Travelling back in time

U.S. native devotes spare time to N.L. website

Deana Stokes Sullivan
Published on November 1, 2010

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.