Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Looking for Emma Louise Burnah

I don’t remember my Great-Grandma Elsie talking about her family. At least not the one she grew up in. I have a letter she wrote to me when I first got my glasses in third grade. I was self-conscious about them and she told me that when she was a little girl and she got glasses, no one else wore them. She assured me that they were at least fashionable now and she thought they would suit me.
Elsie got her glasses around 1910. I loved her and I loved the way she loved our family. In honor of my memories of her I have been trying to find more of her family tree. I have been searching for her roots.
My Great-Great Grandmother, Elsie’s mother, was born Emma Louise Burnah in Redfield, NY in 1869. In the census reports I have found, she appears to have gone by Louise or Louisa and her parents were born in Canada. She married George Durant in 1889 and they lived in Vermont until sometime before 1920. They had 11 children, of which Elsie was the youngest. Elsie used to tell me that she was the baby, but I didn’t realize just how big her family was!
George died five years before Louise did. She was a live-in servant for Thomas Evamer, and her husband lived with Elsie and my Great-Grandfather. She died in 1939 and is buried in a Roman-Catholic cemetery, the same church I attended with my Great-Grandma as a child. But who was Louise? Who were her parents? What kind of surname is Burnah?
Initially I had her name listed as Burmah, but on her daughter Rosa’s marriage license she wrote Burnah, so I am running with that as accurate. I looked up the history of Redfield, NY in 1869. I could find no mention of a Burnah in any of the historical records of the town, located on the Salmon River. It was a village just outside of a military encampment and near an Indian settlement. It was an important hub of activity in the late 1800s. But there are no genealogical records of any Burnahs.
If I have learned anything with my genealogical research, it is that you just have to be willing to take an intuitive leap and trust that, until you prove it wrong, it could be true. Most scholars agree that the name Burnah evolved from Brunet, Old French for “dark brown.” Most likely the spelling evolved from the way it was spoken. And, if you take into consideration that spelling was mostly by sound until after Webster standardized it, Burnah could have derived from a number of sources: Burnah, Burmah, Brunet, Bernache, Burnham, Burman, etc. I am leaving the door wide open.
I have found a James Burnham, 35, working as a laborer in the woods in Redfield NY in 1870, the year after Emma was born. He was from Canada and does not show on any census after. Could he be a father to my great-great-grandmother? According to the history of Redfield, there were many passers-through during the 1860s.
Outside of Redfield, taking another leap, I have found a slew of Burnahs located in the Saranac area of Redford, NY, along that same time period. They are noted as being Indian and speaking French, and having emigrated from Canada. I am currently running under a second possible assumption that maybe Emma was born in Redford, not Redfield, in an effort to find a possible relation. Even still, Redfield would have been a possible stop on the way to WNY from Redford, so I could be on a good track. Elsie always told us there was Indian in our family line, but she said it was “a ways back.”
I cannot find an Emma Louise Burnah on any census report until after she married George Durant in 1889, but I have far from exhausted my out-of-the-box thinking. I have drafted two letters, one to each town’s historical society and will wait to see what news I hear. Until then, I can only hope that someone might stumble across my page and have information I don’t about the mysterious Emma Louise (Burnah) Durant.

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