Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Finding the Other Brother

Reconstructing a family’s history can sometimes be a messy job. Families don’t always stack up just the way we think they should. Compound that tendency with the hazards of cross-oceanic immigration—and mix it with the prejudices of a prior century—and the resultant jumble of information can be downright misleading.

Or worse, it could be non-existent.

In the case of my paternal grandmother’s family, not everything has remained hidden, thanks to the many digitized documents now available online. As we’ve already seen, my grandmother’s oldest brother, John Laskowski, turned out to be fairly easy to trace—especially with the addition of his naturalization papers to the documents available at Ancestry.com.

That discovery revealed the family’s origin in what is now the country of Poland—the very heritage this family spent countless years trying to disguise, once they arrived in New York City.

And thanks to the many federal and state census records for the New York City area, I can trace John’s descendants nearly to the present day.

But what about his brother, the one arriving in New York under the name Miczislaus Laskowska in 1889?

In addition to learning how, exactly, to pronounce such a name, it would be helpful to find this third branch of the extended Laskowski family for several reasons. First, it would be wonderful to connect with possible distant cousins—maybe people who would know something about our common heritage, camouflaged as it has been. Second, it would help to have someone to correct the record on the few stories I have already gleaned; surely there are gaps and misconceptions in those. And, of course, if any such distant cousins are willing, it would be grand to have someone else from this branch of the family participate in DNA testing.

Miczislaus Laskowski was not of the same opinion as his older brother John, when it came to fashioning his new American persona. I have indications that he switched his name to Michael, and that he dropped the Polish identifying –ski suffix from his surname. Whether he changed his last name to Laskow or Lasky—another variation I’ve run into—I couldn’t be sure. That, of course, hampered searches as well.

Quite a while ago, someone in the family had recollections of Michael’s wife’s name being Mayme—but Mayme is often a nickname, not a given name, so the possibilities there could multiply, as well. Someone seemed to think that Michael and Mayme—or whatever her name was—had two sons. But, of course, no one could quite remember what the boys’ names were.

Every variable added to the search attempt multiplied possibilities to an almost unwieldy number. At one point, I had been game to try. Now—even with better search capabilities—I’m just floored at the number of possible hits. The number gets so large as to be meaningless. And that’s just if I stick with the greater New York metro area. What if they moved to the suburbs? What if they moved out of state?

It is always Some Kind Soul who comes to the rescue in genealogical quandaries such as this. Quite a while ago on a genealogy forum, I had posted my dilemma and an SKS in shining armor came to my rescue.

He was a volunteer for a local historical society. While volunteers at any local historical society are a hardy combination of saint and scholar, this guy was of a particularly valuable quality: his was a society that specialized in one of those New York neighborhoods which got swallowed up in the encroaching urbanization of the area. He represented the Ridgewood, New York, Historical Society. And Ridgewood, it so happened, kept an obituary file.

If you have never tried your hand at researching family members from New York City area, you may think all the usual research avenues will work just fine. But think about it for a moment. Where would your ancestor fit in, in the scheme of things in a city as immense as New York? A normal city’s newspapers might carry reports of your family, but not likely in a place like New York. It won’t be the New York Times carrying the reports you seek on your ancestors—not unless your lineage reads like a Who’s Who.

Hidden deep within the historical infrastructure of this megalopolis, though, are innumerable tiny neighborhoods and ethnic districts, many of which sported their own newspapers. Fortunately, the neighborhood my grandmother moved to, as her children got older, was a place with its own newspaper. And the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society believed in preserving the micro-history recorded in that newspaper.

I’m so glad that volunteer happened to answer my query, for in my grandmother’s February 7, 1952, obituary, published on page twelve of the Ridgewood Times, I learned that she was survived by one brother.

I assure you, that brother was not John. He had passed away back in 1930. This brother’s name was given as Michael Lasko. Now—as long as this spelling was not an editorial mistake of the newspaper itself—I have something solid to go on, when researching John and Sophie’s brother.

The fact that there are many Michael Laskos out there still complicates matters. However, knowing the new name was Lasko, instead of any other shortened version of Laskowski, is a big help. At least, it’s a start.

Now, to find a Michael who married a Mayme…

Monday, March 30, 2015

Setting Sail With Ancestors

While I found it so rewarding to finally discover the name of the ship my father’s grandmother arrived on, just knowing the name wasn’t enough. If I could have touched the ship, itself, perhaps it would have sufficed me. Since I can’t, a voracious appetite for every miniscule speck of detail screams to be satisfied.

So, I went looking.

The Internet is a fascinating resource, standing at the ready to satisfy such eclectic research whimsies. In my quest for details on the S.S. Wieland, I found several sites with mentions of the vessel.

A British website—albeit ad-heavy—informed me that the S.S. Wieland was built by Alexander Stephen and Sons in Glasgow, and launched on Tuesday, June 16, 1874—fifteen years before eight year old John Laskowski left his homeland with his mother, his brother and his baby sister. Although my family most certainly wasn’t Scandinavian, their vessel was included in the helpful Norway-Heritage website, complete with a timeline of the ship’s voyages, including the family’s 1889 arrival in New York, noted as February 15:
Arrived at 16:00 afternoon, Capt. Barends.

Thanks to results of a Google search, I discovered another researcher was peering into the details on the same immigrant ship—his post included recollections of his family’s trip, mixed with some historic detail. The website also provides a better photograph of the Wieland, taken from a 1983 book entitled Ships of Our Ancestors, compiled by Michael J. Anuta.

While I’m grateful for having discovered—finally!the passenger records, thanks to CastleGarden.org, it was also interesting to see the passenger records from the other end of the journey. Ancestry.com includes the Hamburg Passenger Lists, from the Staatsarchiv Hamburg, showing that same record for Marianna Laskowska and her three children.

The accommodation type, listed for the Laskowskis’ February 3 departure from Hamburg, reminded me of the difficulties the family faced, despite the shorter transit time than immigrants of past generations endured. It would be hard enough for a young mother, traveling alone, to corral two restless boys—one only four years of age at the time—plus look after an infant. Her passage, listed as “Zwischendeck,” indicated that she, like so many others who had made that journey, traveled in “steerage.”

There were probably more reasons than one that passengers since 1886 were so cheered to see the Statue of Liberty looming as their ship approached New York harbor. Even a tiny apartment in the poorest sections of Brooklyn wouldn’t be as confining as a twelve day passage in steerage.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

When His Ship Came In

Having access to the naturalization paperwork of an ancestor means being able to snatch up several details of that life-changing journey across the ocean to America, all in one place. John Laskowski’s Declaration of Intention, filed in 1916, clearly declared the date of his arrival and named the ship that he arrived on.

