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About Family History

Please go to one of my two new websites:

Ryk Brown's New Genealogy Website

The New Stewarts of Balquhidder Website

This website is now ARCHIVE-ONLY.

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Contents of this page

  1. Introduction to Our Family History
  2. Where Is Our Family From?
  3. How Far Back Can We Go?
  4. Family History Is Never Finished
  5. Family History Is Never Perfect
  6. The Origin Of Surnames
  7. The Use Of Formal Surnames
  8. Basic Construction Of Surnames
  9. Spelling Variations Of Surnames
  10. Are We Related To Other People With The Same Name?
  11. A Note About Tartans And Coats Of Arms
  12. What Are IGI And LDS?

Links to other related pages on this web site

  1. My Main Page
  2. My Index and Online Database
  3. About Our Family History
  4. The Brown Family in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  5. The Angus Family in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  6. The Sharpe Family in Kent County, Ontario, Canada
  7. The Richardson Family in Brant County, Ontario, Canada

About Family History

This page is intended for those readers who are new to family history research or who are visiting this site for the first time.  It will help answer some common questions.  If you are already familiar with family history research then please click here to return to the start page.

Introduction to Our Family History

When I was in seminary in Vancouver in the early 1990s I took a family counselling course, which required me to research my own family history as far back as my grandparents. When I began that history I knew that my dad's family was a mixture of Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English, and I knew my mother's family was English and Scottish. I knew that my great-grandfather had been a police chief in Hamilton. I knew that my wife Heather's grandparents were all born in Canada, but I had no idea where their families originated. That's about all I knew. That counselling course got me hooked on something that has become an ongoing passion and adventure ever since.

When I began researching our family history I had no idea where the adventure would eventually lead me. Among the various branches of the Sharpes and the Browns,  I had no idea the following events from history would become a part of our own family history: the persecution of Italians in Hamilton during WWII, the Boer War, pioneer settlements and the MacKenzie Rebellion in Ontario, the War of 1812, United Empire Loyalists and the American Revolution, the early Dutch settlers colony of New Amsterdam which later became New York City, the Jacobite rebellions in Scotland and the subsequent Highland Clearances, and a family murder which would later be immortalized by author Sir Walter Scott in his book, A Legend Of Montrose, which formed part of the basis for the movie, Rob Roy -- all that plus one family branch that can trace its history back to Robert The Bruce, the hero king of Scotland.

I had no idea when Heather and I moved to Hamilton, Ontario, that we were moving within miles of where our pioneer ancestors first settled - mine, when they emigrated from Scotland and settled first in Hamilton and later in Puslinch, and Heather's, when they fled north from the American Revolution to remain loyal to the British Crown and settled through the Niagara peninsula and as far around the lake as present-day Burlington.

Where Is Our Family From?

We live in a culture of immigrants. It's normal for people to associate their family background with a certain foreign culture. I used to say that my family background is British, with a pretty even mixture of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh.  Now I have learned that my Irish ancestors were actually Ulster-Scots and some of my English ancestors were also originally Scots.  Even the little English I do have is diluted by a healthy dose of Welsh.  It has led me to a deeper pride in my Celtic ancestry.

But Heather is one of the few people who can claim that her background is absolutely Canadian!  Canada became a country in 1867. In 1867, only one branch of my ancestors was in Canada; the rest were all still living in the UK or Ireland. Whereas only one branch of Heather's ancestors was NOT in Canada in 1867. On my side we have only one branch who were pioneer settlers in early Canada, whereas Heather's family has only one branch who were NOT pioneer settlers. Heather has one Loyalist branch who can even trace their ancestry in North America back to the early 1600s among the first European settlers to ever set foot on North American soil. If anyone can claim "I AM Canadian" it's Heather's family!

How Far Back Can We Go?

Family research is far more difficult, far more frustrating, and far more limited than most people would probably imagine. Although the Internet has made access to certain records infinitely easier, the Internet can't create documents that don't exist. By far the greatest benefit of the Internet is bringing fellow researchers together across the globe to share information and to share the labour of researching the same families.  I have been blessed by the assistance of countless researchers on this project -- most of whom are identified on the individual family pages.

We often presume that documents like birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates have always been issued by governments. However it often surprises people to learn that government registration of births, marriages and deaths only goes back to the mid-1800s. Prior to the mid-1800s government registrations simply don't exist. Although some censuses were taken as far back as 1840 the information is quite sketchy until about 1860. Tragically even some of these records have since been lost, stolen, or destroyed. The worst case relates to Irish records where all government records from before 1920 were destroyed in a bomb-related fire during the war between Ireland and England. So anyone who has been able to research his or her family ancestry back before the mid-1800s is doing well.

Prior to the mid-1800s a few civil records exist, but most of the records were kept by the Church. Some of these records are now conveniently located in public archives while others still reside in the original churches, while others still have been lost, stolen, or destroyed, either by fire or vandalism. Most of these church records that do survive don't go further back than the mid-1700s. Anyone who can trace his or her family back before the mid-1700s is doing very well!

A few church records and estate records can be found as far back as the mid-1600s, but most records from that era are sketchy and take a good deal of detective work to identify the correct individuals! Anyone who has been able to trace his or her family history back before the mid-1600s is not only doing very well, but is just plain lucky!

To trace a family ancestry earlier than the 16th century really requires descent from a person who was historically significant, usually a land-owning family. You will notice in this research that of the 8192 possible branches I have (2 parents, 4 grand parents, 8 great grandparents, and so on, you'd be surprised how fast it multiplies!) that could reach to the 16th century only two branches can be traced further back than that.

With most of our ancestors I have done well in my research, and in some cases very well. In a precious few branches I have been extremely lucky.

Family History Is Never Finished

Researching a family history is a never-ending project. I think that's why it appeals to me so much; there's always something new to find out. For every ancestor I discover there are always two new parents to research. Each generation grows exponentially from the previous one, so it's literally impossible to finish. Family research is always "in progress". This family history website represents the state of my research as of the date shown at the bottom of each page, but it can never be said to be "complete". It's quite likely that I will learn more in the coming years, so please feel free to check back.

Family History Is Never Perfect

Family history research can also be uncertain. More recent ancestors can usually be discovered with absolute certainty and proof, however, the further back you go the more uncertain it can become. It requires the researcher to be part detective. Where I have made assumptions about links between certain ancestors I have tried to include those assumptions in the notes so you can gauge for yourself how certain an ancestor is.

I am an amateur historian, not a professional. I have no formal training in family history - just what I've learned from doing it. I guarantee you will find some errors or omissions in this research.

If you are a member of my family and are viewing the private version of this research then please don't be offended if you find your own entry has an error or is missing information or maybe has very little information at all - it's nothing personal.

The focus of my research has been primarily on researching ancestors, not descendants or cousins. I include as much information as possible on cousins and other descendants so that you can see where you connect with our common ancestors. There's also a natural tendency to write more about dead ancestors than living relatives.  It's often harder to write about people who are still alive. So if there is any information you want added to your own record or your parents' record or any other additional information you feel belongs in this book, please contact me and I will be happy to add it into any future publications.  However, please understand that, for obvious privacy reasons, I do not publish information on living persons on the web version of this project.  Any exceptions to that rule are only with the explicit permission of the person in question, and even then, only for a significant reason.

It's also most certain that I have made mistakes somewhere and with a database of over 10,000 names (and growing) it's easy to lose track of those errors and forget what I've checked and what I haven't. Therefore, if you find any errors or omissions please contact me so that the information can be corrected in future editions.

The Origin Of Surnames

"Where did my last name come from?" It's a natural question for anyone to ask. To the best of my ability, where the origin of a surname is known for the principal families, I have included it. Unfortunately the origin of some surnames is now lost in history.

It is natural for someone today to assume that people have always had given names and surnames. However, for thousands of years first names were all that people were known by -- since the world was much less crowded and everyone knew their neighbors. Over time, it became harder to distinguish between people who lived close to each other and who had the same name, so other means of naming evolved to help distinguish them.

For example - In ancient times, being named "Richard" would be sufficient in your village to distinguish you from any Tom or Harry. But as soon as there were two Richards in the same village then other means had to be used to distinguish them. One might be known as Richard the Miller (because of his occupation), or Richard the Red (because of his red hair), or Richard of York (because he was born in York). Eventually the prepositions were dropped and these Richards became known as Richard Miller, Richard Red and Richard York.

Originally these second names were not hereditary or family names. Richard the Miller might have a son named Richard who had black hair. He might be known as Richard the Black, or Richard the Miller's Son. These might be abbreviated to Richard Black or Richard Millerson.

So, when and how did surnames become formal family names passed on from generation to generation?

The Use Of Formal Surnames

The use of formal surnames in our culture comes from early European culture. It is believed that the Normans brought with them a custom of surnames when they conquered the Anglo-Saxons in Britain in the year 1066. However this Norman custom was probably a holdover from a much earlier Roman custom, while the earliest recorded use of surnames comes from ancient Chinese culture around 2500 BC.

