In February I received a note from a reader about the book Search out the Land: The Jews and the Growth of Equality in British Colonial America, 1740-1867 by Shedon and Judith Godfrey. Anne says the book has information about Ezekiel Solomon. When I began my research a couple years ago I had read bits of this book online too.
The Godfrey’s suggest that Solomon was illiterate, a devout Jew, likeable, and a very good businessman. Solomon was good with numbers and ledgers even if he was unable to read or write English.
Anne also wrote in her note to me that although Solomon is known to be the first Jewish settler in Michigan, he may have retained his Canadian citizenship. From the research I have done, it was clear that Solomon stayed connected to Canada. He regularly visited the Temple in Montreal. Anne added that her research showed that Ezekiel Solomon also visited the New York Shearith Israel Temple in 1804, a few years before his death. Solomon is thought to be buried in Montreal but neither of us have determined his burial site.
In times like these I wish I had a grant to cover the cost of downloading and/or ordering this book. It looks like a great resource.
On the March Break in 2012 I visited Archives Canada to do some family history research.
I did not have a plan. I had a thick file holding three years of research notes, an iPad, and some blank paper. Generally, I wanted to know more about the Metis, the Voyageurs, lighthouses, and my family.
NOTE: When we arrived at Archives Canada we had to sign-up for a Library Card. This process was easy–some photo ID, a computerized form, and a signature. Once our cards were ready we signed in at the security desk and received a key for a locker. It is helpful to read all the information on the Archives Canada website, Preparing for a Visit.
Starting the Research
Prepare to be overwhelmed. We began in the Geneaology and Family History section. Around the space there are lots of brochures and tips for getting started. There is also a full-time staff member in the room available to answer questions.
I spent the morning reading all the records for St. Anne’s Parish in Penetanguishine. Birth records, marriage records, and death records of family members from the mid to late 1800s. As I found relevant information I recorded it with my iPad. Wireless Internet gave me instant access to everything I had stored on Ancestry.ca too!
After lunch we went to the information desk. I wish I had noted his name–the archivist was helpful and friendly. He shared with us a number of online tools. My favourite: a database of Voyageur contracts.
The Voyageur Contracts are only available in French. I wish I paid more attention when I studied French in high school! “Ezechiel Solomon et Compagnie” resulted in 87 items. Ezekiel Solomon was my great(x5)-grandfather. He owned the company that hired voyageurs. This is before Northwest Company and Hudson’s Bay Company. The contracts are fascinating!
New Family Connections
It is possible that this is a contract for Joseph Normandin in 1820, my great(x3)-grandfather. He would have been 23 years old. It lists St. Anne’s as his parish. Joseph’s family would have been living in Penetanguishine around that time. I have also seen the name David Mitchell, who is listed as the employer, in my reading (although I cannot remember where). Again, I wish I better understood French. He was given a boat and three years to do the south. It includes four cotton shirts, a pair of shoes, a necklace, and some other things I can not determine. He signed his name with an “X.” He was paid “600 livres ou chelins.” At a glance, it looks like the voyageurs were paid in books! But I imagine they were paid in pelts or pounds.
I found another contract that I believe is Joseph Berger’s, another great(x3)-grandfather. In 1819, Joseph Berger was given a three year contract to work in the Nipissing area, passing through Michilimakinac. He is given an advance of “50 piastres) whatever that means and will be paid the rest until months after he returns. I wonder if the employer worried he was not going to return. His parish is listed as Montreal. I think he eventually lived in Penetaguishine too so I am not sure if I found the right Joseph Berger.
Finally, I found a 1791 contract for Francois Solomon. He worked for Levy Solomon who was Ezekiel’s brother (or maybe his son). I am still trying to piece together the Solomon family. Francois is listed not as a voyageur but as a rudder. According to a free French translation website here are the terms of Francois’ contract: CHILIMAKINAC, BIG PORTAGE OR OTHER PLACES THAT WILL BE INDICATED HIM AND DESCEND IN THE FALL – ORDINARY EQUIPMENT – 3 A DAY AS TO COUNT DAY OF LEUF DEPARTURE TO GO OF THIS CITY TO THE DAY OF HIS RETURN.
And Now More Questions to Explore
Next I would like to search the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives for relatives, although I think the men of my family had moved on from being voyageurs to becoming lighthouse keepers when HBC dominated the waterways.