I was elated to discover this, not only because the paperwork had yielded me the exact name of his hometown, but because the facts could lead me to a secondary source to verify his—and hopefully, by extension, his family’s—immigration story.

John’s report was straightforward:
I arrived at the port of New York, in the State of New York, on or about the 15th day of February, anno Domini 1889.

In the clear hand that completed the paperwork, the ship was identified as…

…hmmm…Vilont? Perfect! I’ll just hop on over to the website for Castle Garden, the immigration station predating Ellis Island, sometimes also called Castle Clinton, and see what I can find.

Nothing. There was no record for any Laskowskis traveling on a steamship Vilont.

How could this record fail me so soon? I had just begun confirming the details this week. Had John misrepresented himself on a legal document of such importance? Could he have been mistaken?

I tried googling the name, but nothing showed up for a ship named Vilont. Crestfallen, I was desperate for a result, so I played around with other spellings. After all, that V looked like it could have been a U, didn't it?

No luck.

Or…maybe the –ont was really –out? No luck on that variation, either.

Trying to imagine where a ship named Vilont would have originated, I thought perhaps it might have sounded French. But John’s records said the port was Hamburg in Germany. Something was not adding up here.

Sometimes, we are so close to the end of our genealogical trail that we get in a rush to reach the finish line. This was a time to settle back, take a deep breath, and think things all over again. Slowly.

Why were no Laskowskis showing up that matched my family? Did nine year old John travel by himself? All the way from Germany to the United States? Did that seem possible?

Somehow, the voice of reason broke its way through my frustration and reminded me that children likely travel with their mothers. And some of those mothers are being sent for by husbands who have gone on ahead to secure jobs and adequate housing in the new homeland.

If you are not familiar with researching Polish genealogy, you might not be aware that the women—at least in that time period—carried their husband’s (or father’s) surname with one small variation: the final “i” of a surname such as Laskowski would be changed to end in an “a.”

Thus, the name John might have traveled under—as a dependent of his mother, the reporting party—could have been Laskowska.

Of course, that is the logical answer. I was too impatient for that. Instead, I just plugged in a wildcard symbol—an asterisk—and did my second search that way.

The results came up with four possibilities:
            Laskowska, Joh., age 8
            Laskowska, Marianna, age 24
            Laskowska, Miczislaus, age 4
            Laskowska, Sofie, age 11 months

All arrived in New York on February 16, 1889. Every one of the entries indicated a last place of residence in Żerków.

How could I not have realized this? Of course “John” would have been called by a more German version of that anglicized name. And Mary, his mother? It's possible she could have been known as Marianna in her homeland. Miczislaus would likely have been the son nicknamed Michko. And Sofie? Well, that was self-evident.

I clicked through on each of these hyperlinked surnames on the Castle Garden website to see if there was any additional information. There was one thing in particular I was wondering about: the ship Vilont.

Please join me in a good laugh over this one, as we consider how the Germans might have pronounced a name spelled W-i-e-l-a-n-d.

Yep. “Vilont.”

Above: Photograph of the Hamburg America ocean liner S. S. Wieland by John S. Johnston circa 1890; courtesy United States Library of Congress; in the public domain. Handwritten version of ship's name on Declaration of Intention courtesy Ancestry.com.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Helpful Declaration

The beauty of finding legal documents regarding the siblings of one’s ancestors is amplified only in proportion to the difficulty of uncovering the details about one’s own direct line. In my case, my grandmother Sophie seemed to make it so difficult to trace her whereabouts that what little could be found was nearly useless. She had changed her name in so many ways—and had, mostly, seemed to not even want to be found.

Sophie, however, had a brother. And that brother John was too settled, too steady, too reliable to have had his whereabouts hidden—at least in his adopted homeland. New York City being what it is, though, access to personal records was something best arranged in person—or at least through snail mail. Online records hadn’t yielded me what I sought—at least, not until now.

This week, however, looking at John’s naturalization records, I no longer have to guess about his origins. His Petition for Naturalization, which finally was wrapped up in 1923, clearly indicated I was looking at the records for the right person. He had mentioned his wife Blanche—in two different places, so intent was he on insuring that she be included in the proceedings—as well as the six children still living with them in the Queens borough neighborhood of Elmhurst: Elizabeth, Severa, Frances, Walter, Rita and three-year-old daughter Blanche.

In addition to confirming the names of his children and his address, the record attended to the tracing of the naturalization paperwork, since John had begun the process while living near the rest of the extended family, back on Berry Street in Brooklyn. This necessitated overseeing the transition of the 1916 paperwork from the original jurisdiction in Kings County, New York, to Queens for the completion of the process in 1923.

What was priceless to me, though, was discovering John’s assertion of where he was born. This had been a piece of the puzzle that had eluded me for the decades in which I had been pursuing my paternal line. Although their ethnic origin had been kept a secret over the years—the cousins of my generation not really knowing the full story, and even now not understanding what happened during those times—we had eventually agreed that the family’s heritage was Polish, contrary to our elders’ insistence that they were really Irish.

The city of origin, however, I couldn’t quite figure out—even after having discovered a clue through the slip of an enumerator’s pen during the 1920 census. Posen—the place indicated in that census record—was not necessarily only a city or town, however, but could also have referred to a region.

I still didn’t know, for sure, where the Laskowski family had originated, when I received one of those contacts every genealogist dreams of getting: a message from a distant cousin.

Despite the amount of sniveling I’ve done over the years about how other researchers get these fabulous contacts while I get nothing, that is not entirely true. Though I’ve only experienced such chance connections a few rare times, I do have to admit, the quality makes up for the quantity.

Several years ago, someone emailed me because of a post I had made to an online genealogy forum about an unusual surname linked to my Laskowski relatives. I had counted on the tactic of using this more unusual name to help zero in on solid connections, but the name had seemed so rare that it yielded no results at all—for a long time.

All that can change with just one email. For me, that change was the beginning of a longstanding communication with a Polish relative—a distant cousin—who was happy to share what she knew of the family since that point of John’s naturalization paperwork in New York.

To tell the rest of this story, I need to insert a bit about this distant cousin’s family story. Her ancestors, John’s cousins, had at one point lived with his and Sophie’s parents in Brooklyn. Sometime after the first World War but before the advent of the following war, part of that family had decided they liked life better in the Old Country, and returned from New York to Poland. Of course, that decision inserted them right into one of the worst episodes of modern history.

Long story short, in order to survive the devastation, this distant cousin’s ancestors moved from the city where they had settled in Poland to another, safer haven. Once the war was over and they were able to do so, some of that family chose to move again. Whether it was to return to an ancestral home or to remove to yet another, more favorable location, this younger cousin didn’t know. This was all before her time.

