Spring! And a family historian’s mind turns to… cemeteries.

The Victoria Day long-weekend is the traditional time for Ontarians to open their summer cottages, dust off the patio furniture—and for genealogists—to think about transcribing cemeteries.

Members of the Ontario Genealogical Society’s Toronto Branch have been very busy this winter and spring preparing to host close to 800 guests at the largest genealogical gathering in Canada, OGS Conference 2010. Forty-five of our “guests” had a look at the Toronto Necropolis as part of the “Toronto’s Irish Heritage” bus tour. But the conference is all done now!

Toronto Trust Cemeteries Project

We were very pleased that Stephen Young from FamilySearch in Salt Lake City was able to come to Conference 2010 and talk about our Toronto Trust Cemeteries indexing project as part of a session called “New Toronto Research Tools”. It has inspired several new indexers to join the project, and now that the conference is out of the way, it is full steam ahead for the rest of us! To become an indexer, contact us at: fsi@torontofamilyhistory.org

Transcribing at St. James Cemetery

If you’re in Toronto this weekend, you can join the transcription team at St. James Cemetery on Parliament Street, just south of Bloor. A sun hat and gardening gloves would come in handy. We’ll be there from 9:00 am to noon on Saturday, in Section 2. (There’s a map just inside the gate to help you get your bearings.) It is a beautiful and fascinating place. I wonder if our single-minded cardinal companion will be there? (You’ll just have to come to find out more about that.) For more information about transcribing and the schedule for St. James, contact: cemeteries@torontofamilyhistory.org

Mount Pleasant Cemetery Tour

This Sunday, May 23, at 2:00 pm, you can join historian Mike Filey for a tour of the west side of Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Meet just inside the Yonge Street entrance. Expect a very large crowd! Here’s a map.

Human calculator buried in the York General Burying Ground

This drawing of Toronto harbour is taken from an 1849 sketch by F.H. Granger. It shows the back of City Hall (where the Deshong inquest was held) in the background. Although the tower has been removed, the building still exists as part of St. Lawrence Market. The arched windows of the council chamber now overlook a bustling market rather than the harbour. (Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto, vol 3, p346.)

Well, you never know who you’re going to find in the Toronto Trust Cemeteries burial registers!

In an attempt to decipher some really careless handwriting in the register of the York General Burying Ground, I consulted the online version of the Globe newspaper. For many of us who live in Ontario, this resource is available free though our public libraries.

I could tell that the name in the register was “Peter M. Desh…” but the rest was very questionable. The place of death looked like “Str City”. Mystifying.

But the following account of an inquest from the Globe on Tuesday 22 October, 1850 (page 3, column 1) confirmed the surname as Deshong, and allowed me to expand the “Str City” to “Steamer City of Toronto”.

On Sunday, an inquest was held before Coroner Duggan, on view of the body of Peter M. Deshong. The Jury met on board the steamer City of Toronto, and afterwards adjourned to the City Hall. It appeared from evidence, that the Steward of the steamer had gone down to call Deshong, shortly after leaving Kingston, on her upward trip; but he was lying in his berth, and made no answer. Supposing him to be asleep, nothing farther was done until next morning, when he was discovered to be dead. The Jury, amongst whom were Dr. Gavin Russell and Dr. Norman Bethune[1], returned a verdict of —Died from Apoplexy. On his person were found 5 dollars, and a few shillings. His effects were handed over to Mr. Williams the undertaker, by order of the Coroner, and his body is lying in the vault, waiting instructions from his parents, who have been informed of the sad event by telegraph. It appears from an advertisement in the Indiana Palladium, of August 31, that deceased had invented a new mode of computing figures, by which a person could give a sum total of any column as fast as the answer could be written. The sum total of a column of dollars and cents could be given without adding the figures together, by a peculiar rule of his own, —the same rule, applied to fractions and interest at any per cent. Deceased had been lecturing on Mathematics in Quebec, and was on his way to this City, for a similar purpose, when arrested by the hand of death. He was about 35 years of age.

The cemetery’s estimate of his age was 25, a full decade less that shown in the account of the inquest. Peter M. Deshong did not stay long in Toronto. The register indicates that he was “Removed by his father.”

If you’re eager to know more about Mr. Deshong’s calculating method (which he claimed you could learn in a half hour, for the modest fee of $10), type “Peter M Deshong” into your Google search box.

If you’re eager to lend a hand with the indexing of the Toronto Trust Cemeteries records, please contact <fsi@torontofamilyhistory.org>. Our gratitude will be “incalculable”.

[1] This Dr. Norman Bethune (1822–1892) was the grandfather of Dr. Henry Norman Bethune renowned for his service in China.

