Proving a Family Legend

Guest blogger and Ancestry Canada Advisory Board Member: Dave Obee

My grandfather didn’t know his father. If he even knew his name, he was never willing to share it.

He was baseborn. A love child. Illegitimate.

His name was William Elmer Obee and he was born in Holland Landing, north of Toronto at the far end of Yonge Street, in 1878. A sister, also illegitimate, followed a couple of years later.

The legend passed down in the family was that the two of them were full siblings; that is to say, the same man had fathered the two children. Another story was that their mother had died when both children were small. My grandfather did his best to conceal the truth, assuming of course that he even knew it. When he married in 1905, he listed his parents as James Obee and Ellen Moore, a bit of fiction that threw me off the trail when I started looking into the family history.

Soon after I started doing research, I found both my grandfather and his sister in the 1881 and 1891 census enumerations. In 1881 they were living with other Obees, including the woman I believed to be their mother. In 1891, they were living with other families. I also found a death record for the likely mother, Rose Ellen Obee, who died in 1882, so the theory about her dying when the children were young was borne out.

My grandfather and his sister stayed in contact over the years, and their children stayed in contact with their cousins. But after my grandfather died in 1965, contact was lost and was not restored until 20 years later when I tracked down his sister’s descendants and started asking about family history.

The theory on that side of the family agreed with what my side of the family had been told: the two children had the same father. That was good to know, but who was that man? I contacted the Ontario vital statistics office but was not able to get a birth certificate for either child. For two decades, I had an annoying blank spot on my pedigree chart since I did not know the name of one of my great-grandfathers.

In 2006, when Ancestry.ca was launched, I was volunteering at the Ontario Genealogical Society conference, showing attendees how to use the site, doing searches for some of them and generally giving people a better sense of the new Canadian genealogical website. When there was a lull in traffic, I tried my own searches to see if I could find anything of interest. I discovered that I could search the Ontario births by the mother’s maiden name, so I did a search for Obee as the mother, curious about what might pop up. I did not have Rose Ellen Obee in mind – I was just playing around, killing time. But that search brought up a mother named Rosa Ella Obey – a name so close that it had to be my person. She had a girl, and that girl was my grandfather’s sister. Even better, the birth record included the name of the father: William Ellerby.

So, for the first time in almost a quarter-century of research, I had a valid lead, one made possible because the birth records were searchable by the mother’s name. In that moment, I became a believer in the potential of Ancestry’s new Canadian service.

In the years that followed, I traced the Ellerby family back to Lincolnshire in England and I filled in as many gaps as I could. I still had one major gap: what became of William Ellerby? After I found him, I lost him again. Every brick wall seemed to lead to another brick wall. Almost a decade passed. I had the Ellerby line, but I hesitated to declare that it was my line because I had no solid proof beyond family legend. What if they were not full siblings? What if the family story was not accurate? As much as I liked having found the name Ellerby, I did not want to declare that the mystery had finally been solved unless I had corroborating evidence.

And then came the chance to test our genetic genealogy.

When Ancestry’s DNA service launched in 2015, I sent a kit to the lab and waited. When my results were posted, I entered the strange world of genetic matches. I searched my match list for all of the names in my pedigree chart, with some success. I found a woman in Salt Lake City who is related to me through my McKennitt and Love ancestors, and I found some Montgomery descendants, but I had no matches for Ellerby. As more matches appeared in the next few months and as more people expanded their online trees, I kept searching for the names on my charts. And finally it happened: I found someone who descends from the Ellerbys of Holland Landing. Then I found another, then two more. Eventually I found someone in New Zealand who descends from the Ellerbys in Lincolnshire. All of these people tested with Ancestry. All share DNA with me. I have been in contact with three of the five people with Ellerby ancestry. I have checked their other lines, just to ensure that Ellerby was the only possible way that we could match. I have found no other possible connection, so Ellerby it must be.

The discovery of my Ellerby ancestry took many years, and the confirmation through DNA took a few more. The successful conclusion was made possible because of two major steps taken through Ancestry – the posting of the Ontario births database, searchable in a variety of ways, and then a few years later, the launch of the DNA service.

I’m sure that my grandfather would be thrilled to know that the mystery of his parentage has finally been solved. He was, after all, a very nice man.

 

Dave Obee, Ancestry Canada Advisory Board Member
Dave Obee

Dave Obee is a journalist and genealogical researcher who has written a dozen books and given more than 600 presentations at conferences and seminars in Canada, the United States and Australia since 1997. He has been working on his family history for more than 40 years and runs CanGenealogy.com, a Canadian genealogy link site that is selective and sorted for ease of use. He is a member of the services consultation committee at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa, was a former member of the board of Canada’s History Society and was president of the Foundation for East European Family History Studies from 2004 through 2007. Dave is a columnist for Internet Genealogy magazine and Your Genealogy Today magazine. He has also written about family history for Canada’s History magazine and Your Family Tree magazine in the UK

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