It's All Relative 

You are of royal descent because everyone is.

                                                                                         --Adam David Rutherford




When Edward Longshanks came to the throne of England in 1272, he literally stood out among my 4 million or so relatives in the 13th century. At a time when the average height of a male was just under 5 feet, Edward stood at 6' 2''. A lisp and a lazy eye were other genetic traits he would leave to posterity.

Longshanks became King Edward I on November 12, 1272. When he died on July 7, 1307, at the respectable age of 67, he was survived by his wife, Eleanor, and a family of 9 daughters and 4 sons.

Edward became my royal ancestor (and yours, assuming you are of English descent) by virtue of a simple mathematical calculation. Each of us was born with 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 gg-grandparents and so on into the shadows of history with the number of ancestors doubling with each generation.

In terms of your DNA, your parents gifted you with 50% of their genes, your grandparents each contributed 25%, your great-grandparents, 12.5% until you get to very distant relatives who were downright miserly.



After 10 generations, I have acquired a modest 1024 direct ancestors of the ggg...grandparent variety who theoretically would have been living around the year 1650 in England--more than a full century before my gggg-grandparents, John Colbourne Sr. and Elizabeth along with their four children crossed the broad Atlantic.

Even 1024 relatives are far too many to invite over for Xmas dinner, nevertheless, a manageable number if they aren't constantly sending you friend requests on Facebook.

Things get more interesting as we journey further back in time. At generation 22, that of our 20th great-grandparents (Longshanks and Eleanor), the number of direct ancestors has grown to a frightening 4,194,304, each one of whom would have contributed a smidgeon of their DNA (0.004069%) so that I could be me and you could be you.

That's a problem. The population of England in 1272 was just 3,500,000 which of course means that everyone alive at that time was my relative and yours. Just so we don't get too carried away with the royal connection, we would have to include in our pedigree not just Longshanks but also the scullery maid in the royal kitchen and the filthy beggar outside the palace gates.

Genealogists point to a flaw in the calculation of the massive numbers. The model does not account for what really happened in the bedrooms (and fields) of 13th century England. Close encounters, of the first and second cousin kind, accounted for more than 80% of conjugal unions and procreation in those ancient days. Uncles marrying nieces and aunts hooking up with nephews were also quite common.

Duplicate ancestors tend to jump out of the family tree in droves.

The royal families of Europe deliberately practiced inbreeding in order to protect their imperial bloodlines. Kings and queens quoted the holiness laws of Leviticus 18 to justify the practice. Cousin marriages were sanctioned in the Old Testament. Isaac and Rebekah's first-born son, Esau, for example, married his first cousin, Mahalath, daughter of his father's brother.

The hairy, red-headed Esau and Mahalath produced five sons. Their children made do with three pairs of great-grandparents rather than four.

After Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's two daughters took it up a notch (Genesis 19:30-38) by each bearing sons for their father. Lot became both the grandfather and the father of the two boys. Lot's wife, their grandmother, became a pillar of salt.

All of which created loads of additional problems.

In the middle ages, Royals got in on the act in a big way.

Charles II of Spain, the last of the great Royal House of Hapsburg, was born on November 6, 1681, to Phillip IV and Mariana of Austria who were uncle and niece, thus making Charles, their son, a great-nephew and a first cousin respectively. All of Charles' great-grandparents, gg-grandparents, and ggg-grandparents were closely related--an extreme case of keeping it all in the family.

After 5 generations, it all culminated in pedigree collapse and disaster. Charles was born with a multitude of genetic defects, early dementia, depression, a deformed jaw, an elongated skull, one pea-sized testicle, speech impediments, and spindly legs. Courtiers said that he was so ugly no one could stand to be in his presence.

Poor Charles died an early death on November 1, 1700.

Thankfully, he was not my direct ancestor. Or, was he?

The outlaw, Jessie James, married his first cousin, Zerelda Mimms, in Clay County, Missouri in 1874. Their descendants still argue bitterly about their ancestry.

He, too, met an early death.

In his book Wit and Humor of the Age, Mark Twain shared his comedic take on tangled family relationships: Well Sam, I'll tell you how it is. You see, I married a widow, and this widow had a daughter. Then my father, being a widower, married our daughter, so you see, my father is my own son-in-law.

In 1947, Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffee turned the situation into a song which was subsequently covered by the likes of Grandpa Jones and Willie Nelson. You are probably more familiar with the Ray Stevens' version of I'm My Own Grandpa. (Available on YouTube).