The Normans became the ruling class of early Britain and thus surnames became associated with upper-class society. Eventually the custom trickled down to the working classes. Some people embraced the new custom while others resisted it until governments began to impose it for the purpose of taxation and military service registration. It became increasingly important to distinguish exactly who you were taxing and conscripting!  It is believed that by the mid-15th century at the latest most people of whatever social rank had a fixed hereditary surname.  The Celtic cultures of Ireland, Scotland and Wales were the longest holdouts in the British Isles, hanging on to their non-fixed patronyms (see below) even into the Enlightenment era.

Basic Construction Of Surnames

Most surnames come from one of five groups: Patronymic, Characteristic, Geographic, Occupational, and Invented Surnames.

Patronymic Surnames

Patronymic surnames are surnames that are derived from the name of a parent -- usually the father (although in ancient Celtic and Norse cultures the mother's name was sometimes used). Many patronymic surnames can be recognized by the English suffix of "son" or its abbreviation "s", meaning "son of", so Williamson or its abbreviation Williams both mean "son of William". Non-English suffixes for "son of" include: Armenian "-ian", Danish and Norwegian "-sen", Finnish "-nen", Greek "-poulos", Spanish "-ez", and Polish "-wiecz".  The Dutch suffix "-dater" means "daughter of" and is an example of a female patronym, or matranym.

In other cultures the designation "son of" is tacked on to the beginning of the name.  Prefixes denoting "son of" are the Welsh "ap", the Gaelic "mac", the Irish "O' " (which actually means "grandson of") and the Norman "fitz". So in Normandy, John, the son of Randolph, became John fitz-Randolph. In Wales, David, the son of John, was David ap John. Some of these prefixes later became melded with the father's name to form a whole new name. David ap John became David Upjohn. In Scotland, Gilleain's descendants were known as MacGilleain, which was later shortened to Maclean.

Characteristic Surnames

Characteristic surnames are surnames that are derived from some physical or personality characteristic of a person. An unusually small person might be labeled Small, Short or Little. A large man might be named Longfellow, Large, or Long ("Lang" in Scots). A person having characteristics of a certain animal might be given the animal's name -- a sly person might be named Fox; a good swimmer, Fish; a quiet man, Dove; etc.

Geographic Surnames

Geographic surnames are surnames that are derived from a place associated with a person. This might be a place of residence, such as "John London" (meaning "John from London"), or some geographic reference associated with the person. John who lived over the hill became known as John Overhill. John who dwelled near a stream might be dubbed John Brook. You can recognize a geographic name if it ends with one of the regular place name elements, such as -hill, -ford, -wood, -brook, -well, and so on. Less easily recognized geographic surnames end with -ton, -ham, -wick, or -stead (meaning "a farm, or small settlement"). Other common geographic endings are -don, (a hill), -bury (a fortification), -leigh, or -ley (a clearing). The Dutch/Germanic "Van" and the French "de" or "du" means "from" and is usually followed by a place name. i.e. The Dutch surname, VanValkenburg, means "from the town of the falcon".

Occupational Surnames

Occupational surnames are surnames that are derived from occupations, crafts or trades usually that were common during medieval times. Some of these occupational references may have become obscure or lost today. For example, though the name Fletcher is not uncommon today, there are very few people who are actually employed today as fletchers making arrows. The local house builder, food preparer, grain grinder and suit maker, would be named John Carpenter, John Cook, John Miller and John Taylor. John who made barrels was called John Cooper. The blacksmith was called Smith. Every village had its share of Smiths, Carpenters and Millers, so it's important to remember that the Millers in one town weren't necessarily related to the Millers in the next town.

Invented Surnames

Invented surnames are surnames that may have been invented for their pleasing sound, as a nickname, or simply out of necessity. A person might be named Sweet as a description of his personality (a characteristic name) or simply as a nickname because he worked as a candy maker or he liked to eat lots of candy.

Another example of "invented" surnames are the "corrupted" surnames -- surnames that have changed or evolved when migrating from one language to another.  These are discussed below.

It's important to remember that there are no hard or fast rules about how last names were formed. These five types represent the most common ways in which last names evolved, but these descriptions should be considered more as "trends" than "rules".

Spelling Variations Of Surnames

Many names today have the same or similar sounds, but various spellings, such as Stewart or Stuart, Thomson or Thompson. Many families are quite particular about which of these variant spellings they are known by - for example: "We are Thompsons with a "p" not without!"  Such assertiveness is based on a modern misunderstanding about names.