She did mention where that part of the family moved, however. It was to a small place called Żerków—a town now boasting only two thousand residents.

I tried discovering what I could about Żerków but my go-to online resources, like Wikipedia, didn’t have much to say about the place. One thing I did learn, though, was that Żerków is located thirty three miles east of a place called Poznań.

Poznań, if you’re wondering, is the Polish name for the place the Germans used to call Posen.

Fast forward to this past week. I am sure, by now, you are guessing I told you this incident for a reason. You are likely right.

In both John Laskowski’s Declaration of Intention and again in his Petition for Naturalization, he stated that the place of his birth was none other than the town of Żerków.

I should have known.

Above excerpt from the Declaration of Intention, signed by John Laskowski in Brooklyn, New York, on August 10, 1916, courtesy Ancestry.com.

Friday, March 27, 2015

First Papers

It was the tenth day of August, 1916, when John Laskowski got around to filing the first of his immigration papers. He had surely been in the United States for twenty six years by then—at least, that was what the 1900 census had indicated. I could never find the actual documents to reveal when he really arrived in America. Until now.

That was just the thing: the Laskowski family seemed to be one of those immigrant families which had slipped through the cracks. Not in passenger records, nor in immigration indices could I find any trace of the right family. It didn’t help that the head of household, John’s father Anton, had shown up in various records with his given name alternating between Anton and Antoni—and his surname actually shortened, just this one time, to Lasko instead of the usual Laskowski. Still, I had always been up to the task of wild card searches. But with no success.

So when that little prompt came my way this week—a reminder that it was high time to recheck online records for the possibility that the Laskowskis’ number was up—it was a timely tip, indeed.

Although the blog tip had pointed in the direction of new additions to the FamilySearch collections, fortunately, I didn’t stop there. I also wandered over to Ancestry.com to see what I could find. I’m so glad I did—for there, at almost the first hit I found, was an invitation to view “Selected U.S. Naturalization Records—Original Documents, 1790-1974.”

I have to confess: I had that “yeah, sure” attitude as I clicked through to the hint’s source document. There it was, though: John Laskowski’s own records. Not some other guy by the same name. It was him. For sure.

That, in itself, was astounding to me. Do you know how long I’ve paid the price but come away empty handed? That thought, alone, made me stand still and consider the enormity of it all. These things can make one emotional. There is just something about seeing a document that one’s ancestors once touched that evokes a fervent response. The reason I can spot it in others, as I teach beginners’ genealogy classes, is because I’ve felt it, myself. It is real and it is palpable.

There was something more about this discovery. Make that two somethings. The Declaration of Intent divulged the town where John Laskowski was born, and provided the details about his arrival in New York City. That first detail—his place of birth—was something that had eluded me for all these years of research effort. The second detail—when and how he got here—was the bonus, for it provided the next step in this research chain of events we call genealogy. It provided me the key to lead to yet another set of records.

When John Laskowski walked into the office of the Clerk of the Supreme Court of Kings County, New York, I’m sure he had no idea someone would be peering over his shoulder, nearly ninety nine years later. But now, I can read the signature he affixed to the page, duly sworn before the clerk of the court, “So help me God,” declaring
I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in the practice of polygamy; and it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen of the United States of America and to permanently reside therein.

I had waited a long time to discover the family’s secret. Now, I was on my way.

Above excerpt from the Declaration of Intent, signed by John Laskowski in Brooklyn, New York, on August 10, 1916, courtesy Ancestry.com.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Uncle I Never Met

John Laskowski must have been a steady guy. Firstborn son of Anton and Mary Laskowski, he arrived in the family’s Polish household in August of 1880. Along with the rest of his family—his two siblings Michko and Sophia arrived in short order—he made the trip west to a German port and then aboard a ship bound for America. By the time of the 1892 New York State census, he was living with his family in an apartment in Brooklyn.

John seemed to be the solid type who latched on to tradition and held fast. He found and married a Polish girl from the neighborhood where he grew up—“Blanche” Aktabowska—and raised the customary large Catholic family of at least six children.

Unlike either of his siblings, John kept the surname he arrived with. It wasn’t hard to find him in any of the subsequent federal census enumerations, or the available state census records. Working as a common laborer, he lived the rest of his days in his adopted homeland—varying the location only so much as to move from one New York City borough to another. His 1930 death being registered in Manhattan may only be a factor of which hospital he was taken to; his last noted residence was in Queens.

In sharp contrast, my grandmother—his sister Sophia—seemed to want to have nothing to do with her outmoded Polish roots. Though she may well have married a good Polish boy, there was nothing left of that telltale surname sign to alert me to the fact. Gone was the Polish surname. In its place arose a solid, respectable Irish name. Even the “Sophia” was gone—my grandmother opting for the more modern (or at least American) sounding “Sophie.”

Likewise, Sophie’s younger brother shed the telltale “-ski” from his surname, and disappeared into the American melting pot, allegedly under the name of Lasko. The “Michko” nickname showing in the 1892 census evolved into the more acceptable “Michael.”

It took a lot of searching—coupled with futile prying into the sealed family business that the older generation seemed to have vowed never to reveal—to even discover that Sophie had a maiden name, and that it was Laskowska. Even acting upon the hunch that the surname might have been shortened in Michko’s case, I still haven’t been able to locate a reasonable possibility that might have been him.

As for John, thankfully his rock-like resolve to not shed his identity allowed me to at least trace his side of my father’s family. Every step of the way, I kept myself anchored in John’s routine appearance in records, hoping—hoping—he would someday cross paths again with his siblings and alert me to their whereabouts as well.

I don’t know why this happens, but sometimes, chance events can catch our attention and make us remember—and reconsider—tasks long since set aside. I’m sure glad that was the dynamic that occurred when I spotted Randy Seaver’s post on the latest New York City record additions at FamilySearch.org. That post tickled my memory, and I soon found myself playing the “what if” game online with New York City records again.

I didn’t even let myself get frustrated when the usual disappointing lack of results hit me again while trying my hand at either my grandmother’s or Michko’s data. They are simply not there to be found, much as I discovered years ago when trawling through microfilms or even in the earliest years of online genealogy at places like the Italian Genealogical Group (it’s not just for NYC Italians, you know).

When it came to John, however—the one who was always there, leaving me signs of his whereabouts every ten years—I encountered a surprise so stellar, it nearly took my breath away.

I found his immigration records.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Different Direction

Confession: another rabbit trail was calling my name yesterday and…I listened.

Yes, I caved. I took the bait. I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

And I think I will be down at the bottom of a big pile of data for a long time.

