Article about James Cairncross and wife Margaret Methven

Finding a White in the Freedman's Bank Records

Linda L. Reid, OGS 13240

The National Archives (U.S.) Web site describes the records of the Freedman's Bank as follows: Among the most underused bodies of federal records useful for African American genealogical research are the records of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company. Chartered by Congress in early 1865 for the benefit of ex-slaves, the surviving records relating to the bank and its collapse are a rich source of documentation about the African American family. In an effort to protect the interests of depositors and their heirs in the event of a depositor's death, the branches of what is generally referred to as the Freedman's Bank collected a substantial amount of detailed information about each depositor and his or her family. The data found in the files provide researchers with a rare opportunity to document the black family for the period immediately following the Civil War.1

So why would I look there for information about a white immigrant from Scotland? I didn't. I was just exploring the records at for a John Methven born in 1816, whom I knew to be in the U.S. I found an index reference to a record of a "John Edwin Methven" in the Freedman's Bank records. It had the birthplace of Scotland and the "right" names for spouse and parents so I clicked through to the document. Although the middle name was new to me (it wasn't on his baptism or first marriage in Scotland), he was clearly the man I was seeking.

The record, dated January 4, 1872, describes John as white, age 54, born in Scotland and 20 years in the U.S. It provides the given names of his wife, his four youngest children who were still at home, and his parents (described as "dead"). It also lists six siblings and the places they were living. New to me was the fact that sister Margaret was in London, England.

I had found the marriage of Margaret Methven to James Cairncross in Dundee in 1838, their census entry in Dundee in 1841 and the baptisms of two children there in the early 1840s. There are no further entries for this Cairncross family in the Scottish records. I hadn't looked at the English records. Once I knew that Margaret was in London, it was a simple matter to identify her in the London census entries for 1851, 1861 and 1871 and find her death in the FreeBMD index in 1880.

Margaret had a large family and I did a Google search on the names of the children. Searching for "John Henry Cairncross" led me to a Web page with some skeletal information about a John Henry Cairncross who died in Toronto in 1922.2 His eldest son was called "Methven" so it looked encouraging From census entries and vital records on, I now know a lot about this branch of the family. The online index to The Globe and Mail on the Toronto Public Library Web site led me to a 1967 death notice for Methven Cairncross, who is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, not far from where I live. So after a long membership in Toronto Branch, I finally have a 19th century Toronto family connection to research! The really surprising thing is how I got here: through the records of the Freedman's Bank in the United States. Within a couple of days of finding the Freedman's Bank entry, I traced a family from Dundee, Scotland in the 1840s via London, England to Toronto in 1967 - all online.

Freedman's Bank data are available on a CD published by the LDS, on and on Familysearchlabs is the free Familysearch (Family History Library) Web site for testing new features for familysearch.
1 http://www. archives. gov/publications/prologue/ 1997/summer/freedmans-savings-and-trust.html

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