Friday, April 18, 2014

James Avon Smith of MacDuff, Banffshire

MacDuff is on the Moray Firth, northeast Scotland
My mother’s father, Fred Murray Smith, was a kind and gentle man. Although he had a good sense of humour, he was a strict Presbyterian and did not allow my mother to play cards or go to movies on Sundays. He was also quite formal, never seen at the dinner table without a jacket and tie. So it was a shock to discover that there was a large skeleton in the Smith family closet, although it dated from Fred’s great-grandfather’s generation.

Fred’s grandfather, James Avon Smith, was assistant schoolmaster in the coastal town of MacDuff, Banffshire, Scotland. James and his wife, Jane Tocher, had seven children. Jane died in 1838, shortly after giving birth to John Murray Smith, Fred’s future father.

In the early 1840s, James immigrated to Canada. He settled in Toronto and became a teacher of the classics at Knox College and Toronto Academy. The children and their Aunt Elizabeth Tocher eventually joined him in Toronto.

According to an outline of the Smith family history that was passed down to me via my cousins, James Avon Smith was born in 1800, the son of Walter Smith, farmer, of Lochagan. (Lochagan is located a few miles inland from the town of Banff; there doesn’t seem to be a village there, although the place name still exists.) I checked the records of Banff Parish Church on Scotland’s People, and there it was: James Smith, natural son of Walter Smith by Jane Avens. But natural son? That meant his parents were not married. I had to investigate further. 

When we were in Edinburgh in 2012, I looked up the Kirk Session records of the parish. Having committed the sin of fornication, Walter and Jane had to appear before the Kirk Session, which consisted of the minister and elders of the church, and the couple had to pay a fine. But it seems they did not learn their lesson: Walter Smith and Jane Avens reappeared before the Kirk Session four years later and confessed they were guilty of a “relapse in fornication.”

Walter Smith remained unmarried, although the Kirk Session records show that he fathered three other children, all by different women. It comes as no surprise then that, when James Avon Smith had his own family, he did not follow the traditional Scottish naming pattern and name any of his boys after his own father. 

In 1810, Jane Avens married James Taylor in Banff parish, so perhaps she found true love and a supportive step-father for the boy. Eventually, James attended Kings College, Aberdeen. He married Jane Tocher in 1823 and their eldest child, Alexander, arrived several months later. 

Photo credit: Janice Hamilton

Research remarks: Initially, I was not optimistic about researching the Smith family. The name is just too common. Luckily, Banffshire did not have a large population in the 1800s, Smith was not a common name there, and the parish records were surprisingly well kept. Also, someone in a previous generation did a good job of remembering and writing down the family’s story. That may have been James Avon Smith Jr., a Toronto artist and architect. 

A longer version of this story appeared in the February, 2013 edition of the journal of the Aberdeen and Northeast Scotland Family History Society. This is an excellent journal, and several members of that society have been extremely helpful to me from afar.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Reflections on a Great-Great-Grandmother

Catharine Mitcheson Bagg
It was 3 a.m. and I was squinting at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, but it wasn’t just myself I saw. Without my glasses on, I recognized my mother’s eyes looking back at me, and the eyes of my great-great grandmother, Catharine Mitcheson Bagg.

As my mother aged, she had increasingly resembled the large portrait of Catharine that used to hang in my grandmother’s dining room; still, it was a shock to realize that Catharine’s features lived on in me too.

My mother told me she always felt that Catharine, dressed in mid-19th-century finery, stared down disapprovingly from her spot on the wall. Mother’s older cousin Clare had described Catharine as “terrifying.” Clare remembered visiting her in a dark and musty house on Sherbrooke Street, but at the time of the visit, Clare was about three years old and her great-grandmother was over 90, so it is no wonder she felt intimidated.

Catharine was born in 1822 and grew up on the outskirts of Philadelphia with her four siblings. Her English-born father was a merchant, her mother was from Scotland. Catharine’s education included sewing an intricate sampler when she was 10 and painting landscapes. In 1844, she married Stanley Clark Bagg, the grandson of her father’s oldest sister, and she moved to Montreal, where her new husband was a notary.

Stanley owned large tracts of land in the St. Laurent suburb of Montreal that he had inherited from his grandfather, and, although the area was still primarily agricultural, he was starting to sell lots to would-be homeowners and developers. When he died of typhoid fever in 1873, at age 53, the eldest child and only son, Robert Stanley Bagg, a recent law graduate from McGill, took over management of the family real estate business. Over the years, his four sisters expressed opinions about when and what to sell and for how much, but he relied most on his mother’s advice.

A few years ago I came across some letters Catharine had written to son Stanley. I was thrilled. Suddenly this woman whose image I was so familiar with had a voice! They revealed her as a mother who worried about her son’s health, believed in the benefits of sea air and trusted that “all things work together for good in those who love God”.

She described her husband’s death as a calamity for the family, especially for Stanley who was “so young and inexperienced in the ways of the world.” And when Stanley retired after 27 years, she commended him for the “able, honourable and efficient manner” in which he had performed his arduous duties.

Another letter, dated 1889, was written on stationery from a hotel in Kennebunkport, Maine, an area I know well. Stanley and his young family were in Georgeville, Quebec. Catharine wrote, “You and Clara should have gone to some seaside place for several weeks this summer. Georgeville is not a sufficient change in air and scene.” Those words could just as easily have been written by my mother, or by me. 

photo credit: McCord Museum

Research Remarks.  Catharine Mitcheson was born on Jan. 12, 1822, according to her baptismal record. She was baptized at St. John’s Church, Northern Liberties, Philadelphia, and a copy of the church registers is available in the library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. The record of her marriage to Stanley Clark Bagg, at Grace Church, Philadelphia on Sept. 9, 1844 can be found on Catharine’s brother, Rev. Robert Mitcheson, officiated at the wedding.

Catharine died on Oct. 29, 1914 in Montreal, and the record of her funeral at Christ Church Cathedral is included in the Drouin Collection of church and vital records on Ancestry. She is buried in Mount Royal Cemetery.

A few letters she wrote to her son are in the Abner and Stanley Bagg fonds at the McCord Museum, Montreal.

The portrait of Catharine Mitcheson Bagg, painted in 1865 by artist William Sawyer (1820-1889), now belongs to the National Gallery of Canada.