In my eight years of family research, one lesson has been taught to me over and over again: no one ever knows the whole story.
I began my research the way anyone else would in this day and age: on the internet. I found a free tree-making site, added all the names I could recall off the top of my head, and emailed all of my computer-literate relatives to ask what they could add. They filled in the great-uncles and second cousins and maiden names, but most also made clear that they really didn't know all that much about our family history. So, not having any idea what I was doing, I just began Googling the names of my great-grandparents. I was shocked at the amount of information I found, and equally disappointed by how little of it was sourced. I had no idea where any of this information had come from, and, therefore, no idea if it was true. And so, I set about emailing literally hundreds of people that had posted family trees online, or blogged about one of my ancestors.
Nothing. For weeks, I got no response. I continued doing my own research, digging through census records and reading books that were alleged to have an ancestor's name within, but all I was getting from them were names and dates. I wanted to know who these people were. What did they do for a living? What did they do for fun? Were they religious? Were they involved in politics? Were any of them artists, or musicians, or authors? Finally, answers began to come. First, I got an email from a distant cousin in England who told me a bit about my great-great grandfather's family. Then, a woman from Utah that had information about my great-grandfather. And they just kept coming. A lot of this information had been passed down through the family and wasn't documented, but it was a start - people were at least sharing their stories and photographs, giving me a little insight into what my ancestors were like. I excitedly added these tentative histories and pictures to my family tree, and after several months, had a respectable site of my own.
And that's when things got interesting. About a year in to my research, the tables had turned a little. I had hit a jackpot of photographs from both sides of my family, and stumbled upon a ton of information about a couple of lines. I had become the one getting the emails from others, looking for more information. Between the emails I was sending and the ones I was receiving, a picture began to emerge, and it became clear that each of us held only a corner of it. There were kids that most of us didn't know about, second families that had been kept secret, ancestors who seemed to vanish into thin air, and affairs that had been covered up. Each of us knew a part of the story, none of us knew the whole thing. When it comes to things like affairs and secret families, it's not much of a mystery why it was kept quiet, but some of these details were so mundane, one can't help but wonder why they were left out.
Just today I received an email about my great-great-grandfather, Clarence Layton. Finding information about him had proven difficult: he died the year before my mother was born, my grandmother has never been one to talk much about her family, and my great-grandmother spoke even less than that (and passed away long before I would have been interested). Pretty well everything I knew about Clarence had come from piecing together census records, attempting to pick his face out in photographs, and, eventually, one distant relative emailing me all she knew. I knew he lived in Taber most of his life. I knew he had married Minnie West, and had several children. I knew Minnie had died young, and that he remarried to a woman named Elva. But I've never been able to find out who he was. His job remained a mystery, all anyone knew about Minnie was that she had had a hard life, and all anyone knew about Elva was that she was his second wife. No one was sure what he was like as a person, whether he was funny or not, whether he was kind or stern. All he had ever been to me was Clarence Layton, born 1882, died 1954. And then, today, I opened an email from a woman in Utah, who was shocked when she found this site and read how little I knew about Clarence. His occupation was well-known; he'd been a well-loved janitor at Taber's Central School, even gaining the affectionate nickname "Pop Layton", for 43 years. He'd helped out as an orderly during the flu epidemic, and was well known in his community. Most surprising of all, however, was that he and Elva had two children of their own!
I'll probably never know why certain details are left out. Perhaps they've been forgotten or blurred by the years, perhaps they're assumed to be common knowledge, perhaps people have their own private reasons for skipping over these things. Every family has its fair share of skeletons and ghosts, but if genealogy has taught me anything, it's that people often disagree on what they are. What is common knowledge to one is a hidden secret to another, and only when we sit around these digital campfires and share our stories does the whole of our history begin to take shape.
