Monday, July 31, 2023

Following the Pattern


Extracting an ancestor's name from the gaps in Irish records may depend on how closely held traditional Irish naming patterns were during that time period. My question right now is whether the ancestor of several DNA matches was indeed a missing son who belonged in the family of my father-in-law's great-grandfather Denis Tully.

If Irish naming patterns held true—and they weren't always followed precisely—they could be a key to determining who Denis Tully's parents might have been. In addition, since I've been able to glean the names of four of his brothers when they were recorded as godparents for Denis' children at their baptism, naming patterns might help me place the known Tully brothers in birth order. Furthermore, if I could then find records for any of those brothers' own families, I could spot-check the adherence to the naming tradition to further confirm I had correctly hypothesized their parents' names.

It all comes down to "if."

Just for reference, let's review what that naming tradition was, during the years in which Denis Tully lived at the northern border of County Tipperary in the hills to the east of the village of Ballina, prior to his family's emigration to "Canada West"—present-day Ontario—about 1849. According to one source, Irish parents named their first son after the child's paternal grandfather. A second son would become the namesake of his maternal grandfather. It was not until the third son that we would see parents naming the child after his own father.

If this is the pattern Denis Tully adhered to, there are a few other conclusions we can draw from this list, particularly since I am grappling with the assertion of some DNA matches and others researching the line that their ancestor, also named Dennis Tully, was son of my father-in-law's great-grandfather Denis Tully. If the younger Dennis were indeed eldest son of our Denis, the naming pattern would imply that father Denis himself were son of a man named Dennis. Else, the only reason he would name a son by his own name—if the pattern held true—would have been if the child were his third son. Following that same logic, father Denis himself would have been the third son of the grandfather Dennis, unless the grandfather's own father were also named Dennis.

The problem is that there is simply no way to find documentation for that time period in that location—at least now, with the resources currently at hand. And yet, several DNA matches and others researching the family history of this other Dennis have entered our family's Denis as his father.

None of those other researchers have produced documentation to demonstrate that connection, though they include that detail on their public trees online. Indeed, if that Dennis Tully were born in 1830 as his Find a Grave memorial in Ontario states, we would be hard pressed to locate a baptismal confirmation of that fact, since currently-existing records from the parish at Ballina are spotty before 1832.

Because I've already gleaned the names of the Tully godparents for each of our Denis Tully's children, we now can say that Denis was brother to four other Tully men: Luke, Thomas, John, and Mick (likely Michael). While the process may be tedious, I can revisit that collection of baptismal records online to find the entries for each child of each of these four Tully brothers. Then, I could line those grandchildren up in date order to see whether the naming tradition would tell us anything further about who the brothers' parents might have been.

In the process, of course, I would hopefully run across some sign of which Tully brother this younger Dennis might have called "Dad." In fact, I've already run across one possibility. We'll take a closer look at that discovery tomorrow. 

Sunday, July 30, 2023

When Digging Below
the Tip of the Iceberg


Years ago, the California Genealogical Society created a poster featuring a drawing of an iceberg. The caption, in part, read, "Genealogy Research: Internet is just the tip of the iceberg." The poster continued by explaining that successful research also requires the willingness to check many other resources.

 When we are called upon to name some of those "other resources," some of us are able to think of courthouses where records are created and stored, or governmental archives. Sometimes, we remember to check our local libraries—and maybe the libraries of our ancestors' own hometown. But beyond that, many of us might be hard pressed to name any other likely resource for a given research question.

Having a finding aid to guide us in a new-to-us research location would be helpful. Thankfully, there are such aids, at least for places where volunteers have been resourceful enough to make available their secret stashes for other researchers. I sometimes found the old GenWeb sites—both American and international—to serve quite capably in that capacity. Though I seldom resort to it, Linkpendium also comes to mind as a way to ferret out those hidden local resources. But now, with so many resources online, I simply turn to a good ol' Google search to find material which I might otherwise have missed.

Sometimes, though, the resources we seek might be right under our noses—but we don't even realize it. I'm reminded of an experience this past month in helping a new member of our local genealogical society. This member, who joined online from quite a distance from our own city, inquired about finding a book for which she had received a photocopy from her now-gone grandmother. All she had was the book's title and author—and a convincing picture of a very blurry photocopied front page.

In receiving such a request, my first thoughts were to check the online catalog listing the books in the holdings of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or the genealogy center of the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne. Thankfully, instead of that, I made my first step a trip to the online collective of public libraries known as

There—perhaps you've guessed it—I discovered four libraries nearby which have that specific book in their holdings, including our own city library. There was a catch, however: the book was not in the stacks, nor in the reference section, but locked away in a special collection labeled simply, "Local History." Who would have known there was such a place? But knowing that now, I could go and ask the reference librarian how to gain access so I could see the book for myself.

How many other libraries have secret stashes like that? How many local residents are aware of such holdings—let alone those of us researching that community from miles away?

Sometimes, we may discover help in already-compiled finding aids. Sometimes, developing a deft hand at trawling the Internet with the help of search engines can make the difference. But there are other times when we simply need to follow our noses and learn to ask questions as we move along the research path.

Once we get there—that place where, finally, we discover the answer to our previously unanswerable question—the all-important next step is to write down what we were looking for and where we found it. Who knows? We may be retracing our steps to this very spot for another genealogy question in the future.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

What a Stray Dog
Reminded me About Genealogy


I was not kidding the other day when I quipped, "The dog ate my research." In the midst of a summer-long dog-sitting obligation for a friend on vacation, my daughter found herself the unexpected foster "mom" to a stray dog who leapt the fence into the yard of the place where she was housesitting. That suddenly transformed that job into two dogs to watch—at least, until the owner showed up to claim that other handsome German Shepherd—and dog-walking duties for two big dogs required an assistant.

That assistant was me.

When days turned into weeks without any sightings of a bereft dog owner, the real dog of the household began to feel—and act—like the red-headed stepchild instead of the true canine resident of the property. Thus, we invented special canine outings for a change of pace. On balmy summer evenings, we'd drive to a different park in town, take the poor dog for a walk someplace new, then wrap up the evening with a stop at a local ice cream shop before driving home for the night. That's when I realized a stray dog was teaching me something about genealogy.

Don't suppose I'm about to launch into a reprise of my thoughts on Cat Genealogy and Dog Tags. The lesson from this summer's dog-walking escapades opened my eyes to a different aspect of genealogy, specifically because those evening outings gifted me with a flashback to my own childhood memories. 

When I was a child, my parents indulged their love of ice cream, and shared that passion with me. On summer evenings, my mother would invite me to take a walk into town for an ice cream cone. Or my dad would pile the family into the car and take a leisurely after-dinner drive—after stopping for a scoop at the local creamery. Even visits to my grandparents in Ohio included trips to that special ice cream shop out in the country, the one right next to the dairy farm. 

Those childhood memories hid latent in my memory—until jogged by those dog-sitting duties and their accompanying ice cream detours this summer. And, along the way on those dog-walking excursions, as I'd share those lazy-summer memories with my daughter, I realized I was missing one aspect of a complete report of my family history: my own story. Yes, I can tell these memories to my daughter if I think of them, and maybe some day, she'll recall the moment I shared the stories and pass them along to another generation. But even better than that would be to write down those recollections as they occur to me, in a format where they can be saved and passed along.

Recently, an emailed note from Family Tree Magazine was headlined, "Genealogy Questions to Ask Older Relatives." The article provided several interview questions to ask those "older relatives," with those suggestions organized by category. Of course, some of us look around and realize the only ones left to fill the shoes of those "older relatives" are us.

Far better, in such cases, is the realization which dawned on blogger Lisa, "The Shy Genealogist," when her son texted her to ask for a picture of his grandfather, who unexpectedly died when her son was a young child. "Is it ironic that the genealogist in the family has never shared this information with her own children?" she asked. 

Lisa has since shifted her focus to preserving the stories of her more recent ancestors—to share her own memories of these people whom she knew, or those whose stories she remembered her own relatives sharing with her. 

