I like to say that I compiled my family tree without ever leaving my chair. Not quite true, but close. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky using the Web to find my ancestors, and not because I’ve become some genealogical e-virtuoso.
As my Aunt Mary used to say about catching a husband, “You have to put yourself out there.” I put myself out there and was rewarded richly: Using clues I found on the Web, I connected to a cousin I didn’t know I had, and her research led me to relatives in Ireland. Then, after several years of relentless posting on site after site, I heard from an in-law of a distant cousin who had already done what I was trying to do: traced my Foley ancestors back to the early 1800s in Newfoundland, Canada.
When I first hooked up to the Internet back in the mid-90s, one of the first things I did was start posting as much information as I had on both sides of my family on every genealogical site I could find. I decided to focus on the Hearys, my mother’s Philadelphia family, because I knew more about them and thought the unusual name might attract attention. I was right.
One day, shortly after my first round of posting, I got an e-mail from a woman in North Jersey who wondered if the Cornelius Heary mentioned in a 1955 note to her grandmother from her grandmother’s uncle, John McDevitt, might be one of my Hearys. I was shaking with excitement as I typed my reply, “That’s my grandfather!”
As it turned out, our great-grandparents were siblings. Her great-grandfather was William McDevitt, and my great-grandmother was his sister, Mary McDevitt Heary. Fortunately for me, her family was more sentimental than mine—they actually kept things like photos and family documents—so she had her great-grandfather’s baptismal certificate that listed the place where he was baptized (Culdaff, County Donegal) and his parents’ names, Cornelius and Grace McDaid (the alternate spelling of McDevitt).
Another Internet find—a woman who sent me photos of all the McDaid graves in a churchyard near the town—suggested that there were family members still living in the Culdaff area. One picture showed fresh flowers on the grave of Edward McDaid, another of my great-grandmother’s siblings.
I knew the rest of the story wasn’t going to come to me over the Internet. In 2000, to celebrate a big birthday (mine), my husband, 13-year-old son, and I went to Culdaff, on the Inishowen Peninsula. It didn’t take a lot of legwork—just asking some questions at the local post office the night we arrived—and I located my great-grandmother’s niece, Grace McDaid Doherty, who was living in the same house where my great-great grandparents raised their nine children.
Though it sounds effortless, my family search took many years and some creative Googling. And it hasn’t always been fruitful. I still haven’t been able to trace my Heary ancestors back to Ireland—though, thanks to a directory I found on Ancestry.com, I know my great-grandfather Matthew operated a bakery on Haines Street in Germantown in the 1890s. And while my Canadian cousin’s wonderful sister-in-law traced the Foleys back to the early 1800s, I don’t know where in Ireland they came from either. But thanks to some persistent Canadian transcribers who have been posting birth, marriage, and death records online for years, I do know that my great-great grandfather Michael died a centenarian (a really big birthday!) I’ve even been offered a house to stay in if I ever get back to Newfoundland—by a total stranger from the Midwest who bought the house from one of my cousins. I met him … on the internet.
The Web is a great place to take your second step towards uncovering your roots. (Your first is to pry every last bit of information out of your family members). Though there will always be legwork, if you’re as lucky as I was, you might connect to a long-lost cousin in a far-off place who is waaaay ahead of you.
Best Web Resources
Pop on Over to This Cork Resource
Here’s a real find if your people are from Cork: city directories from the 1700s, names and photos of Corkmen in World War I and at Gallipoli, a list of surnames from the Presbyterian Meeting House, and transcriptions as well as actual clips from local newspapers, all lovingly preserved by the generous Jean Prendergast. Made me wish that Pearce Foley, ostrich and fancy feather maker, on Fish-Shamble-Lane, was one of mine. If your family is from Cork, this is a must-see. There are some wonderful etchings reproduced on the site that give you a flavor of the past and a gripping account—from the actual newspaper—of the Fenian uprising in Cork in 1866-67. With names!
Is Your Family From Ulster?
