25 September 2007

Finding Jessie

Since I put up the Ellis Island post, some commenters have expressed interest or asked questions about how to start family trees. Just for a feel of how to start, I'm putting up two old columns: Finding Jessie and 200 Years and Counting. I hope newer readers like them.


This is a love story, an adventure tale, and a mystery. It is not your usual boy meets girl, though that is here, nor love of family, though that is here as well. It is not swashbuckling though a long ocean voyage was involved, and don’t call Miss Marple because no one gets murdered by the third paragraph, even though there are several deaths. This is a personal genealogical journey, a how to investigation, and the way a hobbyist’s obsession can turn into a love affair.

By Scottish tradition, I was named after my father’s mother. On my birth certificate is my name, Janet Jamieson Durward White. This is where all genealogical research starts. What do you know? Now backtrack. What other information is on this little piece of paper? Mother born in 1918 in Kansas, Oklahoma (yes there is a Kansas in Oklahoma, but that is another story). Father: Robert White born in 1918 in Wishaw, Scotland. I decided to concentrate on the Scottish line because of simple curiosity.

My parents were divorced when I was quite young, and though I spent time with my father, the contact with his family virtually ceased in my early teens. What names I knew teneded to be first names: an Aunt Effie, a cousin Mary Margaret, and brief visits to my grandfather. Without surnames, the slate is very blank. I had my new computer and the barest of information: Grandfather: William Hunter Gibson White (a faded, pipe smoking, lover of horse racing whose house I managed to nudge off it’s foundation in an early learning to drive experience). He was a handsome, white haired image from my youth whom I had last seen in 1960. I wasn’t present when he died in 1971. Then my grandmother: Janet Jamieson Durward (no image at all because she died some time before I was born).

Trying to reconstruct memories almost 40 years later was difficult since my father was now deceased. Being a researcher by trade, I made some leaps of faith ... when in doubt ask questions of anyone you think might know the answers, and don’t be afraid of looking stupid. Polite stupid people get help. Armed with that new computer, the search began by joining a major server and fining their genealogical group to post a first “HELP!” message. I learned about GENUKI (the mailinglist for people interested in the United Kindom). GENNAM (a mailing list where you can post surnames), the RSL (a mailing list and search location on the net); FHC’s (an incredible service provided by the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints); The National Archives for the United States (to get immigration records); and the NRH (the depository of official records for Scotland). Even better, a really nice person in Scotland just happened to be going to the NRH and offered to find information on my grandparents. One letter to the national Archives giving them an approximate ten year range for immigration (I knew my father had entered the States as a young child) brought my grandfather’s arrival certificate, ship’s passenger list, declaration of intent, petition for citizenship, and oath of allegiance. The first of many surprises: My grandmother’s nickname is Jessie. She’s Janet on one paper and Jessie on another. She and the children arrived a year after my grandfather on a second ship, he on the Cameronia and she and the boys on the Letitia. He had come alone to live with his sister in 1925 before bringing his family over in 1926.

The nice man in Scotland reports in with another surprise, Janet “Jessie” has even more to her name: Janet Jamieson Turner Durward, and I have now acquired the names of great grandparents and find out that Jessie’s father died in a railway accident. There is not only a death certificate but an FAI (Fatal Accident Inquiry). The appropriate certificate numbers are requested from NRH and in less than two weeks I have birth certificates for father and grandparents, plus another Scottish contact offers to look for and finds the newspaper articles on my great grandfather’s death. This explains the remarriage of my great grandmother now appearing on my grandparents’ wedding certificate.

This genealogy stuff is a snap! And, pride goeth before fall. California has a death index by date and in short order I have my grandfather’s death certificate from 1971. From the citizenship papers I know Jessie died somewhere between 1934 when they were issued and 1944 when I was born. Unknown is the actual date because my dad died in 1981 and while living refused to talk about his mother except to say she died around Christmas and proceeded to get drunk at that time of the year, every year, year after year. This was one of the banes of a fragile childhood, and in many ways I wasn’t just seeking a genealogical chain, but trying to recapture the man who had been my father. While he was living I never received a Christmas present. They always arrived sometime in January. There is something hidden here and no one to ask even the stupid questions.

The county of Los Angeles is no help. After checking out every Janet or Jessie White on the death index, they report that there is no record of one born in Scotland dying somewhere between 1934 and 1944. To top it off, the cemetery where my grandfather was buried had no record of a Janet or Jessie White. Why did my father and uncle choose to bury him in a small place in Glendale when all other members of the family that I could find were at the much larger, “Forest Lawn”? Where was Jessie? Little did I know that this would be a five-year search and become one of the most emotional experiences of my life. In the interest of speed, I opted for a semiprofessional, “hobbyist”, willing to track down my family members at the NRH in Scotland and steadily built up several lines back to before 1800, but still no “real” information on what because obvious. For some reason in 1925 Scotland, all the brothers in a large family and their wives and children just packed and moved to the United States. what happened to all the other White brothers in California and to the sisters and their families. What had happened to Jessie?

