My Favourite Photo

The theme for Week 3 of the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge is “Favourite Photo.”

Anita and Gilles, 1947

There’s a pile of photo albums on my floor that were recently inherited from my grandfather when he moved out of his house and into a senior’s apartment. A number of years ago, I digitized most of the images from these albums, but I now need to take on the task of organizing and storing the physical photos themselves. I must admit, I’ve been putting it off.

Working on your family history usually leads to you being the repository for family documents and photographs. In the process of organizing them, some of the images become as familiar to you as your favourite slippers.

This is one that immediately came to mind when I learned the prompt for this week’s challenge.

It shows my grandparents, Anita and Gilles, in a rowboat. It was taken in the summer of 1947, a few years before they were married.

I love how candid the image is, capturing their youth and energy, Gilles casually dangling a cigarette and Anita shyly trying to manoeuver the oars.

I asked my grandma once how they’d met. She said it was at a hockey game and my grandpa was one of the players. She remembered thinking that he was cute. They had mutual friends and spent time together in a group before eventually becoming a couple in about 1945.

Anita had spent her early years in Ottawa, Ontario, but when her father moved the family to a small French-speaking town just outside the city when she was about 13, she was lost. Her father was bilingual, being a translator for the government, but Anita spoke only English. Gilles, on the other hand, spoke only French, so they learned from each other. The language difference did nothing to impede their growing affection for each other. If anything, it probably gave them a stronger bond.

In 1949, they married and went on to have 6 children. They were married for over 60 years and when my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s in the mid-2000s, my grandfather took care of her tenderly and when she moved into a care home, he visited her every day for lunch and again for dinner until her death.

It’s been seven years since her passing, and he isn’t the same without her. Spending that long with another person and building a life and family together made them forever a matched set, a true love story.

I love to think of them in their early days, falling in love and hanging out with friends, before the pressures of life and family started.

No relationship is perfect and they had their challenges, but if I have half the love in my marriage that they did, I’ll consider myself very lucky indeed.

My Favourite Find

The theme for Week 2 of the 2022 edition of “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” is “Favorite Find.”

Of all the documents I’ve come across in my research into my family’s past, the one that stands out for me is perhaps the one that took me the longest to find – the baptism of my second great grandmother, Sarah.

First, a bit of background.

Sarah was always a mystery to me. I knew from her headstone in Carleton County, New Brunswick, Canada that she was born in Germany in 1833,

Gravestone of Lauchlen Patterson and Sarah, his wife,
St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Newburg, Carleton County, New Brunswick © 1996, Nicole Adams

My grandfather passed on a family story that Lauchlen was born in Scotland and had met his wife, Sarafina, “on the boat on the way over” This seems to be a common story that ranks up there with the old chestnuts: “We’re related to royalty” and “Our ancestor was a Native American princess”What seemed too fishy to me, even in those naive early days of my genealogy hobby, was that he had the same story to tell about his other grandparents. Apparently, both sets met each other on the passenger ship on the voyage to North America. I had the feeling one or both of these stories was fiction.

He was insistent that, although her name was on the headstone as Sarah, her full name was Sarafina Kenner and he had a very faded picture of her.

Sarafina (Kenner) Patterson, about 1910

Over the years, I’ve found records of her life in North America, but I could not find anything about her specific place of birth in Germany.

Tracing backward, I went from her gravestone and provincial death record in New Brunswick, through the census returns for 1911, 1901, 1891, 1881 and 1871 and found her each time with the birth location of Germany or Prussia. However, I could not find the couple in New Brunswick in the 1861 census.

Where were they? Looking more carefully at the 1871 census, I noted that their eldest child Alexander (born 1862) had United States listed as his birth location.

Aha! I was hot on the trail now!

I should note here that I made this discovery in 2001, in the early days of (Yes, I’ve been a subscriber for that long!) Not everything is online now, but WAY less of it was available then.

Luckily, a search brought up 2 promising possibilities: an index entry for a marriage of a Lauchlen Patterson and Sarah Kenner marrying in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1859 and the same couple in the 1860 census, also in Portsmouth. In the latter, Sarah’s birth location was given as Hesse Darmstadt. I had a more precise potential birth location, great news!

