Friday, October 28, 2011

Family History, Family Mythology

Long before I became interested in genealogy, I had heard the story of how my ggg-grandfather had come from Barnstaple, Devon in the early 19th century to establish a fishing station in Newfoundland. A sister of my grandfather had been very fond of telling how William Cooke had brought over three sailing ships, two slaves and £80,000; and had then lost it all when the fishery collapsed.

Even before I began to research my family history, I had doubts about this story. Although slavery existed in the United States and in British possessions in the Caribbean, it was essentially non-existent in the United Kingdom and in Newfoundland. As well, £80,000 in 1820 would be worth almost three and a half million pounds today.

Eventually, after several years of research, the truth began to emerge. In 1817, William Cooke had left High Bickington, Devon to assume management of a fishing station located at Paradise on Placentia Bay on the south coast of Newfoundland. The fishing station had previously been owned by William's great-uncle George Cooke, and had been inherited by William's father in 1790. William's father was also majority owner of the brig Friends, built in Barnstaple in 1812. When William's father died in 1821, William inherited both the brig and the fishing station.

This brig, build in 1828, would have been similar to the brig Friends built at Barnstaple in 1812. (Source: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)
The men who actually did the fishing often worked in very harsh conditions, however, they were not slaves. One of them, William Harding, recorded his experiences:
I and seven men more was sent in a cod seine skiff hauling codfish. We were sent off Sunday after dinner and not to return to the cookroom until Saturday evening. No place to sleep only a nap in the skiff, while one would be waiting for a haul of fish and only one meal of victuals cooked in twenty four hours. If we wanted more there was bread and butter and water in the skiff ... we had only one night in the week to sleep in our bed".
When William Cooke left Newfoundland in the late 1830s, it was not because the fishery had collapsed, but because it had slowly become unprofitable. As the youngest son, there was little in Devon for him to return to, so William decided instead to move to New Carlisle, Quebec, a small but thriving settlement on the Gaspe Peninsula that had been founded by United Empire Loyalists after the American Revolution.

My maternal grandfather's family also has it's share of mythology. My mother had heard stories about how the Jacques family were the descendants of French Huguenots who had fled persecution in the 17th century. Another story was that the Jacqueses has been involved in the manufacturing of beaver hats in the 17th and 18th centuries.

When I began researching the Jacqueses, I came across yet another myth, one that held that my grandfather was the descendant of a Colonel Henry Jacques who fled France during the Revolution. At least one distant cousin still holds to this belief, and this perhaps explains why he no longer responds to my emails.

The reality is not quite so dramatic, but is interesting in it's own right. My gggg-grandfather David Jacks was most likely born in Scotland, and was employed by the Curwen family as a gardener for their Belle Isle estate on Lake Windemere in Westmorland. The Windermere parish register shows a gradual change in spelling from Jacks to Jacques. The latter spelling had firmly taken hold by the time my ggg-grandfather moved south to Keighley, Yorkshire.

My sense is that my Jacques ancestors invented a mythology to make themselves more socially acceptable. It apparently worked. My ggg-grandfather married "above his station," as his wife was the niece of a mill owner. A brother of my gg-grandfather married a mill owner's daughter and eventually became a mill owner himself. My great-grandfather's brothers were architects and journalists. And they were apparently horrified when my great-grandfather married a coachman's daughter. This possibly explains why my great-grandfather emigrated to Canada.

So beware of family mythology. Although there may be grains of truths in the stories, the reality is often quite different, but just as fascinating.

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