Niagara Falls: Not Just for Honeymooners—Also, for Genealogists!

Our recent trip to Niagara Falls was not for “the honeymoon we never had,” but to learn more about my only Canadian ancestor—GGG Grandfather Captain Robert Henry Dee, Esquire—who immigrated to Upper Canada (now Ontario) c. 1819. Robert Henry was born c. 1788 to Thomas and Anne Dee, He was baptized on 2 April 1788 in Weyhill, Hampshire County on the southern coast of England.[1]


Capt. Robert H. Dee Commissariat Uniform

Captain Dee served as the Deputy Commissariat in the Napoleonic Wars for fourteen years. “As Commissariat, Captain Dee was in charge of military supplies,” responsible for overseeing military food and equipment.”[2] He was also aide-de-Camp, or personal assistant, to General Sir Peregrine Maitland. They served together in the Peninsular War and possibly at the Battle of Waterloo.[3] Captain Dee married Elizabeth Ottley (1796-1876) on 31 March 1819 at St. Cuthbert’s Church, Thetford, Norfolk, England.[4] She was the daughter of Matthew and Elisabeth (Hill) Ottley.[5] One year later they followed Maitland to Upper Canada, now Ontario.







In 1818 General Maitland was summoned to Stamford, Upper Canada to serve as lieutenant governor until 1828.[6] As aide-de-camp to Maitland, Captain Dee joined him about 1819. On 2 November 1824 he purchased the 100-acre lot no. 56 on the Portage Road “that was part of one of John Burch’s Crown Grants.”[7] He then donated 3.5 acres off “the western extremity of the Dee farm” for the Stamford Green, the only village green in Canada. The Dee family kept this land open “for the benefit and enjoyment of the public,” from 1821 until 1909. Stamford Green is now controlled by a Board of Trustees.[8]

Stamford Green
Church of St. John the Evangelist

On 20 September 1820 Mr. R. H. Dee also donated the land for the construction of the Old St. John’s Anglican Church. Building began in 1821, and it was consecrated in 1825.[9] In 1827 he donated more land to the church for  a church yard and burial ground.[10] Because of the donations of land, an additional 25 pounds, and a “wooden armchair used in the vestries,” a window was dedicated to “commemorate the liberality of Robert Henry Dee and Elizabeth Dee to this Church.”[11] An historical marker also commemorates his “additional financial support and gifts of land and furnishings” to the church.[12]


Board of Health Order
Order to Create a General Board of Health

After his military career, Robert Henry Dee Esquire remained involved in the community. On 23 September 1822, Robert and six others joined the Dalhousie [Masonic] Lodge in Niagara.[13] According to an 1824 document signed by four of the members, including R. H. Dee, the lodge closed “from want of funds till more advantageous circumstances arise.”[14] On 25 June 1832, Robert Henry Dee was present at a Special Session that created a General Board of Health in the Town of Niagara. This Order “coincided with the cholera epidemic of 1832 and was likely created in an attempt to control the spread of the disease.”[15]





Robert Henry was possibly in poor health, as he also wrote his will three days later on 28 June 1832.[16] In October 1833, he also wrote that he was not well.[17] He died at the young age of 46 on 11 November 1833 at Stamford. Robert left seven children under age fourteen with his wife, Elizabeth, who was two months pregnant. He was buried in the family plot at the Church of St. John the Evangelist. Also buried there are Elizabeth (d. 1876), father-in-law, Matthew Ottley (d. 1845), and children Frances Ann, Harriet Martha, and John Matthew, MD.[18]

Dee Cemetery Plot, Front Left in Church Yard & Burial Ground

The house which Captain Dee built c. 1824, now 3252 Portage Road, was later enlarged.[19] All eight of Robert and Elizabeth’s children were likely born in Stamford: William Hornblow (c. 1820-1875), my GG grandfather; Francis Ottley (1821-1892); Henry Ontario (1823-1904); Thomas Wicken (1825-1897), who married Julia Hamilton from Niagara on the Lake and likely introduced William to his future wife in Wisconsin; Frances Ann (1828-1900); Robert Hill (1829-1908); Harriet Martha (1832-1909); and John Matthew, MD (1834-1913), born just seven months after his father’s death.

