A Tale of Two Houses

Back in the Olden Days people didn’t move around much, and the place where you lived was as much a part of your identity as your name.

In the old birth, marriage, and death records I have been studying from the Carpatho-Rusyn village of Rozdziele (where some of my ancestors came from), it is evident that keeping track of an individual’s identity was of the utmost importance to the parish priests whose beautiful penmanship adorns these registers. But in a village of 400 people with only a handful of surnames, and where almost everyone is named John, Mary, Peter, or Onuphrius, how on earth do you differentiate one John Tylawsky from the next?

One remarkable thing about all these parish records is that they carefully record the house number (Domus Numerus) where the principal actors lived: the house where a birth or death happened (there were no hospitals, of course; everyone was born and died at home), and the house where each party to a marriage lived (at first just the groom’s house was recorded, but starting in 1847 the bride’s was too).

More often than not, the house number is essential for identifying and differentiating people with similar names, and with the house number, you can get an idea of how family alliances form and change over time.

Here is a sample death record for the purpose of illustration. The column to note is Nrus Domus obitus, “House Number of the deceased”. Birth and marriage records have a similar column. The clerk typically tried to pack as much family information into the record as possible so as to remove ambiguity, e.g. in House 62: “Eva, wife of Petrus Przybyła” and in House 40: “Justina, born the daughter of Basilius Pregnar and Rosalia, formerly Dudra.” Both died of “Epidemia”. More about this later.

Sample record header

This House Number was not a street address, exactly. As each new house was built in the village it was assigned a serial number that had no logical connection to its location as modern addresses do, although the building of houses did tend to follow the general expansion of the village over time, and the house numbers tend to increment along those lines of expansion.

As I was researching the family of my great-grandmother Julia (see Julia Swedish was not Swedish!) I discovered two house numbers in particular that showed up again and again, and when I started enumerating the multitudes that these houses held across the decades, I realized that the houses themselves had stories to tell.

I’ll begin with House 40, the birthplace of Julia’s mother (my great-great-grandmother), Maria Pregnar. Maria was born there in 1842, but before we get to that point we have a bit of time-unraveling to do first.

The records I have begin in 1784, and they document the births, deaths, and marriages that took place in the four villages that comprised the Greek Catholic parish of Męcina Wielka: Rozdziele, Wapienne, Pstrążne, and Męcina Wielka itself.

The Greek Catholic Church, formerly called Uniate, was an interesting hybrid that arose out of the ancient East-West schism of Christianity. It used the forms of the Eastern Orthodox communion, and showed outward similarities to the Russian Orthodox Church, but it acknowledged the supremacy of Rome.

1784-85 was an important year in Rozdziele, because it saw the building and dedication of its own church, The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin (or Maria Geburt in the language of their new Austrian overlords). This new church, so close to home, would have allowed the residents of Rozdziele to attend mass in their own village, rather than having to travel 2.5 kilometres to the main parish church in Męcina Wielka.

The first knowledge I have of House 40 is the record of a marriage that took place on July 21, 1784. It is, indeed, the first marriage in the entire parish that these records report, and it may well have been the first marriage that was solemnized in the brand-new Maria Geburt church. It was the marriage of one Grzegorz (Gregory) Mizik, from the nearby village of Wapienne, and Agata (or Agaphia) Kunca (pronounced KOON-tsa). Bride and groom are both quite old– Agata is 50, and Grzegorz is almost 25 years her senior. The details of their past are lost to me, but this was not the first marriage for either of them.

The first marriage celebrated in Rozdziele after the building of the new Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin was between Gregorius Mizik from Wapienne and Agaphia Kuncicha. Kuncicha is the feminine form of Kunca.

The first marriage celebrated in Rozdziele after the building of the new Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin was between Gregorius Mizik from Wapienne and Agaphia (Agata) Kuncicka. Kuncicka is the feminine form of Kunca.

From other records I managed to piece together a bit of the story. I surmise (please note that much of this paragraph is based on inference and circumstantial evidence) that the original inhabitant of House 40 was one Andrzei (Andrew) Kunca, and Agata was his wife. He died sometime prior to 1784, leaving no son to inherit the farm, but they had one daughter, Anna, born about 1732. The widow Agata married the elderly Grzegorz in 1784 and then followed him to his home in Wapienne, where they lived out the rest of their days– Agata dying just a few years later, in 1788, and Grzegorz living until 1797, dying at the ripe old age of 93.

If I am correct about this reconstruction, then Andrzei and Agata Kunca would be my… let’s see… great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents.

Andrzei was doubtless a serf, meaning that he was not free to move about and choose his own occupation or employer, and he was obligated to spend a certain number of days each year working the farmland of the local Polish landlord. Andrzei would have been born in the early decades of the 18th century. I don’t know when he died, but he may have lived to see the First Partition of Poland (1772), when his homeland went from Polish to Austrian rule.

I should note that even though I am using the Polish versions of given names here, the people I am writing about had a national identity that was definitely not Polish. German-speaking Austrians ruled them from far-off Vienna, Polish aristocrats owned most of the land, and Polish was the language of law, school, and government bureaucracy, but the people thought of themselves as neither Polish nor Austrian. The government authorities referred to the rustic farmers occupying the north slope of the Carpathian Mountains as Rusyn (Ruthenian), and the language they spoke amongst themselves was an ancient dialect of what we now call Ukrainian.

But Anna, waving farewell to her “newlywed” mother Agata and old Grzegorz as they shambled off down the road to Wapienne, was not left alone in that house! Even though the records do not speak directly of it, she had, years before, married a young man and brought him into the house, perhaps as early as 1763, and they started a family of their own. This young man’s name was Stefan Pregnar, and he came from a family that appeared to be well established in Rozdziele by the mid-18th century. The Pregnar name will thrive in Rozdziele in the coming century, while the Kunca family name will vanish from the record-books within a few years.

I know about Stefan because the next concrete event I have, which ties House 40 to a verifiable ancestor of mine, is the record of the birth of a boy, Szymon (Simon) Pregnar, in 1787. His parents are Stefan Pregnar and Anna Kunca, daughter of Andrzei. Stefan and Anna are my direct ancestors. Stefan’s eldest daughter was born (this I know from her registration of death) about 1763, so I am guessing that 1763 must have been about the time that Stefan and Anna got married and Stefan moved in and took over management of the farm from his in-laws, Andrzei and Agata Kunca. There is no record of the births of Stefan and Anna’s first three children– Anna, Bazyli (Basil), and Anastasia– because they were born before record-keeping began in 1784, but I have no reason to suppose they were not all born in that house and grew up there.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, once the largest, most powerful state in Europe, had sunk into irrelevance. It became an object of interest to its neighbors, which were competitive, aggressive, and hungry for land.

The year 1772 was a traumatic one for the Commonwealth, because in that year the great powers of Austria, Prussia, and Russia colluded to take large chunks out of it for themselves. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria was reportedly distraught at this dismantling of Poland, and she wept at what Russia and Prussia were doing… but she took her share nevertheless. As the Prussian king Frederick joked, “She wept as she took, and the more she wept the more she took.” The portion she took became the Austrian crown land (province) of Galicia, which survived until the end of World War I.

While the change from Polish to Austrian sovereignty in 1772 probably had little immediate impact on the farmers of Rozdziele, the long-term historical implications would be vast.

1793 must have been a tumultuous year for the Pregnar family. In February, Stefan died at the age of 50. At that point he and Anna had a fairly large family: their two daughters, Anna (then 30 years old) and Anastasia (19) will never marry and will live out their entire lives in that house. The eldest son Bazyli (23) was no doubt thrust suddenly into the role of head-of-household upon his father’s death. Stefan also left two young children, the afore-mentioned Szymon (6) and Michał (3), and a few months after Stefan’s death, in June, another son, Jan, was born, who will live for just 11 days.

Why did Stefan die? His cause of death as listed on his death registration is no help at all. Ordinaria, Latin for “an ordinary death”, is used with maddening frequency in these death registers, along with Naturalis, “natural causes”. Sometimes it appears that the priests are using these terms to mask their lack of medical knowledge, and it might have been more honest of them to simply write down “Sorry, I don’t know why, he just died, that’s all.” Sometimes, when there is a cluster of deaths called Ordinaria and Naturalis that take place within a short period of time, it is pretty clear that there is either a famine or an epidemic taking place. It appears that something like this may have been going on in 1793, because the number of deaths from “Ordinaria” was up almost 400% from the previous year.

What about little Jan, who died shortly after Stefan? There is something peculiar about Jan’s brief life. I know from Anna’s death record (she died in 1822 at the age of 90) that she must have been born around 1732. But that means she would have been over 60 when she gave birth to Jan! That stretches the boundaries of belief, and anyhow, given the state of medicine in those days, giving birth at such an advanced age would have been a virtual death sentence for Anna…

Perhaps there is a simple explanation, although one which Stefan would not want me talking about here in public. Stefan himself was getting on in years, and with only one son of an age to help him on the farm, he probably hired young men as live-in farm hands. Stefan’s 19-year-old daughter Anastasia may well have become an object of affection for one of the farm hands, and rather than go through the embarrassment of declaring an illegitimate child, the baby was simply declared as Anna’s.

These birth registers, by the way, are full of illegitimate children, and it’s a stigma that followed a person through their entire life. It was, in all likelihood, very important to avoid the stain of bastardy at all costs.

(Maybe I shouldn’t ask too many questions, but if you take a look at Anna’s age at the birth of her other two youngest children– 57 when Michał was born, and 54 at the birth of Szymon– you may be forgiven if you raise your eyebrows and go “hmm”.)

Pregnar family tree.  Stefan and Anna’s generation.

Laying aside my speculation about the parentage of Jan and Michał and Szymon, here is the “official” family tree, as we have it thus far:

Within a few years (1797) the late Stefan’s eldest son Bazyli (my great-great-great-great grandfather) will marry Rozalia, the 14-year-old daughter of his neighbor Piotr Dudra.  Basyli’s little brother Szymon (or is Szymon really his nephew??) will move out of House 40 in 1808 and move in with the parents of his new bride, Pelagia Dudra, who is possibly a cousin of Rozalia. They will start a new branch of the Pregnar family, which I won’t deal with here.

I found it interesting that Bazyli and Rozalia did not start having children until 8 years after their marriage, when Rozalia would have been 22 years old. Perhaps this custom was out of consideration for her tender years? Anyway, between 1805 and 1824 Bazyli and Rozalia had 8 children, 5 of them surviving childhood. At its busiest in 1822 the house was home to at least 9 people: Bazyli and Rozalia and their children Teodor, Justina, Anna, and Anastasia; Bazyli’s sisters Anna and Anastasia, and his aging mother Anna. You get the impression that Anna was a favorite name in the Pregnar family in these years.

Anna the elderly family matriarch (you remember Anna… who watched her mother and Grzegorz Mizik shamble off towards Wapienne some 40 years ago…) passed away that year (1822) at the age of 90, and her maiden daughters Anna and Anastasia followed her a little later. It’s kind of humbling to think of the continuity that the elder Anna must have represented in that household. She was (probably) born in that house and lived in it all her life, watched her children grow up and move out, and, in some cases, die before her. She did her best to protect her daughters from scandal. By the time she died, her eldest son Bazyli was approaching his old age and her 17-year-old grandson Teodor would have been assuming more responsibility for the farm.

Pregnar family tree. Bazyli and Rozalia’s generation.

The end of the 18th century and first decades of the 19th were increasingly tumultuous years for Galicia. The Third Partition of Poland finally wiped the last remnants of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth off the map of Europe, and Galicia absorbed more of the formerly Polish lands. Galicia became a magnet for Polish aristocrats and intellectuals from other Polish areas, who believed that the relatively liberal attitudes of the Austrian Hapsburgs made Galicia a good place from which to launch a Polish independence movement. The Austrians, for their part, tried to rule their Galician province with an enlightened fist, granting Galicia its own provincial legislature, with very limited powers and being dominated by Polish landowners, and not at all responsive to the interests of the peasants. The Austrians did, however, attempt to mollify the serfs by granting them certain freedoms, giving them, for instance, the right to defend themselves in court against the landlords. Except for the the limited rights granted to the serfs, none of these matters would have had much impact on the Ruthenian farmers of Rozdziele.

After his grandmother Anna died, Teodor waited a fairly long time to get married– he was 27 years old when, in February of 1832, he married 15-year-old Anna Lizak, the daughter of his neighbor Maximilian. Like his parents, Teodor and Anna waited a few years before they started having children. Alas, they waited too long, because old Bazyli died six months before the birth of his first grandchild, who was named Bazyli in his honor. And then, Teodor became the master of House 40.

Let’s take a close look at the timeline of the growing family of this Teodor, old Anna’s grandson, my great-great-great grandfather, because I think it holds the key to… something.

Young Bazyli was born in February of 1835. The next two children were also boys– first Mikołaj (Nicholas) in December of 1836; he died after 2 months (and his grandmother Rozalia died in the springtime before him). Then Daniel was born around Christmastime 1838; he too lived for two months, then died in February.

I have a notion that Teodor and Anna were starting to feel desperate. So much death in such a brief span of time, and now, no elders to turn to for guidance. Lives of such devotion and hard work, punctuated by so much sorrow.

Then, less than a year after Daniel’s death, a daughter was born, Maria, in early January, 1840.

I believe this is significant. Maria was not, up to this point, a common name in the branch of the Pregnar family that we have been chronicling here, although it was very common in other Rozdziele families at the time. Was this child, Maria, an answer to fervent prayers the family had offered to the Blessed Virgin at the church down the road? Perhaps, but I have another theory, which I’ll get to eventually.

