Modern census database searching is great. Many mis-indexed ancestors have been found by the ability to throw wild card variables into a tricky surname or, when all else fails, to abandon names altogether and search for characteristics like age, occupation and nativity.
But remember: Each page in a search result is just one possible piece of a family mosaic. Case in point:
I was scouring the 1870 index for the family of my great-grandmother Catherine Connors Haigney in Watervliet, Albany County, N.Y. By this point in my search I knew that Catherine’s oldest sister, Mary Ann, was likely to be married to a man named Bernard Connell in 1870. And there they were:
Excellent! (A bonus: They married in the census year, so the enumerator noted the month of their wedding, January. You can’t see it in this crop, but it’s there.)
Now it was time to check on my great-great-grandparents, Patrick and Bridget Connors. There was only one family in Watervliet in 1870 that included a head of household named Patrick, a wife Bridget and siblings whose names matched the known siblings of Catherine and Mary Ann. Up they popped:
Wonderful! There they all are, Andrew, Mary Ann, James … Wait.
Mary Ann? Seriously? But how could she be both the eldest daughter in Patrick Connor’s household and the wife of Bernard Connell? One finding had to be the wrong Mary Ann. Right?
I spent the next few minutes whimpering softly about what a rotten, horrible, deceptive world this is, where census indexes make us think we have a handle on a family, only to cruelly snatch our triumph away with the very next hit.
But soon I saw something that I should have noticed right away. See Bernard Connell and Mary Ann up there? See how they’re at the top of their page?
And see how Patrick and Bridget and their gang are at the bottom of their page?
Could these people just possibly be on adjacent pages?
You bet, Sherlock. The Connors and the Connells are, in fact, in the same dwelling, No. 727, but are enumerated as two distinct families, No. 902 and No. 903.
The Connors/Connell family group was visited by a somewhat persnickety enumerator in 1870, a year in which individual names were recorded, but relationships to head of household were not. Faced with the presence of Patrick’s married oldest daughter, the enumerator parsed the situation as precisely as he could. He listed Mary Ann first among Patrick’s children, and a second time as Bernard Connell’s wife. Then the entry happened to break across Pages 110-111.
There are not two 18-year-old Mary Anns in Dwelling 727. They are the same person whose dual identity has been carefully, if confusingly, preserved, a conclusion supported by other sources, including the obituary of one of Mary Ann’s daughters many years later. And, of course, these two Mary Anns appear as two separate census search results on separate pages, each seemingly valid, but contradictory. Only when the pages are read in sequence do they make sense.
It’s an elegant example of some basic census-research advice: Never simply zero in on one key name on a census page. Read up, read down and read adjacent pages. It’s the only way you’re sure you’re getting the whole picture.
Hold on to that thought.
I heard that phrase many a time in my grade-school days, when I could have been a prototype for Hermione Granger, Harry Potter’s perpetually hand-waving buddy.
Well, “hold on to that thought” is useful advice in genealogical research. It can apply to all those funny bits of data we stumble across from time to time, the ones whose significance remains stubbornly unclear.
I don’t have that name in my lines, we might think. Or: I don’t know of anyone who was from that place.
We conclude that these things are flukes – a brief acquaintanceship, perhaps, or just a whistle stop on one of our ancestors’ journeys. This potentially can be a mistake.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about finding a guy in the 1900 census who sure looked like he could be my great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney. His age, birthplace, marital status and occupation were all in line with how other sources described him during the 1890s. Sometime after 1899, Joseph moved from his lifelong home of Watervliet, N.Y. He eventually settled with his wife and children in Brooklyn, where he can be found with boring regularity from 1910 on.
But in 1900, he was quite elusive. And when I finally found a viable candidate, there were, in my mind, three very big snags:
- He was in Jersey City, not Brooklyn.
- His wife, Catherine (Connors) Haigney, was nowhere in sight, and neither were any of his children, including my grandfather Raymond.
- He was boarding in the household of an Edwin and Rose Brant. None of us had ever heard of anybody called Brant.
Assuming this was great-grandfather Joseph, what in the world was going on?
As I previously wrote, I established that Edwin and Rose, like Joseph, were recent arrivals from Watervliet. And about a year after the census find, I came into possession of an address book from the 1930s belonging to Joseph’s daughter, Anna, which strengthened the idea of a close association between the families. Thirty years after Joseph boarded with the Brants, Anna continued to keep track of three Brant daughters, now grown and married.
And that was it – an enigmatic census entry and an old address book, both pointing to a family named Brant in Jersey City. Based on what little I had, it seemed that this was a case of old acquaintances from the Capital District renewing their ties in Hudson County and Brooklyn. Interesting, but nothing to stop the presses about. I busied myself with other things.
Still, I held on to that thought.
