Friday, February 21, 2014

Summer in Georgeville

My grandmother, her sister and their nanny pose beside St. Clair Lodge in 1895. Lake Memphremagog is hidden behind the trees. 

Georgeville is a charming village, nestled between the hills and farms of Quebec’s Eastern Townships and the shores of Lake Memphremagog. There is a fancy general store, a park complete with old-fashioned gazebo, and a wharf popular with recreational boaters. The village has a cheerful mix of weekend cottagers and year-round residents. It that respect, it hasn’t changed much in more than 100 years.

A few years ago, I discovered that my great-grandparents owned a summer house there. According to the 1895-1896 Lovell’s Directory of Montreal, Robert Stanley Bagg’s summer residence was St. Clair Lodge, Georgeville. I had uncovered another bit of lost family history: although I have owned a small cottage about 15 minutes from there since 1979, I had no idea there was an ancestral connection to the area.

Montreal-born Robert Stanley Bagg (1848-1912) studied law and became a businessman. He married Clara Smithers in 1882 and the couple had three children, Evelyn, Gwendolyn (my grandmother) and Harold Stanley.

I asked several people around Georgeville whether they knew of a house called St. Clair Lodge, but had no luck. Then Louise Abbott, a friend who is writing a book about the history of Lake Memphremagog, contacted me to ask about my great-grandparents. She had never heard of St. Clair Lodge, but she told me that’s because the property has been called Edgewood for many years. The house is still standing, though much has changed, and Louise sent me some photos.

Amongst some old letters and newspaper clippings, I made another discovery: Robert Stanley Bagg donated the bell to the St. George’s Anglican Church. The church too is still standing.  

This set of furniture set which came from the Bagg house has a new home with the Stanstead Historical Society.
There is a good reason why my ancestors spent their summers in Georgeville, apart from the beauty of the place: Montreal was an extremely unhealthy place, especially in summer, and especially for small children. In 1900, the city had a higher infant mortality rate than most Third World countries do today. With no water treatment and inadequate sewers, diarrhea was the biggest killer. Diphtheria, typhoid, tuberculosis, measles and other communicable diseases also posed threats. These conditions affected the poor more than the wealthy, but that was partly because anyone who could afford to leave the city in the summer did so.

St. George's Anglican Church, Georgeville
Many Montrealers summered in the Eastern Townships, known officially today as l’Estrie. Southeast of Montreal, this was originally the territory of the Abenaki First Nations people. American Loyalists started to move into the area around 1791, and Georgeville was founded in 1797 when enterprising settler Moses Copp started a ferry service across the lake.

As the population and industry of the Eastern Townships grew, so did the network of railways that crossed the area. Most important was the Grand Trunk Railway, completed in 1853, linking Montreal with the ice-free harbour of Portland, Maine. 

The Bagg family sold their Georgeville house around 1900, but, along with many of their friends, they continued to spend their summers far from Montreal, first at Cacouna, on the St. Lawrence River, downriver from Quebec City, and later near St. Agathe, in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal, and in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Photos: courtesy Fran Williams
Janice Hamilton (added March 14, 2015)
Janice Hamilton

Research Remarks: Here are some resources reflecting the history of the Eastern Townships’ English-speaking population. Since the mid-1800s, the majority of area residents have been French-speaking. The Townships Heritage Web Magazine features articles, old photos and maps.  The Eastern Townships Resource Centre (ETRC) has an extensive collection of publications, genealogical sources and other material. Of special interest is a series of articles about local history published by the Sherbrooke Record,  Headstones in the many rural cemeteries around Stanstead County are listed here.  This is a link to the archives of the Stanstead Historical Society, located in the Colby-Curtis Museum in Stanstead, Quebec, near the Quebec-Vermont border.  This blog features old postcards of Georgeville and a link to photos from the McCord Museum in Montreal.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Exploring Emerson

Ruth Breckman, her sister Jean Hewko, and recently discovered cousin Janice Hamilton (that's me) visit the Forrester family plot in Emerson cemetery, Manitoba.