Mary is a woman of many names and stories - all of them hard to trace or confirm. She has been variously recorded as Mary Taylor, Catherine Taylor, Mary West, Kittie West, Kittie Gibboney, and Mary Gibboney. One family tree I stumbled upon even had her listed as Kittie Kearl - likely a result of her having lived with her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Gates-Kearl.
Even more confusing is her year of birth. Depending on the source, it could be anywhere from 1863 to 1871. I lean towards the late 1860s, but thought I should include all the conflicting information so that you can decide for yourselves what is most likely:
- The 1871 census has her living with her maternal grandmother, and lists her age as 5.
- Her marriage record (first marriage, to William West) lists her birth year as 1863, but "1870" is written right above it.
- The 1900 census has 1866 as her birth year.
- Her border entry data (from her move to Canada from the U.S. in 1911) states that she is 40, making her birth year 1871.
- Her Patriarchal Blessing claims she was born in 1870 (she would have given that information herself).
It appears that Mary herself favoured 1870 as her year of birth, but as the census of 1871 has her listed as 5, this is unlikely - no census taker would mistake a baby for a five year old, and there were no other children living in the home at that time. 1863 also has its problems, as it's equally unlikely they would mistake an 8 year old for being 5, and we also know from family history, some of it recorded at the time, that Mary was extremely young when she had her first daughter, Minnie. As Minnie was born in 1884, a date in the late 1860s seems to make the most sense - back then, 21 (her age in 84, had she actually been born in 63) was certainly not
"extremely young" to be having a child. I tend to believe Mary was probably born between 1866 and 1869, but was herself unsure of her own year of birth.
And that is where it gets interesting - even back then, when record keeping was a bit shoddy, why would one be so unsure of their own age? It turns out that Mary was unsure of much more than just this, which forms the beginnings of her story. As I mentioned earlier, the 1871 census has her living with her maternal grandmother. There are several possible reasons for this - she could have merely been visiting the day the census taker came around, she could have been sent to live there by her parents, or one or both of her parents may have died. She would later claim to be an orphan, but no conclusive evidence has been found for this. Also interesting is her place of birth - all early records list her as being born in Hampshire, England, but she would later claim to have been born in Scotland. Why she felt she was Scottish is unknown - her father was born in Ireland, and her mother in England, but this is the information she would give on various records in her later life.
The conclusion I have come to is that Mary was born in the late 60s, and was quickly sent to live with her grandmother - likely because either both her parents, or just her mother, passed away. This would explain her confusion regarding her year and place of birth - she would have had to rely on her elderly grandmother to provide her with this information. What I find a bit confusing, however, is where her brother James, born around 1869, ended up. Did he pass away as well, or was he sent elsewhere? Why would he not have been sent with Mary?
Another mystery is how, when, and why she ended up in the United States. The only record we have of her travels implies she migrated in 1879 - this would make her rather young, by all accounts, to be travelling alone. It is possible she lied about her age (which would lend to the confusion), or that the 1879 date is incorrect. In any case, she was in the U.S. by 1883, when she married William West. How they met is yet another unknown, as he was far older, already married, and had a child Mary's age. Plural marriages were not uncommon then, so the idea of him taking a second wife is not unusual, but given her very young age and vague details of her travels, it is curious how they may have met and why he desired such a young bride that late in his life.
In 1884, Mary and William bore a daughter, Minnie. It seems that the couple split up shortly thereafter - Mary apparently requested her LDS sealing to William be cancelled in 1885. Many family rumours abound regarding their split, and what happened to Mary afterwards, but none of it can be confirmed. All we know for sure is that Minnie was left with William and his first wife, and raised as their own. Interestingly, both Mary and William landed in the same part of Alberta, Canada, seemingly with no idea the other was there. It is likely they both ended up there as a result of Mormon migration. Minnie and Mary, however, remained out of contact until after William's death. By this time, Mary had married Henry Gibboney and had several more children.
The later years of Mary's life are just as much a mystery as the early years - several family members have offered stories of "Grandmother Gibboney", but they have all had to seek them out as well. It seems Mary was not incredibly open to talking about her life, or perhaps was unsure of the details herself. Mary and Henry remained married until Mary's death in 1931 - he passed away in 1947.
