Where did Little Joe go?

Joe McGilvray picture crop

My great-grandmother Kathleen never spoke much about her childhood, but she always wondered what happened to her little brother Joe.

Kathleen McGilvery was born 20 February 1896 in Bathurst, New Brunswick to Joseph McGilvery (1854-1904) and Margaret Ann Appleby (1872-1931). Her father died when she was young, and she left home when she was 15 years old with her older sisters Mary and Florence. Her brother Joe’s full name was Joseph Donald Alexander McGilvery—named after his father and two grandfathers—and he was born on 27 October 1900, also in Bathurst.

According to family lore, Joe was quite young when he enlisted in the army during World War I and went to fight in France. While serving, he was gassed and suffered lung damage. As of the writing of this post, no record of any military service by Joe McGilvery has been found.

When Joe returned he was told to go west, where the air was cleaner and clearer, for the sake of his health. So, in the early 1920s, he left home and traveled west to look for work. His first stop was Ontario, where he apparently stayed for a short while. According to my great grandmother’s story, that was where she lost contact with him.

My research picks the story up at the Canadian border at Nyando, New York (today Rooseveltown), which Joe crossed on 8 March 1924. It seems that he stayed in Massena, New York for a bit, as he is registered there in the 1925 New York State Census. After 1925, he disappears. My family always assumed that he had died young—that is, until recently.

On a whim, I decided to try again to find Joe—this time looking generally across both U.S. and Canadian records for individuals matching his name and year of birth. I found one buried in the small town of Breton, Alberta, Canada, whose headstone read:

“Joseph McGilvray

A Friend To All


Breton is a very small town—only 567 people live there today. I reached out to the town’s Historical Museum and asked if there was anyone who knew more information about the Joseph McGilvray who died there in 1974. A few days later, I got an email from the Museum’s curator who found a mention of him in their town history. The write-up confirmed that he was born in Bathurst, New Brunswick on 27 October 1900:

“Joseph McGilvroy, better known as ‘Little Joe’, was born October 27, 1900, at Bathurst, New Brunswick. He was of Irish parents. He left home at 15 years of age to look for work, he came from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to Breton in 1936 and worked for the Buck Mountain Logging Camp. In 1938 he started work at Fraspur. He was boss on the landing, spotting loads. Later, he went to Breton to work for D.R. Fraser in the planer yard, spotting loads and piling lumber. He moved into a house with Marie Matthews in 1952 and later bought it. He loved to garden. He passed away June 12, 1974, and is buried in Breton Cemetery. He was a friend to all.”

Photograph of Joe McGilvray standing outside

Joe McGilvery in 1963, as pictured in the town history of Breton, Alberta

A memory of the lumbering days was also included: “Joe McGilvery- said how good he felt since he quit drinking. It was probably a matter of ten or more hours.”

A local relayed this memory to me: “he was quite funny even more when he had a few drinks.”

My great grandmother, who was like her brother an avid gardener, died only four years after Joe. She spent her whole life wondering where her brother had gone. I sent the information to some cousins in Bathurst, New Brunswick, and who reported that Joe was a mystery discussed among their older relatives as well. It seems the mystery is now solved. Everyone is overjoyed to finally know what happened to this enigmatic relative.

Are you trying to track down a missing relative in your family history? Here are some resources to help you on your search:

Census, Tax and Voter Lists at AmericanAncestors.org
Search federal census records as well as state censuses from across the U.S., censuses from other countries, tax lists, and many more government lists from a variety of locations.

Free Download: Getting Started with Vital Records
Vital records are documents created by civil authorities that list the key facts of birth, marriage, and death. This free guide from our experts will help you get started with locating your ancestors in vital records.

Expert Roundtable: Getting Family Involved in Your Research
Even the smallest detail in a family story can provide a clue to what may have happened to your relative. In this roundtable discussion , expert genealogists and Vita Brevis contributors David Allen Lambert, Rhonda McClure, and Melanie McComb discuss tips for interviewing family members and getting the whole family engaged in family history research.