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Article posted: November 16, 2000

Finding Canadian Lumbermen Ancestors
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles

The first things the Canadian pioneer had to do was chop down trees.

Throughout the nineteenth century there was always a need for lumbermen, first to help the settlers chop and then in larger scale lumbering operations. These could be found upriver in New Brunswick, in Quebec and on both sides of the Ottawa River.

Lumbering was a job for young, tough men, perhaps a little fancy-free and without close ties. Lumber camps were rough places with few women, and if things quieted down in one place, it might be necessary to go elsewhere quickly. It was even possible to specialize in rafting or chopping, which would result in more job prospects. The raftsmen, who guided the floating logs downriver to a mill, were as important as the choppers.

Eventually the railway took the lumber companies and their men into northern Ontario and farther west. Even before that, the woodlands of the United States made a call which resulted in thousands of young Canadians emigrating there. Both anglo and francophone Canadians went.

At the Millenium Conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana, this summer Elaine Kuhn of the Allen County Public Library gave a talk on finding those elusive lumbermen. She is a native of western Ohio, where many Ottawa Valley families migrated, and an acknowledged expert on the life of the lumber camps.

She said that using the American census statistical charts, it is easy to determine which counties in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota had the most Canadian-born residents. You can then base your searches on those counties.

The census shows huge boarding-houses full of unmarried lumbermen. Since men from the same places tended to travel together, often these houses will consist entirely of Canadians. She emphasized that collateral research, looking at the other Canadians in your relatives' group and area, will be very useful in finding more about him.

Sometimes the census taker can mislead researchers by lazy markings in the 'occupation' column. Many of the lumbermen will be listed simply as 'laborer' or 'common laborer'. In a lumbering town, these men are probably involved in the wood trade also.

In the larger companies, there will be plenty of horses at work too, which means some of the men will be teamsters.

More background can be found in directories of the area, which will list hotels, and the maps in the directories will give you a good idea of what the locale was like at the time.

Local newspapers are also helpful. Many papers are now easily available on microfilm through interlibrary loan, so you do not even need to travel far to get the informaton you need.

Once you have established a relative living in a place, get a reel or two of the microfilm. The newspapers will provide lengthy and detailed accounts of accidents, and incidents which resulted in violence and jail-time for some of the lumbermen. Kuhn also said that court records, including coroners' records, were very useful in finding these wandering boys.

There are often lists of letters left at the post office and awaiting pickup. Kuhn showed examples from some newspapers which separated out the French Canadians to a 'French list' or 'Canadian list'. We are familiar with the 'letters left' columns in Ontario newspapers, but the ones in Ohio are published much later, into the 1870s.

If you are looking for French names, be creative in the spelling. The obituary of Antoine Daoust said that he was from 'Voodrie, Canada' which might be difficult to interpret as Vaudreuil.

Kuhn recommends the websites of the Michigan Historical Center and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin . They have large collections of material on lumbering and lumbermen.

She also provided a one-page bibliography of material on lumbering in Ontario and the midwestern United States. I can send an e-mail copy to anyone who requests it from

Ryan's Heritage Notebook:

Wellington County History
Wellington County History, the annual journal from the Wellington County (Ontario, Canada) Historical Society, has a number of interesting articles in this year's issue.

It starts with looks at two painted houses,one in Drayton and another in Mount Forest. The McWilliam house in Drayton is famous for its beautiful hallway and KW artist and author Nancy Lou Patterson puts it in the context of other wall paintings in houses at Listowel, Stratford and Baden.

Many of the wall paintings were the work of itinerant painters who travelled about, doing a little work here and a little there. Many of the paintings have not survived because nature is not kind to paint on walls, and older houses have a tendency to be demolished or remodelled.

Ross Fair looks at John McDonald's experiences in surveying the Owen Sound Road as it ran through Arthur township. He was dealing with swampy ground, as so many road builders had to do in our area. Can we imagine a group of men, armed with poles and chains for measuring, moving through the uncut forest trying to determine the best place to put a road? It does put today's city dwellers, who insist on using the car when going two blocks to the store, in some perspective.

Other topics include hockey star Bucko McDonald, runner Tom Longboat, Fergus' brass band and a fine example of women's history on the importance of preserving food in summer for winter feasting. This time of year--high summer--was the busiest for housewives in the past, as they took the produce of their garden and put it up in jars for later use.

Individual copies of Wellington County History are $10 from the society or at the shop at the Wellington County Museum. Memberships ($15) include a copy of the journal. You can reach the society at Box 5, Fergus N1M 2W7.

The Quebec City Gazette
The Quebec City Gazette was a newspaper which flourished at the time many emigrants were heading for Ontario. The paper had a wide circulation in Ontario and the deaths and marriages announced in it contain farflung names. The Quebec Family History Society has published a volume of marriages and avolume of deaths covering the 1840s and 1850s. You might want to check to see if any of your relations happen to appear there.

Chinese Family History
Chinese genealogy has its own interest because many families in China have records that go back centuries. A new book lists resources for finding these collections. It is called In Search of Your Asian Roots: Genealogical Research on Chinese Surnames, by Sheau-yueh J. Chao. Each family name is given a brief history. The text is partially in Chinese, mostly in English.

Diary Of An Ancestor
Frances Hoffman of West Montrose was visiting with Anna Wilson, an old friend, this past week. Anna said she was thinking of taking Dr Ken McLaughlin's genealogy course at the University of Waterloo, because she had a growing interest in her ancestors.

A distant grandfather, Joseph Wilson of Guysborough, Yorkshire, came to Canada with his sons. As Anna talked about Joseph, Frances felt that it all sounded very familiar.

She looked in the book that she and I published last spring, Across the Waters, and found that Joseph was one of the diarists we quoted there. She had no idea that he was Anna's ancestor. Imagine Anna's excitement when Frances went to her basement files and came back with a copy of Joseph's diary for her to read.

This kind of serendipity seems to happen all the time in genealogical circles, and especially to Frances. It also gave both authors a very good feeling to meet a descendant of one of 'our' diarists.

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

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Norway Bay United & Anglican Cemetery
(Pontiac County, Quebec)

The Merivale Cemeteries
(Protestant - Ottawa area)