The Gibboney family remains in Alberta.
Well, today was the day. As a white girl of European descent, with both Mormon and American (particularly Americans from the south) ancestors, I've long dreaded, and expected, to discover a history I am not proud of. But, after 7 years of research and not a single genuine controversy to be found, my idealism began to take over, and I thought that, perhaps, I may just be an exception to the rule. Perhaps I'd managed to come from a family that had avoided all atrocity, and just let time pass in a civil and quiet way. I had traced an entire line of wealthy folk from Virginia and South Carolina to the 1600s, even, with none of the expected disappointments. But, today, it happened -- not once, but twice.
I had long neglected a couple of lines in my family. The Stalker, Layton, and Trowbridge lines had taken up a lot of my time, and a few other lines were left unnoticed because of it. Last week, however, I decided to remedy that, and began seeking out info on the Laffoon and Hooker lines. I didn't get far at first, but after sending out a few emails and searching through a pile of census records, I began putting a few puzzle pieces in place.
And then, I desperately wished I hadn't.
This morning, I found two census records: one for the Hooker family, one for the Lafffoons -- both with a charming list of the slaves they owned, and one with a will that left money behind so his daughter could "purchase a strong negro man".
I am, in a word, gutted. The rational part of me, of course, realizes that this was nearly three hundred years before I was born -- I was no part of this, I have no personal responsibility in this, I should not feel guilty for this. The only connection I have to these people is a few strands of DNA and a similar complexion. And yet...that's just not a satisfactory response, to me. I do feel guilty. I do feel shitty. I do think I owe someone, somewhere, some sort of...something.
And that's the problem, isn't it? The people who actually committed these atrocities are long dead. Their victims are long dead. What has been left behind are generations of people of all races, cultures, economic standing, and religions that do not know how to reconcile our pasts with our futures. People that have been left to atone for the sins of their elders, people who were born disenfranchised because of those sins, people who have no idea where to go from here, or even where they actually came from. We have been left to deal with this history, left to build our lives upon the lives of our ancestors, for better or for worse. Whatever your culture, whatever you race, whatever your ethnic or religious background, if you live on the same giant plot of land I live on, you are likely a descendant of either predator or victim, imperialist or slave, majority or minority, immigrant or native. Canada and America, in particular, have very questionable histories, and all but a few of us likely have ancestors that were a party to them, in one way or another.
The question, then, is what do we do with those histories? What are the generations long after to do with this information, this history, this ancestry, this record of atrocity and victimization? How do we turn our shame into action, our anger into activism, our walls into bridges? How do we reconcile our past with our presents and futures? How do we breed this mess of embarrassment, anger, and tension into apology, reconciliation, and forgiveness?
I don't know what to do, if anything, with this information. I don't know if I am overrreacting or underreacting. I don't know if I should just roll my eyes in disgust, or actively seek to make some sort of reparation. I don't know if this is just my emotional basketcase side taking over, or if this is a legitimate concern.
And, to be totally honest, I don't care. Whether valid or not, I have feelings about this, and they are not nice ones. I am deeply ashamed that my family partook in one of the largest and most repulsive atrocities in history. I am embarrassed to have to add these documents to my family tree. I want to just forget I ever saw it.
But I won't. In some very weird way, I am proud to have such a shameful history. I am proud that, despite (or possibly because of) my questionable, controversial, and sometimes downright repulsive history, because of the innumerable stories, from the horrendous owning of slaves, to the brave protests in support of civil, and fully equal, rights, from the dark tales of the deep south to the proud stories of righteous rebellion, I was born to two people with an overwhelming sense of equality. I was raised in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual town by parents that abhorred bigotry and fought hard for decency and acceptance. I had teachers of every colour, culture, sexuality and religion. I had friends from every corner of the world. And I appreciate that even the most shameful parts of my history led to this. That is, perhaps, the only positive that can be found in all this -- if not for this atrocity, if not for this shame, if not for this horridness, I'd perhaps not be who I am today. I'd perhaps not have the background to back up my abhorrence for such hateful nonsense in this day and age. I'd perhaps not have learned the lessons, felt the sting, that only shame can bring. I can only hope that my feelings are not mine alone, and that we can all carry these thoughts and lessons into the future, together.