They are if they come from the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Monaghan, or Tyrone (six of those in Northern Ireland, three part of the Republic). And, unless your family emigrated from Cavan and Monaghan, you might find some great information at this site—everything from a list of 18th century “vagabonds” to passenger lists of ships headed for Philadelphia and elsewhere in the US. Some of the records are quite old—from the early 1600s, God bless those transcribers. If you find anything pertinent that old you surely have the luck of the Irish because most records stop somewhere mid-19th century.
One must-see: the Irish surnames lists where you can learn, for example, that the name “Bunyan,” as in Paul, comes from Bunnon, which in turn derives from a word meaning “lump of dough.” Generally that referred to an occupation (in this case, baker), not a person’s general temperament or appearance. If you’re a Bell—a common name in Tyrone—you can feel proud that you were part of “an uruly clan” driven out of its Scottish border home by James I. There’s also a great list of Irish family names from the 1600s which includes non-Ulster names as well. Click on “Old Irish Names History” and translate your name into old Irish. Foley, for example, is either O’Fodhladha or O’Fuala. I’ve heard it pronounced “Fow-loo.”
Other freebies worth grabbing: Ulster maps and Irish e-cards. There’s also a free newsletter, genealogy forum, and a great piece on Ulster-Scots who emigrated to Pennsylvania. For a fee (from about $52 to $315), Ulster Ancestry will search the records for your family and produce a report. You can also buy certain records, such as marriage, birth, and death certificates, and the usual tithe and valuations books. But you need accurate information: They won’t do “wild card” searches.
Death, Where Is Thy Record?
If you’re just starting to track down your ancestors, as one of your first stops you’ll want to visit the Social Security Death Index. One of the better search engines is on Rootsweb. You’ll be poking through more than 75 million records, and that’s just for people who died since 1962. It’s a good place to find birth and death dates, maiden names, where your ancestor lived when he got his Social Security card, where he lived when he died (both of these residences are listed by zipcode), and where his lump sum benefit (for burial) was sent. If you find something, it’s a great site. But it can be frustrating: Not everyone is listed, even those who had Social Security numbers and died after 1962. Rootsweb has a great tutorial for newbies. Check it out before you check out the index.
Roots.Net Cousin Calculator
First Cousin, Twice Removed … from Where?
Possibly the most confusing thing about ancestor-hunting is figuring out how you’re related to your great-great grandmother’s granddaughter. (I mean, if she’s not your grandmother.) Most cousin charts are too much like the math portion of the SATs for me. But I found one I like (and can understand). You can actually download it so you can use it when you need to know how you and your great grand-uncle Eddie’s daughter are related. You just type in your common ancestor, list the daughter’s relationship to the ancestor, and then your relationship: Et voilà! Discover that she’s your first cousin, twice removed—a blood relative, but not so close you could give her a kidney if she needed it.
U.S. Railroad Retirement Board
Got the Disappearing Railroad Worker Blues?
If your ancestor worked for the railroad after 1936 and covered under the Railroad Retirement Act, you may be able to find out more about them from the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board. It helps if you know your ancestor’s Social Security number, but it’s not necessary. You should have the full name, including middle name or initial, and complete dates of birth and death. For a nonrefundable fee of $27, the RBR will search its records.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—you know them as the Mormons—have what may be the largest collection of free records available in the US today. They operate hundreds of Family History Centers throughout the country where you can look at records, most of them on microfilm. Their interest in ancestor hunting is, well, a kind of post-mortem proselytizing (they explain it on the site), but even if you don’t want your great-great-grandmother to be a Mormon, you can benefit from their work. Type in your ancestor’s name on the home page form and it will take you to all sorts of records. Confused? The little lady at the bottom of the site home page asks you to click on her link—she’s your research assistant who will guide you through the search.