Before we breath a sigh of relief and rejoice in the power of prayer, I have some bad news. Little Maria lived for 17 months, and died in June of 1841. Her cause of death was listed as Naturalis, “natural causes.” I can’t imagine Teodor and Anna thought there was anything natural about it.

Teodor and Anna wasted no time. On January 20, 1842, another daughter was born! She, too, was named Maria. And I invite you to do the math– this Maria was born at least 2 months prematurely, so the odds of survival were stacked against her. Plus, wintertime is a bad time for a baby to be born on the farm, with the next harvest so far off. And believe me, there were going to be some dark years ahead.

The years 1847-48 took a terrible toll on the family. Teodor and Anna’s newborn daughter Rozalia died, as did Teodor’s unmarried siblings remaining in the house, Justina (26) and Stefan (24). Anna’s father Maximilian Lizak died, along with her older brother Jan. Teodor’s sister Anna had previously married into the Wozniak household, where there were at least 3 deaths during this time, and another sister, Anastasia, witnessed at least 5 deaths in the Fryncko household. Things looked grim for little Maria #2, for these were years of cholera.

The Third Cholera Pandemic, that started in 1846, spread across the globe and would take hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of lives. It saw the birth of the science of epidemiology and the discovery that the cause of the disease was germ-infested water rather than “miasma” or bad air. In addition to the disease wreacking a terrible toll in Galicia in 1847-48, 1847 was also a year of famine due to the destruction of food stores during the Galician Slaughter in 1846. The parish death registers in those years tell many a heart-breaking tale.

It’s crazy to claim you think you know people you never met, who died over a century before you were born, who left no written or photographic artifacts, and who inhabited a completely unknown and foreign cultural milieu. But I’d like to say that I think I have gotten to know this Teodor and his wife and grandmother, at least a little bit. Because now, I’d like to show you where I think House 40 stood, and what I think that means.

Here is the heart of the village on the official 1850 Austrian land survey map of Rozdziele. The church of Maria Geburt, dedicated in 1785, is there in the blue circle. And there, less than 200 metres to the north, are two structures labelled 40/1 (yellow rectangle) and 40/2 (pink rectangle). This complex of buildings, I am reasonably sure, is House 40, whereof we speak.

House 40 and Maria Geburt (Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin)

And here, if you care to get a bird’s eye view of the entire village, are all the parts of the survey map, knitted together. (You can also download the whole thing from The Polish National Archives here).

Map of the village of Rozdziele in Galicia in the Jasiel region (1850)

Map of the village of Rozdziele in Galicia in the Jasiel region (1850). Source: Polish National Archives in Przemyl

I’m going to lapse into speculation here, and suggest that the proximity of House 40 to that church had an impact on the family’s trajectory. I suggest that the elder family matriarch Anna Pregnar Kunca, who watched that church being built and who lived, grew old, and died a stone’s throw away, was a very devout woman. If I’m correct about Jan, Michał, and Szymon being, not her own children, but the children of her daughters whom she was protecting, then that suggests she had a rapport with the record-keeping priests, who must have raised a question or two when an elderly woman showed up with newborn babies for baptism, and that somehow, she had the power to quiet their doubts.

I’ll go further and suggest that her grandson Teodor adored her and was equally devout, and that she urged (or commanded) him to name his first daughter Maria, in honor of the patron saint of her beloved church, to which she owed so much. Somehow, Teodor got it into his head that having a girl named Maria in the house was very important, which is why, 7 months after the death of his first daughter Maria, he named his second daughter with that same name. The survival of that second girl named Maria must have held an outsized importance in the minds of her parents, during those years when the Pregnar family– indeed, all the families of Rozdziele– were suffering terrible hardship.

It is surely no accident that the best map we have of Rozdziele was created in 1850, on account of the weighty events of the preceding few years. 1846 saw a period of massive civil unrest known as the Galician Slaughter, a two-month period in which serfs rose up against their landlords and massacred them. This brief “peasant war” was centered on the town of Tarnów, some 50 km north of Rozdziele. Historians generally believe that is was mostly the Polish-speaking serfs who were behind the slaughter, rather than the Ukrainian-speaking Ruthenians. I have so far discovered no mention of Rozdziele in written accounts of the uprising, although you can bet it must have been a hot topic of conversation amongst the villagers.

And then, as you may recall from history class, 1848 was the famous “Year of Revolutions”. It was the year of Marx and Engels and the Communist Manifesto; revolutions and uprisings swept across Europe, and the Austrian Empire was no exception. The governor of Galicia, fearing a repeat of the violence of two years past, took matters into his own hands and unilaterally abolished the institution of serfdom within the borders of his province. This made the Polish landlords furious, and it caught the Emperor in Vienna off-guard too, though he ultimately decided it was a good idea and instructed the Imperial Parliament to ratify the Emancipation retroactively. Thus Galicia came to have the distinction of being the first part of the Austrian Empire to free the serfs.

So the purpose of this map, finished two years after the Emancipation, was to lay out in detail the land that each peasant held a legal claim to.

By now you might be wondering what ever happened to Maria #2, the frail premature baby with poor prospects for survival…

Guess what? Maria #2 lived through all those years of famine and disease and social upheaval. She grew up to become my great-great-grandmother, Maria Bubniak-Świder-Pregnar, the mother of Julia Swedish who went across the Big Water to Canada. Maria’s house was large. I’ll tell the story of that house in Part 2.

Pregnar family tree.
Teodor and Anna’s generation.

The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin is still standing, by the way. Here are some modern-day photos of it. And here is a recent satellite photo of the neighborhood, which you can compare to the 1850 Austrian survey map. The blue circle is the church, and the red circle… is a collection of roofless, partially-collapsed buildings that stand on the site of the old House 40 complex. It’s deliciously tempting to imagine that this might be the remnant of the 18th-century building where Anna Kunca grew up, raised her children, and formed her views of the world…

Image copyright Google 2020. Retrieved on July 15, 2020.


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The Daring Mr. Melling

86 years ago today– and a decade before she joined the Allied Occupation Force in Belgium– Aunty Kay had a harrowing brush with death in the Oldman River.

P.S. Rest in peace, Dr. Melling, and thanks.

Kay Bublick river rescue

Lethbridge Herald, July 16, 1934

Heroic Medical Student Saves City Girl

From Old Man River

Kathleen Bublick Owes Her Life to John Melling of Coalhurst

(From Our Own Correspondent)

COALHURST, July 16.- The heroism and timely skill of a brilliant young medical student, John Melling, of Coalhurst, were the means of saving Kathleen Bublick, 19, stenographer of Lethbridge, from a watery grave in the Oldman River near here last evening.

Miss Bublick, with some girl friends, was wading across the Oldman near the junction with the Belly River, when she slipped and was carried downstream by the current. Not being a strong swimmer, she was soon overcome by the force of the undertow, when John Melling, who was upstream on the bank, heard the cries of the girl’s friends.

He sprinted two hundred yards down the bank, plunged in and swam out to the drowning girl. With considerable difficulty, being almost exhausted from the sprint and fighting against the current, Mr. Melling managed to tow Miss Bublick to the farther bank.

Respiration had ceased, and he immediately applied artificial respiration, being assisted by John Brenton of Lethbridge, who had followed across the river. Mr. Melling worked for fully fifteen minutes before bringing the young lady around, and then about an hour later, when it was almost dark, constructed a rough stretcher, and with the assistance of Joseph Melling and Charles Brenton, Miss Bublick was conveyed across the river to the near bank where a fire had been prepared in readiness. Miss Bublick, who is employed by Rylands and Company, is now progressing favorably at the home of her sister, Mrs. George Coulson.

This is the second rescue Mr. Melling has made from the Oldman River, having saved a boy from drowning there about two years ago.

Lethbridge Herald, December 29, 1934



Near Drowning Recalled at Coalhurst Meet –

Mayor Barrowman Officiates

(From Our Own Correspondent)

COALHURST, Dec. 29 – Over two hundred persons gathered in the Odd Fellows hall here last night to witness the presentation of certificates issued by the Calgary Humane Society to John Melling and John Brenton.

E. L. Langston occupied the chair, and the program commenced with an accordeon solo by Tony Neidermeier of Lethbridge, followed by a song by Tom Walker also of Lethbridge. Mrs. Holman accompanied on the piano.

The chairman then outlined the circumstances for which the certificates were to be presented. On July 15 a party of Coalhurst and Lethbridge people were picnicing at the junction of the Old Man and Belly rivers, west of Coalhurst. A number of young women amongst them Kathleen Bublick, attempted to ford the river and while doing so Miss Bublick was swept off her feet by the current, which at this point is quite strong.

Respond to Screams

Her companions screamed for help, and John Melling and John Brenton, both strong swimmers, who were bathing about two hundred yards upstream, heard the cries. Sprinting toward the scene, Mr. Melling in the lead, they could see Miss Bublick being carried away, and without hesitation John Melling plunged in and swam across to the unfortunate young woman. Reaching her, he towed her to the farther shore, and found that respiration had ceased. He at once applied artificial respiration, and was then joined by John Brenton, who working under Mr. Melling’s instructions, continued with first aid, while the latter swam back to obtain two blankets, which he carried, while swimming with one hand. The chairman then remarked on the fact that both Mr. Melling and Mr. Brenton are former Coalhurst residents, Mr. Melling being now a medical student at the University of Alberta while Mr. Brenton is a student at the Institute of Technology at Calgary.

Makes Presentations

Mayor Robert Barrowman of Lethbridge was then called upon to present the certificates.

Mayor Barrowman, in his opening remarks made reference in the recent disastrous fire from which Coalhurst suffered and extended his sympathy and that of the citizens of Lethbridge to Coalhurst. His worship stated that it gave him particular pleasure to accede to the request of the Calgary Humane Society to present certificates, in view of the fact that his own two young daughters had been presented with medals by the Royal Humane Society. He laid stress upon the fact that the two who were to be presented with certificates had sought to avoid any public recognition of their heroism, but he considered that acts such as theirs should be made the subject of public presentation, and was glad that they had decided to accede to public opinion and be present.

The certificates were then presented, and the recipients called upon for a few remarks. Mr. Melling disclaimed any credit, stating that he merely happened to be there, but advised the youth of the community to prepare themselves for emergencies such as are bound to arise during the bathing season. Mr. Brenton spoke briefly, thanking Mayor Barrowman for his interest.

An accordeon solo by Mr. Neidermeier ended the program, the chairman thanking Mr. Barrowman. The thanks of the community are due to his worship for his kindness in coming out on such a cold night and to Tony Pavan whose cooperation made the program possible. The gathering closed with the singing of “O Canada.”

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An Unlikely Farmer

In Finding the Family Farm, I talked about my surprising discovery that my great-grandfather George Lindley Coulson, the Yorkshire coal miner, had a brief stint as a homesteader in the Black Hills of Wyoming in the opening years of the 20th century. Surprising, because the family lore doesn’t mention it, and his background was about as far from farming as you could get. I am considering the possibility that his foray into homesteading was a fraudulent scam, and that his employer at the time, the Cambria Coal Company, was behind it.

A decade later, after putting his family through a grueling migration to Saskatchewan that saw the death of his wife and one of their children, he became a farmer again in 1917 at the age of 53, when the vigor of youth was long past.

What kind of a farmer was he? “Lazy,” said George Arthur Coulson, George Lindley’s youngest son, my grandfather. George Arthur told a story about his time on that last farm in an attempt to explain why he walked away from his father and never looked back.

It was 1918 and winter was coming on. George Lindley and his second wife Mary found the farmhouse they had moved into a year earlier too cold and drafty, and so they decided to go down to the big city to stay in a cozy hotel for the winter, leaving young George Arthur in charge of the farm. There wasn’t much to do, just feed the livestock and go to school. So they all rode together to Lac La Biche, then the northern terminus of the brand-new Alberta and Great Waterways Railway. George Arthur saw his folks off for their winter holiday in balmy Edmonton, and then he took the horses back home to the farm which lay 20 miles to the west.

George Lindley could afford to spend the whole winter in a hotel in the big city because, for the first time in his life, he was rich… though not through any fault of his own. Three years earlier in Havre, Montana, he had met and married Mary Griffin, the wealthy widow of the successful rancher and local character “Bear Paw” Jack Griffin. She was loaded.

George Arthur, at 13, was the last of George Lindley’s six surviving children still under his father’s tender care. George Arthur did not like the arrangement. He especially did not like his new step-mother. He was still grieving over the loss of his real mother, Lucy Scarlet, who died of tuberculosis and exhaustion when he was only 7. My grandfather remembered the name of the place where the farm was located with great disdain: Plamondonville. He was an outsider from a foreign culture, the other kids picked on him, and he hated it there.

Plamondonville actually has a pretty interesting history. It was settled by families of French Canadian expatriates who had migrated from Quebec to Michigan after the U.S. Civil War. Prior to 1907 one enterprising resident, Isidore Plamondon, ventured north into the newly-created Canadian province of Alberta, and came back to proclaim it a promised land for farming. They found a spot to settle in northern Alberta west of Lac La Biche, and families went north from Michigan in droves over the next few years, making Plamondonville (today, simply called Plamondon) into a vibrant French-speaking, Roman Catholic community.

How my great-grandfather, an English Anglican Protestant, found his way up there, is one of those enduring mysteries I have yet to unravel.

Anyway, back to my grandfather’s story. The Spanish Flu came to Plamondonville that winter, so bad it shut down the school. George Arthur caught it, and he lay in bed, delirious, for days, completely alone, not knowing if he would live or die. He finally recovered, and was able to drag himself out to the barn to open the doors. The horses were mad with hunger by then, and they almost trampled him on their way to the haystack.

