Travelling back in time

Deana Stokes Sullivan
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U.S. native devotes spare time to N.L. website

Don Tate, a California native, was stationed in St. John’s from 1958 to 1961 with the United States Air Force at its Red Cliff radar station off Logy Bay Road. He also helped close both the U.S. radar site and Fort Pepperrell in St. John’s.

Tate, 76, is now living in Palm Bay, Fla., but still has strong connections to this province. He’s director and co-webmaster of a popular genealogy

website, Newfoundland’s Grand Banks (, a volunteer position that keeps him busy about six to seven hours a day. Tate and his wife Ruby also spend about three months every summer in Newfoundland.

Tate became interested in genealogy while trying to trace his wife’s family back through Trinity Bay. Ruby (Budden) Tate was born and raised in St. John’s and grew up on Franklyn Avenue.

The couple married in George Street United Church in September, 1960, and their oldest daughter was born at the Grace Hospital in St. John’s in 1961. Although the family has lived in the U.S. for many years, Tate said his daughter came back to Newfoundland to attend Memorial University and graduated from MUN in 1983.

The Tates celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in St. John’s this year.

Tate credits Elaine Spurrell of Pouch Cove for helping piece together his wife’s family history, which dates back at least to the 1600s in England.

“Her mother’s family, the Spurrells, came to Trinity in 1750,” Tate said. Marriage records were found from 1749 in England before the first Spurrell couple came to live in South Trinity, where the husband took a job as a magistrate.

Tate said members of the Spurrell family later moved down the bay and ended up in Butter Cove, where his wife’s grandfather lived. Her mother moved to St. John’s and married a native of Little Seldom.

Elaine Spurrell organized a family reunion in Butter Cove several years ago, Tate said, which gave him and Ruby an opportunity to meet many of her relatives.

The Newfoundland’s Grand Banks site, a database which today contains about 70,000 historic files, was started around 1998.

Tate said initially two people, Bill Crant of Ramea and John Howell of Notre Dame Bay had individual sites.

Howell began transcribing the 1921 census when it became available to put it online and Tate said he became friends with Crant and they decided to combine their efforts in late 1998.

In early 1999, Tate said they put out “feelers” for anyone who would be interested in helping in transcribing the 1921 census and the next morning, they had something like 300 replies from people who wanted to help.

Tate said he offered to help transcribing old business and telephone directories and everything just grew from there.

In late 1999, Crant was offered a job in Fort Lauderdale and decided to move there. Tate said Crant also had some health problems and asked him if he would take over administration of the site.

Today Tate is director of the site and co-webmaster with Craig Peterman of St. John’s, who also became involved in the site through his interest in tracing his family history in Newfoundland.

Ivy Benoit of Doyles on the province’s west coast manages the obituaries and wills; Dan Breen of Calgary, Alta. manages the Newfoundland Regiment section of the site; Mary Rawlinson of Southern Pines, South Carolina, manages the transcribing efforts; Donna Randell of Halifax, N.S., manages the mailing list and Sherwin Flight of Toronto, Ont. manages the database and message boards.

Tate said all have connections to Newfoundland and all of these people devote their spare time to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks on a volunteer basis, working from their home computers.

“There’s probably 150 others around the world that just do transcribing or things like that and send the material into Mary Rawlinson, who sets it up, ready for me to get ready to post on the site,” Tate said. “Those you’ll see listed on the contributors’ page.”

Tate said the website is completely non-profit, with no fees charged for accessing information. He said the only money involved is a $50 fee he pays to Dalhousie University to use its database and programming features for the site.

The average number of unique visitors to the site is estimated to be 3,000 to 5,000 daily and the average number of files viewed by visitors daily is about 50,000.

Tate said the objective of the site is to provide original information, without any editing or changes.

That’s evident when you view old Newfoundland House of Assembly records on the site about “pauper patients” in hospital in 1843-44 and an “account of monies paid for the support of the aged, infant, and idiot paupers.”

Children born to unmarried women were also identified in terms that wouldn’t be permitted in official documents today.

Tate acknowledges that politically correctness was unheard of back then, even in old burial and parish records. One man who died was referred to as having been found frozen to death in the bushes where he fell on his way home from the local pub.

Illegitimate children are identified right down to who the original parents were, Tate said. “Today, I can imagine what would happen if you published that,” he said.

Tate said the Internet has made it possible for people in the province to access historical documents without having to drive to Confederation Building or The Rooms to search archival material.

The site contains a collection of pictures of headstones from local cemeteries which were photographed by Tate and Peterman or submitted by other contributors.

There are also vital statistics, voters’ lists, wills and old photo albums, with a “Can you identify this?” section of unknown photos.

