A Comfort-able beginning

When I decided to start searching for my ancestry on my own, I was a broke student, so a subscription to Ancestry.ca wasn’t in the cards for me. So I decided to start by Googling the one surname I thought would yield positive results: Comfort.

At the reunion, we visited this maple tree which grows on land that a Comfort relative bought in 1816. Image from: http://www.niagaragreenbelt.com

When I was around 10, my family went to my mom’s maternal grandmother’s family reunion. Looking back at it, “reunion” doesn’t quite cover the experience; it was more like a Comfort convention. But let me begin at the beginning.

In the late 1700s when many of our friends to the south decided they no longer wanted to be part of the British Empire, some decided that they would like to remain British citizens. When they started moving north, they were dubbed United Empire Loyalists and received land for their loyalty. My Comfort ancestor was one of them and he settled near St. Catharines.

As we learned at the reunion, this Comfort gentleman married and had 5 children. Organizers of the reunion had assigned each of these children a colour and plastered the walls of a hockey arena with the family trees of their descendants on appropriately coloured paper. As I’m sure you can imagine, it was quite a sight. These pages were also available in a colour coded book that was for sale.

To help everyone get to know each other, they also provided us with name badges that had little flags on them, corresponding to our ancestor’s coloured pages. Mine was a light teal. As we walked around the arena, my sister and I started noticing that some people had two flags on their badge. Then we noticed some had three. And then four. As little girls, we wanted to know why some people had more ribbons than we did. I don’t remember exactly what my dad said to explain it, but I’m sure he gently, and likely quietly, explained that Ontario used to be a very small place and that relatives marrying happened a lot a long time ago. But, I was left with the distinct impression that all these people’s parents were cousins. One of my uncles joked,

“The ones with 5 flags they left at home.”

It took a few years before I got that one.

That weekend is why I decided to start my search by Googling the Comforts. But, as you may have gleaned, I had no idea what the original Canadian Comfort’s name was. So I started Googling everything I could think of in conjunction with “Comfort” and “United Empire Loyalist.” I tried every family last name and location that I could think of. Even ones that didn’t make sense together. In my opinion, there is no wrong Google search. Try everything.

I finally hit pay dirt when I found this PDF application to the United Empire Loyalist society. I quickly saw all her Comfort information- but were they my Comforts? I read on. Then, on page 6, I got lucky. One of my uncle’s names was listed, indicating that yes, these were our ancestors!

I was thrilled. I found what I was looking for; my Comfort had a name: John. And he had been here since 1787.

As if that couldn’t get any better, the PDF had given me more names to explore. But that’s a blog for another day.

Leave it to a professional

In my last post, I closed saying that I intended to talk about my early Googling efforts to find my ancestry this week, but I’ve decided to save that until next time so that I can take a more chronological approach to my blog series.

In 2007, my dad and I went to Halifax. Our goal was to find me a place to live while I was in school, but of course, we couldn’t resist playing tourist a little too. One of the places we visited was Pier 21. If you are ever in Halifax and even have the smallest interest in searching for your immigrant ancestors, go there. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Pier 21's museum has many interesting exhibits about immigration in Canada

Pier 21’s museum has many interesting exhibits about immigration in Canada

Pier 21 tells the story about immigration in Canada. In addition to it’s museum, it also offers research services both online and in person. Since we were there, we decided to take advantage of their in person resources and I am so grateful that we did.

Last time, I mentioned that one of my grandmothers was a Dutch Mennonite from what is now the Ukraine, or as we knew her, Oma. Oma was my dad’s mother and she passed away a little over a year ago at the age of 100. She came to Canada with her mother and two brothers to escape the communists in the USSR.

The microfiche machine.

The microfiche machine.

Dad and I had a rough idea of when Oma arrived and before we knew it, we were looking at the microfiche record of her immigration to Canada. I was struck by all the detail collected- right down to the amount of money they had on hand when they arrived.

Then, the researches used the information to pull up a picture of the ship she arrived on. I couldn’t believe my eyes; I was looking at the very ship that brought Oma to Canada. It seemed so small for such a monumental part of my heritage. Dad and I were happy to pay for a custom print out to share with the rest of the Wiseman clan when we got home.

Needless to say, finding Oma’s beginnings in Canada was very exciting. We couldn’t thank the researchers enough. It was an amazing feeling to have a tangible piece of my family’s history in this country.

But we weren’t going to stop there.

The only other ancestor we knew of that came to Canada relatively recently was my mother’s maternal grandfather. Neither my dad or I could remember his first name, but fortunately, his last name, Woolger, stood out. He came to Canada from England close to the same time as Oma and paid his way by selling his sketch of South America.

The wonderful Pier 21 researchers found him in no time. The juxtaposition to Oma’s records was shocking. Coming from England, all immigration officials recorded from great grandfather Woolger was his name, sex, age and occupation. That’s it. He was English, so welcome to Canada! Seemingly no questions asked.

Since that day, I’ve pondered the meaning of my relatives’ respective immigration experiences. I wonder if Canada felt welcoming or did the interrogation (or lack there of) even matter to either of my relatives? Maybe Canada meant opportunity and that was enough for both of them.

Working with a professional genealogist was a pleasure. I’m sure they’re not cheap outside of the Pier 21 museum, but I would heartily endorse using one if you ever get the chance.

The excitement of that day with my dad lit a fire under me to keep searching and to learn more about my ancestry. In my next post, I’ll describe how I got started on my own.