Using the pyramid model, you and I are most certainly related to Charlemagne, Emperor of the Romans in 872 AD--theoretically, we could have had over one billion ancestors alive at that time, each one of whom would account for 0.0001% of our DNA. In actual fact, the population of the whole of Europe was barely 50 million.

But of course, the family tree is not a tree at all, nor a pyramid. At best, it is a tangle of brambles with spikes and branches turning in on each other.

Which is why I generally find that after the fifth or sixth generation, the pursuit of ancestors loses its meaning. "At some point," said the historian, Henry Weincek, "the search becomes futile--there is nothing left to find."

We should keep in mind, however, that we share 99.9% of our genetic endowment with all other humans on the planet.

In December, when you are planning that big dinner, you may as well go into the street and invite a dozen or so people at random. They are certain to be your relatives.












Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great question.

                                    ... Alice, Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll




Like Alice in Wonderland, many of us spend inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out who we are. Some put little effort into their search, yet claim some exotic origin, often quoting a great-grandmother on her death-bed as the source of their astounding revelation.

Such was the case of a guest at our B&B who claimed descendancy from Richard III, irreverently referred to by his subjects as Richard Crookback, a victim of scoliosis. He supposedly murdered the princes in the Tower of London and was himself slain at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485, after a short reign of just two years.

After learning the historical facts on her Royal ancestor, she was no longer sure it was a good connection. But should she wish to affirm the link, she can now have her DNA compared with that of the dastardly Richard, after the discovery of his remains at Greyfriars, Leicester, Uk, in September 2012.

Claims of Royal ancestry are as common as Cherokee wannabes, or Beothuck wannabes, or Ojibwa--you get the drift. The likes of Cher, Kevin Costner, Johnny Depp, and writer, Joseph Boyden, are among the most prominent.

In this country, the most famous pretendian, Archibald Stansfeld Belany, born in Hastings, East Sussex, UK, on December 18, 1888, became Grey Owl, The Ojibwa, after he immigrated to Canada. He parlayed his trumped-up heritage into fame, films, fleeting fortune, and an audience with famous Royals.

Alas, Archie had not one iota of genetic material or genealogical evidence linking him to the Ojibwa people nor to anyone else in North America for that matter.

With Aboriginal people, Grey Owl's name became mud.

The First Nations have put up with the legacy of residential schools, blatant discrimination, bad drinking water, and stolen lands, but the greatest insult is to have a bunch of white people masquerading as Facebook Indians.

Great-grandmother tales don't cut it in the field of genealogy where at least three pieces of solid evidence are required to establish relationships, not as difficult as it sounds with the proliferation of family history databases online over the past twenty years.

The Rooms in St. John's, Newfoundland, for example, have just announced that many of their records are now available in digital format. In pleasant surroundings, you can generally find what you need in church records, census material, and vital statistics.

If you want to go further afield, online records are available (for a fee) in countries like the UK and the US. If you are fortunate enough to be in Salt Lake City, Utah, by all means, pay a visit to the Family History Library, the genealogical arm of the Latter Day Saints church, with millions of records from around the world.

Archival searches in North America are of course constrained by the time factor in what they can reveal about your ancestry. In most of Canada, the descendants of immigrants are limited to a maximum of 400 years of New World roots, and on average, much, much less.

In the province of Newfoundland, there were few European settlers outside the Avalon Peninsula until the late 1700s. Even in 1800, the total population of the island portion of the province was just over 5000 souls excluding the rapidly diminishing Aboriginal population which had been around for thousands of years. 

My own paternal GGGG grandfather and grandmother brought their four children to Twillingate, Newfoundland from Sturminster Newton, County Dorset, UK, in 1782. At that moment in time, I would have had 126 other GGGG grandparents assuming they were all alive in the Old Country. With each one of these four-great-grandparents, I share 1.5625% of my DNA. There would also be thousands of blood-relatives, uncles, aunts, and cousins many generations removed, with whom I also share some portion of my DNA.

Other branches of the family shrub extend from settlers who arrived from the West Country between 1835 and 1840, around 175 years ago.

My maternal grandmother, Bessie Raines (Ryan), shared 25% of her DNA with me and thank God she did. She taught me the value of story-telling and the importance of having doubt as my constant companion.

My great-great grandmother on that side of the family brier-bush arrived in the New World about 1840. Despite the myths, we have not been around these parts for all that long.