Tate describes genealogy searching like working on a puzzle. It takes time to put all the pieces together but the pieces you find, the more motivated you are to continue the search.

Organizations: United States Air Force, George Street United Church, Grace Hospital MUN Dalhousie University Newfoundland House of Assembly

Geographic location: California, Newfoundland, U.S. Red Cliff Logy Bay Road Palm Bay England Butter Cove Trinity Bay Pouch Cove South Trinity Little Seldom.Elaine Spurrell Notre Dame Bay Fort Lauderdale Doyles Calgary, Alta Southern Pines South Carolina Halifax Toronto, Ont

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Recent comments

  • Bill Crant
    April 07, 2013 - 23:26

    Mr. Neal, I am offended, I agree that without the volunteers the site wouldn't exist. But having done what Don is doing and being at Don's when he is doing it, he puts more time into this site than the average person put's in their job, 8 hours a day, more like 12 to 16. Walk in someone's shoes before you state things you have no idea about. Cheers :-) Bill Crant, Founder of the Site.

  • Edward Gushue
    January 24, 2013 - 00:46

    Hi I am hoping that I can make contact with "Elaine Spurrell" through your site, Elaine`s mother "Annie Spurrell" was born in butter cove in 1914 my mother " Martha Spurrell" was born there in 1912, and they probably knew each other although my mother left there at about 10 yrs old. I am hoping you could pass along my email address to her and if she wanted to corespond with me we could share info on our ancestors, I presently live in dorchester s.c. u.s.a. Thank you

  • chris neal
    November 18, 2011 - 13:16

    one of the main volunteers his name is Sherwin Flight, i have been around him several times when hes working on this site, and i must say i cant believe how much work it is to keep something going. hundreds of hours have been spent improving this website, and its just amazing that we have people who help out just cause! just thought id mention how much work goes into the site, allot of people don't realize how long it takes to do some things! i would never have the patience!

  • Joan Hotson
    December 21, 2010 - 11:04

    Kudos, Don! You and your operation are so deserving of recognition for the marvellous contribution you make. Whatever would we do without you? I shudder to imagine the tragedy of the loss of family history data that this dedicated group of volunteers has rescued and organized. I'm so glad I heard about the article honouring your endeavours. Keep up the good work!

  • Sherwin Flight
    November 02, 2010 - 03:17

    I have also been able to use this site many times to find family information, and have even got to discuss some of it with a distant relative. I decided to volunteer to help with the website because it was such an excellent tool for Newfoundlanders, or people otherwise connected to the province through marriage, military service, etc. I believe there is even a story of someone that left his home country and moved to NF to avoid being drafted into (not sure which) war. My original plan, when I first contacted Don Tate, was to help them move from a site with a lot of static content, to a more dynamic database driven system to make things much easier to search. We now have the complete 1921 census moved over to the new system. We are planning more census information to this format. We have also, during the last year or so, set up a message board that now lets you connect directly with other message board members. Many message board members are also willing to help people try to find family information that they may have as well. For those of you that read the article, but have not visited the site, you really should check it out. You may find a long-lost relative, or who your great, great, great, great Grandfather is. The link is in the article, not sure if I can post it here.

  • Harold Stapleton
    November 01, 2010 - 13:39

    Thanks to all who make the Grand Banks website available for family history people. I have used in innumerable times and it is invaluable. Thanks to all from a researched in NL.

  • Trishe Willis
    November 01, 2010 - 11:37

    To Don and his wonderful "staff" of volunteers, a huge thank you for all the work you do. This site is an invaluable resource for all of us doing genealogical research, but especially for those who are not privileged enough to reside full-time in Newfoundland. The wealth of historical information on the website is amazing and thanks to Don and the other volunteers like him, it will not be lost to future generations.

  • Gerry Connors
    November 01, 2010 - 10:51

    Been on that site many times. It's a fountain of knowlege & just an interesting site. Thanks!

  • John
    November 01, 2010 - 07:45

    I can only imagine how much time Mr. Tate spends on his site. Just the proof reading must take him hours each day in addition to the many other tasks involved with managing a web site. What is unfortunate is the federal governments decision to keep census information unavailable for such a long time (100 years?). Why not release this information after 50 years, especially as this information can be found elsewhere with some digging in the archives or even the newspapers. This would be imensely valuable the many NLers who have moved away due work, marriage etc.

    • chris neal
      November 18, 2011 - 13:20

      i believe mr. tate spends alot less time then you think working on this site. its the people who volunteer their time that have made this site what it is. without them this site would have never made it. to much appreciation goes to the top guys, when its always the little guys that are doing all the work!