It was now all starting to come together. I’m posting regularly to Genuki, Gennam, RSL, and visiting my local FCH (Notice that I’m tossing around the initials like a pro). The wives and children are becoming numerous in my chosen computer program, but they are just names and dates, and Istill haven’t found my grandmother nor made any contact with any still living descendants in my search. Based on the information gathered another leap of faith ... two speculative messages: “Does anyone have any information on a White/Beveridge or Durward/Mclaren marriage at the turnof the century?” This was because of an odd memory of an overheard conversation where my grandfather is saying “Mac ...” while talking about what I thought was an old friend and then seeing that one of Jessie’s sisters is married to a McLaren. One of the witness names on the citizen ship papers is Beveridge, but a Clara not an Effie as I remember from my early years, but I now have information that Maggie White married a Beveridge. Wahoo!!!!!

A Mclaren reports in. That is my great uncle, and he is still living in Dalkeith, Scotland. Here is the address!!! I write a letter, trying not to sound too presumptuousand including the line being traced as known with the requisite self addressed, stamped envelope in the hope of a reply. Then wait, and wait, and wait. Genealogy is often big moments followed by interminable waits. What comes back is not a letter, but a packet. My hands are shaking as I open it and pictures fall out. This wonderful “cousin” has delved into his attic and in my hands are pictures of my grandfather in his 30s, my father as a smiling boy of 10, and unknown cousins with inscriptions on the back. All of these were sent back to Scotland in the late 1920s or early 30s. In my grandfather’s beautifully schooled handwriting on the back are names of the cousins (Effie Owen and Jenny and Effie Calderwood) and bit of a hint, of the changes on a picture of himself: “These are my work clothes (suit and hat). Much different than what I wore in the coal pits.” But there was no picutre of Jessie, just one of my father and uncles with their Aunt Maggie in a doorway. Instead there is a memorial pamphlet for a funeral for January 3, 1935. Janet Jamieson Turner Durward died on December 29, 1934. Her pall bearers were her husband, her three sons and two of her husband’s brothers. She was a member of Eastern Star and Daughters of Scotia. She was interred at the same small cemetery where her husband would be buried almost 40 years later. Now why did they not know she existed? Why is there no record in the State of California. What happened to Jessie?

Back to the computer. I now have names to post courtesy of the photographs. On the net at “Genealogy’s Most Wanted”, I post the names of the Calderwood girls and get a reply. “I think this is my Aunt Effie.” A late night phone call from an elderly lady saying, “I’m Effie Calderwood and my father was really interested in genealogy. We have what he got together here somewhere, I’ll send you a copy. On the subject of Jessie, “I was only a child, but it was a long illnes ... I’m not sure, I’ll ask my sister, Jenny.” Another packet in the mail. “Interested in genealogy?” ... 30 years of research handed to me on a silver platter for their part of the family, but Jessie was still missing. Enclosed is a letter from Jenny. “I remember that she died at Los Angeles County Hospital, pernicious anemia, I think”. “I rember Uncle Willie would sit by her bedside and hand feed her what he had cooked.” I call the hospital and ask for archives only to find out that they destroy hospital records once they are seven years old. I hit the net again and prevail on the person who has already visited that small cemetery in Glendale to visit it again now that I have a death date, a story, and a plea. They come through. They have a Jeannette White who died on that date and was buried on the correct date. Another lesson learned. Bureaucrats make honest mistakes in spelling and dates and then proceed to set those mistakes in stone by making them part of the “Official Record”. It was a county burial because the family was impoverished due to the depression, buried in an unmarked grave by the County of Los Angeles in a place separate from her husband who died in 1971 whose grave is also unmarked and unattended. Why did my father and his brother just“dispose” of their father even though they were financially able to do more. I contact Los Angeles County Records with the “wrong” spelling. They have the death certificate and with a credit card exchange, they will send it to me in two weeks.

And now, as Paul Harvey would say, “The Rest of the Story”. This is where mere names and dates become people. In 1907 when she was only seven, Jessie’s father had died in in a horrific rail accident. The family was left impoverished following death and there were several daughters who seem to have taken the death hard and made life decisions for good or ill very rapidly afterwards. Finances improved when the mother, Jane Turner Durward remarried the janitor of the local school, Mr. Torrance, in 1917. The eldest girl Isabella was already married and when her sister, Elizabeth, had a child out of wedlock in 1915 before marrying Mr. McLaren in 1919, the childless Isabella took the child to raise separate from Elizabeth’s later five children. Sometime in 1915, William White started courting Jessie Durward. He was a coal miner and she was a car conductress. He was 23 and she was 19. They had known each other all of their lives because various cousins in the same area of Scotland had lived close together, courted, and married. In 1917 on the 17th of August according to the rites of the Unified Free Church, they married at School Lodge (the tied house belonging to Jessie’s new stepfather), Main Street, Wishaw. They would live with the family for at least the first year because my father was born in this home in May of 1918. In fairly short order, the family expanded with David in 1920 and William in 1922.