The graphic below details how much of your DNA you owe to your most recent forbears. Thank them before you run off in dark corners of the past seeking one-night stands with attractive predecessors.





... Lost Whilst Driving to Sea




I was fortunate to have visited the tomb of Mahatma Gandhi. Inscribed on the slab of black marble at Raj Ghat, New Delhi, are the words, Hey Ram, roughly translated as 'O, Lord.' They were the last words spoken by the great man as he was felled by an assassin's bullet. Gandhi's epitaph may hold the record for brevity.

Always, the lines etched in stone to mourn someone's death are cryptic, with an obscure universe of meaning hidden in snippets of elegant poetry or brutal prose. By their very nature, they inspire us to rummage through our ancestral past to unearth the secret stories.

Two such epitaphs appear on a single weathered monument erected in the old churchyard between Quenton's Cove and Ward's Harbour, Newfoundland, in 1933, by Andrew and Bertha (Normore) Hewlett of Long Island, Notre Dame Bay. Bertha was the daughter of John and Dinah Normore of Sunday Cove Island.

On the family tree, Andrew is my first cousin, three times removed. We shared common ancestors, Robert and Mary (Heath) Hewlett, two of the immortals who made the ancestral leap across the Atlantic from the West Country of England in the summer of 1835.

In Loving Memory.

The cemetery is tucked into a small wooded valley where the souls of the dead enjoy the soothing breezes from the ocean close by.

On the right column of the monument below the crest of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the words: No. 2425 Pte. Levi Normore, Killed in Action at Monchy-Le-Preux, April 14, 1917. Aged 27 Years. He Gave His Life For His Friends.

The record left behind by relatives, census makers, clergymen, and government agencies reveal a complex story.

Levi, born in 1890, to a single mother, Annie-Eliza Caravan, survived childhood diseases and the first twenty months of infancy with his mother and his grandparents. Then, in a twist of fate, his mother decided out of necessity to marry my great-grandfather, James, who six months earlier had lost his first wife, Martha to Diptheria. 

In the marriage bargain, Annie-Eliza sacrificed Levi. She offered him for adoption to keep the peace--at James' insistence.

John and Dinah Normore needed the security that a young son would offer them in their senior years. They adopted the infant and Levi Caravan became Levi Normore, a custom adoption without paperwork, common practice at the time.

The Normore's 12-year-old daughter, Bertha, and her new brother developed a special bond.

Levi grew into a young man at a time when the dying embers of nostalgia for the old country still glowed faintly. Looming war clouds in Europe after 1912 stirred those distant memories of the ancient homeland and fanned the flames of patriotism for King and country. Our ancestors discovered that their enthusiasm for war matched that of their relatives across the sea.

In the temper of the time, becoming a soldier was a natural choice for Levi.

Unlike most of his peers, he was not wedded to the fishery. By his early twenties, he had already experienced the hell below ground in the grim coal mines of Cape Breton as he searched for a future away from the feudalism of the fishery. But he had made a devil's choice and discovered that bondage to a coal baron was no better than servitude to a fish merchant.

On his return to Long Island, he courted a young woman and they set a marriage date. Across the harbor in Cutwell Arm, Levi began work on their dream home. In a break from traditional construction techniques on the island, the unique building featured two brick chimneys and a concrete foundation.

The conflict overseas intervened.

He didn't have to volunteer. At twenty-six, he was beyond the normal enlistment age.

Levi put his planned marriage on hold, winterized his newly built home, and went to war on April 4, 1916.

Just over a year later, in the dim light of a cold Saturday dawn on April 14, 1917, Levi and his company charged towards German lines on the high ground just outside the French village of Monchy-le-Preux. German defenders caught Levi's battalion in a carefully laid trap. Aside from the few who became prisoners-of-war, the battalion was annihilated. Levi's remains were never recovered.

Back home on Long Island a year later, another battle played out over Levi's estate between Annie-Eliza, his natural mother, and the Normores, his adoptive family. The competing claims were finally referred to the Department of Justice which ruled in Annie-Eliza's favor. She received a cheque for just over sixty-five dollars, Levi's service gratuity.

In the coming years, Dinah Normore was reduced to poverty and survived on a poor pension of $2.30 per month.

In 1920, citing the loss of her son, Levi, who had been her only support, Dinah asked the Department of Militia for a Separation Allowance. I have been directed to state, came the reply from the government, that this allowance cannot be granted to you because your dependence on your son is not shown...

