Part Three: Tearing Down Brick Walls – Spence Family Mystery

Finally a Breakthrough?

My Spence line has been a challenge.  Going into my research on this line I had very little knowledge about this branch of my family.  My Grandmother, my connection to this line is still alive and her mind is intact even at 89 years old, but sadly there just isn’t a lot of family knowledge about her father’s family.  Although my Grandmother reports that her own mother was very interested in genealogy and loved history the passion was not passed down to her only daughter so much information was lost to time.

I have spent hundreds of hours scouring records trying to find the pieces that fit the puzzle I had been given.  Most of my sessions have ended in frustration and more questions than answers.  Finally I think I have had a possible breakthrough in my hunt.

The basic facts I started with were sparse.  I pulled the few details I could out of each record and tried to put together a picture of the events.

Evaluating Evidence

My first basic facts started at the cemetery.  I know where my Great-Great Grandfather is buried without a doubt.  He is buried in a small rural cemetery on land that according to my Grandmother was donated by him prior to his death.  He has a marked grave with his name, birth and death dates all clearly legible[1].  Starting with this information I tracked down every census and vital record I could locate and conclusively determine was the correct James Spence and began extracting further clues.

James was married at least twice although records for only one marriage have currently been located.  He was head of a household with Emily Spence in 1880 census in Ottawa County, Ohio[2].  His oldest two children (Emma and William) report Emma Jane Davis as their mother through life on legal documents.  His second marriage was to Anna Dorman, who his youngest four children report as their mother on legal documents.  Of note, Harry Spence, 3rd child of James Spence was born prior to the marriage of James and Anna so is likely the child of Emma.

I have currently only located two documents recording the possible identity of James’s parents.  One is his marriage record to Anna[3].  He records parents James Spence and Jane Davidsen.  There are no parents recorded for Anna.  The other document is the death record of James Spence[4], his daughter Emma is the informant and she provides a name of John Spence and no mother’s name.  In reconciling these contradictory documents I have given more evidence to the parents recorded by James himself as opposed to secondhand information provided by Emma about an event that happen before her birth and involved people she did not apparently know.

Summarizing the Clues

James Spence is buried in the North Brinton Cemetery in Isabella County, Michigan.  His grave is marked and his headstone is legible, he died in 1940.  His date of birth was 1853 and he was born in Canada.  His parents were James Spence and Jane Davidsen, both of Irish birth.  He was married at least once and had children with two women, Emma Jane Davis and Anna Dorman.  He had six known children, 3 with Emma Davis named Emma Jane Spence, William J Spence, and Harry Spence;  with Anna Dorman he had Mary Ann Spence, Margaret Ellen Spence, and Thomas Spence.

James and Jane Spence of Simcoe County, Ontario

After countless hours of fruitless searches I finally had what I think is a huge breakthrough in research.  At least it is currently the strongest lead found and I haven’t yet located information to rule it out.  Starting on the 1851 Canadian census[5] I locate a couple of Irish birth named James and Jane Spence living in Simcoe County, Ontario.  By the time of the 1861 Canadian census[6] this James and Jane Spence also record a son named James born in 1854.  The 1871 census[7] shows the family again, with James still in the home.  The 1881 census[8] shows an elderly James and Jane Spence still in the same place, son James is no longer noted in the area.  This would correspond with my ancestor being located in Ohio in 1880.  Currently, my assumption is that this James Spence is my ancestor.

Looking Closer…

The demographics of this Spence family match up with my James Spence but there are smaller clues that also help point to this being a successful match.  James and Jane Spence had several children, one of which was named Thomas Spence.  Thomas Spence later went on to settle in the United States…in Michigan, the same place where James later settled when he came to the United States, although they settled hundreds of miles apart in different parts of the state.  Another detail of note regarding Thomas Spence is that my James Spence named one of his sons Thomas.

Only DNA Can Tell For Sure

Are James and Jane Spence my Great-Great-Great Grandparents?  Currently my guess is yes.  I am going to continue researching this family and hope that at some point I can conclusively declare that yes these are indeed my ancestors or no they are definitely not my ancestors.  At this point it may take DNA testing of living members of the family to give the evidence needed to successfully answer this question.

