Monday, February 6, 2017

Maria Rizzi writes her name

I've been using Antenati to go through the 1840 marriage records for the town of Bitetto, Bari, in Puglia, Italy, where many of my ancestors were from. It's a time-consuming but valuable exercise, as these marriage records include parents' names for both parties, which has brought me back another generation on several lines.

On all of the records, almost without exception, for my peasant farming ancestors, the last page of the record includes a handwritten line indicating that none of the parties to the marriage (which included any surviving parents of the couple) could write, and so the document is signed by only officials and witnesses.

But there was one exception, and it was not who I expected it to be. My 4th great-grandmother, Maria Rizzi, signed her daughter Teresa Monti's marriage document.

Maria Rizzi signature, 1845 marriage record of Vincenzo Cianciotta & Teresa Monti

I thought that the younger you were, the more likely you'd be to be literate. I certainly thought that the male-er you were, the more likely you'd be to be literate. Instead, my family's first brush with literacy comes in the form of a widowed woman, in her 40s if not older, possibly even a grandmother by this point.

I find myself so curious about this ancestor, who had learned to write her own name when most of those around her had not, more than a decade before Italy's public education system was established. And I'm so proud of her, this ancestor whose name I didn't know this morning, for her remarkable accomplishment.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Kings of Cloonsunna, Mayo, Ireland

My great-great-grandmother was Mary Ellen King, who married John O'Hara, probably in early 1890s Brooklyn.

Her death certificate gives her parents as Patrick King and Bridget Fadden, and her birth date as 3 December 1875. (The 1900 Census records her birth as being in May 1872.)

A John King lived with the O'Hara family in the 1910 Census. He is recorded as a boarder. John's death certificate gives his parents as John King and Bridget Fadden. His death certificate and WWI Draft Registration Cards record his birthday as being 8 November 1881.

A Martin King also lived with O'Hara family in 1910, but I can't find him anywhere else after that. According to the census, he would have been born c. 1885.

When the O'Hara family returned to Ireland in the early 1900s, they lived in Castlebar. Mary's husband was from the area near Castlebar. Her son John married the daughter of other Castlebar-area natives. I had a strong suspicion that she was from the area near Castlebar, but couldn't be sure.

An index search showed up no Patrick King and Bridget Fadden couples, but did return a John King and Bridget Fadden, from Cloonsunna, Co. Mayo. A page-by-page search of the Catholic Parish records for the area (Castlebar Parish) turned up the following children with parents by those names:

Thomas King, 24 Nov 1856
residence Cloonsinn[?] 
Catherine King, 27 May 1859
residence Cloonsumma 
Michael King, 19 Sept 1861
residence Holy Hill 
Patt King, 29 Feb 1864
residence Ballyhean 
Anne King, 5 Feb 1868
residence Cloonsunna 
John King, 14 Nov 1878
residence Cloonsuma

NOT in the parish registers - and I've double checked - is the Bridget King whose birth 12 Dec 1874 birth was registered on 6 Feb 1875 to John King and Bridget Fadden of Cloonshinnagh.

Also NOT in the parish registers - because they stop at 1880 - is the Martin King whose 26 Jan 1882 birth was registered to John King and Bridget Fadden on 14 June 1882.

Civil records don't begin until 1864, can't be browsed, and mothers' maiden names are not typically indexed, which means that I can only find the children I know to look for. Searching for these particular children yields:

Pat King, 29 Feb 1864
residence Holy Hill 
Anne King, 10 Feb 1868
residence Cloonsheennagh 
Bridget King, 12 Dec 1874
residence Cloonshinnagh
Martin King, 26 Jan 1882
residence Cloonsheenagh

NOT in the civil records - at least not showing up when I search - is the John King recorded in the parish registers as being born 14 Nov 1878.

There is no Mary, but the dates for Bridget are close. The John King born 14 Nov 1878 is a good candidate for the John King I'm interested in, although the lack of a civil record makes me wonder if he survived long enough for his birth to be registered. (Though I find no corresponding civil death record, either.) Patt King born in 1864 is far too young to be Mary Ellen's father, if the parents' names on her death certificate are, in fact, correct.

For most of these births and baptisms, the Kings lived in either Clonnsunna or Cloonshinnagh. They are technically two different townlands, but are only about half a mile away as the crow flies, practically right across the road.

