Monday, September 27, 2010

Research Your Soldier in Canada: My Search for the elusive J. Arthur Gibson

My quest to find the mysterious soldier J. Arthur Gibson began in 1995, when I borrowed my grandmother’s autograph book from my uncle. Within its pages was a Christmas card signed by J. Arthur Gibson of the 7th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops dated “Xmas 1918.” At the time, I was not aware that I had Gibson family members living in Canada who had served during the First World War. Who was J. Arthur Gibson and how was he related to my grandmother? I set out to find an answer.  

Although I did not know his first given name, I felt certain it would be John because that name has been passed down for several generations in my family. I had found one reference to a John Gibson. He was the son of my grandmother’s uncle, John Gibson, who I discovered came to Vancouver prior to 1920. John was listed as a CSM with the Seaforth Highlanders in his father’s obituary in 1944. Was it the same person?

I decided to try an online database, the British Columbia Archives Vital Events Index, where previously I had found information on other Gibson family members. It produced three death entries for people named John Arthur Gibson. Two of the entries did not fit age wise; the third was close. A copy of the registration showed the person was born in Stuttgart, Germany – not what I was expecting. I believed the candidate would be born in Scotland or Ireland, but I could not be completely certain because my Gibson family moved a lot. The person on the registration was of Irish descent, so I kept it future reference.

In 2001, I searched the Soldiers of the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force database at the National Archives (now Library and Archives Canada) and found several Gibson soldiers with Arthur in their name. I searched each Attestation paper (documents prepared at the time of a soldier’s enlistment) for information. I also compared signatures on the Attestation papers to the one on the Christmas card. None matched. There was only one soldier listed in the search results that did not have an attestation paper online – John Arthur Gibson, Regimental # 2188301 (his paper is now online). Was this the person I was searching for?

In 2003, I posted a message on the Great War mailing list at Rootsweb regarding the 7th Battalion Railway Troops, and learned that a book was published about the battalion in 1920, called The War and the 7th Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops by J.R. O’Gorman. I was unable to find a copy. Later, I received a response from a person in Regina who had a copy of the book. It contained a list of the 7th Battalion members. J.A. Gibson from Regina was listed with Regimental # 2188301. At last, the confirmation I needed.

I ordered a copy of his service file on 08 April 2003, and received it exactly one month later. John Arthur Gibson was definitely my grandmother’s cousin, but I was surprised at whom his parents were. His father was not my grandmother’s Uncle John in Vancouver, as I had originally thought, but John’s older brother, Stewart in Regina. The service file said that J.A. Gibson was born in – of all places – Stuttgart, Germany. I was not even aware Stewart had sons, let alone one born in Germany.

I have since established contact with my Gibson family in Regina, and learned that the family lived in Germany circa 1889 to 1893, while Stewart helped establish a branch of the Salvation Army there. Two of his sons were born in Germany. John Arthur, his two brothers and their father all joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in WW1, all with different battalions. John Arthur Gibson died in 1967 at Vancouver and is buried in Victory Memorial Park in Surrey.

Note: In 2006, I was given several photo albums that belonged to my grandmother. In one was this picture of John Arthur Gibson.

(c) Annette Fulford 2010-2011

Monday, November 24, 2008

Deciphering Clues in Family Documents

When reading family letters or journals written by a previous generation, sometimes you are left wondering what they meant by a particular passage or phrase. And if you are not familiar with the era, the reference may leave you puzzled. I came across one such instance in a letter that my grandmother wrote to her parents in 1919 while on her journey to Canada as a war bride.

In her letter she sketches a couple of pictures and then adds the line, "I make a good Judy don’t I." This left me wondering what she meant. My aunt suggested it could be Judy from the English puppet play, Punch and Judy. I wasn’t convinced but didn’t know of any other person named Judy that she could be referring to.

Recently, I posted a copy of the page from the letter online. Not long after I received an email from a lady in England. She told me she believed that Judy was a character from the book Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, which was first published in 1912.

The main character in the book is Jerusha "Judy" Abbott, an orphan who is given the opportunity to go to college by a benefactor. The only stipulation he makes is that she must write to him once a month to tell him of her progress. She doesn’t know his name but she believes that he is a very tall man, hence the name Daddy-Long-Legs.

In her enthusiasm Judy ends up writing to him almost daily and includes little sketches of what she is doing, much like my grandmother’s letter. My grandmother was an avid reader and I feel that this book would have been one of the many books she may have read as a teenager.

The book was a popular play during the war years. In 1919 Canadian actress Mary Pickford played the lead role in the movie. It marked her first film as an independent film producer.

Daddy Long Legs image from the Calgary Daily Herald, 6 June 1919, 16.

© Annette Fulford, 2008-2010

Monday, November 17, 2008

Solving Genealogy Mysteries

Life is full of mysteries. As you delve more deeply into your family's history you are destined to encounter quite a few of them, some more easily solved than others. You are sure to come across an ancestor who refuses to reveal the details of his or her existence, while the lives of others magically unfold witheach new record you search. The process can be frustrating at times, but extremely joyful too. Solving a mystery depends upon the clues you have and the records available to search. It requires patience, persistence, a lot of hard work, and a bit of luck. Not all mysteries can be solved.