A few years ago, I was telling someone at the Quebec Family History Society library about the research I was doing on my Forrester ancestors. Someone else overheard me and asked, “Is that the Forresters of Manitoba?” Indeed it was! She told me that she had met a nice woman at a genealogy conference some years before who was also researching that family.

She put me in touch with Ruth Breckman, who turned out to be a distant cousin. Last fall, my husband and I visited Winnipeg, Manitoba. Ruth and her sister took us to the Aux Marais district, about 45 minutes south of the city, to visit the old Forrester farm. That was where Ruth grew up, and where my father’s mother, Lillian Forrester, spent her childhood.

Lillian was born near Belleville, Ontario in 1880. When she was about a year old, her grandparents, parents and most of her aunts and uncles moved west, along with thousands of other settlers. There, Lillian grew up on a prairie grain farm. As a young adult, she taught school for a year, then moved to Winnipeg to study nursing. In 1906, she married Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, and she spent the rest of her life in that city.

Lillian was not the only Forrester to leave the farm. Lillian’s parents, Jack and Mattie, retired in California, her uncle David became a lawyer in the nearby town of Emerson, uncle Don was a land developer, her aunt Jenny lived in Minnesota and uncle Jim also eventually moved to Winnipeg. Only her uncle William’s family kept on farming in the Aux Marais district, and Ruth is one of his descendants.

During our day-long excursion, Ruth showed us where the old one-room Marais schoolhouse used to be, and the historic community center. We crossed the Marais River, an apt name for a waterway that is more a marsh than a river. She also took us to Emerson Cemetery where my great-great grandparents (and her great-grandparents) Janet and James Forrester are buried.

Emerson was a boom town in the early 1880s. Located on the banks of the Red River and adjacent to the United States border, it was on the only rail line connecting eastern Canada with the prairies, a line that went through the U.S. When the Canadian Pacific Railroad completed the transcontinental railroad through Winnipeg in 1885, Emerson quickly declined. Today, just a few grand buildings remain, hinting at the town’s promising past.  

Members of the Forrester family still run the family farm.
After lunch, Ruth took us to visit the farm where the current generation of Forresters  grow corn, beans and other crops. The 3,000-acre farm they operate today includes the same four quarters, or 640 acres, that James and Janet Forrester and their sons purchased more than 130 years ago. They will most likely be the last members of the family on the farm.

Research Remarks:  The Manitoba Historical Society website,, has links to a number of resources, including photos, maps and articles, as well as links to  other historical and genealogical organizations, museums and archives in the province. The society’s list of Memorable Manitobans includes several members of the Forrester family, and there is an article about Emerson at

Sunday, February 9, 2014

My Shearman Brick Wall

Mrs. Smithers, photographed by William Notman in Montreal in 1886. She was born Martha Bagnall Shearman in Ireland in 1826. Photo courtesy the McCord Museum.

Part 1: Ireland

Genealogists suggest that when you are having trouble going backwards, go sideways instead. After two weeks of sideways research, I have turned up a lot of great-great-uncles, aunts and distant cousins, but I have no idea whether all this hard work will help me find my elusive three-times great-grandparents. Part of the problem is that the earlier ancestors were in Ireland, the ones I have been discovering had immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, and I live in Montreal. 

My great-great grandmother, Martha Bagnall Shearman, was born in Waterford, Ireland, according to the 1861 Canadian census. She married Englishman Charles Francis Smithers at the Church of Ireland Cathedral of Holy Trinity, Waterford, Ireland, on September 10, 1844. Her parents’ names were not identified on the marriage record. One of the witnesses at the wedding was Thomas Shearman, who was probably Martha’s brother, cousin or uncle. 

