Métis Nation of Ontario Root Ancestors Project

On April 24, 2018 Stacey Devlin of Know History presented a talk at Algoma University focused on the Métis Nation of Ontario Root Ancestors Project.  This fantastic project aims to increase resources and accessibility of information about the unique history and development of Métis communities in Ontario.

The Root Ancestors Project was developed based on feedback collected by the MNO in 2010/11.  The results of this consultation process can be found in ‘What We Heard’ report which includes suggestions relating to Métis identification and registration. One of the suggestions in this report focused on the development of easily accessible materials relating to Métis genealogy research and communities. The Root Ancestors Project stems from that 2011 recommendation.  I highly recommend folks explore the publicly available historical research and community based positing of the project.

Stacey Devlin’s talk provided an excellent walk through of the Root Ancestors Project and clearly laid out the ways in which the project combined archival research and community needs.  If you’re interested in learning more I’ve created a Twitter moment of my tweets from the event:

Names and Family History

Last week NPR and CBC played a number of a stories focusing on feminism, the life of working women, and women’s right.  Many of these stories were linked to the fact that Friday March 8th was International Women’s Day.  The abundance of discussion relating to feminism and women’s rights cause me to think about the history behind family names and the impact name taking another last name can have upon family and personal history.

A lot of family history is tangled up in a last name.  Family names can connect you to a genealogy, a cultural identity and to a general sense of family.  Granted the patrilineal nature of family names in Western culture connect individual to a specific type of family history, a history connected by the males of the family. 

Other than the personal impact of changing your name (eg. being identified as belonging to a different family group) name changes can also have a significant impact on historical records and digital footprints. In the case of historical records if  a complete set of birth records, marriage certificates and death records are not available it can be difficult to gain a complete picture of life prior to marriage.

Family names used pre-marriage have a tendency to drop off the face of the earth in certain types of records, photographs, legal documents following marriage, personal correspondence, etc.  Genealogy is typically far easier if you are attempting to follow a family line of males than females. In older records where married women were identified by their husband’s name (Mrs. Robert Scott instead of Sally Scott) finding out information about personal identity becomes even more challenged. 

What about in today’s abundance of digital records?  What happens to your digital footprint when you change your name?  I suppose it depends on the type of digital record.  It’s possible to change your facebook profile, twitter account, and google profile to reflect a name change.  You can easily include both last names in these instances.  However, digital records which you didn’t create typically can’t be altered.  For example that news article that mentions your work isn’t going to be altered to reflect your new name.  And what if your new last name is overly common? Would you be better off continuing your digital identity with your less common pre-name change last name?

I’m don’t have a definitive answer. A lot depends on personal preference and what’s important to you as an individual.  Changing your name can have impacts well beyond how your write your signature.  Adopting another person’s family name can impact your sense of family identity, digital identity, and family history.  On the other hand, a name is just one of many things that make up an individual’s identity.

Other Duties as Assigned: Cemetery Maintenance

Part of my job this week included a number of ‘other duties as assigned’ tasks.  One of such tasks included assisting with cleanup of the Residential School cemetery which is on site where I work. Since I like gardening this was actually a nice afternoon break one day.

This particular cemetery was in use from 1876 to around 1970 and has staff, students, and members of the Anglican Church buried there.  Following the closure of the Residential School on the site, the cemetery fell into a state of disrepair and neglect.  Today the cemetery is well looked after, however years of poor maintenance and weather eliminated all the wooden markers in the cemetery and many of the stone tombstones are in rough shape. 

Overgrown weeds, mossy broken tombstones, missing grave markers, and unknown boundaries are characteristics of cemeteries throughout Canada.  Upkeep of no longer used or unregistered cemeteries have a tendency to become neglected over time. Additionally, the very nature of grave markers and tombstones – outdoors and exposed to the elements – make them susceptible to premature damage and deterioration.

Some cemeteries are well documented and the loss of a marker or the fading of a stone inscription isn’t a complete loss of burial information as the plots have been documented by the cemetery.  However, even when burial plots are well documented often the actual inscriptions on tombstones aren’t formally recorded.  Similarly if a municipality doesn’t (or didn’t) keep accurate records of burial plots if a wooden marker rots or the inscription on a tombstone fades, the information on who was buried in that location is lost.