In 1923, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment forwarded a memorial plaque and a portrait of Levi to Dinah Normore as next of kin to a soldier killed in the Great War.


On the left column of the monument the inscription: Ernest Gordon, Beloved Son of Andrew and Bertha Hewlett. Killed by Falling Over a Cliff. August 2, 1929. Aged 13 Years and 10 Months.

The description of the cause of death reminded me of an anecdote about the famous writer, Ernest Hemmingway. On a ten dollar bet, in a Brooklyn bar, sometime in the 1920s, he supposedly penned the shortest saddest story ever written: For sale. Baby shoes, never worn. Just a half-dozen words that needed only some quiet reflection on the implied tragedy of a tiny life cut short and happiness denied.

Hemmingway was likely inspired by epitaphs he had seen in cemeteries of the day.

Killed by Falling Over a Cliff would rank favorably with Hemmingway's classic.

The tragic incident had taken place at the Grey Islands off the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. Grey Island Harbour was a favored fishing station for Long Island fishermen in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. Boys as young as eleven years took their place alongside their fathers as part of a fishing crew. At thirteen, the boys were expected to assume adult responsibilities and by sixteen were considered full-time sharemen.

In 1929, Andrew and his son, Ernest, were members of Skipper Joe Short's crew.

August 2, 1929, was a Friday, normally a long workday in the hectic life of a fisherman, but for whatever reason, Ernest had gone to the cliffs south of Grey Island Harbour to gather eggs from the nests of seabirds which flocked to the area during the breeding season.

It was there that his friend from Beaumont caught up to him with a love letter from a special girl in Ward's Harbour. As he reached for the letter, Andrew, slipped, lost his balance, and fell to his death.

Bertha's grief would last forever.

Weep not Dear Parents, Brothers and Sister Dear

Disturb not Our Rest.




Files of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The Rooms Provincial Archives.

1921 Census of Newfoundland. 

Cemetery Transcriptions, Long Island, Newfoundland.

With special thanks to Mr. Job Burton (now deceased) who told us stories of his days as a fisherman at the Grey Islands.

Strangling Angels and Noxious Remedies: The Real World of Our Ancestors 



 Back in 1899, when everybody sang auld lang syne...

                                                               Steve Goodman, The Twentieth Century is Almost Over.


Expressions of sorrow and condolence appeared regularly in newspapers of the day. A notice in The Twillingate Sun in October 1891 was typical: We learn that diphtheria has been prevalent of late and that a good many cases have proved fatal. We are sorry that Mr. Samuel Short [of Ward's Harbour] has lost three children from the disease.

Settlers in outlying communities along the northeast coast of Newfoundland in the latter part of the twentieth century faced overwhelming health challenges. Life expectancy hovered around 42 years for men and 47 for women.

Just as today, La grippe (influenza) was common and often deadly for the elderly and young children, so too for Quincy, winter fever, the Spotted Demon, and Phthisis.

To our ancestors, these very words brought fear and foreboding. Perhaps no news was more terrifying than learning that the Strangling Angel--Diphtheria, was on the loose. The dread disease received its name from the development of a greyish membrane in the shape of angel wings on the tonsils, which quickly expanded to completely obstruct the windpipe and suffocate the victim.

When Great-grandmother, Martha Earle, lay dying in Island Cove, Notre Dame Bay, on Wednesday, April 6, 1892, five days after giving birth, she was leaving behind a family of four healthy boys ranging in age from eight to thirteen. To protect them from the disease, Great-grandfather had moved the children to another household in Lush's Bight, a mile away.

Martha was pregnant when she developed Diphtheria. The infant, John, born on April 1, was already doomed and certainly without his mother's care, he could not survive. On Good Friday, April 15, 1892, the Strangling Angel claimed him, as well.

The highly contagious disease caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae claimed 40 to 50 percent of children in the area over a ten-year period from 1885 to 1895. In many of the households, multiple children fell victim to the disease.

In the fall of 1890, Lily, four years of age, Herbert, two, and John, just three months, the children of John and Selena Parsons of Lush's Bight, died within a week of each other. To lose one child was a tragedy, to lose all three was a calamity.

There was little comfort even in their church. Most clergymen and lay-preachers viewed such diseases as either a test of faith or a punishment from God for sinful practices, a belief cemented in biblical orthodoxy as in 1 Corinthians 11:30, that's why so many of you are weak and sick and a considerable number are dying.

