Ancestry search reveals the beginning of a story

I didn’t know my mom’s dad. Her parents divorced when she was a teen, and I only have a vague memory of meeting him once when I was a kid. All I knew about him, growing up, was that he was born in Scotland and he was an engineer who worked at the Nike missile sites in Norway during WWII.

Because she never talked about him, and he didn’t seem interested in us, I wasn’t very curious about who he was. I concentrated all of my genealogy research on my dad’s side of the family, and was able to unearth his ten long-lost cousins. I am now in contact with cousins all over the world, people who look just like me, who I never knew existed!

But now that I’m planning a summer 2014 trip to Scotland, where my grandfather was born, I thought I’d do a little research on Ancestry.com to see if I could scout out any locations to visit while I’m there. Oh boy, did I find some stories!

I’m still putting the pieces together but, from the looks of it, just his lifetime alone was a heckuva tale. He was born in 1905, in Dreghorn, to a coal-mining family. Ancestry.com searches have given me actual locations where they lived, in various “Miners’ Rows” in Dreghorn and the surrounding villages around Kilmarnock, Ayrshire.

Never having been there, the phrase “Miners’ Row” meant nothing to me. I had no frame of reference. My husband’s parents were also coal miners’ kids, but they grew up in America. Their lives were hard–I’ve seen the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and I’ve visited Elkhorn City, KY, where his dad grew up–so I expected to find that my grandfather’s life wasn’t a cake walk. But here in the US, life was easy compared to the conditions in turn-of-the-century Scotland!

Here is a description for Six Row, which Ancestry.com listed as one of his family’s addresses (from the Scottish Mining Website):

“There are two water-closets for each row placed immediately in front of the houses and two washing-houses. There are also very filthy cesspools in front of the doors. The brick tiles on the floors are very much broken up, and holes inches deep are to observed everywhere. The walls of the houses are very damp, and the partitions do not appear to have been plastered. There is one ash-pit for every two rows. A well with gravitation water is placed in each row. There are two washing-houses for each row, but the floors are so sunken and broken up that the women complain that they have to stand to the ankles in water when doing their washing. The condition of the roads into these rows is abominable.”

I found this photo on an Ayrshire history site (ayrshirehistory.org.uk). It seems to be a fairly representative photo of the miners rows back then.

So I guess it’s no surprise that the entire family packed up and moved to the US in the 1920’s. Things didn’t get much better for my grandfather, because within two years of moving here, his mother died of cancer and, a year later, his father and uncle were killed in the famous Castle Gate Mine explosion in Utah.

Photo of the Castle Gate memorial “borrowed” from Paul and Kathleen Smith’s travel-blog http://www.lazydazers.com/index.cfm?fa=ShowItem&ID=3232

I don’t know why my grandfather wasn’t there that day. My mom thinks that it may be because he told her that his parents didn’t want him to be a coal miner–they wanted a “better life” for him. However, just two weeks before the explosion, the mining company cut down on their work force and laid off many men who had no dependents. So that could be why he wasn’t there. In any case, he and his sisters, according to the records I found, were taken in by his mother’s brother, who was killed in a car accident in 1944.

The irony is that, if I follow his family tree backward into history, he is descended from royalty on his mother’s side of the family (by about twenty generations). The Littlejohn branch takes us backward to the Stewart/Bruce lineage!

At this point, that’s about all I know about him. I can’t wait to get to Scotland to walk the same ground as these people about whom I only know the stories of their deaths. I look forward to learning about their lives.

Help “crowdfund” my trip!

Follow my progress on GiveIt100!

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2 responses to “Ancestry search reveals the beginning of a story

  1. Cathy Littlejohn

    Hi Lisa. I would like to hear more about this story. I’m William’s granddaughter. Are you descended from Helen?
    Cathy

  2. Yes! Helen was my great grandmother and William Littlejohn was my great granduncle. Drop me an email at lisa@lisabonnice.com. I’d love to connect!

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