Until recently, unless you were lucky enough to know the names of your immigrant Irish ancestors’ parents and/or the place(s) where they were born or resided in the Emerald Isle, such information was often difficult if not impossible to find in American records. That imposing brick wall remained unassailable for many seeking to pursue their ancestral connections in Ireland … until now. During 2015-2016 digitized troves of the two most significant sources for Irish family history – Catholic church registers and civil vital records – were released online, freely accessible on any internet-enabled device. Like the notorious Berlin Wall, that longstanding, insurmountable impediment to discovering Irish ancestry crumbled almost overnight. Continue reading Finding Irish relatives: Part Three
When I began researching my paternal ancestors as a high school student, I had many questions about Barbara Shakshober, the oldest sister of my great-great-grandfather, Jacob Shakshober. Because the 1860 and 1870 censuses report her birthplace as New York, I concluded she must have been born in or near New York City, her parents’ port of arrival to the United States. Finding Barbara’s birthplace might lead to the discovery of her parents’ neighborhood, and perhaps other ancestors with their elusive, often corrupted surname. Continue reading Barbara’s story
Over the years I have fielded a number of questions about why researchers haven’t been able to locate their ancestors in the 1810 census for Salem, Massachusetts, when other records place these ancestors there for their entire lives.
Well, the simple answer was that in the census for 1810, as made available through the National Archives and Records Administration on microfilm (which is where all the digitized census records on sites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org have come from), somehow the town of Salem was not included. Continue reading A census, rediscovered
Surnames of formerly enslaved people can add a lot of confusion when trying to piece together families. Many enslaved individuals were denied an official surname prior to emancipation, and the adoption of surnames following freedom did not follow any prescribed method. In some cases, the surname of the former slave owner was either adopted by choice or assigned to them in the first records in which they appear as free individuals. Continue reading Slave surnames
One of our newest tools, launched last year, is the Archdiocese of Boston: Parish Boundary Map. It was created by the Archive Department of the Archdiocese of Boston. This interactive map is a visual tool that can help you understand which Catholic churches existed in a particular neighborhood or town in the greater Boston area. It should be used in conjunction with our Historic Catholic Records Online project. Continue reading Parish boundary maps
Part 1 of this series discussed how civil registration records can be used to locate the townlands and families of Irish immigrant ancestors, and how to use both civil records and church registers to trace their families backward and forward. While relying on civil vital records may succeed, the method can be time-consuming, especially for individuals like Michael Spellman who were born before civil registration commenced in 1864. As I learned the hard way, using church records is more likely to produce results, perhaps immediately. Continue reading Finding Irish relatives: Part Two
One of my favorite sources for Manhattan research is The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909 by Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes (1867-1944). This six volume set was published between 1915 and 1928 and chronicles the history of Manhattan from the fifteenth century to the early twentieth century. The publication not only records the vast history of Manhattan, it also provides beautiful illustrations and maps.
The volumes most relevant to my own family research are the first and second volumes, which highlight the Dutch period (1609-1664); both volumes have helped me to uncover new information about my family. Most importantly, from this source, I have learned where my Dutch ancestors held property or lived in lower Manhattan during the seventeenth century.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with historical landscapes. How has this property changed over the years? What did this street look like 200 years ago? Continue reading The Iconography of Manhattan
With Prince Philip’s recent death, several colleagues shared with me the story that recalled how in 1993 the Duke of Edinburgh had helped solve a Russian Romanov murder mystery. This was one of the earliest high profile uses of mitochondrial DNA to confirm historic remains, and something I frequently talked about in my early talks on using DNA in genealogy. I gave two lectures at NEHGS while I was still in college in the early 2000s, the first one on Abraham Lincoln’s maternal ancestry (which I also discussed as having a possible mtDNA component, utilized nearly two decades later) and the other on DNA. These were also the only talks I made using overhead projector transparencies, before finally switching over to PowerPoint. They also both showed how designing charts has always gone hand-in-hand with my genealogical interests. Continue reading Philippian mysteries
In a previous Vita Brevis piece, I discussed the challenges faced in finding the immigration record of my great-grandfather Gerardo Smaldone, who emigrated to New York City in 1887 from the town of Potenza, Italy. In retrospect, that was a cinch compared to the search for the immigration of my Irish grandfather John Joseph Ryan.
I did find him after a daunting and tedious search, earning an unexpected bonus: his Ellis Island record revealed that an older sister was already here: Winifred Ryan had married Michael H. Spellman and had six children, with another on the way, when John arrived in late 1904. Continue reading Finding Irish relatives: Part One
As a long-suffering amateur genealogist (cue violins!), I suspect there are others like me who find themselves burdened by the proof required in matters genealogical. For me, I admit that is not unique to genealogy – back in the day, I declined to complete work for a second degree, eschewing the rigor of thesis requirements!
Like all genealogists, I have my brick walls, some of them without even a hint of where to go from here. Others, however, have ample circumstances to suggest the likely leap, but are simply unyielding in hard facts to prove my speculation. Continue reading Burdens of proof