I've been reminded of a fuller scope of such tasks when I hear researchers urge each other to do one additional step: write your own story. Some of us may groan to think of journaling, or shy away from documenting our own past. It is work, but it is a labor of love which someone will someday appreciate receiving—preserving a tangible reminder of who we are and what meant the most in our life.

I never would have expected receiving such a reminder by events cascading from the chance appearance of a stray dog on our doorstep. The lazy feeling at the end of another summer evening, with the refreshing delta breezes coming in over the water at the marina, or on the drive home from a different dog-walking adventure, passing a building in a part of town where I hadn't been for a long time, somehow triggered memories and instigated conversation, reminding me of all the stories still needing to be captured and preserved.

Genealogy may be the recording of names, dates, and places in our family's generations, but it also is capturing the memories of those whose lives, in whatever way, made us what we are. We are preserving the essence of what those roots have fed us. While it is important to record the data on our distant ancestors, no government document can divulge the personal memories we have of the relatives we've known over our lifetime—their likes and dislikes, their personality, little details only close family would recognize. If we don't pass along those memories, who will know?

It isn't hard to realize that we are part of our family's story, too. I think we already know that. It's just a lot of work to add such an additional task to the endless quest for yet another generation in the family tree. So we conveniently "forget" to put ourselves in the picture.

I know. I'm one of those who tend to forget that, too—until a stray dog made me break from daily routine and reminisce. There is a lot to remember, now that I think of it. But when taken story by story, like walking that dog step by step, writing can transform those memories into a form to someday pass along. 

Friday, July 28, 2023

Getting a Good Look at the Godparents


At the tail end of an article explaining Irish naming traditions, one website providing research tips explained the key about who was named as godparents. For "the poorer class of Catholics" in Ireland, the naming of godparents followed one simple rule: each godparent was "either a sibling or a sibling in-law of one of the child's parents."

If that is so—and may provide clues as to who the father of this mystery Dennis Tully I've found might be—then let's take a look at the possible roster of Tully siblings by examining whom our own Denis Tully named as godparent for his children.

Denis Tully and Margaret Flannery—our Denis, as opposed to the younger Dennis found in the family tree of some DNA matches—had at least seven children born to them in Ireland. Of course, there may be more. Some may have been stillborn, something I wonder as I see gaps in the dates of birth for the others. Some may have been born to Denis and Margaret prior to the oldest child I've found in baptismal records, as previous baptismal records don't seem to be available before 1832. Those are possibilities to keep in mind. But for now, let's look at the ones I've been able to find.

The baptismal entry for eldest child Johanna, baptized in March of 1832, was a challenge to read. Her first name was entirely broken from the page. The only reason I know it was hers was because a descendant of Johanna shared a baptismal verification letter with me which matched, almost word for word, one which the Tully family had passed down through my father-in-law's line for younger brother John. With the crumbling state of that old record, it is not surprising to discover that the entry for the sponsors was also hard to read. The Tully godfather's name showed only the last two letters: k and e. Luke?

The next child, Michael, was baptized on June 5, 1834, with two Flannery relatives serving as godparents: William and Bridget.

Third-born Patrick was baptized on August 30, 1836. His sponsors were Thomas Tully and Mary. Once again a hard-to-read entry makes it difficult to determine Mary's maiden name, but my guess is: Tully.

The next child, ill-fated William, was baptized on May 8, 1839. Once again, a Tully name shows in the godparents' listing: John Tully, along with Judy McNamara.

Following him was son John, baptized on February 24, 1842. While his godfather's name was difficult to read—John Brun?—neither sponsor was a Tully, as the godmother was Mary McNamara.

Daughter Margaret, next in the birth order, was baptized in September of 1844. Her sponsors' names provide me with what I consider the best possibilities: Mick Tully and Mary Gleeson.

The last child born to Denis and Margaret in Ireland they named Honora. She was baptized on February 25, 1847.  Like William before her, she apparently did not live long enough to make the trip across the Atlantic with the rest of the family. Once again, John Tully shows up as godfather for this child, along with Biddy Tully as godmother.

After that, the family made the voyage to Canada, and their youngest child—whom they named William, providing the clue that the earlier son by that name had not survived—was born about 1850. Although I have been unable to find his baptismal record, it is possible that immigrants in Canada did not always follow the customs from their homeland in identifying sponsors for their newborns.

With that task, I now have a list of Tully brothers who could have been father to the younger Dennis. Based on what I've found, among the names to seek in baptismal records would be Tully fathers named Luke, Thomas, John, and Mick (or Michael). Considering traditional Irish naming patterns, seeing Denis and Margaret naming their own firstborn son Michael convinces me to look first at records for a family born to someone named Michael or Mick Tully.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Revisiting Research Dilemmas


While dealing with my research dilemma regarding those DNA matches who link my husband to a different ancestor than the Margaret Flannery I was expecting, I had thought I might borrow from the play book of adoptees looking for birth parents. I could take my family tree and simply plug in the name of this other Dennis Tully—the one claimed by DNA matches—to see what hints might percolate to the top of my list.

But then, I had second thoughts. Those DNA matches give a different birth year than what I've found for Margaret Flannery's husband Denis Tully. While my Denis Tully was likely born about 1802 in County Tipperary, the other Dennis was said to have been born in 1830. The younger Dennis was of an age to be the son of the elder Denis.

That, however, does not seem right for several reasons. Prime among them is the unlikely possibility that an Irish son would name his firstborn after himself rather than reserving that honor for his own father. I had grappled with that issue, knowing the Irish naming tendencies, when I struggled with this question a few years ago.

Now, however, I want to revisit this question, looking at it from other angles. My thinking now is that the younger Dennis may have followed his namesake uncle to the New World. To see if I can determine that, I'll need to deconstruct the family tree given for the DNA matches leading back to this other Dennis, and ensure that all steps through the generations are supported by documentation.

At the same time, I've gone back to glean the names of all the sponsors of the children of my father-in-law's ancestral Denis Tully and Margaret Flannery, focusing especially on those godparents with surnames Tully and Flannery. Those names, too, will reveal relatives from each of those families, particularly if the Irish tradition of naming godparents from among siblings and their spouses holds. Perhaps exploration into those angles may help reveal some details I had missed, the last time I visited this question.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

When we Last Saw Margaret


Finding a mother in Ireland can be no problem at all—if we can find any mention of that mother in her child's baptismal record. In the case of Margaret Flannery Tully's known children born in Ireland, that is easily done. Thankfully, her name is preserved—in all its spelling permutations—in the records of the Catholic archdiocese of Cashel and Emly, where the Tully family's local parish in Ballina was located.

The question I have this month, though, is whether Margaret Flannery ever made the trip to Canada West with her family before 1850. Are there any records which can assure us of the last place where we can find Margaret?

If we were dealing with a later time period, the first thought might be to look for a mention of her name on the death certificates of her children. After all, there was one last Tully child born after the family arrived in Canada: William, born in 1850. Since death records now include the decedent's parents' names, that would be an easy way to determine whether Margaret had made the trip across the Atlantic with her family—or died during the famine years, back in Ireland.

Unfortunately, William died long before such documents began including those parents' names. All we have is a transcription of his information in an 1896 record when he died in the American city of Chicago. There is no record linking him to his parents—only family photographs and papers connecting him to the rest of his siblings.

Indeed, not a single one of Margaret's children died after the date when jurisdictions began including parents' names on death records. An earlier son, also named William, died before the family ever left Ireland, as did, likely, a daughter they named Honora. Daughter Johanna married another immigrant from County Tipperary, Edward Ryan, and moved westward from the Tully family's first home in Brant County in Ontario toward Winnipeg, and then across the international border to Dakota Territory before dying about 1901. Son Michael moved with most of the rest of the Tully family to Chicago, where he died in 1885. Son Patrick, outliving the rest of his siblings, died in Chicago in 1909—the same year as our Johanna Flanagan Lee from July's research project, whose death record was sad proof that Chicago didn't yet include names of parents. And John, my father-in-law's maternal grandfather, died in 1907, leaving us with that same question about Margaret. 