Google sure does send you the long way, though! N.B. There appear to be 2 different Cloonshinnaghs in Mayo, about an hour apart. Google apparently chooses at random which to send you to.

Ballyhean is 2.5 Kilometers, or about a mile and a half, from Cloonsunna. I can't find anywhere in Castlebar parish called Holy Hill, but given that the Kings lived in both Holy Hill and Ballyhean at the same time when Patt was born, I assume it was a place name that referred to the same area.

I should note that neither index searches nor paging through these records revealed any other likely candidates for Mary Ellen King, but Bridget shows that the registers are missing at least one birth in the 1870s.

And that's where we stand.

What would you suggest to confirm or deny that Bridget and Mary are the same person, or that Mary was also part of this family?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Using Church Records: A Cautionary Tale

I have long been confused by the fact my great-grandfather's youngest sister, Mary O'Hara, was missing from the 1910 census and missing from the baptismal register at the church where she should have been baptized. I eventually found a birth record for her, but these omissions still troubled me. It's one thing for a child here or there to be misnamed, misrecorded, or passed over, whether by the census taker, the parish priest, or the family legend, but for the same child to be missed in every case made me wonder.

I had contacted the Catholic Church nearest the O'Hara family home to try to find the family's sacramental records, and was rewarded with only one: Mary's older sister Malinda was baptized in April 1905. They couldn't find any of the others.

I contacted the same Catholic Church, on a different occasion, to request sacramental records for my Quinn family, who also lived nearby, and was told that, despite a search, there were no sacramental records for any of them. "Must have attended a different parish," I thought. "They don't call Brooklyn the 'Borough of Churches' for nothing." But during a recent visit to my great-uncle's home, he was able to show me a copy of the baptismal certificate of my great-grandmother, Molly Quinn. She was baptized March 28, 1897 at that very church.

Molly Quinn, Anna Mary Quinn, Brooklyn, Gillen, Quinn
Baptismal Certificate
Anna Mary Quinn
28 March 1897
The certificate that I saw was dated 1923, so it's not a question of the baptism never having been recorded. (This certificate was acquired in preparation for her wedding.) But Molly was baptized not Mary Quinn but Anna Mary Quinn, so the person searching the records must have missed it. It's not unreasonable that a parish secretary, whose job has nothing to do with genealogy, doesn't check each record for middle names and mothers' maiden names, but looks for Mary Quinn when asked to look for Mary Quinn.

Using second-hand church records that are closed to the public is a dicey proposition, but I think we have to do it anyway. There are other avenues for some of the information on some of the records (parents' names are on birth certificates, but in NYC births were only unreliably registered prior to about 1900), but others - like godparents - are exclusively available from baptismal records. What is essential to understand - and what I didn't realize before - is that they can be positive evidence when they're found (Malinda O'Hara's godmother was Malinda McGlone, as recorded on her baptismal certificate), but never negative evidence when they're not (The lack of a baptismal record for Mary O'Hara suggests that the O'Haras moved or changed parishes between 1905 and 1908).

What is your experience with contacting churches for records not available for public use?

Monday, November 7, 2016

Good fences make good neighbors: Using Griffith's Valuation

During a recent weekend when FindMyPast offered free Irish records, I spent some time looking through the records of the Irish Petty Sessions Court for Castlebar. I found that my 3x great-grandfather, Patrick O'Hora, spent a lot of time there in 1878, always as the complainant. On four separate occasions, his neighbors James and Thomas Blean let their sheep get into his fields - twice into the turnips, and twice into the oats. I found myself surprisingly aggravated on his behalf. Fix your fences, already, Mr. Blean! The Bleans are listed as residents of a different townland than the O'Horas, though; they are from Crumlin, while we are from Spink.

July 1878, Court of Petty Sessions, Castlebar
O'Hora v. Blean
The O'Horas are alternately listed in Spink and in Tawnyshane, which I believe are two names that applied to the same area. More on that soon.

But in using Griffith's Valuation and maps recently, I got a very good idea of just where the O'Horas were living - or at least, where their oats and turnips were growing. There's only one Patrick O'Hora listed in Tawnyshane; he and two other O'Horas, Michael and Anthony, are all listed in Lot 1, and they each have a house listed, so it would not be unreasonable to suppose that they all live there. I can't actually find the letters indicating houses on the map, so I don't know about the arrangements of the buildings. Then, I noticed, on another page, the enumeration of the townland of Crumlin. A James Blain occupied Lot 5.

