Tag Archives: genealogy

Planting seeds and recording sources



I am ever the optimist when it comes to remembering what I have done. I plant seeds in my garden secure in the knowledge that when they come up I will remember what they are – mostly I don’t and mostly they grow anyway. By the time they bear fruit it is obvious what they were, but I don’t have any record of what I did to ensure that I have a good chance of doing the same again next year. Sometimes, as with the lovely cactus flower above, I get a total surprise, a present I didn’t deserve and did nothing to achieve beyond remembering to water it.

So it has been with genealogy. I am often in such a rush to find the end of the story that I merely sketch out a family tree sure that by the time I am ready to tell the story I will remember where I found the pieces of the jigsaw. Sadly, as with my garden, optimism is no substitute for keeping records!

When I began researching my own family history there were very few on-line resources and so apart from family records such as birth certificates I could be sure that a baptism record would have come from what was then known as the IGI, now familysearch.org and so felt no need to record where I had found the data. I made the beginner’s mistake also of recording the baptism date as the birth date  unaware that a baptism might occur any time from the hour of birth to several years afterwards.

There is a suggestion that in Jamaica baptism was often left until the child was expected to survive (no theological fears of eternity in limbo troubled the parents). In fact the reason may have been the more prosaic one that the local vicar had just died of fever, or the child born on the plantation was so far from the centre of the parish that baptisms were done in batches when the vicar found time to visit; or the planter waited for the next Races or Assembly Meeting in Spanish Town to have his child baptised there.

As a historian I have always insisted on being able to prove any assertion by providing the sources, as a genealogist I am afraid I have generally fallen far short.

So time to do something about it. I am studying for a postgraduate certificate in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies with the University of Strathclyde. It is taught on-line so no need to travel to Scotland, much as I would love to. Already I am learning how to document my sources carefully so that anyone coming after me will be able to check that I have made no mistakes and drawn no false conclusions. The downside of what really is a valuable discipline is that it slows me down – no longer can I rush ahead to sketch out the story trusting that when I reach the end of the road I will still be able to see where I came from! It is also time consuming and has taken me away from Jamaica and this blog.

So I hope you will forgive me if postings here are intermittent for a while. I hope that when I have time for full time research once again it will be more securely anchored and the flowers and fruits will be properly labelled.


Down the rabbit hole

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Rabbit hole art from Deviant Art

It is remarkably easy to head off down a genealogical rabbit hole and, following a trail you believe will lead in one direction, find yourself arriving by quite another route.

A case in point relates to a Chancery document I recently requested from the National Archives because it referred both to a family called Bayly and a John Augier. I have wanted for a long time to establish who was the John Augier who was father of the remarkable Augier sisters about whom I have written before. The spelling of Bayly is an unusual one and I already knew of Zachary Bayly, the uncle of the Jamaican historian Bryan Edwards,who had extensive connections with Jamaica. In addition the Bayly family in the Chancery case came from Bristol, a city with extensive trading and slavery connections, and not far from the Wiltshire roots of Zachary Bayly. So far so good.

The Chancery case dated 1717 was a complex one and, like many cases within Jamaica, made the more so by the deaths of most of the protagonists! Put as simply as I can John Rowe of Bristol was suing for the inheritance of his dead son, a minor also called John Rowe. The child’s mother was Mary Bayly the daughter of Samuel Bayly whose other children were Anne and Richard. In her Will written about 1703 Mary Grant, the Bayly girls grandmother left them a substantial inheritance in money, Plate and furniture. She made various provisions for how the money was to be divided in the event of the deaths of either of the young women and for Mary’s son John Rowe. The Trustees in the various Wills involved included several of the Bayly brothers and their cousin Thomas Weare (like his cousins a mercer).

Samuel Bayly was a mercer of the City of Bristol and his brothers were also mercers and linen drapers. His brother Richard was also a soap boiler. John Rowe senior’s case was that Richard Bayly had claimed to be insolvent and so offered to pay only twelve shillings in the pound to his creditors, which included the Trust fund. He believed that Richard Bayly had in fact paid some of his creditors in full. Rowe said that Samuel Bayly had promised to make good any deficiency on behalf of young John Rowe, but had not done so before his death in about 1708 despite owning considerable property at Henbury about five miles from Bristol.

