Grandpa’s Family


Richard MacDonald – my paternal grandfather – died before I was born. I met only two of his siblings as a child – my uncle Eddy the retired locomotive engineer, and my Aunt Lizzie (Elizabeth) who lived at the time in Bobcaygeon Ontario. So when I got interested in researching the MacDonald family tree I didn’t have a lot of personal experience with Grandpa’s side.

I had a few pictures my mother and my cousin Larry gave me and that was that.

I did know that great-grandfather Richard (same name as Grandpa MacD) had sired quite a family. There were 9 surviving siblings listed on Richard MacDonald’s obituary in 1935. So I dug into the Census data from Canada in 1881, 1891, 1901, and 1911. Just about the whole family was listed there in one form or another over the 30 years. However, people came and went from the list so I was never sure exactly how many kids we were talking about in total.

What really helped was the discovery of the St Anthony Centreville baptismal files from the 19th century on FamilySearch – the LDS genealogy site. All of Richard and Elizabeth’s kids were baptized in this one tiny parish in the middle of Podunk Ontario. The baptismal register was rewritten in the 1950s in a clear easy to read script. It was a goldmine – verifying once and for all the birth dates on 14 kids!

That was the easy part. It’s taken years to trace the rest – spouse, kids, death date – for each of these children born between 1862 and 1884. And it’s not over yet and may not be in my lifetime. It’s not like I have any one source of information on them. And besides that there are other complications, such as:

  • What was the real last name of this family anyway? The census data are mixed and confusing. At one time maybe the family name was McDonnell, but other sources give it as McDonald or MacDonald (the way my particular branch spells it.) It’s all the same name really, but it causes problems in research – especially the automated hint mechanism supported through Ancestry. Spelling was never a strength in census takers a century or more ago.
  • There was often brutal corruption of French names by anglophone record keepers. For example, it appears that my great grandmother Elizabeth’s family name was Brien at one time. This got changed to Briaw, Briault, Breaugh, Breault in various censuses and church records. The Breaults are a family in their own right and if you trace back my family using this name you’ll soon run into problems – like a generation out of place. It just doesn’t fit.
    Other problems occurred when my grandfather’s sisters married French guys. Aunt Lizzie married a Gendron but I’ve seen that name spelled as Jendron. Aunt Mary married John J. Jandreau but that name was corrupted to Johndrew or Johndrow. The Church marriage records in Napanee managed to confuse Gendron and Jandreau at one point.
  • It was a long time ago – certainly nothing recent about this group. My grandfather was in his 30s when my dad was born. My dad was in his 40s when I was born. I’ve been around close to 70 years myself. So we are talking folks who were born close to a century and a half ago. Some were in their 50s when World War 1 got started. I had contact with only a couple of them when I was 9-10 years old. There is no living memory to go on when I was tracing them.
  • They moved around a bit. The census never shows the whole family in one place. The older kids got started in their jobs when they were teens. Some moved to the USA and made their lives there. Others went to Toronto, Oshawa and Ottawa. By the time I grew up nobody was left in my home town, except deceased family members like my grandfather (occupying the cemetery, natch.)

Although I got lucky and established all the births thanks to the Centreville church records, figuring out dates of death for the MacDonald family was quite a bit more complicated. In fact there are a few I can only pinpoint as after 1935 or after 1945. A few died in Ontario prior to 1939 and for these I can mostly find a record. Others can be found in online databases of newspapers, or the Find A Grave website. I was able to find out what happened to two great-aunts and a great-uncle who went to live in New York, thanks to an excellent website called Fulton History and some wonderful help from a genealogy library in Watertown. I’m still working on these end of life issues and trying to trace descendants where I can – given that a number of these cousins are now deceased as well.

It would really help if the church records in the Diocese of Kingston would release more data. Right now any records after 1910 are still sealed. Maybe that’ll change one of these days.

I suppose I could end this post with the sad story of great-aunt Bridget MacDonald Gough (1881-1924.) Of all the family she was the hardest to track down. My parents never mentioned her. Sometimes Bridget showed up in the census and sometimes not. There were times when I thought she and Theresa MacDonald were the same person, but eventually found out they were not.

Anyway Bridget married Frank Gough in 1913 and they lived in Toronto. They had three children – Francis born 1914, Rita born 1917 and a third child who died immediately after birth in September 1922. Francis Gough Jr. died in September 1923. In September 1924 Bridget must have been overcome with memories of grief. She turned on the gas in her home and killed herself and her third child Rita.

Poor Frank. He moved to the US to make a new life for himself after losing his entire family. Who could blame him?

As you can imagine this came as a bit of a shock to me as well. You don’t imagine learning of a tragedy like this 90 years after it happened. But such is the story of Grandpa MacDonald’s family.

You may like