Tag Archives: Ancestry.com

Miraculous acknowledgment of WWI ancestor on 11/11

A commemorative coin I picked up in Saltcoats, Scotland, 2019

It’s 11/11, Veterans Day in the United States. For many New Agers, seeing all ones on the calendar or clock has an angelic meaning, especially at 11:11 on 11/11. In fact, I just happened to be awake at 1:11 this morning and took a screen shot on my phone. Today, however, I’m reminded of something that happened over a hundred years ago — the celebration of Armistice Day and the end of WWI — and I’ve got a marvelous story to tell about synchronicity and an honored ancestor.

My mom’s paternal ancestry is wholly Scottish and her grandmother Helen’s little brother, Buchan Littlejohn, was my second great uncle. Helen raised Buchan and her four younger siblings after their mother died when Helen was fourteen and Buchan was four.

Kilmarnock Standard, November 4, 1916

Buchan joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers shortly after WWI was declared. He was sent as a Private to France and was almost immediately wounded, and sent home in July 1915. He spent eight months convalescing before being sent back to France in March 1916 as a Lance Corporal. He was killed in an attack on Bayonet Trench, during the Battle of Le Transloy at the Somme, October 12, 1916 and eventually buried at the A.I.F. Burial Ground in France.

As both parents had died by that time, Helen was listed as his next of kin on his military records. The military dispersed Buchan’s belongings to her and their other siblings.

WWI Monument, Dreghorn Scotland

When my husband, brother and I visited Scotland last summer, we made a special point of digging up as much information on Buchan as we could find. As there was no local grave to visit, we climbed a steep hill in Dreghorn to find this monument with Buchan’s name on it. He’s listed here with other young men from the area who were killed in the “Great War”. He was only 22.

Short of taking a trip to France to visit his grave, I thought that was the end of the information I could find about my great-grandma’s baby brother. I was wrong.

A few months ago, I found a message in my Ancestry.com inbox from someone named Rita, asking if anyone in my family had ever lived in Tacoma, Washington. She and her husband Roger had found something on their property there, when building their house fifty years ago, and had always wondered how it got there. With the advancements in technology since then, she was finally able to make a real effort to track it down.

What they had found was a Next of Kin Memorial Plaque (also known as a Dead Man’s Penny) with Buchan’s name on it. While this made me tingle with excitement, I had no idea how it could have gotten all the way to the far west coast of the United States.

Helen and her family emigrated to Utah in the early 1920s. She would have received the plaque, as next of kin, in 1919 when they were awarded by King George. She would have brought it with her to Utah, where they settled in the coal mining town of Castle Gate, Carbon County, where three of her older brothers lived and had risen in rank to be foremen and supervisors at various mines in Carbon County.

Helen died shortly after arriving in the States, at the tragically young age of 39. Her husband died six months later, leaving their kids orphaned. Their children all eventually ended up in Michigan. None ever lived in Washington state.

Rita and I corresponded for months, trying to solve the mystery. I chased down all sorts of loose threads on Ancestry.com. Some brought me to Washington state, as a few descendants of Helen’s brothers went west, but no one ended up in Tacoma.

Finally, a breakthrough happened when Ancestry popped up one of their famous “green leaf” hints. I discovered that Helen’s oldest brother’s daughter eventually settled in Tacoma, just a couple miles from Rita’s house. This brother, as head of the family in the US, must have assumed ownership of the plaque after the deaths of Helen and her husband. Helen’s niece, I assume, took possession of the plaque after her father died.

That’s as far as my search took me … just a few short miles away from Rita’s property. Further digging, though, showed me that the niece divorced and remarried. Her new husband just happened to own the property adjacent to Rita and Roger’s new land but because the niece took on her husband’s name, and no longer lived there, there was no way to connect the last name “Littlejohn” to anyone there.

As the niece had no children, the ancestral lineage stopped there. Rita, who has become a good friend, kindly and generously sent the plaque to me, and it hangs in a place of honor in my home.

It may have been my imagination, but the first time I held the plaque in my hands, knowing that it belonged to my great-grandmother — the only one of my great-grandparents I have no picture of — I swear I felt a ripple in time as I ran my fingers over Buchan’s engraved name. I’m quite sure Grandma Helen did the exact same thing, at least once.

Thank you, Rita and Roger, for helping to close the circle and bring Buchan’s memorial plaque back into the family, where he is still remembered and honored.

