Shedding Light on the Family Tree: One Branch at a Time

The 52nd in a 52 Week Series

Prompt: Looking Ahead


While contemplating what’s next on the genealogical journey I was reminded of how I started clambering up this ancestral tree in the first place.

A chance conversation with a neighbour in September 2021. That was it. I mentioned that I’d just finished re-reading an old book in my historical fiction collection ~ Anya Seton’s The Winthrop Woman, a novel based on the true story of the Winthrop family’s coming to America in 1630. John Winthrop was the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Elizabeth, his niece, is the main subject of Seton’s story.

As I shared my enthusiasm for the book one of our hosts began to beam. “I’m a descendent of Elizabeth through her second husband, Robert Feake!” he announced. It was an amazing small world moment.

Our conversation then delved more deeply into the subject of family history, and I got all lit up remembering my own foray into family history 30 years before when part of my research had taken me to 1600s New England. The next day I dug through my paper files (it was all done on paper when I originally started the ancestral journey) and noted that, yes, I’m a descendent of John Webster, a Governor of the Colony of Connecticut (1656) and his wife Agnes (Smith) Webster. I noted also that Webster was Chief Magistrate during John Winthrop’s tenure as Governor of Connecticut in 1657. So, in essence, my ancestral family had been acquainted with that of the neighbour. Another small world moment.

All of this reminded me of something I’d loved about doing family research all those years ago ~ the realization of just how connected we are as a human family. And so, after just one conversation and reading two Anya Seton novels (the second was Katherine ~ the love story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt from whom, I found out later, I am also descended), I began scrambling up the tree again.

Shedding Light

With my mind freshly awakened to the family story I was more aware of related topics as they popped up on social media. At the beginning of January 2022 I happened upon the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. After reviewing the rules of engagement I committed to participating in all 52 weeks, and here I am, 52 weeks later, writing the final entry (for this year!) for Shedding Light on the Family Tree.

It’s been 52 weeks of rich exploration into my maternal ancestral lineage. One of the bonuses has been getting better acquainted with my third cousin, Kelly, who picked up the research ball and kept it rolling during those years I’d put it down. We have become like a tag team, sending information back and forth for clarification, insight, and simply for expanding our mutual knowledge. During the past year I’ve become better acquainted with the Palatine Irish ancestors; the United Empire Loyalists; the Scottish story, and branches that stretch way back to the Plantagenet and beyond. And yet there’s still plenty of tree to climb and light to shed. And this is when we look ahead.

Source: FamilySearch

Broken Branches

There are a litany of broken branches. Records are missing or destroyed; stories are lost; connections to distant relatives (known and unknown) awry. One of the things I’d like to do over the next year is create connection with others who are researching these ancestral families. Many hands make light work, as they say, and perhaps there’s someone out there somewhere who can help to answer some of the baffling questions that my cousin and I keep bumping up against.

For instance …

What is the origin of the name Lewis? It figures as a middle name in two generations, including my great grandmother Mary Lewis Belton (1881-1966). Why would a girl of those times be given a masculine middle name, and why was it important enough for her to pass on to my grandfather, Stanley Lewis McDonall? My mother bears the name Lois, a feminine derivative. This is a mystery it would be good to resolve because it has the potential to unlock other family mysteries.

The Crouse family is another broken branch we’re endeavouring to repair. We know the Crouses were United Empire Loyalists out of Pennsylvania. Isaac Crouse (1786-1854), my fourth great grandfather, was born in Bucks Co., Penn., and died in Westminster Township in Upper Canada. We think his father’s name was Isaac and that he had a brother named Oliver. We think he was married to a woman named Elizabeth. There’s lots of info on the Crouses in circulation we just need to find the right thread. It’s possible they settled first in Quinte before heading west to Middlesex Co.. Another mystery to unravel.

Source: FamilySearch

The Palatine Connection

Another line that requires some earnest attention is the Dulmage/Dolmege/Delmege line of our Palatine ancestry. Opinions differ regarding the parentage of 3rd great grandmother, Catherine Dolmege (1826-1886). We know her father is a Jacob Dolmege, but which one? There were a few at that time in Co. Tipperary. When we can figure this out we’ll probably find out who her mother was and then be able to trace back. Most of the Palatine records are fairly accessible.

