The lawn beside the old St. Peter’s Church in Cobourg, Ontario, is so rough it would be easy to turn an ankle. The cause can’t be roots—only a few forlorn pines and maples ring the periphery. Even so, the forces of erosion haven’t worked their magic to create a level lawn.
That’s because the side yard is full of sunken tombstones, buckling the surface. You can see them in spots where the uneven grass rug has been parted to expose flat grave stones with faded inscriptions. When it comes down to it, you’d hardly know this is a graveyard, except for the half dozen, haphazardly placed spiracle monuments, most commemorating deaths earlier than 1860.
My third great grandfather, William Thompson (1806-1849), and his daughter, Sarah, are probably buried here. Maybe Thompson’s daughter Hannah who died in infancy is hidden somewhere as well. Their spirits unfortunately were mum as I walked the graveyard last weekend in a vain attempt to turn up information about my ancestors.
The cause was hopeless to begin with. The Thompson headstones were missing when a “genealogist” sent by Colonel William Boyce Thompson journeyed here in 1923 to Cobourg, about 100 kilometers from Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario, looking for clues to the family’s origins. The Colonel’s secretary, Hazel Plate, did manage to find William Thompson’s burial record for December 2, 1849 in the St. Peter’s Parish Register. But his headstone was missing in action.
Plate learned that in about 1883 interments were made to a new cemetery about a mile north of here, near the city limits. “This cemetery was not under the direction of the church and plots were bought and people interred without any special supervision,” she wrote. Later, the church voted to remove all the tombstones from the cemetery on the church property. They were placed in a shed and at some point, incredibly, used for target practice. Maybe not incredibily—inside the church today hang flags commemorating battles fought by church goers. This must have been a militant congregation.
William Thompson’s gravestone, if it could be found, probably would have been among the smallest. He was poor, according to Plate’s research, which also makes it unlikely the stone was moved to the new cemetery. The cemetery business, to be sure, is pay-to-play. Besides, the family left for Detroit in about 1850, shortly after William died. Only one family member, Sarah, stayed behind and she died shortly thereafter, in 1855. So no family was around when the graves were moved.
It was worth a look in the “new” graveyard anyway. Impressive headstones, done in finely polished granite with inscriptions that stand in sharp relief, dominate the new yard. Transplants from the old yard are harder to find. Sometimes all you can see is a barely legible name on a weather-beaten stone half-buried under the grass. A half hour of meandering produces an inescapable conclusion–the search for a Thompson grave is fruitless.
Which is too bad, because the most important events in William Thompson’s life centered around St. Peters, an Anglican church on the east side of town. That’s where his children were baptized. That’s where his body, carried by “Orange Men,” a fraternal organization of Presbyterians from Northern Ireland and Scotland, was laid to rest. That’s probably where he would have married had the minister not been away the month he and Margaret Maguire decided to tie the knot.
Instead, Thompson and Maguire married on December 29, 1831, in nearby Port Hope. Maguire (1794-1880) was 12 years older than Thompson. She had six children by a previous marriage to John Robinson, who had died at age 34. She had married Robinson, a tailor, in 1815 in Belfast, Ireland against her family’s wishes. At some point the couple emigrated to Canada.
Thompson may have met Maguire through the church. Or he may have learned of her plight through the Orange Lodge, which was the chief social institution in Upper Canada at the time. Or maybe he just knew the family. This much is for sure: Young William didn’t have very many choices for a spouse. Only 350 lived in Cobourg at the time. There were about 40 houses, 2 inns, four stores, several distilleries, and a grist mill.
My trip to Cobourg, now promoted as a tourist town, though it’s a little seedy, wasn’t completely in vain. The name William Thompson shows up on two old census reports kept in the genealogy and local history room of the public library. The 1846 Cobourg Assessment lists him as having one in-town lot. The 1842 Cobourg Census lists him as a millwright with seven “resident inmates.” This is probably the correct William Thompson, because his daughter later told researchers that her father was a millwright.