Though the second son named William was born in Canada, I have yet to find his baptismal record in Brant County, the place where the Tully family originally settled when arriving in Canada. And the daughter they named Margaret, after her mother, certainly arrived in Canada, as can be seen by her appearance in both the 1851 and 1861 census records, but after that point, she entirely disappeared. Perhaps a widespread search for the younger Margaret, whether married or dying young, may reveal something about her mother that the other siblings failed to uncover.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Finding a Mother From Ireland


As if finding a refugee from the Irish potato famine era isn't challenging enough, locating the specifics on the mother of a Catholic man from 1840s Ireland may be next to impossible. 

The one I'm seeking was, before her marriage to Denis Tully in County Tipperary, known as Margaret Flannery. Thankfully, that was evident from the baptismal records of several of her children. She it was who was mother to John Tully, husband of Catherine, the cousin of Johanna Flanagan Lee whom we researched earlier this month.

What isn't clear, though, is what became of Margaret after her family's self-preservation attempt at sailing to the New World for a fresh start, post-famine.

The first record I can find for Denis Tully and his family was an 1851 census entry for "Canada West." All the family's names lined up conveniently, with one exception: the enumerator could not bring himself to name the wife of any of the residents living in Brant County. For those women, they remained only as "Mrs."

After struggling with questions about Margaret Flannery Tully for years, I've come to wonder: was the "Mrs. Tully" listed in that Canadian census record one and the same as the Mrs. Tully who was married to Denis back in Ireland? Whoever Mrs. Tully was in the 1851 census in Canada, she was no longer named as a member of the household when the 1861 census was recorded. Yet, there are no burial records showing her name at the Catholic cemetery used at the time for residents of tiny Paris, Ontario, where the family lived.

Complicating matters, people asserting to be descendants of this same Denis Tully—and matching my husband's DNA test—attribute another woman's name to the label of Mrs. Tully. There are at least three DNA matches whose trees show this other name. Could Denis have been married twice? Or did Denis have a namesake son for whom I have found absolutely no records so far?

Since collateral lines have helped me with research tangles in the past, I've a mind to rely on that end run yet again, and for good reason. On the same page as the records for the Tully family in the 1851 census, there is a nearby family with the same surname: Flannery. "F.A.N. Club" reasoning dictates that their proximity to Margaret Flannery Tully's home may not be merely an accident. While I've tested this reasoning in the past to no avail, perhaps a second review might turn up some fresh resources. I'm willing to give this one another try for this coming month's research project.

Monday, July 24, 2023

A Head Start on August


Yes, I know there is yet another week before we are into the start of August. It's just that once again, I've run out of research before I've run out of month.

The plan at A Family Tapestry has always to serve as a genealogical guinea pig, writing about research as it occurs. When the task leads to many resources and discoveries aplenty, that plan works without a hitch. When that is not the case, well, it becomes rather awkward to, as they used to say in the music world, "vamp 'til ready." It is rather tiresome to play the same little ditty while awaiting the appearance of real answers to discuss.

With that turn of events regarding Johanna Lee and her Flanagan forebears, it's time to wrap up that research goal for another year and head into our plans for August. I'll mull over that research quandary and try to find alternate resources for a future attempt at connecting Johanna to her ancestral lines in Ireland. But for now, it's time to move onward.

Up next, according to the Twelve Most Wanted plan I laid out at the beginning of the year, August's focus turns to another of my father-in-law's Irish ancestors. Once again, we will try our hand at finding the roots not only of an Irish Catholic ancestor before the height of the famine years, but a woman at that.

The person in question will be my father-in-law's great-grandmother, Margaret Flannery. The wife of Denis Tully of County Tipperary, she, along with her husband and surviving children, left famine-worn Ireland for a fresh start in Canada before 1850.

Tantalizingly enough, the place where they settled in "Canada West" also included neighbors by the same surname of Flannery. Relatives? That's what I hope to discover with this coming month's research.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Never Done


A genealogist's work is never done. I say that as an antidote to those who smugly claim they are "finished" with their tree.

Perhaps you've seen the meme going around in some family history circles. You know, the chart which uses basic math principles to illustrate how impossible it would be to claim that family tree is finished. Counting back through the generations, it informs us that we start with two parents, then four grandparents. Predictably, the next generation adds eight great-grandparents, then doubles the number for each preceding generation. Pretty soon, we're talking about a lot of people to find.

Add to that task a mission of my own: to research the collateral lines of each of my direct-line ancestors. Top that off with one more mandate: document the descendant lines of each of those collateral line relatives, a task which may seem tedious, but which is so helpful for placing DNA matches in the family tree.

This week, that means my in-laws' tree—the one I'm working on this month—has made it to 33,058 individuals, 114 more than where I was two weeks ago. And my own family tree includes 33,836 people, increasing by 99 in that same time period. All of them, incidentally, are documented as thoroughly as possible.

Chasing all those collateral lines means developing a system to track where the work has been left off. After all, logging on to to check the name of the last person viewed only works when you are tackling one ancestor at a time. While I do focus on one individual per month, after that month is done, I keep up the search for that person's details behind the scenes, so I send myself links via email to keep track of where I left off with each previous month's target ancestors.

That may sound like a sound but simple solution, and for the most part, it is. But this past week, I went wandering through old reminders and what should I find but an old link to an unfinished task. It just serves to remind me that the multiplying work of genealogy is indeed never done. There is always more to find on each relative, and always more relatives to discover.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Wondering About Y


Yesterday, I received one of those rare emails from someone reaching out on behalf of a DNA match. This wasn't one of the thousands of autosomal matches I have, nor even regarding those of my husband or in-laws for whose accounts I serve as administrator. This one was for a Y-DNA match.

The match wasn't even a close one, but that hardly matters when you consider that this particular account has absolutely no exact matches in its Y-DNA results. The closest Y-DNA connections are at what Family Tree DNA calls a genetic distance of three. In other words, don't count on my paper trail to lead me to the answer regarding the most recent common forefather. Unless this patriline suddenly becomes related to royalty, the paper trail will fall away long before the family connection could be made.

I wonder about how helpful those long-range DNA tests—both the Y-DNA and the mitochondrial DNA—can be if no one turns out to be a close match. Of course, you never know, when you send off your sample in hopes of solving a genealogical mystery, whether you'll actually find any exact matches. And even if you do find an exact match—in other words, a genetic distance of zero—that revelation can lead you on a merry chase through ten generations. Or more.

Genetic genealogy, at least for these specialized tests like Y-DNA, turns out to be a Goldilocks proposition. We hope for not too big, not too small, but just right. Right enough to find paperwork to corroborate what the science is showing us. Right enough to make sense of the family tree as it wends its way backwards through history.

I suppose it all depends on which answers we are seeking when we decide to opt for the lesser-used DNA tests. If we simply have a curiosity about the deep history of our patriline, springing for the pricey "Big Y" can give us volumes of information. Just no possibility of linking to a paper trail.

That may be just fine for the archaeologists at heart, but for me, well, I (and my brother) just wanted to know who was the father of that mystery grandfather. It is much the same for my husband's quest: looking for more details on just who that Irish man was whose sons took off for America in 1849.

As my daughter pointed out last evening as I was muttering about the lack of exact matches, perhaps that traveling Irishman "daughtered out." No sons? Then no Y-DNA to pass to the next generation. And thus, no DNA matches to find. Some of us are in such dilemmas. And that might be the case for the two Y-DNA tests I administer.

Of course, someone in Ireland may spring for a Y-DNA test in the future and provide just the results we were hoping to match. That's what we never know when we take that first step in deciding to purchase a Y-DNA test. We hope. But we're not always satisfied.

In the meantime, I keep churning out the research. The old fashioned kind of research which relies on information recorded on paper, back in those earlier generations. When I find what I think might be my answer in records, perhaps that will someday be followed up by a genetic confirmation. At least, that would be the storybook ending of our best hopes.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Lingering Temptations


It seems that the Flanagan family cannot help but tempt me to keep stalking their roots. Just when I'm about to give up on learning any more about Johanna Flanagan's origin, another Flanagan shows up in the family papers. And the temptation beckons again.

Now that I've been reviewing all the papers left by another Flanagan descendant, Agnes Tully Stevens, I'm reminded of a different set of Flanagans whose names showed up in her effects. Several clipped articles on a Sister Mary Mercy may have otherwise evaded notice, but for the mention of the priest who offered her 1912 funeral mass: his name was John J. Flanagan.

