Thursday, June 16, 2011

In Search of My Irish Roots

Long before I developed my current fascination with genealogy, I felt a particular pride in knowing that I came from good Irish stock: Granny Dobson was an O’Leary by birth. (And what could be more Irish than O’Leary? Genealogy unearthed an even stronger connection in the form of the Fitzgeralds, who married into the O’Leary family several generations back.)

What genealogy could NOT tell me was the specific place(s) in Ireland that produced my ancestors. The best I could determine was that John O’Leary married Mary Lambert, and together they had a son named Michael, born in Ireland circa 1832 (the family first appeared in records for Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, in 1834).

James Fitzgerald, although born in Ireland and supposedly arriving at the same time as the O’Leary family, might be connected to an earlier group of settlers. The Fitzgeralds started appearing in county records as far back as the late 1700s.

Alphonso Levi O'Leary
(1892-1956)
John and Mary’s son, John O’Leary, Jr., married Anastasia Fitzgerald, daughter of James. John and Annie’s youngest son, Alphonso (my great great grandfather) was one of the last keepers of the Queensport lighthouse on Rook Island (the final keeper being his son Osborne).

And Alphonso’s daughter Agatha is my Granny Dobson.

So, where did John O'Leary and Mary Lambert come from?

I have one possible lead in an 1825 document that indicates an Irishman named John O'Leary's intention to emigrate. I've only seen the index reference so far, not the actual document, so I don't know if it's my John O'Leary. But maybe. Just maybe.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Rattle of Old Bones

If you go into genealogy expecting to find famous ancestors or discover you're the heir to some long-unclaimed inheritance, you'll probably be disappointed. Most of us descend from "just plain folks" who lived ordinary, seemingly unremarkable lives much like ours.

What you're far more likely to find are the proverbial "sins of the fathers" -- not to mention mothers, brothers, sisters and more.

Our ancestors and their kin were human beings, after all, susceptible to the same foibles as every other human being throughout time. They made mistakes. They committed outright crimes. They were flawed.

So, how do you handle the skeletons in your family closet?

Discretion and tact are valuable skills for any genealogist but especially for the one who fancies herself a family historian. While it's one thing to record simple tombstone data, it's quite another to tell detailed stories about your less than illustrious ancestors.

For instance, when I first started my research, I soon learned of one noteworthy female ancestor in the late 19th century who had two sons -- both out of wedlock and presumably by two different men. Then she had the temerity to remain single her entire life. Research revealed a third child, a girl adopted out to another family shortly after her birth.

Sharing this story becomes rather complicated because many of the children of the oldest son are still alive and sometimes sensitive about their father's "legitimacy."

If you know for certain that the truth would cause undue embarrassment to any living person, you're better off keeping the details private. Record the facts, by all means, but do not publish them. My own example is deliberately short on details for that reason.

On a related topic, in the course of your own research you can expect to run across one of the great "coincidences" of genealogy. In most marriages, regardless of the era, the first child is invariably born "prematurely," i.e. less than nine months after the wedding. (If you're not sure what this means, drop me a line. I'll be happy to explain.)

In the end, it's best to proceed with an open mind. Be prepared for a few surprises, and avoid the urge to pass judgment.

Your ancestors weren't perfect.

Then again, who is?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I See Leaves of Green…

This week, I’m going to talk to you about church and civil records. They can be the most important resources in the genealogist’s arsenal simply because they are most often recorded when the event in question occurs and are therefore more likely to be accurate.

Church and civil records contain officially documentation of births/baptisms, marriages and deaths/burials. Church records vary in detail, with older records generally being the most scant. The more modern the record, the more detailed the information. For instance, you shouldn’t expect to find birth and death dates in baptismal and burial records from more than 200 years ago. You will, however, have better luck finding such details as parents’ names (in all record types) and cause of death (in burial records).

Marriage records from top portion of church register
Civil records tend to be more detailed overall and, under proper archival management, will be indexed by surname for greater ease of searching. Church records, by contrast, usually have to be searched by date. There are exceptions, of course, such as Prince Edward Island Public Archives and Records Office in Charlottetown, Canada. Their indexing system covers the bulk of their collection and is a boon to genealogists.

Detailed civil marriage record
Regardless of the extent of the indexing, government-run archives have the most comprehensive collections of church and civil records, although there will be exceptions here, too. In Nova Scotia, for instance, many individual Catholic churches do not participate in the microfilming and archiving process, preferring to keep their original registers out of public hands. Church officials will, at their discretion, look up specific records, but you will not be permitted to browse the registers--an option that might otherwise uncover previously unknown information.

It’s also worth noting that not all church records are created equal. In the Baptist Church, for instance, actual baptisms occur when an individual so chooses, rather than in infancy. Adult baptism may or may not include an accurate birth date.

Civil records are especially good as an alternative resource when no church record exists or to serve as confirmation when one does. Unfortunately, they also sometimes contradict church records. When in doubt, remember that the most reliable record is generally the one closest to the event. Compare the baptismal date in the church record with the registration date in the civil record and use your best judgment.

Regardless of where you live, your nearest archives should be able to provide a detailed account of their holdings, including record types and dates covered by each. Finding a listing might be as simple as visiting the archive’s website. If that doesn’t work, phone them or send them a letter requesting an information package. Odds are, they’ll be more than happy to help.