The Story of You

How to get started on finding your family’s past

You have a family.

That shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but, really, you do. But what you might not think about often is that it goes beyond your mother, your father and your siblings. It even goes beyond your grandparents. And it keeps on going well past your grandparents’ grandparents.

And if you do think about that now and again, if you do wonder how people back along your family tree lived and died, and if you want to dig deeper into your family’s history, you’re in luck.

Toronto is bursting with places you can go to so you can find answers about your family’s story.

But before you rush off to a historical collection, there’s one source you should always go to first. The best people to talk to when researching your family is, well… your family.

“At least once a week, I hear ‘Oh, I wish I’d asked my grandmother [about the family] before she died,” said Gwen Armstrong, assistant director of the Toronto Family History Centre. “So we always tell people to get as much as they can, especially when they’re young…. Most of us come to a point where we really want to do this, but it’s when we’re older, and the people we need to ask are gone.”

Most people who come into the centre as their first step find they don’t know much about even their recent ancestors, Armstrong said.

Talking with older family members means you’re not just talking to someone who knows the names of the generation before them-it means you’re talking to someone who has actual memory of people and events, said Gwyneth Pearce, a volunteer with the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society.

Once you’ve spoken to your relatives, make sure you try to write down and verify everything they have said. Memory only works so well, and you don’t want to work from the wrong information.

And don’t try to skip too far back. “Work back from what you know,” as Pearce put it. If you know your ancestor John Smith’s date of death, don’t suddenly try to find information about people you think might be his grandparents. Try to find a marriage or a birth certificate for Smith-either of which would then show his parents’ names.

Jumping back to far causes a lot of lost time and backpedalling when it turns out you were too hasty and linked people who weren’t related, Pearce said.
Verification-that’s when it’s time to go out and find an archive of information. The Toronto Public Library has two major family history collections-the genealogy collection at the downtown reference library, which focuses on materials from the UK, and the Canadiana collection at the North York Central branch, which focuses mostly on Ontario.

The Archives of Ontario have, logically enough, the records thus far made public that the government of Ontario have collected over time.
The Toronto Family History Centre, Armstrong’s collection, is part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but doesn’t specialize in religious records. The Mormon Church keeps extensive family history records, especially relating to the British Isles. The Toronto centre has recently looked into the possibility of expanding its records. Anyone can use the collection-the Family History Centre just asks that you make an appointment.

Courses on how to research genealogy are available through the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto, and through the Ontario Genealogical Society.

Finding documents may sound like it involves a lot of reading microfiche or poring through yellowed records in musty church basements-which it definitely can. But many records-even many of the Archives of Ontario’s records-can be found online. Access to many subscription databases, the kind you have to pay for, can be had for free through the library or the Family History Centre.

But, the problem is, official records aren’t enough.

Finding histories of the period and place your ancestors lived is incredibly important, according to Charmaine Lindsay, the head of the Public Library’s Canadiana collection.

“You feel more of a connection with those people if you understand how they lived and how they died.”

Pearce, from the Genealogical Society, agreed.

“It’s about finding what sort of influences would cause your relatives to do various things-to move to a different country or city, to change their employment, to give their children up to an orphanage,” she said. “There are all sorts of factors that go way beyond the names and dates that people associate with genealogy.”

Not that uncovering the hardscrabble details of your ancestors’ lives is necessarily going to come easily. Brick walls are hit during the research process. In Ontario, public records for the living are not available, so finding other branches of the family can be tricky. But there are ways around it.

Going beyond the normal birth and death records is a good step. Lindsay found information about the drowning of a relative in the UK by searching through old Scottish newspapers. Searching for local relatives by going through online archives of the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail-the archives of both are free through the Public Library-can be helpful. Pearce suggested that, if any of your direct ancestors are proving to be a mystery, researching their close relatives-their brothers and sisters-might be a way around the roadblock.

“There can be that discouraging feeling, but, for me, it’s never been so discouraging that I’ve wanted to give up,” Pearce said. She said that there is always some scrap of information you will stumble across that will point the right way. Pearce posted something online that was never replied to until years later, when someone e-mailed her to suggest that they might be related. It opened up a whole new area for her to research.

“There’s always somewhere else to look,” Pearce said. “And there’s always these brilliant moments that just make it all worthwhile.”