Death certificates can add depth to a family tree, but when the parent names for the deceased are documented incorrectly, it can lead research down the wrong path—especially when contending with a common Irish surname.
The only source with direct evidence naming my great-grandmother Margaret’s parents was a death record from Brooklyn, New York, in 1936, listing her father’s name as Patrick Morrissey and her mother’s name as Margaret Powers. The informant for this death record was Margaret’s daughter Marion (Mary Ann) Lilley. Marion would have been an unreliable source to supply the names of Margaret’s parents, since they had died long before Marion was born.2 No birth record for Margaret A. Morrissey, born around 1870 in Pennsylvania, was found to exist. Official Pennsylvania vital records (birth, death, and marriage) registrations were not enacted in Pennsylvania until 1906, and 1896 at the county level.3Continue reading Finding Clues in Unexpected Places→
I am incredibly fortunate that I have my dream job, working remotely as a Genealogical Researcher with the Boston-based New England Historical Genealogical Society (NEHGS), while living in my dream location – the remote Keweenaw Peninsula of northern Michigan.
Last week I was sitting in Shute’s 1890 Saloon—an historic watering hole in the city of Calumet, Michigan—reflecting on my good fortune, when I looked up at the television flanking the old Brunswick-stained glass canopy and recognized a familiar ship on the screen. The film was a 1952 movie called Plymouth Adventure, a rather questionable depiction of the Mayflower landing on Plymouth Rock. It got me thinking about how I came to be in this spot: a Finn drawing a paycheck from a Boston organization in remote northern Michigan. Surely, I represent a strange confluence of events. Continue reading Boston Roots in the Keweenaw Peninsula→
I can trace my fascination with genealogy back to a moment in my early childhood, when I first heard the call of the dead. It was January 7 th, 1972, and I was about four and a half years old. We were at the funeral of my great-grandmother Beatrice Frances Callahan Carroll. I could remember her very clearly, sitting in her grand house in front of a roaring fire, playing with very old toys while the adults did dull things. I remember her smile. It was not frequent, but it was very moving when I looked up and saw it, often particularly directed to me as the newest member of the family. Now, there she was in a casket—her, but not her.
My Nanna, a tall and elegant New England woman, put an arm around me—a rare tender moment for her. She wore a fur coat with a leopard pattern, which I thought very wild, while the rest of the adults wore dark colors. She said then the words she would repeat to me a quarter-century later at her husband’s viewing: “I was born in the room above us, and one day will be here.” Continue reading Dead Reckoning: How Genealogy Brings Memory Back to Life→
The recent death of Queen Elizabeth brought many things to mind, including “That Woman”—the epithet chosen by Elizabeth’s mother for Bessie Wallis (Warfield) (Spencer) Simpson, whose marriage to King Edward VIII was the catalyst for Elizabeth’s eventual reign. Remembering the story of Wallis Simpson led me to investigate my own family’s version of “That Woman”: Lucille Forden, whose multiple divorces made her infamous and even thwarted her run for a seat in Congress.
“Those Women” shared some things in common. Wallis Warfield and Lucille Forden each had three husbands. Although neither was born in Baltimore, it was the city that both called home for most of their formative years and early adulthood. Continue reading That Woman→
In case you missed Part I of our readers’ family ghost stories: last week I talked about the history of ghost stories in the United States, and introduced you to some of the stranger spirits haunting the past. This week, I’m focusing on the ghosts of more recent memory—when and why we see them, and how our ghost stories can help us bring back the relatives and loved ones we have lost.
It must be acknowledged that not everyone believes in ghosts. Stories about ghost sightings say a lot about the people who tell them: some feel sure about the nature of what they’ve seen, while others may not be so confident. The more logical-minded among us will search actively for a rational explanation. For my part, I remain stubbornly agnostic. I’ve never seen a ghost myself, and I admit that I am skeptical by nature. But I can’t help but be fascinated by the possibility—and by the history and memories that ghost stories can unearth, whether or not they turn out to be entirely true.
