52 Ancestors: #5 What I Don’t Know About Grandpa Could Fill An Ocean

Participating in the 52 Ancestors 52 Weeks blog challenge has forced me to face one of the biggest brick walls in my family research – my immigrant grandfather, Frederick William James Dickinson from Bermuda. Grandpa is an enigma because there’s so much I don’t know about his early years and his ancestry. My ancestry.

My grandfather as a young man in Bermuda.
My grandfather as a young man in Bermuda.

Because I have had a running streak of success researching other branches of my family tree, I’ve been guilty of putting Grandpa on the proverbial back burner instead of pushing forward to discover more about him.

Guilty as charged.

But as I started to list the 52 ancestors I want to profile this year and wrote down my grandfather’s name, it hit me that  –

What I don’t know about Grandpa could fill an ocean.

And somehow I had missed the boat to get across. So enough’s enough! Blogging about 52 ancestors this year has now turned into a big call to action for me to create a game plan for researching my grandfather’s early years starting with:

  • What I know
  • What I don’t know and
  • How I can fill in the gaps.

Of course, there are no guarantees I can break through this genealogy brick wall but clearly no barriers come down if I ignore the problem. So here goes!

What I Know

1. My grandfather was very secretive about his life in Bermuda before he immigrated to the United States on May 28, 1917.

Passenger list from the Bermudian, the ship my grandfather sailed on to the United States
Passenger list from the Bermudian, the ship my grandfather sailed on to the United States

My mother remembered that when she was little and living in their home in Cleveland, Ohio, her father would get letters from family back in Bermuda. But he never shared the content of those letters with her and her siblings. Because of this, his children knew very little about his life before them.

In fact, the mystery continued into my lifetime. Three years after Grandpa Dickinson died in 1958, we took a family trip to Bermuda. Our Aunt Hazel (my mother’s younger sister) came along with us. My mother and aunt had never been there and were pretty excited to see their father’s birthplace.

After we checked into the hotel, I distinctly remember Mom picking up a Bermuda phone book and flipping through the pages to see if she could find any people with the last name of Dickinson. She did – and imagine our shock when that impromptu phone book search led to my mom to her half-sister, Dorothy, who they didn’t know.

Aunt Dottie shared later that she had actually met my mother as an infant during a visit to New York City where Mom was born. According to Aunt Dottie, who was a little girl then, her father took her by the hand over to the crib where a baby was sitting and said –

This is your baby sister.

But for whatever reasons, Mom, Aunt Hazel and Aunt Dottie were never given the chance to get to know one another until all those many years later on our trip to Bermuda. Making up for lost time, it was wonderful to see the three sisters bond immediately.

Our vacation morphed into an enthusiastic family reunion where we got to know Aunt Dottie, her husband, Leon Eve, a host of new cousins and even my grandfather’s first wife – Mrs. Robinson.

2. My grandfather was born on December 12, 1889 in Hamilton, Bermuda, an island in the north Atlantic Ocean that has been part of British territory since 1609.

Map of Bermuda
Map of Bermuda

When I visited the island in the 1970’s, I made a trip to the Registry office and easily found Grandpa’s birth record. The man known to my family as “Frederick Dickinson” was actually Frederick William James Dickinson, born six years earlier than my mother had always believed.

No father was listed but the birth registration showed Grandpa’s mother as “Alice Dickinson”, a Black woman. I don’t know if Dickinson was her maiden name. As we got to know our Bermuda family better, I was intrigued to learn that my grandfather named both of his eldest daughters after his mother – Alice Dorothy (my aunt) and Alice Vivian (my mother).

Oral family tradition is that Grandpa’s father or maternal grandfather was a “Dr. Tucker”, a White Bermudian. What “they” (my late aunt and older Bermuda cousins) revealed is that when the alleged Dr. Tucker died, he left land in his will to my grandfather and his sister. But for whatever reasons, these two heirs never got their inheritance and the land was taken from them.

Or so the story goes.

The family grapevine also has it that my grandfather had two sisters, but I don’t know if that’s true, what their names were or if they have descendants still living in Bermuda.

3. My grandfather spoke with a British accent and was a staunch British citizen to the day he died. Becoming a United States citizen was never on his agenda even though he lived here for over forty years. One of the stories my mother used to tell of her childhood is when Grandpa woke her and her siblings up very early on December 11, 1936 to listen to the radio. That infamous day was when King Edward VIII of England took to the airwaves to announce his abdication and how he:

Found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.

According to Mom, Grandpa was shocked that a king of England would give up the throne in favor for love. I guess my grandfather was not a big fan of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the woman Edward would soon marry and make the Duchess of Windsor.

4. Grandpa Dickinson was a life-long member of the Church of England.

5. He was married in Bermuda before he met my grandmother, Hazel Edna Weaver and had one daughter, Aunt Dottie.

What I Don’t Know (the short list)

  • About his father – who was he? Was his last name Dickinson, Tucker or Swann (as I’ve also heard through the family grapevine)? Was he even a Bermudian? Did he marry my great-grandmother Alice? Who were his parents? Where was he born? Was he baptized? What was his race? Did he own property? Did he have any relationship with Grandpa? When did my great-grandfather die and where is he buried? Did he leave a will?
  • About his mother – what was her maiden name? When was she born? Was she baptized? Who were her parents? Did she ever marry? Did she own property? When did she die and where is she buried?
  • About Grandpa’s childhood and early years – where did he live? What kind of life did he have? Did he have siblings (those two sisters)? What kind of education did he have? When did he marry Mrs. Robinson?

How Do I Fill the Gaps

I wish I could say there’s a visit to Bermuda in my near future but there’s not. So all my research has to be done online or with help from someone there on the island. My first step is to research and find out if any of the pre-1917 records I need to review have been digitized in recent years and put into a database that I can get access to.

The second step, and this is an important one, is to partner with my Bermuda cousins to tackle this research problem. Together we can sift through the information we have and start to break down the brick wall that’s kept all of us from knowing more about Frederick William James Dickinson.

The Bermuda cousins are as eager as I am to discover more about Grandpa Dickinson’s genealogy. How do I know? Because I emailed my Bermuda cousin, Melvin Dickinson this week about the research we need to do and he’s ready to get going.

Melvin is the grandson of my Aunt Dottie and he and his sons are the last of the Dickinson line. So this a real opportunity to hopefully get documentation in the form of both records and DNA.

And maybe working together as a family team, we finally can answer the question we’ve all had for years because we all have this photo –

Who the heck is this woman hanging out with our grandfather?

My grandfather on the beach in Bermuda prior to 1917 when he immigrated to the U.S.
My grandfather on the beach in Bermuda prior to 1917 when he immigrated to the U.S.
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