To the maps I went, and although they took a lot of figuring out, I eventually located Tawnyshane, and Lot 1, held by the O'Horas. Sure enough, whose land was immediately adjacent to it? James Blain's, right over the border in Crumlin.

Griffith's Valuation map. Crumlin/Tawnyshane

You can see both lots towards the center of the map, with a bold red line between them, marking the border between the two townlands. Crumlin Lot 5 is long and horizontally oriented, and Tawnyshane Lot 1 is just beneath it, a sort of irregular square. As it turns out, Mr. Blain's lot is significantly larger than the one shared by 3 O'Horas, which makes me even more annoyed about his marauding sheep. Keep them on your own land, if you have so much of it! Don't destroy our meager crop!

Most of my previous attempts at using Griffith's Valuation have consisted of staring blankly at the page and saying, "But how can I tell if that John Smith is MY John Smith?!" I knew there was a lot of potential there, but this is the first time I've systematically cross-referenced multiple sources to actually be able to interpret it, and the first time I've really been able to use it to tell me something. I'm so excited to see what else is there!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Not at Ellis Island: How my family's name changed

My great-grandfather, John O'Hara (or "Grandpa JJ," as I knew him), was born in Brooklyn in the late 1896, the child of Irish immigrants John O'Hara and Mary King. When he was a boy, his family returned to Ireland, where they lived in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, for a few years. His father ran a pub, but they sold it and returned to Ireland in 1902, when he was 6 years old. While the family was in Ireland, they were always recorded under the name "O'Hora," and all of the records of our forebears in the area are of O'Horas.

Despite being a Brooklyn native, John entered school with an Irish brogue because of the years he had spent there. According to stories my dad told me, the other kids used to tease him* by making him say "forty-four," because he pronounced it "farty-far," which sounds like "fart."

When my dad was a kid, and his grandfather was trying to teach him to speak with an Irish brogue, he started him with saying "farty-far" for "forty-four."

The other night, I had an epiphany. When I look at O'Hora, I pronounce it with a long O - the same vowel sound as in "four." My brogue-having O'Hora ancestors would have pronounced their name O'Hahra - with the same vowel sound as in "far." No wonder that as they adjusted to life in America, the American spelling shifted to reflect the way the name was pronounced! I marvel that I never noticed the simplicity of it. I'm not sure I can really claim that my family's name changed at all.

*Something about this doesn't ring true to me. Brooklyn in 1902 would have had a substantial population of kids and/or their parents who spoke with the accents of Ireland and other countries. Would it really invite ridicule from his schoolmates, many of whose parents undoubtedly spoke with a similar brogue?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11, 2001

[A version of this post originally appeared on September 11, 2011.]

I've struggled with whether to blog about my memories of September 11, 2001, as suggested at Geneabloggers. It seems trite, somehow, a superficial way to treat the scariest, most vividly horrific day of my life. But I've been thinking about that day all weekend, and I want to write about it. So I'll write, and I think I may even hit "publish" when I'm done.

The night of September 11, 2001, and the afternoon of the next day, I wrote down my experiences, because I thought I'd want to remember them. I didn't realize at the time that I wouldn't be able to forget if I tried. I've never had to refer back to what I wrote when writing or telling someone how I experienced the day. The memories are too vivid, and too detailed. This will be long, I must warn you. I've tried to edit it before, and I can only revisit the memories in minute detail. They don't make any sense to me when I try to cover just the important points.

I was a sophomore in HS, in Chemistry class, when an announcement was made over the PA system. The assistant principal got on, and announced that the principal was going to make an announcement. Then the principal came on, and announced that two planes had been "purposefully" flown into the Twin Towers. My first reaction was a flash forward, to some time in the future, as I told my yet-unborn children how their grandfather had been killed the day the World Trade Center was bombed.

