Green Bay Cemetery on Manitoulin Island

Plunging into the past to uncover the stories of our ancestors can be rife with challenges especially if those ancestors were amongst the first wave of European settlers to call Northern Ontario's Manitoulin Island home. There isn't a whole lot of documentation that dates back to the 1860s and 1870s. It was only with the founding of the Manitoulin Expositor in 1878 that the day-to-day lives of the islanders started to spring to life. So if, like me, you find yourself searching for information about your family on the island prior to 1878, where do you look?

1. Local Archives and Resources: Fortunately, there are plenty of local archives, libraries, and historical societies on Manitoulin Island that contain an array of primary sources, including census records, land deeds, church registers, grave indexes, photographs and more. These resources can be invaluable for tracing data relating to your family. And while some of this information has been digitized and is available online, the majority of it isn't so your best bet at accessing it is to take a trip to the island and spend hours searching through the collections.

2. Oral Histories and Community Engagement: Oral histories can provide valuable insights that official documents fail to record. Many of us have heard stories of our family's past that have been handed down though the generations. I've also found that speaking with the folks who volunteer at local historical societies and archives on the island yielded plenty of colourful stories, some of which dated back to the timeframe I was interested in. Some collections also included remembrances written by elder members of the Manitoulin Island community that were collected many decades ago and contain anecdotes and personal stories that in some cases date back to the late 19th century. Some of them may have been written by members of your family but even if they weren't, the information that can be gleaned from them can help fill in the blanks of what it must've been like for your ancestors to live on Manitoulin in the late 19th century.

3. Online Databases and Digital Repositories: In recent years, a huge number of digital platforms have sprung up that offer unprecedented access to genealogical databases and online resources. In this country, the Library and Archives Canada website contains many different kinds of records (marriage, birth, death, immigration, war service, etc.) and every province has an archive. There are also regional or cultural archives that can be especially handy if you're trying to trace your family's path to the island. Genealogy sites such as, FamilySearch, Manitoulin Roots and Manitoulin Genealogy provide digitized records, family trees, and forums that allow you to connect with other researchers and distant relatives who may have some boxes hidden away in their attics containing family photos, letters, or other documentation relevant to your branch of the family.

4. Cemeteries: I visited quite a few of these on Manitoulin Island. The photograph above was taken at the Green Bay Cemetery where several of my ancestors are buried. You can learn a surprising amount about your ancestors by visiting their graves. Crucial information is often inscribed on grave markers, including birth and death dates, family relationships, and possibly social or religious affiliations. Valuable data can sometimes be obtained by seeing where the grave is located in relation to others.

5. Contextual Research: You can never read too much when trying to learn about your ancestors. Diving into books about the time period you are studying and newspapers from the era will help you to place your family in the context of the society in which they lived. You can learn a lot about traditions, social mores, economic trends and cultural shifts, all of which can help you to better understand what the daily lives of your family may have been like. Did they have access to telephones or telegraphs? How would they have travelled from point A to point B? Were there any schoolhouses, churches, post offices, or logging enterprises in the area?

It can take a lot of time and effort to piece together the story of your family and the farther back in time you venture, the more work it takes to turn up the information you're looking for. But the rewards when you do finally succeed can be incredibly satisfying so it's well worth the effort even if there are days when it feels like you're getting nowhere. Those days are easily counterbalanced by that one day when you find a morsel of unexpected information that sheds light on an aspect of your ancestor's life that you never could have guessed at.