George Lindley and Mary returned from their happy holiday in Edmonton in the spring, and George Arthur was resentful of how they had, unknowingly, abandoned him to his doom while they were having a high old time. But soon there was another crisis to contend with: George Arthur got into trouble. He claimed that he had been bullied by some boys and had to fight back. But in fact, according to his own telling, he had been caught riding down some French boys on his pony and whipping them with his riding crop. Is this the action of a boy defending himself from bullies? I am inclined to think that Grandpa was the bully here. Whatever the truth of the matter, he told the story as if he really believed he were the injured party.

As you can imagine, his step-mother Mary got a visit from the parish priest, tout-suite. This must have caused Mary considerable embarrassment. She had raised eleven children back in Montana and had managed her first husband’s ranch for 20 years, and she knew a thing or two about child-rearing, but apparently she didn’t know what to do with George Arthur’s defiance. He was too strong to be whipped, and his father was too chicken to intervene in this long-simmering dispute, so they were at a stalemate. Finally he asked her,

“What’s it worth to you to get rid of me?”

Mary answered,

“Look under the cookie jar tomorrow morning.”

The next morning George Arthur got up early and looked, and found twenty dollars under the cookie jar. And so he saddled his pony and rode in to Lac La Biche, sold the saddle, and pocketed the money. Then he parked the pony at the livery stable (because the pony did, after all, belong to his dad), bought a train ticket, and caught the A&GW to Edmonton.

At that point Grandpa’s story falls silent, but I know he wound up living with his big sister Mary and her husband, who had a farm and ran a hotel in Govenlock, Saskatchewan. His sister’s husband, John Lindner, came from a large, respected family of ranchers in the Cypress Hills, and they took George Arthur in, financed his further schooling, and helped him get started on his long railroad career. He never saw his step-mother again, and only saw his father one more time, briefly, twenty years later. That story will be the subject of a future blog post.

This blog post, believe it or not, is not about George Arthur; it’s about the farm in Plamondonville, and how I tracked down its location.

First, let’s lay out the evidence I started with.

I know that George Lindley brought his family to Plamondon no earlier than 1917, because I have the record of their border crossing at the port of Coutts, Alberta, on April 5, 1917. Notice that George L. is carrying $3,600 in cash– quite a lot of money. I am pretty sure that is Mary’s money from the sale of her late husband’s estate a few years earlier.

Tom, George Lindley’s eldest son, came with them on this trip, but he does not figure in the story because he went off and started working on other farms in the region.

Grandpa’s reference to the Flu pandemic anchors the story in either the winter of 1918-19 or 1919-20, because influenza ravaged Plamondonville both winters. By April of 1921 (when the Canadian Census was taken), he was living in Govenlock, Saskatchewan with his sister.

George Coulson is living with John and Mary Lindner and their daughter Lucille in 1921. George is listed as “bro in law” to John.

So George Arthur left Plamondonville and never came back, but George Lindley and Mary stayed on. How long did they continue to live there? Well, they are still there in April 1921, as they appear in the census that year:

The Coulson family in the 1921 Census. The identity of the 10-year-old Cree boy, William Swain, who is living with them as an “adopted” son, will be the subject of a future blog post.

At some point George Lindley and Mary must have left Plamondonville, because I know they died in Edmonton (in 1940 and 1938, respectively), but when did they leave? The earliest hard evidence I have is an immigration record for George Lindley’s eldest daughter, Rose Kopaunik, dated November 7, 1925:

Canadian Immigration record for Joseph Kopaunik’s family, stating their intended destination is “Father-in-law George Coulson, Namayo, Alberta”

So it appears George Lindley had already left Plamondonville by this time, and was living in Namayo (Namao), a small village just north of Edmonton. (When they released the 1926 Prairie census last year I was able to confirm that he was actually living in Carbondale, just west of Namao, and since Carbondale was intensive coal-mining country in those days, I surmise that George Lindley had run out of money and was forced to fall back on his lifelong trade as a coal miner in his old age).

By the way, finding this immigration record was a real surprise. I had no idea Aunt Rose and her family tried to immigrate to Canada in 1925. Evidently they changed their minds and went back to Wyoming; the whole family is buried in Kemmerer.

So these are the dates of my family’s sojourn in Plamondonville: 1917 to about 1925.

Getting back to the 1921 census… it also gave me the approximate location of George Lindley’s farm: 9-68-16-W4. This means Section 9, Township 68, Range 16 West of the 4th Meridian. You may recall we had to get into the North American survey system in some detail in Finding the Family Farm; the system used in western Canada is essentially the same as that used in the United States, just with different reference points. The baseline for the township numbering is simply the U.S. border (the 49th parallel), and the 4th Meridian is (conveniently) the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta.

This map helps to visualize the farm’s location with respect to Edmonton.

The red square to the left of Lac La Biche lies at the intersection of Township 68, Range 16. The Plamondonville townsite lies within this square and the one immediately below it.

(Notice how the squares do not line up to form perfect tidy stacks, they “jag” off to the side at intervals. This is because the survey system is a flat, square grid, but the earth’s surface is curved, so the grid must be corrected every so often, otherwise all hell would break loose.)

A section, recall, is a square mile of land, comprising 640 acres, and the typical land grant was a quarter of that, or 160 acres, which was what the powers that be back in the 19th century deemed was enough for a single family to work profitably. The Coulson farm was on Section #9, which is here:

The red square is Township 68 of Range 16. The blue square is Section 9.

This page has a good explanation of the survey system. Note that the 36 sections within a township are numbered starting at the south-east corner, whereas in Wyoming, they are numbered from the north-east corner.

Somewhere within that blue square stood the house where George Arthur suffered with the Flu in 1918 or 1919: one or two miles north-west of the Plamondon town site, and directly west of Horse Lake (Lac des Chevaux).

Now that we have narrowed the farm’s location down to the square mile, let’s see if we can find out which quarter section it was on! Where to begin?

My first thought was that George Lindley might have tried to acquire the land in the form of a Homesteading grant, such as he had done in Wyoming in 1908. The Alberta Genealogical Society provides a wonderful online tool for searching the Canadian Homesteading records. This will tell us who, if anyone, homesteaded on section 9. Here’s what we get back when we plug in 9-68-16 W4:

Rats, none for Coulson. That tells me that George Lindley either bought the farm outright at the market rate, or else he was someone’s tenant.

Well, this gives us some names of homesteaders, but doesn’t tell us which quarter-section they were on or the dates. It would be nice to know these things, because then we might be able to figure out the Coulson quarter-section through the process of elimination. We could request the records, but the Alberta Genealogical Society wants $10 per record. They are also in the Provincial Archives under Accession number 1970.313, but I would have to fly to Edmonton to look, and I don’t want to wait, I want to know now.

Fortunately all the Canadian Homestead records up to 1930 have been digitized and are available on Ancestry.com. The name of the collection is Alberta, Canada, Homestead Records, 1870-1930. I was able to find all the homesteading records  (except for Clifford Gagnon’s, but his record is part of the post-1930 collection that hasn’t been digitized yet, so that is outside of my range of interest) and in the process learned a little bit about my grandfather’s neighbors.

1. North-east quarter:

Joseph Labonty (Labonté) was born in Quebec. He arrived in Plamondonville from Michigan in March 1910 with his wife and 9 children and moved on to the NE quarter of section 9. He built a 459 square foot house of logs in April, and immediately broke 2 acres and got a crop in. He submitted his application for a homestead in July. By 1913 he had built a stable and granary, dug a well, and had 33 acres under cultivation. He received his land patent in 1914.  He was still living there at the age of 60 with his large family as of the 1926 census, so this cannot be the Coulsons’ quarter.

2. South-east quarter:

Harvey Dacier was born in Quebec. He had most recently been employed as a civil engineer in Edmonton, but he decided to move to Plamondonville and give farming a try. He applied for a homestead on the SE quarter in 1913 and spent 10 months on the property before moving to Arizona due to ill health. He formally abandoned his homesteading claim in 1917, around the time the Coulsons arrived in Plamondon.

However, this cannot be the Coulsons’ quarter section, because in 1920 Eli Plamondon, the 18-year-old son of Nelson Plamondon, applied for a homestead on the SE quarter. He never lived there, and never built any structures on the property. His regular residence was on the neighboring Section 10; he merely used the SE quarter of section 9 for extra crops and he finally received patent for the land in 1930.

3. North-west quarter:

Joseph Harp arrived from Michigan in 1908, so he would have been a member of the original Plamondon migration. He started breaking land on the NW quarter that same year, but he didn’t start his homestead application until 1911, by which time he had 15 acres under cultivation. He occasionally went to Morinville (over a hundred miles to the south) to work on the railroad, leaving his wife and 5 children to work the farm. He received his patent in 1914 and was still living on the land at the time of the 1916 census, but by 1921 he had moved to a nearby farm. It’s possible that this is the farm that the Coulsons acquired in 1917.

4. South-west quarter:

This is the most interesting quarter. In 1912 J. Emile Richard, a clerk from Ottawa, moved to Plamondonville and filed a claim to the SW quarter. But he never took up residence there; he ran out of money and returned to Ottawa, abandoning his claim a year later.

Two months after Emile abandoned his claim, 60-year-old William Walton Willcox arrived from nearby Athabaska Landing and filed a claim to the SW quarter. He was an English-speaking Presbyterian born in Chatham, Quebec, and had recently been working in Portland, Oregon as a carpenter. He took up residence in June 1913 and built his house in September. Meanwhile he broke 6 acres and planted crops. He was new to farming, but by 1916 he had 10 acres under cultivation and had built a stable for his two horses.

Then, on September 7, 1916, William up and died. He had no wife or children, and no will, so his brother Barnabas Dalhousie Willcox came to settle his affairs. Barnabas continued with the homestead application process, and based on the improvements his brother had already made, he was awarded the patent in November, 1917. It is unclear whether Barnabas ever resided there; he does not appear in either the 1921 or 1926 census. His acquisition of the land title coincides approximately with the Coulsons’ arrival in Plamondon, so it is possible that he sold his brother’s property to George Lindley, and then vanished.

I’m not sure which quarter I like better as candidate to be the Coulson home: north-west, or south-west. The houses were of comparable size: Joe Harp built a 340 square foot house (which must have been tiny for his family of 7) while William Willcox’s house was slightly bigger at 352 square feet. Barnabas Willcox makes a comment on his patent application that swings me in favor of the latter: in response to a question about mineral resources on the land, he replies “No, only agricultural land, but really stony and brushy.”

That would be just my great-grandfather’s luck, to be stuck with a piece of stony, brushy land.


More about the history of Plamondon can be found in this book, which you can read online: From Spruce Trees to Wheatfields: Plamondon 1908-1988



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Julia Swedish Was Not Swedish!

Julia (center) at her daughter's wedding in 1929.

Julia (center) at her daughter’s wedding in 1929.

There’s my great-grandmother Julia Bublick, presiding over the wedding of her daughter, my grandmother, Mayre Coulson. You can tell by this photo who’s in charge here, can’t you?

Julia’s husband Joe stands to her left. I didn’t know Joe and Julia; they both died long before I was born, and all I knew about them was a few dribs and drabs I heard from my dad. He couldn’t tell me much about them either, since they were gone by the time he was a teenager.

Here are some of the things I knew about them…

I knew they were Ukrainian, but they didn’t speak Ukrainian, according to my dad. Joe read a funny newspaper with crazy writing that looked the same no matter which way you held it. They didn’t wear colorful Ukrainian costumes, celebrate Ukrainian Christmas, shumka dance or make pysanky like the “normal” Ukrainian kids I knew growing up. They were from a mysterious place called Little Poland, which wasn’t in Poland, except maybe it was, sometimes. I knew they grew up in the same village and knew each other from childhood, but they didn’t get married until they met by chance at a party in New York, having made the journey to North America independently. I knew their name was Bublick, except it was originally Bubniak, and nobody seems to know why they changed it. Joe was a cheerful man, always cracking jokes. Julia was serious, always hard at work, and never smiled.

And one other thing I knew about Julia… her maiden name was Swedish.

Originally I thought that meant she was from Sweden, but no. Swedish was her actual name. Julia Swedish. A Ukrainian from Little Poland named Swedish. How odd.

When I started getting serious about genealogy a few years ago I discovered how difficult it is to search online for somebody named Swedish; search engines seem to think you are looking for something completely different. I had a feeling that Swedish was not her original name. It had to be an anglicized spelling of something else, but I couldn’t tell what.

Mike Bublick, originally Bubniak

I made a bit of a breakthrough when a cousin showed me Uncle Mike’s birth certificate. (Uncle Mike is the dashing gent with the mustache and wavy hair in the wedding pic above. Joe and Julia’s eldest and only son, he was born a year or two before they changed the family name from Bubniak to Bublick.)

The important thing here is that it tells me Julia’s maiden name: Swider. Pronounced (I now know) SVEE-dur, it makes perfect sense that English-speaking folk in southern Alberta’s coal belt would have mashed that into “Swedish”.

Jan Bubniak return address

Jan Bubniak return address

The cousin who had Uncle Mike’s birth certificate also had this beautiful nugget in her possession: an envelope from someone back in the “old country” who addressed Joe Bublick as my brother. The return address (translated) reads:

Jan Bubniak, Mayor
post office: Krug
county: Gorlice
Little Poland

Rozdziele! There’s a place-name that nobody in the family had ever heard of before. That gave me a focus for my research.

