Genealogical research often turns up more than you really want to know. I got a rude reminder of this truism before the Christmas holidays, when a genealogist working in Cobourg, Ontario discovered that my earliest North American ancestor, William Thompson (1806-1849), assaulted a tailor, didn’t pay the fine, and spent time in the lock-up.
The find raises several important questions, not the least of which is: What’s the deal with my early ancestors and tailors? As previously blogged, William Thompson’s wife, Margaret Maguire (1794-1880), was first married to the tailor John Robinson (1794-1828) in Northern Ireland. She was disowned by her family for marrying beneath her station.
Second, what kind of beef did William Thompson have with Archibald Fraser, a tailor of Cobourg? Did Fraser make him a bad suit? I hate to even ask this question, but did Fraser know Maguire’s first husband? Did he have a problem with Thompson marrying Maguire? Maybe there was some kind of tailor fraternity in Cobourg, even if only 6,000 people lived there. Scary thought. I guess we’ll never know what lies behind the plot twists in this soap opera.
As much as I hate to admit it, the evidence that Thompson assaulted the clothier is pretty irrefutable. Cobourg jail records include two entries of a William Thompson, one in 1846 and another 1847. I found these on a visit to Cobourg two years ago, but chose to ignore them and instead romped through the local graveyard. Both entries were for a William Thompson born in Ireland, though one says he was born in 1806, the other in 1804.
The Ireland birth location may finally answer an open question. Family and historical documents differ over Thompson’s place of birth. A letter from J.E. Thompson says his grandfather was from Scotland. And that’s the response that the patriarch’s children typically gave Census takers who came knocking once they relocated in the United States in later years.
But this kind of information is always more reliable when obtained directly from the person in question, writes Dean Coates of Timelines Research in Cobourg. William Thompson presumably told whoever jailed him that he was from Ireland. The same place of origin was given when a Cobourg Census taker came to the Thompson home in 1842, when it was more likely that William, Margaret, or another close relative opened the door.
Coates found a couple incriminating documents related to William Thompson in the Ontario Archives. “The first is a return of convictions written by the court clerk. It indicated that Magistrate Thomas Eyre convicted William Thompson of assault on 26 June 1846. He was fined 10 shillings, payable immediately. He was required to ‘enter into sureties to keep the peace’.
“The second document is the conviction report for the offense noted above. In this document we note that William Thompson is a carpenter from Cobourg. He has assaulted Archibald Fraser, a tailor of Cobourg. The notice also indicates that William Thompson will be incarcerated in the local jail if he does not pay the fines immediately.
“This corresponds to the jail record found earlier where it is noted that William Thompson is 40 years of age and born in Ireland. The jail record stated that William Thompson was jailed for not paying his fine. From earlier work completed on the available census and assessment records of Cobourg, we only found one William Thompson listed at this time period.”
Researchers sent to Coborg in the 1920s by William Boyce Thompson (1869-1930) found a local who remembered that William Thompson sailed to Canada with a Thomas Pratt of Fife, Scotland. For that reason, some have assumed Thompson was from Scotland. But Coates writes that “it was possible for a person from Ireland to travel to Scotland to board a ship to Canada, or for a ship bound for Canada to pick up passengers in both Scotland and Ireland. William could have met Thomas Pratt on board the ship.”
The other decent lead we have on the patriarch’s place of birth was provided by J.E. Thompson, William Boyce Thompson’s brother, who wrote that their grandfather was a British Army officer. That’s the kind of “fact,” though, that could be stretched through the years through oral history.
“It is possible that William was in the British Army prior to immigrating to Canada,” notes Coates, “It is less likely that he was an officer, which is ensign or higher. Normally commissions such as these are purchased, but there are many exceptions.
“A possible explanation for the uncertain birth location is that William, or William’s father, or both William and his father were in the British Army. It was not uncommon for an Irish person to belong to a Scottish or English regiment. It was also not uncommon for a Scottish or English regiment to be sent to Ireland. Any of these situations could result in confusion about William’s birth location depending on what information he had told his family.
“To continue the search for William Thompson, I would recommend searching for him in the British Army records. It would be prudent to investigate both officers and enlisted men. The British Army records are centered around the regiment a person belonged to. The first task would be to determine the regiment.”
The good news stemming from Coates’ research is the evidence suggests that we now have a country of birth that is more certain. The bad news is that it’s Ireland. Ireland is a challenging place to locate family history in the early 1800’s due to the large number of records lost during conflicts in 1922.
“A name like Thompson would typically be associated with Northern Ireland, where a large number of Scots settled, but there are no guarantees. It is just as likely that William Thompson was first generation Irish, while his father was from Scotland or England. If William’s father was in the military, his regiment could have been stationed anywhere in Ireland.”