Here’s how it happened:

Once upon a time, long, long ago—yes, in fact, back in June of 2009—I took an old family photo that my cousin Skip sent me, scanned it and posted it on my Facebook page. It was probably a little something I did in honor of Father’s Day, even though my father has been long gone, himself. In the photo—a family grouping that included my grandmother, her brother and their parents—my father was peeking over the shoulders of the women in the back row. At the time, he was a teenager. My aunt, all perky in her summer dress, was sporting a big white bow on the top of her little blonde head.

As things sometimes go on Facebook, some friends and family saw it and commented on it, over the next few days. The comments dribbled off after that. Then, some other relatives saw it the next winter and commented, starting the conversation back up again.

And that was the end of it.

Until Monday morning.

I don’t know why Facebook photos resurrect, but they do. And once someone gloms onto a photo—writes another comment—the thing is back in circulation again, as fresh as if it were posted within the past hour.

This time, more relatives shared their memories of the family mystery—the shock is, after being told we were Irish all our growing-up years, it turns out we are actually Polish on my dad’s side of the family—and we got to compare notes on what each of us knew about the “secret.”

Chapter Two: a blogger dangles the bait. I’ll just come out and say it: it wasn’t really blogger Randy Seaver’s fault for leading me astray, but his post yesterday about how FamilySearch.org has added more New York City records reminded me that I really need to see what’s gone online since the last time I poked around the data at any of the usual genealogical places.

While the records Randy mentioned were all just indices, not digitized images (which I hope will someday be forthcoming, as well), believe me: an index is infinitely better than trawling through miles and miles of microfilm. Take my word for it. The last time I seriously looked at my paternal branch of the family tree, it was when microfilm was the only game in town.

It was time for an update.

Gone was the afternoon, before I knew it. I looked not only at FamilySearch.org, but at the latest additions at Ancestry.com, as well. I kept keying in names of my family, seeing whose documents made the cut in this latest release of genealogical treasures. I can’t say I made stellar progress—there is an unexplained instance of a radical name change—but stumbling upon one single document, I located several key facts about this family. You might say I garnered a genealogical grand slam.

Of course, being a document which captured the reporting party’s assertions, in a way, the record is not providing me anything more than hearsay. But it is the word of a father, reporting such juicy tidbits as the name of the ship he sailed on, the names of the rest of his family, and the date at which he arrived in New York harbor.

Better yet, that one document became the Big Reveal by sharing the name of the town in which my grandmother’s brother was born. If he was born there, let’s say I have a pretty good guess as to where she was born.

You know I can’t stop with just this one document. Every detail on that page becomes a hint to lead me toward another document. Each clue equips me with the tools to ferret out yet more details. It’s the chain reaction of research.

Something tells me I’m going to be on this rabbit trail for a long time.

Above: Photograph of various members of the Laskowski family in or near New York City, circa 1917; photograph in private collection of the author.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In Wonder-land

I’ve found some matching DNA!

It isn’t every day that a dedicated adherent to the tasks of genetic genealogy can make such a celebratory claim.

Actually, the pursuit of distant cousins who share my DNA—either mitochondrial or autosomal—has been quite frustrating. It seems like a process of sifting through haystacks to find the proverbial needle. Sometimes, I wonder what benefit this new technology has provided us. Sometimes, I wonder if someone forgot to insert the needle in said haystack.

Of course, having nearly eight hundred matches on my account isn’t making this any easier. But I try to keep up with the task. I’ve found that many of those matches are people who, for whatever reason, got themselves talked into testing, but didn’t have the fanatic interest in genealogy that you and I share. Some never bothered to post their family tree on the DNA company’s website. Others didn’t avail themselves of the opportunity to even type in the most commonly-occurring of their surnames. Of the limited number of those remaining on my match list, some posted such a minimalist tree that it serves little to no use at all—especially those well-meaning individuals who thought it best to protect their privacy by not allowing anyone to see any of the names in the tree that they did post online.

Of what help is that?

To complicate matters, I am not only searching for the needle in my family haystack, but I’ve convinced both my husband and my brother to have their DNA test done, as well. Part of the deal was that I would serve as administrator of their cases. While their numbers aren’t as daunting—my husband checks in at around four hundred matches as of last Thursday, and my brother trails him by about eighty—I still haven’t been able to find more than a smattering of hits belonging to parties on the other side of the match, willing and able to confirm my guesses.

So, as you can imagine, it was quite an adrenaline rush to see Charlie’s comment here the other day. Apparently, he was as surprised as I was to see my name pop up in the DNA test results for one of the relatives he is monitoring for his family.

Yet, when we each checked the other’s genealogy, nary a surname seemed to connect. What’s up with that?

I realize that, once you edge toward the “fifth to remote” cousin range, you come closer to matching people by sheer coincidence: “Identical By State” results, as they are called. IBS results are those in which there are identical segments or sequences of DNA, but that state did not result from common descent. In other words, it was just a coincidence, not a true relationship. There is no great-grandparent to the nth degree out there, just waiting to be discovered by you and your “match.”

In this case, however, the suspected relationship range was in a safer second-to-fourth cousin segment. That should mean we are keepers. If, that is, we can find a way to connect on paper.

True, I have gaps in my family tree. I suspect this particular match has a tree with gaps in it, as well.

I’ve come close with some other results, as well. I try to keep plugging away at the test results as they come in. Every week or two, I glean the results on my “Family Finder” test at Family Tree DNA, to see what new matches show up. For each new match, I explore the trees that are posted, and then send an email to my new match, introducing myself, sharing the link to my more-thorough tree at Ancestry.com—and hoping for a reply in the affirmative.

Meanwhile, I’m furiously hurrying through building my own tree out, generation by generation, for all those relatives in the big murky middle—everything between the patrilineal and matrilineal lines.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder: isn’t there a better way to find the connections that make me and my fellow cousins matches? Isn’t there a more efficient way to trawl through all the surnames?

Short of finding a way to build a better family tree—and a way for the DNA companies to provide more facile search capabilities for those results they provide—I doubt there will be any way to lessen that feeling of impossibility. As amazing as the DNA technology may be, the path to those “match” answers still is paved with lots of hard work and perseverance.

Isn’t that the way it always is with real life?

Above: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, "The Harvesters," oil on panel circa 1565; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Muddling Through "Matrilineal"

In trying to explain to people the DNA testing concept of patrilineal and matrilineal lines, I’ve always been at a loss to succinctly deliver the goods. Short of actually pulling out pen and paper and mocking up a family tree chart—to which I add the line tracing both the patrilineal and matrilineal concepts—I’m often greeted with blank stares. Even by people smitten by the genealogy bug.

