As a twelve year old in 1950, I came to live with an aunt and uncle in Nova Scotia, a move that took me from the sandy fields of southern California where crops were watered with a phone order and delivered through a series of interconnected canals off the Colorado River. I would be transplanted to an older, long-settled company town built around a chair factory whose whistle regulated the lives of most of the those within hearing.

 

The uncle, Arthur Wilson, my deceased mother’s only brother, worked in the company store all his life. It sold simple groceries, gasoline, thread, rope and even footwear. Upon retirement, he would receive a box of chocolates.

Rachel Cooke, a woman Arthur would likely have known all of his life, was from Portaupique Mountain. She studied to be a nurse in Halifax, then later in Boston, but instead of returning to Canada to work in a hospital, Rachel found her working niche accompanying wealthy widows, heirs of considerable wealth, who chose to own no property to call home, but travelled from fine hotel to fine hotel as the seasons changed. They may have needed the skills of a personal nurse, but more likely they benefitted from Cooke’s keen organizational capabilities. For reasons only Rachel would know, she agreed to marry Arthur Wilson and move back to Bass River, Nova Scotia.

Without a family to occupy her, Rachel Cooke Wilson would turn her organizational talents toward the Women’s Institute and numerous community endeavours, elaborated in the essay “In her Heyday”.

Becoming guardian to a teenager was another challenge altogether, as an inquisitive child so new to a community is full of questions about relationships: Who is who? Who belongs to who? How did that come to be? It would begin a conversation that would continue another four decades.

“Be careful what you say about people,” my aunt often cautioned, as everyone seemed related to everyone else in that small village. As the aunt aged and the teenager moved away to pursue studies and work, regular phone calls and visits back to Nova Scotia increasingly included inquiries of the origin of Rachel’s Cooke ancestors in the region.

One of the many community projects spearheaded by Rachel Cooke Wilson, was the reclamation of the Portaupique Mountain Cemetery. Unlike southern California, where it was sun that reclaimed the arable land back to desert, in Nova Scotia, the tide and tree line were the elements to be contested. The cemetery was overgrown by alder and grasses, many of the stones had tipped or sunk with time, and so a group was formed to restore what could be salvaged. The project was completed and the stones catalogued for future family historians.

Another time, a friend of Rachel’s, immersed in Davison family research, came to her to ask, “Who’s the Berry buried in the Cooke Lot?” of the Beach Road Cemetery in Portaupique Village. It was a question with no answer, as those who might have known were long gone. It was a genealogical question, one of many, that would animate the decades of work found in this website. Clues to that question first asked in the 1970s can be found in Family Lines, John Cook and Margaret Berry.

 

 The Berry stone in the Cook(e) Lot

There are no straight lines in the genealogical pursuit, so it offers little consolation to those who need an answer to the question, “Where did my great grandmother come from? And I need it by the end of the day.” It is a painstakingly methodical pursuit of key points of reference that are out there for all of us that fill in the details of a person’s particular life. The records are lodged in community histories and government archives. They consist of vital statistics from birth and death records, collected by census takers, appearing on voting rolls, among municipal, military and church documents, old newspapers and each time a person crosses a border from one country to another. They answer such questions as, where was she born? What census records are there to suggest where she and her family lived and how many siblings she might have had? Did she marry? Did she own property? Did she leave a Last Will and Testament? Did she name people in it for whom she shared a family or special relationship? Where did she die? Where was her final resting place?

Apart from these facts that allow a researcher to flesh out the picture of a life, there is now the possibility of employing DNA testing to establish family connections. From the Portaupique area, there were other Cook families across the bay at a place called Gays River. Everyone was certain there was no connection except the family name. Locating a male Cooke heir on either side of Cobequid Bay and persuading them to take a DNA y-chromosome test, would determine whether these two men shared a common ancestor. A paper trail could be established for the two candidates, but DNA would confirm definitively whether there was a shared ancestor back eight generations. The results opened another couple of decades of research to establish the details of the two Cooke brothers, immigrants to Canada in 1761, whose descendants are shown in the charts found in Family Lines. As DNA testing has become more commonly used among family historians, those first two tests would establish close kin to James and William on three continents, in two provinces and several states of the United States and Australia.

The search continues, no less today than when those first questions were asked of an aging aunt, and will likely continue, as we surely understand that even fat cats can’t resist hunting.

Heather Dau