Last weekend was truly decadent. My car rested in the driveway from Friday after work until Monday morning. For two days I played. I felt like a child wrapped up in some important project like digging a hole in the sandbox and hoping it would lead to China or creating a dramatic play in the garage with all the kids from the neighbourhood. The work felt overwhelming, necessary, thrilling–just like the adventurous projects of my childhood.
Monday morning at work I bubbled and popped, telling anyone who would listen that I had started a new project.
“I spent the weekend researching my family tree,” I said.
“Yes!” The popularity of the genealogy site is ubiquitous.
“My cousin is a historian. We have a binder with our whole family history. Both sides.” A newly married teacher smiled.
Another coworker said, “Someone contacted me yesterday about my family history. I didn’t learn anything new though. Our family history was compiled years ago. We have a family historian.”
A family historian. It sounded so official.
Last year I took a research methods course as part of my graduate program at University of Toronto. I read Lives in Context: The Art of Life History Research by Ardra L. Cole and J. Gary Knowles. They write:
“In as much as it is humanly possible, life history inquiry is about gaining insights into the broader human condition by coming to know and understand the experiences of other humans” (11).
By becoming a family historian I can serve my family, document their stories, learn about my family’s journey from arriving in Canada hundreds of years ago to today. But family history research can have a broader context too. We look to the past to understand the present. We search for resonance in stories that are shared among generations, across cultural divides. In learning about my family I will learn about humanity.
I have not earned the title of family historian yet. This is the beginning.
Deanna Corbeil notes the importance of the word “story” in “history.” I like that. Family Storian. This blog is as much about story as it is about history.
Do you have a family historian? What led him or her to life history research?
To be Canadian
In grade school I dreaded the bi-annual family history project. I was jealous of my friends who had great stories of emigrating to Canada, who talked about secret family recipes, who had fascinating objects and unique pieces of clothing. “I’m just Canadian,” I whined. “My people are all just Canadian.” For years I wanted to be everyone but me. I did not understand what it meant to be Canadian. To be Canadian felt like being nothing.
Now I am in my mid-thirties. I have learned that to be Canadian feels like being everything.
My heritage and identity are important. I feel blessed to be born Canadian.
Why this blog series? Why now?
Bonnie inspired me this morning. She loves to research family trees. Two summers ago she helped me navigate online French documents. I knew my relations included First Nation or Metis but I could not verify anything through the English documents. We had an exciting summer of research and conversation. When I returned to work in September life took over and my fat pink folder of family history sat neglected. A year passed.
We reconnected on Facebook last week. Bonnie sent me a note that she had been spending time researching my tree. People had sent her notes online. Bonnie had found some fabulous documents and interesting details. Creative energy danced through the phone connection like sunlight on a lake. We decided to collaborate on a project. We will write a book inspired by the family history research. Bonnie will lead the research. I will write.
Eight hours passed. Now, I write this blog post. After a full day of following the stories of my ancestors online I decided to begin our work by blogging about it. For months I have struggled with what I wanted to say next as a writer. I lingered between projects in a writer’s purgatory, haunted by indecision.
In May 2011 Sunshine in a Jar Press launched with its first title From the Cottage Porch: An Anthology. Inspired by summers at the cottage in Britt, Ontario, the book aimed to capture the spirit of cottage life in Ontario. The mission of my new independent publishing company is to capture the spirit of a place (real or imaginary) and its people through literature.
I know what I need to write about now. I will blog about the people and places that define me as a Canadian and about the process of learning about the stories of my ancestors.
Today I begin the project I most dreaded in grade school. Where do you come from? Who are your people? Write about your family history. I am thrilled to begin the journey!
Welcome to the resource list! There are so many great sites to visit for information about Canadian history. Here is a list of some of the sites I like to visit:
- Archives of Ontario
- Archives Canada
- History of CBC Radio/Radio-Canada and Canadian Public Broadcasting
- Canadian History: Government of Canada Website
- History of Canada: Wikipedia
- Multicultural Canada
- Maple Leaf Web
- Ontario Historical Society
- Historical Narratives of Early Canada
- Aboriginal Canada Portal
- Jewish Virtual Library: Canada
- Canadian Literature
- Ontario Cemetery Records