Three years later, the couple immigrated to Canada, where Charles became a banker, and they started a family that eventually grew to include 11 children. For several years, Charles was the Bank of Montreal’s senior agent in New York City, and the Smithers family lived in Brooklyn. They eventually returned to Montreal and, in 1881, he was named president of the Bank of Montreal, a position he held until his sudden death in 1887. The widowed Martha may have then moved back to Brooklyn, where she had relatives, and she died there in 1897, age 71. Charles F. and Martha B. Smithers are buried in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery.

Martha Bagnall Shearman is special to me because she is the earliest ancestor so far in my maternal line: I have inherited her mtDNA. I’d like know who her parents were, especially her mother. It is very likely that Bagnall (or Bagnell) was a family name, perhaps her mother’s. St. Clair may also be a family name, since two members of later generations, one in Montreal and one in Brooklyn, had St. Clair as a middle name.

Two Shearmans are listed in the city of Waterford in the Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland, 1846: Alexander and William. Both were attorneys, perhaps one of them was Martha’s father. On the same directory page, listed under bacon merchants, was Charles F. Smithers. However, it is also possible the Shearman family came from neighbouring county Kilkenny. Time, and a lot more research, will hopefully tell.

Part 2: Brooklyn

When my great-grandmother Clara Smithers was growing up in Brooklyn, New York, she had an autograph book filled with poems, drawings and signatures from friends and relatives. Among those signatures was that of May P. Shearman. I knew that Clara’s mother, whose maiden name was Martha B. Shearman, had a brother in Brooklyn, so I wondered whether May was her cousin. Indeed, May P. Shearman, aged four, was in the 1860 U.S. Federal Census along with her father, Henry, a lumber merchant, his wife Elizabeth, and Harriet, her younger sister. Eventually, Henry and Elizabeth had 10 children. Henry, born in Ireland around 1832, died in 1882.

Smithers plot in Brooklyn
Recently, I came across an article in the Brooklyn Eagle, dated Dec. 4, 1895, describing the wedding of Helen St. Clair Shearman, daughter of the late Henry Shearman, at Marcy Avenue Baptist Church. The article noted that Helen was the niece of Charles F. Smithers, president of the bank of Montreal, confirming the family connection. 

One of the ushers at Helen’s wedding was her cousin William B. Shearman. The 1892 New York State census indicated that William B. was the son of Thomas Shearman and his wife Deborah, and that William had at least two siblings. So, it seemed, Martha had two brothers, Henry and Thomas, in Brooklyn. Like Henry, Thomas was in the lumber business. He was born in Ireland around 1822, and he died in Brooklyn in 1894.
There was a well-known lawyer in Brooklyn at the time, Thomas G. Shearman, and I had to be sure that the records I collected belonged to my Thomas and not to the other one. Spelling was another challenge: the census spelled my Thomas as Sherman, not Shearman. And to add to the confusion, the Shearman children all seemed to have had nicknames like Bessie, Harry, Hattie and Nannie. In fact, May P. Shearman’s name was actually Mary.
For a day or so, I was very pleased with myself, satisfied that I had made a good start at finding Martha’s siblings. But one thing was still bothering me: the 1880 census listed John Boate, bookkeeper, living with Henry Shearman’s family. He was identified as Henry’s brother-in-law. John’s sister and his three children were also listed.  Who were these people? 

I searched for John Boate and Shearman, leaving the wife’s first name blank. Sure enough, Maria Ann Shearman turned up, a probable sister for Martha, Henry and Thomas. She died in 1879 from an abdominal tumor, which helps explain why her husband and children were staying with relatives a year later.
I do not yet have a clue where any of the Shearmans are buried, nor have I found some of the birth, marriage and death records that should be there. That is no doubt due to my inexperience researching in New York State, and the fact that many records are not online.

I also wonder whether some of those 19th century photographs I inherited, unidentified except for the names of the Brooklyn photographers who took them, were Shearmans. 

I am curious about May P. Shearman, who helped point the way to her family. The last record I found for her is in the 1915 New York State census, age 59, no occupation, living as a roomer with her widowed sister Elizabeth King, 35, school teacher. 