On a roll now, I sent a letter to the county courthouse requesting the marriage record as it was not scanned and online yet. I felt sure this could give me more information, perhaps even the names of their parents.

What I got was very disappointing.

1859 Marriage of Lauchlin Patterson and Sarah Kenner

Oh well, at least I had the Hesse Darmstadt clue, right? Not really that useful, as it turned out. At that time, there were very few digitized church records for Germany and as Hesse Darmstadt is a big region, it was going to be difficult to find her without hiring a researcher in Germany, which wasn’t in the budget.

So, I went back to beating the bushes in the records in Canada and the US. Although she died in Canada, Sarafina’s children had moved all over the US. I tracked their movements and collected documents, hoping her birth location would be recorded on them.

It never was.

I remember at this time my father expressing disappointment that I seemed to have filled out my mother’s side quite nicely, but on his side, I couldn’t get past his great grandparents. I think he felt I was deliberately neglecting his tree, but no matter how hard I tried, it seemed the mystery of Sarafina was destined to remain unsolved.

it stayed this way for a long time and it was only through DNA testing that I finally solved this puzzle. Sadly, it came after Dad had died.

DNA unravels the mystery

In 2017, through testing the DNA of my father’s sisters and cousin, I found that they all had significant matches in the Ohio area that didn’t match any of our other family lines. I felt sure this had to be the German connection because Sarah and Lauchlan were married in Ohio, and Sarah must have had family there.

After building out family trees for each of these DNA matches, I found a common name among their ancestors – Kirner/ Koerner. This was very close to Kinner which we had always thought was Sarah’s surname.

They all traced back to a Leo Kirner from Biberach, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. I was able to find him listed in a FamilySearch online tree with attached church records.

As my eyes traveled down the list of his siblings, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the name of his youngest sister — Seraphine. I had finally found her!

She was baptized on 7 March 1834 in Biberach, the youngest of eight children born to Philipp Kirner and Theresia Rehm.

The record of her baptism is hands down my favourite find. (so far). I’ll admit, I had to get help reading the old German script.

1834 Baptism of Seraphine Kirner

This record has opened up a whole new branch of the family and I have already taken a few branches back further than some of my mother’s lines.

Dad would be impressed.

Foundation of a Family Historian

After many decades of my life devoted to (some would say obsessed with) tracing the branches of my far-flung family, I have decided to start writing about some of my discoveries along this journey. While it can be exciting to find new details about family, it’s also done mostly in isolation, so no one else really understands why I enjoy it so much.

I’ve come to realize that without the sharing component, many of these stories will be lost if I hoard them for myself (and what’s the point of that?) Who knows, perhaps I will inspire other relatives to join the hunt!

Not having children, I sometimes feel I am documenting this history as my contribution to the family legacy, so that I will not be forgotten.

But where did this all begin? What is the foundation for my lifelong passion for poring over old documents, rifling through indexes, squinting at blurry microfilm, rambling through cemeteries and being the nosy parker who is always asking questions about the past?

Well, I can trace this all the way back to a school project in 1984. (I even have the documentation to prove it.)

You’re probably familiar with the project I mean – “Ask relatives about your family and make a family tree.” It seems to have been almost a rite of passage in elementary education, at least in North America.

As long ago as this was (37 years!), I still have the original chart I made.

We moved a lot when I was a kid, so the fact that this still exists is a minor miracle, but only because I gifted it to my grandmother shortly after making it. She kept it hidden away in a cupboard for years and only returned it to me when I moved into my first house over 15 years ago.

It’s not in great condition – it was once on blue poster board, but this has since faded to a faintly bluish-yellow over time and it was also folded up in that cupboard, so there are prominent creases, but I’m very proud of it.

You’ll perhaps notice that it’s in French due to my being in French Immersion at the time. (and yes, I can still speak it, which comes in very handy when researching my numerous French Canadian lines).

I’ll be trying to post something here once a week, being inspired by the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge by Amy Johnson Crow, Let’s hope this gets me to form at least one good habit this year!

For more information on this series please see:  #52Ancestors