I’m writer and genealogist Janice Hamilton. I have been researching and writing about my ancestors on this blog since 2013. Most of them came from Scotland, England or Ireland in the early 1800s, establishing new roots in Canada and the United States. Hamilton, Forrester, Rixon, Glendinning, Stobo, Bagg, Smithers, Shearman, Mulholland and Mitcheson are some of the families I have researched. To search this blog for a name, place or topic, use the search box on the top right, the categories listed on the left or bottom, or scroll to the bottom to check the dated Archives.
One of my favourite photos of the ancestors shows a man wearing a top hat, a dog by his side. Sent to me by a cousin about a dozen years ago, the image was identified as “Great-grandfather Robert Hamilton.” That was my great-great-grandfather, the Scottish-born weaver who immigrated with his young family to Scarborough, Upper Canada in 1830.
I thought it would make the perfect cover photo for the book I am writing about the history of the Hamilton family. Most studio portraits taken in the late 1800s were uniformly stiff. Although this man has a serious expression, the image is unusual for its painted background, and dog is appealing.
But was the man in the photo really Robert Hamilton (1789-1875) the immigrant? After all, he had a son named Robert Hamilton (1824 -18731) and his grandson was also Robert Hamilton (1856-1908.) I forwarded the photo to several distant cousins who have researched the family, and to Rick Schofield, archivist at the Scarborough Historical Society in east-end Toronto.
Rick was the first to reply, probably horrified that I might have already gone ahead with the cover. I speculated that the photo might have been taken in the 1850s, and Rick pointed out that there were no photo studios in Scarborough then, and travel by horse to Toronto would have been quite a challenge. He asked what the original photo looked like (I didn’t know) and pointed out that, in the 1850s, Daguerrotype, Ambrotype (glass) and tintype photos were the most common, as well as albumen type and card-mounted photos.
I then forwarded the image to several other relatives, including cousin Alison in Dallas, Texas. It turned out she has an original carte de visite of this photo that includes the name of the place where it was taken: J.J. Milliken Photo Studio, Toronto.
A quick search online showed that this studio was in business in the 1890s. Since Robert Hamilton the immigrant died at age 86 in 1875, and his son Robert Hamilton died of typhoid fever in 1871, that left grandson Robert Hamilton, a farmer in Southwestern Ontario.
Case closed, I thought. Until I realized, not so fast.
If the photo was misidentified as the wrong Robert Hamilton, how could I even be sure this person’s name was Robert Hamilton? This could be a picture of any family member, perhaps the husband of one of the daughters, a cousin, or even a close friend. All I can say for sure is that this photo was taken in the 1890s, by a Toronto photo studio, and was probably a picture of a member of the Hamilton family.
I recently used the photo of the man in the top hat on this blog. It has now been replaced with a verified picture of Robert Hamilton the immigrant, taken when he was an old man. This photo is included in a history of Scarborough that was published in 1896.1 At that time, the editor would have been able to check the sitter’s identity with residents who remembered him.
So, who wrote the wrong identity on the photo sent to me years ago? Probably my Aunt Margaret or Uncle Glen Hamilton. Both were proud of their Scottish origins and interested in the family’s history, but neither of them actually did the hard slog of genealogy, looking up and sorting out births, marriages and deaths. They would not have realized that their great-grandfather died years before this photo was taken.
They made an assumption and I didn’t question it for many years. Lesson learned.
This article is also posted on the collaborative blog https://genealogyensemble.com.
A few years ago, someone gave me a copy of the Hamilton family tree, starting with immigrant couple Robert Hamilton ((1789-1875) and his wife Elizabeth Stobo (1790-1853) and including up to six generations of their descendants. Dates, places and occupations were not mentioned, however, and I wondered who these distant relatives were. Fortunately, the Hamilton family is well documented on Ancestry.ca, however, the Scottish habit of using the same names over and over makes the task confusing.
Their health also interested me. A number of my direct ancestors died of heart disease, so I wondered whether my great-grandfather James Hamilton’s siblings also suffered from this condition.
In 1829, Robert and Elizabeth immigrated from the town of Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire to Scarborough, Canada West, now a suburb of Toronto, Ontario, where many of their friends and relatives also settled. When they arrived, their children – Elizabeth, Janet, Agnes, Robert, Margaret and James — were still young. Robert continued to practice his trade as a weaver, meanwhile reinventing himself as a farmer.
Elizabeth Stobo died at age 63, while Robert Hamilton lived to the ripe old age of 86. Two of his sisters also came to Canada, and both had long lives. Agnes Hamilton (1791-1878) and her husband Robert Rae and their four young children arrived in Ontario in 1832. Robert Rae was killed by a falling tree within weeks of their arrival, but Agnes and her children eventually purchased their own farm in Lambton County, Southwestern Ontario. According to her death record, Agnes died of “old age” at 87.