How can this be, I often wonder. But it is what it is. Still, it bugs me—just a tiny bit—because I realize the need for the genetic genealogy community to be mindful of good P.R. The DNA world—a world of terms and concepts too “science-y” to emit that user-friendly invitation to partake of its treasures—could use some capable ambassadors to bridge the gap between mind-boggling concepts and the warm fuzzies of customer satisfaction.

Today, while reading fellow blogger Randy Seaver’s week in review, I noticed his suggestion of a DNA blog I wasn’t familiar with. Since I could use all the help I can get in mounting that steep DNA learning curve, I took Randy’s suggestion and clicked on over to Kitty Cooper’s Blog. There, while perusing her archives, the answer to my little DNA PR dilemma slithered out of my subconscious and onto my mental horizon.

Let me try it out here. If you didn’t already know what the terms patrilineal and matrilineal meant, I’d ask you to imagine a world filled with countries having either of only two forms of government. One would be a monarchy. The other would be a democracy.

Now, assuming for a moment that the only ones who could become kings in that monarchy would be men, and the only ones in that democracy who could be elected to represent the people would be women, we have now set the stage for our discussion about patrilineal and matrilineal lines.

You see, the patrilineal concept is like the succession of sons inheriting the throne upon the death of their father, the king. Only “kings” could be in the patrilineal line: the current king now reigning is son of the king who just died. That king was son of the previous king. As far back as the history of that monarchy could go—assuming this was a world without war (and definitely devoid of intrigue)—the line would always pass from a man to his father. That is the patrilineal line: like a monarchy. (Sorry, Queen Elizabeth!)

When I explain what I’m trying to achieve with Y-DNA and mtDNA tests, it seems the patrilineal concept has a slightly better chance of being grasped by the innocent bystanders I am accosting with my testing proposals. So let’s test our political analogy on the matrilineal concept and see if it works as well as the monarchy example for the men.

Our second type of government, as I mentioned, would be a democracy. In other words, each governing position would be filled by election. Now, totally opposite of the monarchy we just discussed in our previous example, imagine that the only ones who could be elected in this other type of country would be women—not men. For every election cycle (in other words, for every generation), another woman would fill the position. One could never be quite sure who the next senator would be, for instance, but one thing you’d know for sure: it would be another woman.

Election cycle after election cycle—in other words, generation after generation—you knew someone would be selected to fill the position, but with each iteration came a woman with a different name. One generation, it could be Susan Smith. Another generation, it might be Jane Jones. Though the names would always change, each elected woman would still always receive the title, Senator.

To trace the history of this government back in time, the challenge would not be to find the most recent Senator, Jane Jones, and follow her surname back through time. It would be, instead, to find the list of senators, and follow that senatorial succession along its historical timeline. It would be the elected role of senator—in genealogy, that would be the role of mother—that is followed in our study. The office, not the person—from senator to senator to senator.

Perhaps that muddies the waters just as much as any other description I’ve heard. I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that when I mention following the genetic line of the mother, people often seem to think of all the women in a family—not just the mother, her mother, and the mother before that one. Or to begin following the ancestors of that woman's surname. But in the case of the mother's line, as we know, each generation presents a different mother's maiden name.

As if in one great big dance—or one historic succession of elections—the female players keep changing position. Without a set surname remaining constant while we trace the family back through time, the only established identity these women have is their title: in my allegory, senator—or, in the case of genetic genealogy, mother.

Maybe, as genetic genealogy testing becomes more prevalent—and, hopefully, the cost continues to come down, making the process more pocketbook-friendly as well—it will suffice all but the most novice among us to simply bandy about the terms, patrilineal and matrilineal. Until then, barring the handy use of pen and paper, perhaps a comparison like this will help clear up the definitions.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Stuffy Old Genealogy Tomes Tell All

What do you do when it’s 1855 and you have no tell-all tabloids to keep you informed when standing in line at the dry goods store?

Apparently, you read genealogy books.

One of my resources, in following my Taliaferro and related lines, is a book that was first published in 1855. Written by former governor of Georgia, George R. Gilmer, it was known by one of those traditionally-elongated titles of the era: Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, of the Cherokees, and the Author. Let’s just call the book Sketches for convenience.

The Gilmer book was re-printed, in a “corrected” form, in 1926 and then again—this time, with an added index for ease in researching—by the Genealogical Publishing Company in 1965.

“That most charming book,” as the foreword to the corrected edition of Sketches noted, had a mixed reception,
…because of the chatty style, unpleasant gossip, minutiae of descriptions, and the too candid truths therein about so many prominent people. The author’s unvarnished story and lack of extenuation made his book distasteful to many who were aggrieved thereby.

The foreword did go on to admit,
This history, however, written as it is in this most unusual style will always remain as an oasis in the moral desert of truculent and time serving literature.

So, what did the tell-alls of mid nineteenth century America say?

Remember the woman I mentioned yesterday—the one I suspect might be in my direct matrilineal line? Here’s what Governor Gilmer had to say about her on page 15 of the most current edition of his book:
Mary Meriwether, the oldest daughter [of Thomas Meriwether Gilmer and Elizabeth Lewis] is a woman of good understanding. She married successively two very indolent, inefficient men, whom by her industry she saved from poverty. The first was Warren Taliaferro, brother of Col. Benjamin Taliaferro; the second, Nicholas Powers, a handsome Irishman.

Should you think this was just a slip of the pen in a late-night writing session, here’s an additional passage from Sketches, this time focusing on the Taliaferro side of the genealogy:
Warren Taliaferro was tall, muscular, good-tempered, very indolent and inefficient. He constantly reminded those who listened to his conversation of his Italian descent. He married Mary M. Gilmer, daughter of Thomas M. Gilmer. He was a fond husband and father.

Sure, the author blended the good with the bad in his version of the family memoir. But when it came to the bad, George Gilmer seemed to hold no inhibitions about expressing his opinion. Take this entry about Warren Taliaferro’s older brother:
Richard Taliaferro was deformed—his legs and thighs being only a span or two long, whilst his body was of ordinary length and size, and his head unusually large. His mind was of good capacity, but his deformity so soured his temper, and mortified his pride, as to drive him from society. He never married, became very penurious, and died without ever having enjoyed the love or commiseration of any but his nearest kin.

How’s that for a eulogy?

Though a passage like this might permit you a glimpse into just what it was that had some of the good governor’s readers outraged at his opinions, apparently the plainspokenness of this former generation carried the day. Gilmer’s genealogy went on to be cited and his stories paraphrased in other genealogies, as well.