The same applies to people who are not family members but whose names you encounter in family letters, journals, and diaries. These mysterious people can capture your imagination just as easily as your own family members do. Wouldn't it be interesting to solve the mysteries and forward the details to their descendants? Although it took me a few years, I recently was able to do just that.

When I became interested in family history early in 1992, my father gave me a letter written in 1919 by his mother, Grace CLARK. In April 1919 at Sheffield, England, Grace GIBSON married Hugh McKenzie CLARK. The couple was traveling to Storthoaks, Saskatchewan, Canada, where Hugh farmed with his parents. Grace was a war bride of the First World War. The letter to her parents back home in Sheffield, England was written in pencil on both sides of 5 x 8-inch paper, while she traveled to Canada with her husband, a returning Canadian soldier, on board the Canadian Pacific Railway troop ship, R.M.S MELITA. The letter is more than 68 pages long and in it she talks about events and the people she met while on the ship.

One event she wrote about that caught my attention right away was the burial at sea of an infant who was only three months old. My grandmother never mentioned the family by name but she explained that the parents were at the burial and that it was much sadder because the father, an officer on board, was blind. Over the years I wondered whether I would be able to find out who the family was and could I make contact with descendants to give them this poignant piece of their family history.

However, before I could solve this mystery, I had to find out exactly when my grandmother made the journey to Canada. After perusing family documents including the letter and grandmother's autograph book, I was able to narrow down the dates to between 15 September and 15 October 1919. The Canadian passenger lists for autumn 1919 were not available to search at that time, so in May 1997 I wrote to Citizenship and Immigration Canada requesting the date of immigration for my grandmother. I received a reply two months later. They were able to provide me with the information I wished for: my grandmother arrived at Quebec City, Canada on 25 September 1919. They also advised that the ship set sail from Liverpool, England on 17 September 1919.

In 1998, when additional passenger list records were released for public access by the Canadian government, I was able to search the passenger lists for myself. The records revealed that the name of the baby who died at sea was John D. HITCHON. His parents were Wilton Wallace and Edna HITCHON of Brantford,Ontario, Canada (LAC Microfilm # T-14702).

Two years later, I submitted a query that was published in the August 2000 edition of FAMILIES, the journal of the Ontario Genealogical Society. I received no response to my query until 5 November 2001, more than a year later. The e-mail was from a distant relative of the family from Scotland. He asked how I was related to the branch in Ontario. I responded by explaining about the information I had and that I wished to pass it on to the family.

I have since made contact with his family. I was thrilled to be able to share this information with them. I can only hope that by passing on the information I have about the death of this child, it will be treasured and passed on for future generations to remember him by.
Originally published in MISSING LINKS: A Magazine for Genealogists, Vol. 6, No. 49, 16 December 2001.

© Annette Fulford, 2008-2010

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Canadian Immigration Records Index, 1925-1935

My grandmother visited her family in England, circa 1926, with her two children, ages 5 and 2. She was pregnant with her third child, my father, who was born there in February 1926. Yet, I knew little about their journey. When did they leave? How long did they stay? When did they return to Canada? My father was always interested in learning when he came to Canada, but died in 2000 before ever learning the date of the voyage.

I decided to search family documents for clues. Two paintings in my grandmother’s autograph book, signed by her brother and his wife, are dated 08 June 1926. One titled “How Time Flies,” suggests their time in England would soon end. I knew they arrived in northern Saskatchewan in December 1926 leaving a gap of 6 months. To search passenger lists for their arrival at the Port of Quebec was a feat too large to undertake without careful planning.

I checked ArchiviaNet, the Library and Archives Canada search tool (now Collections Canada) for database updates. I found a brand-new database: Immigration Records (1925-1935). Putting my grandmother’s name into the search engine produced no entries for her. I also tried my aunt and uncle, to no avail. Then, in a moment of clarity, I realised the database was for new immigrants to Canada. Only landed immigrants would be listed in the search results. I put my father’s name into the search engine, and it produced numerous results, because his name is very common.

The results were organized by surname, given name, age and nationality. However, one entry caught my attention; a 4-month-old baby arrived in Canada in June 1926. I clicked on the entry and received additional information on the child including, surname, given name, age, sex, nationality, date of arrival, port of arrival, ship, reference, volume, page, and microfilm reel – all the information needed to find the original source.

I ordered the film on interlibrary loan and, several months later, verified that the infant was indeed my father. He was listed in the passenger pages of landed immigrants. My grandmother, uncle and aunt were listed under Returning Canadians. The passenger lists provide a clear picture of their seven month trip, beginning with my grandmother’s purchase of a passport on 04 November 1925 at Ottawa and ending with their arrival at the Port of Quebec on 19 June 1926.

I have included photocopies of both pages in my files. Had it not been for the immigration database on the Library and Archives Canada website, I may have never found my father’s arrival into Canada. Wonderful finding aids such as these enable family historians to find and verify their research through original source documents. I only wish my father had lived long enough to share in my discovery.

© Annette Fulford, 2008-2010