Or, the work of Satan, as in Job II, vii.

Unable to find solace and understanding in the confusions of the spiritual realm, people sought guidance from other sources. Newspapers carried sensational details of miracle cures for various ailments often accompanied by fabricated testimonials from doctors and from the formerly afflicted.

A report in the Twillingate Sun for January 25, 1890, proclaimed one such cure. The following remedy was discovered in Germany and is said to be the best known: after the first indication of Diphtheria in the throat of the child, make the room close, then take a tin cup and pour into it a quantity of tar and turpentine, equal parts. Then hold the cup over a fire so as to fill the room with fumes, the person affected will cough up and spit out all the membraneous matter and the Diphtheria will pass off. The fumes of the tar and turpentine loosen the matter in the throat and this affords the relief that has eluded the skill of physicians.

Ineffective as the remedy was, it became common practice in many communities. There were few, if any, alternatives. Medical science at the time was in its infancy in terms of understanding the nature of common diseases.

Antitoxins and vaccinations were many years down the road.

Minard's Liniment and other patent medicines filled the void--all claiming to be cure-alls for a host of afflictions, Rheumatism, Neuralgia, bleeding of the lungs, Cholera morbus, Croup, Dipthteria...and kindred illnesses. Heals burns, bruises, etc. Best Staple Medicine in the World. Beware of Imitations. Good for Man or Beast.

By the 1880s, health authorities had a basic understanding of contagious diseases and introduced measures such as quarantine under the Public Health Act. Violations of an imposed quarantine could result in fines of $100 (around $3000 today) and/or three months in prison. Such measures, however, were difficult to enforce in small communities.

On March 28, 1896, the Sun carried news from the Police Courts in Twillingate, Magistrate Berteau presiding: On Monday last, Mr. George Rice of Little Harbour, charged with violation of the Public Health Act, by allowing his family to go abroad while his house was under quarantine for Diphtheria: and also for removing the flag before the house was disinfected. He pleaded ignorance of the law and was let off by paying $3.50, being the costs...

Also, Mr. John Spencer, of the same place on a similar charge, having gone to church and other places from a house infected with Diphtheria. He had to pay costs, $2.99. 

In defiance of the odds, the four boys of Martha and James survived.

James remarried on November 12, 1892. Five more children were born to him and Annie Eliza, his second wife, over the next twelve years.

Their descendants have spread throughout Newfoundland, Canada and into the US.


MUN Digital Archives. The Twillingate Sun. June 24, 1880, to January 31, 1953.

M. A. Bromley, Gleanings From the Sun. Genealogical Abstracts from the Twillingate Sun, 1988.

Cemetery Transcriptions, Long Island, Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland.

Family History Library; Salt Lake City, Utah.

My Illustrious Ancestors 


Someday, you'll be an ancestor too




If truth be told, I have always been a Walter Mitty type, day-dreaming about my exotic origins, living in heroic times, wielding the pitiless sword of righteousness.

I first became aware of this tendency from watching Lord of the Rings, the movie trilogy based on Tolkien's stories. The three films released between 2001 and 2003 drew me back to the big screen and convinced me that my ancestors were Hobbits with some Elfin genes thrown in.

What clinched the argument for me, was Cate Blanchett--Galadriel, the mightiest and fairest of the Elves who, in the closing scene, steps into a boat with Gandalf, Bilbo, and Frodo, which will take them to Valinor, The Land Beyond the Great Sea--to everlasting life. I desperately desired to be on that boat with Galadriel. Even though she was then 8,412 years old, she didn't look a day past twenty.

Alas, I had promised my wife I would be with her, throughout eternity. Goodbye, Galadriel. I yearn for you, tragically.

Around that time, archaeologists discovered that a new species, Homo floresiensis--Hobbits, had indeed existed on the remote Indonesian island of Flores some 75,000 years ago. Using my evidence-based protocol, I concluded, then and there, that these were the people who had evolved into the future me.

Then, there was that time back in the day when a casual comment from a guest at our B&B sent me off on another mad dash along the unmarked trail of my ancestral past.

"You look so much like Dustin Hoffman," said the young lady(ahem!). By coincidence, I kept a publicity snap of the famous actor from The Graduate, in my office. With photo in hand, I rushed off to the nearest mirror to find links to my true self. Sure enough, he reminded me of me, the eyes and the nose matched, as did the laugh lines around the mouth, and the fragile look of innocence mixed with devilish intent on the face. Koo-Koo-Ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson.

