If you don’t ask, you won’t know

Gilbert McClung Gillespie, date unknown.

I was searching for records for my grandfather, Gilbert Gillespie, and a passenger list popped up for him.  This seemed quite silly. He was born and lived his early life in Lexington, Virginia and then in later years lived in Robbinsville, NC and Rabun Gap, GA and spent his final days in Bedford, VA.

What would a southern boy who worked for James & Lee be doing traveling from the UK back to the states?  It simply did not fit my mental model of my grandfather.

I looked anyway, because that’s what we do.

Gilbert Gillespie, age 36, traveling form England to New York on the Queen Mary.

The Queen Mary arrived in New York on October 12th, 1950.  Gilbert would have been 36.  He was traveling with Thomas Janney and their address was listed as James Lees & Sons Co.  This had to be him. 1

I called my Dad, who would have been 10 at the time, and he confirmed that this was indeed his father.  Gilbert was working for James & Lees Co in Lexington, VA.  I know that he had been a rug weaver in 1940. 2 He had traveled with Thomas to England to try and sell someone there on an idea he had to speed up the process of rug weaving.   They did not convince whoever it was they were speaking to invest in their idea, but the attempt was made. 3
It’s the unexpected that makes this so much fun. We all build mental models of our ancestors and those models led us to look for specific records and reject the ones that just don’t fit. The Passenger List didn’t fit my mental model of my grandfather, and it would be easy enough to overlook.

Look at every piece of possible information no matter how farfetched you think it might be. The story wants to reveal itself, but it can’t if you don’t look.

1. “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 14 June 2012), manifest, Queen Mary, 12 October 1950, p. 118 (stamped), line 24, Gilbert M Gillespie; citing NARA microfilm publication T715, roll 7901; Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
2. 1940 U.S. census, Rockbridge County, Virginia, population schedule, Lexington, p. 100 (stamped), enumeration district(ED) 82-8, sheet 1A, family 10, George M Gillespie; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 8 June 2012); citing NARA microfilm publication T627.
3. Gilbert McClung Gillespie, son of Gilbert McClung Gillespie, ([address withheld for personal use]), interview by Anne Gillespie Mitchell, 2009; notes privately held by interviewer [address withheld], California, 2009.


2 comments on “If you don’t ask, you won’t know”
  1. Jana Last says:

    How fun! And yes, I agree with you. We do need to look at all possible pieces of information. Great post!

  2. ljhlaura says:

    This is great advice. We do let our presuppositions limit us sometimes. Interesting how these records can provoke us to ask questions that otherwise would probably not even occur to us…

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