Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Not On the Boat

While I still have a little over two weeks before we take off on our research trip to Ireland, in one way I feel as if I’ve buttoned down all the details that possibly could be attended to before we go. In a strange way, that leaves me with that “milling about” sense of lack of direction for upcoming blog posts. I do still have research details that need attention—just not the type that would make for an interesting post. So my mind is already wandering, grasping for that next step—that next writing goal.

At the same time, I’ve been thinking on the same wavelength as some of you, and your comments are particularly resonating with me right now. That’s how yesterday’s post on books came about—triggered by a comment from reader Colleen Brown Pasquale, and a conversation that’s likely still ongoing.

Like a winding chain, there was another comment—this time, on yesterday’s post, by reader Wendy—that just called out for me to turn into a post what would have otherwise ended up as a long comment.

Here’s the start of Wendy’s comment:
I envy that you have traced your ancestors to Ireland and that you have them IN Ireland. I can't get mine out of New York and back on the boat.

I have to say, you got me there, Wendy! I really feel for you. But here’s the secret reason why: I can’t find any trace of passenger records revealing the arrival of any of my husband’s four separate Irish families in the New World, with the one notable exception of the renegade Stephen Molloy—but only thanks to his letter home, just before he left Ireland in 1849. The closest thing I came to transportation records for the rest of the bunch was the mention of a date of arrival and supposed port—New Orleans—for our original Stevens arrival. And that was per the applicant’s own report, not verified by any record or witness.

If it weren’t for the pack rat tendencies of some of our ancestors—who apparently never threw anything away—I wouldn’t have had the details I did to lead me to these families’ homelands in Ireland.

But it wasn’t all thanks to those hoarders of ephemera. There were some other resources, which I’d like to review now.

The primary discovery I made was thanks to an old obituary. Those old hometown papers in small, rural areas where gossip was news could become grand revealers of family origins. I’ve been amazed to see what private details were divulged in public eulogies. That’s how I came across the first clue that our Fort Wayne Kelly family was from County Kerry. The “Lakes of Killarney” mention in the newspaper may have been a little more picturesque and poetic than pinpoint accurate, but it did lead me to a maiden name (Falvey) and some birth records that I consider a real possibility.

Of course, there are other newspaper sources as well. I have a friend at our local genealogical society who could not find her ancestor’s immigration records, though she personally checked at the appropriate courthouse office and knew the correct time frame. However, cranking her way through the local newspaper on microfilm for that specific year, she found a tiny announcement in the newspaper listing his name among the legal proceedings for the week, verifying that he filed his immigration papers. (Apparently, the courthouse lost them. Or mis-filed them. I’ll opt for the benefit of the doubt.)

While my own odyssey through the multi-volume set of The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot was a tedious but unsuccessful journey, it may not be for others. You can start with the online search engine, but I’d also recommend checking the actual books, themselves, if you can get your hands on them. Of course, there are other such books as well.

Another source that may divulge family secrets—at least, for those whose ancestors were among the faithful at church attendance—is sacramental records. I was fortunate in that Catholic baptisms and marriages for Fort Wayne are available on microfilm through the Family History Library. I obtained the specific film for my family via interlibrary loan through my local Family History Center. While most records were duly completed in the most routine manner, occasionally there would be a stray comment in a margin that revealed a bit more information.

An example in which this might be helpful would be a marriage between a known member of the local parish to someone from a distant congregation. After leaving Ireland, did any of those Sheehan sisters marry in America? In such cases, often the priest or pastor would request confirmation from the other party’s clergy to verify that everything was properly in order. That’s where details may be gleaned on where the other party originated—such goodies as the name and location of the parish. Those details likely would be inscribed in the margin of the church records, as they were in the case of our Will Stevens moving from Fort Wayne to Chicago, then proposing to a Chicago gal. I suspect the letters confirming baptismal dates that we found for our Tully ancestors were likely obtained for a similar purpose.

When Wendy mentioned searching for her Irish immigrant ancestors, the Sheehan sisters, I thought of this church verification scenario. If it doesn’t work for one sister, perhaps it would for another. Sometimes, we need to search collateral lines for a couple generations before we see any clues to help us untangle our own lines, but it is worth the effort.

Wendy also referred to a situation with her Sheehan sisters that I’ve called serial immigration—one sibling heading for America, then sending notice back to family that, yes, c’mon over! A place to stay, maybe the security of a job, and one sibling helps the next make the journey. Our Fort Wayne Kelly family seemed to have done that, with a younger Timothy Kelly—whose relationship to our John Kelly I still can’t fathom—being the anchor family for the more recent John Kelly arrivals.

Of course, that makes finding the family in passenger lists more challenging, because we don’t have the luxury of matching a cluster of names. And we all know how frustrating Irish names can be. One Mary Kelly traveling alone could be—well, anyone. It would be almost impossible to say which one among so many with the same name was the one.

On the other hand, depending on time frame of immigration, it may be possible to test that hypothesis of the Sheehan family being “from Cork” by checking for any cluster of siblings’ names being in one family. There are some baptismal or birth records available on websites like and, as well as the Irish online resources to help with a quick test.

I totally agree with Wendy that family oral traditions can be suspect—especially a report that the sisters were “from Cork.” As Wendy mentioned, it could just mean that was the point from which they sailed, not their hometown. Besides, even if they lived in “Cork,” was it the city Cork, or County Cork? But if there is a good list of several Sheehan siblings, and a general guess as to their years of birth, there may be a way to locate possible families from that wider geographic area. Of course, it would only be a guess—but a better one than what’s available so far.

