She contracted chicken pox and died in the company of three priests in early October, 1779. Her brother Pierre became the official guardian of her children on October 21.[1]

  • [1] Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Pistard database of guardianship records, CC301, Fonds Cour supéreure, District judiciaire de Quebec, Tutelles et curatelles, SI Dossiers, D5306, the guardianship of the minors of Jean Arial (Ariaille) and Marie-Louise Allard, October  21, 1779, 3 pages,
  • Note 2: Many thanks to Mary Alice Kite and James and Lorraine Patterson for sharing their research.
  • Note 3: The Pattersons are among Ariail and Arial relatives holding a family reunion in Georgia on Saturday, June 20 at the Nails Creek Baptist Church. More info via

Continue reading
1 2 3 4