One thing I noticed across your stories is that children, and especially very young children, are often the first to notice a ghost’s presence in a home:
“Alone in the house one day, I was dancing with my two-year-old daughter in my arms. She kept waving at something behind me and said, “Mommy, man.” I explained to her it was just the two of us here, and kept dancing. She continued to wave, then took her hands and turned my face to the doorway of the family room. Leaning against the doorway was a man, dressed in a suit with a fedora on his head. As soon as I saw him, he disappeared. My daughter saw a ghost that day, and she made sure her mom did, too.” Kate, Newburyport, MA
As family historians, we often feel inexplicably drawn to certain ancestors in our family trees. Sometimes it’s clear why we are drawn to a particular individual—other times, it’s harder to say. One such ancestor for me is my second-great-grandfather, Jacob Spuhler. While I thought I knew quite a bit about him at the start, as I researched the details of his life, I soon discovered a hidden piece of family history I had not expected.
Jacob Spuhler was an immigrant from Germany who arrived in New York City in October 1884. Lucky for me, the name of his hometown—Alsenz—was passed down to me through the generations. Already having a crucial piece of the puzzle did not deter me from delving deeper, and as I researched Jacob’s life, I found plenty more to learn. Continue reading Discovering the first life of my second-great-grandfather→
The myths and stories in any family history are tenuous things. Often self-serving, they mesmerize us—trapping us in visions of the past filtered through glossy hindsight and half-baked truths. The tales in my own family’s history are certainly no exception. However, even these spurious and specious tales may be lost and forgotten, ravaged by time, and become yet another casualty of Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, or memory loss. I believe that “true or not,” we as family historians are obligated to protect, explore, and secure these stories. It’s what makes our pursuit somehow different from more academic fields: the preservation of the personal.
My step-mother was the source of many family tales of dubious origin, particularly when she was suffering through the early pains of dementia. Her best story will always be the one about her evening with Elvis Presley, and how that famous crooner sang a song for her one night. In light of the cruelties of her dementia (and my skepticism of her other tall tales), I wondered—how I could ever possibly know if it was true? Was there any way to trace back her shadowy tale of Elvis to see if what she said might ever have happened? Continue reading Tracing a tall tale: was Elvis really in the building?→
Even before I earned my master’s degree in public history, I liked to fancy myself a bit of a family historian. I am lucky enough to still have three living grandparents: ages 86, 89, and 94. I have taken up the task of recording conversations with them about their early lives and families, so that their stories can be preserved for future generations.
I’ve gone through photo albums with my grandparents and seen some of the family heirlooms that have been passed down for generations. As a former journalist, I was interested in documenting stories, and that was my focus for years. I recently went back to school and received a master’s in public history. So last Christmas, when I was visiting my paternal grandparents down in Florida, I decided to use my new training as a historian to ask my grandmother more questions and document what I might have missed over the years. Continue reading Finding the family historian in my own family history→
The story of Thomas Dalton is a tragic one, and one that had been forgotten for many years, until a DNA match brought the truth of his brief life to light. I stumbled across the Dalton family years ago when investigating the origins of my own 2nd great-grandmother Mary Ann Dalton, who was born in 1828 in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. I’d been having a difficult time finding Mary’s parents when I discovered a handful of DNA matches for descendants of two Dalton brothers, sons of Irish immigrants Peter Dalton and Ann McDonnell, who had also been born in Nova Scotia but moved away young: James Dalton, born 1826, who moved to Lowell, Massachusetts before 1849, and John Thomas Dalton, born 1830, who moved to Ballarat, Australia around 1852.
These Dalton descendants shared the right amount of DNA with my grandfather to indicate that my ancestor Mary Ann Dalton was a close relative of John Thomas and James (likely their sister or cousin). The subject of my story today, Thomas Dalton, was the first son of James and his wife Eliza McNally, born 31 May 1849 in Lowell. Continue reading Uncovering Thomas Dalton’s Tragedy→
We are fortunate to have so many newspapers available for researching our ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries. Early in my genealogy pursuits, finding obituaries was my main focus while cranking through endless reels of microfilm at the Boston Public Library. I would often see an article of interest, or occasionally by chance catch a surname as I slowly inched my way through the microfilm. This tedious process seemed endless until I struck genealogy pay dirt, making all the cranking of the microfilm reader worthwhile. One day while scrolling newspapers for ancestors in Newburyport, Essex, Massachusetts I caught the name of my third great grandfather Henry Poor (1769-1853).