By all known accounts, Eliza Smith was born around 1867 somewhere in England. Her marriage record says her parents were named Peter and Emily Smith. As far as I have ever been able to determine for sure, Eliza Smith was dropped off by an alien spacecraft in Ontario, Canada, just in time to meet her would-be husband.
In actuality there’s a good chance that Eliza Smith was the 14-year-old English-born servant of the same name in the household of farmers Andrew and Ruth Gillespie in East Zorra Township, Oxford County, Ontario, enumerated on the 1881 census. It would put her in Oxford County – since you can’t wed someone who’s not proximate – and the Gillespies’ next-door neighbors were my Eliza’s future husband’s first cousin and his wife, Abraham and Elizabeth (McKee) Brown, and perhaps a visit to his cousin’s farm was how they met. But the trouble with tracking someone who’s moving around alone is that it’s hard to prove definitively that it’s the same person, even without adding the problem of a common surname.
Regardless of whether she was a servant girl in 1881, Eliza married George Alfred Brown in Woodstock, Oxford County, Ontario, on 29 May 1889. George’s brother Donald Manson Brown, who went by Manson, was one of the witnesses, and the other was named Mary Sim. When they married, George said he was 28 and Eliza said she was 22. Born in what had been known as Canada West at the time, and was by then known as the province of Ontario, George had established himself as a young farmer before the wedding. The family should appear on the 1891 census, but as yet I still haven’t found them.
The young family shortly decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and in 1893 they emigrated from Ontario to Dakota Territory, where they filed a homestead application and George applied for American citizenship, which would automatically naturalize Eliza and their children as well if his application was successful. The wedding had begun a pattern that would continue the rest of their lives: Known relatives serving as witnesses on documents were always from George’s side of the family, and so it was with their homestead application, when George’s brother-in-law William Adams was a witness for their application. George’s brothers Manson and David also moved down to the Upper Plains. William and his wife Mary Louisa (Brown) Adams had moved to Clark County, Dakota Territory, in 1887 and Manson had moved to Clark County in 1890, and it’s likely that George and Eliza followed them there. David moved a bit later, settling in North Dakota after Dakota Territory was split into two states and admitted to the United States.
In 1900 Eliza and George’s family was living in tiny-population Thorpe Township, Clark County, South Dakota, where they were farming, as were Manson’s and Mary Louisa’s families. In 1904 Eliza and George buried their daughter Emma Grace Brown. In 1905, Eliza and George reported on the individual cards of the South Dakota state census that they were living in Mt. Pleasant Township, Clark County, and that George was still a Farmer. Had they chosen bad land for their homestead or given it up for some other reason? I have yet to find Mary Louisa and William on the 1905 state census. In 1910, Eliza and George’s family had apparently slightly moved again to the small farming community of Elrod, Clark County, South Dakota, where Mary Louisa and William were also now living. Meanwhile, Manson’s family was “steady on,” still farming in Thorpe Township. Manson was listed as running a Stock Farm in 1910 while George and William were just listed as Farmers. In 1915 Eliza (whom appears to have been enumerated as Lisa) and George were still in Elrod and George remained a Farmer, but George reported on the individual-index-cards South Dakota state census that he did not own his own home/farm.
Between 1915 and 1920, George and Eliza decided to seek their fortunes anew, and moved again to Aitken County, Minnesota, fairly north in the state next door to where they had been. They left their older children behind in South Dakota when they moved. George’s sister and brother-in-law, Mary Louisa and William Adams, had moved from South Dakota to Aitken County by 1914, when their elderly mother died in Aitken County, having moved down from Ontario to have Mary Louisa take care of her after she developed paralysis.