I had secured a link to the silver screen. A quick letter to Mr. Hoffman c/o HBO Productions in Hollywood, introducing myself as a potential relative, elicited no response. Mr. Hoffman, I understand, jealously guards his privacy.

Soon, I discovered through a cursory search at that neither our parents, nor our grandparents, nor their parents had had any kind of positive interaction in the past. Factors of geography, religion, and age, had intervened to make an intimate liaison impossible.

My potential link to movie stardom was broken like a frayed string on Paul Simon's guitar. The trail ended, as is so often the case, in a dead-end street. Still, Dustin, like myself, was not excessively tall, the Hobbit gene being still dominant.

Of course, I am not alone in the pursuit of exceptional forbears. Bill Clinton, my favorite politician, and Johnny Cash, my all-time favorite singer, both claimed Cherokee ancestry as do millions of others in the US. When an ancestral search turned up no Cherokees on any appendage of Bill's (tree), he said he had misspoken. Ditto for Johnny Cash, except he had the grace to apologize to the Cherokee Tribal Council. We get a lot of pretendians, said one tribal elder.

And here comes Miley Cyrus, Johnny Depp, Elizabeth Warren...

At one time or another, as I flirted with my exotic origins in the new world, I have entertained myths that my gggggggrandparents were Huguenots, those courageous Calvinists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, persecuted by the French--maybe that's where the paranoia about Churchill Falls comes from.

Then, there were three brothers (never three sisters) who were stowaways fleeing the lawful authorities in the old country. The three had engaged in riotous behavior in Ireland and had maimed a few British soldiers. When they arrived at Gander Airport (sometime in 1756), one went north, one went south, and one went God knows where.

That story didn't hold water either. I discovered that my New World ancestors had washed up on a beach and had settled down in Twillingate, Newfoundland, in 1782. They brought a few books with them but no magnificent coat-of-arms. Just a couple of wet white people. Pretty mundane.

But, I did pay a king's ransom for my family coat-of-arms during a layover from an overseas flight at Toronto International Airport in the 90s--with a mind numbed by jet-lag. "You must be A distant relative of Queen Elizabeth the First, the Virgin Queen," said the guy at the kiosk as he handed me a pre-programmed printout and raked in my money. Now we were getting somewhere, I thought. Sir Walter Raleigh couldn't be far behind. 


I never did find the great-great-grandmother who was an Indian princess.

My family tree became a tangle of brambles in a bog.

Until I visited the famous National Museum in Nuremberg, Germany. And in a flash of recognition, there he was, Father. Charlemagne: King of the Franks, Slayer of the Infidels, the Great Liberator, son of Pippin the Short and Bertrade of Laon, Hobbit parents from the Shire, without a doubt.

The first of the Holy Roman Emperors stood before me in all his regal glory. The intelligent eyes with a glint of merriment, the furrowed brow, the aquiline nose, the suggestive dimples in the cheeks...the beard and long locks that I sported in my hippie days...He was me. 

Oh sure, it was over a thousand years ago and forty generations removed, but sometimes one has a feeling...

I have just completed a literary consultation with Adam David Rutherford, the famous British geneticist, and author of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. He has confirmed that I am the direct descendant of Drogo of Metz, son of Charlemagne.

But just yesterday, my wife observed that I sometimes project a magnificent Mongolian aura.

Genghis Khan?

Stories in Stone 


 Little Flowers of Love, That Blossomed but to Die...



Stories of survival, determination, and tragedy dominate our history. This one begins at the tail-end of the nineteenth century and continued into the waning years of the twentieth. On June 29, 1883, in the booming mining town of Little Bay on Newfoundland's northeast coast, a baby boy was born to Ursula Newman, daughter of George Newman and Elizabeth Fudge of Triton.

Single-parenthood was a rather daunting situation for a young mother in the 1880s.

Sixty miles to the southeast in Change Islands, Tommy Ledrew and his wife, Mary Ivany, were grieving the loss of their youngest child, nine-year-old Samuel Martin, to drowning a year earlier.

A terrible loss. The youngest son was insurance against the uncertainties of old age.

They decided to move to Long Island in Notre Dame Bay where the fishery was less crowded and where they could make a new beginning. By chance, they heard that the infant in Little Bay was available for adoption. The rest is history, as they say--family history. Tommy and Mary named him Samuel Martin after their lost child.

It was a custom adoption without formal paperwork. In the coming years, Ursula visited the family regularly.