Meanwhile Samuel’s son Richard Bayly had married Mary Hayes and then died leaving her free to marry John Augier. John Rowe’s contention was that the various Trustees of the legacy of Mary Grant had conspired together with John Augier to pretend that Richard Bayly senior’s business had failed and hence to defraud the only descendant entitled to that legacy – the now dead John Rowe junior. Since John Rowe senior was administrator of his infant son’s  property, and indeed would inherit anything he left, he was effectively suing on his own behalf! Moreover in addition to the various items left by Mary Grant he also claimed that John Augier and his wife had taken a bed from a house in Bristol High Street to which John Rowe was entitled.

If you would like to read the full details of the case I have transcribed the document because although it is not a Jamaica suit it is probably fairly typical of the kinds of arguments that arose when estates went unadministered and legatees died before claiming their inheritance. At the very least John Rowe was requesting that the Court should enforce the provision of evidence by those he was suing to demonstrate what had happened to the property and to provide full accounts for the expenses. For example Rowe claimed that more had apparently been spent on his mother-in-law’s funeral than the fifty pounds she had specified in her Will.

Reading some of the Bayly family Wills it seems likely that they were telling the truth about the failure of Richard Bayly’s business and that Samuel Bayly had tried to make some kind of provision for little John Rowe. Whether Richard Bayly had actually lost some of the Trust fund fraudulently propping up his failing business we will never know.

And what about the Jamaican connections I had been searching for? I have so far failed to link this Bayly merchant family in Bristol with the family of Zachary Bayly, which is not to say such a link may not exist. But certainly the John Augier cited in the case is not the John Augier who died in Jamaica about 1720.

However it turns out there is a Jamaica connection.

The Bayly brothers had a sister called Mary who married the wonderfully named Uzziel Bussell. Uzziel had a father William Bussell, a Bristol baker, who died about February 1679/80 and in his Will (not proved until after the death of Uzziel in 1695) mentioned his brother Edmund in Jamaica. William did not sign his Will but made his mark and so was either illiterate or too ill to be able sign and therefore it is reasonable to assume that his brother’s name should have been Edward. For one of the original settlers in Jamaica was Edward Bussell. There is some evidence that the Bussell family may have been non-conformists and so may have left England at the Restoration, having been on the ‘wrong’ side in the Civil War.

Edward Bussell and his wife Grace had seven children baptised in the parish of St Andrew between 1666 and 1681. Edward was recorded as owning eleven acres of land in the first survey of Jamaica in 1670 and there is also a grant of 60 acres to ‘Francis Bussell and Smith’. Edward’s son William lived to grow up, married and had at least one child, another William baptised in 1682. There are eight Bussell burials in St Andrew between 1689 and 1702, and although it is impossible to distinguish father from son and mother from daughter where they share the same name, it seems likely that Edward died in 1693 and his wife in 1702.

Although there were Bussells in Jamaica in the nineteenth century the probability is that the early settler family had died out by the first decade of the eighteenth century, as had so many of the first colonists. Whether their connection with the Bayly family of Bristol is in any way related to the decision made by Zachary Bayly to go there half a century later remains to be discovered.

And I am still searching for the origins of John Augier!



Some things in life are free

dau of John Lee 1749

Example from the register of St Catherine’s parish taken from FamilySearch.org, showing the baptism of a daughter to John Lee (brother of Robert Cooper Lee) and Mary Lord. It also shows the baptism of a legitimate child, the ‘bastard’ son of Robert Taylor, records the ‘mulatto’ status of the Clifford children and shows two adult baptisms.

One of the wonderful things about genealogical research is the willingness of so many people to share what they know, to help you find records you are looking for, and to make information available to everyone without charge. There are volunteers working all over the world to read and transcribe vital records, and other material, and to put it on-line.

Assuming you have access to a computer (or you would not be reading this!) you have a vast volume of information to draw on that could not have been imagined by our predecessors who had to work by visiting their local parish church, writing to the vicar of a parish they thought their ancestor might have come from, or requesting documents from their local county record office in the hope that they would find something useful. All these avenues are still available, and are often very useful, but working from home, or in your local library (which may also have a subscription to some of the paid genealogy sites such as Ancestry) there are many records available to you for free.