 

 

[1] http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=15977253&ref=acom

[2] Year: 1880; Census Place: Danbury, Ottawa, Ohio; Roll: 1056; Family History Film: 1255056; Page: 441C; Enumeration District: 069; Image: 0382 Ancestry.com

[3] Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867-1952 Ancestry.com

[4] Michigan, Death Records, 1867-1950 Ancestry.com

[5] Year: 1851; Census Place: York, York County, Canada West (Ontario); Schedule: A; Roll: C_11760; Page: 121; Line: 23 Ancestry.com

[6] Library and Archives Canada; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Census Returns For 1861; Roll: C-1072 Ancestry.com

[7] Year: 1871; Census Place: Gwillimbury West, Simcoe South, Ontario; Roll: C-9960; Page: 39; Family No: 141 Ancestry.com

[8] Year: 1881; Census Place: Gwillimbury West, Simcoe South, Ontario; Roll: C_13250; Page: 72; Family No: 336 Ancestry.com

Part Two: Tearing Down Brick Walls – Spence Family Mystery

Looking Closer

As part of discovering my Spence family roots I dug deeper into the events of the world at the time trying to determine what records might exist to help me on my search.

According to the records I have found my Spence forebears were in Ireland until sometime before 1853 when they migrated to Canada.  Spence is an ancient Scottish name so it is probably safe to assume my forebears were Protestant Scots living in the Antrim area.

Ireland in the 1840’s

During the 1840’s my Spence ancestors had no doubt began to seek out a better life elsewhere.  Historic hostilities between the Catholic and Protestant populations were never ending and starting in 1845 a famine began to sweep the country.  Faced with mass starvation and continued violence they joined a flood of people fleeing Ireland.  During the period known as the Great Hunger (1845-1852) an estimated 1 million people died due to starvation and disease while another 1 million fled the country.[1]

The Coffin Ships

Faced with the mass death in Ireland I’m sure my ancestors thought the hardest part of their journey was over once they boarded the ship for a new land.  It couldn’t be further from the truth.  Ship owners were driven by profit not humanity.  The vessels carrying the Irish across the Atlantic earned the name of coffin ships.

Unchecked travel between parts of the British Empire prior to 1847 led to massive emigration from Ireland into Canada.  In 1847, the last year before tighter regulations shifted the tide of Irish emigrants to the United States, an estimated 100,000 sailed for Canada.  38,000 Irish flooded into the city of Toronto, a city with a population of only 20,000.

The sheer number of available desperate passengers allowed ship captains to load their cargo holds to overcrowding.  Unscrupulous captains frequently under rationed their ships leading to starvation and disease spreading in the horrible conditions.  It is thought as many as 20% died while crossing the Atlantic.  Narratives of the time describe schools of sharks trailing the ships waiting for the bodies of the deceased to be thrown overboard[2].

Ship Fever

Things did not necessarily improve from there for those early Spence ancestors.  Passengers arriving from Ireland could expect to be quarantined at Grosse Isle, Quebec.  Sick passengers would remain there till death or improvement.  Healthy appearing passengers would be allowed to pass on with just a quick glance.  Typhoid fever was rampant in the horrible conditions on the ships and quickly spread to epidemic proportions in 1847 in Canada[3].  Poorly supplied and overcrowded communities struggled to fight the medical crisis.

As many as 20,000 died during the typhoid epidemic of 1847.  Mass graves holding victims exist in Grosse Isle, Toronto, New Bruswick, Bytown, and Kingston.  Many of the dead were never identified and remain recorded in the few records that exist as “unknown”.

A New World

Few passenger manifests were kept of the passengers during this period entering Canada from Ireland.  There are many Spence families in Canada by 1851.  Without a doubt somewhere in that mass of names lurk my elusive Spence relatives.  I suspect the Canadian census of 1851, 1861, and 1871 hold possibly the only chance of providing documentation of this hearty generation who overcame amazing obstacles to get to America.  I will have to examine the families in closer detail to determine which Spence may be connected.

 

Continued in Part Three: Tearing Down Brick Walls – A Spence Family Mystery

 

Sources:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffin_ship

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1847_North_American_typhus_epidemic

Part One: Tearing Down Brick Walls – Spence Family Mystery

 

Part One:  Tearing Down Brick Walls

Genealogy is like doing a puzzle after a two year old has played in the box.  The pieces are all there but it’s no small chore trying to find them.