An 1892 publication, The Meriwethers and Their Connections, followed suit in divulging one of those personal stories, the subject of which undoubtedly would die a thousand deaths if she had known what had been said about her. Just imagine this scenario:
David Meriwether, the third son of Thomas and Elizabeth Thornton Meriwether, was a quiet, upright man… He married Mary Harvie, a very sensible, good woman, and one of the best of wives. She was so fat when old, that she seldom left the house. Her husband was usually found by her side. She weighed between three and four hundred, and was tall in proportion. He was low in stature, and weighed about a hundred and twenty. Her seat was a broad split-bottom chair, and when she rose up, she put each hand upon a round of the chair, and ascended so gradually, and for so long a time, that she looked as if she would never stop.

David and Mary Harvie Meriwether, incidentally, were the parents of the charming young lady, Martha, who became the focus of the struggle between brothers Benjamin and Zachariah Taliaferro for her hand in marriage. My fourth great grandfather lost.

Not to be out-done in this genealogical tell-all, Colonel James Edmonds Saunders—aided and abetted, no less, by his granddaughter, Elizabeth Saunders Blair Stubbs—added to the Mary Harvie story in their own version in 1899:
She was one of a family of nine brothers and sisters, whose aggregate weight exceeded 2700 pounds. When Mrs. Meriweather [sic] became old, she weighed between 300 and 400 pounds. The four daughters in this family were all well favored…

The Saunders narrative, Early Settlers of Alabama, continued with the next generation of this Taliaferro family,
Major Benjamin Taliaferro [son of Martha Meriwether, whose mother was Mary Harvie] married Martha Watkins, in Georgia; moved to Alabama and lived in Marengo county. He was low in stature, but very squarely built, and in old age weighed largely over 300 pounds. He inherited the fattening tendency from his grandmother.

Still, there were some kind words to add to the picture.
Major Benjamin T. was of sprightly mind, and sharp wit; and he had a fund of the best Georgia anecdotes, which made him the life of every company he entered. His rippling, guttural laugh much resembled that of the renowned English actor Hackett, when he personated Falstaff.

Good, bad or indifferent, these authors’ observations about the foibles of our ancestors at least give us an idea of what these people of past generations were like. Perhaps the kindness was—at least, I hope this was so—that the subjects of the sketches in these genealogical narratives were, by then, long gone.

Yet, we have to remember that the candid nature of such writings does not guarantee their accuracy. The transparency of the authors lends somewhat of a charm to what would otherwise be the dull droning of begats—but that doesn’t mean we are safe to allow ourselves to be beguiled by what made it into print, well over one hundred years ago.

A warning from the author of Sketches, himself, reminds us to take the information we glean from such manuscripts with caution. In the 1926 edition of his work, Governor Gilmer wrote, regarding himself,
Old age and long continued ill-health have made the author’s hand tremulous and his sight dim, so that he writes badly and cannot readily perceive mistakes. He employed copyists to transcribe his manuscript. They made many mistakes. The author could not supervise the printing. The printer added to the mistakes of the author and copyists.

And you think these time-honored genealogies are reliable resources?  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

On the Trail

I’m back to that perennial struggle between staying on the research itinerary’s timetable and stopping to smell the flowers along the roadside.

Admittedly, I’ve spent a lot of time smelling those roses lately. When genealogical research finally makes it back to colonial times in this country, it’s time to really enjoy the scenery. It seems like every surname could be connected to something of significance.

Whether it’s history or a serious case of inbreeding, I don’t know. But it sure is tempting to follow those rabbit trails.

Take this week, for instance. I was truly repentant for my past transgressions of following my nose onto the Tilson line—even though it led me straight to Mayflower Society eligibility. I meant well when I promised I’d head back to the main trail and stick to my original purposes.

But then I stumbled upon another set of surnames that made me wonder. And my resolve faltered.

Yes, I took the detour.

But it was only a small one. Really.

You see, if I want to figure out how my mitochondrial DNA test results lead me back to an exact match with someone who was adopted at birth, one thing’s for sure: I need to stick with the matrilineal trail that leads from my mother to her mother to her mother. There is no deviating from this line. After all, that’s what matrilineal means.

Since I have one of those annoying brick wall road blocks keeping me from moving up that trail beyond my third great grandmother, I will have to engage in some guess work to test the possibilities of who her mother might have been.

That leaves me stuck at third great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro, wife of Thomas Firth Rainey. Since both of them died in Georgia before their daughter—my second great grandmother, Mary Rainey Broyles—married in 1871, I had to glean some clues from the nearest census record.

Fortunately, as we’ve already seen, I was able to find a Mary “Reiney” in the 1870 census. Along with a Thomas Reiney, she was living in the household of Charles and Mildred Taliaferro. In addition, there was a Minnie “Broyes”—which I suspected might actually be Broyles—in the household.

Could Thomas be Mary’s brother, I wondered. Since Minnie’s mother also turned out to be a Taliaferro, could sixty one year old Charles be the guardian of choice for this branch of the Taliaferro family?

Looking backwards one decade, I was able to locate siblings Thomas and Mary in the household of widowed Mary (Elizabeth Taliaferro) Rainey in 1860. One more decade, and I had located the senior Mary’s husband’s name—Thomas Firth Rainey—in addition to a marriage record for the couple in 1818 Oglethorpe County, Georgia.

Here’s where the guessing game revved up. Next question: so who would have been the mother of Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro? Remember, my quest calls for strict adherence to the matrilineal line—no wandering!

Thinking that there had to be a reason why Charles Taliaferro took in two of Mary Elizabeth’s children after her death, I decided to play the “what if” game and call Charles Mary Elizabeth’s brother. After all, it is possible.

Then the quest was on to find a Taliaferro family which included a brother-sister team of Charles and Mary Elizabeth. While the part about Mary Elizabeth had me stymied, I did know Charles’ middle name was Boutwell, and that there was a Boutwell maiden name in another of my Taliaferro lines.

Checking out the family of Warren Taliaferro, sure enough, there was a son named Charles Boutwell Taliaferro—I already knew this—but he didn’t have a sister named Mary Elizabeth. My only options in this four-child family were sisters Nancy, Sarah and Lucy (who also went by the name Sophia). One published genealogy of the last century noted that Nancy married a Thomas Rainey.

Could Nancy be Mary Elizabeth? Since I’ve yet to find any solid documentation—other than a marriage record indicating Thomas married someone named Mary Taliaferro—I decided to continue playing the “what if” game.

So, what if “Mary” was really “Nancy” and her father was Warren Taliaferro? Who did Warren marry?

The answer to this, according to various published genealogies, was Mary Meriwether Gilmer. (And, because Warren died fairly early in their marriage, Mary married, second, a man who likely served as her family’s minister, Nicholas Powers, with whom she went on to have six additional children.)