Rozdziele (so Polish Wikipedia tells me) lies in what is today the Polish county of Gorlice, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains just north of the Slovakian border, between the Polish city of Crakow and the Ukrainian city of Lviv. During the 19th century Crakow and Lviv (Lemberg) were the twin capitals of the now-defunct Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, a quasi-independent crown realm of the Austrian Empire which was formed out of the First and Third Partitions of Poland.

Małopolska, or “Lesser Poland”, is the historical name for the region that comprises the part of Galicia where Rozdziele lies. The region had been mostly under Polish administration since the Middle Ages, and it came under Austrian rule when Poland ceased to exist at the end of the 18th century, but the inhabitants were a diverse cultural mix. Prior to World War II, the region was dotted with enclaves of three main ethnicities: Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. They all technically owed allegiance to the Hapsburg Crown and in that sense were “Austrian” citizens, but school would have been conducted in Polish and they spoke their own languages at home (in the case of my ancestors, an archaic Ukrainian dialect). This explains why in some documents my great-grandparents are described as Austrian, but actual Austrians were rare in those parts.

You can use this map to zoom out and see where the place-names of interest to our family– Rozdziele, Lipinki, Męcina Wielka, etc.– lie with respect to the modern borders of Poland and Ukraine.

See full screen

Take a close look at the postmarks on that envelope– late August 1939, the very eve of the German invasion of Poland (September 1st), which started World War II. The story of what happened in that region during and after the War is inconceivably tragic, but I’ll save that (and the mystery of what is in those letters) for another day. Let’s stick with a discussion of that name, Swedish.

Newspapers.com is a great resource sometimes; it lets you do text searches of old newspapers without reading them page-by-page. It happens to have a fairly complete set of old papers from Lethbridge, Alberta, during the time Joe and Julia lived in the nearby towns of Diamond City, Commerce, and Coalhurst, and it gave me a wealth of data about their doings and the doings of their children. The children are frequently mentioned in the Society page– Joe and Julia evidently encouraged their kids, especially the girls, to participate in all aspects of upper-middle-class Anglo culture, which perhaps explains why their Ukrainian heritage was downplayed, and may also help to explain why they changed their name.

Anyways, here’s a notice I found in the classified section in 1926 that reminded me of Julia’s connection to the Swedish name.

Card of Thanks for Simon Swedish funeral flowers

Lethbridge Herald, May 10, 1926

It appears that Joe and Julia sent a large, heart-shaped floral arrangement to the funeral of one Simon Swedish. Was this a relative of Julia’s? I mentioned it to my dad and he suddenly remembered other people in Lethbridge with the Swedish name… there was Steve and Matt, who worked for the Pilsner brewery, and a younger Julia, who married a man named Wilson and moved to Dog Creek in British Columbia… but he had never heard of Simon Swedish, and didn’t know if any of these people were related to his grandma, Julia Bublick.



Bublicks and Swedishes in 1906 Census

Bublick and Swedish families in the 1906 Northwest Canada Census

Here’s an important clue that I found in the 1906 Census of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba: someone named Simon Swedish living right next door to Joe and Julia Bublick in Lethbridge. This doesn’t prove that Julia and Simon were related, but it strongly indicates a connection between the two families going back decades.



Swedishes in 1926 Henderson DirectoryAnother tool I turn to frequently is the set of Henderson Directories (city directories) maintained by the University of Alberta. In 1925, I see that Simon Swedish was a grocer in Lethbridge, and Nicholas (who the Census confirmed was Simon’s son) was working for Simon as a clerk.

And so, using the Census, Henderson Directories, newspaper articles, and death records I found in the Provincial Archives of Alberta, I was able to piece together the rough outline of Simon’s life.

Simon Swedish was born in Galicia in 1876 and he emigrated to Canada as a young man. He settled in Staffordville, a village that would soon be annexed by the rapidly-expanding city of Lethbridge, in about 1900 and by 1914 (probably earlier) he was proprietor of a dry goods store. His wife, Anna, was also born in Galicia (1883), and they had many children… Joseph (1904), Annie (1905), Mathew (1906), Mary (1908, died in infancy), Nicholas (1908), Stephen (1910), George (1911, died in infancy), Michael (1913), Julia (1915), and finally Helen (1916, died in infancy).

(By the way, Simon’s daughter Julia must have been friends with my grandmother, Mayre, because I have photos of Julia’s wedding from Mayre’s photo album. But I never met my grandmother, so all I have to go on about her friends and personal life prior to my dad’s birth are just suppositions and educated guesses.)

Simon also had a sister, Anna, who was born in Galicia and joined him in Alberta. She married a farmer named Michael Kret, also from Galicia, and they moved to Albion in upstate New York in about 1919. Michael was killed in a car accident in 1922.

Simon’s general store remained in the same spot, 920 7th Avenue North, Lethbridge, for years. Later it became a grocery store. In May of 1926, at the young age of 49, Simon died of “chronic nephritis”. Tragically his son Nicholas, who had been working as a clerk at the store but who recently moved to Drumheller to work in the coal mines, died of cerebral meningitis that same year. After that the name of the business changed to “A. Swedish and Sons”, suggesting that Anna and her children tried to keep it going, but it disappeared from the city directory sometime around 1928. Anna lived on in the same house for many years, dying of a heart attack in 1941.

This dry recounting of facts surely hides a great deal of turmoil and pain that I have little personal insight into. The death of so many children, the sudden death of father and son, the collapse of the family business… it’s hard to imagine, but I can understand why I heard about none of it. It all transpired before my dad, who is my main conduit for so much of the early family history, was even born. And anyway, none of this establishes a definitive family link between the Swedishes and the Bublicks (and, ultimately, to me). I seemed to have hit a brick wall using the North-American-based, English-language resources I was familiar with.

That’s when the Archiwum Państwowe w Rzeszowie— the Polish State Archives in Rzeszów, Poland– came to the rescue. For only 166 Polish Zlotys (about $39 US) they supplied me with a trove of birth, death and marriage records scanned from the actual church registers of the Greek Catholic parish of Męcina Wielka, which included the village of Rozdziele where my Bubniak ancestors lived and died. And in amongst the Swider records (remember, the original family name was Swider, not Swedish) I found this…

1876 Simon Swedish birth registration

Birth registration for Simeon Swider, 1876

A boy named Simeon Swider, born May 11, 1876. Could this be our Simon Swedish? The date of birth matches Simon’s birth year, which I obtained from the headstone on his grave.

In case your Latin is rusty, here’s the translation:

Simeon, born May 11, baptized May 14 1876.
Catholic, a boy, legitimate.
Father: Alex Swider, a local farmer, son of Anton Swider (a farmer in Perhrymka) and Maria, née Dragan.
Mother: Maria Swider, daughter of Theodor Pregnar (a farmer in Rozdziele) and Anna, née Lyzak.
Godparents: Joseph Tylawski, a farmer in Rozdziele, and the widow Anna [indistinct], a farmer in Perhrymka.
Midwife: Maria Grymata

In case there’s any doubt about the identity of this boy, Simeon has a younger sister, Julianna, born 5 years after him:

1881 Julia Swider birth registration

Birth registration for Julianna Swider, 1881

That’s got to be Julia Bublick’s birth registration.

Julianna, born March 18, baptized March 20 1881.
Catholic, a girl, legitimate.
Father: Alex Swider, a local farmer, son of Anton Swider (a farmer in Perhrymka) and Maria, née Dzugan. [I believe that Dzugan was an alias for Dragan; I often see these surnames used interchangeably.]
Mother: Maria Swider, daughter of Theodor Pregnar (a farmer in Rozdziele) and Anna, née Lyzak.
Godparents: John Grabania, a farmer in Rozdziele, and Maria, wife of Basil Dragan, [also] a farmer in Rozdziele.
Midwife: Maria Grymata

(Note that Simeon and Julianna had the same midwife, Maria Grymata; it seems she had a long career in Rozdziele as I’ve found her name on other documents as well.)

Well that seals it. Julia Bublick, my great-grandmother, and Simon Swedish, the grocer of Lethbridge, were brother and sister! Simon’s descendants (and I know they must be out there) would be my 3rd cousins.

I also have a birth record for Anna, Simon’s sister who came to Alberta and later moved to New York with Mike Kret. These three siblings (Simon, Julia, Anna) apparently left Rozdziele (along with friends and cousins named Bubniak, Dragan, Telep, Nowak, and Kret), perhaps at different times but all prior to 1905. I know now that at least one of them arrived in North America via Ellis Island in New York City. Perhaps they all came via that route, and made their way across the continent to Fort Benton, Montana, and from there up the well-worn ox-cart trail to Fort McLeod, and they reunited in wind-swept Lethbridge in the days before Alberta was a province of Canada, where they all started new lives.

And not a word about this not-insignificant multi-family migration from a little village at the foot of the Carpathians to the dusty expanse of southern Alberta was passed along to my generation; I had to piece it together from the records.

Here then, for the record, are the generations descended from Anton Swider, the farmer of Perhrymka (probably Pielgrzymka), and Maria Dragan, whom I now know to be my great-great-great grandparents. If any 2nd, 3rd, or 4th cousins out there reading this have details to fill in, feel free to contact me!

Descendants of Anton Swider and Maria Dragan

Descendants of Anton Swider and Maria Dragan

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Finding the Family Farm

We don’t know for sure, but we think that George Lindley Coulson and his step-father Tom Henson appear in this photo of coal miners of Rotherham, Yorkshire because it used to be in the possession of George’s half-sister Helen Coley. From the collection of Elizabeth I. Coley and used here with the kind permission of William Lindley Coley III.

My great-grandfather George Lindley Coulson grew up working in the coal mines of west Yorkshire. When he arrived in North America with his wife and family around 1890, he found employment in the coal mines of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. That was about the time that the Wyoming coal boom was starting, and he was drawn to Cambria– a thriving boom-town north of Newcastle, Wyoming, that no longer exists– to work in those coal mines in the mid-1890’s (possibly as early as 1892).

My point being, George Lindley was a coal miner with an urban background, and none of the oral family lore I know of indicates he had any aptitude for or interest in farming. I was therefore surprised to discover, while researching him and his family, that after spending a few years working in the coal mines of Wyoming, he decided to try his hand at homesteading!

Homesteading, as codified in the 1862 Homesteading Act, was intended to implement the old Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of citizen-farmers tilling the land in small family-sized plots, an ideal that was part and parcel of the American Dream as it was perceived throughout much of the 19th century. Another purpose of the Act was to curtail land speculators who would buy up land and sell it later at profit– the government wanted to bring as much land as possible under cultivation, and make it affordable and attractive to immigrants, and speculators stood in the way of this kind of economic progress.

To deter speculators, a prospective homesteader would be granted a quarter-section of land (160 acres) at a nominal cost, but with certain conditions attached. If, at the end of a 5-year period, the homesteader could prove he or she had lived on the land continuously and had brought it into production (or “improved” it), the government granted title to that land free and clear to do with whatever the homesteader pleased. If desired the land could be sold at a handsome profit, but the Government hoped that the homesteader would stay and put down roots, having invested so much sweat-equity in the land already.

Alas, it appears that my great-grandfather did not enter into his homesteading adventure with the purist of Jeffersonian intentions. After weighing the evidence I am compelled to admit that he was, in fact, a land speculator with no interest in improving the land or putting down roots in the Wyoming soil; he was in it purely for the money (which is a more modern version of the American Dream, you might say). Since there is nobody left in the family who remembers our brief ancestral homesteading period, all I have to go on are the homesteading records themselves along with what I can find in the newspapers. So here, with a big dollop of my own speculation, is the evidence.

My great-grandfather’s proper name, according to his baptismal record, was George Lindley Coulson, but he didn’t always put the ‘d’ in Lindley and he also went by Linley G. Coulson. He was also known as “Splint” and he appears to have been a bit of a local character because the newspapers in Crook and Weston Counties frequently refer to him with that nickname. He also sometimes appears with the common misspelling of our name, Colson. These are things to keep in mind when reviewing the records.

In 1898 George staked his claim to the Northwest Quarter of Section 30 in Township 49, Range 61, West of the 6th Principal Meridian — Also known as NW¼ 30-49-61 W6. That’s in the northeast corner of Wyoming, a few miles from the South Dakota border, technically part of the Black Hills (and just outside the bounds of the Great Sioux Reservation established by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868), and within sight of the sacred Lakota mountain Inyan Kara, a mountain that “spoke”, perhaps because it was at one time full of unmined coal and spontaneous coal fires deep underground made the earth groan, a fact that was noted by indigenous peoples and early European fur traders.

Here’s where that is on the map.

The orange square represents Township 49 of Range 61. The word “township” here has nothing to do with towns. It’s just a name for one of the subdivisions in the system of land surveying that is used in the U.S. and Canada.

The survey nomenclature means that this square is the 61st township counting west from the 6th Principal Meridian, a north-south line that runs from the northern border of Nebraska, through Kansas to the northern border of Oklahoma. It is also the 49th township counting north from the 6th Meridian’s associated baseline, which is an east-west line running along the northern border of Kansas, through Colorado to the Utah border. To visualize this system, this map from Wikipedia might help.

Each township is divided into 36 sections, numbered sequentially from the northeast corner of the township. Each section contains one square mile, or 640 acres. Sections are further subdivided into 160-acre quarter-sections. A quarter-section was the basic land-grant unit for the homesteading system through the 19th century and into the 20th.

Township 49 is the orange box on the map at the right, and Section 30 is the red box within township 49. The blue box inside of section 30 is the northwest quarter-section which constituted George Lindley’s claim.