Yet another Palatine conundrum … Peter Sparling (1793-1861) married Elizabeth Barry (ca 1800-1878) in Renaghmore, Co. Tipperary in 1825. Elizabeth’s parents are a mystery. All we know at this point is that she had a sister, Ann, and for neither are records available that identify their parents. At least we haven’t found them yet.

Source: FamilySearch

Scottish Questions

The Gordon/Robson tree is spare, indeed, and requires real application of time and resources for headway to be made. We know that much of the family history in the generations leading up to the Gordon migration to Canada happened around Tullynessle and Forbes in Inverness, Scotland. The Robsons originated in Northumberland, England, and distinguished themselves in shipbuilding and coal mining, all of which my second great grandfather, Edward Moffat Robson (1847-1905) rejected before joining the military. I would like to unearth his service records to see what’s available about him and, hopefully, his parents and family story.

On another note … the mother of Orly Cox, my great aunt Margaret Belton’s second husband, was a Gordon, and when I trace her line the Skene name also appears. My 2nd great grandfather, William Gordon (1848-1929) married Ann Skene (1853-1934), and her line can be traced back two more generations under that name. What, if any, connection might there be between the Gordons and Skenes in Orly Cox’s lineage and my own Scottish genealogy? I’d love to see if there is a meeting place.

What else?

Beyond the obvious pile of research that remains my intention is to take what I’ve learned and documented during the past year and compile a proper book (a first volume!) for the extended family and anyone else who might have an interest. Really, the idea that we are all connected is part of what drives a lot of my interest. As well, I love the stories because a piece of everyone who came before lives in me. I’m intrigued by the idea of recognizing and embracing all the best attributes, ie. strength, tenacity, love, empathy, intelligence, etc., of the generations and fostering these things in my own life, while at the same time doing what I can to help heal ancestral trauma. And truth be told, a lot of the ancestral work of the past year has been a journey of healing. To learn about and understand the trials, tribulations and triumphs of my forebears increases my capacity to have compassion for their experiences and for my own struggles with personal issues. I’m particularly grateful for the healing of my relationship with my mother in the hours we’ve spent talking about her family and their stories. Such a gift.

With respect to my father’s lineage, there is little to say. Having had no connection in life there’s none after death. By his own choice he’s little more than a footnote in the book of my life. For a brief time in the late 1980s we did collaborate on the paternal tree. His Hungarian ancestry made it a tough slog, but during a few visits to a family history centre we spent time reviewing microfilm of birth, marriage and death records (all written in Hungarian or Latin) for the small area not far from Budapest in which his peasant farmer ancestors lived and worked for generations. Dad promised to type everything up (he was a writer and had a computer with a dot matrix printer at the time) and provide me with a copy for my own records. True to form he didn’t follow through and so all that work was lost. He has since died and, frankly, it simply isn’t a priority to go hunting for this information again. Too much of a language barrier and my heart just isn’t in it. It’s difficult to forge a connection with the ancestors of someone who didn’t bother to forge an emotional connection with you. And so it is.

The Final Word

It’s safe to say that this past year’s climb up the family tree has changed my life in many positive ways. Being a philosopher at heart and a proponent of the healing journey has meant that my foray into the ancestral realms hasn’t just been about finding names and dates and such, it’s been just as important to apply context to their lives by gleaning as much information as possible from available records and piecing it all together. It’s also been fascinating to read about the times in which they lived and the types of challenges they faced. From the families who survived the Great Fire of Michigan in 1881 to those who escaped to Upper Canada as refugees following the American Revolution their stories form the foundation of my own and inspire me to be my best self.

The initial clamber up the family tree earlier this year has become more methodical now. Yes, I can be distracted by the occasional squirrel, but mostly I’m able to perch on the big old tree’s branches and ponder the lives of my forefathers and mothers with gratitude for all that they were that paved the way for all that I am. One branch at a time. A blessing, indeed.

Looking forward to seeing what the next 52 weeks will bring. ❦

(A gallery of ancestors ending with an image from Summer 1966 ~ my brother and I in the arms of great grandma, Mary Lewis (Belton) McDonall (1881-1966). She passed away just a few months after this moment was captured. The first image is of her at the tender age of 19.)

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.