If you know my family, parts of this site are likely rather confusing. Everyone knows my grandmother was Jolene, but she's listed here as Clara. My father's name is Chris, here, he's Micheal. My aunt Kathy? Gerri. My uncle Jay? Jonathan. My great-grandmother Marie's name is actually Goldene, my grandfather Robert is known to many of his relatives as Gerry, and my adoptive great-great-grandfather (and my biological great-great-uncle) Clifford is actually named Oliver (and his brother Clement, my actual g-g-grandfather, is really named Milton...). Honestly, I could go on all day with this list. For whatever reason, both sides of my paternal family have a tendency to ditch their first names in favour of their second. Even I, though I now use my first name, went through a phase in elementary school where I insisted on being called Joy.
If you're wondering where this post is going...well...nowhere. I am simply amazed, on occasion, at the unspoken, unnoticed traits that are passed down from generation to generation. While each individual would undoubtedly give you an entirely different reason for doing so, it still remains that they all chose their middle name over their first. It is these little quirks, these curious commonalities, that keep me perpetually fascinated with my family's story.
When I first began researching my genealogy in 2005, I was quickly struck by how far removed my surname is from anyone I have a blood relation to. My father's last name is now Williams, but he was born with the surname Harloff. My grandfather's name is now Harloff, but he was born with the surname Christy (Christie?). Both Williams and Harloff are their step-father's surnames. And, I guess it really doesn't matter much. Or maybe it does. I don't know. What's in a name?
Many families take great pride in their surname. Many of them have rich and long histories, and tell a story unto themselves. My mother's surname, Harding, for example, can be traced back to a Viking King who ruled over an area then known as Hardanger -- the residents were thus dubbed with the name, which evolved into Harding. A name such as mine, however, tells no such story. I have no ancestors named Williams. I have no ancestors named Harloff. I do not know anything about the Christy's. And I don't know how I feel about that.
On the one hand, I've never felt much emotional connection to names. We don't choose them -- hell, half the time we don't even like them -- and they don't necessarily tell you much about a person. It's just a label, like any other. Something to address one by.
On the other hand, my reason for beginning this genealogical journey was suddenly becoming aware that all of these people, every move they made, every relationship they had, every ocean they sailed across, had led directly to my own existence. Who they were was entirely relevant to who I am. Those names are more than just names -- each one represents a generation, an individual, a life that made mine possible.
And on that third hand that I don't have but always seem to need, those people who we may not share any DNA with are just as much a part of our family history as anyone else. There is a reason my name is Williams and not Harloff or Christy or Harding, and those reasons are just as relevant to my existence as all the rest. Genealogy is anything but predictable, and our surnames certainly do tell a story, even if it's not the one we expected to read.
So, what's in a name? Nothing. And everything. I am Robyn Williams. I'm also Robyn Harloff, Robyn Harding, Robyn Stalker, Robyn Trowbridge, Robyn Hough, Robyn Strachan, Robyn Hooker, and Robyn Layton. And maybe, one day, I will get to be Robyn Christy, or possibly Christie, as well.
When I began researching my family history, I was already aware that we had Mormons in our family. I hadn't given it much thought -- we also have Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, atheists, and followers of various traditional religions. It was just another small detail, a little tidbit, and nothing more. The further I delved into our history, however, the more relevant it became. It was the conversion to Mormonism that brought many of my ancestors from Europe to North America, and it was their devotion and various battles that led to many of the settlements we see today in Utah and Alberta. In short, to truly understand our family history, we must also have an understanding of Mormon history.