I have to admit, I jumped the gun when I tried out my hypotheses on my Tully and Flannery families, seeking any records in online resources. I certainly had no firm passenger records to point the way homeward. But it was still possible to isolate a few viable possibilities from the rest of the pack which helped move us closer to some answers. It wasn’t a single, step-by-step process, of course, as corollary material surfaced to help confirm what I was tentatively fingering.

I guess the only way I can compare this process is to blindly moving ahead in the dark, wildly waving our arms out in front of us to keep us from stumbling. Somehow, as we make that oh-so-slow progress, we snag a few clues that amplify certain possibilities and turn us, microscopically, in a course-correcting direction. And so we ever proceed.

 Above: "Kou-Kou," 1895 oil on canvas, Georgios Jakobides; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Wow, you are down to "weeks" now. :)

    I've no luck with finding "the boat" for most of my relatives. I assume they entered the country in Philadelphia (but even that isn't proven) during 1850-1870 time period. Philadelphia was one of the country's largest ports at the time - as far as I know, there are no "Ellis Island" type records available on-line. And even if I were to go "downtown" to look, I don't know where to go.

    1. You are probably wise to be cautious about making any assumptions about port of arrival, even though Philadelphia would be a reasonable guess. However, keep in mind that what has made its way onto the genealogical websites is merely the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to all the genealogical material available.

      I'd suggest going to the online catalog of nearby libraries and doing a search for the subject of ships' passenger lists to see if those libraries have any such holdings. There is one multi-volume set I'm thinking of, off-hand, but I know there are others. Once you locate the library holding such reference books, it might be worth a trip to take a look at the books. They usually either have an index, or are alphabetized. Sure, it's the old fashioned kind of research grunt work, but it may be productive for you.

      Another possibility would be to contact the Philadelphia area genealogical society to see if anyone would be willing to do the searching for you, for a modest fee. Or at least to see if they have any suggestions for you as to where to find such books. They may actually have a collection of their own. (Our society here serves a city of 300,000, but has managed to amass a collection of nearly four thousand genealogical reference books, so I'm sure Philadelphia would handily match or even exceed that.)

  2. I went back and looked again - and lo and behold... I found my Grandmother's grandfather! One thing of "researcher" note is that he is listed as "coming from" England - which is not quite right - The "American Line" (a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad) had 4 ships, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania ( and they sailed a loop - Philadelphia, Queenstown, Ireland and Liverpool back to PA... So I didn't catch him the first time around... His name was slightly mangled to boot.

    Furthermore... Queenstown (now Cohb) is in county Cork....

    1. Yes, Queenstown was a usual stop on the westbound route.

      It is interesting that the note was made, concerning your second great grandfather, that he was "coming from" England. There are a couple thoughts about that. First, some Irish travelers chose, for whatever reason, to embark from Liverpool rather than an Irish port (or may have been assumed to all come from the originating port, even though the ship make a second stop). I've seen such entries before, although you can plainly see on the ship's passenger list that all the Irish passengers are clustered on the page separately from those who boarded previously, in Liverpool.

      The second possibility is that the records were kept using the correct geopolitical term for the territory--which, in the 1800s, would be the UK/Britain/England rather than Ireland itself.

    2. What I meant to point out was this shipping line went the reverse way -- Queenstown to Liverpool.

      My 2g-grandfather likely joined the ship at Liverpool coming over from Belfast on another boat. Come to think of it, he might have simply considered himself English anyway - being from Northern Ireland.

  3. Of interest to me - is that the other branch of my family made machine parts for both the PA Railroad and William Cramp & Sons - and probably had some parts of theirs on these four ships. :)

    1. It is fascinating how your family is so intertwined with local history, Iggy. Yes, quite a thought to ponder. And they probably never knew...

  4. Oh my -- a blog tailor-made for me, it seems. I want to find those church records, but I am confused on where to look. There are a gazillion Catholic churches in Brooklyn and in the Bronx and in Queens, so I probably need to plot out addresses on a map or something. But you inspired me to look again for immigration dates, and GRRRRR. One sister gave 2 different dates but neither matches the Ellis Island records; one sister claims to have been born in New York but as the OLDEST, she probably was born in Ireland like the others; my great grandmother came through Castle Garden, most likely, since her arrival predates Ellis Island. Nothing seems to line up, so I wonder if they came through Philadelphia or Boston and just LIVED in New York. Alright, I'm just venting now.

    1. Brooklyn? That's my old stomping grounds, as far as genealogical research goes. We need to talk, Wendy. I don't know your dates and parameters, but if your family was in Brooklyn for any amount of time, try searching on the local newspaper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. There are several online sources you can use to access that paper, one of which is this portal via the New York Public Library. There are other online resources for city area documentation, as well. If you are interested, let's talk further about this.

    2. I know about the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and have been searching it almost daily, it seems. I've gotten a few things there including an obituary for one sister (my blog for Friday touches on this - SPOILER ALERT). As for dates, my great-grandmother arrived in 1886 but she was in Portsmouth, VA by 1906. The sister with the obit came in 1895/6 and died 1942. Anyway, that's the general time frame. And yes, let's talk if you have time.

  5. :) Perhaps someone will come along with a tiny flashlight to help the research along:)


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