I specifically remember thinking "bombed," though I knew quite well that the announcement had not said that the towers had been bombed. But what word does the English language have for when you fly passenger planes into skyscrapers full of people? "Bombing" was how we conceived of terrorism at the time. It wasn't immediate that we were actually able to settle on using the word "attack" to describe what had happened that day. If you read other people's accounts of their memories, they are often full of terrified phone calls telling them to turn on the TV because "something happened in New York!" And so I thought "bombed," though I knew the word was inaccurate. But mostly, I just thought my dad was dead.

But only for a split second. Immediately thereafter, I went into what I suppose you would call "denial." It was simply inconceivable that my dad could be dead. I wouldn't be able to handle that. He just couldn't be. And so, I went about my day. "If anything's really wrong," I thought, "they'd tell me." (By "really wrong," I, in my adolescent self-centeredness, thought only of things that would affect my own life.) I had two close friends in that class who, I later found out, didn't know what at all to do with me. They knew my dad worked in the Twin Towers, but I was not at all acknowledging  the fact. I simply did my chem lab. I burned my finger on some hot glass. But I didn't talk about my dad. (My sister, a floor below me, I would later learn, was crying and leaving class repeatedly to call my mom. I, meanwhile, was acting as if everything would be okay, because, well, it just had to be.)

When my first of two periods of Chemistry was over, an unusually large number of people were called down to the office. I took comfort in the fact that Laura and I weren't among them. If anything were really wrong, they'd be calling us down to the office. All those kids who got called down, those must be the kids whose parents were injured or killed. Our dad must have been okay. It didn't occur to me that it might be hours, if not days, before some people were accounted for, and that there was no way that anyone had heard from or about my father  - or anyone else's - yet.

During our second period of Chemistry, there was another announcement: a plane had hit the Pentagon. And another: all after-school activities were cancelled. And then, after that period - we were called down to the office. I went to my locker first. I took the long way to get there. I just didn't want to hear what they might be about to tell me. I ran into a friend. She said she'd been looking for me, she wanted to talk to me. I - not at all realizing the scope of what was happening, not realizing that it must be first on everyone's mind, not just my own - thought she was going to tell me what the drama with her boyfriend at the football game Friday night had been about. Instead, she asked how I was. "I don't know," I answered. "I'm going to find out." How I was depended entirely on what they told me in the office  - and again, at this point, I assumed that "they" (the office staff? my mother? the  authorities?) would know whether Dad was okay.

Outside the office was a large crowd of students. One gave me a pinky-swear that my dad would be okay. I thought that was inane, but didn't say so. Another told me that my sister had been crying, really hard. I don't remember who that was, and I'm glad, because it made me think that Dad was dead and Laura had already been told. (She was probably just trying to let me know that my sister needed me.) Another told me to go talk to the woman wearing the red sweater. I went to talk to her. All she told me - this was supposed to be the big moment of truth - was that Virginia Ward was coming to pick me up. "I don't know who that is." But that was the name she had. A friend suggested that it might be Virginia R*****. She was the only Virginia we knew. Of course it was her. But I wasn't thinking clearly.

She came to pick us up, and then we had to go get my youngest sister at elementary school. Virginia asked me to come inside with her, since I was the oldest. In the front hall - there was a desk set up, anticipating the high demand for pulling kids out of school - a teacher told us that the kids hadn't been told yet. Virginia told me that I'd have to tell Anna, because she should hear it from family. I was lost. I felt like just a kid myself. I didn't know what was going on. How could this be my job?

As Anna left her classroom, she put her chair on her desk, just like everyone always had to do in elementary school. I seemed like such a normal, everyday, childhood movement. I couldn't believe it could coexist with what I was about to tell her. As we walked down the hall, she asked "Why are we getting picked up?" and I had to tell her. "A plane hit Daddy's office building." She reached out and held my hand. And then Virginia added, reassuringly, "But the plane hit very high up, and your Daddy's office was very low down, so I'm sure he'll be okay," or something to that effect. I only remember the beginning of the sentence, because it was new information to me. I hadn't known where the plane had hit, or remembered what floor Dad's office was on, and I hadn't thought to ask.

When we got to the house, there were lots of cars outside, and all I could think of was the scene in Cheaper by the Dozen where (spoiler alert) the kids come home after school, and they know something's wrong because of all the cars lined up outside the house, and it turns out that their father has died of a heart attack. If there are lots of cars outside, then Dad must be dead!