Founding of Mormonism
In the late 1820s, Joseph Smith Jr., founder of Mormonism, began drawing people to his ideas of Christian primitivism -- Smith believed that Christianity had lost its way, and should be restored to its early, apostolic state. He claimed that, after praying to God, asking for guidance on what Christian sect he should join, and being told that all were corrupt, he was visited by an angel, Moroni, who led him to golden tablets buried nearby. These tablets were allegedly the writings of prophets that had God had sent from Israel to the Americas hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, and, once translated by Smith, became the foundations of the Book of Mormon. His stories and ideas drew immediate converts, and by 1830, he had formally founded the Church of Christ (later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
In 1837, seven LDS missionaries arrived in England, and conversion spread through the British Isles rapidly. By 1850, there were an estimated 55,000 English, Scottish, Irish, and, in particular, Welsh Mormons. Among those first converts were several of our ancestors.
George, born in Flintshire, Wales, and raised in England, was among the earliest. It is unknown how the Mormon gospel reached him, but he had already converted by the time he married his first wife in the mid 1830s. They lived in the United States until her death in 1845, when George returned to England and remarried our ancestor Hannah Gibbs in 1847. The couple moved to Missouri, where they had their first daughter, then travelled to Utah in 1850, having a second daughter on their journey. They were faithful workers for the church, and had three more daughters there, before Hannah died in 1858. According to a compilation biography
:"A short while after this, President Brigham Young called for volunteers to settle Franklin, Idaho, the oldest permanent town to be settled in Idaho - but which, at this time, was thought to be in Utah. So, George Foster and his five little girls, the oldest only eleven years, started for Idaho behind an ox team, and were the third wagon to reach Franklin. There he farmed and raised cattle." "On the 19th day of March, George Foster and his family reached Franklin. That night there came up a terrible blizzard, and it was all but impossible to keep the children from freezing in the covered wagon; so the men who had arrived there fell to work and made them a dug-out home. This dug-out was the first home in Franklin and these were the first children to arrive in this locality."
George and Hannah's daughter Ellen Foster is both our connection to the Foster's, and our connection to another prominent Mormon pioneer: Alexander Stalker. Ellen was Alexander's third wife, and their first son, George Foster Stalker, is our ancestor.
Born in England in 1832, Charles was perhaps our youngest Mormon convert. Family legend has it that, when just 16, Charles and a couple of friends attended a Mormon meeting with the intentions of causing a little havoc and possibly breaking up the crowd. Instead, all three left with a new faith and a scheduled baptism. Not long after, Charles set off for America, staying with his also recently converted uncle, Christopher Layton
. He arrived at the peak of the cholera outbreak afflicting the region, and took a job hauling bodies for burial, amazingly never catching it himself.
In 1852, Charles set out with the Horton Heights Company, 52 wagons destined for Utah to settle under Brigham Young. Two years later, he married Elizabeth Bowler. Their first son, Samuel, is our ancestor.
was born in Scotland in 1829. At the age of 18, he converted to Mormonism, and moved to the United States. In 1850, he set off for Utah, and there worked under Brigham Young's first counselor, Dr. Richards, in a sawmill, then later as a cabinet maker and carpenter. Alexander fought against the Natives in wars over territory -- many were not happy with the new-found Mormon settlements, and fights were frequent. It was around this same time that Alexander married his first wife, Ortencia Smith; daughter of Warren Smith, who was killed in Missouri by an angry mob.
Alexander and Ortencia were, like George and Hannah, among the first families to settle in Franklin, Idaho at Brigham Young's request. Their story is well known by Mormons and historians alike, but oft (okay, always
) overlooked is that Alexander engaged in plural marriage, at the time a common practice among Mormons. Most records of the Stalker family speak of Alexander, Ortencia, and their many children. Alexander's gravestone, as well as many legal documents, however, tell a different story.