Sister Mary Mercy was very likely not born with that as her given name. However, tracing back various records related to her life—and intersecting those details with the family line of the Reverend John J. Flanagan—it appears her birth name was probably Sarah Ellen Flanagan. At least, according to the 1860 census, when she was a four month old infant, she went by the name of Sarah. A decade later, in the same household, the now-ten year old daughter of James and Honora was now labeled as Ellen.

One of many daughters of James and Honora Flanagan, she was raised in Freeport, Illinois. After finding her death certificate while writing about her many years ago, I had long since known she was a Flanagan—but how that Flanagan family connected with ours, I'm still at a loss to say. After all, though she settled in the same Chicago area where Agnes Tully Stevens lived—and was buried in a Catholic cemetery to the north of that same city—her hometown was well over one hundred miles away from the south Chicago neighborhood where Agnes' Flanagan grandmother once lived.

Sister Mary Mercy's nephew, the priest, was also identified as someone from the area near Freeport, serving as pastor in nearby Rockford until his untimely death while traveling the country in 1931. Furthermore, these two weren't the only members of the extended family to dedicate their life to the service of the church. Sister Mary Mercy had two other sisters who joined orders: Jane, who became known as Sister Mary Xavier; and Agnes, eventually taking vows as Sister Mary Evangelist

In hopes that the mysterious Will Nellis might show up connected to this Flanagan family—or at least, the baby Kathy Flanagan whom he held in his arms for the photograph gleaned from Agnes Tully Stevens' collection—I searched through some more thoroughly-researched family trees posted at However, no sign of Will's surname anywhere in those family trees. Nor can I find any likely explanation for any connection. The scenario could have been a random snapshot of a sweet moment shared by two unrelated members of the F.A.N. Club of the extended Flanagan and Tully families of Chicago. 

Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Dog Ate my Research


Today might have been the day I posted about finding Will Nellis and Kathy Flanagan, the two unexplained subjects of a photograph found in the papers of Agnes Tully Stevens. And I am working on finding those two somewhere in Chicago.

My goal had been to look for Will under either the spelling of Nellis or Nelles, since the handwriting wasn't clear on the photograph's inscription. While there were a few possibilities—ranging from birthplace in Ireland to Canada to Illinois to, of all places, in Germany—none of them struck me as strong leads. Forsaking that effort, I tried my hand at looking for baby Kathy Flanagan, with similarly lackluster results. I even tried looking for marriage records intersecting the two surnames, all to no avail. Perhaps the best way to sum this all up is to pull out the old, sorry, childhood excuse: the dog ate my homework.

Well, that is not entirely untrue. There is a dog. And he has taken up a large chunk of my day, lately. Our family somehow inherited him during the Fourth of July fireworks mania, which must have terrified the poor animal, who then ran scared until he jumped the fence into the yard of the friend whose house and dog my daughter has been watching while he is on vacation. Rather, I should say that the dog adopted us. 

While quite a handsome animal, quick to learn and sweet tempered, he has not been an easy subject for adopting out, so to manage two German Shepherds at the same time—the friend's dog and this new "foster" dog—I've been driving into town to help with daily dog walking the other end of a twenty minute commute. That easily eats a morning's worth of research time, alone.

Meanwhile, though stymied by the Nellis and Flanagan puzzle, during my "spare" time, I did happen to run into a few other details which make me determined to follow this Flanagan connection even more. I am beginning to wonder whether my father-in-law's ancestors were conducting an early version of a One-Name Study for Flanagan, or whether there truly were other family members by that name. We'll take a look at two more Flanagan stories next, while in the background, I'll keep grinding away at finding an answer to the Nellis and Flanagan photo.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Determining Perspective
in Photograph Labels


When sorting through family photographs bequeathed to me from prior generations, I'm grateful for those which have actually been labeled. Even so, some of those labels leave me almost as clueless as their unmarked counterparts.

Take, for instance, the photograph I mentioned yesterday. It plainly identified the man in the picture as someone named Will Nellis. I know where I got the picture—a son of Agnes Tully Stevens had it in his possession before he died, and his wife gave it to me, hoping I could figure out the identity. My first step, before actually doing that, needs to be determining the perspective of the person who wrote that label on the photograph.

My first consideration involved speculation about the handwriting itself. Who wrote that label? I thought immediately of Agnes' own daughter, who had labeled another family memento with a tag along the same lines. That one, for another cousin, took me quite some time to figure out, despite the convenience of being provided with a name and a relationship. 

Comparing handwriting between the two photographs, I noticed that while they were similar hands, it was more likely that each was written by a different person. In order to figure out just who Will Nellis was the cousin of, I'd need to determine the identity of the person who wrote that label. Since the photograph was among several passed along to me from among Agnes' own papers, that would be the first guess. However, I need to remember that I received her daughter Pat's photos and memorabilia from that same source. Not only that, but the dimensions and appearance of Pat's photos commemorating an event in 1929, and this other one from—maybe—Agnes may reveal that they were all taken at about the same time.

For now, I'll test the working hypothesis that "coz" refers to a cousin of Agnes Tully Stevens, granddaughter of Anna Flanagan Malloy and first cousin once removed from Johanna Flanagan Lee. While Will Nellis doesn't necessarily need to be a relative from the Flanagan side, posing for a picture while holding a Flanagan baby certainly does seem to provide a clue.

It is possible that this hypothesis may remain unsubstantiated when we actually start looking for people by that name in the Chicago area, where this picture was likely taken. That, too, is an assumption which will become part of my collection of working hypotheses, as will an estimate of the date when this picture was taken. While each of these components are now merely guesses, I've got to have some place to launch this search. We'll begin by using these parameters.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

The Reason Behind the Search


Every smart research project begins with a research question, and hopefully evolves into a smart research goal. But that may not be the start of the matter. Behind all those goals may lie a reason for starting in the first place. In the case of my research quest this month—to learn more about Johanna Flanagan Lee's family connections, both in Chicago and in her native County Limerick, Ireland—I do have an underlying reason for this goal: there are more Flanagans out there. I just don't know how they are connected.

Take, for instance, a photograph found in the papers saved by Agnes Tully Stevens, the granddaughter of Anna Flanagan, Johanna's aunt. Inheriting that stack of memorabilia years ago, I've gone through each item in the sometimes vain attempt to attach names to the family tree. But this one—a photograph—had been labeled with that family name, Flanagan. That simple penned entry beguiled me to keep searching.

The photograph was a picture of a man holding a baby. Perhaps from the 1930s or 1940s—there wasn't enough detail to pin the correct time frame—the snapshot was thankfully labeled with another clue to urge me further in the chase: "Coz Will Nellis and Kathy Flanagan."

Flanagan? Who was this? And why was it that the man received the label of cousin instead of baby Flanagan?

When I first encountered this photograph, over ten years ago, I had misread the man's name as Nevis, but it is more likely either Nellis or Nelles. Despite the passing of an entire decade, I've yet to figure out just how ol' Will would be a cousin to the family of that generation. Even if the habit of calling relatives "cousin" despite being, perhaps, once removed or more, was what was involved in this label, surely at some point I would have run into that surname. But I haven't.

For the sake of the baby Flanagan in the picture, though, it seems worth the effort to track down who this "cousin" Will might have been. Besides, how does this Flanagan baby connect to Johanna's own family, if at all? Since I'm still stuck on Johanna Flanagan Lee's roots, perhaps this serves as a timely reminder that even bright shiny objects which seem more likely to be the key to a rabbit trail than a relative may be worth the pursuit. Tomorrow, rabbit trail or not, I'll take the bait and give chase to this one.

Image above: A photograph found in the papers of Agnes Tully Stevens, labeled "Coz Will Nellis + Kathy Flanagan."

Monday, July 17, 2023

The Last of the Family


When the last of the family is gone, then what? Have we preserved their stories?

I'm wrapping up the burial records for Johanna Flanagan Lee's extended family, including her cousin Catherine Malloy Tully's in-laws. All found their final resting place in three family plots at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Chicago. What first started me on this chase was the discovery that Johanna herself had been buried with her uncle, William Flanagan, and an assortment of other relatives in William's family plot. I pulled out the records I had received from the cemetery to ensure that my online tree reflected all these same details.

