Writing Family History Through Poetry: Lauren Carter and “Following Sea”
Have you been struggling to write your family history in a way that is meaningful? Have you considered poetry as a vehicle to share deeply-felt experiences connecting you to your ancestors? All kinds of historical writing fascinates me and today I’m thrilled to introduce a collection of poetry titled Following Sea by author, Lauren Carter.
Reading through the poems I was touched repeatedly by the insight so few words could induce. Lauren evokes images of days past and finds strength in her own trials through learning about and imagining those of her ancestors.
For example, how often do we trace our ancestor’s migrations without considering all that goes into leaving an established home and heading into the wilderness. I was particularly moved by a poem from the section of Following Sea titled “Migration.”
Clearing the Land (1856)
Fire burns a warp
Scrub softened to dust
to make fields
between the weft
Each day, a new
scratch, pink gash
etched on forearm, face, scribbled
like language, the symbols
with which to knit a sock.
They are trying to unweave
this woodland, spin it
into something new:
what she remembers
of the land
back home: embroidered
rows, an arithmetic
of orchard trees.
I wanted to know more about this book of poetry and Lauren’s experiences in researching her family. Here are her responses to my questions.
Tell me about yourself.
I’m a widely published, award-winning writer. “Following Sea,” which details my great-great-grandparent’s movements into the wilds of northern Ontario in the mid-1800s, is my third book and my second collection of poetry.
I’m also a fiction writer, and my second novel (set in historic 1994!) is coming out in September 2019.
I live just outside Winnipeg, Manitoba, near the historic St. Andrews Rectory and Anglican Church (built in the mid-1800s) on the Red River, but I grew up in Blind River, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Huron, across the water from Manitoulin Island.
How did you get started in family history? Do you remember an initial “spark” or incident that inspired you? Did you have any experiences as a child/teen in school or at home that helped you be more inclined toward family history?
My family have always been ‘story-tellers’, in particular my late Uncle Clive ‘Scott’ Chisholm who used to live in Utah, and wrote a book about his experience walking the 1,300-mile Mormon trail in the 1980s.
When I was a child, he would spin stories about seeing ghost ships while visiting Manitoulin Island and other tall tales and both he and my mother transferred their love of the Island as a magical place on to me.
When he died, he was working on researching Island family roots for his own writing projects and I think, in my own way, I took this endeavor over and started hunting through the archives to trace our family.
I wanted to understand where they had come from before they entered the thick, Canadian wilderness to ultimately settle on Manitoulin Island, where my great-great-grandfather was the first lighthouse keeper.
What personality traits, hobbies, or professional pursuits have helped you in your genealogy research?
It helps to be a writer when doing genealogy because it enriches my imagining of everyone’s life as a story. I’m fascinated by finding out when people lived and then digging deeper to understand the day-to-day conditions of their survival.
It helps to be obsessive, dogged, and have a hunger to find that missing record or figure out creative ways to locate the information you need (like scrolling through voter’s lists or tracing census records to find siblings) and to enjoy graveyard tromping (which I love!)
Why do you do genealogy? Why do you think it’s important?
I think we can find so much meaning in knowing where we came from, and I find it fascinating how the journeys, circumstances and psychological impacts in our past continue to echo down through the generations.
It also helps, I think, to teach us how our communities and our countries have been built and to understand that nothing comes easily and that we’ve been working hard for a lot longer than we’ve been living the relatively easy life (for many) of our modern age.
What is the most rewarding part of researching your family’s history?
The most rewarding part has actually been to develop a deeper understanding of the hardships that family members (mine, as well as everyone else’s!) have gone through. I find that I feel great empathy for these people who are no longer with us and deserve to be remembered.
I’ve discovered that my Scottish ancestors actually came across as indentured servants, on a ship that was so crowded that several children died and the captain was going to be arrested upon arrival but fled (this, from a newspaper article passed to me by a distant relative).
I’ve also loved putting my feet in the places where my ancestors walked, including the glenn in Scotland that was occupied by Chisholm’s prior to the Highland Clearances. It is very moving to locate oneself within the web of history, including in geographical locations.
What has been the most difficult part of your genealogical journey?
My research for my book “Following Sea” delved largely into my great-great-grandparents history in the mid-1800s as they moved from the Niagara Region in Southern Ontario to Manitoulin Island, in Lake Huron.
At the time, this territory was largely unoccupied by settlers and un-ceded by the Indigenous occupants; my ancestors were pushing into thick bush and building some of the first shanties.
What this meant was that my family benefited directly from the process of obtaining land, sometimes through coercion and ill-written (and usually disrespected) treaties, from people who’d lived on it for thousands of years. The process of “negotiating” the settlement of Manitoulin Island was particularly contentious and questionable, and half of the Island has never ceded its territory to European settlers!
Coming to terms with this and putting my relationship with the place in an honest perspective was challenging and required me to deeply understand the privileges that my family has gained through other’s losses.
What are your research interests?
For the past several years, I’ve been interested in the history of early Scottish settlers to Canada, and the journey of these settlers throughout Ontario, and onto Manitoulin Island, for the sake of “Following Sea.”
Part of this has been becoming very aware and interested in the interrelationship between Indigenous people and the early setters.
I’m also, these days, starting to trace my Eastman family lineage which might extend back to the Puritan arrivals. I’m also fascinated by Irish immigration to Canada during the potato family (which is represented by my husband).
How do you preserve your family history?
I use Ancestry a lot to keep track of documents and files and also download them onto my computer. I also keep a notebook and preserve these facts and stories in the form of poetry and other writing.
What is your favorite way to share genealogy and family history with others?
It’s been a thrill to write “Following Sea” and to share these family stories with my immediate family as well as my uncle’s children and grandchildren, who have all grown up as Americans. I find great value in preserving these stories for them so that they, too, will know where they came from and understand their Canadian roots.
If you had all the time in the world to spend on family history, what would you do?
I’d travel! My husband and I went to Scotland to explore my Chisholm genealogy and it was an incredible trip. As I’ve said, we hiked through Glenn Afric, where the Chisholm’s once lived and which is now empty of any villages or structures, except for old stone foundations and bothies (hiking shelters).
We tromped through graveyards in Inverness, as well as a magical burial ground dedicated to the family name in the woods near the wee village of Struy.
It was such a profound experience, and I’d love to do more traveling to locate both my and my loved one’s roots.
What’s the best discovery you’ve made about your family?
I had an eerie experience while roots-hunting on Manitoulin Island.
A stranger invited us for a glass of wine at her cottage after our dogs met on the beach.
The cottage was located on a high ridge overlooking the lake and a now empty town site at the mouth of a river where my family had once lived. As soon as we arrived at her place I had this weird feeling like something profound was happening.
Later that day, we went to check the old land records at the county office. It turned out that the woman’s cottage was on the exact lot, up on the ridge overlooking the lake, where my great-great grandfather’s lighthouse had stood.
My mouth literally feel open. Something profound, for sure!
Thanks, Lauren for sharing your poetry and experiences!