The economy of Scotland is going downhill in a great big hurry. A description of mine conditions at the time sounds appalling to our modern sensibilities and even as a Colliery Fireman, William’s wages were not good. The Great Strike will happen in 1926. Seeing the inevitable, William and his brothers James, Stephen and Robert will opt in 1925 to join their sister Maggie in Los Angeles. In preparation, William and family visit various cousins including Elizabeth and James McLaren, the parents of the James McLaren who remembers playing with his cousin, Rabbie, while the adults say good-bye and who would more than a half century later send me the cherished packet of pictures. Jessie would stay in a house near Glasgow while William settles in the U.S.

A year later Jessie comes to her new home, but she isn’t well. More and more, the boys come into the hands of Maggie White Beveridge, while the two men worked at the nearby Firestone factory. William would come home and cook the blood rich liver according to the medical advice of the times. Jessie slowly became totally bedridden while her husband worked and Maggie cared for the boys. William fed her, hoping against hope that his Jessie would recover. There is no doubt that he loved her deeply and what is more, his generous, open handed sister did not begrudge the care she gave to her nephews along with her own son and daughter. William followed through with his application for citizenship, dutifully listing his wife and children even while knowing in June of 1934 that his wife was fading. They lived in an enclave of Scottish folk who had immigrated about the same time. They were friends and relatives of the Beveridges, Calderwoods, Owen, Murray, Anderson, Simpson and all those other Whites. The great depression had hit and while he was working, jobs were scarce and low paying. (If you don’t like the wages, there are hundreds to take you place.) On December 18, 1934, Jessie was taken to Los Angeles county Hospital. Her condition steadily worsened into Bronchial Pneumonia on December 24 and cardiac failure brought the end on December 29. Her sons are 16, 14, and 12. They would all become accountants and alcoholics though my father and Uncle David finally recaptured their lives.

At sixteen only a few months after her death, Robert would enter the Army, finally becoming a Chief Warrant Officer before retiring at only 37 and spend the next 25 years as a tax accountant. David would stay at home for a few more years, serve a stint in the Army during WW II, and then go to work as a corporate accountant. Willie, the youngest, would quite simply become a bum, brilliant, charming and funny, but my last memory of him is as an elderly (at only 40) thin and toothless man. William White would never remarry. He never again talked about his lost wife to his sons, and those sons became ever more alienated until they buried him in an unmarked grave in 1971.

In 1997, I kneel on the grass. There is no marker. I’ve been directed here by the cemetery office staff who know such things. In my hands are my smiling, carefree father at age 10; pampa in 1928 in his new suit hopeful of a new beginning; and a pamphlet that says a woman died December 19,1934 when she was only 40. For no reason I can quite explain, tears run down my cheeks as I mourn for a man who has lost his beloved, the boys whose loss of a mother would blight their lives for the next 40 years, and a family that had been shattered, put itself back together and not only survived but thrived in later generations. I had found Jessie only to say good-bye to the grandmother that I had never met but whom I came to loveas well. These flowers are for you.



colorado bob said...

Jamie liked the story, made me think of my mother. She worked on our families lines for nearly 40 years. My oldest ancestor came in 1628 to the "curls of the James river". She found tons of great stories. She showed me a tax roll once that had an old slave on it valued at one cent. Keep workin' the lines, you'll make great friends.

Jamie said...

Given the few original settlers, your mother and mine probably had ancestors in common as my earliest U.S. settlers were in Maryland and Virginia. Mine then moved into Kentucky and Tennessee.

fd said...


Nicely done Jamie. Your love and passion for this piece are clearly illustrated, and those same feelings flow easily to the reader. I hope to see more of your writings.

This Eclectic Life said...

This is a moving story of love. What a journey you had just pulling all the pieces together. What a journey your family made! I'm speechless by the power of your writing.

Matt-Man said...

I have always been fascinated with geneology, but I dont have the patience to really research mine. Cheers Jamie.

lisa said...

Jamie, that was a wonderful narrative of what you went through. I am happy you finally found the info you were looking for and you were able to say goodbye to your grandmother. Just lovely.

eProf2 said...


If Boris Pasternak was right when he said, "the soul lives on so long as someone remembers you." I'm paraphrasing, of course.

Your grandmother's soul surely lives through your pursuit of family history. She's smiling on you!

Great writing!

Travis said...

What a wonderful story of determination and discovery. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing that.