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Finding Mrs Keir

by Garen Ewing 10 Nov 2019

Although I research my family history through every line to some degree, there are four of five branches that I am particularly interested in and spend a lot more time on. One of these lines gives me my middle name - Cameron.

In the following article I'm going to record (perhaps solely for my own benefit) how I broke down a twenty-year brick wall, as well as highlighting the clues that revealed the facts and a couple of wrong turns I took, while hopefully offering some routes that may be helpful to others in a similar situation. Warning: this is still a work in progress, may contain errors, and does not necessarily constitute an end result!

When I started researching the Camerons back in 2000 I made fairly quick progress through the usual route of birth, marriage and death certificates (along with a few letters from a great uncle and a photocopy of a family Bible). My great-grandfather was Peter McDougall Cameron (1881-1923), his father was Peter Cameron (1856-1913), and his father was Donald Cameron (1810-1887), with the family hailing from Perthshire, particularly Clunie, where Donald was the Church officer. At Donald I hit a brick wall - and he currently remains one (though I have a small book's worth of research and theories that I'm hoping will click one day and unlock the answer; update: see here for more on this).

Clunie Church (photo by Garen Ewing, 2002)

But I was even more intrigued by Donald's wife, Catherine Campbell. The census returns gave her a birth date of around 1815 and her birthplace as France (though a British citizen). Her death certificate, from 1889, claimed her parents were Donald Campbell, a sergeant in the 42nd Regiment, and Barbara Stevenson. Anyone with a taste for military history will recognise the potential importance of the date 1815 - the year of Waterloo. Indeed, a family story claims Catherine was 'born at the battle of Waterloo', and the 42nd Foot were in the thick of it. In fact, the battle did not take place in France but in nineteenth century Netherlands (now Belgium), though afterwards the regiment moved to the vicinity of Paris as part of the occupying army, before returning to England in December, which may give some logic to the record of Catherine's French birth.

With these facts at hand I spent the next nearly twenty years trying to find and identify Catherine's parents, but to no avail. Perhaps the names on the death certificate were wrong, in which case my chances of finding Catherine's forebears were going to be next to impossible. Donald Cameron and Catherine Campbell were a brick wall so high that I started to accept I'd probably never be able to climb it.

On New Year's Eve 2018 I was in the house alone and found myself, yet again, making a fresh search for Catherine's parents - only this time something came up. I don't know if it was a new record, or just that my desperation was leading to more and more creative searches, but up popped an 1810 baptism at Musselburgh for one Alexander Campbell, son to a Donald Campbell, sergeant in the 42nd Regiment, and his wife Barbara Stevens. Seeing those names confirmed as real, after all this time, had a surprisingly emotional impact.

Baptism of Alexander Campbell at Musselburgh, 1810

At last I had a contemporary account of my 4xg-grandparents, so I went into overdrive searching for any other trace of their existence. The standard searches continued to remain silent, but when I tried something a bit different I came up with another result. The above baptism of Alexander Campbell took place in Musselburgh in 1810, which coincides, unsurprisingly, with the location of the 42nd Regiment on that date. I decided to search the census returns for anyone named Campbell who was born in a known 42nd Regiment location, either at home or on campaign, within the early 1800s.

To my surprise I had some success and came up with a William Campbell, born in Gibraltar around 1808 - the location for the 42nd just before they embarked for the continent and the Peninsular War. A little research on this William, who also stood out to me because he was living in Perth, not too far from my own Catherine Campbell, seemed to confirm him as a 4xg-uncle - a brother for Catherine. He died in 1879 and his death certificate recorded his parents as William Campbell, soldier, and Barbara Stevens. I reasoned that 'William' was probably a mistake that should have read Donald (though I did make a note that I should allow for the possibility of a previous Campbell husband, even if that seemed unlikely). He had married Martha Hamilton in Perth in 1834, and one of his children helped to confirm the family connection.

