It May Be Etched in Stone, But It Doesn’t Mean It’s Correct

Oh the heartbreak when I realized that one of the types of sources that I believed were inarguable (way back when I was just a wee tot in genealogy) were actually hugely questionable.

I had some preconception that if someone where to etch a piece of information in stone, it HAD to be correct. Why would you preserve it for eternity if it were wrong?

Now, I had by this time come to terms with the fact that census reports were to be taken with a measure of scepticism. Of course, the value of the information depends solely on who the census taker was, if they were actually literate and spoke the same language as the family they were interviewing. Not dissimilar to those validating manifests in the ports. But you had to also consider who answered the door when the census taker came around. What if the only person home was not actually sure, but gave their best guess? Somehow I was able to understand and accept that census reports could add confusion rather than clarify the answer to a simple question, such as “When was my great grandfather born.”

But the heartbreaker? Ah, that was gravestones. I have had some pretty serious debates with my own family about the true dates for birth or death of an ancestor, because one of us would get stuck on the date that was carved in stone. But the reality should have been a bit less earthshattering to understand.

Let’s take my Great Great Grandfather, Patrick Morgan, as an example. He has four different birthdates, between baptismal records, census reports and his gravestone. I would have thought the gravestone was correct, but it’s off by a year. Why? Well, he’d lived a good long life, on two different continents, and whomever it was that actually requested the gravestone was apparently not as sure about his birthdate. Considering that he was born in 1841 and died in 1906, well, it shouldn’t be that shocking that 65 years later the actual date might get a bit fuzzy.

What I have found is that the information etched in stone isn’t always wrong, and most of the time if it is, it’s not that far off…but if what you have to start with is a headstone date and just one census you may find that you are staring down the barrel of a decade of difference, if not more.

Don’t give up, just keep searching for verifiable information. You’ll get there….it just might take a while.

To Tech or Not to Tech

Listen. I’m all about technology. I run with two computers (one Mac, one PC), use the cloud, feel that I have become quite adept at online research, and am a Family Tree Maker user. And I have been, for over two decades.

However, while it’s lovely to have digital folders and it’s cool to click through my growing archives and quickly retrieve something that can be emailed/uploaded etc…there comes a point where I just have to go old school.

I have to have paper. Lots of paper.

I need big paper to sketch out family trees as they build…and to thought map potentials when there aren’t enough primary sources (yet) to pick one direction.

I need narrow ruled, hardbacked writing pads to review and compile research from various sources.

I need a pen in my hand, and paper in front of me.

I need physical photos and documents too. Not the originals, but copies that I can mark-up and flag and post-it to my hearts content. It is a large part of how my brain works.

It’s like physically writing all that information down longhand puts it into a different part of my brain. Being able to compare documents that I have physically in front of me to verify handwriting is key when I need to know if that’s really a 9….or is it a 4?

Sometimes, paper is really the only way to go.

Sure, it may mean double work at some stages, whether I need to extrapolate information I’ve obtained digitally, or enter information into my databases that I’ve sussed out the old school way, but it works for me.

I’m curious if there are others out there that find the same combination works for them…or if most people are all tech, or, conversely, no tech at all….

I’m looking forward to hearing what other folks do!

The Telephone Game

We’ve all played it. As kids, we do it on purpose, we are sat in a circle with some camp counsellor or teacher, and we play the game, and it’s funny. We start off with something like “monkeys like bananas” and end up with “My Mom’s keys are always lost.”

As adults we do it all the time, now whether the original message gets changed on purpose or because as adults we’re all scatterbrained, who knows, and sometimes its funny and sometimes its disastrous.

In the family history game, however, I think we score off the charts in the telephone game.

Here’s an example:

When I first starting working on my own family history, a lot longer ago than I care to admit, I started off with quite an accumulation of breadcrumbs that I thought were absolutely solid kernels to build on. Turns out eating one of those breadcrumbs sometimes led to solid information, but more often than not was like biting into a piece of fairy bread and waking up 50 years later in a totally different place.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the majority of those breadcrumbs were solid, non-fairy food, that helped me corroborate and build on the work my predecessors had faithfully undertaken. And you can’t judge people for passing on what has been said, time and again (although maybe not always the same way). around the table at family gatherings. Often what I discover is the breadcrumb itself isn’t wrong, but the interpretation, over time, is what leads you into the fairy mound.

