Friday, 8 August 2014

The "WHY'S" of Family History,

Jill of GeniAus in her  World Genealogy posts has posed the perennial questions of family history research  - Who,  What, Where, How and Why. 

Here I am focusing solely  on the "WHY"

For we can find out:
  • When our ancestors were born, married, died.
  • Where the events took place  
  • What they did for a living
  • How they  (or at least their contemporaries)  lived their lives.

But "WHY" is much more problematical and we can only make a reasonable guess at what motivated people to take the actions they did. Here are some puzzles that I have come across in the course of my research. 

WHY was 6 year old John Robert Donaldson (my husband's great grandfather)  left behind when his parents moved 350 miles south from South Shields in north east England to Portsmouth on the south coast?

John was born in 1854, the son of Robert Donaldson, a shipwright,  and Isabella Walton of South Shields, a town  on the north east coast of England, dominated  by the sea and maritime activity.  An obvious next step in research  was to find the family in the 1861 Census, but frustratingly, in the days before online records, this proved impossible to trace.   Yet all the indications were that direct Donaldson descendants had remained in South Shields down the generations.

It was only much later  with the opportunity  to do national searches online that I discovered that in 1861 Robert and Isabella were at  Portsea in Portsmouth on the south coast of England. With them were two young sons Thomas, aged 4, born South Shields and one year old Frederick W. (Walton perhaps after Isabella's maiden name?) born at Portsea, indicating a move c.1857-1860.  But there was no mention of their eldest son, John  who would have been 6 years old. 

How had the family travelled 350 miles from South Shields to Portsea, by rail or more likely by sea?  Work presumably was the reason,  with Robert now employed at Her Majesty's Dockyard as a shipwright.   Why was John not with them? Was the journey regarded as too much for a young child?

Back in South Shields, I returned to the 1861 census and  found John's maternal grandparents, John and Hannah Walton, with the household also including their grandson John Robert Walton aged 6.  This must be "my" John Robert Donaldson, mistakenly recorded in the census with the wrong surname.     An entry in the 1871 census gave further confirmation - a John Donaldson, aged 16, born c.1855 was living at the home of his maternal uncle Robert Walton. Death records showed that John  must have lost his maternal grandparents (and his home)  in 1868.

Eight year later John married Jane Elizabeth Rushton. and they had five sons - John Robert, Henry, Thomas, Frederick and one daughter Isabella.  Interestingly these names echoed those of his siblings in Portsmouth.  For John's parents Robert and Isabella had more children, making a family of Thomas, Fredrick, Henry, Robert, Charles, Isabella and Alfred.   The fact that John retained the name of his father and mother  for his eldest son and daughter suggests that the split had been amicable.  One cannot help wonder did the two families ever meet?

But why John was left behind remains a mystery and we shall never know.

WHY did my great grandmother Maria Rawlicffe later adopt the name of her baby sister, Martha,  who had died in infancy? 

Family hearsay always gave my great grandmother's name as  Maria Rawcliffe of Hambleton, near Poulton-le-Fylde,  Lancashire.    There was just this single Christian  name on her birth certificate.  But there was a puzzle in that many official records, such as her 1877 marriage certificate, the 1881 census entry, burial record and my grandfather's  1907 birth certificate  gave her name as Martha Maria.   I sent away  for Maria's  birth certificate c.1859 and outlined my confusion over her Christian name.

To my great surprise the result was two certificates - for Maria, daughter of Robert Rawliffe and Jane Carr, born 15th January 1859 and another daughter Martha, born to Robert and Jane on  20th January 1863. 

Four months later Martha had died.  Maria would only have been four years old then, so could hardly have remembered  her youngest sister.

"Martha Septima Rawcliffe" was the full name I found on Family Search - one of  those titbits of family history research  which I find  so intriguing - 7th daughter after Anne, Jane,  Margaret, Alice, Jennet and Maria.   But how did her Ag. Lab. father and mother  who in 1846  only could make their marks on their marriage certificate, come to know this Latin tag?    The submitter was American (I suspect a descendant of Maria's sister Alice who emigrated to USA).  I did write to the address given, but the letter came back "unknown", so very frustrating.  Much later I traced the American connection, but no-one has come up with any clue to the "Septima" name and the IGI entry is the only record I have of it.  