We went inside, where a number of my aunts and one uncle were, with my mom. Everyone was crying, and everyone hugged us. I saw Mom crying; it was to be expected. I saw several of her sisters crying; to be expected. But then I saw my dad's sister's crying face, and I knew he was dead. And then someone said something along the lines of "there's nothing we can do but wait," and I realized for the first time that no one knew anything yet. They were all just as clueless as I was. We were all waiting for news.

I remember seeing a tower fall for the first time as I walked into the TV room to greet my uncle, but I had no conscious awareness of what I was seeing. My mom went upstairs, and Virginia came over and whispered to me that maybe I should go up and check on her. This seemed uncharacteristic of me (you'll recall that I've already mentioned my adolescent self-centeredness), but I did it anyway. Mom said she just wanted to shower. I came back down. Virginia left, but soon returned with several pizzas and a few bottles of soda before leaving us to wait and watch with family. No one was hungry.

Most of my detailed recollection ends here. All the waiting was kind of a blur. I don't really know what we did with ourselves, and what I do remember, I don't remember in order. My aunt arrived, bringing with her my cousin Grace, who was not quite 2 at the time. She was, for me, literally a saving Grace. She prattled happily in baby talk, and let us occupy ourselves with something other than the news and the worry. We colored. She was just learning her colors, and that day, everything was "lello." I thought that was ironic. Or symbolic. Something. I noticed, as we stood around coloring, the outfit I was wearing - new clothes, because it was the beginning of the school year. I had on a green three-quarter sleeve shirt, with light blue jeans and a black belt. I made a mental note not to ever wear that exact outfit again - whether out of respect or superstition, I'm not quite sure, but I know I never did it.

At one point, Grace and I were alone in the play room, coloring. The phone rang. There was a bit of a commotion. I couldn't tell whether it was a good commotion or a bad commotion, and I couldn't make out anyone's words. I was terrified. For a minute, I couldn't bring myself to go into the other room. I wanted to stay where I was, pretend I hadn't heard anything, and not have to hear whatever they had learned. I forced myself to pick Grace up and go into the living room, where my mom said, "That was Lester's wife Leann. Dad and Lester are walking uptown together."

We didn't have any details - Dad and all of his friends had been trying to get in touch with their wives, but the cell phone service was overcome by demand, and most of them couldn't get through. When Lester finally reached his wife, I guess, she was given a list of numbers to call to let everyone's family know that they were alive. My family is probably not the only one that thinks fondly and gratefully of Leann, though most of us have never met her. On such a terrible day, she was the one tasked with the telling of good news, and we who received that good news have never forgotten her.

It occurs to me now that I had spent the entire day assuming any news would be bad news. It's not a hard assumption to make, when planes are crashing and buildings are falling. It's only in retrospect that I'm able to see that on that day, no news was almost always worse. For my family, and I'm sure for many others, the phone ringing was heart-stopping, but it brought good news. It was when the phone didn't ring, undoubtedly, that the worst news slowly dawned.

The rest of our afternoon became about logistics. Locating Dad, and other relatives at work in the city, and trying to get them home. No one could drive into the city, Dad's car was stuck in a parking garage near Ground Zero (though we had yet to hear the phrase) and mass transit was suspended. Who could get the closest to a bridge or tunnel, to pick them up as soon as they got onto the New Jersey side? How could we organize it? We got one phone call from Dad, from a restaurant he had stopped at, but after that he was difficult to reach.

We played soccer on the front lawn at one point. We might have watched a movie? My aunt brought my cousin by after picking her up from school, "because of Uncle Kevin." I hadn't even been sure that I would be picked up from school, and Uncle Kevin was my dad. I was only beginning to comprehend how much bigger this was than just how it affected me.

People were stopping by the house, some of them not even knowing that Dad had been in the World Trade Center. The best man at his wedding happened to be in town - I was reminded that it was my parents' anniversary. A coworker of his, who had mercifully taken a vacation day, dropped something off. Neighbors, friends, everyone wanted to see how we were.

Late that afternoon, two of my friends came by the front door. I stood on the step and talked to them for a while. They asked about my dad; they told me how school had gone after I left. They told me that Samantha D*** had been crying in gym class. "Why?" I asked. They looked at me like I was crazy. "Because of your dad." I was still so focused on how I was being affected that I wasn't aware of what the attack meant to other people, those who knew my family and those who didn't, those who were in the towers and those who weren't.