When she married Hezekiah Simmons on November 28, 1887, the wedding, conducted by Rev. H. C. Hatcher, took place at Tommy Ledrew's home at Lush's Bight. Tommy's brother, Phillip, and his wife, Phoebe, from Pilley's Island, witnessed the event as undoubtedly did young Samuel.

Samuel grew up at a time when the fishery offered the only opportunity for a livelihood. He looked elsewhere for a lifelong vocation. In 1907, when he married Bessie Raines (pronounced 'Rines' in the thick West Country accent of Long Island--later changed to 'Ryan' in church registers) he was working on the construction of the new paper mill in Grand Falls which opened two years later.

Bessie's grandparents, William Raines Sr., and Sarah Heath, were among the small group of permanent settlers from the West Country of England who came to Ward's Harbour on Long Island around 1830.

Samuel's connection to the paper company helped him to a career as manager of various logging camps feeding timber to the mill in Grand Falls. His cash income gave him a quality of life and independence uncommon among his neighbors.

His standard of living, however, did not insulate his young family from tragedy.

Some sixty years later, the extent of the heartbreak in their lives dawned on us when Grandmother and Grandfather erected a memorial stone on the site where five of their children were buried. For me, as a child, there was the shock of learning that so many of my mother's family had died. Death was always something that happened to other people.

Dulcy B. survived for just five months in 1911, Bramwell, one-and-a-half months in 1913. Annie B. lived for nine months in 1917. Julie, in 1921, was just six months old. We will likely never know the precise cause of their deaths.

Parish records, vital statistics, and rudimentary medical histories shed some light on those times.

The historical record indicates that scarlet fever was common, as was measles, mumps, and chicken-pox, croup and diphtheria--no vaccines had yet been discovered, antibiotics were 30 to 40 years down the road, medical care was non-existent.

'Died from la grippe,' read the clergyman's death record for Annie B., influenza by another name. 

Patent medicines became the thing. Hucksters, feeding on the fears of ordinary people. Natural treatments, they said.

C.C. Richards & Co pushed Minard's liniment as the cure-all for diphtheria, whooping cough, asthma, bronchitis, cholera, and for an added bonus, it could make hens lay.

In a freak accident in 1933, the infant, Julie, at thirteen months, suffocated when a cooked navy bean wedged in her air passage. Nothing could save her.

Still, ten children survived into adulthood. Eric, born in 1908; Joshua, 1910; Robert, 1914; Mabel, 1916; Nellie Amelia, my mother, in 1919; Selby, 1922; Ralph, 1924; Otto, 1926; Phyllis, 1929; and Ruby, born in 1931--twenty-five years of child-bearing for Grandmother.

Just when they thought the dark times had passed, came another cruel blow when the eldest, 30-year-old Eric, disappeared in 1938 leaving a goodbye letter telling them he would not be in touch for five years. He did not disclose his destination. Gone, but he lived on in their memories.

His brothers and sisters did their best to find him. He remained an elusive phantom--showing up in Canadian border registers at Sydney, Nova Scotia in the mid-twenties; port-of-entry records in New York where he was listed as the purser on the freighting schooner, Ester Adelaide, in the late twenties; Halifax during the Great Depression; then into the void.

His goodbye letter offered a tantalizing clue--verbatim instructions provided by those recruiting young men for the International Brigades to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Tell no-one, not even your family, where you are going.

It was illegal, of course. Canada's parliament had passed legislation to prevent young men from participating in the struggle.

Perhaps the cruelest part for my grandparents was having to listen to stories about Eric's whereabouts, hypotheses thrown out to explain the unexplainable; that he may have been seen on a Swedish freighter docked close by; that he was serving a prison term in the US for smuggling during the prohibition era; that he had been killed in action with US forces during WW2. None stood up to investigation.

What really happened? We will never know with 100% certainty. That bothersome 1% doubt often confounds our search in the dark corners of the past.

Sammy and Bessie were larger than life, Grandmother, a born story-teller, with tales of the wild west involving her sister, Lucy-Mae, and Lucy-Mae's partner, Joe Morgan--Uncle Joe. A gunfight in a crowded saloon...

Grandfather was a giant in a 5' 2" frame, his mannerisms sometimes odd.

Whenever he shopped for clothing, he demanded several sizes beyond what the clerk suggested and always rebuked the man for thinking he was 'a mere boy.'

The old hag haunted his dreams all the way to the end.