This Mary becomes the next entry in my hypothetical matrilineal line, then. And the question moves on to be, “And who was her mother?”

The answer to this next sequence is that Mary Meriwether Gilmer was daughter of Thomas Meriwether Gilmer and his wife, Elizabeth Lewis.

By this time, the repetition of the name Meriwether, coupled with the addition of the maiden name Lewis, started to ring a bell.

Ding! It’s Rabbit Trail Time! What name do you know that contains both a Meriwether and a Lewis?

You know I went to check that one out.

Gone was the pursuit of matrilineal lines. Now I wanted to follow that Meriwether line as far back as I could. I wanted to make some connections. To continue the genealogical litany, Thomas Meriwether Gilmer was son of Peachy Ridgeway Gilmer—yes, that was his name—and his wife, Mary Meriwether.

Ah ha! That’s where the Meriwether surname came in!

Jumping tracks to follow her name—and, in case you’re lost, no, that would not be part of my matrilineal line; now it’s just for the sheer curiosity of the joy ride—Mary Meriwether, wife of Thomas M. Gilmer was daughter of Thomas Meriwether and his wife, Elizabeth Thornton.

Now for the long descent down the other side of the family mountain.

Mary, daughter of Thomas Meriwether, had a sister named Lucy. According to Louisa H. A. Minor’s 1892 The Meriwethers and Their Connections, Mary’s sister Lucy was “a woman of sterling sense and admirable qualities.”

Lucy was one of those women of that era whose husband’s early demise was followed by another marriage. Though I don’t know why Lucy’s first husband died, I do know his name and rank: Colonel William Lewis.

Lewis? Ah, now you sense what I’m after. A wedding in which a maiden name might be blended with a married surname.

And what do you get? Meriwether Lewis.

Yes, that one.

To recap—just in case you lost track—the grandmother of my suspected fourth great grandmother Mary Meriwether Gilmer Taliaferro Powers was sister to the mother of Meriwether Lewis. That same suspected fourth great grandmother was thus first cousin, once removed, from the renowned explorer, Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. That could make me his first cousin, a kazillion times removed. Even so, that’s a rabbit trail worth exploring.

Above: Portrait of Meriwether Lewis, circa 1807, by Charles Willson Peale; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Refocusing on Square One

The truth is, I’ve been running away from reality. And the reality is that I’m not finding what I’m looking for.

Sometimes, it’s just easier to keep looking—looking for anything, as long as it keeps yielding discoveries. Sometimes, getting more genealogical goodies feels like progress, even if it isn’t the stuff I need to be finding.

If you haven’t noticed, it’s been almost a month since I was last back on track with my stated purpose. Oh, granted, finding the how and why of my connection to the Mayflower has been a blast. But it wasn’t in my original game plan.

I still need to break through the brick wall of discovering which family my orphaned second great grandmother belonged to. And, if I was right about my original guess of Mary Rainey Broyles’ mother being Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro Rainey, then who were her parents? The genealogy books covering that line in that era, in my estimation, have got it all wrong—but where is my proof that I’m any closer to the truth?

So, I dither around with finding “clues” to plug into other family members’ trees and fool myself into thinking I’m making progress. I may be gathering a larger count of individuals in my tree, but I’m still missing the mark.

Remember, it’s all in seeking a connection between my matrilineal line and that of the mystery adoptee who, one day several months ago now, showed up on my digital front door, announcing that our DNA tests showed an exact match we share.

Even where I’ve been stuck for the last month—wondering about third great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Taliaferro Rainey—I can’t gain any traction. Not even with the four other Rainey daughters whose potential descendants could also trace a line that would lead to exact matches, if I could ever convince one of their descendants to agree to mitochondrial DNA testing.

If. Of course, that “if” won’t happen any time soon, because I can’t even determine what became of three of those siblings of my second great grandmother.

Don’t get your hopes up on the fourth of the sisters—I already know she died unmarried before 1851.

However, if I can, somehow, find the “happily ever after” for what must likely be the married version of sisters Martha, Sarah, and Mildred Rainey—and if any of them had daughters who had daughters—then perhaps I’ll find a way to see how close a match we might have to our mystery cousin.

Above: Long Island, New York, artist William Moore Davis (1829-1920), The Lady Behind the Door; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

It’s That Time Again:
Southern California Jamboree

Some people are so dedicated to their pursuit of family history that they don’t miss any opportunities to connect with the genealogy community. The minute the conference season is upon us, they are rocking their registrations at primo events like RootsTech, NGS or FGS conferences.

Meanwhile, here sits the likes of me, green with envy but unable to join in the fun.

Not so, when it comes to the featured event in our corner of the world. Jamboree is coming to Southern California once again—the annual event every June that combines world class speakers on subjects both in genetic genealogy and genealogical research. With a mere six hours’ drive time, I can join in the fun, after all.

And that’s exactly what I’m planning. This is an annual event to look forward to, in my book. I’m all registered and ready to get to Burbank and network, shop (for genealogically-related material, of course!), and…oh, yeah…learn, too.

If you are not familiar with the SCGS Jamboree, take a look here at all their offerings this year. And don’t think this is just a show for the locals. Jamboree was where I got to meet Heather Wilkinson Rojo of Nutfield Genealogy—all the way from New Hampshire. Had a great conversation with Gena Philibert Ortega. Jamboree is where you can get some face time with the likes of Lisa Alzo. Judy Russell. Thomas MacEntee. Hoosier Daddy? story-weaver, Michael Lacopo.

Coupling the genealogy conference with DNA Day provides a family history double header, in my opinion. Genetic genealogy has a steep learning curve, and I’m still climbing my way upwards on that slippery slope. I glean a lot of tips from the sessions on this day—and it helps to be able to ask specific questions directly of the experts on the areas where I’m stuck. Once again, face time trumps every other learning opportunity I know.

I don’t know whether this Jamboree event has been growing astronomically over the years, but I do know the coordinators are urging early registration—before the early bird cut-off on April 30—as well as early reservations for those wishing to stay in the host hotel. I’ve learned it’s best to just take care of these details as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

In the meantime, my strategy is to get a jump on the networking by connecting via Twitter—I’ll use the official conference hashtag #scgs2015, once the event nears—and make plans to connect with fellow bloggers I’d like to meet this year. For the shy and retiring, I’ve found this is the best way to break the ice. I’ll never forget how I discovered fellow blogger Melanie Frick was sitting across the aisle from me during one Jamboree session last year—by reading each other’s tweets.

If you happen to come across enough good fortune to get you to SoCal for Jamboree this year, please do let me know! You and I could use some face time, too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

About Janet

Whether you think the name Janet sufficiently old fashioned enough to belong to a child born in 1711, that—sometimes with its alternate spelling as Jennet—is exactly what happened.