One of those fairy breadcrumbs that we all ate, was that my family came to the US from Waterford, Ireland. We believed it so much that my Dad and I took time when visiting Ireland when I was 15 or 16 years old to go all the way down to Waterford to see where we came from. A few years later I discovered that we did, sort of come from Waterford.

But it wasn’t Ireland.

It was Waterford, NY. And my family came through there as they headed upstate to settle in what is now Rensellaer County, New York after coming into the country via the Port of New York.

There’s a bit of a difference there.

Where we last were in Ireland, prior to emigrating, was actually Louth. A wee bit up the coast from Waterford (to be fair, almost two thirds of the way up the east coast of Ireland). And there are still members of our family there today, who my father recently met, that we might never have found if I’d stuck to the interpretation of the Waterford connection that I first heard.

As I mentioned, the breadcrumb wasn’t fully fairy, but over time, the telephone game morphed it into something else entirely.

Those potential fairy breadcrumbs cannot be ignored, however.

Here’s another example.

Quite a few years ago I undertook some research for a friend. She wanted me to find information about her biological father, who had connections to Providence, RI. Also of Irish descent, similar to my family. His surname was Miller.

Let me just point out, that looking for an Irish man surnamed Miller, in the mid 1900s, is like looking for a needle in a haystack full of identically appearing needles. Thankfully, almost as an afterthought, she shared with me a vague recollection that she thought he might have been a taxi driver or chauffeur.

HUZZAH!

While there were more Millers than you could shake a stick at, apparently only one had donned the livery, and, after collecting more information that I could bring back to her and her family for verification, we found that was indeed the Miller we were looking for.

So, I guess the moral of the story is, yes, go after those primary sources and direct evidence, but don’t discard the breadcrumbs due to vague recollections and dubious timelines. You may not know yet if it matters, but it will certainly help you if you include this kind of information when you are trekking down the winding road of family research.

Accept the fact that we are all in the midst of a never ending session of the telephone game, and hold onto those crumbs….you’ll be glad you did!

Online Genealogy Research – Perils and Potentials

When I started researching our family history, online research was really just beginning to be a viable resource. The outlets were mostly through a few independent sites that I typically found via clicking travels down long and winding roads….some of those resources still exist of course (Cyndi’s List still being a strong presence). One of my major sources in the beginning was forums and newsgroups which connected me to other genealogists in locations far afield from me, and the generosity of fellow researchers hasn’t changed. I still find it amazing that there are so many of us out there, willing to share personal archives or even do a little local legwork and to help further another researcher’s quest. I hope that never changes. The possibilities out there are endless, and valuable.

Since then those first resources have grown exponentially, and others have joined the ranks. More and more countries are taking on the challenge of digitizing original documents, and sites like http://www.ancestry.com, of which I am a member, provide a huge watershed of this information that is constantly updating. There are so many brick walls of research that have been broken down by what is now available on line.

The perils, of course, are in running too far down the road with information that is not corroborated with direct evidence and primary sources.

For example, I share my trees online for a few reasons. It enables easier access to other members of my family to see how the history is being filled in, but it also creates opportunities to find relatives that I might not have known about, and who have also been digging deep into our common roots. I have had my eyes opened to my own family’s stories that I had feared were lost as we continue to say goodbye to family from our older generations, and have been so grateful to find these new connections.

That said, the number of times I have seen that someone has pulled from my information thinking that we are connected when we are not is a bit sad to see. I have often sent emails to folks that have believed they are connected to our line, to share information to help steer them in the right direction. As an example, if I can see that their branch settled in a geographical location that is not connected to our branch, I will do my best to share with them the info I have so that they do not spend time working on a fruitless research line.

But it does surprise me when I see this happen. Not all of the information I have gathered shows up on a shared tree, but enough does with respect to names, locations, and time periods. Enough, at least, to give a quick visual confirmation if the possibility of connection is truly there.

