Who’s Your Granny?

My great-great grandmother, Susan Virginia Thursday Victoria Ridgeway Riley, and her daughter Pearl Estella Angeline Hazel Riley Parker

My great-great grandmother, Susan Virginia Thursday Victoria Ridgeway Riley, and her daughter Pearl Estella Angeline Hazel Riley Parker

For over two years, I’ve been contemplating this genealogy column. Contemplating it, mind you, not actually writing it. Denise and Jeff have been encouraging it, giving me carte blanche to write about whatever genealogical topic pops into my head—but never pressuring. Dublin and Philadelphia’s own fiddler, Paraic Keane, even unknowingly came up with the title, “Who’s Your Granny?” in a completely unrelated conversation with the Philadelphia Ceili Group’s Anne McNiff; as soon as I heard it, I claimed it in the name of Irish Philadelphia.

And, now, with the most Irish of all days just a little over a week away, it is finally time. Welcome to the first official genealogy column of Irish Philly.

Last week I made my first trip to the Philadelphia Archives, down on Chestnut Street between 9th and 10th. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to venture into for a very long time, but it was a talk by my friend and genealogist Deborah Large Fox that finally got me in the building. The topic was “Grandma Was a What?” and focused on collecting and preserving family stories. Although the lecture was for a general audience, the subject could have been created for Irish family research. Who is better at telling stories and passing them down than the Irish? It was the stories I heard as a child about my Riley ancestors that first got me hooked on genealogy—great-great grandfather Samuel Riley fought for both sides in the Civil War, starting out for the South, getting captured by the North, escaping and returning to the South…and then after it was all over, receiving two pensions, one from the Union and one from the Confederacy.

And, as Deb Fox pointed out, “Every family story has a nugget of truth.” My great-great grandfather did indeed file for pensions from both the North and the South, but the truth was a little more complicated, and less glorified, than the story. I found Samuel’s Virginia pension file online at the Library of Virginia’s Civil War Guide.  And then, a few years later, while searching Ancestry.com, I found that a Samuel Riley, living in Virginia, had filed for a Union pension and cited a Pennsylvania unit. Using the information from that source, I went to the National Archives Military Records, and sent away for those records. Included in the file was a letter written by his daughter Eugenia stating that “he was with Co. B. 4th Pa Cavalry But a short time before he was wounded he is not able to get about now with 9 nine children all too small to help them self & a sick wife I would be so glad if you would use your influence in the pension office he deserted the Rebel Army & joind the U.S. Army & the people here won’t have a thing to do with him.”

Apparently, Samuel went off to join the 4th Pa Cavalry of his own volition, and was branded a deserter when he returned to Virginia after the war. Many times, the story is a prettier version of the truth, which is the tricky part about genealogy. Every family has skeletons, and when you start digging around in the family bones, you never know what’s going to fall out. When preserving the family record, both the stories and the records have a place.

“Documentation is the cure for a lot of genealogical ills…attribute the story. At least you have the source listed,” Deb explained. “Are records more reliable than stories? Records can create the same whisper down the lane effect. It’s keeping your sources, noting them down, being a skeptic—but you can be a skeptic and still enjoy the stories.”

And when you record the family stories, decide what your purpose is and who your audience will be. Is it for yourself, or for your descendants? Members of the public or living family members? This can make a difference even in the format you choose to use to preserve the history. There are many options out there now beyond just the published narrative. Many researchers set up websites, and encourage input from other branches of the family. Others make DVDs or photo books.

It’s still a complicated business when it comes to revealing an ugly family secret. I have found more than a few in my research—all a matter of public record—and while I strongly believe that the truth should be told, that there is healing in getting it out there all these generations later, I do think it’s important to be sensitive to anyone still living who may be personally affected by having a not-so-long-hidden secret unveiled.

Deb’s talk at the Archives was part of their Friday Genealogy Open House series, and this is a great way to meet up with other researchers. Visitors are encouraged to bring a lunch, and several people I talked to had taken the train in to Philly, which eliminated the cost and problem of finding parking. For more information, check out their website: Philadelphia Archives: Friday Genealogy Open Houses. And now that I’ve finally made it inside, I’m planning many more return visits to finally get to the bottom of my own Philadelphia ancestors’ mysteries.

For more great information, check out Deborah Large Fox’s genealogy blogs: Help! The Faerie Folk Hid My Ancestors! and her newest, Spilling the Family Beans.

Author: Jeff Meade

Jeff is one of the founding editors of irishphiladelphia.com. More details.

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  1. I am so glad to see your column (and not just because you wrote about me in the first installment). This column is a much needed addition to the Philadelphia Irish genealogy scene. I will spread the word! Good luck!

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  2. Great piece, Lori! Looking forward to many many more! No pressure!

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  3. Great site an good info. Just a suggestion- it would be nice to post our Phila. names an also say what part of phila.
    Thanks Lorri from south phila.

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  4. What a terrific site! I hope it motivates me to once again join in presentations. I’ve heard Deborah Large Fox in the past and loved listening to her. Love the title of your column even though my favorite family story belongs to Great-grandfather Thomas McCanney!

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  5. Great article. I’ve been dabbling in research for a while this gives me now. This gives me more places to look. My grandfather was Mike Murphy from Germantown. My grandmother, his second wife, was Mary Gleeson from Tipperary. Maybe, some relationship there. Liz

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  6. As a family historian/editor specializing in memoir, I’m delighted by this new column & appreciation of family stories. Though often dismissed as unimportant, personal memories incomparably enrich the record of personal and shared experiences.

    A few days ago, I heard from a cousin whose parents & grandparents died before she was old enough to wonder about her origins. She was as pleased to hear that Aunt Annie was nicknamed Pigeon because she was an ugly baby as to learn the names of her mother’s grandparents.

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  7. I m trying to find out about a cousin of my fathers mary h o kane who lived at 4836 Westminster avenue Philadelphia in 1940 census with her mother Sarah o Kane but I can’t find anymore info on her could you help? Her father. Patrick was a brother of my grandfather Peter okane. Patrick left ballynian outside of swatragh in 1903 and married a girl called Sarah also frm Northern Ireland co Derry in 1909. That’s all I know,. Any help greatly appreciated. Jackie

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  8. I came back to this site and tried to find where I could just read existing posts I had just made… but found none. What does one have to do to peruse all existing posts?

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  9. My Irish ancestors are John Brown who came from Ireland in 1790 and lived in Manyunk and is buried at Levering Cemetary and Samuel Beatty and his wife Maria Caroline Costigan who lived on Front St just below Christian St, They attended Old Swedes Church where their daughter Anna Beatty was christened and later married to my Gt Grandfather William L Wilson who was a River Boat Policeman on the Schuylkill river.

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  10. My grandfather HERMAN J.GEIGER was a Phila Mounted Policeman from abt 1910-1925 I have been unable to find any info on mounted police. Does anyone else have a mounted policeman in their line?

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  11. I have done some research on Irish ancestors and have reached an impasse. Most ancestors came over as a result of the potato famine. But cannot find the counties they are from – suggestion was made that I look up possible naturalization papers.
    Did women go through the naturalization process in the mid 1800’s in Philadephia as well as men? And, will those forms show County of origin? And, are those forms found in the philly archives?
    Any suggestions for help?
    Glad to see this column!

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  12. So glad to find this site – I have a collection of original poems written by my grandfather and wonder if he belonged to a poetry club or something of the kind in Philadelphia – would have been early 1900’s. Would appreciate any suggestions.


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