And recently this paid off as I worked on the ancestry of great-grandmother Catherine (Connors) Haigney, Joseph’s wife. There are many more Connors families than Haigneys in Watervliet, and up to now it’s been hard to pick out which one might be Catherine’s – especially since I had no information about possible siblings.
Then one of my periodic rummagings through Tom Tryniski’s remarkable New York newspapers database turned up the piece of gold I had long sought: a Troy Times obituary for Catherine’s brother, James Connors, listing Catherine and another sister as survivors. This obituary led to a blizzard of other clippings, which helped crack the case of which Connors census entries were which, and before you could say “Get that in the database,” I had pieced together a preliminary picture of my great-grandmother’s parents, Patrick and Bridget, and their seven children.
Soon enough I had a decent basic idea of what became of five of these children, including my great-grandmother, of course. The two mysteries were a son named Timothy, who is difficult to trace after 1880, and a daughter variously recorded as Rose, Rosannah and Rosa.
It’s all so clear in retrospect, isn’t it?
Not in real time. I was sitting on a train the other day, thinking two things:
- I hate how the name Rosannah keeps putting that old Toto song into my brain.
- Have I ever seen a Rose anywhere in my travels?
Which was when I blurted out, “Rose BRANT!” thereby drawing some curious stares from across the aisle. (It could have been worse; I could have started singing “Rosanna.”)
The next logical stop was the Jersey City Free Public Library’s lovely New Jersey Room, where some lovely obituaries confirmed the hunch. Rose’s own death notice from 1914 referred to her only as the beloved wife of Edwin, but Edwin’s obituary from 1929 contained the wonderful words: “Edwin O. Brant, beloved husband of the late Rose Brant (nee Connors).”
This is the beginning rather than the end of the story. A lot of blanks still need to be filled in and connections confirmed in what is shaping up to be a typically sprawling Irish Catholic family. But it has been delightful to uncover a more detailed picture of my great-grandmother’s clan just in time for Women’s History Month, not to mention St. Patrick’s Day.
I’m so glad I held on to that thought.
It turned up last week on a census hunt related to my frustrating, elusive Connors line in Watervliet (maybe) N.Y. I kept squinting at the handwriting, but really all that a reasonable person could make out would be “corn labor”, with “coven labor” a distant second and honestly, I don’t really want to pursue a relationship with someone who does coven labor. Then I got distracted by some other Irish-in-New York stuff (the subject of another post in the works).
Well! In one of those cosmic convergences, a fellow member of the Troy (N.Y.) Irish Genealogy Society mailing list also had a corn laborer in his files, and being more sensible than me, posted a question about it. As is often the case on this great list, there were informative replies. It is possible, write listers Rebecca and Kathleen, that this labor was related to broom corn crops, which were harvested to provide materials for brush factories, some of which existed in the Capital District area.
To get an idea of broom corn and what’s involved (translation: very hard work), check out this broom corn blog post, complete with pictures. It is by Marieanne Coursen, intrepid staffer at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. She tells us that broom corn was an important mid-19th-century crop in New York State.
They raise their own crop of broom corn at the museum, and Ms. Coursen takes you through the whole process of growing, harvesting and processing it in an authentically 19th-century way. She even cut the brushes with a knife, as would have been done back then, keeping herself “very aware of the location of my body parts in relation to the swing of the knife.” (This is the sort of thing that dampens my enthusiasm for being a living history docent.)
Apparently there is a broom shop in the museum where you can see the product of these labors. Another fine reason to visit Cooperstown, even if you are not a baseball fan.
Ephemera: Items designed to be useful or important for only a short time, especially pamphlets, notices, tickets, etc.
In the genealogy world “ephemera” can include everything from school attendance certificates to Edwardian hotel menus — anything at all, which I suppose is the point. Here is a nice essay about that, from the Independent Online Booksellers Association.
Recently, my cousin Carol Ann generously shared a nifty bit of ephemera — a book of addresses kept by our great-aunt Anna Haigney. Anna (1904-79) was my great-grandfather Joseph’s adopted daughter. A dedicated nurse, she volunteered her skills to aid victims of the tragic 1944 circus fire in Hartford, Conn.
The book is not an actual address book with alphabetized sections, but a plain leatherette-bound notebook with lined pages, seven inches long, four inches wide. It doesn’t include great-grandpa Joseph, which might mean Anna began keeping it after he died in 1938. Or it might not. It doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive list of addresses. It looks more like a quick reference book where Anna jotted down addresses she thought would come in handy.
Well, this unassuming little book is going to keep me busy for a while. It contains some promising entries that might untangle a lot of nagging questions. But for now let’s just take a look at an entry that fit so neatly into some previous detective work, I got a little misty-eyed, I really did.