Death of William Campbell at Perth, 1879

In 1844 he had a son baptised as William Keir Campbell - significant because Catherine also had a child, a daughter, baptised in 1844 called Charlotte Keir Cameron. Neither of the children survived into adulthood, William dying in 1848, and Charlotte sometime before 1851. I'd often wondered about the name Keir, reckoning it must have had some importance to Catherine, so I decided to divert my attention onto that question for a bit - who were the Keirs?

I started my research looking at contemporary Keirs in the Clunie and Caputh locales of Perthshire and a promising family soon emerged. A William Keir, born in Caputh in 1760, married Helen Sangster in Clunie in 1798. One of their children was Charlotte Keir, born in Clunie in 1804. A niece, born in 1843, was called Charlotte Keir Lamont. William Keir lived a long life, and though he died in Rattray, where he worked as an inn keeper, his 1856 death certificate notes that he was buried in Clunie, certified by the Church officer there - Donald Cameron, my 3xg-grandfather. That seemed to seal it, though I could find no obvious family connection, and no evidence linking Catherine's brother William. They may just have been family friends, but certainly the connection was likely to have been with the Campbell parents.

It felt as though a long-empty canvas was now being slowly filled in, and I continued my searches with the few available records of the 42nd Foot in the early 1800s that were available online (particularly the regimental Description and Succession Books). From these there appeared to be only one Donald Campbell who was a sergeant in the right time-frame. He was born in Halkirk, Caithness, around 1781 or 82, and in December 1799 he'd enlisted with the Caithness Highlanders before serving in Ireland following the 'Rebellion'. After the militia were disbanded in 1802, he joined the 42nd Highlanders. There was a slight spanner in the works in that he did not appear on any of the rolls for Waterloo - even if he was killed there, or at the immediately previous actions of Ligny or Quatre Bras, he should have been on the roll, but perhaps he was wounded or sick, or maybe he was one of the men kept back on guard duty in Brussels.

Camp of the 42nd Regiment

As for his marriage to Barbara Stevens, that remained elusive, but an interesting newspaper article from the John O'Groat Journal of March 1883 provided a potential theory. It told how many of the Caithness Highlanders returned from Ireland and " brought home to Caithness Irish wives, and it is universally admitted that they were 'pretty women' and that many of the Caithness girls were not a little mortified to find that their old admirers had returned, already provided with spouses". Could Barbara be Irish?

At this stage I had confirmation that Donald Campbell and Barbara Stevens/on existed, I was pretty sure that Donald was from Halkirk in Caithness, and I knew they apparently had three children, born in 1808 (in Gibraltar), 1810 (in Scotland) and 1815 (in France), and also that a Keir family had some importance to the Campbell children - but that seemed to be the limit of what I could discover for now.

With that I turned my attention back to later branches of the Cameron family. I had been slowly going through the families of Donald and Catherine's children, many now in Glasgow and Dundee, filling out their stories and keeping an eye out for any clues that might reflect on the families' past. Especially interesting were the children of daughter Barbara Cameron and her husband James Wilson. They had both died before the turn of the 20th century, leaving a young family largely in the charge of eldest daughter, Agnes.

I eventually got round to looking more deeply into Agnes's story - in 1906, at the age of 37, she married a 58-year old widower and ex-sailor called Archibald Wallace. They settled down and ran a local shop in Birnam near Little Dunkeld where they had two daughters (a previous son had died as a baby, and only one of the daughters made it into adulthood). Archibald died in 1925 and Agnes in 1950, both in Dundee.

The children of Donald Cameron and Catherine Campbell

To complete the story I was also looking a little into the families of the wives and husbands of the Cameron children and grandchildren, and I was particularly intrigued by Agnes's husband, Archibald Wallace, and his life as a merchant sailor. He'd been born in Argyll, the son of a candlemaker, and in 1879 he'd married his first wife, a young widow called Sarah Sim. A couple of things stood out on Archibald and Sarah's marriage certificate when I found it - Sarah's parents were recorded as George Sim, soldier, and Charlotte Keir, and one of the witnesses was James Wilson, house painter, and the father of Agnes Wilson who would become Archibald's second wife twenty-seven years later.