The first site I ever used, and one of the very first to put records onto the internet, was familysearch.org . To quote from them directly:

FamilySearch International is the largest genealogy organization in the world. FamilySearch is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Millions of people use FamilySearch records, resources, and services to learn more about their family history. To help in this great pursuit, FamilySearch and its predecessors have been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide for over 100 years.

The site has recently had a makeover and increasingly hosts a much wider variety of records than the baptisms and marriages of the original IGI (International Genealogical Index). In addition to transcribed indexes they now also include images from parish registers, and burials and census records are gradually being added. For Jamaica’s early parish registers, baptisms are now indexed but for the present to access older marriages and burials you must still use the images of the original handwritten indexes and then find the corresponding register page.

Transcribing Jamaican records presents particular problems, not just of difficult handwriting, but because of the complex state of relationships and colour status so it is always worth trying different combinations of parent names and different spellings. Apart from those who had no choice in coming to Jamaica from Africa, there were many arrivals from other parts of the world and as IGI widens its geographic spread you may now be able to find your ancestors who came from places other than Great Britain. You may also find ancestors who left Jamaica for the USA, Canada and other countries.

Recently completed indexing projects that will shortly be available on line include the following:

  • Italia (Antenati Italiani), Bergamo—Nati, 1875-1894 [Part 2C]
  • U.S.—1900 Census
  • Magyarország, Szabolcs—polgári anyakönyvi adatok, 1895–1978 [3. Rész]
  • U.S. (Community Project), New York—New York Passenger Lists, 1942–1957 [Part J]
  • Belgium, Limburg, Lommel—Civil Registration, 1891–1910 [Part 2]
  • U.S. (Community Project), New York, New York—Passenger Lists, 1942–1957 [Part F]
  • Italia (Antenati Italiani), Cremona—Nati, 1875–1902 [Part 2B]
  • U.S. (Community Project), Illinois—Northern District Naturalization Index, 1926–1979 [Part D]
  • U.S. (Community Project), Illinois—Northern District Naturalization Index, 1926–1979 [Part C]
  • U.S., Virginia, Richmond—Birth Index, 1870–1912
  • U.S., Florida—County Marriages, 1830–1957 [Part D]
  • U.S., Massachusetts, Plymouth County–Probate Index, 1881–1939
  • Sverige, Stockholm stad—Register til kyrkoböcker, 1546–1927
  • Italia (Antenati Italiani), Udine—Nati, 1875–1901 [Parte 2B]
  • Russland, Sankt Petersburg—Kirchenbuchduplikat, 1833–1885 [Teil A]
  • U.S., Georgia—Deaths, 1931–1940 [Part A]
  • Canada, New Brunswick—Provincial Marriages, 1789–1950 [Part A]
  • U.S., Georgia—Deaths, 1931–1940 [Part B]
  • Brasil, Rio de Janeiro—Cartões de Imigração, 1900–1965 [Parte 3DD]
  • Jamaica—Civil Marriages and Deaths, 1871–1995 [Part B]
  • U.S. (Community Project), Illinois—Northern District Naturalization Index, 1926–1979 [Part A]
  • U.S. (Community Project), Rhode Island—Naturalization Index of the District Courts, 1906–1991
  • U.S., Tennessee—Deaths, 1956–1961
  • U.S., California—County Marriages 1850–1952 [Part D]
  • El Salvador—Registros Civiles 1836–1910 [Part B]
  • U.S., Kentucky—Death Certificates, 1956–1961
  • Brasil, Rio de Janeiro—Cartões de Imigração, 1900–1965 [Parte 3EE]
  • U.S. (Community Project), Connecticut—Naturalization Indexes from the District Court, 1851–1992
  • U.S. (Community Project), New York—Passenger Lists, 1942–1957 [Part K]
  • U.S.—Applications for Headstones for Veterans, 1941–1949
  • Italia (Antenati Italiani), Bergamo—Nati, 1875-1894 [Part 2B]
  • México, Coahuila, Matamoros y Torreón registros Iglesia Católica, 1870-1966
  • Deutschland, Mecklenburg-Schwerin—1867 Volkszählung [Teil C]
  • U.S., Alabama—County Marriages, 1809–1950 [Part D]
  • Nederland, Zuid-Holland, Leiden—Burgelijke Stand, Geboorten, 1870–1882
  • U.S., Arkansas—WWII , First Draft Registration Cards, 1940–1945 [Part C]
  • Danmark—Borgerlige Ægteskabsbøger, 1923–1961

Good hunting!