Not only did it happen, but apparently The Mayflower Society has officially recognized it as such. At least, that’s according to the surname supplement added to the back of the volume known as Tilson-Tillson Descendants: A Supplement to the Tilson Genealogy (1911) by Mercer V. Tilson.

Now that I’ve finally figured out how to access the ebook version for myself—it’s on loan from the Boston Public Library via InternetArchive—I discovered the book’s committee was authorized to include “memoranda accepted by the Mayflower Society.”

According to that “memoranda,” The Mayflower Society “recognizes the following” line of descent. I’ll give you the Readers Digest version, stopping at the generation from which I descend. Among the first generation of passengers arriving on the Mayflower was John Alden. His daughter, Elizabeth Alden, marked the second generation. Elizabeth married William Pabodie, and their daughter Ruth, born June 7, 1658, in Duxbury, Massachusetts, became the third generation. That Ruth, marrying Benjamin Bartlett, had a daughter whom she named after herself. The fourth generation’s Ruth Bartlett married John Murdock.

Ah, Murdock! Now you sense the connection is close. And it is: the fifth generation brings Janet Murdock, born in Plymouth on December 10, 1711.

That is the Janet Murdock who married Stephen Tilson of my Tilson line—and for whom the Janet Tilson, her granddaughter and supposed wife of Joseph Cole over whose identity we have been struggling for the past few days, was named.

Whether the original woman was named Janet or Jennet, or whether the surname was spelled Murdock or Murdoch, you’ve got to admit: she’s got quite a heritage.

And that makes me a Mayflower descendant! Now what do I do? I haven’t even managed to complete my application to Daughters of the American Revolution!

Above: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, "The Mayflower Compact 1620," oil on canvas representing passengers of the Mayflower signing the Compact, including Carver, Winston, Alden, Myles Standing, Howland, Bradford, Allerton and Fuller; courtesy United States Library of Congress via Wikipedia; in the public domain in those countries with a copyright term of life of the artist plus eighty years or less.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Plastic Paddy

As I work my way back through time, following the various branches of my maternal side to the far reaches of colonial America, it begins to dawn on me that those roots may well connect me to Scots-Irish emigrants.

Should this turn out to be true, I can’t help but think—considering our family’s long-awaited trip last fall to research my husband’s Irish ancestry—how ironic it is. After all, here we are, husband and wife—he being son of a man whose eight Catholic great grandparents were all born in Ireland, I being someone of a distant heritage from the other, Protestant, side of the island. Orange and green, all wrapped up together in one household.

And we live to tell of it.

We’re not really Irish, ourselves, however. Though my husband can claim three great-grandparents born in Ireland, every subsequent generation before him was born on American soil—Lafayette, Indiana, or Fort Wayne or Chicago, to be specific.

Just before traveling to Ireland last October, he stumbled across a book which tipped him off to the possibility that the Irish might not welcome with open arms the returning “Irish” descendants, arriving on the Old Sod with the fervent hope of finding something more about their roots. It was in McCarthy’s Bar, Pete McCarthy’s “Journey of Discovery in Ireland” that my husband was enlightened as to the best approach to take on his own journey.

As we traveled the countryside, trying to locate the townlands where my husband’s ancestors originated, he would tentatively try out his newly-devised research approach with this ice-breaker:
As you can tell by my accent, I’m not from around here.

If he would be awarded even the faintest glimmer of a smile, he would continue his explanation.
I’m probably best described by my favorite Irish author as being one of those dewy-eyed Yanks wandering the countryside, searching for his roots.

The “favorite Irish author,” of course, would be Pete McCarthy—which, in itself, was halfway inaccurate. But what were the chances that someone would spot that? It’s been over ten years since the book was published.

From that point, my husband would explain that all eight of his father’s great-grandparents were born in Ireland. If the unsuspecting bystander whom he was accosting with all these details hadn’t yet escaped, my husband would then find himself in a lively conversation about whatever question he was pursuing. We met a lot of cordial, receptive people that way, friendly people most willing to help us in our quest. However, we did notice how the soft introduction helped.

I’m not sure what the perception has been, on the other end of the exchange. I have, since then, stumbled upon a few clues that the Irish—the truly Irish, the ones whose birth certificate justifies their claim of Irishness like nothing else could—don’t look quite so favorably upon our romanticized view of the matter as we do. I had first found such an indication, right after arriving home from our trip, in a blog post by an Irish-Canadian historian living in America.

Just the other day, while working on another project, I ran across another indication. I was considering the topic of Irish immigration to the United States, and in seeking some quick statistics, was trawling through the Wikipedia entry on the topic. What should I find there, but a reference to a term that, regardless of all that I’ve mentioned above, still took me by surprise.

The term was “plastic paddy.” According to Wikipedia, it is
A perjorative term for members of the Irish diaspora who appropriate (often stereotypical) Irish customs and identity…on the basis of their perceived lack of authenticity as Irish.

I suppose it is only in America that we can find people who claim to be “Irish”—or Italian, or German, or Greek—but simultaneously insist that they are Americans. Perhaps such “Heinz 57” claims can only be understood in the context of our American heritage. Of course we aren’t Irish—or Italian, or German, or Greek—if we claim American citizenship.

On the other hand, that is how we see ourselves, we Americans: by virtue of our heritage. We define ourselves by where we came from. And together, from Ireland—and Italy, and Germany, and Greece—we celebrate what we remember of our past, that long-past of preceding generations that we know only because a parent taught a child who grew up to teach it to their children.

It’s in a country of immigrants like ours that we can all “be Irish” for a day like today—celebrating in a way that may very well cause some real Irish to turn away in disgust. “What do they know?” they may be thinking. We have co-opted their heritage.

By that same token, we are the ones who can turn around and celebrate Cinco de Mayo, or dance the tango, or eat sushi or pad thai or knishes or pierogi—even if we aren’t from Mexico, or Argentina, or Japan, or Thailand, or Poland.

Knowing that not everyone knows what we know can be an eye-opener. While at first, I thought it an affront to discover that the Irish might not have appreciated my appreciating the Irish, I’ve appreciated the learning experience.

On the other hand, as I noticed when dining at an Italian restaurant in Ireland run by Romanian immigrants, what we have long come to expect as normal in the American land-of-the-immigrant is now becoming the norm in other parts of the world, too. While the Irish—and the recently-Irish—may look down their noses at those of us who merely thought we were “Irish,” we Americans may be entertaining a secret glee at observing the cosmopolitanization of those pure-green shores we had, so long ago, left behind.

Above: Saint Patrick, woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.
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