Chipping away at the wall: Jane Morrison – another elusive ancestor

The overgrown lawn can't compete with a day spent looking for ancestors. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

The lawn — no matter how overgrown and in need of mowing — can’t compete with a day spent looking for ancestors. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

The dry spell finally broke and yesterday was wet and very windy. A perfect day to stay inside (sorry lawn-mower, our date is off) and work on the enormous pile of family history puzzles, brick walls and apparent dead ends.

Jane Morrison, a 3x great grandmother, has been in my “more questions than answers” pile for too long, so seemed a good candidate for a bit more research.

Jane Morrison belongs to my Cruden family. Alexander Cruden, my mother’s maternal grandfather, was Jane’s grandson – the eldest son of her daughter Isabella Wallace.

I began my family history project by looking into the Cruden line, largely because my mother was very close to her granddad, and I really enjoy being able to share my findings with her. Writing about the family has also introduced me to new cousins on this side, and to reconnect with others I’ve been out of touch with for many years.

Jane is a fascinating character; twice married, twice widowed. Mother of eleven children – two of whom died in early childhood. Born in Scotland, she emigrated to the United States in her sixties and died in Detroit. Her name has been carried down the generations in granddaughters and great granddaughters on both sides of the Atlantic.

I know a lot about her life from 1861 – the year she married my 3x grandfather, Donald Wallace, through to 1901 – the last Scottish census in which she appears. I also have some records relating to her emigration to the United States, and recently found her death record. But Jane’s early life has consistently eluded me. And that’s the puzzle I set myself for the day.

Death record for Jane Morrison, 1914.

Death record for Jane Morrison, 1914.

Jane Morrison’s 1861 marriage record shows her age as 22, and her parent’s as Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips (both deceased).

As birth dates in old records are frequently unreliable (because people deliberately gave a different age, genuinely didn’t know, or through clerical errors), I cross-checked against census returns and the record of her second marriage, in 1875, to John Balsillie.

At her second marriage, Jane gave her age as 30 – about six years younger than she would have been if the first marriage record was accurate.

Given that Jane was a widow with four young children at the time of her second marriage, it wouldn’t be surprising if she shaved a few years off her age. Her first husband had been a farm labourer, and when he died in January 1872, Jane and the children lost not only a husband and father, but the tied cottage that was their home as well. Jane moved the family to Dundee (where census records show she had been born) sometime soon afterwards. I know the family was living in Dundee by February 1873 because Jane’s son James Wallace died then, and his death is recorded as occurring in Dundee.

Subsequent records, including her death certificate in 1914, show fairly consistent “ageing” from what was recorded on her second marriage.

Although in 19th century Scotland, the minimum age for marriage for girls was 12, it seems to have been quite uncommon for very young women of the working class and rural poor to marry until their twenties; usually after a period in which they had been “in service.”

What all of this means really, is that Jane Balsillie was probably born sometime between 1836 and 1846.

In the past, I’ve searched without success in both FamilySearch and Scotland’s People for births of people named Jane Morrison. I’d tried broadening the time-span, searching the whole county of which Dundee is part, allowing broad variation in her surname (and searched on her mother’s maiden name). I even broadened the search to include all of Scotland, and strange as it may seem, I could not find a birth record for any child born in the right time period to Peter Morrison and Betsy/Elizabeth Philips/Morrison – let alone one called Jane. I tried removing the parents’ first names from the search and still had no real success.

Ridiculously, I had never before checked the records of Catholic churches in Scotland. My family seems to have been staunch Presbyterians for so long that it simply hadn’t occurred to me that I might have Catholic ancestors (yes, the noise you hear is my palm slapping my forehead).

You know where this is heading, right?

I found a record in the Catholic Parish Registers for a child called Jane Morrison, born in 1842 to Michael Morrison and Elizabeth Philips. Jane appears to be the second child of this couple. They had a daughter, Catherine, born in Dundee in 1838, while in 1844 a third child, Patrick, was born, but this time in Perth.

As this is the closest I have so far come to finding any likely candidates for Jane’s family, I decided to investigate a bit further.

The 1841 census shows Michael, Elizabeth and Catharine Morrison living at Milnes East Wynd, Dundee, alongside 11 other people. I found this record on Scotland’s People, but also looked it up on the wonderful site FreeCen. While Scotland’s People provides original records, FreeCen is transcribed data – which is particularly useful when the handwriting on original documents is difficult to read. With FreeCen, it’s also possible to easily look at the records for adjacent properties. This gives both a flavour of the area and can often reveal extended families living close together. And of course, best of all, FreeCen is free.