Besides the hint of a family relationship with Archibald or Sarah much earlier than was previously known, the name Charlotte Keir was surely no coincidence, and I immediately furthered my research into Sarah Sim and her family. George Sim had been a corporal in the 92nd Foot, but I could find very little about him, other than he married Charlotte at Perth in 1844 and seems to have died around 1850. Looking more closely at Charlotte was like a lock clicking open. She died in Perth in 1860 and her parents were recorded as William Keir, late of the 42nd Highlanders, and Barbara Stevens.

Death of Charlotte Keir at Perth, 1860

So Barbara had married again, staying within the regiment of her previous husband, Donald Campbell, and had become a Keir - a more concrete explanation for the middle name of her two grandchildren, William Keir Campbell and Charlotte Keir Cameron. Besides dismissing my previous Clunie-Keir discoveries (though I still wonder if they're part of the same wider Keir family) it also meant that Archibald's two wives were cousins (half first-cousins once-removed, to be precise, or to put it another way, their mothers were half-aunt and niece).

From there the research avenues opened up and the picture started to come into sharper focus. William had been with the 42nd Regiment since 1805, had served in the Peninsular war at Busaco, Fuentes d'Onoro and Ciudad Rodrigo, and was discharged while on service in Ireland in 1822. But unlike Donald Campbell, I found his marriage to Barbara in 1816, in Thurso, Caithness. The couple had four (known) children, half-siblings to Catherine and William Campbell: James and Charlotte in Ireland, and then Daniel and Frederick after William's retirement in Perth.

Looking for Thurso connections I found another surprise - Barbara Stevens had married a William Campbell, a soldier in the 42nd regiment, in Thurso in 1803. This changed things again - it seems the William Campbell born in Gibraltar in 1808 was not, in fact, a full brother to Catherine, but a half-sibling - the father's name on his death certificate had been right after all. So Barbara had three husbands within the 42nd Foot - William Campbell, Donald Campbell, and William Keir. This was not an unheard of situation in these years of the Napoleonic wars. Writing in 1841, ex-42nd Highlander James Anton had mentioned in his memoirs the plight of the wives on campaign who lost their husbands, "many a good woman, who in a few months, perhaps weeks, after her sudden bereavement, becomes the wife of a second husband."

Similarly Sheila Simonson mentions in her paper Following the Drum: British Women in the Peninsular War, "when a woman's [soldier] husband died ... the odds were good that she would remarry within the week." If a woman couldn't remarry, or if a job could not be found for her within the regiment, her rations would be immediately stopped and she and any children would be sent back to England without any further support, facing potential destitution and poverty. It's recorded that the highest known number of husbands a woman held in the Peninsular war was six.

Soldiers On A March (1811) - 'to pick up her tatters and follow the drum'

To my delight I found William Keir and Barbara on the 1841 census, at Redgorton in Perthshire. By now William was working as a hand loom weaver, and while it showed their son James was born in Ireland, Barbara herself seems to have been Scottish, though not a native of Perthshire.

I also discovered a statutory death record for William Keir in 1857, in Perth, and that reminded me to check the very useful Perth burgh burial registers that were available at the Perth and Kinross Council website. Sure enough, William's burial was recorded, buried at the Wellshill Cemetery in Perth, but I also discovered a burial for his wife, Barbara (recorded as 'Kerr') - she died in October 1847 with the cause given as 'apoplexy' - a term often used for any sudden death.

By now I'd done a lot of research into the Keirs, but I was starting to dry up again on Barbara Stevens and had made no progress on her possible origins. One evening I made a tentative search in the Perth newspapers around the time of her death - knowing that obituaries and death notices were not nearly as common as they would later become, especially for women, so not expecting anything in return. Nothing was coming up until I really honed down the date bracket and just tried the name 'Keir' on its own - and I got a hit.

