One of the best parts of creating a story is getting to pick where your story takes place. Is it on Seabrook Island, in 1800s London, or jumping throughout time? But when it comes to the stories in your family tree, you don’t get to pick the setting. You have to discover where your ancestors lived, and when you do, you may learn that where they lived adds another dimension to their story and leads you to possibilities you hadn’t considered. One way to leverage that setting is through land records.
In the episode featuring Rachel and Kayleen McAdams, two of the ancestors highlighted were the sisters’ 4x great-grandmother Charlotte McDonald and Charlotte’s father, James Gray.
We made good progress tracing Rachel and Kayleen’s maternal ancestry through vital records and Canadian censuses, but the earliest census was taken in 1851, and Charlotte was born much earlier, probably in the late 1700s. We were not able to find any birth, baptismal, or marriage records for Charlotte, so we turned to land records for the area where she had lived. At the Ontario Archives, we located a land grant petition that Charlotte McDonald had filed in July of 1824. She was requesting 200 acres of land in Ontario as the daughter of James Gray, a Loyalist who had fought for the British Crown during the American Revolutionary War. It was only through this record that we were able to conclusively connect Charlotte to her father, James Gray.
Land records are sometimes your only option to help prove family relationships—especially in the days before census records and compulsory vital registrations. Examining land grant petitions, plotting where pieces of land sit in proximity to each other, and tracking the selling and buying of specific parcels of land can give surprising insights into a family’s structure.
With the knowledge that James Gray was a Loyalist who had fought against the American Patriots we were able to delve more deeply into the records of the Loyalists and their families to learn about the Grays’ experiences during that turbulent time. When we found James Gray in a list of volunteers that gave his residence as Machiche—a refugee camp in Québec not too far from Montréal—an emotional and touching story really took shape. There were more than 1,000 refugees at Machiche—and about 600 of them were children. The camp was occupied from 1779 through 1783, which means the residents lived through several harsh Québec winters in primitive and unhealthy conditions.
Knowing that James and his family spent time in the refugee camp, we pieced together a story that specifically highlighted the hardships the Grays faced at Machiche, including the absence of James while he was fighting, the loss of a young son, and the birth of a daughter (possibly Charlotte). These facts gave depth to the story of Charlotte McDonald and her birth family during a highly disruptive time in Canadian and U.S. history and helped show the suffering they endured after leaving their home in New York.
Focusing on land records gave us insights that led us in an unexpected direction and made for a more interesting and emotionally compelling episode for Rachel and Kayleen. Taking the time to learn everything you can about the setting of your story can do the same for you. Land records can add amazing details—or even lead you to the story itself.
Learn more about Rachel and Kayleen’s journey on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Wednesdays 9|8c on TLC.
Other episodes this season:
For those of you who were following along on Twitter last night, here is a recap of the posts shared by us and other participants in the chat: