Landscape of Culture

In Search of Ancestors

June 2019

My name is Patty Way and I am a genealogist specializing in Labrador history. I was born in Cartwright and lived my early years in Rigolet. My family then moved to Happy Valley-Goose Bay. I later attended Yale residential school in North West River where I graduated high school. I attended MUN over the years and am a retired teacher having taught in both primary and secondary schools, mainly in the Lake Melville area, Hopedale, Lab West, and Cartwright. As an educator you are always confronted with new challenges and possibilities, which are some of the many reasons why genealogies captured and has kept my interest.

Reconstructing a genealogy is like working on a never-ending puzzle: it’s a mystery, it is math, it’s problem solving, and my gift was to carry in my memory what I knew and what I did not, so I have always been able to recognize when I come across new information. It is exciting to put together something that is no longer remembered; or to find and assemble facts not known before!

My interest in family trees started when I was young and curious about my own family. Being from Labrador meant being very proud of our ancestors. They were always placed on pedestals because Labrador would have been a difficult place to live and survive without strength and ingenuity. I especially loved that many of Labrador’s male European ancestors could not have survived without the strengths, knowledge and skills supplied by their Inuit wives. My grandmother‘s deep love and pride in her family stirred my own pride, curiosity, and desire to find our family’s history.

What has kept my interest is gathering the shared story of Labrador’s people. There was always a sense of urgency to get it written down. At some point, 40 or 50 years ago, I somehow knew it needed to be recorded because things were changing. Back in time in Labrador, there was a strong oral history that was part of everyday life. Every night after dinner, families would sit around a table and the fire, or talk in the semi-dark of the glow of the kudlik. They would share family traditions, interesting past events, talk of heroes and great hunters; and these stories and knowledge were built into everyday life. Many people kept that oral history alive. Television and access to the greater world changed this sharing of stories, and in turn the ability to keep the ancestors alive. I remember thinking that if I do not write these facts from the stories down, and ask questions of the Elders, then we would lose this collective history. Them Days magazine grew out of that same kind of thinking by others. It also did not sit well with me that the Labrador history was spread across multiple institutions, and individual holdings, and almost always outside of Labrador. Being from Labrador, I knew we did not have a completed history, and it was not right.

I feel pressure to finish in my lifetime. It was a bit of a surprise that after 50 years I am not completely finished tracking my own family history or the larger Labrador story. I imagined that I would finish it, but about 10 years ago I had the realization that I might not live long enough. It is hard work, long hours of searching, and ultimately a cumulative process that takes time. Sometimes you run out of facts, you are up against a wall, and it could be years before you get a new fact to track down, and a new thread to follow, so the work never really finishes. I look at some of my family trees today and say “Wow! That is something!” because it took so much time to put together, from so many sources: bibles, interviews with Elders, archives, books, church records, and travel, often outside of Labrador. Over the years, I have created my own archive, albeit messy and largely organized only in my mind, filled with boxes of notes and scraps of information.

I do have a particular style of constructing genealogies. I am interested in how narrators tell their stories with anecdotal evidence giving family connections. Although I have always been much more interested in the connections between people: who was born when, where, who married who, how many children they had, where those children went, etc. I have never found any major errors in the histories I have traced, although there were omissions. More often, every time I found new information, it would fit well with the rest of the information I had. I have always corrected and adjusted my trees when a new proven fact came to light over time. Multiple people in the same family with the same name can be interesting: there were 14 Michael Dysons in that tree! Even a small error can change how the tree comes together, and you need to reconfigure, re-evaluate, and sometimes redraw all the connections because of it.

The most gratifying part of this work for me is seeing excitement in someone’s eyes because they learned something new about their family, about themselves, about their story, and they cannot wait to find out more. Their interest and the resulting skills helps build history one family at a time. Doris Saunders, the original editor of Them Days, was a history buff and my cousin. Before Them Days was established, we would discuss our shared history and excitement about the love of the past. I was always able to use the archives and talk about the latest piece of the puzzle uncovered. Fortunately for me, that feeling is shared today by current editor, Aimee Chaulk. I still tend to bring new and interesting discoveries to Them Days because it is the best venue to share Labrador history in written form with people who are interested – so it's like oral history all those years ago around the table, but in a new format.

My recent work has been with the Tradition & Transition Research Partnership. Hans Rollmann has been a co-investigator, and I am very grateful to have benefitted from his German translations. Andrea Procter has been teacher, sharing researcher, and friend. They both recognize a great find. As long as our Labrador story is being unveiled and unravelled, then it is good. It matters not by whom. My work has taken two major focuses: I have pursued in detail “In Search of the Southlanders” referring to families of Nunatsiavut that were less frequently recorded by early Moravians. These included mainly Inuit and Kablunangajuit living South of Hopedale. This work has been slow going, but I have seen growth in the knowledge bank. The other focus was in response to the commemoration of the 100 year anniversary of the Spanish Flu which resulted in the closing of Okak. This work has been about the impacts of the flu in 1918 on the Inuit northern population, while learning about Okak and Hebron survivors who have fed into the Nunatsiavut populations of the modern day communities of Nain, Hopedale and Makkovik, in particular.

This project provides the opportunity to work with other scholars and build on earlier research, and to share with the people of Nunatsiavut. It has been a worthy way to build on my life’s work and I especially thank Lisa Rankin for that opportunity. I am interested in continuing with this work and hopefully will have further opportunities to interact with Nunatsiavut communities towards this goal. I appreciate all interactions with the people thus far.

Image credit (sidebar): Norma Mesher Knight
Image credit (above): Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada / Library and Archives Canada, Accession 1974-366 (R216-1622-6-E)