The puzzle does not end there, as Lancashire Online Parish Clerk Project (OPC) and the IGI record a Peggy Rawliffe, born 1861 to Robert and Jane, which means Martha would not be the 7th child but the 8th.  Sadly Peggy only survived 16 days. 

The question "Why" besets the emigration of our  ancestors.

WHY did the Spowarts a mining family from Dunfermline, Fife in East Scotland travel 5000 mile across the Atlantic and the USA to settle in Utah?

Life expectancy at the end of the 19th century was only 50 for men, yet Thomas Spowart (c.1819-1899) must  have been in his early 50's   when he left Scotland with his wife Catherine.  Sons William and George chose to stay in Scotland.  

Their first destination was a mining community in Wyoming, with Thomas moving to adjacent Utah after the death of his wife. This pinpointed to the couple emigrating between 1871 (when there were in Scotland for the census) and 1874 (the death of  Catherine). 

In Scotland in 1871, Thomas and his two sons William (15)  and George (19) were all miners, whilst daughter Jean, aged 17  was described as a "coal labourer".  But tragedy struck the family of eight children -   youngest daughter Elizabeth died in 1869 at the age of only twelve; two years later in 1871 daughter Catherine died aged twenty one, with Margaret passing away in 1873 aged nineteen. 

A Spowart Internet contact noted that the Church of Latter Day Saints began its missionary work in Britain around 1837. By 1851 there were over 3000 members in Scotland, with the missionary work concentrated on the industrial areas. "The Perpetual Emigrating Fund" helped those who wanted to emigrate.  The online accounts of the Spowart family in America revealed that they had in fact joined the Church of Latter Day Saints as recorded in the Dunfermline Archives, with Thomas baptized 10 July 1848.

Am article in The  Scotsman"  newspaper  of 2 March 1868 reported:
Dunfermline - Emigration of Miners To America
On account of the great depression, which still exists in the mining and iron trade, a considerable number of miners in the Dunfermline district left last week for America acting on the suggestion of Mr McDonald, president of the Miners' Association. The mining trade is giving no evidence of improvement, and many men are still unemployed. The markets are dull, and coal continues to accumulate at the pitheads. One colliery in the district has a stock on hand of about 36,000 tons.”

Later research revealed that daughters Jean, Christina and Helen also emigrated, at different times, with a suggestion that some local organization was sending out brides or potential brides. 

Presumably Thomas left Scotland for what he hoped would be  a better life, though online accounts suggest that living and working conditions in Utah were very harsh. 

WHY did Alice Mason, nee Rawcliffe (my great grandmother's sister)  sail from Liverpool to New York in 1886 with six children under 11 years old (including a baby) - plus "two pieces of baggage":

Entry for Alice & family on the New York Passenger Lists 1820-1957 on
 The short answer was to join her husband John Mason who had sailed a year earlier. but what had prompted the decision to leave their home and extended family in the fishing town of Fleetwood, Lancashire to live in the  teeming tenements  of Brooklyn?  In the 1881 British census, John was described as a general labourer, but by the time of the 1900 USA Census he was an insurance agent.  Five more children were born to the family, but sadly three died in early infancy. 

A public tree on made me wonder if James had family connections in the USA, so more research is called for here to try to answer this particular "WHY".    

                    It is scenarios like this that make family history so absorbing a hobby.  

What ~"WHY" questions do you have in your family history? 


Copyright © 2014 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved


  1. So many questions and no answers!

    Just makes it so much more sweet when we manage to solve a mystery.

    1. Many thanks, Jill, for taking the time to comment.

  2. So true, My head is full of the "Why's" of my family tree. nice post with interesting angle.

  3. Thank you, Diane - I look forward to reading about your "Why's" in another post.

  4. Great questions and neat findings. Love your post.

  5. Many thanks, Fran - your comment is much appreciated.


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