Captain Robert Henry, Esquire & Elizabeth (Ottley) Dee House, Portage Road

While walking around this property and photographing the house, I was lucky enough to meet Bev, the home’s current owner. Because she was leaving, we exchanged business cards and promised to email each other. Three days later, I received an email from her husband, Steven, sorry that we missed each other. He also invited us back to help celebrate the 200th “birthday” of the Dee house this summer. As they have also been researching this family, I sent him my Robert Henry Dee family research. Although not blood relatives, we share a family, and are now house relatives.

[1] “England, Hampshire Bishop’s Transcripts 1680-1892,” database, FamilySearch, Robert Henry Dee, son of Thomas and Anne Dee, Weyhill.

[2] Also, “3227 Portage Rd. Originally Built by Captain Robert H. Dee,” Historic Niagara Collections, photograph and description. For fourteen years, see Land Petitions of Upper Canada, 1763-1865, Robert Henry Dee, Stanford, 1829, vol. 159, Bundle D-16, Petition no. 20, RG1 L3, microfilm C-1876, digital images 152-155; Library and Archives of Canada.

[3] “Commissariat Uniform of Captain Robert Henry Dee, c 1819,” sign describing Dee-Maitland relationship, Niagara Falls Museum, Niagara Falls, Ontario Canada.

[4] “England Select Marriages, 1538-1973,” digital images, Ancestry, Norfolk Church of England Registers, Dee-Ottley, 31 March 1819; Norfolk Record Office, Norwich, Norfolk, England.

[5] “England Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” transcript, Ancestry, Elisabeth Ottley, b. 5 Oct 1796, bap. 30 Oct 1796, parents Matthew and Elisabeth Ottley.

[6] George A. Seibel, “Stamford Green,” The Niagara Portage Road: A History of the Portage on the West Bank of the Niagara River (City of Niagara Falls, Canada: 1990), 265.

[7] George A. Seibel, “Stamford Green,” The Niagara Portage Road: A History of the Portage on the West Bank of the Niagara River (City of Niagara Falls, Canada: 1990), 265. Also, “3227 Portage Rd. Originally Built by Captain Robert H. Dee,” Historic Niagara Collections, photograph and description. Also, Stamford Twp., Welland Co. Deeds, Old Series, 1796-1832, A:332-33, no. 6643, microfilm GS2893; Archives of Ontario, Toronto.

[8] George A. Seibel, “Stamford Green,” The Niagara Portage Road: A History of the Portage on the West Bank of the Niagara River (City of Niagara Falls, Canada: 1990), 265.

[9] Frank Goulding, 150 Years of Christian Witness, 1820-1970: Church of St. John The Evangelist (Stamford, 1970), 22-23, deed p. 26. Also, Donna M. Campbell, Church of St. John the Evangelist (Stamford) (Ontario, Canada: Ontario Genealogical society, undated), 1.

[10] Stamford, Niagara District, instrument no. 7353, Robert Henry Dee to Sir Peregrin Maitland for the Church of England church yard and burial ground, FHL microfilm GS 2893. Also, Stamford Twp., Welland Co., Old Series, 1796-1832, A: pp cut off, no. 7353, microfilm GS2893; Archives of Ontario, Toronto.

[11] Frank Goulding, 150 Years of Christian Witness, 1820-1970: Church of St. John The Evangelist (Stamford, 1970), 22, 28, 34.

[12] Ontario Heritage Foundation Ministry of Citizenship and Culture, “Church of St. John the Evangelist” marker, Portage Road, Stamford.

[13] “England, United Grand Lodge of England Freemason Membership Registers, 1751-1921,” registry image, Ancestry, Robert Henry Dee, Esquire, joined 23 Sep 1822, p. 20. These members were “Erased by Grand Lodge 3 Sep 1864.”