These sparse records required some corroboration, for the table I received for each family plot may have outlined the name on each burial, plus the date in which that person was buried, but it lacked any further information. For that, I had to cross check with each person's death record. For that, I had transcribed the certificate number plus the date of death, the person's age, and location of passing onto the chart I received from the office.

In the case of this third burial plot, it was indeed purchased by the last of the Tully family, the youngest brother, William. William Earl Tully was the only one in his immediate family who was born in Canada; all the rest had been born in County Tipperary before the family left Ireland. As had all his older siblings, William's final move in that emigration route was from the place where the family had settled in Paris, Ontario, across the border into the city of Chicago in the United States.

The William Tully family plot in Section 17 of Mount Olivet contained seven of his family members. Of William's eight children, only two were buried elsewhere. Oldest son John Felix, dying at age five in 1880, was buried to the north of Chicago in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston. And next-to-youngest daughter Edna, the only one of William's children to marry, was buried in another cemetery in the Chicago area after having raised a family of her own. The rest of William's children, along with his wife Sarah, were buried in his family plot at Mount Olivet.

Looking at the ages of some of his children at their death gives an inkling of how hard life must have been for this immigrant family. After the loss of their firstborn John, William and Sarah buried two of their children in 1889—three days apart, in fact. Four year old Leroy F. Tully was buried on July 14, followed quickly by his nine year old sister Catherine. Small wonder her death report recorded her name as Kitty; she was a mere child at her passing.

Three years later, the Tully family would repeat the same scenario, losing yet another four year old child, William's namesake son. The child's 1892 burial was followed in 1896 by William's own death at the age of forty six. Only a few years later, his daughter Mary, though living to adulthood, died toward the end of 1902.

William's widow Sarah and their remaining daughters, Margaret and Esther, stayed together in their East  93rd Street residence through the following decades until Margaret's passing in 1936 and her mother's death in 1941. Last of the family to join the others was daughter Esther, whose 1972 burial completed the burials in the William Tully family plot at Mount Olivet.

Unlike the family burial plot of Johanna's unmarried uncle William Flanagan, this final Tully plot represented most of the children in one of the Tully families I've been researching in Chicago. A more traditional result—definitely one making research far easier for me—the records represented what became of the last of the Tully family in Chicago.   

Sunday, July 16, 2023

When Good Enough Isn't


There's a phrase that has been bandied about lately, "Good enough is good enough." For those plagued by perfectionism, perhaps that saying provides a therapeutic salve, a reminder that going the extra mile is not always necessary. On the other hand, ever one to spot such things, my husband remarked on the redundancy of such a saying. After all, if good enough were good enough, then it would be sufficient to merely say, "Good enough is."

Somehow, though, there are times when good enough isn't. This past week, I couldn't help but ponder the state of genealogy and how far it has come in the last few decades. I've been there, back when the paper trail was literally that: paper. It could take a long time to find that brick-wall-busting document, the key to unlocking the family secret—or at least its plebeian origins. Research speed and accuracy have escalated to breathtaking levels with digitized records and computerized search capabilities. I am alternately in awe of how far we've come, and oblivious of all that went into providing the technological advances that power our current research prowess.

There comes a time, however, when those whose ingenuity powered such progress may be tempted to settle on their lees. We've been amazed and jazzed for so long, concerning all that we can accomplish with these services, that perhaps that good enough has become good enough. If companies could digitize the 1940 census, then they could do so—and faster—for the 1950 census. If they could do it for the United States enumeration, then they could do it for Canada, too.

Technological progress, after its first stellar applications, seems to settle into a routine of theme and variations—once done well, rinse and repeat. The more, the merrier. But generating such volume, when it comes to more of the same thing, becomes merely good enough. When does better come in, once the routine shifts to simply increasing the volume? We begin to see a collection of also-rans, as other organizations learn the ropes and follow the leader. The new "good enough" begins to lose its luster as the playing field becomes more crowded.

There was a time when none of the research benefits we enjoy now were even conceivable. When "better" came, it came with leaps and bounds. The danger with such monumental improvements comes later, when we settle for more of the same—forgetting that before those last advances, we couldn't even have dreamed of what we have now. We slip into satisfaction with good enough—until good enough isn't good enough any more.

As amazed as I might have been with the immense progress made in search capabilities for genealogical details, I'm hoping there are some geniuses on the horizon who will not be lulled into satisfaction with good enough, forward thinkers who will foresee genealogical applications for future developments. As much as we may be happy with what we can do now that couldn't have been done forty years ago, we always need to keep our expectations high. Good enough will not always be good enough.

But why settle for good enough, anyhow? If that were how researchers saw things, we would never have gained the progress we enjoy now.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Family History Fatigue


Several friends from our local genealogical society had recently gathered at a coffee shop to chat. We are all zoomed out and needed a face-to-face break from virtual reality.

The conversation that morning meandered from topic to topic, sometimes touching on genealogy, but just as often exploring history, arts, books, travel, and other realms tangentially connected to our research passions. One person offered her observation on her involvement with family history: there are seasons when she would do a deep dive on one branch of her family tree, but then there would be long stretches of time when it just didn't work to do genealogy at all. Was this family history fatigue?

The catch was that, after a while, she would find herself drawn back to her genealogy, and would pick up the research trail once again. The picture never came with the finality of a last effort, but more of a sense of seasons: a time when research seemed just right. The draw is always there: the curiosity about our roots. But the aspect of right timing has an ebb and a flow.

One after another, the circle added their agreement to that observation—almost like building a theme with variations. Some notes rang true for many in the group. There is a time when research questions have an irresistible pull; there is no way to avoid the curiosity any longer. Often, it was the particular research question itself which was the magnet—either that, or the opportunity to discover more had presented itself, like a trip to an ancestor's homeland, or a chance to meet up with a distant cousin who also was an avid researcher. 

The kernel seemed to be the research question itself: did it resonate? Was it compelling? Would it be possible to locate material or people to help find the answer? But most of all: is this the right season to delve into that question?

You know how it goes, once the green light shines for all those questions. We dig deep and don't give up until we've exhausted all resources and call off the search. Perhaps that's when family history fatigue sets in. It isn't really the case of becoming tired of researching. It may more likely become a balancing act between lack of resources for making further progress and encroaching obligations from all other areas of our life finally gaining the upper hand.

In all such scenarios we discussed that day, it seemed one thread connected the answers people provided: have a specific research question to pursue. Let it be well defined, specific, and limited. Let it have an end goal. And let there be a continuation plan for when the allotted time runs out, so we can pick up the chase at a later date when the time is right again.

Sure, researchers can become beset with family history fatigue. But, from all appearances during our conversation the other day, that is not a final and permanent blow to our research progress. Perhaps there is something deep inside which keeps drawing us back to the pursuit over and over. We just need to be prepared to pick it up once again, when the time is right. And it will be at some point.

Friday, July 14, 2023

All in the Family Plot


One of the customs of bygone days which has since helped family history researchers is the use of family burial plots. Whereas now, you might find a husband and wife buried together, when I researched my father-in-law's Chicago ancestors, I've found family plots which might include up to eight burials.

This is what had initiated my search for Edward Flanigan as a possible relative for Johanna Lee earlier this month. Edward—whoever he was—had been buried in the family plot of William Flanagan, Johanna's uncle. Years ago, when I had inquired about all the burials in the family plot at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Chicago, not only did I learn that about William's family plot, but I learned that there were two others such family plots. We'll discuss who was buried in one of those plots today, then look at the other family plot on Monday.

Johanna's cousin Catherine, whose mother was a Flanagan, had herself married an Irish immigrant by the name of John Tully. He and his family had arrived in Chicago by way of Ontario, Canada, and this second family plot apparently was purchased by John's brother Patrick. In fact, the four members of Patrick's household who can be found in the 1900 census all were eventually buried in Patrick's family plot.