Was Your Ancestor Really Married?

Rebecca Probert sized 300

The question of whether our ancestors were actually married and if so where and when is one which has particular resonance in the context of 18th century Jamaica.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of meeting, albeit briefly, Professor Rebecca Probert and her husband who were at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live event at Olympia in London. You might recognise Professor Probert from her appearances on television in programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Heirhunters and Lucy Worsley’s series Harlots, Heroines and Housewives.  You will also find a very useful lecture by her (which you can download as a podcast) on marriage law and tracing marriages on the National Archives website.

Rebecca Probert is a Professor of Law, and her interest in genealogy has led her to extensive study of marriage law and to a crusading desire to correct many of the misapprehensions that exist about marriage practices and what constituted a legal marriage, which she saw propagated without question down the years in genealogy textbooks and handbooks.

For example, could you marry by jumping over a broomstick, did our ancestors indulge in test marriages for a year to see if the woman would become pregnant, did lack of parental consent mean a marriage was illegal, did many couples live together regarded as married by the custom and consent of their community? Professor Probert’s book Marriage Law for Genealogists sets out to provide the definitive answer to these and many other questions.

The book covers the law of England and Wales as Scotland has always had a separate legal system. It takes as its starting point the year 1600 and covers the many changes that took place in the seventeenth century during and after the Civil War, as well as critical legal changes such as the Hardwicke Marriage Act (which came into effect in 1754), and more recent changes such as that making it possible for a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister.

Because the author recognises that many readers will be interested in specific questions rather than wishing to read the book from cover to cover, she has structured it around a series of key questions, and flags up a series of key facts invaluable to anyone wishing to check on a particular aspect of marriage law. The questions she addresses are whether and why a couple got married, who could marry and whom they were free to marry, how marriages took place in terms of the formalities required, when a person could get married in relation to minimum age and questions of parental consent, and she provides some guidance on where marriages may have taken place. It was for example perfectly legal to get married in a parish other than your own and she discusses why this might have been the case.

Some misunderstandings about marriage are of relatively recent date. For example the belief that before 1754 a simple exchange of vows between two people constituted a valid marriage, can apparently be traced to a New York legal case in 1809, which led to an English case confusing the distinction between being bound to be married and actually being married. Being bound to be married Professor Probert compares with the exchange of contracts on a house purchase which binds the parties but requires completion. The notion that two parties could be married by jumping over a broomstick has been traced to a misunderstanding in a change of language when ‘broomstick’ was an adjective used to describe a sham, and resulted from a nineteenth century interest in pre-industrial folk customs, interpreting visual images of broomsticks as depicting actual folk ceremonies.

A similar misunderstanding arose concerning the term ‘hand fasting’, sometimes believed to be a marriage for a year and a day and used as a fertility test, but which was in fact no more than a period of betrothal which was a formal contract to be married at some future date.

Another myth that Professor Probert debunks is the notion that in the past huge numbers of people cohabited, married in the eyes of their community but not by their church. There were a great many reasons why this was not the case and in fact in the early eighteenth century only about 2% of births were illegitimate, with peaks during the First and Second World Wars, the rate did not really rise until the 1960s. The fact that you may not be able to find a record of your ancestors’ marriage, does not mean that they were not married nor that their children were illegitimate.

Who you were allowed to marry in the past was much more restricted than it is now. The so-called ‘prohibited degrees’ included close blood relations but also many who were only distantly related to you by marriage. The book includes a useful table of those marriages which could never be valid such as between a parent and child, those which have always been valid such as between cousins, and a range of permitted relationships which have varied over time. It is also interesting to note that if a marriage did occur within the prohibited degrees it could only be challenged while both parties were still alive.

You may have been surprised to discover an ancestor whom you knew to be a nonconformist, or a Roman Catholic, who nevertheless was married in an Anglican parish church. Before the advent of civil marriage in 1837 only Jews and Quakers were likely to have been married other than in an Anglican parish church by an Anglican clergyman, although Catholics often did go through a second Catholic ceremony. Even if your ancestor was married without calling the banns or by obtaining a licence, as long as the ceremony was conducted by an Anglican clergyman the marriage was clandestine but valid. During the Civil War religious marriage ceremonies were replaced for a brief period by a form of civil marriage, but Canon Law was reinstated in 1660 and the Hardwicke marriage act tightened up on what had been seen as a number of undesirable practices. After the mid-eighteenth century record keeping improves, to the relief of many a genealogist, but the fact that a marriage was not registered did not render it invalid. This protected the couple whose marriage might have been challenged as a result of an absent-minded cleric failing to keep proper records.