[14] Janet Carnochan, “Freemasons,” History of Niagara (In Part) (Toronto: William Briggs, 1914), 123.

[15] “Order to Create a General Board of Health I the Town of Niagara, June 25, 1832: Brock University Special Collections & Archives,” digital image, Our Ontario, Present—Robert Henry Dee.

[16] Lincoln Co. Surrogate Court estate files, RG 22-234, alphabetically filed, Robert Henry Dee will, 28 Jun 1832; FHL microfilm MS 8409; Ontario Archives

[17] Land Petitions of Upper Canada, 1763-1865, Robert Henry Dee, Stanford, 1829, vol. 160, Bundle D-18, Petition no. 50, RG1 L3, microfilm C-1877, digital images 188-190; Library and Archives of Canada.

[18] Donna M. Campbell, “Cemetery Transcriptions,” Church of St. John the Evangelist (Stamford) (Ontario, Canada: Ontario Genealogical society, undated), 2.

[19] “3227 Portage Rd. Originally Built by Captain Robert H. Dee,” Historic Niagara Collections, photograph and description.

What’s in MY Name?

I was born Pamala Ann Praser (PRA-zer). My siblings’ first or middle names came from grandparents, but not mine. When I asked my mother why I was given that name, she replied that she just liked it—Ann is also her middle name. But notice the spelling of my first name. Mom said she thought the three A’s spelling of Pamala would be easier for me to learn than the normal, Pamela. Did she have a premonition about my intellectual ability? And so began a lifetime of correcting teachers, employers, banks, government entities, and others who didn’t think I could spell my own name. To reduce the number of times I had to correct the corrections, I started using the shortened version, Pam.

Me, Age 1

But nicknames soon replaced Pamala. From an early age, my father called me Boomer—something that I supposedly called myself when I was learning to talk. In elementary school, a gym teacher evoked raucous laughter when he misread Praser, and called me Pamala “Eraser.” Luckily this name didn’t stick. But a friend’s father noticed my initials and started calling me PP. My wonderful friends caught this and began asking (you guessed it), “Does PP gotta go PP?” PP morphed into “P” and stuck until I moved away in sixth grade. In High School my nickname became “Praze,” short for Praser. My Spanish teacher also joined in, changing the Spanish pronunciation of Pah-MAY-luh to Pah-MAH-luh . . . as in Palmolive Soap. UGH.



After college, my initials came back to haunt me. My first car’s license plate arrived. Horrifyingly, and not by my request, it read “PAP 183” and became known as the “Pap-mobile.” No explanation needed—SHEESH! I married in 1979 so the plate made no sense, especially since I took my maiden name as my middle name: Pamala Praser Anderson. Luckily, we moved to Pennsylvania in 1983 and that license plate disappeared. I also stopped using the full “Pamala Anderson” (if possible) because of the images of Bay Watch that came to mind when people of a certain age heard that moniker.


Edward & Marie Pracser, 1918
Elmer & Joseph Praser, 1943

Enter genealogy. My paternal grandparents, Edward and Marie (Supenova) Pracser, immigrated from Slovakia to the United States in 1920. Although the “c” was supposed to be silent, their sons, Elmer and Joseph, experienced their teachers’ mispronunciation of their name as PRAK-ser. Pressures to assimilate and appear more “American” caused my father and uncle to remove the “c” in Pracser. However, my grandparents continued using the original spelling.



Dušan Hrnčiřík, 2014
Milan Hrnčiřík , 2014

I always knew either spelling was pronounced as PRA-zer—until I met my father’s first cousins, Dušan and Milan, in Slovakia in 2014. They pronounced the Pracser name as PRAH-cher! So . . . I learned that my grandparents had changed the pronunciation, even if they didn’t alter the spelling.