Patrick was himself buried there in April of 1909, and his name topped the list sent to me so many years ago by the helpful employee of the cemetery office. Hist listing was followed by his son George Tully, who died just over a year later, in May of 1910. Another son, listed by the cemetery as Bert J. Tully, was actually named Hurlbert—at least, best I can decipher from some pretty miserable handwriting on the various documents which included that full name. His burial followed much later, in 1914.

However, it took delving into Patrick's family history—and emigration path—to confirm the identity of the others on that list from the cemetery office. 

There were two burials for members of a Hogan family. John Hogan, who died in 1894, was actually the first to be buried in this Tully family plot. A woman whose name was listed as Bridget Hogan died during the next year, and was also buried in this Tully plot.

At first glance, one might assume these were husband and wife, but that does not turn out to be correct. The Hogan family had been neighbors of the Tully family back in Ontario, where they all showed up in the 1861 census for Canada West. By that time, Bridget was the widowed mother of John, whose sister Mary later married Patrick Tully. Bridget, dying in 1895 in Chicago, was buried alongside her son John, who had been the first family member buried in this plot, having died the previous year. Bridget's daughter Mary joined them much later, in 1914, the same year as her son Bert.

It was this Bert Tully who provided the key to the other two family members buried in this Tully plot. One was a burial labeled with the name, Mary R. Tully. Being the second person in that family plot with the given name of Mary, this might have seemed confusing. Whoever this person was, she was buried there on August 12, 1912. Taking a close look at her death record revealed that the information was recorded incorrectly for both the child and her mother, with both given names listed as "Centa." 

The child, dying at just over one month of age, turned out to have a younger sister. This sister, Ruth, lived for ninety three years and outlived two husbands. It was Ruth's first husband, and father of her children, who was the key to figuring out just who claimed that final name in the cemetery listing. Joseph A. Franzen was buried at Mount Olivet on March 4, 1959, making his the last of eight burials in the Patrick Tully family plot. 

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Pending Further Developments


In the search for the Johanna Lee connection to previous generations of the Flanagan family, we may be stuck in what one of my previous professors used to term the "milling about" stage. Going round and round, searching for more information, while simultaneously smothered with the sense that we've already come this way before: that's the milling about stage. And I'm in it.

It may take a while to determine whether there is any death record attached to the burial of the man in William Flanagan's family plot called Edward Flanagan. Though he was buried at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in the middle of 1904, I can locate no death record for him in the Chicago area. Searching for others called by that same name has, so far, yielded no helpful information. Looking for George Flanagan, the likely sibling of the one Edward Flanagan I did locate in an early census record, may be an option, but that, too, may turn out to need as much luck as a shot in the dark.

In the meantime, along with that burial readout from the helpful employee at the cemetery office, I have two other such listings for family plots at the same cemetery. This might be a good time to review what information is already available to me on the extended family—and, if such details are not already uploaded to Find A Grave, add what I can to the records there.

Tomorrow, we'll begin with the eight burials in a family burial plot not far from Johanna's grave, related to the in-laws of her cousin Catherine Malloy Tully whose mother was born a Flanagan. Following that, on Monday, we'll look at yet another nearby family burial plot which I received almost ten years after the first inquiries. Perhaps that review will serve to redirect us in our hapless search for more information on those Flanagan roots of Johanna, Catherine, and their Aunt Anna and Uncle William—not to mention any unknown other Flanagan family members still waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

News From
the Lost and Found Department


Persistence sometimes wins the day. It did, at least today, for that missing Chicago burial record for one Edward Flanigan.

I finally got enough time to dumpster dive into a plastic storage bin filled with old genealogy documents. Included in this mash-up were copies of old death records for my mother-in-law's Ohio lines and several lines for my father-in-law. Thankfully, that included the readout sent to me by a kindly worker at the office now overseeing the records for Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois.

I was pretty sure I had remembered the details correctly. What I hadn't remembered was just how long ago it was that I received the record. This paper came about owing to an early morning phone call in June of 2005. Yes, from almost twenty years ago, giving you an idea as to why it was stashed in a storage bin full of papers instead of digitally stored with my family tree records.

That exchange was partly calculated and partly thanks to the kindness of the office worker who took my call. I deliberately placed my long distance call on a quiet weekday morning—Chicago's time zone, not mine—in the hopes that the harried worker who answered the phone might not feel pressure of demands from multiple duties, such as weekend visitors inquiring about burial locations.

I did indeed connect with a helpful employee. For my inquiry, I was rewarded with a printout of all the people buried in the family plot for two families connected with Johanna Flanagan Lee. Apparently, the woman who helped me actually mailed the records, for each page shows the trifold mark of having been tucked into a business envelop.

As I recalled, Johanna Lee was indeed buried in the same plot as her uncle, William Flanagan, whose impressive 1893 monument first alerted me to the Flanagan family's origin in County Limerick, Ireland.

Along with Johanna, the Flanagan plot included three other people. One was likely a nine-day-old infant whose name was entered at the cemetery as William J. Tully, but whose death record contained the name John W. Tully. Another burial was for William P. Tully, son of Johanna's cousin Catherine, the woman who, as an infant, saw her mother take off in pursuit of that suddenly-emigrating husband who had headed to Boston

Apparently, none of these three had markers indicating the location of their burial. I have their date of burial, from the plot readout mailed to me by the cemetery office. I have the death certificate number and date of death for each of them, as at that time, such information was accessible online. And I know that all of them were buried in Lot S 313 Block of Section 15 at the Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Chicago.

There was one more person buried in that same family plot, and this was the one I was hoping I had remembered correctly. This was Edward Flanigan, spelled exactly that way on the cemetery's records, with a burial date listed as June 24 of 1904.

That Edward Flanigan was buried in Chicago, I can vouch--at least, according to the record from the cemetery. But where he had died is an entirely different matter. Back at that time—2005—when many records weren't yet accessible online, I had been using a local researcher to personally retrieve documents for me. I had done business with this woman for quite some time and found her to be reliable. She focused on researching records at the Illinois Archives.

Here's the problem we encountered: there was no certificate listed, according to the state archives. No official record for Edward Flanigan's death. Did that mean he had died elsewhere?

The Mount Olivet record indicated his burial occurred on June 24, 1904. If this Edward were living in the Chicago area, like the two I had found in yesterday's cursory search, I doubt he would have been the latter discovery in the 1900 census, as I'd expect he would have been buried with his wife. If the earlier discovery—the young twenty-something single man boarding with the Sullivans—perhaps he had moved elsewhere for better employment by the time of the 1900 census and upon his death, his family returned him to Chicago for burial.

These, of course, are only guesses. There is no memorial marker at the grave site. I have no corresponding obituaries to help clear up this muddled picture.

One possible next step might be to contact the cemetery again and see if there might be any corresponding documentation indicating where the man had died. If it weren't for the many questions I already have about Johanna Flanagan Lee, buried alongside this mystery Edward, I would probably have let this puzzle go. But any detail regarding a brick wall ancestor could be the very clue needed to unravel the mystery. Collateral lines can collapse brick walls.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Looking for Edward Flanagan


How hard could it be to locate an Irish immigrant in a city the size of Chicago? After all, now that we have each decade's census records digitized and accessible online, up through 1950, search capabilities should make anyone easy to find now, right?

That's not how it is going, now that I'm trying to locate one Edward Flanagan, possible brother—or maybe even father—of Johanna Flanagan Lee. Since Johanna was born in Ireland in 1849 and died in Chicago in 1909, I'd presume Edward, if her brother, would follow suit. But there are precious few possibilities for an Irish immigrant named Edward Flanagan living in Chicago within that same time frame.

Let's look at what can be found. First, since Johanna's own children did not show up in records in Chicago until 1875 with the birth of her presumed first-born, William, I'd suspect any of Johanna's siblings—or even her parents—would not have arrived much before that same time. Then, since someone named Edward Flanagan was listed as godparent for Johanna's second-born son, George, in 1877, I'd presume that meant Edward was present in Chicago, not Ireland, by that point. So what can be found in the 1880 census for such a name in the Chicago area?

Short answer: not much.

There was a twenty-two year old single man renting a room in the household of Thomas and Ann Sullivan by the name of Edward Flanigan, according to the 1880 census. Tantalizingly enough, this Irish immigrant lived with a possible younger brother by the name of George Flanagan. That, however, was the only possibility I could find for Irish immigrants by the name of Edward Flanagan, even using a wildcard search for all the spelling possibilities of Flanagan.

