Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Maps in Art and Genealogy

            My passion for genealogy, my interest in maps and the enjoyment I get from painting and drawing become even more fun when they intersect with each other.
I have been taking art classes for many years, and my ancestors sometimes turn up in my paintings in some manner or other. Maps are another frequent theme in my artwork, sometimes just as a layer that I cover with paint, sometimes as an image of a place or a route from one place to another. Sometimes I use street grids or contour lines as the starting-point for a drawing, and a birds-eye view of landforms can inspire me to create an abstract image.
 A few years ago, I collected images that were associated with my great-great grandmother Catharine Mitcheson Bagg and put them together in a collage. I included a photograph of a portrait of her; a hand-painted photograph of Fairmount Villa, the house where she lived in Montreal, a letter she wrote and a painting she did on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where she grew up. I glued all these elements on top of some maps of the area where she lived in Montreal. I found these maps on the website of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du QuĂ©bec, I enlarged and printed several sections, coloured them and then covered them with thin rice paper.


          I love old maps, not only because they can be beautiful. Some show places that no longer exist, or that have been swallowed up by urban centers. They can show political boundaries that have changed over time, land use patterns, railway lines that have disappeared, and the locations of church buildings that are now used for entirely different purposes. That makes them an essential research tool for tracking family history.
Family records said my great-great-grandmother Janet MacFarlane was born in Dunkeld, Scotland, and a handwritten note suggested she was born in Craig O’Gowrie, Perthshire. Other notes said Janet’s father was a stonemason before the family left for Canada in 1833, and the family lived near the Tay River.
These were all important clues, but it turned out they were not entirely accurate. Parish records showed that Janet was baptized in Clunie Parish, Perthshire, which is near the Tay and not far from Dunkeld. Frustratingly, I could not find a place called Craig O’Gowrie anywhere.
I searched a number of old maps on the National Library of Scotland’s website and discovered several hamlets called Gourdie in Clunie Parish, including Craigend of Gourdie. When one map showed there had been quarries nearby, I concluded the family had probably lived there. 

I recently participated in a workshop on art and cartography. Our instructor sent us to the park across the street to map, not what we saw, but what we heard: birds, cars, people walking by, someone raking, a loud machine that didn’t stop. That workshop has inspired me to broaden my thinking about the ways maps can represent reality and social history, and to find new ways to make maps into art.

Image sources:

Collage by Janice Hamilton. “Catharine Mitcheson Bagg,” 1865, by William Sawyer, National Gallery of Canada (no. 26744).
Knox, James. "Map of the Basin of the Tay, including the Greater Part of Perth Shire, Strathmore and the Braes of Angus or Forfar." Edinburgh: W. & A. K. Johnston, 1850. N. pag. National Library of Scotland. Web. 19 May 2015.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Looking for the Thompsons of Sophiasburgh and Goshen

Elizabeth "Betsey" Thompson

My father’s mother, Lillian (Forrester) Hamilton, was the historian of the family. She jotted notes on the backs of old photographs and wrote down stories about her grandparents and great-grandparents. These have proved to be extremely helpful to my research, but there was still one big brick wall in her family tree that I have been trying to break through.  

Until I started researching my family's history, I knew very little about my Mama Lil, as we grandchildren called her. Eventually I discovered that Lillian’s mother was Samantha (nicknamed Mattie) Rixon, born in 1856 near Brighton, Ontario. According to Lillian, when Mattie was about three years old, her father died of typhoid and her mother remarried and moved to the United States. Mattie and her little brother were brought up by their grandparents, Thomas Rixon and Elizabeth (Betsey) Thompson. The Rixons had already brought up 12 children, so perhaps raising two more didn’t seem very difficult to them. 

Lillian said that Thomas Rixon was born in England and came to Canada as a young man, but she did not mention anything about Betsey. Calculating her age from the 1871 Census of Canada, Betsey was born around 1804 in Ontario. 

Recently, I searched the public member trees on for “Elizabeth Betsey Thompson.” Betsey appeared in several family trees, sometimes with no parents, sometimes with several generations of ancestors. Some of the trees included glaring inconsistencies. Several agreed that Betsey’s parents were John Thompson and Catherine Bennett, and that the Thompsons had come to Sophiasburgh, Ontario from Goshen, Orange County, in southern New York State. 

At first, I was not convinced that the Thompsons of Sophiasburgh and the Thompsons of Goshen were linked. After all, John Thompson is a very common name, and none of the trees I had found included solid sources. In fact, I felt I was going in circles: public member trees referred to other people’s trees as sources, but original BMD or census records were rare.   

I did, however, note similarities between the rather unusual names of John Thompson’s children (Kezia, Phoebe and Rhoda, for example,) and Betsey’s children. There was also evidence in death and census records that some of Betsey’s older siblings had been born in New York.

I contacted the owner of the tree that seemed to make the most sense and included the most sources. She has been extremely helpful and put me in contact with the person who did most of the original research she used. I have talked to that person by phone.

Grave of Elizabeth and Thomas Rixon, Hilton United Church Cemetery
I also wrote to the Orange County Genealogical Society and they put me in touch with a local resident who has researched the Thompson family extensively. She wrote to me, indicating that there is a very big file on the Thompsons at the OCGS, including documents concerning John Thompson’s family in Ontario.     

So I am now convinced that I’m on the right track. Over the next few months, I plan to visit the libraries of the Quinte Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, and the Orange County Genealogical Society.

I would love to find a smoking gun – a marriage record in Goshen for John Thompson and Catherine Bennett, for example – but I don’t think that is going to happen. I do expect to find secondary sources and books that mention the family. My goal is to make a strong argument, based on Genealogical Proof Standards, that Betsey Thompson’s family immigrated to Ontario from Goshen around 1800. 

photo credits: courtesy Karen L. Singer
Janice Hamilton