Several years ago, I decided to go back to the original Pracser spelling in genealogical articles and on Facebook (where my family first noticed). I didn’t understand why my father and uncle would change the spelling of their surname, and I wanted to honor my immigrant grandparents. (The fact that my grandparents and great grandparents all changed their surname from Konas to Pracser on their ship’s manifests is another mystery for another day!) And then I got it. People began introducing me as Pam PRAK-ser Anderson! But I’m sticking with Pracser, especially now that I know “What’s in MY name.”

Why I DNA Test “In All the Ponds:” Finding My Schwarz Slovak Family in Australia & California

Many don’t DNA test for various reasons. Luckily, my relatives have been all in to help our family research. And because they understand the importance of testing, a huge brick wall—the one I least expected to break through—came tumbling down.

Gizella (Schwarz) Pracser

Gizella was born on 26 August 1871 in Sered, Slovakia, to Franciscus and Julianna (Jordan) Schwarz, the sixth of eight children. She married Joseph Pracser in 1892 and immigrated to Chicago in 1923. In the 1930 census, Gizella lived apart from her husband in Chicago and worked at a restaurant. This is all that I knew of my great grandmother—until this year.

Requests and searches for a death certificate, funeral record, and burial place came up empty until she appeared at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. Last March, I went in search of her husband’s and son’s markers and discovered Gizella there, too. The cemetery found no current records but went back to older microfilm. Her headstone was dated 1936, but the marker was purchased in 1949 by her daughter, Bessie.

Gisella (Schwarz) Pracser (1871-1936)

I now had Gizella’s death year but still knew little about her Schwarz family. A female’s family in Slovakia loomed as my most daunting brick wall. My grandmother (her daughter-in-law) knew Gizella’s parents’ names, death dates, and places. Unfortunately, my own research confirmed that only the names were correct. I needed to go beyond the limited on-line resources, so I turned to DNA.

DNA connects Slovakia to the U.S. and Australia

I found DNA matches on Ancestry (two predicted 4th-6th cousins), 23andMe (two predicted 3rd-4th cousins), and FamilyTreeDNA (one predicted 3rd-5th cousin). None matched cousins on my mother’s side but did match my father’s side, so I knew they were in my Slovak line—but where? I also knew they didn’t match my Slovak grandmother’s family, because second cousins living in Slovakia had graciously tested for me. That left only my Slovak grandfather’s family. Based on our shared centimorgans (42-73), we were probably third cousins (3C) or third cousins once removed (3C1R), sharing great great grandparents—either Joseph Pracser’s parents or Gizella Schwarz’s parents.

I contacted my two Ancestry matches in June 2019 but got no response. When I tried again in October, one responded with an apology that he rarely checked the email associated with Ancestry and referred me to his sister, Yvonne Schwarz, the family genealogist. And that’s when the brick wall fell. Yvonne and her brother are, in fact, my third cousins, and we share great great grandparents, Franciscus “Franz” Schwarz and Julianna Jordan, Gizella’s parents from Sered, Slovakia. Yvonne’s great grandfather, Edmund “Mundi” was Gizella’s younger brother. Did I mention that Yvonne lives in Australia? Gizella and Joseph immigrated to the U.S. in 1923, and Yvonne’s grandparents, Alexander and Jolan, immigrated to Australia in 1949. Our families, over 9700 miles away, connected through DNA, and Yvonne was incredibly generous with her knowledge.

What I learned from Yvonne:

  Franciscus Schwarz (1821-1876)
  • Franciscus “Franz” Schwarz was born in February 1821 in Waldhausen im Strudengau, Oberösterreich, Austria. His father may have run a saddlery business.
  • Franz established a small pileatore (hatter) shop in 1852 in Sered. His business quickly grew to three shopfronts, including a factory.
  • Julianna Jordan was born c. February 1832 in Bratislava, Slovakia; her father died just prior to her birth.
  • Franz and Julianna married on 2 November 1856.
  • Franz died on 7 March 1876 in Sered. Gizella was just four years old, and Yvonne’s great grandfather, Mundi, was only one. Franz’s large grave marker implies that he was a man of some importance.
  • On 16 August 1879, Julianna married Petrus Treisz who ran Franz’s hat manufacturing company.
  • Julianna died on 27 December 1914 in Sered.
  • In 1922, Mundi’s daughter, Edith, immigrated to the U.S. Her destination was “Cicero, Illinois, cousin Bukovsky at 2342 S. 58th Street,” the home of Gizella’s daughter.
  • In 1957, Mundi’s son, Alexander, visited my relatives, Frank and Bessie (Pracser) Varchulik and Irma Bukowsky in Downers Grove, Illinois where they lived on a small farm.
  • Yvonne also shared the following records:
    • Franciscus Schwarz 1821 birth record
    • Franciscus Schwarz 1876 death certificate
    • Franciscus Schwarz 1876 cemetery marker photo
    • Julianna (Jordan) Schwarz Treisz 1914 death record
    • Various photos of family members and tools of the hatter’s trade





But how would Yvonne and I translate the Slovak records? I contacted my dependable friend and genealogist, Peter Nagy in Slovakia, who promptly translated the original records and interpreted their meaning. He also found Julianna’s second marriage record, confirming that Petrus was 20 years younger than Julianna! According to Peter, “Petrus was probably the assistant of the first husband. After his boss died, he married his widow and so became the workshop owner. It was quite common in that time.”

More DNA family in California

Yvonne also shared information about Edith (Schwarz) Fiedorczyk, Mundi’s daughter. After immigrating in 1922, she married and lived in the Chicago area where her daughter, Evelyn, also married. Checking DNA matches again, I contacted my two matches on 23andMe and the one on FamilyTreeDNA who all shared the same surname. A brother and sister responded and confirmed that the third person is their father. He is my 3C and the siblings are my 3C1R. They live in California and are descendants of Edith and Evelyn. Yvonne also shared Evelyn’s 1940s wedding photo, taken with Frank and Bessie (Pracser) Varchulik, Gizella’s daughter and son-in-law from Downers Grove. Our families were definitely connected.

Evelyn (center), Bessie & Frank Varchulik (right)

Because of DNA, someone in Pennsylvania connected with someone in Australia and someone in California. And DNA reconnected families in Australia and California–all with help from someone in Slovakia.

The Power of a Letter – Shared with a Genealogist

Sometimes we are lucky enough to have a friend who entrusts us with a special gift. About a year ago I was that lucky person. And about a month ago, my friend—who is the most magnificent writer—shared her story. Mitchell Kyd, AKA Yvonne Butts-Mitchell, said that I could share it here.

As genealogists, we are told to analyze documents to glean and evaluate every bit of information we can. We check for originality, who provided the information, and if the information is direct or indirect (or negative) evidence to answer a question we have about our ancestors. It sounds so impersonal, until someone like Yvonne tells the story behind the research.

Yvonne handed me her gift–a letter written in November, 1926. Following is the story she wrote about that letter, based on my genealogy research. Please check out her blog, Dead Mouse Diaries, for great reads about everyday life–the life that most of our ancestors led.

News from the Path Valley Hotel, Episode #96: The Power of a Letter

In a very ordinary way, my cousin Candy handed me an extraordinary gift last spring: a little, yellowed envelope she had found among her mother’s things. The postmark was pale and blurred but discernible: November, 1926. It had been addressed to her grandmother Florence. Why her mother had kept it all those years remains a mystery to us both but Candy knew I’d enjoy it. Although we shared a grandmother on our dads’ side, the letter had been an exchange between our maternal grandmothers,  mailed to hers and written by mine.

At first blush, it was an exchange of news between two high school friends who had been separated by distance and life changes. From the start, it offered the promise of a delightful peek behind the curtain for this storyteller, but something seemed unsettling.

I knew instantly the thick, black pencil strokes on the envelope didn’t look like my grandmother’s handwriting but the name in the return address seemed unmistakable. In the style of the day, the writer had used her husband’s formal name, my pap’s, with a “Mrs.” preceding it.  When I pulled out the letter, I was thrown off again, struck that the writing style seemed off somehow, not my grandmother’s fluid lines and careful grammar. I skipped ahead to the signature on the last page. Again, it was signed as “Mrs.” The writer was certainly my pap’s young wife.