Brick walls, or dead ends, are a part of any family tree.  I think of them as that stray puzzle piece the two year old swallowed. It’s not gone but it will take serious digging to find it and it is not going to be fun.

I have encountered many brick walls doing my own genealogy.  One that I still haven’t cracked is my maternal Grandmother’s father’s line.  My Great Grandfather’s name was William J Spence.

 

IMG_0025crop
William J Spence

 

 

William J Spence was born in Ohio in 1880.  His parents were James Spence and Emma Jane Davis.[1]

 

 

The household of a James and Emily Spence is located on 1880 census in Ottawa County, Ohio, with no children. This seems like a likely match.  Presently this might be the only source document recording Emma with her present during recording.[2]

 

 

 

 

Emma disappears after 1880 except mention in marriage and death records of her children

Notes and Tasks on Emma Davis:

  • Is Davis a maiden name or was it a later married name?
  • Look in Ohio and Canada for marriage record for Spence and Davis abt 1880
  • Look for Davis birth record in Ohio and Canada
  • Look for Davis families that could possibly be Emma’s family near the James and Emma on the 1880 census
  • Harry is a strong possibility for her father’s given name. Second son of James and Emma was named Harry

 

SPENCE Travels

 

North Atlantic PS map.jpg
The Spence Family Migration from Approx 1830 to 1900

 

  • According to records currently located James Spence was born in Canada to Irish born parents.
  • It’s possible his father was named John, James, or William.
  • His mother may have been named Jane Davidsen.
  • His parents likely married in Ireland or Canada prior to 1853.
  • Sometime prior to 1854 the James parents traveled from Ireland to Canada where James was born.
  • James migrated to US; first to Ohio where older children with Emma Jane Davis were born around 1880
  • James then migrated to Michigan married his second wife, Anna and lived out his life.

Looking at all these clues together I need to find an Irish household living in Canada at the time of the 1871 census.  There are at least 105 Spence living in Canada in 1871

Of those records only 1 at a first glance seems like a remote possibility.  The demographics of the family aren’t a perfect match but they are close enough to warrant a deeper look.  If nothing else I need to rule this family out.

1871canadacensuskingstonontariowilliamspence
William and Ann Spence with son James in Kingston, Ontario 1871

http://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?db=1871canada&indiv=try&h=83790

James Spence in Kingston, Ontario

This household lives in Cataraqui Ward, Kingston, Ontario.  They claim Ontario birth but Irish origin and religion is listed as Church of England.[3]

  • The head of household is William born in 1832. William is definitely a family name so we can count this as positive evidence.  The age would be of the proper range to be James’ father so that is another positive.
  • The lady of the house is listed as Ann. That does not match up with our one piece of secondary evidence stating James mother was Jane however that in and of itself is not a rule out.  The name could have been Jane Ann or Ann Jane or it could be a second spouse.  Her age demographics do not rule her out or add supporting evidence.  Her origin is listed as French which is a contradiction; however James named one of his daughters Mary Ann which could be supporting evidence.
  • Oldest son James is definitely a strong likely match for our ancestor. He was born in Canada in 1854 of Irish origin.
  • Other names in the household are Margaret, Nancy, and Ellen. Our ancestor James named one of his daughters Margaret Ellen.  This could be possible supporting evidence.

There is nothing in these details that necessarily rules them out as a match, we do have a few weak clues to support the possibility it’s the correct family.

 

Continued Soon –  Part Two: A Closer Look at William and Ann Spence of Kingston, Ontario

Looking closer at the records on William and Ann Spence and family to determine if they are possibly the parents of Grandpa James Spence

[1] Ancestry.com. Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Michigan, Marriage Records, 1867–1952. Michigan Department of Community Health, Division for Vital Records and Health Statistics.

[2] Year: 1880; Census Place: Danbury, Ottawa, Ohio; Roll: 1056; Family History Film: 1255056; Page: 441C; Enumeration District: 069; Image: 0382

[3] Year: 1871; Census Place: Cataraqui Ward, Kingston, Ontario; Roll: C-10000; Page: 93; Family No: 396 Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1871 Census of Canada [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2009