The property where Michael and Elizabeth were living seems to be adjacent to a jute mill, where Michael – a weaver – almost certainly worked. Jute weaving was one of the principal industries in Dundee during the period, which is why many Irish migrants arrived in the city. Both this record and those of adjacent households show a large proportion of residents born in Ireland – including Michael and Elizabeth.

Morrison family, 1841 census. Screenshot from the wonderful FreeCen site.

Morrison family, 1841 census. Screenshot from the wonderful FreeCen site.

Sadly, here the trail goes cold. I cannot find Michael Morrison, Elizabeth/Betsy Morrison/Philips, Catherine, Jane or Patrick Morrison in the 1951 census. In the 1861 census I can only find Jane, and she was living in a farm household in rural Perthshire, working as a servant. Her soon-to-be husband, Donald Wallace is also listed in that household as a farm servant – so I guess I know how they met!

I have found a death record for a man called Michael Morrison in 1851. The record shows him as a weaver, born in Sligo, Ireland and his place of death is shown as Millars Pend, Scouring Burn – virtually the same address as that shown for the Morrison family in the 1841 census. While these suggest it might be the same Michael Morrison shown in the 1841 census, the age of the dead man is given as 51 – a discrepancy of 10 years, and the burial record is in a Presbyterian OPR – not a Catholic one.

I’ve gone around in circles with this one and I think it is yet another mystery that I’ll have to park until more records come online, or I find someone else who is approaching the problem from a different angle who might have information I don’t.

Frustrating yes; but a lot more fun than mowing the lawn.

Jane Morrison: more information and lots more questions

Photo: Su Leslie 2014

Photo: Su Leslie 2014

I can’t believe it’s almost a month since I did any real family history research, but I guess that is how it goes.

The elusive Jane Morrison has been much on my mind, and conscious that I’d hit a brick wall at the beginning of her life I decided to take another look at the end.

The last record I had for Jane was the 1901 census, which showed her living at 2 Lawrence Street, Dundee with four adult daughters: Bessie aged 26, a jute weaver; Bella, 25, (actual name Helen, not my 2x great grandmother Isabella) a confectioner; Mary, 20, a jute weaver; Henrietta, 18, also a confectioner; and two boarders – Peter Young, 22, a telegrapher; and Andrew Balsillie, 22, a railway worker. Jane’s age was given as 57, and her marital status as ‘widow’.

I haven’t been able to find Jane in the 1911 census, nor have I found a death record in Scotland for her. Because Scottish statutory marriage records usually show parents’ names and whether they were alive at the time of the marriage, I thought I’d look for Jane’s children’s marriages and see if there were any clues there.

The children’s marriages

I was tempted to just look for the younger daughters’ marriages; those I knew were single in 1901. But in an attempt to be more thorough, I decided to work systematically through all of Jane’s off-spring who survived to adulthood – those she bore to my 3x great grandfather Donald Wallace and the five children of her second marriage to John Balsillie.

The first child to marry was Jane and Donald Wallace’s second daughter, Margaret. Margaret Morrison (b. 20 June 1864) married James Campbell Bennett a journeyman engine fitter of Harmony Row, Govan, on 31 December 1883. Margaret was 19 and a yarn winder. Her older sister Ann was a witness to the marriage.

Harmony Row, Govan. Photo: c. Mitchell Library

Harmony Row, Govan. Photo: Mitchell Library. These days Harmony Row is known for the local football club — the place Sir Alex Ferguson got his start!

The second marriage was that of my 2x great grandparents; Isabella Simpson Wallace (b. 2 May 1866) and Stewart Cameron Cruden, on 31 December 1886 at 5 Stewart Street Dundee (the bride’s address). The groom, aged 23 was a Draper’s Collector; Isabella was 20 and a jute weaver.

Next to marry was Ann Morrison (b. 4 September 1862) – Jane and Donald’s eldest child. Her marriage record shows that on 3 January 1888, at the age of 25, she wed Matthew Kelly aged 33, a factory carter of Lawrence Street, Dundee. Ann’s address on the record was Stewart Street, Dundee. The marriage was witnessed by Ann’s younger sister Christina Wallace and someone called George Watson.

On December 28 1893, Christina Wallace (b. 23 December 1871) married James Ramsay at Logie Hall, Scott Street, Dundee. James was aged 30 and a farmyard skinner of 114 Lochie Rd, Dundee. Christina was 22, and an Assistant Housekeeper of 5 Stewart St, Dundee. Christina’s stepsister Helen Balsillie was a witness, as was William Ramsay.

Mary Jane Bett Balsillie (b. 30 October 1877) married Peter K Young, 25 July 1902 at 25 Milnbank Road, Dundee. He was 23 and a lithographer/printer. She was 24 and a jute weaver. The witnesses were Nellie (Helen) Balsillie and David Young. Peter Young was of course, one of the boarders recorded as living in the Balsillie household on the 1901 census.

