One man’s journey of discovery

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History Channel films in Queens

One man’s journey to find out who he is and where he came from made a stop in Liverpool and Brooklyn on June 18. An episode of the History Channel’s TV show, Ancestors in the Attic was filmed in Queens Co. last week.

“It’s part CSI, part history and part a kind of dramatic personal revelation,” said Producer Dugald Maudsley.

The program helps track down lost family branches, and helps answer unresolved questions by delving into family legends whether they are true or not. “If we can, we then take these people on a journey of discovery, to follow the path of uncovering clues learning key bits of history from the time and resolve the question they asked.”

It takes almost a year of research before filming begins. The show uses a team of genealogists, historians and local researchers to help them in their quest to find answers. Liverpool historian Tim McDonald and Brooklyn resident, Donald Henderson provided the producers with much of the research.

This episode follows Bob Stoutley, from Milton, Ontario. Stoutley remembers that his father had a bit of colour in him, but his father died when Stoutley was 11 before he could find out any answers. No one else really knew about his father’s family either, which added to the mystery. “He kept that secret from everyone, including my mother,” said Stoutley.

The question simmered in the back of his mind for a long time, before a chance encounter led him to more clues.

One of his father’s older sons from a previous marriage was researching the family. At the same time, Stoutley was researching his father’s military career, which had become easier with the Internet.

Neither man knew each other existed, but eventually they connected while researching their father’s past.

Stoutley and his half brother worked together, and found a common thread to Glenn Willis from Truro who was researching his own family. That bond was James Edward Stoutley.

They started comparing family trees, and discovered they shared the same grandfather. This grandfather had married twice, and had nine children in each marriage.

After comparing notes, Willis sent them a link to his webpage on his family’s background. “On the front page were five black children with bright blue eyes,” he said.

He had never seen pictures of his grandparents before, but this came as a complete surprise. In continuing to trace the family tree, they discovered many other black relatives. However they ran into a problem. “On both sides, we hit roadblocks. We couldn’t get past our respective grandfathers.”

That’s when he decided to write to the History Channel for help.

In March of this year, they called him saying they have found some interesting background information, and were interested in doing his story for the program.

Queens Co. was one of the early stops in his nine-day journey. The information the show’s researchers found is kept secret from Stoutley, revealed when he gets to areas they feel is key to the story. “Some of the things we discovered so far is very eye-opening, and there’s more to come,” he said. “The ultimate question is, where did the Stoutley side of the family originate?” “What’s happening now is we are taking Bob through the steps to unfold how this part of his family came to be,” said Maudsley.

They also introduced him to Canadian black history, through their trip to Birchtown in Shelburne Co., as well as other locations in Nova Scotia.

Maudsley promised a surprise at the end for Stoutley, but said viewers will have to tune in to discover what it is.

Ancestors in the Attic is in its fourth season on the History Channel, and does about 10-15 stories each season. This is sifted out of the 8,000 to 10,000 submissions they receive each year. This story however proved challenging, said Maudsley. “We had a heck of a time trying to sort this story out. Black records are sometimes not complete or hard to find,” he said. “Tim (McDonald) helped us do a huge amount of research on the Stoutley side of the family.”

McDonald is from Liverpool, and got involved when the researchers came across his name while trying to find more information on the Stoutley family.

McDonald is an avid amateur history and genealogy buff, and had done a lot of in depth research into the black families of Queens Co.

The producers hired him to do some of the preliminary work, which later expanded into actually appearing on the program. “I found a few pretty important tidbits of information, so they hired me to do it more in depth,” McDonald said. “Having done research now for 25 years, I thought it was quite an honour to help out researchers on a TV show. I was pretty excited about it.”

McDonald and Stoutley met for the first time at the old Burial Ground in Liverpool on June 18 with the camera crew. McDonald, like Stoutley, has black ancestry but is white in appearance. The difference is McDonald has researched that side of his family intensely.

McDonald said the Stoutley family first arrived in Mill Village, but where they lived is not known. The first record he found was the baptism of their oldest child in 1817 to parents Isaac and Maria Stoutley.

The show's next stop was Great Hill Rd. in Brooklyn. The first record of the Stoutley family living on Great Hill appears in 1871, but they probably had lived there for a while. McDonald explained that was a census year, and records of landowners before then were scarce.

Three of the sons and possibly one of the daughters eventually settled on Great Hill Rd. in Brooklyn. The siblings had families, and built homes, one of which still stands today. Donald Henderson, who helped McDonald research the site and gave the crew a tour, owns the vacated house. Other areas of his land contain remnants of cellars and wells.

However, some of the most interesting sites were three large rock formations, located in a wooded area of Henderson’s daughter, Karen Rhyno’s property. McDonald believes they are burial mounds, possibly from the Stoutley family from the 1800s. It added another piece to Bob Stoutley’s past, which he had no idea existed.

McDonald also put together a book of the research he did on the Stoutley family and presented it to Bob at the end of his time with the show. “I hope it’s what he expected, and he leaves Nova Scotia knowing more about his own family,” McDonald said.

Although there are a few people in Queens Co. that descend from the family the name has long been gone from here. McDonald suspects most died from Tuberculosis, since the death records have a large number of family members dying within a short period in the 1890s.

Even after Stoutley’s journey with the show is over, MacDonald said there is more to the story out their somewhere. “There are things I wish we found but haven’t.”

MacDonald credits his grandmother for getting him interested in family history. “She was one of those people that always talked about her family, in a good way.”

The fact he had black ancestry was never kept hidden in his family. He figures it was just natural when he was old enough that he would stay interested in the family history. “Next thing you know, you’re addicted. I worked on it every night. I woke up thinking about it and went to bed thinking about it.”

He also helps others from around the world looking for photographs and information about their origins. “Once I did all I could with my family, I found everyone else’s family just as interesting as well,” he said. “The number one thing for me is the local black history. It’s one of those things that not many people know about.”

In working with the researchers, MacDonald said he found information about black families he didn’t know existed, like the connection to Great Hill Rd.

MacDonald said the black heritage of Queens Co. is not well known, since most of the older black residents have died. Many of the younger families moved to the New England states. Their descendants, like him, have light skin from marrying white families. “I hope before I die I can put together all the information I’ve collected and do something with it.”

Ancestors in the Attic will air this episode next season, beginning this fall on the History Channel.

Organizations: History Channel, Queens Co., Great Hill Shelburne Co.

Geographic location: Liverpool, Brooklyn, Ontario Truro Nova Scotia Birchtown Mill Village New England

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