As genealogists, we often are asked to locate information for someone who has a bit of family lore they’d like to confirm. They know a story they heard from a relative, who maybe heard it from another relative as it was passed down through the generations. And, like the proverbial “broken telephone” the story gets “mistold” every time it gets retold.
I’m sure everyone has played the game “broken telephone”, or at least heard of it at some point in their lives. It’s the game where you start with a group of people in a line or circle, whisper to the first person some message and they pass it along to the next person, and that person to the next person after that, and so on, until the message reaches the last person in line. Then, the last person repeats the message out loud to the group. Inevitably, the first person to hear the message repeats what they heard and everyone has a great laugh at the absurd differences between the two messages. Well, genealogical research is very often just like that.
A recent client of mine had a wonderful piece of family lore that he wanted confirmed. His great-aunt, when he was a child (he’s now 50-ish), used to tell the tale of her great-uncle, a very successful adventurer and entrepreneur, whom my client remembered as “Yukon Cameron”. According to what my client remembered from the family story, “Yukon” Cameron traveled west during the Gold Rush, struck the mother lode, and returned to Eastern Ontario a very rich man.
Part of the story was that Cameron’s wife passed away while they were “out west” and before she died she begged her husband to return her body to Eastern Ontario for burial. According to my client, Cameron fulfilled his wife’s dying wish and eventually returned her body to Ontario, traveling down the west coast of North America, and crossing at Panama, then traveling north up the east coast and back to Canada. He traveled with the coffin, and the coffin contained not only the body but a good weight in gold as well.
Once he’d returned to Ontario, Cameron built a huge mansion. This mansion, exact location unknown to my client, was later lost to the Cameron family and was turned into a “boy’s school”. That is pretty much the whole story as my client knew it. Compellingly, my client also remembered watching on TV one Sunday afternoon in the 1990s a program called “Gold Trails and Ghost Towns” and, lo and behold, “Yukon” Cameron was one of the featured prospectors in the show. So my client set me my tasks: Could I discover any additional details about “Yukon” Cameron, confirm the story, and find out where he built his mansion? I promised to find out what I could.
Now, if you’re new to genealogy, there are some very important elements in the story my client related to me that I should point out to you. These elements would guide me in my research. To start with, I would have to make a number of assumptions. But here’s an important tip: Assumptions can be deadly to your research efforts. In research of any kind, you have to be constantly alert and be prepared to abandon your initial assumptions in a heartbeat.
Here are the assumptions that I made based on my client’s telling of the story, and the important story elements (remember, they’re not yet “facts”) that I would start with.
Assumption #1: Cameron’s nickname was “Yukon”; therefore the family must have known that, when he went west, he went to Canada’s Yukon Territory. Yukon Territory-Yukon Cameron; the connection made sense.
Assumption #2: Gold figures prominently in the story. The Gold Rush in question must be the Klondike Gold Rush, since the Klondike Gold Rush happened in the Yukon. It took place in the late 1800s as I remembered.
Assumption #3: If “Yukon” Cameron was my client’s great-aunt’s great-uncle, she might even have met him, so the story might arise from original, first-hand knowledge.
Assumption #4: My client said the mansion was built in Cornwall, Ontario. I assumed he was correct.
Assumption #5: The story of “Yukon” Cameron must have some grain of truth to it for it to be featured on a television show.
Given all these assumptions, it’s amazing that I learned anything about Yukon Cameron at all. But I did. In spite of myself.
End of Part I
Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of The Saga of “Yukon” Cameron, or How to Fix a Broken Telephone!