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Article posted: December 6, 1999
Finding Ancestors In Early Cemeteries
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles
Bev Trew Petersen came to my door with an interesting problem recently. Her family lived at Springford, in Oxford County (Ontario, Canada).
The story is a sad one. James and Tryphena Trew were married near Thorold and then moved to Springford after having a couple of children. They had three more in short order, and Tryphena died in 1861 giving birth to the sixth one.
James drowned about 1863, leaving five children, the oldest only eight.
They were far from their relations in Thorold, so the neighbours divvied up the children. Three of them were still in the area at the time of the 1871 census.
Bev's problem is that she cannot find a gravestone for James and Tryphena, and she wants details about their deaths. Tryphena's mother died in 1867, and her gravestone is in the Springford cemetery, surrounded by plots with no stones.
The first place to ask is the cemetery itself, of course. The sexton there had a plot map showing who owned what, but it was begun only in 1889. The earlier burials are anonymous unless there is a surviving stone.
This is common in very old country cemeteries. I remember reading the Wilmot Centre community cemetery one very hot day about ten years ago. There were many empty spots in the neat rows there. We learned that the cemetery keeper lived across the road, so we called on him to ask about records.
For many years, there were no records kept, he said, since everyone in the community knew who was buried where. Eventually they realized this common knowledge was fading as the pioneers died. They created a map of the cemetery by having three of the oldest inhabitants walk the rows, naming who was buried where. That map was the basis for the records of Wilmot Centre cemetery.
Since Bev could not depend on cemetery records, she wondered what other choices she had.
Since the family story was that James had drowned, I suggested she try newspapers. Tryphena's death might be found in a death notice, but James' accident would be very newsworthy, especially with the pathos of five orphaned children.
We looked at a map to see what nearby towns might have newspapers which would have publicized the incident. Tillsonburg, Brantford, London and Woodstock were all possibilities. I sent Bev to see what papers from these places might be indexed or available on interlibrary loan.
Another aspect of this question highlights the fact that the Trews came from Niagara. When James and Tryphena died, their family back home might have put notices in the local papers in Thorold, St. Catharines or Welland to bring their friends and relations up to date. This means that Bev has plenty of places where she might find some news of the missing pair.
This is not an exhaustive list of sources of information on these Trews. I had presumed that Bev had finished her census work on the family. She went back to the census lists to ensure that she had mined all the possible details there, and she did find something new. This proves once again that having a second look at some sources can be a good thing.
Ryan's Heritage Notebook...
Among the books I catalogued this week was The Canadian YMCA in World War II, by Alan M. Hurst. It includes descriptions of behind-the-scenes work which supported the fighting forces of the war. Many names are listed.
Researchers may not realize that many organizations which played roles in the war left history books which will add to our family histories. These include not only fighting regiments but charities, civilian institutions at home and even individuals. Someone who fought alongside your Uncle Bob may have kept a diary or written his memoirs.
The riches available in wartime stories (from both World War I and World War II) could provide dazzling additions to genealogies everywhere.
Books By Ryan Taylor
Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.
Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997
More Family History Research Resources