Joshua Wilson of Yorkville (and the Toronto Necropolis)

We are presently working on the records of the Toronto Necropolis in the Cabbagetown neighbourhood where we’ve run across lots of interesting people including a Joshua Wilson of Yorkville who seems to have been 116 when he died of “old age” in 1861. (An understatement, don’t you think?)

Entry in the Toronto Necropolis burial register

While we resist the urge to research most of the names we transcribe—old Joshua deserved a second look. My first thought was a death notice in the newspaper. Surely dying at 116 deserved a note in the Globe. But although the digitized pages for the end of year 1861 were difficult to read, I didn’t find a notice for Joshua Wilson.

Joshua died on December 28, 1861, so I next consulted our Toronto Branch expert on the 1861 census, Pat Jeffs. Using a combination of her annotated transcription, and the images at Ancestry.com, Pat located a Joshua with a difficult-to-decipher surname that she had transcribed as “Wisbenon”. The name certainly didn’t look like Wilson, but this Joshua lived in Yorkville and was listed as 115 years old. He was also born in the United States, which matched our Necropolis entry, and was Wesleyan Methodist so burial in a non-sectarian cemetery like the Necropolis was logical.

Joshua "Wisbenon" in the 1861 census of Yorkville

So was Joshua a “Wilson” or some variation of “Wisbenon”? Had the census taker transmogrified the name, or was it the cemetery sexton?

Joshua lived in Yorkville, just outside the boundaries of Toronto in York Township, so the 1851/52 census returns survive. (Those for Toronto do not.) A quick search on Ancestry.ca located a Joshua WILSON in Yorkville, aged 106, born in the “States” and a Methodist. Clearly the same fellow, and confirmation of the surname Wilson.

Joshua Wilson in the 1851 census of York Township

The 1861 and 1851 census showed Joshua as a widower, living alone in a frame house. Both census returns also identified Joshua as “coloured”. So while we’ve managed to answer some questions about Joshua Wilson, I’m intrigued to know more about the circumstances of this African-American man.

Born in about 1746, nearly certainly into slavery, when and how did Joshua come to Canada? Was it as another man’s property, or as a Loyalist, or as a later refugee? He would have been an elderly man by the time the Underground Railroad was in full swing. In the months before his death, was he aware of the developing conflict that would lead to the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery?

Looking at Joshua Wilson’s life has also pointed out just how important the records of the Toronto Trust Cemeteries are, and why it will be so beneficial to have an index and the digital images available free online.

We’d love your help indexing these records. It can be done from the comfort of your home. All you need is a computer with a high-speed connection, and a little knowledge of Toronto communities. To find out more about the project, explore the pages of this web site. To sign up, please e-mail us at fsi@torontofamilyhistory.org.

You can also hear more about the Toronto Trust Cemeteries project at OGS Conference 2010. The “New Toronto Research Tools” session, on Saturday afternoon, will highlight four new online Toronto Branch projects, one of which is the Toronto Trust Cemeteries project, and another is Pat Jeff’s 1861 Census project mentioned above.

Toronto Necropolis in February

Toronto Necropolis © Jane E. MacNamara

As we sit comfortably in front of our home computers indexing the burial registers of the Toronto Necropolis, I thought you might like to see what the actual cemetery looked like on a rainy February 27, 2010. The photos also help to explain the reason for all the complicated burial location descriptions like “gore next to”.

In the first two months of 2010, we have indexed well over 10,000 names. But there are many, many more to go!

Guarded by Necropolis lions © Jane E. MacNamara

If you’d like to help, we’d be very glad of your assistance. Please see the Toronto Trust Indexing page to find out how to sign up.

Moving eastward to the Toronto Necropolis!

Necropolis entrance

Necropolis entrance and chapel (courtesy David Reed)

We’re making great progress on the York General Burying Ground, and we’ll soon be moving on to the Toronto Necropolis records. We’ll be moving east to the edge of the Don River valley, and forward in time—with a bit of an overlap with the York General Burying Ground. I’m sure we’ll recognize lots of families.

When you download your first batch of the Necropolis, you’ll want to reorganize the indexing fields to make the job easier. Here are the instructions:

When you have the indexing page open, you’ll see a “View” menu at the top left. Choose “Organize fields” and you can easily hide the fields you don’t need for the Necropolis, and drag the others into the correct order using the arrows between the columns. Just highlight the field name on the left, and use the second arrow button to move it to the box on the right, or use the third and fourth buttons to shuffle it up or down.

Here’s a screen shot of what the “Organize fields” should look like for the Necropolis.

