Thursday, June 10, 2010

Genealogical Intuition - Can You Trust Your Gut?

The blessing and the bane of the family historian's toolkit. Intuition. That feeling. Just knowing. It's happened to me twice in the past couple weeks, and while it was kind of exciting ("That's what I thought! I knew I was right!"), it was also a little disconcerting. I knew I was right? No. Now I know I was right. Before, I just thought I was right.

Genealogists spend a lot of time talking about standards of evidence. And yet, it's so hard to ignore that feeling that keeps pulling you towards that one particular record when you have no indication that the individual in that record is any more likely to be the ancestor you're searching for than any of the other people who have (or don't have) his name.

1) I explained recently how I'd been drawn to a particular John O'Hara in's Index to Petitions for Naturalization filed in New York City, 1792-1989. And it seems I was right! Now, I wouldn't have used an extracted index to add information to a database or family tree. But some of us grad students without full time jobs live in genealogical poverty and don't have the freedom to send away for - and pay for - records we aren't sure pertain to our research. Given that every incorrect record I order is one correct record I can't afford, would I have been justified in paying for that record just because I thought it was the right one? (Remember, nothing in the record gave me any reason to think it was the right one. I just had a feeling.)

2) I was recently looking for my fiance's relatives in the 1901 Irish Census online. We knew that his great-grandmother's name was Bridget Theresa Healy, and that she was variously recorded as Bridget, Theresa, and Tess. Between census records, vital records, and a family diary, information indicated that she was "of Waterville, County Kerry, Ireland," her parents were James Healey and Bridget Sullivan, she was born around 1884 and immigrated around 1904. So she should have been in Ireland in 1901. But we couldn't find her! (Because she developed tuberculosis and spent time in a sanatarium before dying young, she's identifiable on few US Censuses, and her daughter, Ben's grandmother, knew little about her.) Ben was unconvinced by the widowed Bridget Healy, a woman old enough to have been Bridget Sullivan Healy, who was living with several of her kids - no Bridget Theresa - near but not in Waterville, but I had a feeling. He preferred a couple of other Bridget Healys, of Bridget Theresa's age, who didn't match certain other details. I had no particular reason to think I was right - there were several Healy families in the Waterville area, some of whom had daughters of the proper age but parents with the wrong names, or vice versa - and literally the only thing we knew about the Healys was that Bridget Sullivan Healy had to be old enough to have borne a child in the mid-1880s. It's pretty easy to fall into the right age range when that range is 40 years wide. We didn't have a lot to go by.

Should I, or should I not, have insisted on taking the Waterville family most seriously? I certainly wanted to. I was so sure, but without any evidence.

Eventually, we discovered the Church Records Project at the Irish Genealogy website. We were able to find extracted baptismal records for Bridget Theresa Healy and several other children of James Healy and Bridget Sullivan. From there, I could match up the names and ages of the other children born to the couple to the children still living at home with Bridget in 1901. Ben doesn't like it when I point out that I'm right, but in this case, well, I wasn't wrong.

Can genealogical intuition be a useful tool? Or is it glorified guessing that can lead you down dangerously wrong paths with false confidence?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

This American Life: Conventions

Today at work, I was listening to an episode of This American Life. While it's not at all related to genealogy, I thought the episode, Conventions, might be interesting to those of you geneabloggers and others who will be at the SCGS Jamboree this weekend! You can download it on iTunes for $0.99 or stream it online for free at It might make for some fun listening as you travel to the Jamboree this weekend, and it sure made me wish I'd be joining you!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Genetic Genealogy

I love finding genealogy in unexpected places. On one of the non-genealogy blogs I often read, I found this story last week. From Conversion Diary:

A few years ago my family was asked to participate in a study ofHNPCC, a genetic mutation that causes colon cancer. My dad's family is known to carry it, so some researchers who combine genetics with genealogy wanted to get info from us to find out more about how this mutation has spread. Thorough the study we found out that my dad has it (hence his colon cancer 25 years ago); I had a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, but I didn't get it (whew!).
What I found most interesting was the fact that they've traced all cases of HNPCC back to one man who came to America from Hesse, Germany in the early 1700's. All of us who have or have parents who have the HNPCC mutation are related to one another. I've seen the researcher's chart (names omitted) that shows all these thousands of people spread out all over the country, all going back to this one guy. I found that fascinating.

I hesitate to call it a "cool" story - because of the unfortunate genetic propensity to colon cancer in her family - but I think it's amazing that the researchers were able to determine exactly where that mutation first occurred, and in whom it first occurred, not to mention the relationships of all the people he passed it on to! As a family historian, though, I just think it's a shame that the descendancy chart she saw had names omitted!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Does that say what I think it says?!

There was a while when I was searching for the passenger manifest showing my great-grandfather, John O'Hara, returning to the US as a child after his family had spent a few years in Ireland. There were a couple of possible John O'Haras in the right time period, but I wasn't ever sure just which one was him. The most likely one showed up on the passenger manifest all by his lonesome, 4 years old, without any parents or younger brothers listed nearby, though it was noted that he was "going with father + mother." I thought I'd looked through all the pages of that manifest to find his father (and the rest of his family?) but either I meant to but didn't, or I missed them when I did. When it finally occurred to me that I should be searching on his brother Eugene's name instead, I got a hit, for Eugene, on the same ship, which sailed in 1902. The family of 5 is listed on 3 different pages.

Eugene and Patrick are on the first page of the manifest, almost obscured by damage:

As I said, Grandpa JJ is all on his own page:

And their parents, John and Mary, are on yet another page:

Now, it was months ago that I found these records, but it wasn't until last night - I wanted to look at their "place of last residence" to see if I could find them in the 1901 Irish Census - that I looked particularly closely at just what this manifest said. Next to John Sr.'s name, it says in big letters that he's a US Citizen. Written directly underneath that, though (and I mean underneath it, like the handwriting overlaps, not underneath it like on the next line), it says when he became a citizen!

I can't necessarily read the whole thing, but it says something like "Cit. paper of #29 something something Kings Co., NY, Oct 14/98."

Wait, for real? All this time, the exact date of John O'Hara's naturalization had been sitting right there in my files and I hadn't noticed it? I'd been looking at naturalization indexes this week, and, as per usual, the number of John O'Haras who had naturalized in NYC between the late 1880s and 1900 was staggering. (I can't even imagine how people research Smiths, when I have so much trouble with O'Haras!) There was one that seemed particularly likely, but I couldn't be sure and didn't know if I wanted to take the chance on ordering it. This morning, I searched on Ancestry for John O'Hara naturalized in 1898, and lo and behold, that John O'Hara that I'd been tempted by? That John O'Hara was naturalized 14 October 1898!

I think it's safe to say that I'll hesitate no longer!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010