I’ve also gotten a few emails from folks that feel they have information I need for my tree that they state is validated by a publication that they have found. Often this is a self published history. Sometimes these publications can truly be a wealth of information, but if they do not cite primary sources, please tread carefully!

Solid, corroborated genealogy research requires an understanding of some key concepts.

First you have direct evidence and indirect evidence. Direct evidence is a specific document that proves a specific set of data. For example, a birth certificate will provide date of birth, location of birth, and parent’s names. Indirect evidence (or circumstantial evidence) is information that can allow for an interpretation. For example, some census reports will provide age in years rather than a birthdate. You cannot simply take that age, subtract it from the year of the census and consider that a solid date of birth, however it may allow you to narrow down a time period during which a person was born. (Of course, bear in mind that a person’s birthdate often changes significantly on consecutive census reports as the information is not always given directly by the individual in question to the census taker.)

Further, there are also the concepts of primary sources and secondary sources. Examples of primary sources: vital records and eyewitness testimony taken recent to the time of the event. Examples of secondary sources: information that has been compiled or copied from other sources, or interviews about events long after the occurrence.

The value of indirect evidence and secondary sources should not be underestimated, but time should be taken to corroborate this information with direct evidence and primary sources. Taking the time to make these validations early on will save a lot of heartache later.

Typically my first steps with a new client is all about indirect evidence and secondary sources, but they give me a starting point to begin looking for that solid corroboration. And after all, you have to start somewhere!

There are many places out there to get a solid grasp of what the standards are for genealogical research – your local family history library is a great place to start, but online resources such as http://www.rootsweb.com and http://www.ancestry.com (just to name a few) are also great places to look for information to help you sort through the tangled roots.

What would YOU like to know?

I’ve been addicted to family research — my own and others — for 18 years.  I have created numerous questionnaires to use when first beginning work with a client.  I think that the questionnaire I have developed is….close.  So, I am curious – whether you are a fellow researcher, or someone looking for help with research…what do YOU want to know about your family?

My personal bent, when it comes to genealogical research, is to go past the names and the dates.  I want to know the WHY.  My family emigrated to the United States from Ireland in the 1850′s.  Some of them did it because of the famine, others, well, it’s not so clear.  Yet. 

When I had the chance to go to Ireland, long before I began the foray into the family history that now occupies my every thought, I was 16.  I knew this was my homeland, and I was beside myself.  For the first time in my life everywhere I looked I saw family.  And I was seen as family. My DNA makes it pretty unmistakeable, in the physical form, to question whether or not I might have Irish ancestry.  I felt at home.  For the first time in my (then) young life.  I felt a part of things.  I felt surrounded by people who understood how I thought, what sparked interest, without me having to say a word, or ask a single question.  The only other place I’ve ever felt that is in Australia, my home now.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

So, when I did start working on our family history, 8 years later, I wanted more than names and dates.  I wanted more than what was published in the newspapers when milestones in my family happened.  I wanted to know why they left the one place that I felt I was at home as soon as I stepped onto Irish soil.  I wanted to know what was going on with them….personally. 

Later I discovered that my first ancestors in the United States from my father’s side of the family made an amazing choice.  A painful choice, I am sure.  They left for the new land, and left their children behind.  For one year.  I cannot imagine the grief, and guilt they experienced as they travelled so far, to such an unknown, with only a hope of creating a stable life for those children, and no guarantee when they would see them.  I still don’t have all the answers, but I continue to look.

On my mother’s side it was much the same.  They came from Canada (originally the British Isles, but that’s another story) in the early 1900s.  Several children in tow and a brand new baby…my maternal grandmother.  Why would they move such a large, and new, family to a completely different place? What made them take that leap? Why did that choice make the difference for them?

These are the things I want to know.  Why these people, my ancestors, made these massive choices.

Having recently made a similar one myself, to emigrate to Australia to be with the love of my life, I like to think I have a little more insight now….but my filters, my personal assumptions from my own life experience, could be completely wrong for my relatives….only continued research will tell.  Too many who may have known have passed now, for me to make a simple phone call and ask such a simple question.  But the answers are there, if you are willing to look.

So, as I rebuild my business to help others find their whos and whats and whys, I ask you all – what do YOU want to know?