Henrietta Balsillie (b. 28 April 1882) married William Aird on 9 November 1904 at 25 Milnbank Road, Dundee. Both were 22. William was an electrician and Henrietta a confectioner. Bessie Balsillie was one of the witnesses. Jane Morrison was shown on the marriage record as being alive at the time.

That leaves Betsy Esplin Balsillie (b. 15 April 1874), Helen Walker Balsillie (b. 25 January 1876) and John Balsillie (b. 18 October 1879) for whom I have not found Scottish marriage records.

Henrietta Balsillie in Detroit

A descendent of Henrietta Balsillie and William Aird got in touch recently and sent me his family tree details. This showed that Henrietta and William’s third child, Mina, was born on 29 November 1907 in Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, USA.

Given that I hadn’t found a Scottish death record for Jane Morrison, I had been wondering if she might have left Scotland. My family (particularly the maternal side, which includes the Cruden branch) seems to have quite a history of migration, so I was quite confident that I would pick up Jane’s trail somewhere outside of Scotland. The evidence that at least one of her daughters had immigrated by 1907 led me to look for Jane in the United States.

Travel records

On Ancestry.com, I found a Mrs Jane Balsillie aged 62, travelling to New York as a second class passenger aboard the Columbia in April 1906. With here were three younger women also called Balsillie: Bessie aged 28; Nellie, aged 21; and Jane aged 18. Given that I hadn’t found marriage records for Betsy (Bessie) or Helen (Nellie) Balsillie in Scotland, I assumed that Jane was travelling with her daughters – although Betsy would actually have been 32 and Helen 30. The younger Jane is a mystery though. Aged 18 in 1906 means she would have been born around 1888. I have found no record of Jane Morrison bearing any children after Henrietta in 1882, and no child called Jane Balsillie appears in the 1891 or 1901 census returns.

I am wondering if this person was Mary Jane Bett Balsillie, but as she had married Peter Young in 1902, and would have been aged about 28 in 1906 – perhaps not.

I decided to put that mystery aside and see if I could find other evidence that might suggest I had the correct Jane Morrison – and what happened to her.

I found a second travel record for Jane Balsllie – this time returning alone to the UK in June 1908 aboard the Furnessia. I also found a third record for travel back to the US in April 1909, aboard the Lusitania.

This final record was the New York, Passenger Arrival Lists (Ellis Island) for 23 April, 1909. Jane’s age was given as 65 and her Scottish place of residence as Dundee.

RMS Lusitaia coming into port, possibly New York, 1907. Source: Wikipedia

RMS Lusitania coming into port, possibly New York, 1907. Source: Wikipedia

I’m not sure how confident I can be of these records. In the 1906 passenger manifest, three out of four of the names “fit” although the ages aren’t quite right. The 1908 passenger manifest contains very little information, beyond the name, age and nationality, while in the final record the age and place of residence in Scotland match.

I doubt there is any way of knowing for sure if these records relate to my relatives. However, as Jane Morrison/Balsillie, Helen Balsillie and Betsy Balsillie all disappear from Scottish records after Henrietta’s marriage in 1904, and I need a working hypothesis to move forward; I have chosen to proceed on the basis that the travel records I found are for my relatives and that after 1906, I should look for these women in the United States.

Because I knew Henrietta’s child Mina was born in Detroit, I assumed that Jane and her unmarried daughters followed Henrietta and her husband to the United States. However, travel records for the Airds show that they arrived at Ellis Island in May 1907, a year after Jane’s first entry to the US.

I am much more confident of the Aird travel records because they show Henrietta (a fairly uncommon name), William and two children arriving on the 13 May 1907 aboard the Caledonia. The children’s ages and names (Jeannie M. and William L.R.) match the Aird family tree I’d been given – William Lawrence Robertson Aird was born in 1905 and Jean Morrison Aird in 1906.

Where to next?

I’m not sure whether it is ageist or sexist – or both – to assume that Jane, a sixty-something widow, would have followed younger family members in migrating rather than being the one who led the way. Either way, it seems that my next set of research questions will centre around:

Where in the United States various family members might have settled

What happened in their lives?

What happened to John Balsillie jr?

Who is mysterious younger Jane who travelled to the US in 1906? Is it Mary Jane Bett Balsillie? Was she widowed? Did she leave her husband?

Did any of Jane’s older children from her marriage to Donald Wallace also emigrate? I know that Isabella and her husband Stewart Cruden lived in New Jersey during the 1920s-30s. What about the others?

Watch this space!