For the past 15 years, I have attempted to piece together the story of my mother’s family and her ancestry. I started with very little information, but one clue lead to another and I succeeded in identifying her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Although both sides presented significant challenges, the most perplexing relative is my maternal grandfather. Starting with an all too common name, the man eluded census takers, doctored his own age, mistook his stepmother as his mother, and claimed to have been born in a country that records say otherwise. Most confusing of all, he changed his surname. My grandfather, Alexander Andrew Gow, is by far, my most challenging ancestor.
You’re how old?
According to General Register Office for England and Wales (GRO), Alexander was born December 17, 1867. Alexander seemed to have a tenacity for fudging his age, however. For example:
- In 1919, Alexander said he was 45 when he married my 25-year-old grandmother. His birth year would have been 1874
- In 1920, Alexander said he was 47 when he crossed the border from Canada to the United States. His birth year would have been 1873
- In 1926, Alexander said he was only 50 years old when he declared his intention to naturalize in Los Angeles, California. His birth year would have been 1876.
Over the course of eight years, Alexander only aged five years, having already shaved six years from his age. Since earlier records consistently showed his birth year as 1867 or 1868, I believe Alexander may have fibbed to his young bride about his real age and kept up the deception while they were married. They divorced about 1928 and by the time Alexander died in 1941, his age had corrected itself.
Born in Scotland, you say.
Just as mystifying is Alexander’s place of birth. On many documents, Alexander claimed Aberdeen Scotland as his birthplace. His paternal grandparents, George Gow and Catherine Ann McIntosh were both born in Scotland and Catherine moved to Aberdeen upon George’s death. Alexander would have been a young boy at the time and may have visited his grandmother while she lived there. Nothing other than Alexander’s own account, however, gives any credence to his claim. According to his birth registration, Alexander was born at 75 Berwick St, West Derby, Lancashire, England. His parents, Howard and Harriet Gow, were married at St Paul’s Parish, Liverpool, in 1859. All of his older siblings were born and baptized there as well. On both the 1871 and 1881 census, Alexander’ place of birth is listed as Liverpool. Alexander himself claimed he was born in England on the 1891 census as he did on the arrival manifest when he entered the United States. However, on his marriage certificate to Daisy Webb, and in a personally penned account of his arrival in the United States, Alexander proclaimed a Scottish heritage. Unlike his age differential, Alexander did not recant this information before he died. His 1941 death certificate attests he was born in Aberdeen Scotland.
Who’s your mama?
If dubious birth dates and places were not enough, Alexander may have been mistaken as to his own mother’s identity. On his marriage certificate to Daisy Webb, Alexander listed Harriet Eliza Shott as his mother. His birth mother, as listed on his birth registration, was Harriet Jane Williams. Alexander’s father, Howard Gow, married twice, both times to a woman named Harriet. Howard’s first wife, Harriet Williams, died about June 1870, when Alexander was two years old. Within three months, Howard remarried, this time to a woman named Harriet Eliza Shott. Harriet Shott died when Alexander was about five years old. His young age and the short duration of a mother’s relationship undoubtedly led to the misunderstanding. Nevertheless, it made it difficult to determine who Alexander’s true mother was.
Here comes the census taker…HIDE!
Finding Alexander on the 1871 and 1881 England census was easy because he lived with his father, but the trail turned cold from that point on. It almost seems that Alexander avoided the census taker for the rest of his life. In 1891, Alexander was an adult and no longer living with his father. Many clues suggested where he might be living, but none panned out. Alexander’s first wife was Mary Ann Drew. They were married in 1894 at St Stephen’s Parish, Manchester, England. Neither one could be found on the 1891 census, however. A few months ago, a previously unknown British cousin contacted me with information about Alexander’s marriage to Mary Ann and provided me the names of their two children: Harriet Lillian and George. Both were born before 1894. By looking for the entire family, I was able to find them living in Kent under the name ‘Alexander Andrews.’ If it were not for so much collaborating evidence on the marriage certificate, I would assume I had the wrong Alexander and wrong Mary Ann; however, I have not found any other evidence of marriage, even in the England and Wales Birth Death and Marriage Index. Did Alexander and Mary Ann have children before they married, and if so, how was it they could be married in a church?
By 1901, Alexander and Mary Ann were no longer together. Mary Ann still lived in Kent, now listed as “Beatrice Gow.” She lists herself as married, but I suspect she and Alexander had separated. I have yet to find Alexander on the 1901 census. It is possible he had already left for Canada, although his own documents say he did not leave until 1904. A search of the ship’s manifest for his dates of departure have turned up nothing.
As to the rest of the census records:
- In 1911, Alexander is living in Canada, presumably Ontario. So far, no trace of Alexander has been found.
- In 1920, Alexander and Daisy left for the United States, missing both the 1920 US census and the 1921 Canadian census
- In 1930, Alexander and Daisy are divorced. Daisy is now living with a new husband. Alexander has not been found.
- In 1940, Alexander was living in a home for indigent people. His health was failing. I know where he is supposed to be located, but yet to find him on the census.
What’s your name, who’s your Daddy?
When Alexander migrated to Canada, records began to reflect a name change. He is now Alexander Andrew Thompson-Gow. This name appears on his marriage certificate to Daisy Webb and on a death certificate for an infant son. In Scottish families, double-barreled names could signify a marriage of a rich woman to a man of lesser means. Alexander was once married to a woman named Nadine. All I know about Nadine is that she was an invalid and she died around 1918. It is possible that Nadine’s maiden name was ‘Thompson’, and Alexander assumed her name when they married. However, that does not explain why on Alexander’s death certificate, his father is listed as George Thompson and his mother is Catherine Gow.
Alexander continued to use the name for a while after arriving in the United States. When Daisy and Alexander filed their intent for naturalization, both listed their last name as “Thompson-Gow’. My mother’s birth certificate also shows ‘Thompson-Gow’ as her last name, although the 1930 census shows her and her siblings as ‘Thompson’. Alexander also dropped the Gow at some point as his death certificate listed him as Alexander Andrew Thompson.
I love a challenge!
One definition of challenging is to “engage in a difficult job that is stimulating to the one engaged in it.” True genealogy research is nothing if it is not challenging. The frustration of not finding the information we are looking for, or in having to start over because we have chased the wrong person is nothing compared to the excitement of piecing the puzzle together. Discovering my grandfather, and all his quirks, has been a wild and exciting ride. Moreover, it is not over yet. As you can see, I still have many unanswered questions.