When considering your ancestor’s marriage Rebecca Probert makes clear the difference between directory requirements which were desirable, and mandatory requirements which if neglected would render a marriage invalid. She deals with questions such as couples who gave false or partial names in order to conceal an intended marriage from family members, and with those who did not have  parental consent to their marriage. With the arrival of civil registration and the increasing availability of divorce the question of remarriage in church arose, and I was unaware that it was permissible to be remarried in church although since 1857 Anglican clergyman could refuse to perform such a ceremony.

Professor Probert’s book is an invaluable aid to anyone researching their family history and a useful antidote to the numerous myths that have grown up concerning marriage in the past.

Marriage in Jamaica

In relation to Jamaica the question of whether your ancestors were married relates very closely to who they were, why they were there and when. This is further complicated by the condition of the parish registers of the period. Although the legal regulation of marriage was the same as for the home country and local vicars were required to prepare ‘bishops transcripts’ of their registers, the frequent death of incumbents and the depredations of climate and insect attack on the primary copies of the registers mean that the registers were often poorly kept or have periods without entries. So as in England the lack of a register entry for a marriage does not mean it did not happen. Where both parties were from the white elite, and you can find baptism entries for their children you can be certain they were married.

However, during the eighteenth century there was a serious shortage of white women in Jamaica and an easy availability of free and enslaved women. This led to a variety of relationships, consensual and otherwise, resulting in the birth of mixed race children who if recognised by their fathers were often baptised with his name and were left property on his death. I have discussed previously what happened to some of these children when they were sent to England.

Marriages between free negroes or Taino Indians, who were present in Jamaica from the earliest days,  did take place, but only rarely is the racial category assigned to the parties recorded in a parish register.  For example, Charles Benoist and Uańah ‘an Indian Woman’ were married in the parish of St Andrew on the 30th May 1675. The disapproval accorded to any suggestion of a mixed race marriage is reflected in the reaction to the impending marriage of Rose Price in 1765.

A 1765 letter from Simon Taylor demonstrates the sort of disapproval that a marriage might incur when he refers to the intention of Rose Price to marry. ‘I cannot forget to acquaint you there is a Report on Friday last a Licence was taken out for our friend Rose Price and one Miss Patrick a Writing Master’s Daughter at Spanish [Town] and without a Shilling but that Rose sett out the next day for the Red Hills with his Black wife. I should be very sorry that he should play the fool so egregiously as there has been some coolness between his father and him for some time about other matters and in all probability this will so much incense the Old man that he will disinherit him…’[1] It is not clear whether Rose Price went ahead with the marriage since the following year he was married to Lydia Ann Fagan. Fear of ‘diluting’ the white elite was ever present and perhaps his father intervened to reinforce the convention that marrying a mixed race wife was just not done.[2]

Readers of the book A Parcel of Ribbons will be aware that the marriage of Robert Cooper Lee and Priscilla Kelly, the mixed race mother of  his children, which took place on their arrival in London in 1771 seems to be absolutely unique. While there was nothing in canon law to have prevented it taking place in Jamaica, socially it was impossible.

One other feature of Jamaican marriages, among the white elite, is worth mentioning and that is the much younger average age of brides compared with young women in England. Whereas in England the average age of brides was around twenty-five during the eighteenth century, in Jamaica it was much younger. A systematic survey is required and matching baptisms (and assumed birth dates) with marriages is tricky but the overall impression is of most girls marrying in their teens. This is entirely understandable in the context of high rates of mortality in Jamaica, described by Trevor Burnard as ‘Britain’s most unhealthy colony’. To consolidate estates by marriage and create an heir as early as possible it was necessary to marry daughters as soon as a suitable match could be made. Given that Burnard [3] has calculated that in the parish of St Andrew the mean length of a marriage was eight years and four months and the median a mere six years and four months before the death of one partner, it is not surprising that early marriage was the norm and re-marriage frequent.

