Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Reaching Back to Old File Folders


How does one manage to conflate the genealogical records obtained over a lifetime of research with those instantaneously obtained with the click of a mouse? How do we shift those piles of analog paperwork to the streamlined world of the digital?

Having to pull up details I obtained through hands-on research twenty, thirty, or more years ago—which were never added to the online world—can be a challenge, if a system to combine the two sets of records was not set up. In the case of our Johanna Flanagan Lee and her unnamed father, she unfortunately falls within that camp. Going through my old Flanagan and Lee file folders—and I do mean literal file folders, not those cute little icons online—they contained several now-familiar details, but alas, not the two notes I had written concerning one person: a man named Edward Flanagan.

Among my many research routines, decades ago, was to call the cemetery in which any ancestor had been buried. The purpose was straightforward. I wanted to verify—especially before the advent of Find A Grave—that my ancestor was indeed buried in that cemetery. Further, I'd use the same phone call to obtain the location of the specific burial plot.

More than that, though, was my hope to sweet-talk the person on the other end of the line to provide me with a list of everyone else who was buried in that family plot. Especially for burials in the 1800s, often the ancestor I'd be researching would actually be buried with others in what was called a family plot. While the assumption that everyone else buried in that plot would strictly be family members was not guaranteed to always be so, oftentimes it would be the case.

Regarding our William Flanagan, that kind of question did indeed provide helpful information. For one thing, that was also, apparently, where our Joanna Flanagan Lee was buried. But in addition to the listing of her name in that family plot, there was another Flanagan included. This man's name was Edward Flanagan.

Finding information on Edward was not easy. Back then, pre-Internet, I failed to locate much information at all, other than his name and significant dates of birth and death. The assumption, of course, was that Edward had found himself at that location specifically because he belonged to that family—same as William and Johanna. But how was he connected?

The thought was that Edward could easily fulfill the role of father to Johanna—but how often do we find that the easy "answers" do not end up being the real answers? Edward could have been a cousin, perhaps. Or a distant relative. 

Further, just as was the case with Johanna, Edward had no headstone to mark his burial. All I had to go on was an old cemetery record, passed to me via a long distance phone call decades ago—and now, only a dim memory of the exchange, at that.

However, in this Internet age in which we've all become accustomed to the ease of finding facts once hard to locate, concurrent with this struggle, I was able to reach across an ocean to discover another tantalizing connection: the Griffith's Valuation record for the townland to which Stephen Malloy had sent his letter to his wife Anna Flanagan contained another familiar surname.

Looking through that record for familiar names—looking in vain, it turns out, for other Flanagan households—what should I stumble upon but the surname which, decades later and nearly half a world away, was to become the married surname of our Johanna Flanagan.

The household in question was that of William Lee in the townland of Cappanihane. While I have no way to discover—at this point, if ever—who was attached to that home and family, reaching forward from that County Limerick property in 1848 to an American census record in 1880, I found it an encouraging sign that Johanna and John Lee named their eldest son by that same given name: William.

Come tomorrow, we'll have arrived at the end of another month and thus the time set aside for another family history research goal. While I'm far from achieving what I had hoped—finding the roots for that mysterious letter writer Stephen Malloy—I've located some encouraging hints and at least pinpointed the family's location in County Limerick. Tomorrow will be time to assess what we've found—and what we still lack—and develop some goals for the next time we tackle this research dilemma. 

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