The Frozen Grandfather

One woman's quest to solve a family lineage mystery

Photograph by Jewel Helen Conover from her book “Nineteenth Century Houses in Western New York,” State University of New York Press, Albany 1966.

Contributing Writer
Janet Wahlberg

Our family has long nurtured the story of the “Frozen Grandfather.” He was a shepherd in the Highlands who froze to death on the moors during a blizzard. He was my “brick wall” for 15 years. The stories from my grandmother and her sister pointed to their grandfather, Andrew Oliver. My problem with the story was always location. My research had our family located in Roxburg, on the border of Scotland and England, but it is a long way from Roxburg to the Highlands.

The story remained a myth until 2016 when I traveled to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. My goal for the trip was to break down this brick wall, so I prepared carefully. I started by rechecking all the birth, death and marriage records for my grandmother and her siblings. I then moved back a generation, double-checking all of the data for James Oliver and his siblings. James was the father of my Grandmother Jane. The final recheck was on James Oliver’s parents. I wasn’t quite sure about his mother, but marriage records in Scotland proved her to be Jennet Dixon.

Now for the big reveal. I worked in a database of church records from all of Scotland. I first rechecked James’ birth record, as well as those of his siblings: Jenny, Betty, and Robert. They were all listed as having been born in Roxburghshire and their parents were listed as Andrew Oliver and Janet (Jennet) Dixon (Dickson). (In Scotland, until recent times, the women retained their maiden names.) Next, I used a section of church records that allowed me to enter the parents’ names in order to reveal all of their children. The name Violet came up as one of their children. She was born in Boleskine, Inverness in 1826. Bingo! I now had a connection for this family into the Highlands.

Further research placed Janet back in Roxburg as a pauper and a widow living with their daughter, Margaret, in the 1851 census. She too was born in Inverness in 1824. Finally, Janet’s death record listed her as the widow of Andrew Oliver, shepherd. I believe that she moved back to Roxburgh to be near family after Andrew died.

Why had Andrew and his family moved to the Highlands with a young family? I believe that he was hired by a Laird (land owner) to come to the Highlands to herd sheep. This was the time of the Highland Clearances and the landowners were moving the small crofters (farmers) off the land in order to bring in sheep. Sheep were much more profitable. I cannot prove this but the expert on Scottish history at the Family History Library agreed with me that it was quite possible.

I write this story to encourage all of you with unproven family stories to work to solve the mystery. Approach your research with an open mind and careful review of what you have to date. Seek out other family members who might have clues that you have previously overlooked. As I mentioned earlier, I worked on this intermittently for 15 years. I did have two family letters that were invaluable, two cousins who had talked with their grandmothers about the story, and contact with a distant cousin who was researching Violet’s line. These items all helped to sort out the confusion of the many James and Andrew Olivers from Scotland, as well as to reinforce the story as true.

Next I can tackle the story that we are part Huguenot – another “brick wall.”

To read Janet Walberg’s previous genealogy columns or to delve deeper into her writings and insights for searching out and recording your own family’s genealogy, please go to jamestowngazette.com and visit Janet’s own web page.