Then we saw someone walking up the road, his shoes in his hand. I assumed it was some dumb teenager. Who else would carry his shoes in his hand for no good reason? "Who is that?" I asked. My friend faltered. "I . . . I think it's your dad." It hadn't occurred to me that he would be walking home, and so it hadn't registered that it could be him. I stayed on the step, unsure of what to do. Should I run to him, or run inside to tell everyone else that he's home?

Suddenly, my mom burst out of the side gate, somehow having seen him coming from the backyard. She was followed by my sisters, my grandmother, and everyone else at my house. I'm still not sure why, but I stayed put for a minute, until my aunt came to the door and urged me to join them, at which point I did. We had our reunion near the top of our next door neighbor's driveway.

There's more, of course: the church service that night; doing my math homework before bed, since I was pretty sure my new math teacher was so strict she wouldn't find even a national and personal tragedy to be a reasonable excuse for not handing in your homework; crying on the soccer field the first day that after school activities returned, as the physical exertion finally caused my emotions to overflow; the dreams I had in the weeks after, where I watched my dad die in various televised scenarios; gathering at my grandmother's on Friday, with a "God Bless Kevin" cake, so that everyone who had worried about my dad could see him. My experience of September 11 extended well past the hours of the actual day. There are things that happened months or even years later that I consider part of my memories of that day.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Maria D'Ingeo Gatto and her godchildren

I was recently contacted by a new cousin of mine, whose grandmother, Rosa D'Ingeo, was the sister of my great-grandmother, Maria D'Ingeo. She was kind enough to send me this picture, of Maria with her two godchildren, Anna (L) and Rose (R) DeChirico, Rose's daughters.

Brooklyn NY, Catholic, First Communion, godmother
Anna DeChirico, Maria D'Ingeo Gatto, Rose DeChirico

I am completely enamored of the details on Grandma Gatto's purse, shoes, and glamorous shirt!

I would estimate that this picture was taken in the early 1930s, as Rose DeChirico was born c. 1922 and Anna c. 1923, and I think they both look to be around 10 or a few years older. (But I've been very wrong before when playing the "how old is that person?" game with old photos!)

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Moment in Time with Rubella

Recently, I told my mother how I had accidentally fallen asleep next to my son's crib waiting for him to fall asleep, and had a stiff neck in the morning as a result. Convinced that we are overindulging him, she replied, "The only time anyone ever slept next to my crib was when I had German measles! Grandpa slept on the floor next to my crib because I was so sick!"

I asked how old she was when this happened, and she said she was really young - obviously still in a crib - and that she thinks it's her earliest memory. 

As a parent, I'm not terribly concerned that she thinks we're Doing It Wrong (TM). As an historian, I am very interested in the historical moment that this memory represents, one that probably couldn't be repeated today.

It was probably around 1961, assuming my mother was around 2. A vaccine for rubella (German measles) wouldn't come out until 1969. My grandfather was not exactly a modern man, in the sense of doing much of the care-giving work of parenting. My first instinct was an "Awww . . ." at the thought of my tough-as-nails grandfather being so concerned about his sick toddler that he'd sleep on the floor. But then I remembered something about rubella; it's not typically very dangerous for the kids who have it; it's dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn babies. According to the CDC,

Rubella is a contagious disease caused by a virus. Most people who get rubella usually have a mild illness, with symptoms that can include a low-grade fever, sore throat, and a rash that starts on the face and spreads to the rest of the body. Rubella can cause a miscarriage or serious birth defects in an developing baby if a woman is infected while she is pregnant. 

Grandpa was sleeping on the floor because Grandma couldn't. She was likely either pregnant with my uncle, or was keeping away out of an abundance of caution in case she was pregnant. Perhaps limiting contact with women of child-bearing age was just a general recommendation for kids with German measles.

That was 1961.

This is 2016. Old-fashioned men like my grandfather are a vanishing breed. Rubella is a vanishing disease. Men sleeping on the floor next to their toddlers' crib provoke fewer "Awwws" and more "You're Doing It Wrongs." Even pregnant mothers don't have to worry about getting rubella from their sick kids, when both mother and child have been vaccinated against it.