Robert’s younger sister, Janet Hamilton (1800-1882), married in Canada. Her husband, farmer John Martin, was originally from Dumfriesshire. John died at age 83 and Janet succumbed to “dropsy from heart disease.” at 81. The Martins had two sons and a daughter.
Scarborough Township had fertile soil and the Hamiltons must have enjoyed their new lifestyle because the next generation were all farmers. The 1861 census – 32 years after the family immigrated – showed that four of Robert’s children remained in Scarborough Township and neighbouring Markham, while the other two settled about 230 kilometers away in Southwestern Ontario. Eventually one branch of the family – mine – became pioneers again, this time moving to Western Canada.
Robert’s and Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth (1817-1894), married farmer William Oliver (c. 1814-1904), who was from Dumfriesshire. Around 1842, the couple settled in a part of Scarborough that did not yet have a road. They cleared the trees, built a two-story stone house and established a farm that became known for its beautiful flower garden. When they finally sold the property some 35 years later, it brought them more than $100 an acre! They retired to Agincourt, where Elizabeth died of cancer at age 76. They had no children.
In 1842, Janet Hamilton (1818-1897) married Robert Reid (1810-1880), who also came from Lesmahagow. They raised nine children on their farm in Markham. According to her death record, Janet died at age 79 of “old age and heart disease” and all of her sons and daughters died of stroke or heart disease between the ages of 49 and 89.
Agnes Hamilton (1821-1897) married Scarborough farmer James Green (c. 1816-1872) from Dumfriesshire and raised seven children. Agnes’s many grandchildren called her Nannie. When James and his family left Ontario, Agnes’s son James purchased his uncle’s Scarborough property. Agnes died of bronchitis at age 76.
Robert Hamilton (1824-1871) was a farmer like his father, but he left the Scarborough area for cheaper agricultural land in Bosanquet Township, Lambton County. This part of Southwestern Ontario, near the shores of Lake Huron, was opened to settlement in the 1830s, but development was hampered in the early years by a lack of roads. It remained rural, and farmers there grew primarily wheat and peas and raised pigs and cattle. Robert and his wife, Janet Smith (1824-1899), had five children. Shortly after being counted in the 1871 census, Robert died of typhoid fever at age 46. In the 1881 census, the widowed Jennet was listed as “female farmer,” living with her grown daughter and three sons. In many families, the oldest son would be counted as head of the family, but not in this one. Of their children, only James married, and some of his descendants still live in the area today. Robert, his wife and children are buried in Pinehill Cemetery, Thedford, Ontario.
Margaret Hamilton (1827-1891) married James Gordon (c. 1820-1903) and had seven children. They settled in Middlesex County, in Southwestern Ontario, around 1860 and farmed there for 22 years. After selling that property, they purchased a small garden farm. Margaret died at age 64 of angina. Descendants of this family also remain in Southwestern Ontario.
As for James Hamilton (1829-1885), after farming in Scarborough for more than 20 years, in 1882 he became a founding settler of Saskatoon, which at that time was an alcohol-free community of farms surrounding a tiny hamlet. His wife and family moved West the following year. In 1885, James travelled east to visit his relatives and he died there of a heart attack at age 56. He is buried beside his parents in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Cemetery, Scarborough.
Thus I discovered that the first generation of my Scottish immigrant ancestors were farmers and that most enjoyed long lives, although heart disease made a frequent appearance in their death records. My great-grandfather was the outlier, leaving Ontario for the West long before any other members of the extended family did so. And while his sons went to university and became professionals, the majority of their cousins remained in farming for at least one more generation.
photo credits: Gord Stoll, Alison Mossler Wright
Notes: Here are some suggestions for researching this period of Ontario history.
Also, The People of Scarborough: A History, by Barbara Myrvold, published by the City of Scarborough Public Library Board, 1997, gives a comprehensive overview of the community’s history. It is available online as a PDF from the Toronto Public Library.
Scottish baptismal records can be found on Familysearch.org. The image of this church document should be viewed on the Scotland’s People website.
If you find your early Ontario ancestor on Ancestry, you will likely see links to other references to that person, although occasionally the link is to another person with a similar name, or to a son or daughter.
The original marriage documents contain identifying information such as the names of the parents of the bride and groom and occupations.
View census records to see where the family was living every ten years, the name of the current spouse, the names of the children living in the same household, and each person’s occupation. The 1901 census includes the day, month and year of each individual’s birth, although that date may not correspond with other records. Census informants made mistakes. City directories are also useful, although they only list the household head.
Ontario death records from this period can be found on Ancestry.ca by searching the database “Ontario Canada, Deaths and Deaths Overseas, 1869-1948.” Some women are listed under their married names, others under their maiden names. These death documents usually include the date and place of birth as well as the date, place and cause of death.
This article is also posted on https://.genealogyensemble.com and it will be a chapter in a book on the Hamilton family, to be published early next year.