This is a story about a wild idea that led to a whole summer of genealogical discovery, meeting new people, and publishing my first magazine article.
The idea behind “Genealogy – a Detective Story”
Have you ever wondered what you could do with a brand new tree and a few clues to get you started? Have you ever wanted to test your sleuthing skills? Have you ever wanted to learn about a whole different culture through the eyes of the people that lived it?
These were the thoughts in my head this past spring. What if I ran a contest? I thought in the shower. What if I asked strangers to enter the contest, and chose the best set of clues to follow? What would that be like? Would people be interested in it? Then came the negative thoughts, as sure as Sad follows Happy. What if nobody enters? What if they do and you can’t do it? What if you do it and you’re wrong? How humiliating would that be?
Sheesh. Finally, the internal muse said, What can you lose if you try? What if you could pitch the idea as a story? What if you were published?
I resolved to do it.
The genealogy contest
The day the email arrived from Prairies North Magazine accepting my wild story idea, I wasn’t sure if I was more excited or scared. One thing for sure – I was committed. What did I need from contestants?
- I needed someone I did’t know to enter the contest.
- They had to be based in Saskatchewan, and it would make my life a lot easier if they were also in the province.
- They had to be able to give me a little teaser about their family.
- They had to let me write about their family after the work was done.
As well, I had to have a decent period of time to do the actual research, so I set a tight 3 week contest: July 1st to July 21st. I hoped I’d have an entry, and worried that I wouldn’t.
When the contest opened on July 1st, it was incredible. Some people sent pages of notes and full length stories. There were families who came to Saskatchewan from all over the world: Russia, the Ukraine, Germany, and the USA; and there were families from all over the prairies: Indigenous, Métis, and Indian.
How would I choose? I had hoped for one good family story and I had multitudes. I decided to do a Short List of runners up. From all the entries, four looked most promising: Lynn Heartwell Galbraith, Rhonda Cooper, Agnes Bourassa, and Kelly Bode. I’d spend one weekend – half a day on each – to see where the sleuthing led.
How it was done
This is what I love about genealogy: it’s nearly pure deductive reasoning. You start with a handful of clues, follow them, decide if they’re true or not, and find more clues to follow. Here’s how I began.
I asked everyone to fill in my Questionnaire for Genealogy.
From there, I did a quick tree in Ancestry, being careful to fill in addresses and locations, including legal land descriptions. Since SK privacy laws restrict all documents newer than ~1908, I tend to focus my search on the lives of the great-grandparents and older, concentrating on census records and (in order) death, marriage, and birth information (all of which I transcribe). I check all the hints in Ancestry (but I avoid looking at other people’s trees). I use Find a Grave and Interment for burial information, and I visit cemeteries. Then I methodically work my way through all my resources for (in this case) Saskatchewan, and if I’m in new genealogical territory, I join Facebook groups who specialize in the area, like the Saskatchewan Genealogical Network.
I keep lots of notes in one long research log with dates: what were my questions, what was I looking for, what was my assumption, where was I wrong, what did I find, what do I have, what led to what, and so on.
By the time I finished looking up obituaries for Kelly’s family in the Family History Room at the Saskatoon Public Library, I knew I had a front-runner. Her family promised everything: findable documents, several generations of family in Saskatchewan, farming and homesteading, and an intriguing connection to WWI. Most importantly, Kelly would allow me to write a story about her family for the magazine.
WWI Sleuthing at the Museum of Military Artifacts, Saskatoon
If you’re not familiar with this museum, you’ll agree that it defines the term hidden gem. Formerly the Nutana Legion Military Museum, the Museum of Military Artifacts recently received its designation as a museum. I learned about it at the excellent SK Genealogy Society conference in April, 2018, and it was my goto source for WWI details for Kelly’s family. Here’s more information if you’re planning a trip.
What did I know about WWI before doing this story? Next to nothing, I’m ashamed to say. For several Thursdays running, I’d do my online research at Library and Archives Canada’s First World War section, then bring all my questions to the volunteers at the museum. They helped me understand the soldiers’ files and the War Diaries. What medals would a WWI soldier have been awarded? I asked. How was the infantry organized? What did their uniforms look like? How much gear did they carry? What would it have been like to be called up? Did your family serve in WWI? What stories did they share? Do you have any books I could read? Do you have newspapers? Do you have military maps?
It was wonderful to peruse the library there, talking to the volunteers, some of whom are themselves veterans, and unravelling the story of the brothers.
A final surprise
I sat down to draft Genealogy – a Detective Story after giving Kelly my genealogy report and getting her feedback. (This is one of my favourite things – telling people stories about their own families. I get such a kick out of it.)
In the middle of writing, a tiny voice questioned my findings: What if you’re wrong? What if you don’t have the full picture? What can you do to make sure you have the whole story? I couldn’t ignore that little voice, and thank goodness. I went back, reviewed all my notes and records again, and found a third connection to WWI.
That’s when I met Val, the librarian for the Dundurn Library. Val has been commemorating the histories of local people who served in WWI by creating posters with photos and documents from their service files. She’s compiled all manner of indices, documents, photos, and facts for local families, and she pulled a local history book for me: Dundurn Memories. I had been very lucky – the Dundurn Library isn’t open every day – and I had just hours to finish my research and get my piece into Prairies North before the deadline.
As a parting gift, Val sent me photos taken by Pte. Bob Proctor.
These photos raise all kinds of questions for me. I used to lug a heavy SLR, and a bag of precious, fragile, exposed film cartridges, all the time worrying that my images wouldn’t make it home due to heat, dust, humidity, or other damage.
How on earth did he do it? And what an unexpected surprise to be gifted with these images.
Photo taken by Pte. Bob Proctor in Vimy, France. About 1917.
The story is published
Writing for a publication is quite unique, as the editing and redrafting process prodded my work into something so much better than I originally had. And yet, no matter how many times I’d seen the proofs, it didn’t prepare me for actually touching the final product. As an ex-printing manager, I read my piece again with my heart in my throat: What if there’s a typo?
Slowly, very slowly, I relaxed, reading and re-reading it.
Then I did a dance of joy, right there in my office.
Would you like to read the story? You can find copies of the Winter edition of Prairies North on shelves at McNally Robinson and Chapters. Also, as a bonus to you for reading all the way down to this section, I have three copies of the magazine, free to the first three people to comment on this post.
Stuck for a last minute Christmas gift?
Why not give the gift of family story? I have a limited number of spots available for 2019 and my Genealogy Package gift certificate and questionnaire will be sure to start some interesting talks with family this holiday season. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.