Of marriage ending in divorce rather than the death of one partner I only know of one case in eighteenth century Jamaica, where, as in England, a Private Act was required to achieve a divorce. In 1739 Edward Manning divorced his wife Elizabeth Moore citing her adultery with Ballard Beckford. Manning then followed the traditional Jamaican planter pattern of setting up house with a free mulatto woman, Elizabeth Pinnock, who outlived him and to whom he left property and slaves.

For those Jamaican inhabitants who were not of the white elite eighteenth century records are sparse. Only towards the end of the century does regular baptism of slaves become more common, often with changes of name, and with the advent of the Baptist Missionaries attempts to regularise relationships through marriage increased. Even after emancipation however, when people were free to make their own choices, rates of illegitimacy remained high.

With the increasing availability of parish register and civil records on-line you will have a greater chance of finding your ancestors than in the past and, with the aid of Rebecca Probert’s book,  of establishing whether your ancestor was really married.

[1] Wood, Betty ed., The Letters of Simon Taylor of Jamaica to Chaloner Arcedeckne 1765-1775, in Travel Trade and Power in the Atlantic 1765-1884 Camden Miscellany XXXV, vol.19, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.24-25.

[2] Powers, Anne, A Parcel of Ribbons, Lulu.com, 2012, p 151.

[3] Burnard, Trevor, A Failed Settler Society: Marriage and Demographic Failure in Early Jamaica, Journal of Social History, Vol.28,No 1(Autumn 1994) pp.63-82.

Probert, Rebecca, Marriage Law for Genealogists, the definitive guide, Takeaway (Publishing) 2012, ISBN 978-0-9563847-1-3


Family stories – the vital clues

If you ever doubt how much can be gleaned from even the smallest scraps of information left by your ancestors take a look at the piece of paper my mother received in the 1950s in a bundle of family papers collected by an aunt.

Aunt Alice was a young girl when her grandmother, born Charlotte  Heap in 1808, died in 1890, but her grandmother had noted fragmentary details of the family story of an ‘Indian Princess’ and from this eventually grew a database of several thousand close and distant ancestors, and my book A Parcel of Ribbons.

One common, but frustrating, genealogical puzzle comes when you are given only the surname and no first names and this is especially acute if you are tracking through the female line of your family with surname changes every generation as in this example. In the end I came at this problem from two directions at once, both working backwards from Charlotte Heap and also looking for two sisters surnamed Jaques, one who had married a Lee and another a Marleton (in fact spelled Marlton).

Another problem with handwritten notes is interpreting connections without a diagram or helpful punctuation. For example ‘his father married a creole’ in the above example could apply to Richard Lee or to Richard Lee’s father or his grandfather. Another piece of paper written by Aunt Alice said that her father had referred to a creole but she had always heard ‘Indian Princess’.

I had very little to go on geographically other than that the family was based in England, Charlotte was born in Kendal in Cumbria but her mother came from Suffolk and it emerged that the roots were all in London. Without the internet and computerised indexes the search would have been all but impossible.

Two key findings helped in unravelling the story. One was a marriage licence issued in 1720 for Joseph Lee and Frances Jaques (I have still not found the marriage record), and the later discovery that Frances’s sister Mary had married Thomas Marlton. The other was the combined information from the Will of Richard Lee in 1857 (which left a small legacy to Charlotte and various members of her family) together with the 1851 census record for Richard Lee giving his birthplace as Jamaica. This last was a total surprise, since until then no-one in the family had any idea there was a Jamaican connection. Indeed in a family with slight connections with North America and extensive ones from the early eighteenth century in India, the search had been on for either a family Pocahontas or the daughter of an Indian Rajah!

I think there are two lessons to be drawn from all of this. The first is always to take seriously any information your ancestors leave whether as stories or documents. The second is, that having taken it seriously, don’t be surprised if what you find is not at all what you expect. Indeed over the passage of time (Charlotte’s notes were made in the late 1880’s and referred to events nearly a century before she was born) a kernal of truth may well have acquired an auro of myth by the time it comes down to you.




The Importance of Family in Family History


This week’s piece is necessarily brief as family activities have taken me away from the computer, however in the week of my mother’s ninety-sixth birthday I wanted to cherish the importance of those family members who are the custodians and guardians of our history.