In 1865, Alexander married Emily Lovett, with whom he had five children, and in 1868, he married our ancestor, the aforementioned Ellen Foster. With Ellen he had three more children, including our ancestor, George Foster Stalker. While no one can say for sure, one family rumour has it that, when plural marriage was outlawed by the LDS, Alexander abandoned these two latter families, keeping Ortencia and her children as his only legitimate family. Another rumour claims that it was the outlawing of plural marriage that pushed him to leave the LDS church, and that he continued to care for all three families, while a third source, the Illustrated History of Idaho
, says nothing of the other two families at all, and claims that Alexander left the LDS church due to political turmoil.
It's a sad fact that women often get overlooked in genealogy. As it is the men that carry on family names, it is they that we tend to focus on. Add to that the fact that older census records only recorded the full name of the male head of household, and we are left with very little information about the women of our family. This is both tragic and a little ironic, since it is these forgotten women that gave birth to each generation we research. In an attempt to remedy this, I will be chronicling the women in each line of my family. At the moment, I do not have a lot of information on some of these women, but I am always searching, and will add more information as I get it.
We begin with my mother's mother's mother's...well, you get the point.
Me: Robyn Williams
My mother: Linda Harding*
Linda's mother: Joyce Stalker-Harding*
Joyce's mother: Dorothy Layton-Stalker
Dorothy was born in 1903, the first child of Clarence Layton and Minnie West. She was raised on a farm near Taber, where she attended sewing school. In 1925, Dorothy married George Stalker, and they raised their 7 children near Taber. She passed away in 1996.
Dorothy's mother: Minnie West-Layton
Minnie was born in 1884 to a very young mother and a much older, already married father. Not a lot is known about Minnie's life, but it can be assumed it was a tough one. Her father, William West, abandoned Minnie's mother Mary, taking Minnie to live with him, his wife and his other children. She apparently had no contact with her mother until 1910, the year after William's death. In her late teens, she married Clarence Layton, and they raised their 8 children near Taber, Alberta. Minnie passed away in 1929.
Minnie's mother: Mary Taylor-West
Mary has always been a bit of a mystery. Depending on the sources, she was born in 1863, 1866, 1870 or 1871. Her father was James Charles Taylor, whom nothing is known about. Her mother was Sarah Kearl, whose family is well researched, but no mention is ever made of Mary. She apparently lived with her maternal grandmother for awhile, and various family stories tell of her living on the streets after William abandoned her, taking their daughter with him. It's unclear if this is actually true or not, but we know that she eventually met and married Henry Gibboney, and they went on to have their own family and small business. Mary died in 1931 in Lethbridge, Alberta.
*for the sake of privacy, I have not included any information about living relatives.
Every genealogy buff was inspired to begin this journey somehow. For me, it was the passing of my uncle Todd, a man I had never met. It was then that I realized just how much I didn't know about my family, and that fact threw me into an existential tailspin; every moment of these people's lives paved the way to my own existence, and I didn't even know their names! And that was that; I wanted to know anything and everything about my family. Where were they from? What did they look like? How did they live? What did they stand for? How did I get here?
Six years later, here's what I can tell you: I am, like most white folks, descended from Charlemagne. I have ties to the European settlers of Idaho, Utah and Oklahoma. I have ancestors that fought on both sides of the American Civil War, were part of the Texas Mafia, were fundamentalist Mormons with a zillion wives and even more children, were Kings, Dukes, Emperors, and Saints, fought with the "Indians", fought against the "Indians", opposed slavery, were captains of famous ships, were artists and musicians, joined churches, ran away from churches, fought in Cromwell's army, and much, much more.
In amongst these 3000+ names, these old photographs, these barely legible census records and handwritten legal documents, I have found a rich and often convoluted history. The stories of my ancestors bounce around in my head during the quiet moments of my own life, and I have realized that the answer to the question that started this all -- how did I get here -- is, in fact, not the conclusion of our history, but the very beginning.