The Perthshire Courier of 4 November 1847 had a report on the sudden death of 'Mrs Keir', the wife of an [army] pensioner (explicitly named as William Keir of the 42nd Regiment in the Dundee, Perth & Coupar Advertiser version of the article the following day). She was returning home with a neighbour after putting out some washing on the green when she collapsed and died. But it gave up more ...

"Few women have endured more of the fatigues and hardships of life than Mrs. Keir. She was at the battle of Corunna, marched with the army in the previous memorable retreat, carrying along with her an infant seven months old; afterwards went out with the army to Portugal, and through all the campaigns in that country, in Spain, and in France."

The seven-month old child would have been little William Campbell, and I can't help but wonder what happened to his father - was he a casualty of those terrible months at the end of 1808 and into 1809? Or did he make it, with his wife and child, onto the ships that eventually came and made possible their escape back to England?

The 42nd Foot at Corunna, by Harry Payne

And what of Donald Campbell? He certainly seems to have been Barbara's husband by 1810, and must have at least have been in the picture within the nine months before Catherine's birth in France in 1815. But did he die in France or did he return to England in time for Christmas of that year? Curiously, at the marriage of William Keir and Barbara Steven in 1816, one of the witnesses is recorded as being 'Donald Campbell' - not a unique name by any means, but it certainly adds to the mystery of it all.

While I continued to research the easier pickings of the Keir children and their families, as well as some intriguing Cameron connections that came to light after looking into some of Agnes Wilson's friends and siblings, I poked an occasional idle theory or two concerning Barbara Stevens. I'd already discovered so much more than I ever imagined I would, but she had to have come from somewhere ...

One theory I tested was that her mother may have been called Charlotte. She named her second (known) daughter Charlotte Keir, not a hugely common name in 1820 (just over 80 Charlottes were registered in Scotland in 1820, compared to over 200 Barbaras, 385 Catherines, 2,300 Marys and 2,700 Margarets), and the name didn't seem to come form the Keir side of the family. I did find a Barbara Steven, born around the right time, in 1782, to a William Steven and Charlotte Hill, but it was in Edinburgh, and I had no reason to connect her with my own Barbara Stevens.

I was starting to think that she may have her origins in Caithness, and particularly in Thurso - after all, that's where she married her first husband, William Campbell. I turned to my DNA matches to see if any strong connections came up with Stevens and Caithness. A few came up, but with nothing very convincing - except for one who had a John Steven who died in Thurso in 1890. Their tree was not complete so I did a quick series of searches and discovered the possibility that this line lead back to an Alexander Steven who may have been the Thurso-born son of a William Steven and Charlotte Hill - the same names I'd discovered recently in Edinburgh.

I looked at this couple more closely and discovered that William had been a journeyman blacksmith and had married Charlotte Hill in Edinburgh in 1781, having Barbara the following year. But what I'd missed before was that they then moved to Thurso where they had three more children - Jean, Magnus and Alexander. As it turned out, this was not the Alexander of my DNA match - her Alexander was of a completely different line (the son of David Steven and Elizabeth Mowatt of Olrig). My hurried family tree was a mistake but had inadvertently lead me to the right family.

Baptism of Barbara Steven at Edinburgh, 1782

How did I know that I had finally found Barbara Stevens' parents? It was all in the witnesses, only revealed by looking at images of the original baptism documents (they're not included on the searchable indexes). While none were recorded for Barbara in Edinburgh, the Thurso records were slightly more detailed. Barbara's siblings had a couple of witnesses who appeared on more than one occasion, including James Keith and Magnus Steven. They helped to identify that William Steven had a second marriage in Thurso in 1790 to one Janet Sutherland (presumably Charlotte had died). This marriage had Magnus Steven as a witness and a new name, Richard Sutherland - likely the father of the bride.