The lovely photograph above is my maternal grandmother taken for her wedding in India at the beginning of the twentieth century, whither she had gone as the first white woman doctor ever seen in that part of south India. Her sister Alice was the principal researcher of the family history, but she was following in the footsteps of their great grandfather, and as a result I have inherited a variety of notes and papers compiled in the days when the only way to get a baptism record was to write to the parish priest of the parish where you thought the event had taken place.

Also through my mother, who now holds the family archive, I first heard the story of the ‘Indian Princess’ that led me through a round about route to Jamaica. A tiny fragment of paper with a sketchy line of descent from the eighteenth century had been written down by my mother’s grandfather after a conversation with his mother in about 1889.

From that we arrive at this website, and in due course I hope also a book.

So cherish your family and the stories they tell – you never know where it may lead!

Jamaican Ancestry by Madeleine E. Mitchell – Book Review


Madeleine Mitchell’s really useful book on researching Jamaican ancestors first came out in 1998 and a revised edition was published in 2008.

In the Preface to the first edition she described herself as a family historian who had been working on her own Jamaican ancestry for more than a decade, that experience now stretches to quarter of a century and more, and some of the useful online links she has discovered over the years can be found on the Rootsweb site that she maintains.

She begins the book with the golden rule of genealogy – to work backwards from what you know to the unknown.  In the Jamaican context she stresses the importance of oral history and of knowing the parish with which your family were or are connected, and to help with this the book includes three maps showing the early parishes, the 19th-century parishes, and the modern boundaries in Jamaica.  There is also a list of critical events in the history of Jamaica.

The topics covered in the book include finding your way among the records for civil registration, church records, monumental inscriptions, maps and land records, records relating to immigration and naturalisation as well as emigration.  There is information about military records; schools, Colleges, and Universities; printed sources of information which may include relevant records such as handbooks, directories, court records and newspapers.  There is also a short but useful section on occupations, and a diagram showing the hierarchy of occupations underneath the owner, and the planting attorney who managed an estate.

Although the various sections act as pointers towards original sources, both online and manuscript or published, there is a huge amount of useful background information as for example in relation to the immigration of Scots to Jamaica covering the Darien disaster in the late 17th century whose remaining colonists fetched up in Jamaica.

Twenty-five years ago most sources for genealogy research were only available in physical form, with the arrival of the internet all that has changed. In addition to references to online sources throughout the main text, a section at the end of the book lists a range of web based resources, and a topic and full name index completes the book.

Madeleine Mitchell was born in Browns Town, Saint Ann, Jamaica and went to school in Browns Town and Kingston, later studying in Canada at McGill University.  She now lives in Florida.  Among her other work on Jamaican genealogy is an index to early Wills of Jamaica.

For anyone interested in researching their own Jamaican ancestry, this is an essential handbook and for anyone with but a passing interest it is full of fascinating background to Jamaica and its colonial past.

Madeleine E Mitchell, Jamaican Ancestry How to Find Out More (revised edition), Heritage Books Inc.,  Westminster, Maryland, USA, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0788442827.



And as a quick footnote – Can I remind you that the page called ‘Latest Additions’ on the left hand menu will take you to a list of – latest additions to the site!

This week I have added several Wills relating to the families of the Aikenhead sisters, daughters of Archibald Aikenhead of Stirling Castle, Jamaica.

New Records for Jamaican Genealogy online

I have written before about the Family Search site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons, whose wonderful website was one of the very first to make indexed parish records available through the internet.

The good news for anyone researching ancestors in Jamaica is that there is now a new batch of indexed records online which link to the images of the early parish registers. You can find them here, or by selecting Caribbean, Central and South America from the home page and then choosing Jamaica from the list on the left of your screen. You can still opt to browse the images by parish without going through the computer indexes if you prefer. There are handwritten indexes you can use but be aware they are not fully in alphabetical order and are listed in date blocks. Dissenters’ marriage records from 1838-78 are now included.

In addition to the new indexes now provided for the transcripts of the parish registers, there are also updates to the Civil Registration records for Trelawny, making a total of over 2 million Jamaican records available for searching, dating back to 1664 for some parishes.

There are some very particular problems searching for Jamaican ancestors, compared with say those recorded in English or Scottish parish registers. Climate, hurricane, earthquake and sheer carelessness often resulted in damage to or destruction of records. The microfilms now indexed were taken from transcripts of the parish registers and so copying errors have sometimes crept in, some microfilm images proved too pale to be read and so could not be indexed.

