The Value of Obituaries

WilliamWilsonObitSometimes, when you’re wondering where that ancestor disappeared, an obituary will provide the answer. But not their obituary!

Relatives doing family history have asked why I have spent time researching branches of the family tree that are not my direct ancestors.

The answer is a bit convoluted .. just like the route to finding my direct ancestors.

Sometimes the trail for my family tree goes nowhere. But tracking the siblings of my ancestors may be a route around the roadblock that will lead right to my ancestor .. or to a cousin who may know other details I’m looking for about our common ancestors.

Case in point: the Wilsons of Aylwin, QC.

That’s the family of my great grandmother, Eliza Wilson. They are from Scotland, all the earliest records show this. But where in Scotland?

Her father, Robert Wilson, first appears in Huntley (near Carp, where Eliza is born), then Nepean, and finally Aylwin QC. Robert was a tanner, the likely reason for his early death.

When his wife, Annie Graham, remarries and ends up in Gloucester with her younger children and new husband, Eliza meets a next door neighbour .. and eventually marries John ‘Jake’ McEwan.

Some of her siblings seems to disappear. An obituary finally puts her brother William Wilson in Eastview (Ottawa). And her brother Robert?

Listed among the survivors is Robert .. of “Hokim, Wash.” That would explain why Robert disappeared completely. He was among those who headed to the United States during the logging boom of the early 1900s. US Census records subsequently show him first living in Wisconsin (where he marries) and then in Washington State, near Seattle. Thanks to a Google search, it was easy to find that he had lived in Hoquiam, Washington.

Obituaries prove the point that much of what appears in historic newspapers was really hearsay .. it was what the reporter heard them say! Important then not to get hung up on the mistakes, like Eliza McEwan becoming L (for Liza) McEwan .. but at the right address!

Are we a little closer to finding someone who knows the family origins in Scotland? Hopefully! I’m working on a Hoquiam Family Reunion for the Wilson descendants of Robert in May 2016 .. along with another group of Wilsons in the Hoquiam area .. possibly Robert’s uncle’s family?

To be continued.

McEwan Shortbread

Grandpa McEwan was a baker. Since he was 16!

While I love food, I’ve never put a recipe on this blog … until now!

Part of family history is the smell, the taste, the experience of what it means to be family. Baking was a big part of that for me. Though Grandpa died before I was born, there was one recipe that was a part of every holiday season, Christmas and Easter: the McEwan shortbread.

My mom baked them every year, for as long as I can remember. Only when she left her own apartment did that tradition end. And on her last Christmas season, we used the assisted living facility’s common kitchen to bake cookies, to be packed as gifts for her friends at the residence.

You could tell these were home made. The final touch was the use of the fork to make a special mark this way, then that, on the top. It was something Mom had picked up from Grandpa.

At age 19, Grandpa became a baker at Fenton’s bakery on Bank Street. Years later, shortly before his death in 1956, he retired from Fenton’s.

He had a stint in the Air Force in World War II .. as a man in his late forties! ..  as — of course — a cook, at a training base in Canada.

Since I’m not a cook, I will give the details as I understand them to read. I notice I don’t have a “yields” amount. (I believe the yield is 24 cookies.) If you try it, let me know if I’ve written it understandably.

McEwan Shortbread

3 1/4 cup white flour

1/2 cup sugar – confectioners’

1 cup butter

Sift flour and sugar together 4-5 times. Stand butter at room temperature 15-20 minutes, then cut into dry ingredients with two knives or a pastry cutter until perfectly blended. Mold on wax paper with your hands. Roll into small balls and flatten with a fork so cookie is about 3/4 inch thick.

Bake about 15 minutes at 300-325 degrees F

[=150-160C; original is in F].

Must be almost white when done. If baked too long, it will become hard.

Great War Death Toll Underestimated By 1 Million?

The statistics for the Allied Powers of the Great War, now often called World War I, from 1914-1918, are staggering:

Military dead: 5,525,000
Military wounded: 12,831,500
Military missing: 4,121,000
Total: 22,477,500 KIA, WIA or MIA

Canada’s share was overwhelming: military dead (64,976) as a percentage of Canada’s 1914 population of 7.2 million was 1%, with and additional 2% of the population returning as wounded (149,732). [Newfoundland, a separate colony, had similar figures — .7% deaths, 1.1% wounded.]

The 100th anniversary of the war has led to quite a flurry of research of its various aspects. A new collection of essays, The Cambridge History of The First World War, is a 3 volume massive work of 2,352 pages, covering the Global War (v. 1), The State (v.2) and Civil Society (v.3).

It has broken some new ground in looking at the toll in human lives lost. Antoine Prost, emertius Professor of History at the  University of Paris, writes in his essay The Dead, in v. 3 (Civil Society), argues that a combination of errors, confusion, and an inclination to publish low figures, led to an underestimation of the death toll. It could be off by anywhere from 1/2 to 1 million. In analyzing casualty lists of the warring parties, Prof. Prost noted that there is considerable confusion “concerning places whose borders had shifted; there is inconsistency in recording the deaths of soldiers from sickness, and prisoners of war who died in captivity; and there is uncertainty surrounding the number of soldiers reported missing.”

It is not surprising that — regarding the mental health of those soldiers not returning with physical wounds — the numbers for those psychologically damaged by the experiencbc8e88f-c11d-422b-b035-baf6eae78fbeces of the Great War is likely also considerably underestimated. For a physician to diagnose a returning soldier as suffering from “shell-shock” was to make it less likely that he would receive a pension.

This might well have been the situation of my grandfather’s brother, Ernest McEwan, a Great War soldier, who in 1935 died from an “overdose of aspirin” following a cancer operation. He not only endured the incredible stress of the War on the ground, but after the War was a guard on the trains that took Chinese men of the Chinese Labour Corps, drafted to fight in the War, from Halifax, Nova Scotia to ships in Vancouver, British Columbia as part of a “forced deportation” back to China and Hong Kong. (The British did not want the Chinese labourers to settle in United Kingdom or any of the Colonies.)

As background on the Great War, the 3-volume work is a fascinating resource, but the price is also amazing: The 3 volumes purchased together are $380 (Amazon $361);  individual volumes are $150 each (Amazon about $130). You can preview the Table of Contents for volume 3 here.

To consult it, it’s probably easiest to find it at a good University library. Search worldcat to find a copy near you.