Within each quarter-section there are further divisions (“lots”) of 40 acres each. We’ll talk about those later, because they are a source of some confusion, as we shall see.

How did I first learn about the Coulson Homestead? I stumbled upon it accidentally when combing through the old newspapers that are archived by the State of Wyoming (Wyoming Newspapers, newspapers.wyo.gov). The following notice was published in the Crook County Monitor (based in Sundance, Wyoming) on Friday, May 3, 1907.

Notice for Publication – Department of the Interior, Land Office at Sundance, Wyoming, March 25, 1907.- Notice is hereby given that Linley G. Coulson of Buckhorn, Wyoming, has filed notice of his intention to make final five-year proof in support of his claim, viz: homestead entry no. 667, made February 23, 1898, for the nw qr, sec 30, township 49 north, range 61 west, and that proof will be made before the register and receiver at Sundance, Wyoming, on Saturday, May 4, 1907.

He names the following witnesses to prove his continuous residence upon, and cultivation of, the land, viz: Fred Clark, William Brown, Hans Tobiasen, Charles A. Walker, all of Sundance, Wyoming.

A. E. Hoyt, Register. First publication March 29; last May 3.

This gives us quite a bit of information. First it indicates that George Lindley and his family were living in Wyoming as early as 1898. I am pretty sure they were there much earlier than that, but this is the earliest solidly dated documentation that I have so far.

Second, it tells us the names of some of George’s friends and neighbors, people who were willing to vouch for him and state that he had been living there for at least 5 years. One significant name I notice is Fred Clark, who also had a homestead in the Inyan Kara neighborhood not far from the Coulsons. I know from my previous research that George’s next-to-last son Frederick Clark Coulson was born in 1902. Apparently, George named his son after his friend and neighbor, Fred Clark! I am especially interested in this connection because I myself am named after this Uncle Fred, who died before I was born… so now I know where my name comes from. My research into the Crook County pioneer Fred Clark, who had such an impact on my great-grandfather, will be a blog post for another day.

Third, it gives us the survey designation of the property (NW 30-49-61). Since historical homesteading records are pretty well documented, this allows us to look up George’s claim on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management database.

Sure enough, here we find the actual patent that was issued to George on April 27, 1908, a year after he made his “final proof” application:

Homestead patent for NW 30-49-61, April 27, 1908.

Homestead Certificate No. 800.
Application 667.
WHEREAS, There has been deposited in the GENERAL LAND OFFICE of the United States a Certificate of the Register of the Land Office at Sundance, Wyoming, whereby it appears that, pursuant to the Act of Congress approved 20th May, 1862, “To secure Homesteads to Actual Settlers on the Public Domain,” and the acts supplemental thereto, the claim of
has been established and duly consummated, in conformity to law, for the northwest quarter of Section thirty in Township forty-nine north of Range sixty-one west of the Sixth Principal Meridian, Wyoming, containing one hundred sixty and four-hundredths acres, according to the Official Plat of the Survey of the said Land, returned to the GENERAL LAND OFFICE by the Surveyor General:
NOW KNOW YE, That there is, therefore, granted by the UNITED STATES unto the said Linley G. Coulson the tract of Land above described, TO HAVE AND TO HOLD the said tract of Land, with the appurtenances thereof, unto the said Linley G. Coulson and to his heirs and assigns forever; subject to any vested and accrued water rights for mining, agricultural, manufacturing, or other purposes, and rights to ditches and reservoirs used in connection with such water rights, as may be recognized and acknowledged by the local customs, laws, and decisions of courts, and also subject to the right of the proprietor of a vein or lode to extract and remove his ore therefrom, should the same be found to penetrate or intersect the premises hereby granted, as provided by law. And there is reserved from the lands hereby granted, a right of way thereon for ditches or canals constructed by the authority of the United States.
IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I, Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, have caused these letters to be made Patent, and the seal of the General Land Office to be hereunto affixed.
GIVEN under my hand, at the City of Washington, the twenty-seventh day of April, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and eight, and of the Independence of the United States the one hundred and thirty-second.

This transaction is recorded in the BLM Tract Book for Township 49. It’s a little hard to read, but the record of George’s claim is the 6th entry from the bottom of the page. It indicates how he bought the 160 acres on February 23, 1898 for $1.25 per acre with a down payment of only $16, and indicates that the final patent was issued ten years later on April 27, 1908, as we have already noted.

Well, that was quite a find for me. George received this parcel of land, to have and to hold forever! And I, being one of his “heirs and assigns”, might well be owning that land today, if history had taken a different turn.

But this is where things start getting a little weird.

First of all, before George received title to his land in 1908– in fact, before he even made his application for “final proof” in 1907– he sold the land.

Warranty deed for sale of Lots 2, 3, SENW, NESW of 30-49-61, February 19, 1906.

That’s right. He sold the land to one Ernest Bolton for $1,000 on February 19, 1906, according to the Warranty Deed at the right, which I found on microfilm at the Wyoming State Archives in Cheyenne.

Since homesteading was intended to be a family affair, the homesteading laws recognized the rights of the wife– that way the husband could not just sell the land and abandon his family without resources to fend for themselves. The fact that the Coulsons believed this land was theirs under the Homestead Act is evidenced by the final paragraph, where my great-grandmother Lucy has to explicitly sign her Right of Homestead away:

And I further certify that said Lucy Coulson wife of the said Linley G. Coulson was by me first examined separate and apart from her said husband in reference to the signing and acknowledging of such deed, the nature and effect of said deed being explained to her by me, and that she being by me fully appraised of her right, and of the effect of signing and acknowledging said deed, did sign the same while so separate and apart from her said husband and did then acknowledge that she freely and voluntarily signed and acknowledged the same for the uses and purposes therein set forth, including the release and waiver of the right of homestead.

Newcastle News-Journal, February 23, 1906 p.1

The land sale was such a notable event that the newspaper in Newcastle south of Cambria saw fit to run a tiny news item about it.

So… George and Lucy sold the land more than two years before they legally owned it. This, on the face of it, sounds like fraud. But then again, maybe not…  here’s an added complication: the parcel of land that George got title to in 1908 is not exactly the same as the one he sold to Ernest Bolton in 1906.

Remember, the land described in the Patent that was granted in 1908 was described as NW¼ 30-49-61 W6. However, the land that Mr. Bolton bought in 1906 is described as Lots 2 and 3 and the southeast quarter of the northwest quarter and the northeast quarter of the southwest quarter of section 30 in township 49, north of range 61. Whew. That’s gonna take some decoding.

Remember how a section is divided up into quarter-sections of 160 acres each. George’s quarter section, which he ultimately received the patent for, is the northwest quadrant.





Each quarter-section can itself be divided into 40-acre lots. These are designated as at the right. For example, the NWNW lot is sometimes referred to as “northwest quarter of the northwest quarter”, and SESW can be referred to as “southeast quarter of the southwest quarter,” and so forth. It’s a little confusing but you get the idea.

Lots can also be designated by lot number, and there seems to be no universal way of numbering the lots. This is how I think the lot numbering goes, but I could be wrong.

That means that the land George sold to Mr. Bolton in 1906 (Lots 2 and 3 and the southeast quarter of the northwest quarter and the northeast quarter of the southwest quarter of section 30 in township 49, north of range 61) are the lots in green:


…What on earth is George doing trying to sell a lot in the Southwest Quarter of section 30? His original homestead claim made no mention of that at all!


Crook County Monitor, January 20 1905, page 4

OK, and things get even messier. Remember how a homesteader is supposed to post a “final proof” to their claim in the newspaper before the patent can be issued? Well, George did that for these four parcels of land in 1905. It’s identical to the one we saw above (from 1908), except it references the odd grouping of parcels that appear in the bill of sale to Bolton in 1906: Lots 2 and 3 and SENW and NESW of 30-49-61!

I should add that George did not at any time receive a patent for the land hereunto described.


I think I have a workable explanation for this mess, and I think the clue lies in a clause attached to the final patent we looked at above:

And there is reserved from the lands hereby granted, a right of way thereon for ditches or canals constructed by the authority of the United States.

I’ll bet that when George and his family moved on to the northwest quarter of Secton 30 in 1898, he discovered that he was unable to use the northwest 40 acres of his claim because the government needed it for a ditch or canal or right-of-way of some kind. So, he started using the southeast lot of the quarter-section immediately below his as (to him) just compensation, since nobody had claimed it yet. Maybe he had a handshake agreement with some government official that this was “fine”. After he had lived there for more than 5 years and posted his “final proof” in the paper, maybe he had forgotten all about it. Or maybe he thought the government had recorded the change in their record book. Maybe he thought his patent was a shoe-in, so he went ahead with the sale of the land to Bolton without waiting for his homesteading patent to be issued.

(In fact, there is a hastily-scrawled notation in red ink in the Tract Book that I can scarcely make out, but it seems to say something like “Amended by XXX July 2, 1902…” and the rest is indistinct. Part of the scrawl looks like “SW 1/4”, so perhaps this is a reference to George’s use of the NESW lot. Can you make out what it says?)

Imagine the bureaucratic nightmare when George and Ernest Bolton discovered the sale could not go through, because George had no legal claim to the the lot in the southwest quarter! George probably had to start his paperwork all over again. It took 3 more years for the mess to be sorted out.

Warranty deed for sale of NW 30-49-61, April 2, 1909.

There’s a happy ending to this story– We find another warranty deed in the county records, documenting George Lindley Coulson’s sale of land to Ernest Bolton (again) for $1,000, this one dated April 2, 1909– a year after George received his land patent. This time, it seems, he wasn’t taking any chances! This bill of sale is essentially identical to the one in 1906, except it refers to the northwest quarter of Section 30 in its entirety, just like it appears on George’s patent. We can only assume that the 1906 sale was cancelled, and Bolton got his money back.

George Lindley made a tidy profit on the transaction, despite the red tape and misunderstandings he no doubt endured. For an initial investment of $16, he eventually walked away with $1,000 in 1909 U.S. dollars. But the happy ending was short-lived… Shortly after this sale was transacted, George and Lucy and their younger children– Mary, Maggie, Fred, and little George Arthur– pulled up stakes and headed for Canada in an adventure that would turn into disaster for the family. More on that in a future post.

As for Ernest Bolton, it appears he did put down roots in the Wyoming soil. I found newspaper references to him as an “industrious young farmer”, and a mention of him digging a mine on his property. The last trace I have of him was a notice that he was drawing an old age pension from Crook County in 1932.


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Kay’s 48 in Gay Paree

On this day in 1945 my Aunty Kay got away from the drudgery of her administrative posting with Canadian Army Headquarters in Aalst, Belgium, and took 48-hour leave in Paris. She had an awesome time and a few days later wrote all about the experience in a letter to her Ma and Pop (my great-grandparents) and her brother Mike back home. (Mike had flat feet and was rejected for service, so his main contribution to the war effort was sending his sister cartons of Export A cigarettes on a regular basis).  

I don’t really remember Kathleen Bublick (I only met her when I was a baby), but I am fascinated by her short life and adventuresome spirit. She worked her way up to the rank of sergeant in the CWACS (Canadian Women’s Army Corps) in London during WWII and dearly wanted to get across to the Continent after D-Day, but the quota of sergeants had already been filled so she took a voluntary reduction in rank back down to private in order to join the advancing Canadian Army. She eventually made it all the way to Germany, and stayed there long after V-E day taking care of the paperwork that transferred Canadian soldiers home or else to the still ongoing Pacific Theatre.

I have a lot of information about Kay’s life that I want to share eventually. I am waiting for Archives Canada to fulfill my request for her military dossier, but I’m not expecting that for another 6 months. In the meantime, to commemorate the 74th anniversary of her adventure in Paris, I’ll post her letter home.

27 Feb 45

W13053 Pte Bublick K
Cdn Sec 2 Ech
HQ 21 Army Group
Cdn Army Overseas

Dear Folks.

How do you like my stationary? It’s straight from Paris. Yes I’ve had my 48 and went to Paris and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a city I like better. It’s simply marvelous and we were busy every minute of the time. It wasn’t half long enough so I’ve decided to take my 7 days leave and really see Paris.

It’s so clean and the streets are wide and there are so many beautiful monuments and buildings. The river Seine runs through it and there are 36 bridges over it and such white wide ones too. The outstanding thing is the Eiffel Tower which can be seen from any point in Paris.

It was quite a long train trip and rather tiresome but after we had a nice hot bath and got cleaned up we were ready to go and see the sights. The first afternoon we walked and walked for miles and took some snaps. In the evening we went to the Folies Bergere. Boy oh Boy. I never saw anything like it in my life. The scenery and costumes were marvelous. Some of the girls didn’t wear very much. A little silver girdle, a pair of slippers and a smile. Some of it was rather embarrassing and we sure were thankful we were all girls instead of with men. We walked back to our hotel which was quite a considerable distance but the moon was bright and the streets were lit up to a certain extent.

Next morning we got up at 8:30 to go on a bus tour. It lasted about 3 hours and we saw all the most important spots such as Notre Dame, The Concorde, Champs Elisee, Napoleon’s Tomb, The Trocadero and ever so many other spots. In the afternoon we walked again and shopped. At night we went to a dance in the Hotel Dorsay where the ballroom is absolutely breathtaking with its glass chandeliers and bronze and gilt walls. We had a grand time. The next morning we slept in and had breakfast in bed. Sunday afternoon we walked some more and took pictures and in the evening we caught the train back. I’m still tired as I haven’t walked so much since leaving London. I’m sure going back for my 7 days leave.