For example, the Residential School cemetery where I work no longer has any of the wooden crosses which marked the majority of the student graves.  The loss of markers was a huge loss as no formal records noting burials or plot locations have been located for this cemetery.  As with many Residential School cemeteries, the number of students buried and the names of all the students buried in the cemetery are unknown. 

Cemeteries and grave markers can provide an abundance of genealogy and historical information, but only if they are well documented or preserved. So what about those crumbling tombstones and loss of information through deterioration? There are a variety of different preservation tools that can be used by municipalities and other interest groups to preserve the historical information found in cemeteries.

  • Document existing gravestones, especially those which are made of wood or other elements which are very susceptible to rot and other forms of rapid deterioration. Gravestones and inscriptions can be documented by using photography and written documentation. 
  • Organize and keep accurate burial records.  This might be employing an archivist to organize existing records relating to the cemetery.  An archivist can help provide order and structure to boxes of unused records.  This organization will help make the records more accessible and searchable for researchers. 
  • It is possible to clean stone tombstones. This is typically undertaken to remove moss, dirt, and other surface growth.  However, I would recommend looking into a professional providing this service (or at very least providing training on how to go about the cleaning), as it is possible to damage the stones if you use abrasive products or tools. 

If you are interested in searching out ancestors or information about a particular cemetery in Ontario, you might want to begin by using Ontario Genealogical Society’s Ontario Cemetery Ancestor Search.  A list of the cemeteries which have been indexed by the OGS and are included in the Ancestor Search can be also be found online.

Historical Photographs: Insight and Value

The April/May issue of Canada’s History Magazine contains a short article by Paul Jones, which highlights the ability of photographs to speak to the past.  In “Roots: Understanding Family Photos”, Jones deconstructs a photograph of his wife’s ancestors.  This deconstruction allows Jones to date the photograph, provide a location of the photograph, and the entire process provides him further insight into the family’s actions.

Jones’ experience brought two things to my mind: the importance of documenting your family photographs and the usefulness of photographs as historical sources.   Documenting your photographs (in pencil or non-corrosive ink of course) with the date, names of people in the photograph, photographer name, and location/event can be invaluable to later generations and historians.  Provenance is what creates great artifacts and allows heritage organizations to properly credit and describe their collections.  Documenting your family photographs can make correctly remembering events a lot easier.

Holland House Library, 1940

Photographs can contain a wealth of historical information. Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida notes “The important thing is that a photograph posses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time…in the photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.”  Photography allows for types of representation and interpretation that do not exist in written works.  Photographs can be used to examine no longer existing persons and structures – developments in built heritage are often tracked through period photographs.  Styles in fashion, social conduct, and family structure are all captured by photographs.

Additionally, the visual nature of photographs provides them with an advantage over written documents.  People tend to be drawn to images far more than a block of text.  Photographs are routinely used in outreach and instructional programming by local history groups, genealogists, educational institutions, museums, and archives.Historical photographs can be used to introduce people to history that they would otherwise have no interest in.  Glimpses into the past through photographs can be invaluable to all levels of historical practice.

Photo credits : zmustapha and Lee Cannon

Introducing the Archive: Greeting First Time Visitors

The overwhelming majority of visitors to the archive I work at have never been inside an archive before.  Many of the visitors come from outside academia or are undergraduate and high school students stepping into an archive for the first time.  In addition to being new to archives, many visitors are searching for documents relating to their personal or family history. 

How do you frame the uses and potential research value of an archive to new visitors? 
This is often the ‘elevator pitch’ for the archive and includes a condensed version of services, resources, and archival holdings. We emphasize that staff are available to help new researchers, that material is available online (and we can provide instruction on navigating the site), and that material can be copied for research purposes. 

If the visitor is a student, we often point out potential research topics in their field of study, suggest relevant publications, and encourage them to ask questions.  We also remind students of hours and that we aren’t open weekends.

Additionally, all visitors can take a contact card which has our website, email, and phone information on it.  We also have more in-depth pamphlets for those interested. 

How to you facilitate non-academic research? 
Since the majority of our visitors are not engaged in academic research, our reading room contains material to help people research family history.  We have reproduction photo albums which visitors can flip through, media clip binders (copies of newspaper articles), and copies of frequently used government documents which visitors can flip through at their leisure.

Typically, people researching family histories are able to find necessary material without staff ever having to pull anything from the archive.  This cuts down on staff work and the use of reproductions helps preserve original documents and photographs.

How do you greet new visitors at your organization?

Photo credit: Dublin City Public Libraries