Is That You, William? How Do You Know When You’re On The Right Track?

Brick walls – every researcher has a couple. They sometimes stand for years, those annoying barriers between you and that elusive ancestor you have been chasing for what seems like forever. Now and then, you formulate a theory. Is this my great grandfather, the rascally relative who refuses to give up his birthplace … or is this just another red herring? How will you know for sure if you have finally, finally found the unfindable?

William Harris, was for a long time my brick wall, or one of several actually. The main stumbling block was his impossibly common name. William Harris, in the English speaking world, is about as unremarkable a name as John Smith or George Brown, and at one time the surname Harris was the 15th most common one in North America. Add to this the fact that all his vital records in his adopted homeland of Canada, simply stated England as his place of birth and nothing more.

We did have his parents’ names, James Harris and Mary Spicer, but I was fairly sure that those names were going to turn out to be dauntingly common too. William gave his birth year as 1826. We all know that birth years and ages are not ironclad either. But these are valuable clues and good starting points.

What else do you know about your ancestor? Think about occupation (William was a stone mason), religion (Church of England in our case), arrival in the country, any local relatives, local church or society affiliations, place of burial or land they may have owned.

William was a man with no past. Even though his 1874 marriage registration stated that he was a bachelor, I was not convinced. In those early years, anyone could say anything they liked and who was going to prove otherwise? So at age 48 years, William Harris married Maria Pierce in Carleton County, Ontario not far from the city of Ottawa. The children, twins Hannah and William Henry, Sarah, James and William John (William Henry died in infancy) soon followed.  But where had William been up until his marriage? He did not appear on the 1871 Ontario census 3 years prior to his nuptials.

Over the better part of a decade, I searched every online genealogy database I could find that contained English records. Even with such commonplace names as William, Mary and James Harris, one particular family kept popping up. They were residents of the town of Buckingham in Buckinghamshire, England. They had a son, William, born in 1826. He appeared with the family on the 1841 census but not on the 1851 census. This absence could mean a lot of things – he died, he moved to another town, he immigrated or this was not the right William Harris at all.

I am a great believer in looking for patterns in the naming of children, as many British families called their children after near relatives. The names of William Harris’ possible siblings in Buckingham included John, Thomas, Hannah, Emily, George, James and Frederick, which encouraged me quite a bit. Maybe I was on the right track.

A very interesting clue surfaced when I discovered a list of Poor Law Immigrants to Canada on and it contained a list of passengers aboard the St. Ann en route from Buckinghamshire, England to Montreal, Canada. On board was an 18 year old stone mason named William Harris.

Was this my aha! moment? Not quite, I tend to be very cautious and not jump to premature conclusions. But it was certainly looking hopeful. Perhaps our wandering William was plying his trade in the far corners of Quebec for 30 years until one day a job took him across the Ottawa River into Ontario and he met a young lady, married her and stayed. That chapter remains to be written. Those missing three decades are still missing.

Two years ago, I gave my husband an unusual Valentine’s Day gift, or perhaps it was really a gift for me. I bought a Y DNA testing kit! Once compared with the other users on , his test results yielded 2 close matches, both with Buckinghamshire, England roots reaching back into the 1500s. I can tell you it was very satisfying to finally learn that all the clues, hunches and hints really were pointing in the right direction.

Keep digging, gather your clues and formulate a theory. Also remember the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective said. ‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’ – Sherlock Holmes


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1 Response

  1. Mary Harris says:

    Update! A third very close DNA match has popped up. All roads lead back to Oxfordshire, England (prior to the Buckingham years) and as early as the 1500s there. Very encouraging.

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