Wondering about my wandererFirst published in Family Tree Magazine, December 2014

Mike Gould tracks an ancestor from rural Somerset and across North America to his final resting place, but makes a surprising discovery en route…

Back in the spring, when I read Gill Shaw’s account in her Twiglets column of her search for Ann Walker (Family Tree April), I was reminded my own “Ann Walker” story. That’s not to say that I’m related to Gill – in fact I’m not even sure I’m related to my Ann!

Chewton Mendip church
Chewton Mendip parish church

In the beginning

My story starts in rural Somerset, in the village of Chewton Mendip. My 2x great-grandfather, John Gould, was raised there, with his younger siblings George, Alfred, Ann, Elizabeth and William. At the age of 14, John would have been shocked to hear that his father, William, had died of a “chill”. William was a stonemason and had been working away from home, in Pontypool, South Wales. William’s widow, Hannah, was evidently made of stern stuff. She took in washing to make ends meet and in 1852, she was paying IN to the poor rate ! The entries are only for threepence halfpenny each, but I was still impressed that she was holding her own, even with a large family to feed.

I thought it would be interesting to find out what happened to each of the children, which turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Alfred seemed to vanish from the scene, but with no apparent death record that I could find. Then I found a passenger list that showed an Alfred Gould emigrating to Canada with his wife Caroline in 1860. Could he be my Alfred? The next step was to look for a marriage, and sure enough, eight weeks earlier, an Alfred Gould had married a Caroline Storer in Birmingham. The location was 100 miles away from where I had last seen my Alfred, so I wasn’t convinced I necessarily had the right man, but at least this Alfred says on the marriage register that his father is William Gould, builder. So press on – find more evidence, I thought.

I paused to berate Alfred for not delaying his emigration until after the 1861 census, which would have cleared the matter up. Some people have no consideration for future generations!

Across the pond

By the time Alfred and Caroline appear in the 1861 census for Ontario, Canada, they have a son, William. But of course the census entry only says that Alfred was born in “England”, so no evidence to link him back to Chewton Mendip.

Some time in the next decade, the family crosses the border into the USA. The various census entries are contradictory as to just when this was. In 1870, they are in Cleveland, Ohio, and the young William has two sisters, Florence and Linda. Their parents’ wanderlust does not yet seem to have been satisfied, as 1880 finds them in Neosho, Kansas. Oliver, Roderick, Clarence and Charles are new additions to the family, so surely they must want to settle down now!

Apparently not, for despite the arrival of another daughter, Cecil (?), by 1900 they have moved again, this time to San Diego, California. You may by now be wondering what Alfred’s occupation was (bank robber?, highwayman?). Well, when he married, he gave his occupation as “groom”, so he would have looked after horses, but in Canada, he is a clerk and in Ohio, a shoemaker. He had a brief try at being a farmer in Kansas, but by the time he shows up in California, he is a shoemaker again.

Little of the above really helps in determining whether this Alfred was indeed my ancestor from Somerset. His age is right and perhaps the best evidence has been the marriage certificate, which shows his father as William Gould, builder. I’ve been to Pontypool, where my 3x great- grandfather died, and seen the stone buildings that were constructed as the coal mining industry expanded in the middle of the 19th century, so it’s perhaps not surprising if a stonemason was described by his son as a builder. Alfred Gould is not a particularly common name, and so when my guy disappears from censuses without leaving a death record, the emigration story that I have described above seems to be consistent with the wandering shoemaker being my relation. Perhaps I would never be sure, but there was a surprise to come!

One door opens…

On 27th November 1911, Alfred Gould died in San Diego, aged 76. I sent off for a copy of the death certificate, more to dot “i”s and cross “t”s than with any expectation of new information. How wrong I was! When the certificate came, I found that it contained a lot more than the UK ones with which I was familiar. Firstly, it didn’t just say that the deceased was 76 when he died, it said that he was 76 years six months and 22 days old! Now I was never that good at mental arithmetic, so I immediately reached for a spreadsheet on my computer and started doing the sums. Several times, actually, as I wasn’t sure I had got it right the first time. But eventually I was sure. If the information on the certificate was to be believed, then this Alfred had been born on 5th May 1835. A scramble now to find out when my Alfred was baptised. The answer – 15th May 1835! Now I was convinced. Perhaps not beyond all reasonable doubt, but at least on the balance of probabilities I felt I had found my man.

My knowledge of statistics is somewhat akin to my mental arithmetic, but I would say that the cumulative effect of the evidence that I had found was sufficient to say that the Alfred Gould who had lost his father when he was only nine years old had grown up to travel West and end his days in California.

Now if you’ve been paying attention, you may be asking “What about the Ann Walker that you mentioned at the start of the article – where does she fit in?”. Well, I said that the death certificate included more information than I would normally expect to find. It also stated that Alfred’s parents were William Gould (good) and Ann Walker (who?). Yes, the certificate includes the deceased’s father’s name and mother’s maiden name. Now my Alfred’s mother’s maiden name was Hannah Clarke. I can forgive a mistake from Hannah to Ann, but where does the Walker name come from ? My Hannah only married once and that was to my stonemason ancestor, William, who also only married once. So now I have to weigh up lots of evidence pointing to me being right against one glaring inconsistency that says I might be wrong.

It’s interesting to ponder that if that certificate had shown a maiden name for Alfred’s mother of Hannah Clarke, I would be absolutely certain that I had found the right guy. As it is, I still believe that I am right, but with far less confidence. But I suppose that’s Family History for you ! If we were always certain of everything, perhaps it would be a less absorbing hobby.