Looking ahead to the next census—unfortunately including that twenty year leap forward to 1900—there was another Edward Flanagan to be found. He did not arrive in the United States until 1887, explaining his absence from the prior enumeration. However, the others in his household may serve to eliminate him from possibilities. Though his wife, listed as Margareth, was mother of four children still living, including their son Thomas present in the 1900 household, her given year of birth—1839—would have made her far too young to be Johanna's mother. Still, there might be a possibility that this Edward could have been Johanna's much older brother—but not the man named in the 1877 baptism of Johanna's son George.

The first Edward found, though, keeps tugging at my attention for a different reason: he was living with another Flanagan by the name of George. George was a name which resonated in Johanna's family along with Edward, as those were the names she chose for two of her sons. 

Both these Edwards merit some scrutiny. I'll be tracing their names in subsequent years' records to see if anything can be found. In the meantime, there are a few other options to ponder a bit more, regarding this family history puzzle. And not all options are open to us at the click of a mouse. This time, it might take placing an old-fashioned phone call to resolve the issue.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Reading Between the Lines:
Old Chicago Death Records


It would certainly have been a gift to family history researchers if local jurisdictions had always gathered the same details they now request at the point of a loved one's passing. Mother's maiden name, for instance, is a particular favorite of mine. That—and so many other such gems—unfortunately did not top official lists at the turn of the previous century.

Thus, in pondering the roots of one Johanna Flanagan Lee, receiving a copy of her 1909 Chicago death record was a disappointment. Hers was one of the first such records I had personally sent away for, long before such records became available through online means. Opening up the envelope—yes, it arrived by "snail mail"—just about crushed any sense of anticipation I harbored when I first saw the envelop in my mailbox.

Now that I'm pulling out every scrap of paper from those past iterations of this ongoing search, I'm realizing how helpful reading between the lines might become, even with what seems to be a useless old government document. Mostly, that's because the missing details prompt questions—but those details which were already provided also can lead to questions. 

Here's what I mean. Johanna's death record, below, indicated the amount of time she had spent in the city of Chicago leading up to her final hours. Likewise for the time she had spent in the state of Illinois. For both, the answer was thirty five years. That might signal to us that her destination, when leaving Ireland, was specifically the city of Chicago. 

Keep in mind the term, might. Likewise, take the line indicating her marital status. I was surprised, after seeing no mention of a husband in her obituary, to note that her death record indicated she was married. Where was her husband John? He certainly hadn't been included in the household listing for the 1900 census. I had assumed that was because he had already died; this little detail tells me otherwise.

While the death record provides the name of the cemetery where Johanna was buried, I had already known that and had previously called the cemetery for a listing of everyone buried in that family plot. However, considering that item in her death record now prompts another question: could there have been any specific reasons why someone would be buried in one cemetery rather than any others? Could it be that one undertaker did business with a specific cemetery? Or that one cemetery was primarily used by a specific church parish?

Since Johanna had been Catholic, her final resting place was designated for those of her religion, of course, but could that have led me to the correct parish where her family attended mass? Cross checking with her address would also lead to further information on the church.

These questions only serve to help me dig further into some less significant details, but perhaps that is how they seem, owing to the fact that I already know the answers to these questions. What I don't know, however, is the answers to the same questions, when they are concerning not Johanna but the man also buried in the family plot, by the name of Edward Flanagan. Repeating this sequence of reading between the lines, can I learn anything further about who that mystery Edward Flanagan might have been? 

The main point in walking through this exercise is to remind me that, even when it comes to documents containing very little information, it is possible to springboard that small bit of knowledge into a fuller picture.

Moving from the few known details about Johanna to examining the unknown Edward Flanagan needs to be our next step, not only because he may have been included in that burial location, but also because his was a name included in the baptismal record we saw last week. Edward is very likely related to Johanna. The question is: can we figure out just how?

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Keeping Stuff Sorted


A family historian's life is doomed to rub up against the incessant challenge to keep things organized. Notwithstanding my latest Fibber McGee confessions, there are yet other areas demanding that stringent upkeep. One of them is sorting through my DNA matches.

True, this month's ancestor featured in my Twelve Most Wanted to-do list has been the main impetus behind adding 144 new names to my father-in-law's side of the family tree in the past two weeks. Johanna Flanagan Lee might be a mystery to me right now, but her descendants no longer are. They've been added to a tree which now stands at 32,944 documented names.

All that has been thanks to a long-standing goal to connect new DNA matches with their profile page on my digitized family tree at Since I've been working on my father-in-law's tree this month, my DNA proxy for this purpose is my almost wholeheartedly willing husband, who kindly consented to be my DNA guinea pig nine years ago at a genealogy conference. With 1,261 matches at fourth cousin level or closer at AncestryDNA and hundreds more at MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA, and Living DNA, he's provided me several opportunities to puzzle over my father-in-law's nearly lost Irish heritage.

What I've been working on recently is taking the "unassigned" matches from among the newest test results at AncestryDNA and determining on which side of the family they belong, based on shared matches. Several of those matches in limbo are clearly part of his maternal line, so I am labeling them to expedite future searches. But some turn out to be on the paternal side, helpful this month due to my quest to discover Johanna Flanagan Lee's history.

Although my research focus this past quarter has not been on my own line, because of my ongoing goal of building out all family trees to include collateral and descendant lines, I've been doing similar work on my own family's line, predominantly on my mother's colonial-based tree. Thus, no surprise to see I had also added 117 names to that tree in the past two weeks, as well. That tree, now standing at 33,737, represents continuation of work on the research goals I had started back in the first three months of this year. Sometimes, a researcher's work never seems to get completely done.

Organizing the readouts for DNA matches on both sides of the family over the years has certainly helped place new matches where they belong on the family trees. Now that I see how many "unassigned" matches on my husband's test results can so easily be reassigned, based on personal knowledge of that family tree, I may as well make that a regular sweep through both sides of the family. For every detail confirmed among those matches, it becomes so much easier to move forward and connect the latest test results to the right branch of the tree.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

Fibber McGee's (Genealogy) Closet


You could almost hear the sound effects when I wrote about my missing file folder for the Lee family the other day. (I know at least one person then could relate to those disappearing family history files.) The stuff that adds up to a years-long pursuit of our genealogy could rival the avalanche falling from Fibber McGee's closet. I haven't told the half of it.

It was late one night, calling it quits after a long day of rearranging stacks of old file folders, when I had tiptoed past the precarious pile of unfinished work near the bookcase in my bedroom. I apparently didn't tiptoe quietly enough. Down tumbled the entire mess. What might have been partially organized earlier that evening was now certainly in no such state within the next few seconds.

Too tired to right my wrongs that late at night, I looked for a spare place to stash the mess and at least clear it off the floor. I didn't see any, a sure sign that my spring cleaning efforts were in full swing. Always handy at last-minute rescues, my husband pulled out an empty storage bin—you know, the kind made of clear plastic to remind you of how much work you still haven't finished—and we stacked the files inside. Instant clean-up solution, right?

Of course, now that I'm missing the second file folder for the Lee family, I'm certain that is its final resting place. Will I be rewarded with finally locating it as I make my way through the stacks of papers long since stored in that box? Perhaps not. But the exercise brings me to yet another opportunity to convert those old paper files to digitized records and reclaim some square footage in my office. Like Fibber McGee's continuous lament, that's a stash I need to get around to cleaning up.

One of these days.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Thankful for What Others Share


Every time I see a document which another researcher has shared on, it reminds me how thankful I am that others are willing to share the details they are finding. At the beginning of this month, while struggling with just how I am going to discover more about my father-in-law's mystery relative, Johanna Flanagan Lee, I stumbled upon three such shared documents. Hopefully, they will lead to further helpful discoveries.

The documents were copies of baptismal records. While the copies included the entire page from a register, unfortunately the copy did not include the location of the records, though the subscriber's notes indicated the record came from "Holy Family Church." This could possibly be the parish known as Church of the Holy Family, which opened its doors in Chicago in 1857, primarily to Irish immigrants.