I still wonder whether Martha, Henry, Thomas and Maria Ann had any other siblings, and whether finding any of these Americans will help identify their parents in Ireland. And it would be a bonus to find some living descendants.

updated with photo March 23, 2015

updated Sept. 10, 2016: In answer to my final question, the Shearmans had another sibling in New Zealand, and there are records of the Shearman family in Ireland going back to the late 1600s. See Breaking Through My Shearman Brick Wall, posted July 6, 2016,

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

James and Janet Forrester

James Drummond Forrester, born Forfar, Scotland, 1823, died Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1904.

Slipped into the back of the photo album I inherited from my father was a picture of a serious-looking gentleman man with silver hair. Although his name, James Drummond Forrester, was on the back, I had only a vague idea who he was.

Many years later, I discovered he was my great-great-grandfather, and a distant cousin sent me a photo of his wife, Janet MacFarlane. I learned that James and Janet had both emigrated with their families from Scotland when they were children, and they had grown up on neighbouring farms near Belleville, Ontario. They married around 1850, lived on the farm that James inherited from his parents and raised seven children of their own.

Thirty years later, they immigrated again, this time to Canada’s western prairies. Good land was becoming scarce and expensive in the Belleville area, while the North West was just opening up to settlement, so they sold the farm in Ontario and started over. Both were in their mid-50s at the time.

The decision was no doubt a good one in the long term, but it wasn’t easy. James bought land in the Aux Marais district of Manitoba, south of Winnipeg, during a period of real estate speculation and high prices. In 1884, when he could not sell his oats for a good price and frost ruined some of his wheat, he had to request an extension of his mortgage.

Shortly after they moved, their eldest daughter, Christina, who had married and stayed in Ontario, died in childbirth. James and Janet brought the baby to Manitoba and raised her themselves.

Lillian Forrester, who eventually became my grandmother, was very close to Janet, who was her grandmother, and she loved to listen to stories about Janet’s life. Lillian shared some of those memories with her cousin Charles Forrester, who incorporated them into an article.

Charlie wrote, “Although serious by nature and given to recording her thoughts and feelings in verse, none the less she [Janet] was practical and self-reliant, guiding the affairs of her household wisely and well. Yet she was far from claiming perfection, admitting the possession of a hasty temper, saying she was sure of more stars in her crown than Grandpa because of having to control a tempestuous nature, while his was placid, requiring no such effort.” 

Janet MacFarlane, born Clunie Parish, Scotland, 1825, died Aux Marais district, Manitoba, 1901.

Charlie then described James:  “Grandpa was not only a successful farmer, but a skilful carpenter, blacksmith and machinist and, with the help of my father, rebuilt threshing machines, wagons, sleighs and other necessary farm equipment.”

James and Janet planted a beautiful flower garden beside their house, surrounded by lilac trees. Both loved to read and had “a fine collection of books, many of them sent from Scotland and treasured like gold.”

When James and Janet Forrester celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1900, the whole family attended the party. After Janet’s death in 1901, James moved in with his son Donald in Winnipeg. James died in 1904. Both are buried in Emerson, Manitoba, a few miles from their farm.

Research Remarks: The historical atlas of the counties of Hastings and Prince Edward, Ontario, first published in 1878, listed James Forrester, farmer, from Forfarshire, Scotland, with 100 acres on Concession III, lot 20, and 99 acres on Concession II, lot 22, Melrose, Ontario. A searchable database based on this series of atlases ( may be useful to anyone with ancestors in rural Ontario.

The original book form of the atlas was also valued by the Forresters. It included a drawing, done by a travelling artist, of their farmhouse in Ontario. Grandson Charles Forrester recalled that, after the move to Manitoba, that atlas became a prized family possession.

Charles Forrester wrote a memoir about his extended family, entitled My World, In Story, Verse and Song, and it was published privately in 1979. His eight-page article “James and Janet Forrester” can be found in the Hamilton Family fonds at the University of Manitoba Archives,

Photo of Janet Forrester courtesy of Ruth Breckman.