The moment has passed.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Top 10 Genealogy Faux Pas

Thinking about those times when, as genealogists, we rub the "normal" people in our families (or the genealogist at the next microfilm reader) the wrong way, I present this list of the Top 10 Genealogy Faux Pas:

10. Hoarding the family heirlooms.
9. Not citing your sources.
8. Taking over the comments on a #TBT post with questions about the precise dates and places of those old family photos.
7. Doing all your research on the one microfilm reader with print capabilities.
6. Interrupting every family story with, "Well actually, according to my research . . . "
5. Sharing the secret family recipe.
4. "So you're saying you were born in August, and your parents were married in March . . . Let me just do the math here, just to be clear . . ."
3. Taking notes on the biographical data on a memorial card . . . at the funeral.
2. Skipping the family reunion to go do research at the Family History Library.
1. Asking a lady her age.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Poor Law Union Board of Guardians Minutes

My Rothwells and Mulvaneys lived in Kells, County Meath, Ireland, and immigrated to Brooklyn, NY, sometime in the early 1850s. In an effort to learn more about their story, I ordered the microfilm of the Board of Guardians Minute Books for 1851.

I had no idea what I was going to find. I don't actually know if the Mulvanys or Rothwells were in the workhouse, but I know they were poor, and that sometimes people ended up there until they could immigrate. I also didn't know whether there was much if any chance that they would actually be mentioned in the minutes if they were.

So far, having spent only a couple hours on these records, I haven't found my ancestors. But I thought I'd share a few of the things I have come across, so you know what kinds of gems may be found in these records.

By far the vast majority of inmates of the workhouse are not included in the minutes by name. Every week's meeting begins with an accounting of the number of inmates. The week ending Saturday, 31 May 1851, there were about 1300. Most weeks pass without any naming of inmates, but occasionally, there are notes like these:

"The master reported that a pauper named Betsy Gearty fell into a boiler of hot water in the laundry on the 29th Instant and was severely burned."

"Letter from the Clerk of Trim Union noting that the Board of Guardians discharged Margt Soraghan from Trim Workhouse as they assert she belongs to Kells Union."

"Moved by Mr. Dyas
Seconded by Mr. Arthur Radcliff
That James Hopkins Shoemaker, get a suit of Clothes on his going out of the Workhouse . . . . . . .Passed."
"Moved by Mr. John Christie
Seconded by Mr. John Radcliff
Resolved That John Brady, Edward Brady, and Catharine Brady, Inmates of this House, be allowed a suit of Clothes each to enable them to proceed to America, as their passage has been paid by their Mother . . . . Passed."

There's even some follow up on the Bradys: letters from the Poor Law Commissioners asked how much was spent on their clothes, and then expressed approval of the amount, and finally an order approving spending a sum of money to defray the cost of their travel.

"The Clerk was directed to write to the Commss. to call their attention to the case of Paupers named Plunkett from Oldcastle Union, and also to the case of Soragham from Trim Union, and the request they will give directions to the Guardians of these Unions to admit these paupers."

"Letter from the Poor Law Commissioners [???], 28th June '51, stating with reference to a case of a Pauper named Thomas Divine from [???] Union, that the Attorney General has given it as his opinion that an Indictment by [???] a Board of Guardians for causing Pauper to be removed from said Union to another."

"Letter from the Poor Law Commissioners No. 40,518/57 - 1st August 1851 stating with reference to a pauper named Sarah Soraghan that according to the minutes of Proceedings of the Trim Board of Guardians on the 5th Ultimo, this Pauper was residing four years with her mother in the town of Kells."

If you determine that your ancestors were in the workhouse, these minutes have plenty of information about their lives, even if they're not mentioned by name. In Kells in 1851, the minutes talk about a scarcity of water due to broken pipes, about the Master's absence from the schoolroom due to travel and illness, about where the dead are going to be buried, and list what food and other provisions were purchased. You may also be able to find your ancestors here if they weren't in the workhouse, as the Board of Guardians is listed by name, and everyone who won a contract to provide food or fuel or build a storehouse was named. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Genealogy Blog Party: Time Travel to an Ancestor!

I may not understand many of the Dr. Who references in the party invitation, but I'll take an ancestor time machine any time! These days, I'd go back to the late 19th century to meet my enigmatic 3x great-grandfather Richard Toner.