Helpfully, the three baptismal records shared by this subscriber were for sons of a couple named John Lee and Johanna Flanagan—and the names and dates matched up to the three eldest sons of John and Johanna.

While it is nice to have an idea about birthdates, there is one more detail which can come in handy in Catholic baptismal records: the names of the sponsors (or godparents). For these Irish-born parents, I am hoping they might be recent enough immigrants to not have forgotten the naming patterns prevalent in their homeland—and even more so, the tradition of choosing siblings or in-laws to stand in as godparents.

While I can't vouch for one of the sons, the sponsors listed for the other two sons give me hope that there might be some clues embedded in these shared documents. For instance, for the third-born son, John James Lee, one of the sponsors was someone named Catharine Flanagan. Who was she? Any chance this was a sister of Johanna, herself a Flanagan?

Even more interesting to me was the discovery that the godfather for their second born son, George, was a man named Edward Flanagan. In the many years I've tried to grapple with this Johanna Flanagan Lee puzzle, I have run across that name, Edward Flanagan. Ever since the earliest years of this blog, when I wrote about discovering that William Flanagan had a niece named Johanna, I had learned that there were other family members buried in the family plot along with William. Besides Johanna, there had been someone named Edward.

Whether Edward was Johanna's father or a brother—or merely someone else far from home, bearing that fairly common Irish surname—I haven't been able to discover.


However, there is a concept in genealogical circles known as reasonably exhaustive research. It is prompting me to follow suit and see if I can discover just who this Edward Flanagan might have been. Will there be more than one Irish immigrant by that name in Chicago? Of course there will be, but if I can isolate just one who demonstrates a connection to the Flanagans related to Johanna, that might lead me to some answers on this family's specific roots back in County Limerick.

Above image: Excerpt from baptismal records of "Holy Family Catholic Church" in Chicago, posted by an subscriber, showing the June 22, 1877, entry for George Aloysius, son of John Lee and Joanna Flanagan.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

On a Search and Rescue Mission


In my mind's eye, I can still see the records I had once retrieved and saved, the first time I worked on the family of Johanna Flanagan Lee. In that mind's eye, I could see them stored in the file folder with the block letters LEE on the label.

You already know what I discovered when I actually went and pulled out that old folder: not what I was expecting. 

Of course, that is not entirely true. I did find some documents, like the rudimentary half-sheet records upon which Cook County entered the basic facts of Johanna Lee's 1909 passing, and that of others in her family. I found photocopies of old newspaper pages with obituaries for Johanna, her uncle William and aunt, Anna Flanagan Malloy.

That is not the entirety of what my mind's eye was telling me. Thus enters the agony of storing family history records on paper. The tangibility is a plus—but the finding of them presents the downside of taking "paper trail" a bit too literally.

What I remember was a faxed record from the office of the cemetery where the family was buried, outlining the names and dates of each person buried in that family plot. Depending on whether I could find another employee at that cemetery willing to go above and beyond to replicate that record for me, I could possibly get that information again. But there is one detail I'd like to zero in on, record in hand or not. That detail is the name of another Flanagan buried alongside Johanna and her family.

If I remember correctly, that other person in the family plot was named Edward Flanagan. Who was he?

Tucked away in another corner of my mind is a blip of a memory that I had actually created two file folders labeled Lee. Could it be that I never combined the two? I'll be checking, now, to see whether there still is a second folder, just in case that missing material I remembered is still filed away.

In the meantime, now that I've found that handful of Cook County records for the Flanagan family members again, I may as well follow suit with all those helpful subscribers who have uploaded documents to share online. No fancy scanning equipment necessary now; just pull out my phone, digitize and upload. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

The Chokehold of the Only


It might seem that researching the ancestry of an only child would make life easier for the earnest family historian, but I'm beginning to differ with that assumption. Give me eight collateral lines to work with any day, in exchange for a mysterious single child of unknown origin. Only children put my research progress into a chokehold.

Such is the case with my research task this month. Until I find any further clues, I have to assume that Johanna Flanagan was an only child. Likewise for her cousin Catherine Malloy, whom I actually know was an only child, due to her parents' history. Catherine I can trace a little bit more easily than Johanna, because both she as an adult and her mother before her had the habit of saving every piece of personal papers possible—and eventually passing every such scrap down to the child in the next generation who inherited that same pack-rat proclivity.

But even Catherine's own mother became a mystery to me. Though I know Anna Flanagan Malloy had siblings, I don't know how many. One I know for sure also made the immigrant journey from Ireland to Chicago, but as far as I can tell, he never married and never had any children, effectively leaving me Anna alone to turn to when trying to research her Flanagan forebears.

There was one other possibility to turn to in this Flanagan gene pool: a shadow figure whom we can, by necessity, assume was the father of Johanna Flanagan. What his name was, or what became of him, I can't tell. Nor do I know whether he had any children other than Johanna, thus leaving us in the same research predicament once again: the research chokehold of the only child.

If I could discover the identity of Johanna's father—and thus, Anna's brother—perhaps that would lead to information on other lines of descent in the family. Whether those possible relatives became immigrants to America or remained in Ireland does not matter as much as the fact that it would release me from this research chokehold. I'm operating on the theory that there has to be an answer to this research dilemma somewhere.

Back in my original genealogy file cabinet—yes, back in the days when everything was kept on paper and had to be stored somewhere—I had a folder with the first clues about Johanna's family. This would be a good time to revisit the details stored in that folder—the clues which started me on this research trail. Tomorrow, we'll see if revisiting this research brick wall with fresh eyes might point us in a new direction.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Gaps in the Story


Since today is the American holiday known as Independence Day, here's another little puzzle prompted by history's timeline. Why do Americans pin the date of their independence from the British on July 4, 1776, when the culmination of the war wasn't officially settled until September 3, 1783? Nor did the war which brought about this settlement begin after that 1776 declaration; it had been raging for over a year beforehand.

Along with the realization which we discussed yesterday—that things take time—I'm beginning to draw another lesson from our nation's founding which I can borrow for inspiration in the face of family history research frustration. We find ourselves celebrating at the moment of decision, the point at which we decide to draw a line in the sand and take a stand for what our goals will now be. Never mind the immense amount of hard work ahead of us, or the difficulties we've already endured before this point. 

Sure, pinning the celebration near the beginning of the process can end up becoming disheartening in the deep midst of the battles, but that is a decision made in retrospect. I'm not sure American colonists were partying quite as heartily as we've done in subsequent years when they were facing the threat at their doorsteps at that moment. Nor were they seeing the answers come immediately after saying it should be so. It took a lot of work, sacrifice, and risk before anyone could say it was all over but the shouting.

I don't mean to trivialize that tense episode in history by making such a comparison, but when we stake our claim on filling in the gaps in our own family's story, we need to remember that research can sometimes be a battle. Sure, it's not quite the battle faced in real war time, but it is a struggle with missing documents, mis-ascribed credit (or even blame) in family myths, and even the dark side of unknown family secrets.

There is a painting which was commissioned on the occasion of that momentous treaty to end the war between upstart colonists and the power to which they had once owed allegiance. Intended as an oil on canvas by British-American artist, Benjamin West, the painting shows the American delegation—John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin—supposedly posing at the point of signing the peace treaty. The rest of the sketch, however, is left with uncolored gaps; the British commissioners refused to pose for the portrait. The painting was left unfinished.

That gap-ridden picture is sometimes the appearance our own battles take on, when we haven't quite concluded our own research conquests. An ancestor refuses to sit down and tell us just how things really were. Perhaps the paperwork was destroyed, or stolen, or burned in some tragic episode maddeningly tangential to our own family's timeline—or precisely because of the choices our forebears made, themselves.

What do we do to move on? After all, the events were completed. We just want to know what happened. But if someone's non-cooperation keeps us from framing that lovely oil portrait, we need to remember the facts of the matter and our end goal. The war has already been won. That has already happened quite some time ago. We just want to document it officially. And we will find a way. Even if we can't get everyone to sit down and smile pretty for the picture.

Image above: "American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement With Great Britain 1783-1784." Unfinished oil on canvas by British-American artist, Benjamin West; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.

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