The pages were filled with girl talk, the young bride wrote to ask her friend Florence about her baby and how her life was going as a young mother.  She asked her friend how she liked having her hair shingled and what she wanted for Christmas, then added: “Maybe you are like me. Take anything I get.”

It was a line of news on the second page that stopped me cold. The letter told of family deaths, including the writer’s sister who had left seven young children behind. I remember running my finger over the handwriting then, looking again at the signature, going back to the postmark. My grandmother never had a sister and she married Pap in 1930. The tears welled up as I realized then what a treasure I was holding in my hand, a key to a family mystery.

When I was very young, Pap used to take me to visit a woman we called Grandma Horn. Although she was always delighted to see us both, and always treated me with the best grandma-like affection, I never understood how our lives fit together. My “real” grandma, Pap’s wife, never went with us but always sent her regards. Grandma Horn returned the sentiment.

I don’t remember when Grandma Horn died. I didn’t go to her funeral but I’m sure Pap did, probably 50-something years ago. Sometime after that, I started to catch bits and pieces of her story: my pap had been married once before and Grandma Horn had been his first mother-in-law. The letter I was holding had been written by her daughter Helen.

In very vague terms, I’ve known for decades that Pap’s first wife Helen had died and that he had lost an infant son, too. End of story. Even my mother didn’t know much more. The hush wasn’t really a cover up, I learned later; the memories were simply too painful. Time passes; memories fade. The generations before us disappear and are reduced to an occasional comment at a random family gathering. I learned nothing more about Helen or their son until my mother showed me her cemetery marker three years ago.

When the gift of a letter connected me with Helen and the woman I loved as Grandma Horn, I shared the story with close friends, among them genealogist Pam Anderson. In her hands, Helen’s letter opened doors that had been locked in my family history. Pam dug into public records and newspaper files. Her research and tenacity brought me census records, marriage applications, birth certificates and obituaries. Here’s a sampling of what her excavations uncovered, all triggered by one letter from a seventeen-year-old newlywed:

Grandma Horn’s first name was Ida; she had been a maid. Helen’s dad, Grandma Horn’s husband, was David, a laborer, who was 23 years older than Ida when they married. Both had children from former relationships. Although Ida could read and write, David made an “X” on the marriage application rather than adding a signature indicating he was illiterate. He did own property which meant he had made his way in the world, regardless.

Helen was born March 2, 1909. While her marriage to my pap was not recorded in Franklin County, her letter to Florence reveals they married on February 26, 1926, just before her 17th birthday. It’s unlikely that she knew it when she was writing to Florence in November, but she was probably two months pregnant at the time. Other records show that her infant son died when two months premature, on April 12 , 1927, two days after my pap’s birthday. Helen died one week later when she was barely 18.

The baby’s death certificate calls him “John.” I’m guessing that at the time of death, Helen was too ill and my pap too overwhelmed to have declared a name. When the obituary appeared a few days later, the baby’s name was listed as Charles David, a combination of both grandfathers. Helen’s obituary in the local newspaper attributes her death to pneumonia, like most others listed that same day and the week preceding.

March 2, 2017, would be Helen’s 108th birthday. Ironically, she shared that birthday with my great-grandmother, pap’s second mother-in-law. I realize now that day that must have been rough for him to celebrate as the rest of us gathered for her cake and ice cream each year.

Helen did not leave a written account of her short time here and until last year, she was merely a cemetery marker in my layer of family history. One little letter has made her real for me and helped me pass along a part of her story.

Happy birthday, Helen. You and the little soul who was among us barely long enough to get a name have not yet been forgotten.  And to Florence, Roberta and Candy– thank you for recognizing and preserving the power of a letter.

Dead Mouse Diaries by Mitchell Kyd

The other cool thing: Helen and I share a birthday!

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