You can find your local FHS here, talk to other ancestor hunters, and download free geneaology software. Their geneaology primers are first rate. They even have Canadian records. I’ve used the Philadelphia FHS for research and found the volunteers extremely helpful and knowledgeable. If they don’t have the records you want in the office, they’ll get them for you. And there are always other, more savvy amateur genealogists there to help you out if you’re a newbie.The Philly office is located at 2076 Red Lion Road. Phone: (215) 673-2770. It’s not a 9-to-5 kind of place. At this writing, hours are Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursday 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 pm. Call first to make sure the hours haven’t changed.
Contains a “virtual reference library” of information to help you get started digging up your Irish family roots. You probably won’t find your ancestors anywhere on this site, but you’ll get most of the information you need to start making connections.
Rootsweb and Rootsweb Mailing Lists
Rootsweb is an invaluable resource in your search. Many a match has been made on Rootsweb mailing lists (click on the second URL). Trust me, you could find a cousin. I did. The lists are both general and unbelievably specific. For example, if your ancestor was a coal miner, as was my husband’s, you can find a mailing list for miners’ descendants. There’s a list for cemetery groupies (actually very helpful, since many of them transcribe headstones and share their information), convicts, specific Irish counties and cities, and American locales, including Philadelphia. Rootsweb also has surname mailing lists, so you can connect to all the enquiring Rooneys or McDevitts out there. And don’t forget to post, post, post. Rootsweb has message boards for surnames, states, counties, and countries.
A few years ago, Cyndi Howell started building a Web page of genealogy resources and today there are more than a quarter million links on what may be the largest one-stop shopping site for amateur genealogists on the Web. The Ireland section is vast, with 1,869 links. Through this portal, I found what may be my great-great-great grandfather listed in a tithe applotment (a kind of tax on farmland) book for Culdaff, County Donegal, in 1829, eliminating my need to visit the National Archives in Dublin for the information.
Maintained by a great group of volunteers dedicated to keeping genealogy free on the Web (frequently it isn’t), this site provides free sites for every county and state in the U.S. This is where you go when you want to find, say, your great-Aunt Agnes’s obituary from Carbon County.
While I couldn’t find anything about my family here, largely because of the eclectic nature of the information, you can download free genealogy and family tree charts, a research log, a family group chart so you can organize the information you find here or, more likely, elsewhere.
For serious chair-bound genealogy buffs only: It costs anywhere from $14.95 to $34.95 a month to access most of the databases on this site, which also owns the freebie site, rootsweb.com. It’s worth it if you root around in your very spare, spare time and can’t do the legwork—check the archives, go to the Family History Center, spend a few days in the library—you need to get the kind of information you want. I found access to city directories helpful, though they’re located at the Philadelphia City Archives.
Ellis Island Foundation
If your family arrived via ship at Ellis Island in 1892 or thereafter, you may be able to find a record at this site. The first passenger registered through the immigration station when it opened January 1, 1892, was a 14-year-old Irish girl, Annie Moore, who had traveled from Queenstown, County Cork, with her two brothers, to reunite with their parents who were already living in New York. I found my great-great Uncle John on this site—the record gave me his age and his occupation (laborer) when he arrived in 1897. For a fee, you can also order a copy of the ship’s log where your ancestor appears.
Philadelphia City Archives
Do yourself a favor. Check out this guide to the Philadelphia archives before you get into your car to drive downtown. Depending on where and when your ancestor was born, married, bought or sold a house, was naturalized, lived in Philadelphia, and died, the records may be at the Archives at 3101 Market Street (Suite 150) or available in another office or by mail from the state. This site will help you figure that out.
Pennsylvania State Archives
A number of military records are searchable online (if you’re looking for the elusive Spanish-American war vet or World War I medal winner). So far the state has posted about 1.5 million records and there are more to come. This is also where to find out how to get state records (not to mention what records the state holds). It’s important to explore this site when looking for your Pennsy ancestors. Some records, such as birth and death certificates, are held in different places, depending on dates. For example, if your ancestor was born or died between 1893 and 1906, those records are at their county courthouse (a hot link on the site will take you to addresses and phone numbers for every county courthouse in the state). Records from 1906 and afterwards are available from the state’s division of vital records (you’ll learn how to contact them on the site).