One grandson, though, remembered him in a more glorious light, as a soldier. That was the legend handed town from William Thompson, Jr., who was born in Cobourg in 1838, to his son J.E. Thompson. “My father’s father was a British Army officer,” J.E. wrote to his son. If that’s true, it may one day reveal how Thompson wound up in Cobourg. Great Britian gave free land grants in Upper Canada to soldiers and sailors up until 1833. On the other hand, genealogists haven’t been able to find any record of land belonging to William Thompson.
Though Cobourg was originally settled by United Empire Loyalists—Americans who took the side of England during the Revolutionary War and sought refuge in Canada–its population grew thanks to an influx of former British soldiers. Many of them fought in the War of 1812, though it’s unlikely that William Thompson was part of this contingent. A family bible lists his birth year as 1806.
William Boyce Thompson’s research team interviewed some elderly Cobourg residents in the 1920s who remembered William Thompson. A Mrs. Williams, for instance, recalled that William Thompson was a “home-loving” man. He was not distinguished in any way, she remembered, but he was highly respected. The family was poor, she recounted, but so was nearly everyone who lived in Cobourg at the time.
The most critical interview, though, was with William Pratt, who recollected that his father, Thomas Pratt, had arrived on the same boat as William Thompson from Cupar in the County of Fife, in Scotland. Pratt related stories told to him as a child about how the pair took a boat that wrecked somewhere along the coast of the Atlantic. It took six weeks to repair the boat before the young Scotts could continue to Quebec. He suspected that the pair arrived in about 1828.
Pratt also pointed out the house on John Street, supposedly a double where the Thompson’s lived when Hannah Thompson (the second) was married. (Plate took a picture of the house, which unfortunately has been lost.) He also thought William Thompson may have died in the house. Plate tried unsuccessfully to look up land records at the Register’s Office that might have provided additional clues.
If Thompson was a millwright, which is pretty likely, then his handiwork might be on display on some of these older homes. A driving tour of historic homes reveals several with ornamental millwork that may have been produced by his shop. The home at 174 Green, for instance, originally erected as a college of theology by an Anglican bishop, Alexander Bethune, features some nice decorative molding along the eaves. Same goes for 272 King East, The Maples, a regency style home owned by William Kerr, who was the mayor of Cobourg.
Ms. Plate pursued the Orange Men lead as well, hoping to find some information about William Thompson, since Mrs. Williams distinctly remembered that the men of the Orange Lodge carried William Thompson’s casket on their shoulders to the cemetery. When she made inquiries at the Lodge, Plate found that the organization’s records archive only went back to 1861. She was told, however, that some earlier Lodge records might in the hands of a Miss McCaughey, the daughter of a early leader.
“Miss McCaughey telephoned that she did not have the records – did not know anything about them,” Miss Plate wrote.
The plot thickened that night, when Plate talked with a Mr. Denton who told him that the records did in fact exist. Denton said that he had talked with McCaughey, who admitted she had lots of books of various kinds, with tax assessments and licenses, but she didn’t want to go through the trouble of going through them. “She would not let anyone else touch them, evidently fearing that they might reveal irregularities in her father’s accounts, according to Denton & Hicks,” Plate wrote.
An Orange Lodge still exists in Cobourg. The current building, built in 1950, could use some repairs.
Plate also tried to get a newspaper account of Thompson’s death notice from the only newspaper published at the time, The Cobourg Star. It turned out that file for 1849 had been stolen. Issues from 1949 are kept in the library today, but a search for Thompson’s death notice turned up nothing. Even if one could be found, it would be unlikely to include any critical details such as his date of birth, place of birth, or the names of his parents.
William Boyce Thompson sent a small battalion of investigators to Scotland in the 1920s looking for that information. They spent 10 days searching records in 50 parishes in and around Edinburgh and Cupar. They found six William Thompson’s born in and around Edinburgh in 1806, but none in Cupar. But without the names of his parents or his exact date of birth, it was impossible to tell whether they had found the right William Thompson.
The search continues….