Sunday, 8 February 2015

A Big Fat Bucket of What If?

What if our ancestor was a traitor to the crown? What if he turned to the American side during the
War of 1812? What does it matter? It may make all the difference to years of research into an elusive character who single handedly stops everyone looking for the McCombs' family roots. 

My mom started researching our family history over 25 years ago as a hobby. Opening box upon box of old photos and letters she began putting the pieces together of our family history. We joined in and had a great time with it all. She eventually traced out lineage to France in the fifteen hundreds on one side, and back to 1765 New England on another. Eventually mom received her United Empire Loyalist certificate through her research, a designation you may receive if you have UEL ancestors, or  in English, those who left the colonies during the American Revolution to stay loyal to the crown.

John McCombs, my Fourth Great Uncle,
son of Timothy McCombs
Many of my ancestors on both families fought in the Revolution and in the war of 1812. The UEL members left the areas of New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania and came to Canada as refugees, most earning claims of land from the crown. These claims centred around the Niagara Peninsula. The Depew family, who were traced to France, were granted land at Stipes Inlet in what is now present day Hamilton. My ancestral land is currently home to a massive steel mill on the coast of Lake Ontario. I'd love to find documentation proving that so I can kick them out! The steel mill even moved the family graveyard when they took over the inlet, all burials of the Depew family moved to the Hamilton Cemetery. 

One Depew ancestor, Capt. John Depew, was a member of the Indian Department and fought with the infamous Butler's Rangers in the Niagara area, alongside other family members. The Rangers were famous for cross border raids fighting indian style, raiding American units deep inside US territory.

The McCombs' line equally moved here to settle. Land claims in Thorald and Pelham indicate they were here prior to the War of 1812. When war broke out again, they joined up. Michael, my fourth great-grandfather, and his brother John, joined the Lincoln Militia and fought against the invading Americans. There is even a rumour floating around that they helped carry the mortally wounded General Sir Isaac Brock off the battlefield after the battle of Queenston Heights. After the war the brothers were granted land by the crown in honour of their service. Thousands of other men also won this honour, which is how most of the area of the Peninsula was settled. Many of the families who started farms, mills and other businesses in the area were veterans. Today, their descendants still own large swaths of land granted to soldiers. Names like Ryerson, Ball, Johnson, Dennis, Lutz, Decew, Secord, Lundy and more. Names that still resonate in the area. 

The brothers McCombs father, Timothy, is the problem. Everything stops with him. He was born in 1876 in The US, residing in Bennington Vermont in 1792 with his wife Sarah (or Sally). He bore many children, most notably John, 1792-1865, Michael, 1802-1887 (my ancestor), and Hiram, 1813-1876. There were more, but these are confirmed. Michael was born in Elizethtown, Upper Canada, present day Brockville. So they moved from the states to Canada sometime between 1795 and 1802. From there they moved to the Niagara region prior to the war. Muster rolls from 1812 indicated that Timothy could not join because he was 47 years old and "infirm". From that we can deduce his birth year. He appears on the 1804 Elizethtown census with Sally, John, Samuel, Sylvester, Michael, Sarah, Stephen, and Cornelius. On the 1807 census, Sally, Sam, other Sally, Sarah, Stephen and Cornelius are missing. So we presume that he lost his wife by then, and a number of his children moved away.

That's all we have on Timothy and Sally. And it's been driving us nuts for years. There are many McCombs' family lines in the US and several here. Their genealogies are well documented and many have speculated over time that there is a common thread between the family lines. The problem is nobody has ever been able to link the families together. There are McCombs in dozens of US states, all the way to California. There are also many stories of heroic deeds and major accomplishments. McCombs in varying spellings (MaComb, McComb, McCoombs, MacComb, and other soundex variants) have been generals, politicians, doctors, and much more. We've had clergymen, landowners, spies, and the lot. 

Was Timothy a spy? It may be so. There is speculation about Timothy's activities and loyalties during the War of 1812. Based on a document called "The Bloody Insizes", Timothy is rumoured to have been an American spy and in 1813 crossed to the US side. He became a traitor in the eyes of the crown and a bounty placed on his head. This is where it gets fun, he may also have changed his name.  No wonder we can't find him! Logically a name change would not have been out of the question. Names at that time were changing all the time anyway for a few reasons. First off, people changed their names to fit in better with a certain social hierarchy, so Timothy is rumoured to have changed his name to better suit a "Scots-Irish" connection, actually adding the "Mc" to his name "Combs". If that's the case, then we've been looking for the wrong name all along. What if he was born Timothy Combs in 1765? Secondly, names were screwed up on census records because people were often illiterate and couldn't spell even their own names. Often times land grants were signed with a person's "mark", not name. Census takers of the time wrote down names based on what they heard, not read. Therefore names changed all the time. 

This makes research annoying as hell. 

So what if he changed his name? What if he was a spy? What if we've been barking up the wrong tree for years? We put down the research a few years ago because the sources had dried up and other professional researchers were at the same stumbling block. Everything just hit a wall. To this day not one researcher has connected the families together, but there is a common thread, a man named "BL_K MCCOMBS", Part of his name is illegible. (A Genealogical Register of the McComb Family in America, PHK McComb, Indianapolis, 1913) is said to be the progenitor of the family in America and Canada, immigrating to New York from Antrim Ireland prior to 1732. But that's just one theory. he many not have been the first. Whoever was the first spread the seeds across North America and finally down to our little part of heaven, Windsor.

So we're rekindling our curiosity. At least I am. I have dozens of research documents on the family collected from dozens of sources, as the history nut that I am I have no problem whiling away my days pouring through old notes, letters, land grants, probate records and bible pages. Maybe we'll crack the code? Maybe we'll drive ourselves insane? Who knows, but on we go, chasing ghosts of the past to find out who we really are.


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