National Archives, Regional
The Web site of the Philadelphia regional branch of the National Archives will provide you with information on periodic workshops, including some on Irish genealogy, that are available for free (though a donation is a nice idea). The site isn’t searchable, but will tell you what federal records are available (such as censuses, ship passenger lists, naturalizations, military information etc) and how to access them. To view some records, you need to register as a NARA researcher, which isn’t a big deal. Read the FAQs on the site and check the hours before you head down there.
19th Century Immigrant Roots: Record for Wilmington, DE, USA, and Vicinity
A real find for those whose ancestors lived in Delaware or nearby. More than 30 volunteer transcribers have posted Catholic sacramental records, city directories, census reports, gravestone inscriptions, passenger lists for ships arriving from Londonderry into New Castle in the years 1831-1841—and much, much more. You’ll also find ship passenger lists from 1846-1851 from Galway to New York, the Griffiths Valuation of Tenements in Ireland 1855-185, and the 1901 Census of Ireland returns. And they’re still transcribing! The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington (and its archivist Donn Devine) worked with the Wilmington Irish group to provide such genealogical bounty.
Delaware Public Archives
You can search probate records and a limited number of naturalizations online (they’re listed alphabetically), as well as use the search engine to find out what records are available and, best of all, how and where to get them.
Under “Services,” click on “Public/Finding Aids” and go to it. DAP also holds workshops to help you find your way through the confusing world of ancestor tracing. Check the events calendar frequently and read the FAQs.
The Genealogical Society of New Jersey
Call them the Tombstone Raiders. This group was started in the 1920s as a regular “tombstone hunt” among Jersey’s graveyards. Nothing ghoulish—just genealogy. It’s still an active group, but now they’ve put their focus on education. There are two lecture series coming up. “Exploring Your New Jersey Roots III,” co-sponsored with the New Jersey State Archives, will run every Wednesday from April 26 to May 24, 2006. The all-day 2006 Spring Genealogical Program, also co-sponsored with the New Jersey State Archives, is on Saturday, June 3, 2006, at New Jersey State Museum Auditorium, 225 West State Street, Trenton, NJ. The Web site contains a list of the substantial number of records the society holds. They are being housed at the Alexander Library, 169 College Avenue, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. You can also find a professional genealogist on the site.
The New Jersey State Archives
Like most archive Web sites, this one will tell you what state records are available—and how to get them. It’s about to go searchable with marriages (1848-1867), Civil War payment vouchers (1861-1866); East Jersey Proprietors Loose Surveys (1786-1951) and name-change judgments (1876-1947). Stay tuned! In the meantime, for a fee, you can have a state employee do a search for you from certain records.
National Archives of Ireland
This is your Web portal to Ireland’s National Archives. While it’s not searchable, it’s vital to read before you travel to Ireland to do your digging. You can find out, for instance, what Tithe Applotment books are and why they’re so important to you. (Hint: because of the dearth of old records in Ireland, they may be the only place you’ll find your pre-1840s ancestors.)
Directory of Irish Genealogy
An online Directory of Irish Genealogy is a valuable tool for family history newbies, full of basic information you need to know before you start your search.
Newfoundland’s Grand Banks Genealogy Site
This is the extraordinary Newfoundland’s Grand Banks Genealogy Site which has some of the most elaborate free records available on the Web, from cemetery headstones (with pictures) to voters’ lists. If your Irish ancestors came to Philly via Newfoundland, as mine did, you’re sure to find some record of them here.
Donegal Genealogical Resources
These pages on Rootsweb are the work of New Zealander Lindel Buckley who is a tireless and remarkably generous amateur genealogist who has transcribed and posted dozens and dozens of records from around this county, where many Philadelphians can trace their roots. There is no better resource on Donegal than this one.
County Mayo Genealogy
Another Irish county that donated many of its able-bodied to Philadelphia, Mayo is covered from A to Z on this free Web site which contains a surname registry as well as church, land, civil and census records. It is updated monthly.