He could answer lots of questions for me:

I certainly would not tell Richard Toner who I am. There were times when he seemed a bit psychologically unstable, and I'm not sure a visit from 2016 would be in his best interest. This is part of what makes him such a fascinating ancestor; there are a lot of interesting things going on in his life, a lot of different jobs, activity with different organizations (police, fire, Democratic party, just to name a few), a roller coaster of financial fortunes (in 1877, he was "formerly worth considerable money") and some apparently very difficult personal relationships. I'd love to get to know this complicated individual. Even without revealing myself, though, I'm still going to have to deal with disrupting the future, because the best way I can see to help him with a problem would be to teach him to boil water during a cholera epidemic, in hopes of saving the lives of two of his children, Julia and James Thomas, who died during NYC's 1866 epidemic.

By Sanatory Committee, under the sanction of the Medical Counsel, in New York City - New York Historical Society. "Plague in Gotham! Cholera in 19th-Century New York." New York Historical Society. April 04, 2008 - August 31, 2008., Public Domain,

Since the official cholera prevention advice of the time wouldn't do much to save my 3x great aunt and uncle, I'll have to step in and do it.

What impact would this encounter have on the future? None of Richard's sons lived to have children, as far as I have been able to determine. If James Thomas had survived to adulthood, there might still be Toner men in this family to test for Y-DNA! If Julia had lived, wouldn't be another Julia Toner. My 2x great-grandmother, the second Julia Toner born into this family, would have had a different name. That is, of course, if she had been born at all. Who really knows whether Richard and his wife Mary would have gone on to have a 9th child in 1868 if they hadn't lost 2 - the oldest and the youngest - in 1866? (Another boy, Richard Joseph, then the youngest, had died in 1863.) If Julia hadn't been born, I wouldn't be here today, and neither would something like 50% of the people I know and love. And if I weren't here, I wouldn't be around to travel back in time to save the elder Julia and potentially wipe out our entire line. (Then what?)

But when I think about the heartbreak of the Toners, losing two children in two days, I'm convinced that going back in time to institute a boil water advisory is a risk I'd have to take. (Plus I really want to find out what happened to the money!)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Scenic views of my ancestral homelands

I used to commute to work by bike, from my home in Queens, through Brooklyn, and into Manhattan, a route which took me across the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge. This bridge separated the two most harrowing parts of my commute, connecting a poorly marked bike lane and heavy truck traffic with no bike line, heavy truck traffic, and an excess of double parking. The bridge itself has no bike lanes, and the incline is enough that once you've crested the hill on a bike, you're pretty invisible to cars coming up behind you. As a result, I usually walked my bike on the sidewalk, and took advantage of the delay to take in the scenery.

Newtown Creek from Greenpoint Avenue Bridge 02
Newtown Creek from Greenpoint Avenue Bridge 02
Postdlf from w [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant
By Jim.henderson (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Inspiring, isn't it? It's not exactly the most picturesque part of Brooklyn, and certainly bears little relationship to Park Slope's brownstones or Williamsburg's trendy boutiques. And yet it never failed to move me, on some level. This industrial Brooklyn is my Brooklyn, my ancestors' Brooklyn. They didn't live in Greenpoint, of course; they lived in Red Hook. But here on the Newtown Creek in Greenpoint is where I felt the most connection to the gritty, industrial Brooklyn that they would have experienced.

I was once out with friends in Brooklyn Heights, and as we walked past the building that had been the Hotel St. George, I mentioned that it was where my grandparents had been married. A Brooklynite friend asked me, slightly exasperated, "Seriously Kathleen, why don't you live in Brooklyn?" As nice as it is to walk past the place where my grandparents were married, though, those special-event, one-of-a-kind locations are not what connect me the most to my family history. It's there on the Newtown Creek, where I wouldn't dare touch the water. It's when I got stuck in growing lines of automotive and bicycle traffic as they raised the Greenpoint Avenue drawbridge to let some industrial, waste-bearing barge pass beneath. It's the sight of sewage treatment plants, shipping containers, and storage warehouses that line both sides of the creek. These are today's equivalents of the shipyards and grain elevators that employed my Mulvaney and Toner ancestors along the Red Hook waterfront, the modern counterparts to the industry that would have been the backdrop to their daily lives, and these are the elements that make me feel the closest to them.