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Monday, 20 April 2015

A-Z Challenge - Q. for Questions, Questions

A-Z of Family History Sources & Stories 
Join me on this A-Z journey to explore the fascinating records 
that can  enhance your family history research and writing.

QUESTIONS   are at the heart of our family history research. So many avenues are open to us now, beyond the traditional local and family history society magazine pages, with online message boards, social network sites etc.

We can  generally find out the "who, where, and when" about our ancestor's lives, but the "why" remains a mystery and we can only hazard a guess as to motives.  

Why was 6 year old John Robert Donaldson left behind when his parents moved 350 miles south?
John was born in 1854, the son of Robert Donaldson, a shipwright, and Isabella Walton of South Shields ON  the north east coast of England.  An obvious next step 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 the opportunity to do national searches online revealed that by 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? Was work the reason, with Robert now employed at Her Majesty's Dockyard as a shipwright? Why was John not with them? 

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 grandparents (and his home) in 1868.

Eight year later John married Jane Elizabeth Rushton. and they had four sons - John Robert, Henry, Thomas, Frederick and one daughter Isabella. Interestingly these names echoed those of his siblings in Portsmouth. For 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 again.

Why was my great grandmother, who was named Maria on her birth certificate, noted as  Martha M.   in later official records, including her marriage certificate?

Maria was only 4 years old when her baby sister Martha died, so could hardly have remembered her, but did she, for some reason, adopt her name as her own?  
Maria Danson, nee Rawcliffe (1859-1919) 
with her only daughter Jennie (after 8 surviving sons)
and granddaughter Annie Maria.

Why did Maria's sister Alice and family (husband John Mason, a general labourer,  and six children under 11 years old)  emigrate  from Fleetwood, a fishing town in Lancashire to Brooklyn, New York in 1886-7. 

Alice and John Mason and their eight surviving children c.1920's

These Questions remain mysteries that can be the source of family history stories  and I may never know the answers - another factor that makes this hobby  so absorbing. 

Something else to ponder on:
  • What questions do you regret not asking your parents or grandparents? 
  • What questions do you ask yourself when viewing sources of information, online transcriptions and family trees  etc. to assess their validity? 
Copyright © 2015 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved


On to R for Reconnecting with Relatives 
& Research Tales 


  1. There are naming traditions in different cultures. Not at all uncommon was the practice of reusing a name when a child died; particularly if the child was male. I learned this doing my German side, first son always named after the father, so you could have multiple people with the same in one family. I'm not sure I ran across a name being changed later though to honor a dead child. Perhaps Martha was one's middle name and the other's first name so they were both named after the same someone? That seems likely, as I think about my own family research. Example I have a Charles Frederick who had a brother Frederick Charles.........took me a long time to realize there were really 2 men and not just a name mix up! It's fun isn't it, but can be quite frustrating

    1. Many thanks, Sandy, for your detailed reply. Yes I had multiple people with the same name in one branch of my family - as mentioned under N for Names. I too had the example of a great uncle named after a brother who had died as a baby. Thank you for your idea about the naming of Martha - I had not thought of that possibility. . .


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