The snaps I’m enclosing were taken here when there was a fair on or “Mardis Gras” as they call it. One Sunday afternoon we went and tried our hand at shooting, rode on the little cars and ate potato chips. The Mardi Gras lasted for about two weeks. I imagine in peace time they really go to town and celebrate, dances, parades and much more to eat and drink.

I haven’t been getting any mail for two weeks now. I wonder what’s the matter with everybody.

The weather has been grand. A little rain, a little cold but lots of sunshine. In fact it feels more like April than February. The trees are getting green and the grass is like velvet already.

I’ve been very busy at work. I changed my job and now I sure can’t complain of not having anything to do. The days are much too short for all the work that has to be done. However, we’re pretty well caught up now and I hope it won’t be too rushed from now on.

I hope you’re all feeling fine and that the weather has improved. I’m feeling pretty good these days. Nothing to complain about but I’m sure looking forward to coming home and I hope it won’t be too long before we’re on the move toward Canada.

Cheerio for this time and lots of love.


Mike I rec’d another carton of Exports. Thanks a million.

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Happy Great-Grandmother’s Day

In celebration of Mother’s Day, I wanted sum up what I know about each of my great-grandmothers, none of whom I think I ever met in the flesh, although I have gotten to know them a little bit through my genealogical research.

Julia Swedish

Julia (center) at her daughter's wedding in 1929.

Julia (center) at her daughter’s wedding in 1929.

“Swedish” wasn’t her real name. The actual spelling, as it appears on her son’s birth certificate, is Swider. This, I believe, is actually Świder, which is the name of a village near Warsaw. But she may not have come from there… according to the family legendarium, she came from the same village as her future husband, which I have determined to be Rozdziele (near Gorlice, about two hundred miles south of Świder), just north of the Slovakian border near the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, in what is now south-west Poland, though when she was born in 1884 it was in the now-defunct Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, part of the Austrian Empire.

According to those family legends, Julia and her future husband emigrated to North America separately in about 1899 and met by chance at a party in New York City, where they got married. Later they moved to southern Alberta’s coal belt and started a dry goods business near Lethbridge through the patronage of a friend. I haven’t been able to back up this story with any documentation, yet. I have found many Galicians in the Ellis Island passenger lists named Swider (and Bubniak, her husband’s name), but no definitive matches.

The earliest firm document I have establishing Julia’s existence is the birth certificate of her first son in 1904. She and her husband were marvelously vague about their past. On the 1906 Canada census (when Julia would have been about 22), it states that she came to Canada in 1900, whereas her husband Joe arrived in 1886 (I am almost certain that Joe’s statement here is bogus, and perhaps hers is too). The 1916 Census states that they both arrived in 1898 (if this is true then she would have been only 14… which might suggest an elopement? But I have no stories hinting at that). And by 1921, they were saying that she arrived in 1903, and he arrived in 1897. So who knows?

Julia’s religion at birth was probably Uniate (Greek Catholic) and her language was probably one of the Western Ukrainian dialects, possibly Lemko. She insisted that her children grow up speaking English, and only her firstborn son spoke any Ukrainian at all. She raised her children in the United Church of Canada, and she was active in the Rebekah Lodge (the female wing of the International Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization with roots in Britain), rising to the rank of “Noble Grand”, the highest post at her local chapter.

Her family’s background was most likely farming, though she helped her husband run the dry goods store from the time of their arrival in Canada until they retired in 1933. At that time they gave the store to their son-in-law (my grandfather) and they moved to a farm in Haney, British Columbia, which is now part of Vancouver’s suburban

Julia Bublick (Swedish), Christmas 1947

Julia (left) with her family in 1947.

sprawl but in those days was quite pastoral. She managed the farm until her husband’s death in 1947, whereupon she moved to New Westminster to live with her son until her death in 1949.

Julia rarely smiled, but here’s a photo of her smiling– this was Christmas 1947 at her daughter’s house, almost a year after her husband died. It was the first time in years when she didn’t have to do all the cooking.

Lucy Scarlett

Lucy Ann Coulson (Scarlett Somerfield)

Lucy Ann Coulson (Scarlett Somerfield)

Lucy Scarlett: What a great name! She was born Lucy Ann Somerfield in 1867 in Bloxwich, Staffordshire, England. The fact that the earliest documents I have for her do not record a father, but show her sharing the same surname as her mother (Jane Somerfield, 1844-1914) leads me to suspect that she might have been born out of wedlock. By the time she was 4 years old, the census of 1871 claims that her mother had married one George Scarlett, a Bloxwich miner, and it appears George has adopted little Lucy, although her name is still “Somerfield”. (In fact, George and Jane did not legally get married until 1873… suggesting a little bit of drama that I have no insight into, except what I read in these old documents).

In 1885 18-year-old Lucy married George Lindley Coulson, a hard-drinking coal miner. He was over 6 feet tall; she was 4 foot 10. The legends say that she was an accomplished singer and even sang “in the opera”. This may be true– there was quite an active music-hall scene in late 19th century Yorkshire, and she may well have taken part.

In 1888 or 1889 Lucy and George departed for America, after first giving birth to two children: Rose (1886-1970) and William, who died in infancy just before they left. They landed in Pittsburgh where she had another son, Tom (1890-1983). In about 1896 they moved out to Wyoming, living in various coal mining camps in the eastern part of the state (mostly Cambria, now a ghost town). There she had five more children: Henry, Mary, Margaret, Fred, and George. Henry, her favorite, died at the age of 4. I can remember Mary, the next daughter, talking about a pearl her mother retrieved from Henry’s clothing… how she would roll it over and over in her hands with a faraway look…

Lucy’s children gather at her grave 50 years after her death.

This life was hard on her. Sometime after 1908 her husband decided he had had enough of the United States and wanted to get back to British territory, so the family pulled up stakes again and started heading north-west, mostly on foot, across Wyoming and Montana on a vague, wandering route towards Canada, stopping periodically to work at ranches and coal mines along the way. Lucy had at least one, perhaps two, miscarriages on the trail.

There was no border to speak of in those days, and they finally reached the Northwest Mounted Police outpost of Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan, in August, 1911. Lucy was already suffering from tuberculosis and pneumonia; she died almost immediately from the exhaustion of the journey, and was buried in the police cemetery there. She was only 45 years old.

Lucy was remembered somewhat more fondly by her children than her husband was. Here is a photo of them in the 1960’s when they met at Fort Walsh to install a headstone for her grave.

Robina Woods

Robina in 1915

Robina in 1915

Robina Kean Woods was born in a working-class slum in Paisley, Scotland, in 1890. Her father John was a carter, or deliveryman. John’s father was also a carter, and his father had been a boiler stoker at a cloth bleaching factory. Her family on her mother’s side were shoemakers. Both sides came from Ireland, having fled to Scotland some generations previous to escape the Great Famine.

Robina’s family attended the Free Church of Scotland, a fairly radical offshoot of the presbyterian Church of Scotland. She was wrenched into the episcopalian Church of England at the age of 19 when she married William Elliott, a young man who had a good engineering job at the Paisley threadmill. They hid it well, but his family was Irish too, and had left Ireland around the same time as hers and for the same reasons. I mention the Irish connection because in Scotland in those days, to be Irish– even Protestant Scotch-Irish from Ulster– was to be seen as little better than an animal. The Irish were despised and could not aspire to any but the meanest jobs. William’s family had carefully recrafted itself to be seen as Scottish, and William was the first in generations to have any job but unskilled labor. Robina probably thought she was moving up in the world, by marrying him.

They started a family and things seemed to be going well for Robina; her husband’s employer even gave them a nice house to live in in a respectable neighborhood. The First World War changed things, and William’s wartime injuries forced him to seek employment elsewhere. They had to move out of the company house. He became a gamekeeper and had a series of jobs all over the Scottish highlands; Robina, as the gamekeeper’s wife, not only had to keep her own household but also function as a domestic servant at the great estates where they resided.

Robina in about 1940

Robina in about 1940

She had seven children during that time; the family finally emigrated to Canada in 1927. Neither her family nor her husband’s had any background in farming, but suddenly Robina found herself a farmer’s wife in a foreign country with unbelievable temperature extremes and prodigious snowfall. They managed to keep up that life for 9 years, having two more children in that time. Despite all the children they had their differences, and they separated after they retired to Calgary in 1936. Then Robina worked energetically as the manager/caretaker for an apartment building; she outlived William by 14 years and died in 1963.

Cora Foss

Cora (seated, center) with her family in about 1918

Cora (seated, center) with her family in about 1918

Cora was the only child of a farming couple in Ontario. Cora’s family on both sides were solid Upper Canada farming folks. I have been able to trace them back to the American Colonies in the 18th Century, which they probably left as a consequence of the American Revolution; possibly they were part of the Tory exodus to British North America.

Cora herself was born in Norfolk County, Ontario in 1887. She moved with her parents to Olds, Alberta in 1900 when she was about 13, and married John Luska Berkley, a farmer of German descent, in 1904. She had five children. I know little about her except what I have learned from cousins who had contact with her.

She and her husband farmed the same land for 40 years. Their house burned down in the winter of 1935; the community pitched in to help them rebuild. They passed the land on to one of their sons when they retired in 1946; then she lived on in Olds until her death in 1961. She was, I’m told, an excellent seamstress.

Here is a piece commemorating Cora and John’s 34th wedding anniversary that my cousin found in a local newspaper, that gives some flavor of Cora’s household and friends:

OLDS GAZETTE: November 24, 1938: the home of Mr. and Mrs. J. L. Berkley was the scene of a memorable event on Wednesday evening last, when about twenty-five intimate friends and relatives joined with Mr. and Mrs. Berkley in celebrating their 34th wedding anniversary. Preparations had been carried on while Mr. Berkley was away so the whole event was a complete surprise. During the dinner hour (6:30) Mr. Fred Penny proposed a toast to the honored couple, speaking warmly of the friendships which had strengthened during the years. Mr. Berkley replied fittingly.

Neighbors gathered in for the evening to enjoy music and dancing. At midnight when lunch was being served Mr. And Mrs. Berkley with their attendant bridesmaid and groomsman of 34 years ago, Mr. Newt Reid and Mrs. R. M. Anderson, were given the seat of honor facing a five tier wedding cake beautifully lighted with candles. As the other lights were dimmed the Gardin sisters sang very sweetly, “while the Mighty Organ Played.”

The scene was most effective and will live long in the memory of those present. Mr. and Mrs. Berkley were married November 16th, 1904 at the home of the bride’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. A. Foss, when their home was the present Charlie Bowman farm. Rev. Lang was the officiating minister. The day was bright and warm with no signs of snow. Those from a distance attending the anniversary dinner were, Mr. and Mrs. Foss, Olds, Mr. and Mrs. W. Miller, Didsbury, and Mr. and Mrs. W. Golden of Sundre.

Cora with her husband in about 1960

Cora with her husband in about 1960

(Credit for the above goes to Janis Berkley’s History of the Berkley, Foss, and Connon Families).

Mary Griffin

Mary Theresa Griffin (other surnames are Davis, Paul, Nelson, and Coulson) is someone nobody within my immediate family network even knew existed, until I started my genealogical digging. She’s what you might call my step-great-grandmother. She’s the second wife of George Lindley Coulson, and therefore not in my direct genetic line, but the more I discover about her the more remarkable I find her.

After Lucy Scarlett died at Fort Walsh in 1911 and her (mostly-adult) children scattered to the winds, her husband George wandered back into the U.S.A. and found himself in Havre, Montana in 1915. There he married Mary Griffin, and they proceeded to spend the better part of 25 years together. Who was she?

Mary was Métis, born into the family of Oliver Paul in 1862. She was baptized in St. François Xavier, a village that lies a bit west of the present city of Winnipeg; at that time it was part of a network of communities known as the Red River Settlement, semi-itinerant groups of fur trappers and buffalo hunters in Rupert’s Land, a vast area that had been owned and worked as a monopoly by the Hudson’s Bay Company for two centuries. In a few years title to this land would be transferred to the nascent Canadian government, leading directly to the Red River Rebellion of 1869, followed by the North-West Rebellion of 1885.

Mary fits into this history, somehow, I’m sure. She acquired the surname “Davis” quite early, and in 1879 (when she is just 17) we find her at Fort Assinniboine, Montana. There she met a Scottish immigrant named Jack Griffin who had a government contract hauling firewood to the fort. She became his common-law wife and bore him at least 12 children over the course of 24 years; they finally became formally married in Havre in 1903. Mary, it seems, was Jack’s lover, wife, agent, and manager. She took care of Jack’s ranch, raised his children, and fed his employees. These are details that I have gleaned– perhaps imperfectly– by poring over census records, as well as the birth, death, and marriage records of Mary and Jack’s children.

Jack died in 1913. Mary held an estate sale and sold off all the ranch livestock and equipment. In 1915 she hooked up with my great-grandfather George and in 1917 they moved to Canada. George declared $4,750 in cash and effects to the border officials; I have little doubt that this was Mary’s money. George wasn’t much of a saver.

Mary and George settled in Plamondon, Alberta (near Lac La Biche), and farmed there for almost 25 years, about as long as Mary had been with Jack. I think they chose Plamondon because Mary probably had relatives there: that region had been a welcoming refuge for Métis fleeing the brutal suppression of the Red River fights for independence in 1869 and 1885. I suspect they were not very successful at farming; they probably lived off of Mary’s money and wound up quite poor towards the end. Mary died in 1938 and was buried in Edmonton in an unmarked grave (and George, who died two years later, also has an unmarked pauper’s grave in a municipal cemetery). Mary’s funeral, though, was well attended and some of her children came up from Montana to say farewell.