Before the arrival of standard forms for recording births, marriages and burials different parish priests followed different conventions (or none!) for recording these events. Remember that spelling of names varied a lot and you may need to be creative when searching.

Where the person you are searching for was white and property owning there is a reasonable chance there is a fairly full record of a baptism or marriage. For most early burials only a name is given – an age, relationship or cause of death is a real bonus but is rare before the late 18th century.

Sadly for most slaves nothing was recorded except perhaps in plantation records where they were treated as property or ‘stock’ in the same way as cattle or mules. It is worth remembering that shocking as this is, a wife was also legally her husband’s property and she had no rights over her own children.

Even with the aid of the new indexes it can be difficult to locate an illegitimate Jamaican ancestor. Where the child was acknowledged by the father it may have been recorded with the names of both parents – the choice of surname for the child might be of either parent and the vicar may have recorded that it was illegitimate and may have included whether it was mulatto or quadroon. If only the mother’s name is given it is reasonable to assume the parents were unmarried, as also where no parents are named.

As far as I can tell the new indexes do not yet cover burials or marriages – they will be really useful when they do particularly for locating the marriage of a woman, since the original hand written indexes were by man’s surname only. A quick check for some records that I know exist also suggests that baptisms have not yet been completed for all parishes.

However, the computerisation of indexes makes a huge difference to the speed of searching for records and the remaining entries will I am sure be added soon.

Anyone can volunteer to help with indexing records, so it may be of interest to describe how these indexes are created.

You can find out about it here, register as an indexer and  download a small application to your computer. You can select a level of difficulty according to your level of experience and choose your language as well as selecting your preferred option from the current list of available records, some of which will be listed in red as of highest priority for completion. Census records are being indexed as well as parish records, civil registrations and other lists include clan genealogies, pilgrimage records, American Civil War Service records and many more.

When you have downloaded your chosen task you will be presented with a form according to the type of record you are indexing, and instructions covering the fields being indexed. You simply type in the details from each record as it appears (odd spelling included!) – name, date of birth, baptism, marriage or burial and so on. There is help with difficult handwriting, a Facebook Group, and online discussion forums, but if a batch is too difficult for you, the image is unclear or you simply don’t have time to finish it you can pass it back for someone else to complete.

Once you have completed your group of records the application will take you through a checking process. Another person will index the same group of records and then the two sets of results are sent to a moderator for checking, adjudicating on difficult handwriting and so on. The overall result is a highly accurate set of records.

If you have some time to spare and are interested I can thoroughly recommend indexing. You can do as few or as many as you like and there is huge satisfaction in knowing that you may have helped someone find their long lost family history.

My Ancestor Settled in the British West Indies – Book Review


If you are looking for a Christmas present for someone researching their family in the West Indies, this new publication from the Society of Genealogists may be just what you are looking for.

The book covers Anguilla, Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, British Guiana (Guyana), British Honduras (Belize), The British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, Nevis, St Kitts, St Lucia, St Vincent, Tobago, Trinidad and the Turks and Caicos Islands. (Bermuda is included, although not in the Caribbean, because administratively it was considered by the Colonial Office in London to be part of the West Indies.)

The author, in his introduction says “To write about genealogical research in the West Indies is to aim at a moving target; archive holdings may be augmented or reduced, be catalogued or left in a chaotic mess; the repositories where records are held may change, as may their addresses; websites come and go, urls are often altered or lost without trace, and new sites are appearing almost daily”. It is to provide some guidance among this confusion that the book has been written.

The book opens with a general survey of genealogical sources, including manuscript, printed and internet resources. A chapter on the historical background is followed by separate chapters for each individual territory. These are treated systematically under the headings of Location, History, Economy, People, Records held in the UK and Records held locally, Secondary Sources, Further Reading, Maps and Websites.

Whether you are just starting out on the search for a West Indies connection, or have been researching for some time there will be something for you in this book.

Available in paperback from the Society of Genealogists in London. There is a glitch on their website preventing some people from ordering online, but my telephoned order was with me the following day, and you can order by email.


My Ancestor Settled in the British West Indies (with Bermuda, British Guiana and British Honduras), John Tilford, Society of Genealogists Enterprises Ltd, London 2011. ISBN:978-1-907199-08-0.

Paperback. Price £9.99, reduced to £8.99 for members.