A Dad Explains How He Got Into Genealogy

This post by my dad is a response to this other post by his son. 

It all started as a family story from my mother-in-law. Many times she had recounted a family story regarding her former husband’s family. The story went that there was a bust of one of my wife’s ancestors situated in the lobby of the University of Edinburgh.

The story remained nothing more than a curiosity until 2005. We were planning a family trip to Scotland the year after, and I remembered this family story. The name that was associated with the theoretical bust was Robert Morrison, and the family thought he was born in Trinidad and Tobago, but no one was really sure.

My mother-in-law had passed on, so that was it. That was all we had to go on. There was no more information.

So knowing we were going there anyway, I thought I would find out if the story was true and add the University of Edinburgh to the list of things to see when we went. That was it. No big deal, right?

I started by trying to find a Robert Morrison who was renowned in some way significant enough to deserve a bust and who was connected with the University of Edinburgh. The first Robert Morrison I researched had a portrait in a famous gallery in England, not far from the Scottish border. The city of Edinburgh and the university were just a few miles from this gallery. I thought that this was more than a good lead.

This Robert Morrison spent twenty-five years in China, and during that time, he baptized ten followers. This is not overly impressive by itself. One could almost think they could have done better in twenty-five years regardless of their spiritual intensity.

So this probably would not have warranted the level of notoriety he had, but he did one other thing during that time. He was the first person to translate the bible into Chinese, and because of this there was quite an abundance of information about him and his family.

He had quite a large family, and many fascinating stories that took place in exotic parts of the parts of the world. I spent several weeks tracing the family’s story back through India, Hong Kong, China, England, and a few other places.

I thought I had solved a mystery that had been talked about for years in casual conversation, and the feeling of solving this mystery along with the all of the stories of exotic lands filled me with a sense of deep satisfaction. All I had to do was find a link between this family and my wife’s family.

However, after several weeks—although it may have been months—the link remained elusive. I traced all the descendants of this Robert’s sons, and there simply was no connection to a Robert Morrison at Edinburgh University or really any other Robert Morrison at all anywhere.

This was my first, but not my last, lesson on the effect of taking a false path and how much time can be wasted if you don’t remain skeptical and challenge your own conclusions.

At this point I had no leads, and with all of that time I had wasted, I was beginning to empathize with the Robert Morrison missionary who had spent twenty-five years and only baptized ten followers. (I started to feel bad for giving him such a hard time.)

So, faced with a dead end, I decided to try a different tack. Instead of trying to find a noted Robert Morrison connected with the University of Edinburgh, I started looking at the known relatives of my wife via census records.

Her father was born in Canada sometime after 1911 but before 1921, and at this time the 1921 Canadian census records were not available. However, his father, my wife’s grandfather, Owen Eivers Morrison, was listed in the 1911 census so I was able to start tracing the family via him.

Owen lived in Toronto in 1911 with his mother and one sister. His sister’s name was Emily Letitia Mercedes Morrison, sometimes called May. I didn’t know at this time how important it was to know siblings’ names and how lucky I was when the names were a bit unusual.

Following this, I found the family in the 1891 census living in Winnipeg with a housekeeper named Elizabeth Bradley.

So at this point I had a family that looked like the following:

  • A husband, Robert M Morrison
  • A wife, Emily
  • Three sons, Hunter, Robert, and Owen
  • One daughter, Emily Letitia

In addition a live-in housekeeper, Elizabeth Bradley, is shown with no hint of her future importance to the family.

Here’s a shot of the 1891 Census Winnipeg Manitoba.

This census indicated that Robert was born in the West Indies, so that seemed consistent with the Trinidad and Tobago story. These islands are part of South America, but they are also at the southern tip of the Caribbean.

According to this census, three of the four children were born in England, but the oldest was born in Scotland.

That feeling of supreme accomplishment welled up again at having uncovered a definitive link between someone named Robert Morrison and the story I’d been told, and this time I thought I was definitely on the right track. It felt like treasure hunting, but instead of gold, you unearthed history. The process was a mixture of detective work and history coming to life, which for me is the perfect combination.

There is also an upside downness to it. Here, I’ll try to explain what I mean.

The Upside Downness

When I was in school and studying history, it was boring to me. Like, really boring. The professor would lecture on some topic in history that was significant in some way to him or to the textbook writers, who knows. The lecture would talk about the event, the dates, the effect, the causes, and on and on. I learned what I had to only because the lessons couldn’t hold my interest.

On the other hand, if I started with a fact about a person, I could read history all day on topics that were closely or remotely connected with the person and never get tired of it.

In the case of Robert Morrison, one of these tangential forays was the city of Winnipeg. In 1901, Owen and his sister and mother were living in Toronto, which is a beautiful city, and few people would question why someone would live there.

In 1891, the larger family was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Looking at a description of Winnipeg in the current day doesn’t instill a desire to go there for me. So what was the reason a person would take his wife and small children to the middle of nowhere? He was financially able to afford a housekeeper, so it would seem he had choices.

Robert Milner Morrison in Winnipeg circa 1900. Robert is on the right with the briefcase. Most likely this is Robert at work as an agricultural chemist.

As it turns out, Winnipeg was booming in the late nineteenth century, starting with the advent of the railroad in that city in 1877.  The population grew sevenfold from 1891 until the beginning of the decline in the 1920s. They were offering rewards for people coming to live there. Ultimately, the boom ended. With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the reliance on the railroad to Winnipeg decreased.

I read articles about Winnipeg in the 1890s endlessly because I knew the name of someone who had lived there, because I knew enough about that person’s life to begin to imagine what might have motivated them and what their experience of living there might have been like. Now if I had had a teacher lecture on the history of Winnipeg, I’m sure I would have had trouble staying awake.

These tangential historical forays give me endless pleasure, but they can be a distraction to genealogical mystery solving. I don’t know how many times I have started on a path and become interested in one of the side exits–and then just took that side exit into a whole other series of stories and issues. Sometimes I get so lost that I can’t remember why I started the search in the first place.

So the upside downness for me is how exciting it is reading about all of the historical events taking place near and around some ancestor or historical figure, rather than starting from some broad topic and then honing down to individual dates or facts the way you do in a classroom.

As for Robert, further searches for the family before 1891 yielded nothing, so while I didn’t have anything connecting him to the University of Edinburgh, I did have data that showed he was in Scotland since his oldest son Hunter is shown in the census as being born in 1884 in Scotland..

So I decided that I’d take a day during our family trip to Scotland and a visit to the University of Edinburgh. That was my next step.

(To be continued…)