Great Falls Tribune – Sat, Dec 31, 1938 – Page 5

Mary’s obituary

Violet Clegg

Violet is another step-great-grandmother. She entered my family tree after my grandparents got divorced in 1946, thus introducing a whole new vast network of ancestors to track down.

Violet Elizabeth Clegg was born in a suburb of London in 1886 to a large family– she had four brothers and three sisters. Her father Samuel was in the insurance business, and her mother Elizabeth was “a prominent political and social worker and was also a popular figure on the concert platform” (this from Samuel’s obituary).

Violet with her husband and daughter and dog, Scruffy in 1946

Violet with her husband, daughter and dog, Scruffy in 1946

In 1909 Violet married a young man named Henry Giles, who may have been an employee or junior associate of her father. After giving her two daughters he went off to the War and was killed in action on the Western Front in 1917. I found it rather fascinating that Violet’s brothers were commissioned officers during the War, but Henry was not. I wonder what, if any, family tension that may have occasioned?

After the War Violet remarried, this time to a charming man named Alfred Willis, who became the perfect father to Violet’s two daughters. They regarded him with great fondness.

After Violet’s daughter married my grandfather following World War Two, I don’t know much about her except a few photos. She looks like a content woman who enjoyed taking vacations with her husband, and I can see she loves dogs. She came over to Canada a few times to visit (I’m told I may have met her, though I don’t remember), and she died in 1971.

You can read more about Violet’s interesting family over on Neil Berrett’s blog.


I like to play the game of how it would be to bring them all together at a Mother’s Day brunch, perhaps. It would have to be prior to 1911 when Lucy died… Let’s say 1910, when Lucy is 44? Julia is 26, Robina is 20, Cora is 23, Mary (the eldest) is 48, and Violet is 24. They were such vastly different women… I wonder how it all plays out.

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Love, Yorkshire Style

Mary Agnes Baker / Lindner / Coulson, 1896-1983

Aunty Mary, who died over 30 years ago, is the primary source for much of my earliest Coulson family history. She was born in Wyoming but she must have spent a lot of time listening to her folks, because she knew quite a lot about her grandparents and great-grandparents back in Yorkshire. It gives me great pleasure to track down her stories and see how true they are. I’ve become Aunty Mary’s posthumous fact-checker.

She knew a lot about her father’s mother, Mary Coulson. According to Aunty Mary, her grandmother Mary’s first two children– George Lindley Coulson and Emily Ann Coulson– were born out of wedlock to Mary and a man named Jim Barlow. But instead of marrying Barlow she went and married Tom Henson. By that time, though, George and Emily had already been adopted by their maternal grandfather, William Coulson (who later clobbered a man with a shovel and ran off to Australia) and that is why my great-grandfather George was surnamed Coulson, not Barlow or Henson. It would be nice to try to validate some of these facts, wouldn’t it?

First thing I found was George and Emily’s baptismal record…

Emily and George were both baptized on May 5, 1867. I have found other documents showing that Emily was in fact born in December 1866, and that George was born on December 10, 1864. I can’t imagine why Mary took so long getting George baptized, but the thing I wanted to point out about the baptismal register is that only Mary’s name appears; there is no father.

Later I found the marriage registration for Mary Coulson and Tom Henson– they were married later that same year, 1867. By the time of the 1871 Census, Mary, Tom, George, and Emily are one big happy family… but note that 6-year-old George is still a Coulson (or here, “Colson”). Apparently Tom hasn’t adopted him yet (and, for some reason, he never will… which is why we’re named Coulson, not Henson).

Also note that Tom, Mary, and the children are living as lodgers in the home of John Black, a musician… There’s another one of Aunty Mary’s stories lying in plain sight there, but that’ll have to wait for another day.

Well, we have accounted for Tom Henson. So far, Aunty Mary’s story checks out. What happens if we go looking in the opposite direction?

In 1861, I found a 13-year-old Mary Coulson living with her 74-year-old grandfather, George Mitchell, a grocer. Mary’s occupation is “General Servant”. Their address is 38 New Street in Barnsley, Yorkshire.

I can’t be 100% certain that this is my great-great-grandmother because “Mitchell” is a name I never heard about from Aunty Mary, and I never heard of Mary living with her grandfather. However, this girl’s parents are obviously absent, and that fits with Aunty Mary’s story of Mary’s father running off to Australia. Plus, this Mary’s age is exactly 10 years younger than the young woman in the 1871 Census, and the birthplace of the two Marys (Bawtry, Yorkshire) is a match, too. And, of course, her name lines up with what I think I know.

Well, here’s another piece of evidence, which seals it for me. This is also from the 1861 Census:

Here we have a 16-year-old “Tinner & Brazier Apprentice” named James Barlow, living with his parents, Edwin and Rebecca, and several brothers and sisters. Hm, that’s interesting. Didn’t Aunty Mary say that Jim Barlow was the father of Mary’s first two children?

Check out James Barlow’s address: 74 New Street, Barnsley, Yorkshire.

James and Mary were practically neighbors.

To give you an idea of how close they lived, here’s a modern photo of New Street in Barnsley taken from Google Streetview (image copyright Google, retrieved on Nov. 25 2017):

Mary’s house is the white one on the right. James’ house is a little before the end of the street, also on the right.

Obviously this is highly conjectural. I have no documentation regarding the true parentage of George Lindley Coulson and his sister Emily. I have no reason to link the census page recording Edwin Barlow’s family with the one recording George Mitchell and his grand-daughter. All I have is the word of Aunty Mary, who has been dead for a third of a century.

Well, that’s good enough for me. I think James and Mary met in the course of their young working-class lives on the streets of Barnsley. Mary’s grandfather being a grocer, perhaps the Barlows were customers of his. Mary was only 13 in 1861, but by the time her son George was born she would have been 16, and James would have been 19. A perfect age to start a family. But for some reason things didn’t work out for them, and they didn’t get married… I have traced James through the United Kingdom censuses up into the early part of the 20th century, and I know that he eventually married a woman named Angelica and had many children by her. Mary, as we have seen, went on to marry Tom Henson and the whole family– including George Lindley, Emily, and Tom and Mary’s own natural children– all emigrated to North America around 1888.

Funny how a tiny scrap of scurrilous family gossip can lead you to an important find. Without these stories I would have no clue about the true identity of my great-great-grandfather Jim Barlow. I can’t speculate much on the relationship between Mary, Jim, and Tom, but what I can say is that Aunty Mary’s facts are checking out.

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Nat Griffin’s Draft Card

When I was driving through Havre, Montana a while back I decided to stop at the public library to see if they had any books on local history. I wanted to investigate a story I had heard that my grandfather’s sister, my notorious Aunty Mary, had worked at a hotel there as a girl.

It turns out the library does have quite a rich section dedicated to local history and genealogy which I could have spent days perusing. I didn’t discover anything about Aunty Mary’s hotel but one thing I did make note of before the library closed was an ancient dusty set of books containing Montana marriage registrations going back to the start of the 20th century. I wished I could have taken it home with me because I had a feeling it would come in handy someday.

Fortunately there was no need to walk off with it. The reason such valuable old records are lying out in the open is that they were digitized and indexed long ago by the Mormons and they are now available as the Montana, County Marriages, 1865-1993 database on FamilySearch.org. Searching through those marriage registrations, as well as census records from those days, has taken my research to a new level. Another resource I’m putting to good use is the free collection of old newspapers hosted by the Library of Congress.

One interesting character I traced through the years was John C. “Bear Paw Jack” Griffin. Here’s an excerpt from his obituary, which appeared in the Choteau Acantha on September 10, 1913:

During the early eighties Mr. Griffin came to Fort Assinniboine and had the contract for hauling wood to the post for some time. About 1888 or 1889 he settled on a ranch in the Bear Paw mountains, about 25 miles south of Havre, where he has since resided. As the years rolled by he increased his land holdings and stock interests until at this time he has over two thousand acres of the finest land along the Clear Creek valley, besides hundreds of head of cattle and horses.

In the 1910 Census I found Jack Griffin’s family living in Clear Creek as the obituary states. His wife, Mary T. Griffin, is identified as French Canadian, born about 1862 in Canada. I used the list of children in the household (the eldest being Nathaniel, born about 1886) to trace the family back to the 1900 Census. There the head of the household is identified as Mary T. Davis, born in Canada in 1862. This has to be the same Mary T. as is in the 1910 Census. All the children are surnamed Griffin and it says they had been married 20 years; it seems Mary and Jack must have had a common-law marriage.

Sure enough, I found their actual marriage registration in that database comprising the marriage registers I saw in the Havre library. In 1902, after more than 20 years of living as man and wife, John C. Griffin married Mrs. M. T. Davis, previously married and divorced. Her maiden name was Paul and she was born in Manitoba, Canada. Her race is listed as “Half-breed”, which is what they were calling the Métis back then.

The census says that Mary T. immigrated to the U.S. in 1879 (aged 17). It says Jack immigrated in 1866 (aged 16). I wonder whether any of the children belonged to Mary’s first marriage with this Davis fellow. If we take the statements on the census at face value then I suspect Mary left her first husband Mr. Davis in Manitoba in 1879 and headed south, meeting Jack when he was hauling wood to Fort Assinniboine in 1880; that is the year of the birth of her first (known) daughter, Betsy. It’s hard to say since Mary and Jack weren’t actually married until 1902 and her first marriage didn’t leave a paper trail that I have found.

The eldest son Nathaniel was a bit of a troublemaker, according to a snippet I found in the Fort Benton newspaper:

The River Press, May 29, 1912
A news item from Havre reports the escape of Nat Griffin from the Hill county jail. The prisoner was being held for trial on a charge of cruelty to animals at Box Elder, and conviction would have given him a term in the penitentiary.

Old Bear Paw Jack died the following year (September 1913, as we have seen). Then I found, again in those Montana marriage registers, Mary T. Griffin of Havre marrying one Martin Nelson, a 53-year-old Norwegian immigrant.

After that I lose track of Mary and Martin Nelson. Nathaniel pops up in the Montana State Penitentiary records in 1916, when he was sentenced to 2-8 years for Grand Larceny. In September 1918 Nathaniel, despite being in prison, had to register for the Draft, since the U.S. Army was desperate for recruits and had to start reaching pretty low to satisfy The Great War’s unquenchable thirst for human life. Mercifully Germany and Austria were collapsing at that point and the war was over two months later, so it doesn’t look like Nathaniel got to see action.

Interesting stuff, but this is not a story about Bear Paw Jack or his wayward son. Those people are not in my family tree at all. No, this is a story about the identity of my great-grandfather’s second wife. Let’s back up a bit.

My great-grandfather George Lindley Coulson was born in 1864 and grew up in the coal mines of Yorkshire. He married Lucy Ann Scarlett, a tiny but tough woman from Staffordshire. The story of their epic journey from England to Pittsburgh to Wyoming and finally to Saskatchewan will have to be told another day. They stopped for a while in Havre, Montana, and that’s where their daughter (my Aunty Mary) stayed to work in the hotel. The rest of the family continued on, crossing the extremely porous U.S.-Canada border in the summer of 1911 (on foot, walking alongside their livestock). Almost as soon as they arrived at Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan, Lucy, aged 44, dropped dead from tuberculosis and pneumonia. She had had two miscarriages along the way, and she was exhausted. She lies buried in the Northwest Mounted Police cemetery at Fort Walsh, one of the few civilian graves to have a real headstone. She was highly esteemed by all her children. Fifteen-year-old Aunty Mary had to come racing up from Havre in her employer’s buckboard to take charge of the family, since George Lindley, having gone to Maple Creek to buy a casket for his dead wife, wound up spending the money on a drinking binge while his wife’s body lay back at the Fort ripening beneath the hot August sun.

The family kind of fell apart after that, and discovering what happened next has been one of my enduring genealogical quests. My grandfather was only 6 years old at the time of his mother’s death and his recollections don’t really begin until the Influenza Epidemic of 1919. I did find something that gives me a clue, though: a Canadian immigration record from April 5, 1917 at the border crossing at Coutts, Alberta.

That’s definitely my great-grandfather George Lindley Coulson, en route from Havre, Montana, to Lac La Biche, Alberta. Accompanying him are his sons Tom (my Uncle Tom, who later settled in Edmonton and had a big family there) and 9-year-old “Master G.” (that would have to be my grandfather, George Arthur). Also there is “Mrs. Geo. Coulson”.

This is immensely interesting. It seems that after dragging his family to Saskatchewan in 1911, George Lindley eventually drifted back to Havre and got married again. Then he moved to Lac La Biche in 1917. And boy, was he rich! He was carrying $3,600 in cash and $1,150 in “effects”. It looks like he was the richest man on Train #239. Knowing what I know about him I have a feeling he didn’t earn that money himself. I think it must have belonged to this mysterious second wife.

My grandfather never mentioned any of this. I know that George Lindley had a second wife, and all I know about her comes from my grandfather’s recollections of growing up on his father’s farm near Plamondon, a hamlet about 20 miles from Lac La Biche. I know that my grandfather hated his step-mother, and she didn’t like him either; he was chucked off the farm when he was 16 and went to live with his sister in Saskatchewan. He didn’t see his father again for almost 20 years after that, and he certainly never saw his step-mother again; he couldn’t even remember her name.

Lac La Biche, interestingly, has an ancient association with Canada’s fur trade and it played a role in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. It was a center of Métis culture long before the colonization of the Canadian prairies and it had strong ties to the Red River settlement in Manitoba. This is actually a clue in our story which I’ll return to later.

