Nellie Jane ~ Picking up the Trail in the 1921 Canada Census

Nellie Jane Wilkins

Nel­lie Jane Wilkins c.1902


ELLIE JANE WILKINS has always been a favourite. A lit­tle girl marked by ille­git­i­macy and orphaned at the age of two but who, by all appear­ances, was deeply loved by the grand­par­ents, aunts and uncles who raised her — and until recently almost a com­plete mystery.

As I wrote in my first post about Nel­lie when I finally dis­cov­ered she’d mar­ried Charles Ash­wood, it set in motion a domino effect. Over the course of a cou­ple of hours I found she’d immi­grated to Canada, had had a son named Mur­ray, that Charles had been killed in the First World War and that she remar­ried to Lea­son Keirstead in 1918. A wel­come flood of new infor­ma­tion after years of fruit­less research but one which still left a lot of unan­swered ques­tions.

Now with the help of the 1921 Canada Cen­sus and the dis­cov­ery of her death cer­tifi­cate, sev­eral more pieces of the puz­zle have fallen into place.

A The­ory Disproved

Though I knew Nel­lie & Charles had mar­ried, I still didn’t know when and where. I formed the the­ory that since Charles was sin­gle and liv­ing in Cal­gary, Alberta in 1911 and that he’d sub­se­quently enlisted in the C.E.F. in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1915, per­haps he’d trav­elled to New Brunswick to meet Nel­lie when she immi­grated. And per­haps they had mar­ried there and decided to stay.

No doc­u­men­ta­tion could be found to sup­port any of this but now, thanks to the 1921 cen­sus I know what really hap­pened. There’s still no record of Nellie’s immi­gra­tion but the 1921 reveals Mur­ray (born in 1916) was actu­ally Nel­lie and Charles’ sec­ond child. Their first was Edward born in Alberta in 1912.1 So Nel­lie likely arrived in Canada some­time in 1911 or per­haps early 1912 depend­ing on Edward’s birth date (unknown). After clear­ing immi­gra­tion she boarded a train to Cal­gary where she was reunited with fam­ily and a wed­ding very quickly ensued.

Why and exactly when Nel­lie and Charles decided to migrate back east to New Brunswick is still a mys­tery — nei­ther had fam­ily ties there nor was there any kind of eco­nomic boom draw­ing peo­ple — but migrate they did and it’s where Nel­lie spent the rest of what turned out to be a short life.

Another Early Demise

The Provin­cial Archives of New Brunswick online data­base offers free down­load­able birth, mar­riage and death cer­tifi­cates. My first visit in search of Nellie’s death record returned a goose egg but a recent sec­ond visit struck gold. As excited as I was to find this doc­u­ment it was tem­pered by the dis­cov­ery of yet another early death — this time by what appears to have been eclamp­sia.2

I knew noth­ing of this con­di­tion, had never even heard the term until, of all things, Lady Sybil of Down­ton Abbey fame per­ished from the same con­di­tion. An unex­pected con­nec­tion but if it hadn’t been for that bit of fic­tional drama I might never have deci­phered the cause of death on Nellie’s cer­tifi­cate. The hand­writ­ing is poor result­ing in wide strokes of ink that obscure the let­ter shapes. In fact, there’s a word pre­ced­ing eclamp­sia I still haven’t fig­ured out (pos­si­bly preeclamp­sia?). It is, how­ever, very clear that Nel­lie was 7 months preg­nant and just 34 years old when she died on Sep­tem­ber 14, 1925 — one of three of the Wilkins fam­ily who would die in their early thir­ties as did Nellie’s first hus­band.

Nellie (Wilkins) Ashwood Keirstead - Cause of Death

I con­fess it brought a lump to my throat to think that this young woman, of whom I’ve grown so inex­plic­a­bly fond, hadn’t got­ten the chance to grow old and gray. But after so many years of know­ing next to noth­ing about Nel­lie it’s won­der­ful to finally be able to tell her story if only in the broad­est strokes.

Foot­notes & Sources:
1. Lea­son Keirsted house­hold, 1921 Canada Cen­sus, RG 31; Folder Num­ber: 35; Cen­sus Place: Studholm (Parish), Royal (Coun­ties of Kings and Queens), New Brunswick; Page Num­ber: 24.
2. Death Cer­tifi­cate for Nel­lie Kier­stead, 14 Sep­tem­ber 1925, Reg­is­tra­tion No. 19273, vol­ume 9, micro­film 19273. Provin­cial Archives of New Brunswick Fed­er­ated Data­base.
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2 Responses to Nellie Jane ~ Picking up the Trail in the 1921 Canada Census

  1. Shirley says:

    Puer­peral Eclamp­sia
    “Con­vul­sions and coma that are asso­ci­ated with hyper­ten­sion, edema, or pro­tein­uria, occur­ring in a woman imme­di­ately fol­low­ing childbirth.”

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