The Dance of Fact & Fiction

A story is told about a fellow by the name of Peter McCleland, known to Nova Scotia genealogists as among the early north-of-Ireland settlers to Nova Scotia’s Cobequid region at Great Village. The time period was the early 1760s. The story teller, who lived in California and had researched his Nova Scotia relatives, offered this comment as a matter of fact: “He came over on a raft, you know. Only sixteen, he was.”

This remarkable story could easily be dismissed because any listener would begin to wonder about fresh water and food on the raft. No global positioning systems in those days, one could wryly observe; probably no sextants in the hands of 16 year olds either. And North Atlantic crossings were tricky enough for trans-Atlantic vessels, let alone rafts. And this intrepid Peter the Rock, how did he find his way into Halifax’s vast harbor without a harbor pilot, then know which way to turn inland? Having come from Northern Ireland, how did he survive alone over such a long, harsh winter as Nova Scotia experienced in those times? A sixteen year old?1

Very possibly the point of the story could be missed altogether. This is not history. This is a story that belongs to the literature of myth, heroes and adventure against impossible odds. It points to an ancient tradition of which—knowingly or not—many family historians still participate; proof that they come from the Right Stuff. Significance is in their blood and against all the odds, their kin have survived and thrived. That such dramatic stories continue and often emerge in family histories must surely mean that however savvy we’ve become about modern times, the stories of King Arthur, Ulysses, Pélagie-la-Charrette—to name a few—continue to ignite out imagination and identification. Family historians, as do other folk, long for significance. We so easily attribute mythical proportions to ancestors, not because of what it says about them, but because of what it says about us. The story, after all, isn’t required to make sense; it’s required to make meaning. Alas for family history, questions of significance are usually an entirely different kind of search.

The multiple layers in which we live our lives are rarely accounted for in family history. We take for granted that we live our lives on multiple levels; all at once and simultaneously. We even use different languages for each level. There’s language for work, another for buying or selling services and quite another in the intimacy of our homes. Some of those levels are hardly communicable even to those who are closest to us much less those who are at arm’s length.

Census enumerators used to collect census data and they performed an important service, in spite of erratic spelling. They could hardly be held accountable for complicated families where parentage and relationships were screened from public scrutiny. They had data to collect that—at one level—was public but how people felt about their relationships and connections could be quite at odds with those vital statistics. They could hardly be recorded in a census because statistics could not reveal them. Nonetheless, vital statistics remain the markers of a life lived—like the visible parts of an iceberg—necessary to lend time-space to life stories but oblivious to the intricacies that lie massively below the surface.