So then I went hunting for the elusive “Mrs. Geo. Coulson” and I soon found her amongst the death registrations in the Alberta Archives. Her name was Mary Theresa and she died on December 23, 1938, in Edmonton. She was born August 19, 1862 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her racial origin is listed as French and her nationality Canadian. Religion, Roman Catholic. My great-grandfather signed the certificate, meaning that all this information came from him. She died in the old Misericordia Hospital, which, coincidentally, was the hospital where I would be born many years later.

But here, I at last had a name! Mary Theresa Coulson. Not a maiden name, but it was a start. I used the index of graves at the Alberta Genealogical Society to track her down in St. Joachim’s Catholic Cemetery in downtown Edmonton. I visited the grave site but it’s just a patch of grass. I fear that George Lindley was so poor by 1938 that he didn’t have enough money for a headstone.

Getting back to the Montana marriage registers, I found the record of George and Mary’s marriage in 1915. Or at least, I think I did. It’s a little confusing.

On October 19, 1915, a George Coulson married a Mary Griffin. Is this the George and Mary I’m looking for? Well, it was a Catholic wedding, which fits our bride. Mary was born in Winnipeg, which also fits. The ages of the bride and groom are a perfect match. But there are two extremely odd things to note: first, the fields for Mary’s parents are blank. Second, the parents listed for George absolutely do not line up with what I know (or think I know). George (according to Aunty Mary’s tales) was the illegitimate son of Mary Coulson and James Barlow, and he only bears the surname Coulson because he was adopted by Mary’s father in order to spare the family disgrace. When this Mary Coulson eventually did get married it was to a man named Henson, not Mitchell. I have got no idea who this “Thos. Coulson” and “Mary Mitchell” are. This might constitute new information for my family tree, or it may be completely spurious.

I questioned the validity of this marriage registration for a long time. Mary Griffin’s marriage to Martin Nelson in May 1914 was another real problem for my timeline, because just 18 months later Mary Griffin married George Coulson. Was this the same Mary Griffin? If Martin had died, I should be able to find a death record for him… Why can’t I? Was this George Coulson my great-grandfather, or some other George? If it’s the same Mary and George, why all the missing and incorrect information on the marriage documents? Did they have something to hide?

And that’s where things sat for quite a while. I was unwilling accept “Griffin” as the surname of my grandfather’s step-mother because this incomplete marriage registration was the sole evidence I had, and it was too shaky. There could have been more than one Mary Griffin in Havre in those days, right? And George Lindley might have gotten married someplace else and I just haven’t found it yet.

That’s when my casual research into Bear Paw Jack Griffin blew the case wide open. Could Jack’s wife Mary T. Griffin, born in Winnipeg in 1862, be the same as Mary Theresa Coulson, also born in Winnipeg in 1862?

You will remember that Jack’s son Nathaniel had to register for the Draft. His draft card holds the key to this mystery, because on it he identified his mother.

Nat identifies his nearest relative as “Mrs. George Carlson, Plamondon, Canada”. That, without a doubt, is Mary Theresa, whose unmarked grave I found in Edmonton.

In fact, Nat has two draft cards, both issued on the same day. Here’s the second one:

It’s identical in every respect, except the next-of-kin’s name is changed to “Mrs. George Coulson”. At least it might be Coulson; the third letter in the name is a little squiggly. One can picture Nat trying to remember the name of his mother’s latest husband… was it Carlson? Coulson? How did she spell that? The draft board official did his best to take down both names.

These cards, mentioning the Coulson/Carlson name, combined with the mention of the tiny hamlet of Plamondon, establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was only one Mary Griffin, and that she was married both to Bear Paw Jack and later to George Lindley. With this discovery I now feel confident putting the pieces together…

Mary Theresa Paul, daughter of Oliver Paul, was born in the Red River settlement in 1862 when Rupert’s Land was still claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, 11 years before the incorporation of Winnipeg. She had a brief marriage that ended around 1879 and she left for (or perhaps fled to) Fort Assinniboine, Montana, which would later become a focal point for the Cree and Métis people fleeing persecution in Canada in the wake of the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. There she met John C. Griffin and became his common-law wife, and together they had a large family and she managed his ranch in the Bear Paw Mountains. They finally got married, and when John C. died in 1913 I would have to guess she inherited his land and was a wealthy woman. She then married Martin Nelson, the Norwegian, and I don’t know what happened to him. Then in quick succession she married my great-grandfather George Lindley Coulson. They decided to move to Plamondon, Alberta, because she would probably have had family connections there via her Métis roots and George was, after all, still a British Subject.

This is probably not the final word on this adventure. I feel encouraged to learn a little more about Métis history than what we were taught in Canadian history class, because now I seem to have a fleeting family connection to it. I’d also like to get confirmation of poor Martin’s fate.

And, I wonder what happened to all that money?

Update: November 7, 2017

One of the exciting things about airing your family secrets in public is that you never know who you’ll meet. Since posting this story a couple of days ago a fellow-researcher I met on Find-A-Grave was intrigued by the mystery so she picked up the torch and went searching in the Montana newspapers for clues. She came up with a clipping that proves definitively that Bear Paw Jack’s wife Mary T. Griffin was none other than my great-grandfather’s second wife who moved up to Alberta and died in Edmonton. The children’s names– Margaret, Thomas, Frank, Bennett, and Nat– match the ones I already know from the census records.

Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, Montana)
31 Dec 1938, Sat • Page 5

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Cole of the West hotel returned Friday from Edmonton, Alta., where they were called by the death of Mrs. Cole’s mother, Mrs. Mary Theresa Coulson. Other survivors, in addition to her husband, are three daughters, Margaret Spencer, Chinook; Louise Ward, Havre; Belle Jernberg, Kalispell, and five sons, William Griffin, Browning; Thomas Griffin, Rocky Boy; Frank Griffin, Chinook; Bennett Griffin, Washington, and Nat Griffin, Browning.

Here’s to serendipity and chance meetings on the Internet.

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Finding Grandma

I never knew my grandmother. As far as I know she never knew me, or even knew I existed.

I knew her name, but that was all. After she and my grandfather got divorced it’s as if she fell off the face of the earth. My mother refused to talk about her. When my grandfather wrote his memoirs, he didn’t even mention her name.

That sounds like a good entry-level genealogical project, doesn’t it? Finding your own grandmother. OK then, let’s get started.

The evidence I had to start out with was slim…

First there are the clues in my grandfather’s memoir, in which he states that he got married in 1932. Later in the memoir he talks about adventures he had with his “wife” in London during World War Two. This is clearly not the woman he claims to have married earlier, but he never says anything about how the transition from Wife #1 to Wife #2 came about. Rather confusing.

From my mother, I at least got a name: Mary Emma Berkley. She also gave me to understand that my grandfather had divorced her during or after the War. (Details were not forthcoming, but I was given to believe that he was the injured party). I got the names of Mary Emma’s parents, and where they had lived, but beyond that my mother clammed up tight. She claimed to not even know the date of Mary Emma’s death. She thought it might have been before I was born. She had no contact with her mother after the divorce, apparently.

I tried asking my father, but he had never met her and all he could say was that he never heard anything about her, either. He did remember one episode, shortly after he and my mother were married, though… He recalled my mother going to a funeral in Olds, and he thinks it might have been her mother’s. He remembers hearing that when my mother walked into the funeral home everyone was startled, she looked so much like the deceased it was as if she were standing there amongst them! Because of what I knew about my parents’ movements and residences before I was born I had to place that incident in 1961. So at least I had a tentative date, and I put a lot of weight in it.

I think I may have asked my mother about that funeral once, and she said she didn’t remember.

When I started getting my feet wet in online genealogical research one of the first websites I became familiar with was FamilySearch, mainly because it’s free. There I discovered something called a “Pedigree Resource File”, which is basically a member-submitted family tree. Here’s one that mentions my grandmother:


Whoever submitted this data certainly knew about my grandmother, since her parents match what I already knew. But it says that Mary Emma was born on August 29, 1911 and died on March 6, 1977. It gives no documentary source for those dates, and it has no information about her husband (my grandfather) or her children (my mother and her siblings). I took this information with a big grain of salt, especially because it contradicted the death year that I thought was correct, 1961. I thought it must be a mistake.

Since online research was a dead end I decided I needed to visit the Alberta Provincial Archives in Edmonton to get answers. What I discovered there blew the lid off everything I had previously thought about my grandmother.

The first big discovery I made was my grandparents’ actual marriage registration, which I got to hold in my own hands. I made a photocopy and brought it home with me:

Marriage Registration for John Elliott and Mary Emma Berkley, March 8, 1933

This gave me pause, because it contradicts my grandfather’s marriage year as stated in his memoir (1932). I also have a handwritten family tree of his in the notes that I inherited from him, where he states he was married in 1931. Wrong on both counts: he and Mary Emma were married on March 8, 1933.

Why would he mis-state his year of marriage? Didn’t he remember it? I’ll return to that in a moment.

My next discovery in the Archives was the decree nisi from my grandparents’ divorce proceedings, which contained a summary of the evidence presented at the trial and believe me, it’s a page-turner. I won’t get into details but it must have caused quite a family scandal back in the day (I’m starting to understand why nobody wanted to talk about any of this). Suffice it to say that it was Mary Emma who sued John for divorce (not the other way around), and in my humble opinion she was right to do so. The divorce was final in March of 1946.

I made those discoveries within the first hour or two of my initial visit to the Archives, and they knocked the wind out of me. As I was wandering around the place trying to get a sense of what other resources were available, a kindly researcher from the Alberta Genealogical Society noticed my wandering and asked if there was anything she could help me find. I described what I was looking for, and she led me straight to a row of bookshelves that contained the Local and Alberta Histories collection, a large set of books containing family and community histories, written by the locals themselves. There I quickly found the book that pertained to Hainstock, Alberta, a farming district near Olds that I had passing familiarity with because I knew that was where my great-grandfather received a homestead when he immigrated from Scotland in 1927.

In those pages, in black and white, I found an article all about my long-lost grandmother and her family.

The book is Glimpses of the past, 1894-1994 and you can read it online (no need to travel to Edmonton to get it); the relevant passage, written by Janis (Kilpatrick) Berkley, begins on page 45. Here it is:

Glimpses of the Past (Bowden, Alberta: Hainstock Centennial History Book Association, 1994), pp.45-46.

This confirmed the dates in the Pedigree Resource File, and gave me a wealth of information about the Berkleys that I had had no clue of. Apparently my supposition that she died in 1961 was incorrect. It also told me she had been married to someone named Furguson (or Ferguson) before she died.

Just who was this Janis Berkley, and how did she know so much about my grandmother?

Part of the reason for my trip to Alberta, apart from researching at the Archives, was attending the funeral of my grandfather’s sister-in-law in Olds. I scarcely knew Aunt Esther but since she was almost the last survivor of my grandfather’s generation of siblings and their spouses, I considered it important to go. I might also meet cousins I never knew I had who might be able to give me more information about the things I was researching.

I also planned to use the opportunity to look up Janis Berkley, whoever she was, and interrogate her about my grandmother.

The first thing I did when I got to Olds was to visit the Hainstock Cemetery since I had a few hours to kill before the funeral. It’s a small cemetery and I was able to walk the length and breadth of it in under an hour. There I found the Berkley family plot, and nearby was an unkept grave with a broken headstone…

Well, there she was. And beside her with an identical headstone was her second husband George, who died the year after she did. I suppose in a perfect world he would have been my step-grandfather. I said hello.

Aunt Esther’s funeral was a success, from the perspective of my personal data-gathering goals. I learned from my cousins why my grandfather had fudged his marriage date– it was to hide the fact that his first child had been conceived out of wedlock, which was a big deal in his mind, although probably a lot more common than he was prepared to admit.

I also hung around outside the Olds Museum until it opened and talked to the archivist there. Wouldn’t you know, he did know Janis Berkley. She had moved down East but he promised to pass my email address on to her.

I waited against hope for a couple of weeks, and was delighted when she contacted me. She knows so much because she is married to one of Mary Emma’s nephews, and she took on the role of family historian back when the old timers were still alive and able to talk to us. I’m coming late to that game but fortunately Janis was more than willing to give me all the information I could handle, not only about my grandmother but about her siblings and their families. I was happy to reciprocate with information of my own, since they knew very little about us too.

I’m glad I was able to rehabilitate my grandmother’s memory and get to know her a little bit, so long after her death. It’s too bad this research came too late for my mother, who died before I embarked on this project and was never able to reconcile herself to her mother’s memory.

Here’s the best picture I have been able to find of Mary Emma. It came, surprisingly, from my grandfather’s collection.

John Elliott, Mary Emma Elliott (Berkley), 1940. Children (L-R): Sheila, Ruby, Archie, Boyd

My best guess for dating this photo is August 1940, just before the Calgary Highlanders departed Camp Shilo en route to the War, when my grandfather had a few days leave to return home to say goodbye to his wife. This portrait paints quite the lovely picture of a happy family, and while I now know their marriage was pretty much on the rocks at this point, perhaps this is the best way to remember them.


A few people have asked me, publicly and privately, whatever happened to Mary Emma. Eventually she married a man who was able to care for her more than my grandfather could. This was George Ferguson, and since he was Roman Catholic he had to wait a number of years before he could get a dispensation to marry (her being a divorced Protestant and all). They had no children, and lived out the remainder of their lives in relative seclusion on George’s farm, quite uneventfully it seems.

Meanwhile my grandfather poisoned his children’s minds against their mother. He rewrote the story so many times in his own mind that he started forgetting the details. But since he had literary aspirations, and since he was an officer of the Crown and a Freemason and a pillar of the community, his side of the story endured. Mary Emma’s just sank quietly into the earth.

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