Necropolis fields

"Organize Fields" settings for the Toronto Necropolis

How to record relatives’ addresses in the York General Burying Ground records

As we move into more recent records at the York General Burying Ground, the clerk occasionally notes a location (usually a street name) for some individuals in the “relationship” column.

Three occurrences of addresses—March Street, Front Street and Yorkville

Please record that location information in the “Nearest Relation: Address” field. If you followed my instructions for reorganizing the fields, the “Nearest Relation: Address” field will be hidden. You’ll need to retrieve it using the same “Organize Fields” tool under the File menu. Just highlight it and click on the arrow to bring it back to the active left side.

Don’t worry if you already bypassed some of these addresses, we’ll likely catch them in arbitration!

Reorganize fields for the York General Burying Ground

Some of you may have already downloaded a batch from the York General Burying Ground—the earliest cemetery in our project. I’ll write more later, but you should consider reorganizing fields to make indexing easier.

You’ll find instructions in my November 5 blog entry. Here’s what the re-organized fields should look like:

York General Burying Ground-fields

Mount Pleasant Cemetery—a little history

Globe, November 6, 1876, page 4, column 4.

Globe, November 6, 1876, page 4, column 4.

As we approach turn-of-the-century records at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, I thought you might be interested in a little of the cemetery’s history.

Mount Pleasant’s official opening was on Saturday, November 6, 1876—133 years ago, almost to the day. This article appeared in the Globe newspaper on the following Monday (page 4, column 4).

This online article by Toronto historian and journalist Mike Filey on the Mount Pleasant Group’s site, tells the story of Mount Pleasant and its predecessors Toronto General Burying Grounds and the Toronto Necropolis.

Today, Mount Pleasant is a splendid green space in mid-town Toronto, an arboretum of native and exotic species, and home to an sometimes surprising array of urban wildlife. It connects to Toronto’s network of ravine trails and is very popular spot to stroll, run, rollerblade, etc.

A little consistency in grave locations

While we were beta testing the Toronto Trust Cemeteries indexing pages, one of the biggest changes we made was to consolidate the three “Where interred” fields into one, because we realized that the way locations were described was wildly variable—and the variations wouldn’t fit neatly into the fields.

So, now we can type what we see—but it would make the arbitration step go much faster if we can introduce a few standard formats for locations that we run across frequently. (There will be lots that don’t fit these formats. That’s OK. Continue to type what you see.)

  • Letter/number/number: For example, M 45 20. Let’s leave off any extra bits like s, n, e, w (for south, north, etc.).
  • Letter/Fancy/number: For example, Q Fancy 12. “Fancy” is frequently abbreviated. Please spell it out.
  • Adult Single Grave: Let’s use this order, singular form, no apostrophe.
  • Child Single Grave: Let’s use this order, singular form, no apostrophe.
  • Pauper Adult Grave: Let’s use this order, singular form, no apostrophe.
  • Pauper Child Grave: Let’s use this order, singular form, no apostrophe.

We’re now seeing more institutions or organizations as the owners of graves, for example: Masonic Fraternity, and St Andrew’s Society. The name of the organization should go in the “Property of: Surname” field.

Tricks for deciphering that careless handwriting!

L to R: Reduce, Enlarge, Invert (negative), Brightness/contrast

L to R: Reduce, Enlarge, Invert (switch to negative), Brightness/contrast

Don’t you sometimes wish you could ask that clerk why he didn’t use better ink, or a sharper pen, or at least why he didn’t take his time? Did he not realize that we’d be trying to read his writing 100 years later!

Here are a few tricks you can try:

  • Enlarging and reducing the size. You’ll find the enlarging controls at the top left of the indexing screen, just above the image (the plus and minus buttons.) It is not always the case that bigger is better. Sometimes seeing a letter or word in context  will help.
  • Darkening the page to make very faint ink look denser. You can also change the contrast. Use the “sun” button at the top left to get sliders for brightness and contrast. It may take a few seconds for your screen to show the change.
  • Strange, but true, that sometimes switching to a negative image make fine lines stand out really well. This technique slows the computer down a little, so be patient. The button to “invert” the image, also at the top left, is black and white split diagonally.
  • Share a batch with another transcriber. Sometimes what you need is a second opinion. Go to the “File” menu at the top left and select “share batch”. You will get a number that you can e-mail to another project member, who will be able to open the same batch and be that other pair of eyes.

We’re all working with different computers and screens, and yes,—EYES. If you come upon a batch that you are finding really difficult, and you think it may be either your equipment or your eyesight that is the problem, the best route might be for you to send the batch back for someone else to do. Look for “Return batch” under the “File” menu.

No problem. There are lots of other batches to go around. Don’t feel you have to struggle!