Wow, it’s been ages. But I’m still plugging away at We Are Making a New World (specific updates to follow). To get back in the swing of things, I’m going to tell a little story about my trip to the Canadian War Museum last December. I was there to view paintings and the diaries/letters of soldiers from rural backgrounds, in hopes they would flesh out my case-studies of reactions to environmental destruction. Some of the material was stellar…
No, no… that’s for later. Stick to the coincidence and
Well, it was day two or three and there I was, white gloved and drooping over some letters when one of the archivists (Carroll) popped in. Eyes twinkling, she asked if my name was in fact what my name was. I told her that yes, my name was indeed my name. She countered with a fleeting eureka and went on to explain that she had just received news that the museum’s bid on an officer’s commission from 1812 had been successful. Interesting… sort of. Then she hit me with the punch line. The name on the commission corresponded almost perfectly to my own. First name, middle initial, and family name: Christopher, A. Hagerman. Alas his ‘Alexander’ to my ‘Allan’ somewhat ruined the effect.
Still, it got us to talking in a manner more animated than is typical for a reading room. (History geeks don’t you know.) She offered a little background on her C.A. Hagerman (‘Handsome Kit’, lawyer, ladies’ man, officer, judge, MLA, and Solicitor General: i.e., a bit of a player in the early history of Upper Canada) then asked the pressing Q. Could he be a relation?
Which brings up coincidence number two.
While ‘writing’ my dissertation in Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, I had the habit of leaving my garret (carrel) to wander the stacks when blocked. One day my eyes fell on an MA thesis (sadly I’ve forgotten the author) that had been pulled and left lying on a table. It was a prosopographical study of German mercenaries, who had settled in Canada after the Revolutionary unpleasantness. On a whim I picked it up and looked for my family name, knowing my people (an Arnold Hagerman according to the family history) had arrived on the continent at about the right time. ‘Hagerman’ was nowhere to be found. But I’d long theorized that the name had probably been anglicized by a British official uninterested in the niceties of German pronunciation from something like Hagemann to Hagerman. So I checked and sure enough there was an Arnold Hagemann listed among the mercenaries from Hanover. Apparently he had been taken prisoner at Saratoga. This fit with family legend, which held that he had been parolled, gone to Quebec, and then decided to settle in Upper Canada.
Armed with the ‘knowledge’ that my original North American ancestor had been brought across the water to quell revolting colonists in the 1770s, I answered Carroll’s question by leaping into the arms of a seductive conclusion. Her C.A. Hagerman was likely the son of my Arnold, who had moved into the eastern reaches of Upper Canada in time for C.A.’s birth in 1792. Heady stuff this notion of being related to such a dramatic and significant figure in Ontario’s early history. I mean, there’s a street in Toronto named after him. Such celebrity!
And that’s where it all went wrong. That delightful click of pieces falling together in a single, compassing interpretation I’d heard was a delusion brought on by coincidence and my (probably rather pathetic) interest in having a famous ancestor. You see, a quick internet search (the web seems to get better as a tool for historical research on a daily basis – but that’s another post) – into both Christopher Alexander Hagerman and Arnold Hagerman shows that they cannot have been related. The former was the son of a New York Loyalist (Nicholas) who settled on the Bay of Quinte in 1786. Arnold was a sergeant in Butler’s Rangers, who settled in the Niagara region in 1786.
Sorry Carroll. It was all just a coincidence – with a dash of self-deception.
There’s a good lesson for a historian in this rather inconsequential story. Never settle for the superficially coherent conclusion. even (especially!) if it’s particularly alluring. Always dig deeper. Run those leads to the very end.
There can be surprising benefits. In my case, the story turns out to be even more interesting. How did a German soldier apparently taken prisoner at Saratoga and therefore part of the ‘Convention Army’, who went unparolled, end up in Butler’s Rangers?