QUEBEC-L ArchivesArchiver > QUEBEC > 2005-10 > 1129558309
From: "Renee Cummings" <>
Subject: Angus Baxter, 93: Genie of Genealogy
Date: Mon, 17 Oct 2005 10:12:45 -0400
Oct17, 2005. 08:23 AM
Angus Baxter, 93: Genie of Genealogy
Angus Baxter, who never knew his father because he died when Baxter was only
4, wrote a series of six successful books about finding your ancestors that
helped make genealogy popular.
> Jim Coyle
> Rosie Dimanno
> Joe Fiorito
> Christopher Hume
> Royson James
Angus Baxter, 93: Genie of Genealogy
Started out by tracing his own yeoman roots
He inspired thousands to trace their family tree
Thousands of Canadians have been able to trace their ancestry because Angus
Baxter's father died of a heart attack when Angus was 4. Growing up in
England, he never knew that side of his family and years later, settled and
thriving in Toronto with his own family, he decided to find out about them.
Baxter did nothing by halves; he wrote enough letters to parishes and record
offices to be able to trace his family back to 1340 and was content to
discover he was descended from solid stock yeoman farmers in Westmoreland.
He traced back the family of his wife, Nan, even further, to 1296, and
discovered, as he used to say, that his forebears were "probably in the
ditch tugging at their forelocks when the Pearsons went by."
Then he did some ancestral digging on the family of a friend, followed by
some research, for a fee, for a wealthy family. Later, after enough people
he knew came round asking for advice, he decided to write one of the first
ancestor-hunting handbooks aimed at the general population.
He signed the copy he gave to his daughter Susan with a flourish and,
typically, tongue-in-cheek. "To Susan," he wrote, "Whose roots go back to
King Canute and Robert the Bruce" and signed it from "`the famous author'
Angus Baxter." He was joking, but he was also prophetic. How To Find Your
Roots was wildly successful.
So too was his follow-up book How To Find Your British & Irish Roots, and
the one after that, How To Find Your European Roots. Books on finding German
and Canadian roots were published in 1987 and 1989, respectively. He wrote a
special edition of how-to hunting tips for his American publishers. All
together, his six books have sold close to 270,000 copies in Canada, the
U.S. and Australia since 1978.
A member of several genealogical societies and respected by many more, he
was nicknamed the Root Master General and the Genie of Genealogy. He got a
kick out of the latter, possibly because he understood that where you come
from is part of who you are, and that people deserve to know this
information about themselves.
"He was a man who realized there was a hunger for this," said Doug Gibson,
his publisher at McClelland & Stewart. "People were eager to go in search of
their roots. Angus was on the scene very early."
Gibson said Baxter also "infected" him with the desire to look up his
Baxter answered thousands of letters from people seeking help in their
searches. Until his death at 93 on Sept. 26, he had kept in touch with one
woman whom he had helped research her birth family. She had been adopted and
considered him "the father to me I never knew" she wrote in an email to
Baxter's daughter, Susan.
These days, the Internet has largely superseded the techniques and tips
found in Baxter's books although, as Gibson said, Baxter's "basic approach
But in the '70s and the '80s, Baxter's informal writing style, his use of
anecdotes and his avuncular advice helped popularize the hobby of ancestor
hunting. Witty, urbane, tall, lean and always impeccably attired his idol
was Noel Coward he showed a real talent for offering up techniques and
tips in soundbite-sized pieces.
He did more than 300 radio, television and print interviews, starting with a
spot on Elwood Glover's Luncheon Date television show when it was filmed at
the Four Seasons Motel on Jarvis St., to a later appearance on the Today
Show chatting to hosts Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric about his research
into their roots.
"The network called us," said Joe Garoznik, of Genealogical Publishing
Company. They were Baxter's American publishers after William Morrow
published his first book and they had no hesitation about which author would
appear on the NBC morning show.
"Angus was by far the best in his ability to consolidate information and
make it accessible," Garoznik said.
Ever since Roots, Alex Haley's book about the history of African Americans,
was made into the phenomenally successful television series of the same name
in 1977, Americans have been enthusiastically searching their lineages. "The
Roots phenomenon changed genealogy from a study of hereditary society
finding out whether you were descended from the Daughters of the American
Revolution or some other linear society to a more general interest in
one's heritage," Garoznik said.
That met with Baxter's philosophy: He travelled all over the U.S. and
Canada, speaking in libraries and church halls, while Nan sat at a small
table in the back selling the books.
"They sold thousands of copies," Gibson said.
The two had been a team ever since they met in Scotland. Baxter had
graduated from Bristol University intending to be a writer, roamed Europe
for a while and then came back home to take on a series of offbeat but
colourful jobs such as managing an ice rink. When war broke out, they both
enlisted the first day. After she was made an officer, he decided he had
better catch up and served out the war as a lieutenant-colonel with the
London Scottish regiment.
They came to Canada in 1953 with their daughter Susan. The family took to
Canada they moved into a house in Etobicoke, later bought a cottage in the
Kawarthas. Baxter managed the National Gift Show for years but retired at 58
because he and Nan wanted to see the world while they were still young.
In 1970, they started their year-long around the world trip, taking a
freighter from New York City through the Panama Canal across the Pacific to
Hong Kong before boarding another freighter that rounded southeast Asia to
Singapore, where they caught a train to Burma.
Then they took a three-month bus trip from Kathmandu to London there's a
photo of Baxter crouching on a rock-strewn hill in Afghanistan surrounded by
unsmiling men with weathered faces and on to Europe where they had
pre-planned to meet their worried daughter in the summer of '71 in a bar in
Baxter decided on the spot they should show Istanbul to Susan, so the three
hopped into a rented Volkswagen van after lunch, drove there and drove back
some days later. "That was very like my father to do an impromptu thing,"
For 30 years, he and Nan took off every winter to travel.
"That's why Angus could even undertake those books on finding your European
roots. He had travelled to every country and knew about them," said
Garoznik. "Other books look at finding your roots in a specific place, but
Angus's European roots book was the most ambitious book every written in
genealogy from the standpoint of covering the planet."
Baxter was 90 and Nan 87 when they took their last trip, to Malta. As
Baxter's sight was failing, it wasn't an easy trip for either of them. They
returned to their home in the Fellowship Towers on Yonge St. knowing their
travelling days were over.
That's also about the time that Baxter stopped updating his books.
He had learned much, not only about genealogy but also about his own family.
His daughter tells of one occasion when he was visiting the valley his
family came from and found a heart carved in a beam of a derelict cottage.
In it were a date and two sets of initials and he realized he knew which
ancestors they were. The initials were carved when the farm was given to
them as a wedding present more than 400 years ago.
"It gave him goosebumps," said Susan.
His family intends to scatter his ashes in that English valley of his
|Angus Baxter, 93: Genie of Genealogy by "Renee Cummings" <>|