In loving memory of Buchan Littlejohn, 1894-1916, Lance Corporal – Machine Gun Squadron, Royal Scots Fusiliers

Lisa Bonnice is an award-winning, best-selling author. Her current passion-project is a series of metaphysical comedy novels. The first is entitled The Poppet Master (previously published as Be Careful What You Witch For!, now revamped and with a new ending). The Poppet Master is a modern-day fairy tale about Lola Garnett, a bored housewife and office drone who wakes up with unexpected psychic abilities, and no instruction manual, and Twink, the reluctant, sarcastic faery assigned to assist and educate her. The Poppet Master is available wherever books are sold. Its sequel is in the works.

Lisa is also writing The Maxwell Curse, a fictionalized version of a story she found in her own ancestral lineage about a witch trial, a generational curse, and massive mine explosion, all of which left ripples of destruction in their wake, devastating one family’s tree.


The voyage to meet my ancestors begins …

On November 8, 1921, my great-grandfather William Garroch—along with his brother Peter, his 16-year-old son (my grandfather, William Jr.) and his nephew Thomas—crossed the Atlantic Ocean, from Glasgow to New York City. They traveled on an ocean liner called Cameronia, in second-class cabins.

On January 20, 1922, my great-grandmother Helen—along with their three daughters—followed on a ship called Lapland, also second-class. Helen had $200 cash, in pocket.

After passing through Ellis Island, they traveled by train to Castle Gate, Utah, where Helen’s brother, William Littlejohn, was the superintendent of the Castle Gate coal mine, owned by the Utah Fuel Company. He had arranged jobs for numerous family members, and many of them traveled from Scotland, where the life of a coal miner was much, much more difficult.

Both oceanic voyages took 11 days, and I don’t know how long it took them to get from NYC to Castle Gate. Tomorrow I will travel to Castle Gate with my daughter, from Phoenix, Arizona, a nine-hour drive.

I’ll keep their discomfort in mind if I begin to feel restless about sitting in a car for such a ‘long time’. My daughter’s car is a comfy ride, and we’ll have a cooler packed full of fresh, healthy Trader Joe foods. In comparison, I have nothing to complain about.

Once we’re there, we’ll be touring the site where the town of Castle Gate used to be. It no longer exists. The only thing left is the cemetery where William, Helen, Peter and Thomas are buried, and the opening to Mine #2, the mineshaft in which all three men were killed during the Castle Gate Mine Explosion on March 8, 1924.

We’ll also be visiting the Western Mining and Railroad Museum to view pictures of the town and the people from back then, and chat with the curators there.

I’ll be posting here and on Facebook, live, during the trip so if you’re as interested in genealogy as I am, follow along! I think you’ll find it fascinating.

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.

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.

Synchronicity from Scotland

Mel Gibson's version of Robert the Bruce

Mel Gibson’s version of Robert the Bruce

There was a flaw in my family tree. Years ago, I had traced my mom’s dad’s lineage all the way up to Robert the Bruce (the cutie pie* King of Scotland, in Braveheart) but it just didn’t feel right. I didn’t know how or even what to fix. I was reluctant to mention this factoid in blogs about the planning of our trip to Scotland, because I wanted to be accurate but sensed that I wasn’t.

Turns out, I was wrong, but what I love most about this story is how I found out.

As part of the trip, I’m tracking down our family trees so we can visit ancestral sites. Part of Jeff’s family comes from Wales and England, and much of mine comes from Scotland, England and Ireland. I’ve been actively searching again for my Scottish roots, looking for the flaw that I knew was there, but coming up empty.

Out of the blue, I got a message on the Ancestry.com site from a probable distant relative in Scotland with a brief message about the information I had found, years ago, for my great-grandmother. The message said only: “I have doubts about her parents.”

Sure enough, that was the branch that led us to royalty.

With the new information he offered in subsequent emails, I redid the whole thing, and along the way found actual addresses for my great-grandparents! I learned that my grandfather, who I didn’t know, lived in desperate conditions in a coal-mining family, and all of his direct ancestors did as well. They lived in hard times, a far cry from princes and princesses. It’s a fascinating story, and the local historical societies are bubbling with all of the information I need to actually stand in the same locations as my ancestors.

Once I learned as much as I could about the most recent generations, I started to go up the branches to see how far back I could take it this time. I didn’t expect much, because no one cared enough about the unwashed masses back then to keep track of them beyond the census. But eventually I discovered a pretty strong limb that was taking me back into the same surnames that I recognized from last time: Bruce and Stewart.

It turns out that I am not, indeed, the 22nd granddaughter of Robert I, King of Scots. I am, however, the 22nd granddaughter of his brother, Edward the Bruce, King of Ireland!

I love how the Big U delivered this information to me in such a quirky way. It feels like a hole was punched into the time/space continuum at the perfect time to open this portal to my Scottish heritage. I’m doing a wee jig, as we speak!

* in reality, King Robert was probably horribly disfigured from leprosy.

What he probably actually looked like.

Follow my progress on GiveIt100.com!