Grandfather's Newfoundland pony, Bob, was as eccentric as its master, with the strange ability to calculate the precise weight of its load. If an extra pound were packed on his sled, the stubborn horse looked Grandfather in the eye, lay down on the road, and ignored all encouragement and threats until the offending weight was removed. Grandfather invariably yielded to the pony's wishes, always with the comment, "Bob, you bloody reptile."

I use the expression often.

Sources: United States Prison Records, United States Military Personnel Records, Library and Archives Canada; Spanish Civil War records, The Rooms: Census, Parish and other Records, Long Island Cemeteries, Records of the United Church of Canada, Personal interviews, The Twillingate Sun, 1883-1887.

NB: Newfoundland and Labrador's archival records are some of the best in the English-speaking world, making it relatively easy to trace ancestry to the early days of English settlement.




Unlocking the Past 

The past is never dead. It's not even past

                                                                 ...William Faulkner




The photograph, remarkable for its detail and clarity, was taken at L'Anse au Pigeon (Lancy Pigeon) on the French Shore of northern Newfoundland in the summer of 1910. Many families from the islands in Notre Dame Bay gathered there in the early summer for the seasonal fishery, filling schooners with dried salted cod for the markets of Europe.

On the surface, it appears to be just an ordinary image of the time--shot by an itinerant photographer with a box camera and a steamer trunk filled with period costumes. He traveled every summer from the city to fishing stations along the coast. For a small fee, he dressed his subjects to make them visually presentable, snapped their picture, and months down the road they received their portrait.

Their youth was now enshrined in black and white; she, a 21-year-old; he, 27. They pose with their first child, Rupert Clifford, a Christmas baby in 1909, fragile-looking, the first-born of a large family to come.

In the background, we see the large wooden shed for fish storage and the smaller wood-frame, canvas-covered shack that is their home for the summer.

After the photo session, they dress again in their everyday clothing; she, her simple frock and apron; he, his rough fisherman's Guernsey and stained canvas coveralls. The child's dress and leather lace-up boots, the lady's fine high-necked blouse, and the man's shirt, tie, Edwardian cap, and jacket are all returned to the photographer.

They resume their daily routine. She is responsible for the household, caring for the child, and the curing of cod on the drying flakes. He spends sixteen hours a day hauling the nets, cleaning the fish, and storing it in salt.

They work in a cashless economy. His production becomes a credit on the merchant's ledger which will be drawn down on for winter provisions and the outfitting for next season's fishery. Slavery by today's standards.

Unlocking the past from old photographs and from old documents has long been a passion, some would say an obsession.

For well over two decades, I have poured over old documents in dusty archives. I have traipsed through dozens of cemeteries, some well kept, others abandoned and overgrown with willows and weeds that quickly take hold when communities fade and people forget.

Contacts far and wide have helped me find pieces that fit the puzzle.

At times the search is frustrating, always laborious, time-consuming, but always rewarding. Sometimes, like a wide crevasse on a glacier, the road to the past seems unbridgeable. Invariably, one finds the way.

The passion for genealogy was nurtured years ago by a professor who invited me to enroll in her family history course at the university at a time when I was looking for a beginning. The passion grew as I discovered the archival wealth of The Rooms in St. John's, church records, colonial office papers, old newspapers, war records, and census materials dating back to Sir John Berry's survey of 1675 when he was a British Naval officer on station in Newfoundland waters.

I came to understand the stories told by individual headstones, by abandoned cemeteries, by deserted homes, and by elders whose recollections spanned several generations beyond the misty times before my own memories.

The 1910 portrait taken at L'Anse au Pigeon became a beacon, a jumping off point both to the past and to the future. The man in the photo is my paternal grandfather, Wilson, born 130 years ago on May 23, 1886. I never knew him. He died on the morning of April 24, 1948, when I was just three years old. After rowing across the harbour in his punt, he climbed onto his wharf and suffered a massive heart attack.

Several days later on a snowy spring afternoon, my mother and I watched the funeral procession from the parlour window. A horse-drawn cart with the casket, followed by a group of mourners dressed in black, moved slowly along the harbour road and up to the old United Church on the hill. 

The woman in the photograph, my grandmother, Priscella, was born on March 16, 1889. She died on January 4, 1973, a quiet, gentle lady who doted on her grandchildren.

Rupert Clifford, the baby, died in infancy on February 24, 1911, from one of many childhood diseases for which there was no cure at the time.