Standardized spelling is a modern invention and dates back only to the late 19th century. Before that it was quite common to find people, even in the same family, with different spellings of the same name. It was even common to find one person spelling their own name in different ways. Also government and church records were often spelled the way the clerk or clergyperson felt the name should be spelled, not necessarily the way the person actually spelled it. The further back in history you go the less precise the spellings become. So don't be surprised when you are reading back through the ancestors of a certain branch and you see their last name spelled in many different ways. For example, you will find Heather's family name, Sharpe, spelled with or without the final "e" in various branches of the same family.

Variant spellings can become even more dramatic when two cultures collide. English culture is notoriously lazy (and sometimes thoughtless or even bigoted) when it comes to learning foreign names. Many non-English immigrants came to Canada with names that, for English tongues, were very difficult to pronounce. When they were registered as new immigrants, sometimes the clerk would simply assign them a new name that he liked better or could pronounce more easily.  This was often done even without the family's consent! On the other hand, many immigrants deliberately chose new English names either to avoid discrimination or simply to "fit in" better with the dominant culture in their new homeland.

It may surprise you to learn that government registration of names did not begin until the middle of the 19th century. Prior to that if you wanted to change your last name you simply changed it without registering it and without anyone's permission. Thus variations of spelling from generation to generation were much more common than we would imagine today.

One of the most dramatic examples of a name's spelling evolving over time, which can be found from our own family, comes in a line of Dutch United Empire Loyalist immigrants on the Richardson (Sharpe) side. Within only a few generations the Dutch name of VanValkenburg (which means "from the town of the falcon") evolved to Valkenburg, Vallick, Vollick, and finally to Follick. In a similar example, a French family named "Le Roi" eventually became Anglicized as "Larroway".  The Germanic "V�ller" became "Furler".  And the Gaelic "Mac a'Bhruithin" became "Brown".

Are We Related To Other People With The Same Name?

For all the reasons explained above you can see why it is na�ve to assume that you are related to other people who have the same last name as you. For the same reason, finding a historical figure who shares your same last name does not mean that person is your ancestor -- not all Wallaces are descended from William Wallace of Braveheart fame!

A common example of such a misunderstanding comes from the clan system of Highland Scottish culture. Many people wrongfully assume that because their Scottish ancestors came from a certain clan that they are therefore related to everyone else from that same clan. Under the clan system if you were called "MacDonald", which literally means "son of Donald" it didn't necessarily mean that your father's name was Donald; it meant that you were part of Donald's clan, and you were under Donald's protection. Clan protection was valued so highly in Highland culture that fellow clansmen spoke of each other like family, whether or not they were actually related, and they referred to the clan chief as if he was a father to the whole clan.

Today, if you live in the Hamilton/Niagara area of Ontario, Canada and your last name is Follick and your neighbour is VanValkenburg the chance of you being related is actually much higher than if your name is MacDonald and your neighbour is also MacDonald!

A Note About Tartans And Coats Of Arms


The idea of associating a certain tartan with a certain Scottish clan, or more often with a certain last name, is a Victorian English invention and has little to do with ancient Highland Scottish culture. Most tartans worn today were invented within the last 150 years. Tartan patterns were not originally associated with any clans; they were regional. Thus it was more likely the case that anyone from Balquhidder, Perthshire (where our Stewarts are from) would have worn the same tartan whether s/he was a Stewart, McNab, or MacGregor.  And a Stewart from Perthshire would have worn a different tartan than a Stewart from Argyle.

Coats of Arms

Another common misunderstanding relates to so-called "family coats of arms". Technically speaking there is no such thing as a "family" coat of arms. Coats of arms were awarded to individuals, not families, and were designated for that person only, and were not for the whole family. A father was permitted to pass on his coat of arms to his eldest son only, and thus it might continue to pass from generation to generation, but only in the line of the eldest son. The other descendants could not claim the coat of arms as theirs. Be wary of companies that try to sell you a "family" coat of arms - it is most certainly not authentic. Any so-called family coats of arms included in this family history site are included for entertainment value only.

What Are IGI And LDS?

A quick glossary note - you will find the terms IGI and LDS used occasionally and interchangeably in the data. LDS stands for Latter Day Saints. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) hold family history as an important religious value, thus they have volunteers in their church throughout the world who have compiled genealogical source data and they have stored it in the world's largest genealogical library located in Utah. They have compiled census data, civil records, church records and other valuable resources and they have also indexed all this data and made it available for free on the Internet or through their Family Research Centres located all over the world. This is their ministry. The index they have compiled is known as the International Genealogical Index (IGI). This index is an invaluable research aid to family historians. Whenever you see the letters LDS or IGI in the research notes they are referring to this index.


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This page was last updated on 07 April 2008

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