Richard Sutherland continued appearing as a witness for a number of the new couple's children, all the way to 1803. In one record, in 1795, it was mentioned he was a 'Chelsea Pensioner', in other words an old soldier (and I would later discover his probable daughter, Janet, was actually born in London). More importantly he appeared on a document I'd already been holding for a number of months - the marriage of Barbara Stevens and William Campbell of the 42nd Regiment in Thurso, in 1803, where one of the witnesses was Richard Sutherland. I double-checked to make sure he wasn't some kind of church official, thus appearing across many records - he wasn't, but was connected closely to the Thurso Steven family. Also, while Sutherland is one of the most common Caithness surnames, Richard Sutherland was very rare, appearing only about 15 times across the whole of Scotland in the old parish records (compare that to over 500 John Sutherlands in Caithness alone).

Richard Sutherland, witness at the 1790 marriage of William Stephen and the 1803 marriage of Barbara Stephen

Looking at the witnesses also helps, I believe, take the Thurso Stevens back one further generation. Barbara's father, William, appears in a number of online trees, though often only recording his second marriage to Janet Sutherland, and then they differ on his parentage - with some opting for a family form Dunnet, and others from Olrig or Wick. But I think he was Thurso born and bred, specifically to Magnus Steven and Jane Manson, with William born in 1756.

While I can't find a marriage for Magnus and Jane (sometimes recorded as Anne), one witness to the baptism of their son Magnus, in 1765, was James Keith, the same name that appears on a couple of the early baptisms for William and Charlotte. Another is Francis Manson - a name that appears on four of the Steven/Sutherland baptisms (1793-1797) and one of the Steven/Manson baptisms (1761) - the dates suggesting the latter witness is the father of the former, the son of Francis Manson and Katherine Bain, born in Thurso in 1771.

The birthdate of 1756 for William might also tie in with the possible age of Charlotte Hill. While no baptism for her could be found, her marriage entry does record her father to be one George Hill of 'Mutton Hole', Edinburgh, and I did find a George Hill having several children in that precise locale, with his wife Janet Aitken, between 1750 and 1758 (update: I now also have a DNA link with another descendant of this Hill family).

At the end of all this I find I have a surprisingly full biography of the life of Barbara Steven/s/on, but also many questions. What happened to her first two husbands, the Campbells, William and Donald? I can only presume they perished on campaign - did William die at Corunna or during the retreat there? When did Barbara marry Donald, and did he die in Flanders or France, or did he make it back to Scotland? What of their son, Alexander, born in 1810 - I've not been able to confirm his existence into adulthood. Did she have any other children? And looking further back into her roots, would we eventually find Scandinavian blood? Her grandfather seems to have been called Magnus, and she had a half-brother called Darg, both names with an Icelandic or Norse origin, places with a strong connection to Thurso - though that may be many generations further back, and will have to be a search for another day. There's plenty to still find out.

Thurso, Caithness, in a map from 1822 (National Library of Scotland)

Hints and tips

Search again within record sets you've looked through before - there may have been new records added, or you may have new information or experience that makes your search more successful.

Sometimes more general searches could open a door, for instance search for just a surname in conjunction with a particular place and see who comes up.

Use wildcards (*) to search for variant spellings of a name. When searching for Stevens I used 'st*n*' to encompass all Steven, Stevens, Stevenson, Stiven and Stephens (etc.) - all were spellings used within the family I was searching for. Keir was also spelled as Kier, Keer, Kear and Kerr or Ker.

Look at the original documents (or facsimiles of them) as much as possible - often they will contain extra information that doesn't appear on the index (such as witnesses or exact locations) that can help differentiate between families with the same name, or they may reveal that, actually, the index transcription is wrong.

First and middle names can be clues to other parts of the family, but they could also just be a tribute to friends or neighbours. I knew to keep an eye out for the name Keir as it was used as a middle name, but I also knew another middle name - Leishman - was from a family friend, the local church minister.

Research the spouses of your family members as well as any previous wives or husbands if they were widowed, if they're fellow locals you might be surprised to see a familiar surname within their family.

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