Thursday 25 November 2010

There and back

Robert and Mary Donaldson
One of the great things about records going online is the new things that you find. OK, that's pretty obvious, but I don't just mean the things you are actively looking for, like waiting patiently for an new census release to get an elusive ancestor's birthplace. It's the unexpected finds that are the most fun, the things that you wouldn't even have considered looking for.

My favourite find was when I did a 'hit and hope' kind of speculative search and got much more than I bargained for. The people in the picture are my grandfather's grandparents, and I knew a lot about them. They were born in the 1830s and lived well into their 80s. They had eight children, and I have plenty of birth, marriage and death certitificates, parish register entries and census returns for the family. They moved around a lot, but always in the counties of Fife and Forfar, much as you might expect of farm workers. Two of their sons, including my great-grandfather, moved west and settled in Glasgow, and I used to think that this picture was of a sweet old couple who stayed behind in the countryside while their more adventurous offspring moved on. I was wrong.

Like most genealogists I am interested in tracing forwards to see what happened to the siblings of my ancestors, and I had accounted for some members of the Donaldson family in Scottish records, but not all of them. Donaldson is not exactly a rare name, but one of their sons, Robert, had the distinctive middle name of Robertson, so in a fit of optimism I put his full name into as an exact search, and got a result in the US World War I Draft Registration Cards, with his exact birthdate, giving his resdience as Marshall, Minnesota. I wasn't entirely surprised to find that he had emigrated, but when I investigated further and looked for him in the US census, I was amazed to find that his parents were with him!  I then found that they had sailed from Glasgow to New York in 1888 on SS Devonia, with his younger brother James. I have the death certificates of Robert snr and Mary in 1919 and 1920 respectively in Inverkeilor, Forfar, so it had never occurred to me that they might have left the country, although I hadn't been able to find them in the 1891 or 1901 censuses. In 1902 Robert and Mary returned to Glasgow on the Laurentian, and as far as I know this was the end of their travels.

So the sweet old couple that I assumed had never ventured beyond two counties in the east of Scotland turn out to have spent 13 years farming in Minnesota! Robert stayed on in Marshall, where he died in 1946, and was a veterinary surgeon. He became a US citizen, and married his wife Jean, another Scots-born immigrant, in around 1912. They don't appear to have had any children, so I probably don't have any distant cousins in Minnesota. His younger brother James also stayed in America, but I hold out no hopes for any cousins there either, because the last sight I have of him is as a 54-year-old newlywed in the 1930 census.

This shows the benefit of looking for collateral lines, which can bring the unexpected bonus of extra information about your direct ancestors; but now that so many records are easily searchable, particularly passenger lists, I'm sure I'm not the only person with emigrant ancestors they never suspected of being emigrants at all. Perhaps you can't find the death of an ancestor who seems to vanish after their children have grown up and married, because they emigrated with another son or daughter and their family. I also have a couple of those, and I can't believe that my family is all that unusual, so maybe it's worth looking at passenger lists, or doing the kind of entirely unscientific search I described at the start of this post. You never know what you might uncover.


  1. Audrey, what a great story! And a point well made!

  2. A wonderful post, and it's Minnesota history! :)

  3. Hi, Audrey - your story appealed to me as I am a Donaldson through marriage. My husband's family were mariners from South Leith, near Edinburgh and then in South Shields in the North of England - with Robert Donaldsons down the generations from the 18th century. No connection with yours, but it is still good to make contact with a fellow Donaldson.