See that first name, Cerelia? Very pretty, and unusual. It was also the name of the oldest daughter in the Brant family of Jersey City, with whom was boarding a man named “Joseph Hagney” listed in the 1900 census.
whined about wrote in a previous post, the 1900 census has long been the Mystery Zone as far as my Haigney great-grandparents are concerned. Documentation places them with boring regularity in Watervliet, N.Y. up to 1899, and with equally boring regularity in Brooklyn after 1901. But 1900 appears to have been The Year They Were Moving.
So far the one decent census possibility has been the entry in Jersey City for Joseph Hagney, a house painter (which happens to have been my great-grandfather’s occupation according to the Watervliet city directory the year before). A little bit of digging revealed that his landlords, the Brants, also had ties to the Watervliet area. And I know from the death certificate of Joseph’s son, Leo, that by February 1901, the family had only been living in Brooklyn for five months.
All this added up to a reasonable hypothesis that Joseph was living apart from his family in June 1900, boarding with a family he knew from the Capital District. While it would have been nice to get another piece of information to prop this up, it seemed unlikely. Until Great-Aunt Anna’s notebook, that is.
Now, it’s possible that Anna just happened to know some random person named Cerelia. But Anna’s notebook also contains entries on adjacent pages for “Ursula Cameron,” also in Elizabeth, N.J., and “Rose Filoramo,” of Jersey City. And here are the six children of Edwin and Rose Brant, with whom Joseph Hagney stayed in 1900: Cerlia [sic], Harry, Rose, Urslia [sic], Edwin and Margaret.
The hunch seems a lot more solid now. This family is very likely to have hosted my great-grandfather for a while in 1900, and moreover, Anna was still in touch with them decades later.
This is why I wish we all had cousins like Carol Ann, Righteous Friend to Genealogy Wonks™, who know how interested we are in family ephemera, however ephemeral. How many times does stuff like this get pitched, or put away in a drawer and forgotten? Yet viewed with the right context, ephemera can be a total gold mine.
Listen, I like Ancestry.com just fine, but every once in a while I get a little bug-eyed at how much it just keeps growing and growing, merging into everything that lies in its path. Some days it’s hard not to feel like Steve McQueen and friends confronting the Blob outside that funky 1950s movie theater.
I continue to poke and prod at Ancestry’s sprawling holdings — not only the obvious stuff like censuses, but at esoterica like the family histories, church histories and old society programs squirreled away in the card catalog. However, I freely admit there are days when the sheer volume of material (and quirky search engine) overwhelm me.
That’s when I’m grateful that it is still possible to find online repositories that are focused and personal labors of love, like ConnorsGenealogy.
This is a site maintained by California researcher Pat Connors, and once I get past that fact I honestly don’t know where to begin, there is such a variety of well-organized information here. On the home page, there are regular updates about what’s new and what’s coming up, a very good starting point.
If you are interested in Irish research, this is a great place to visit. There are photos and townland maps, arranged by county. There are also baptisms and marriage listings for Connors/O’Connors and various other surname interests of Pat’s, and even if you’re not related, you’d be surprised what might be in there. For instance, I don’t think I’m related to Pat, but because there happens to be a Troy, N.Y. section to the site, I stumbled across a date for my great-great-grandfather’s declaration of intent.
But even without that, I’d love this site for its wealth of general information about Ireland, its surname registries and the energy that bounces through the entire endeavor. Sites like this have the real-person touch that can help a beginner chart a path that takes them beyond the index-searching stage. Which is where we all need to go, sooner or later.
I do hate that genealogy cliche, “brick wall”, but only because it’s a sad reality for so many of us. So it is satisfying to be able describe how a tiny opening developed in one of mine.
My great-grandfather refused to be located in the 1900 census. After various census and city directory searches (and increasingly bad moods), I ended up taking a mental-health break from this search, for which my living family thanked me.
Then a little while back, Ancestry.com was talking up a webinar: “Best Strategies for Searching Ancestry.com.” I took it, largely because I hadn’t ever done a webinar and was curious about the process. As ever, I learned a thing or two:
• The best place to start an Ancestry search is not the Search box on the Home page. Better to click the “Search” button in the menu bar, and use the “Search All Records” option.
• In old records, sloppy dates are a feature, not a bug. Search with broad date ranges, even if you’re sure you know the specifics. Start at plus/minus 10 years, and adjust downward.
• When you locate an interesting record, do NOT forget to save it somehow –your Ancestry shoebox or family tree, your hard disk, wherever. (Amazingly, many of us forget this in our excitement.)
The biggest discovery of all? I was doing crummy wild card searches.
“Brick wall” is one of the more painful clichés of family research. And there are days I think that I should become a mason.
My great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney has long irritated me by his refusal to be found in the 1900 census. Or in the 1900 anything, despite my diligent efforts. Talk about ingratitude.
I’ve found all his other census appearances from 1860 to 1930. I’ve journeyed to his birthplace, pored over vital records, and photographed his tombstone from a variety of angles, good, bad and ugly.
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