Racial Memory

Ok, so tonight, in London, I was introduced to someone from Ireland purely becuase we were both female with red curly hair and both had ancestral claims from Ireland.

Now, I am 5th generation Irish-American born and raised with a high percentage of Irish pride. My father’s family (following the surname) comes from Ardee, Co. Louth.

I thought it was laughable that an English gentleman thought we should meet, purely because we share Irish descent.

But this woman, Theresa, validated a few things for me, and as a daughter of an anthropologist, I couldn’t help but take notice. She validated for me a sense of of what the Irish do to live — through humor, taking the piss, and celebration all at the same time. She validated that when she does go home to Ireland, whether alone or surrounded by friends she always feels at home…the same feeling I took away the last time I visited when I was merely 15 (24 years ago). She validated feeling at home on Irish soil regardless of where she’d been since….

Her parents were born in Ireland.

My Great-Great Grandfather was born in Ireland. In the Parish of Ardee, at the crossroads of Silver Hill. His parents emigrated in 1850 to save an infant, or perhaps because she died, I still don’t know where baby Margaret died, but the children, of which my Great-great grandfather Patrick Morgan is one, emigrated a year later. Once they got settled. Such a burden, such a challenge, such a heart-wrenching choice…I cannot fathom.

I took on the task of sorting out the family history in 1991. 22 years ago. To this day I still do not know what I want to know. Was it baby Margaret that sealed the deal? Did they make it on to the boat with her? Is she buried in Liverpool? For my great-great-great grand-parents to have been willing to leave, yet without the rest of their chidren…to have been willing to wait until the soonest opportunity that they could send them over…what was going on? What could force someone to that level of gravity? That heavy of a choice?

Being so close to my homeland, I will get there, and I hope to find some clue. There are still several in that parish of the surnames of my great-great-great grandfather and grandmother….

I can only hope someone remembers. Census records and ships manifests only tell so much. There are many researchers out there who settle for dates and such, however, I want to know WHY. Because the first time I went to Ireland, I felt at home, and it was familiar so much that my heart ached. And I was 15 at the time, and had no idea of any facts….and I can’t help but need to know — WHY.

Going back to where I came from.

24 years ago I had the opportunity to do my junior year of high school at a sister school in Worcester, England.  Bookending my time there I had a chance to visit Ireland, where I was pretty sure my ancestors came from (at the time there was a question about Wales, since my last name is Morgan and apparently ALL Morgans were thought to come from Wales…not true, by the way)…alas, I digress. 

So I went for two brief trips to Ireland, once with my Ma to Dublin, and once with my Dad to Dublin, Waterford and the East Coast that lies between. 

At the time, the family lore, such that we knew, had referenced Waterford in our history, and Ireland, and that the clan was in upstate New York somewhere in the mid to late 1800s, and that was about it. 

I was 15 and 16 at the time of these visits, and it would be a few years after that when I would decide I would take on the challenge of trying to sort it all out.  20 years later, I am an avidly addicted genealogist in my spare time, and have had quite a few mysteries redefined.

Waterford, for example, had nothing to do with Ireland so far as I have found…but was a town in New York State that my ancestors went to after getting off the boat in NYC and heading up to the area of Rensselaer Co., NY.  Indeed, the truth is now known, we hail from Ardee Parish, Co. Louth.  At least, that was where we were last before we decided to make for a new frontier in 1850.

So now, 20 years after taking on this very celtic responsibility of documenting the facts, dates, stories and legends, my job is bringing me back to the British Isles, only a quick hop over to Ireland. Finally, I will have the chance to not just wander the Isle that my family left to come to the USA, but I will be able to wander the actual roads and parish that my Morgans hail from.

Only a genealogist will understand this, for sure, but the anticipation is almost overwhelming.

What I hope to find? The list is endless, and might well require the bribing of a parish priest or two for a glimpse at closely held records, but I am ready for whatever might be revealed, and oh so very curious.

This whole journey began with the basic question – why did they leave? How did where they were, and who they were, lead to who I am?

I may never have all the answers, but these are questions I am more than happy to keep seeking the answers to.