The power and limitations of documents

In my recent post about Charlotte Small, I noted how the absence of written records creates intriguing gaps in our narratives of the past. As a counterpoint, there is no doubting the fascination of written documents when we are digging for an understanding of people and places.

My own research went on a bit of side tangent this week, while working on my memoir of place about the boggy west country of central Alberta. I recall my (deceased) father having said that my grandfather had homesteaded at Blue Rapids, an area on the North Saskatchewan River southwest of Drayton Valley, Alberta.

One document: many questions

One document: many questions

So I set out seeking documentation. Among the documents I turned up were my grandfather’s record of entry into Canada. He crossed the border, as an 18 years old, at Kingsgate (Idaho / British Columbia) on October 11, 1911. The Canada Immigration document also lists who was traveling with him – his father and his brother. Interesting. Neither the father (my great-grandfather) or brother stayed in Canada. Did they just come up here to help my grandfather get his homestead set up?

We turn to documents assuming a certain degree of accuracy. Often, though, they raise new questions. My grandfather’s immigration record shows his name as “Daniel” in one place and “Daniels” in another. That’s likely just a clerical slip – most people want to add an “s” to our family name. But of course one wonders – was the name initially Daniels, only to be changed to Daniel by some much earlier clerical error?

In an event, I turned to the Alberta homestead records online and found two homestead claims in my grandfather’s name. None at the Blue Rapids location, as I suspected (it remains Crown land) but one is the location west of Edmonton where my father was born in 1917. Another interesting bit – the homestead registry includes the names of grandad’s fellow travelers – his father and brother.

Did they intend to share the homestead in Alberta, or were they just fulfilling some administrative obligation to help out gramps? Did they stay for a few weeks? months? years?

As I say, documents can raise as many questions as they answer. Which is why so many writers, I suppose, turn to fiction in order to tell a complete story. This nonfiction stuff just has too many loose ends.

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