George and Eliza began operating a dairy farm in Minnesota, and their oldest remaining child, Andrew McKinley Brown (who went by “Mac”), helped out on the farm while the youngest two, Ada Henrietta Brown and George Milton Brown, attended school. The lightly populated township of McGregor, fully enumerated in 8 pages in 1920, appears to have been a heavy dairying area, and with industry column comments like “New Settler” (repeated several times in the 8 pages) and “Hay Farm,” the 1920 enumerator Niels P. Hansen makes me feel like I have been dropped back in time and am walking along with him from farm to farm, standing beside him while he talks to his neighbors. I love record-keepers that are more specific than the record requires them to be; in a village and township with a mix of American-born folks and immigrants, he noted that the Italians were from Sicilia, my Canadians were from Ontario, and the Germans were from various German states and cities. Unfortunately Eliza’s birthplace entry is one of the few that has the lack of specificity of only stating a country, and Niels (as I think of him) also wrote her given name as “Lisa.” Given that this appears to be the second known American record where Eliza was written as Lisa, it raises the question of whether perhaps people in the Upper Plains of the States were unfamiliar with the given name Eliza or perhaps the way Eliza was pronounced made it sound like “Lisa” to those more familiar with the latter name. Alternately, may Eliza have possibly gone by the nickname Lisa in her everyday life?
By 1930 Eliza and George had moved once again, to nearby Jevne Township, Aitken County, and they finally owned their own farm again. There were no children left in the household, but plenty of relatives next door – their son Milton was renting the farm next to theirs, and their daughter Ada and her children were living with Milton while her husband worked as a trucker for a logging camp. The family had been lucky to have left South Dakota, where the northern Dust Bowl had hit particularly hard starting around this time. My relatives who lived through the Dust Bowl in South Dakota told me that, for example, you had the choice of opening your windows and risking choking on dust, or keeping them closed in a house with no air conditioning and scorching heat outdoors. I know from what I have read that some babies really did choke to death on dust. The 1940 census suggests that Jevne had not been hit nearly as badly by the Dust Bowl and the Depression as the area of South Dakota that Eliza and George had left behind.
In 1940 Eliza and George were still in Jevne, and George was the respondent for their household. He reported that he and Eliza had both completed 6th grade and that they were living in the same house as in 1935. At 79 and 74, neither had an occupation listed. George’s brother David was now living next door with his second wife Mary, listed as running a farm though they were age 78 and 75. Eliza and George’s children Ada and Milton were still living on the other side of Eliza and George, now split into two separate households, with both families also running farms. By far the youngest child, Milton had achieved the best education of Eliza and George’s children, reporting that he had completed three years of high school.
George died in January 1949 at age 88. Eliza lived 2 1/2 more years, dying on 28 September 1951. Her death certificate lists her birth date as 8 March 1865, her father as Peter Smith, and her mother as unknown. Neither of them seem to have left a probate. Some people, like George, stay closely connected to some or all of their relatives through much or all of their life. Others, like Eliza, seem to leave and not look back. None of my relatives even knew possible names for Eliza’s parents until I found her marriage record in my research.
Many fellow researchers have offered me suggestions for trying to track Eliza’s origins and a few have even followed some leads on their own on my behalf. Nothing to date has panned out. Record after record connects Eliza and George to George’s family, not to any relatives of Eliza. Researching the household she appears to have been working for in 1881 has gone nowhere, as has researching the witness to their marriage who wasn’t a known relative of George’s. The only Eliza/Elizabeth Smith on the 1871 Ontario census who might match turned out in subsequent research to go by her other given name on the rest of the records in her life, so it seems that my Eliza may have come to Ontario on her own. No passenger list has been located to date, and despite the common name, there don’t appear to be any good candidates in home child databases. No good match for an Eliza Smith in the household of a Peter & Emily Smith has been found anywhere on the 1871 England census (and I am not even sure whether she was still in England at the time). Perhaps one or both of her parents had died and she was taken in by a relative or a neighbor, but if so, I don’t know how I would figure that out since I don’t even know the area where she was born. People have suggested that perhaps she left England on her own when she was fairly young to run away from something or someone, maybe even changing her surname to the generic Smith, and while all of that is possible, I have no idea how I would ever prove it. If she appeared in Ontario as a young teen because she was running, she appears to have taken the secret to the grave with her.