by Stephen C. Young
As a young man in 1979, I was still living in my hometown of London, Ontario, and it was then that I first cut my teeth on genealogical research. Though tentative, the curiosity to know more about my family history motivated me to enlist the help of my father to take me to the rural cemetery where his grandparents were buried about 30 miles away in Perth County. It was the origin of our Young family in the not-so-distant past as far as we knew it at the time.
We spent a pleasant hour exploring and finding not only the graves of Charles Young (1861–1922) and his wife, Clara (née Young—they were second cousins), but also the graves of the next generation of parents and brothers and sisters. This first experience in visiting a cemetery was not only successful, but I found it fascinating and soon followed it up by visiting the London Public Library and confirming all the names and dates I had found in the 1881 Canadian census (the latest one released at that time).
In the almost 40 intervening years since my initial foray among the tombstones, subsequent research paths have led me to investigate the origins and history of Canada. I’ve found that the different branches of my own ancestry are somewhat representative of the general peopling of British North America. (I have no French-Canadian ancestry, which of course has roots back to the earliest settlements along the St. Lawrence River in the 1600s.)
Along with the immigrant farmers from England arriving to clear the virgin forests of eastern Canada during the early 19th century, I discovered Loyalist ancestry—those who earlier still took up arms for King George III during the American Revolution and who were among the first to settle on land awarded to them by the Crown along the lakes and waterways from Nova Scotia, through Quebec and Ontario. My high school history classes, which at the time seemed so tedious and irrelevant, came alive as I studied the causes and effects of America’s first civil war. I even found eyewitness accounts of one ancestor who fought in Butler’s Rangers, a Loyalist regiment ranging through New York and Pennsylvania, defending royal prerogative in America. The activities and service of the Rangers are not only recounted in local histories in the United States, but individual accounts are preserved in the Loyalist claims to justify the awards of land on the frontiers north of the border after the conflict was over.
Like many other Canadians, I can trace other ancestral lines from the east up into Canada during the early 1800s, with the opening of new lands for settlement. Progressively, as those lands filled up, my research followed the fortunes of the next generations as they moved west into the developing farmlands of the prairies. In my ancestry, I can count not only farmers, but shopkeepers, railway workers, soldiers, and sailors.
I’ve become somewhat of an expert in Canadian military records due to my developing interest in the world wars and my family’s involvement in them. Not only did my father and grandfather serve, but my research on collateral lines has revealed uncles and cousins serving in the army, navy, and air force, some of whom are lying in graves across the ocean. One of my great-grandfather’s cousins died in Toronto in October 1918, another victim along with the thousands who died during the great flu epidemic following the conclusion of World War I.
Though I am the first in my immediate family to gain a university education, I’ve learned that other branches of my family produced college graduates, some even becoming mayors, aldermen, and nationally known successful businessmen during the last century. And, of course, I’ve found scoundrels and criminals in my family tree. One Irish-Canadian fourth-great-grandfather died in 1848 while incarcerated in Kingston Penitentiary, while his younger brother was hanged for murder 10 years later.
And what makes my family’s story uniquely Canadian? I suppose that only the places where these events happened and their immediate political context separate Canadians from their neighbors to the south. American stories and research closely mirror my own in terms of sources and timelines because the stories and history of both nations are similarly parallel. In my experience, I’ve found that a huge percentage of Americans have ancestry who at least came through Canada, if they aren’t from Canada themselves. And the converse is true—many in Canada can trace their family lines back into the early history of the United States.
I’ve used records in my hometown, provincial archives, and Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, as well as in collections held by local libraries, historical societies, and genealogical societies. And I’ve used the many websites sponsored by these institutions. I never run out of new places to investigate and am continually surprised at what I find. Nearly four decades of family history research have made history come alive for me.