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Duffy’s Cut Victims Will Be Remembered, But Not Recovered

Duffy's Cut Memorial Cross Designed by Johnnie Rowe

From the beginning of the Duffy’s Cut project, back in 2002, Bill and Frank Watson knew there was a possibility that they would not be able to recover the bodies of the 57 Irish workers who died in 1832 under mysterious circumstances while building Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania Railroad. But the brothers—historians-turned-archaeologists—successfully located and excavated the first seven bodies, and the dream of finding and retrieving the rest of the workers looked increasingly realizable.

Until last week when Amtrak officials informed the team that the bodies in the mass grave were located too near to the tracks that are still in use today, and are therefore unreachable.

For 170 years, the story of Duffy’s Cut was simply an urban legend that had been passed down by locals through the centuries, the tale of railroad laborers buried alongside the Malvern Curve.  But when Frank Watson inherited a file from his grandfather, who had worked as an assistant to many of the railroad’s presidents throughout his career, the legend became a true life tale of Irish immigrants who suffered the reality of prejudice, cholera and murder before being deliberately erased from history.

The summer of 1832 brought the ship The John Stamp to dock in Philadelphia, plentiful with Irish laborers eager to find work. Philip Duffy, the man charged by the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad to build the dangerous section of track called Mile 59, met them as they came ashore and offered them jobs. Within six weeks, all these men (and at least one woman) were dead, supposedly from the effects of cholera which had become an epidemic in the area. Consigned to a mass grave, these immigrants were quickly forgotten and the details of their deaths covered up.

Frank and Bill Watson, in possession of the original file amassed by Martin W. Clement, the last president of P&C Railroad before it was bought out, and then given for safekeeping to their grandfather, Joseph F. Tripician, began the arduous task of setting up an archaeological dig at the site. Over the past several years, their efforts have paid off beyond all expectations.

Artifacts found at The Duffy’s Cut site include buttons, bowls, forks and pipes from the men’s home counties of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone. Working with forensic dentist Matt Patterson, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Janet Monge and geophysicist Tim Monge, plus a dedicated team of students, the Watsons recovered seven bodies buried on the site, yet set apart from the mass grave. These first seven were six men and one woman who tried to flee the quarantined camp, but were hunted down by a local vigilante group known as The East Whiteland Horse Company. All of these victims show the effects of murder, from blunt force trauma to their skulls to bullet holes.  It seems they were tended to by a local blacksmith named Malachi Harris, who built coffins for them and gave them their own burials.

Many details yielded by the bones of these seven have helped to provide clues to their identities. The body of one victim matched up by age to one of the immigrants listed on the John Stamp’s ship list; John Ruddy was the youngest of the laborers, and DNA testing is underway with descendants of the Ruddy family back in Donegal to see if there is a positive match. It turns out that John Ruddy had a distinctive dental trait: he was missing an upper right molar, a genetic quirk that is also shared by other Ruddys in Donegal.

The discovery that one of the bodies was a woman was another revelation. Several of the men on the ship were traveling with female relatives, and the bones seem to point to her identity as Catherine Burns, a 29 year old woman listed on the ship’s manifest. The condition of her stooped shoulders show that she was most likely a washerwoman, and certainly used to hard labor.

With the advance of technology, Tim Bechtel was able to use electrical imaging and seismic surveys to positively locate the mass grave where the majority of the laborers had been buried. But what his equipment showed is that these victims are buried 30 feet below ground level, level with the line of tracks as they were originally built in 1832.

“It’s a huge area,” Frank Watson explained. “So they’re all there together. But because they’re 30 feet down, there’s no way to safely excavate.  If we started excavating at any spot along there, it would probably destroy the memorial wall and could possibly undermine the tracks.”

The news that Amtrak was not allowing excavation at the mass burial site came as a disappointment to the team, to know that they were so close to recovering the bodies of the workers but that any serious digging in that location was off limits due to safety concerns.

They’re taking the frustration in stride, however, and the work at the site is far from over.

“We can stay as long as it takes,” Watson explained. “We’ve been working on this last body that was under a large tree. We have the skull and all but one tooth. The teeth are in great shape, considering that the roots of the tree went through his skull and more roots had broken through his jaw, separating the upper and lower, actually splitting the jaw in half.

“We also found pewter buttons buried with him, probably from a haversack, together with a Barlow pocket knife. These are likely some of the best preserved items from an Irish-American laborer’s grave from the 1832 era.

“We still have so much more work to do.”

That work includes proper burials for these bodies that have been rescued. If the body that is thought to be John Ruddy is proven to be part of the Donegal Ruddy family, it’s likely that he will be sent home and laid to rest. For the others, interment at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd has been arranged, and a Celtic memorial cross has been designed and built to commemorate the laborers. Johnnie Rowe, from County Laois, has created a hand-carved cross and ledger from Kilkenny limestone that’s been shipped over and will be placed at the graves of the Duffy’s Cut victims. The ceremony is planned for March of 2012.

So the work of the team will continue. In fact, they’ve been called in to investigate what is thought to be a Potter’s Field in nearby Downingtown. The back story is that possibly one of the men from Duffy’s Cut was able to escape from the camp, then went and infected other Irish workers in the nearby town, leading to another mass anonymous burial ground. The possible connection to Duffy’s Cut makes this especially intriguing.

Amtrak’s pronouncement that there will be no excavation of the mass grave site may be a disappointment, but ultimately it doesn’t detract from the importance of the discovery at Duffy’s Cut.

“The most important thing is that the story is being told,” Frank Watson affirmed. “After being ignored for all these years, they have definitely earned a place in the Irish American pilgrimage.”

Duffy\’s Cut Photos


Genealogy, History

Vikings at Lagg

The chapel at Lagg, on Trawbreaga Bay, Malin, Inishowen, County Donegal.

By Tom Finnigan

The trees run out on the Lagg Road beyond Goorey. Near the Presbyterian Meeting House, a clump of palms rage against Atlantic breezes. Beyond them a few ragged roses in pink or white struggle to raise their heads above bracken. Half a dozen white-faced cattle stare at a middle-aged man on a bicycle until he passes the Meeting House and merges into a mist-filled landscape of water, sand and rock.

The Lagg Road is almost new. When Maghtochair passed this way in the 1860s he wrote lyrically:

“No dwelling is here; and the tourist, as he passes through it, with towering hills and precipices on one side, and the waters of Strabreagy, the sand-knolls and far extended beach on the other, feels himself quite alone with nature in all her solitary loveliness and bewitching grandeur…”

He wouldn’t have seen Norville Davies’ cattle staring. And I doubt if he was on a strong black bicycle, built with English precision, sporting a silver bell that wails above the wind and sends oyster-catchers piping into the bay. However, he did add: “One edifice only stands here; it is situated at the foot of those grand old hills, in view of the ocean and within hearing of the undying boom of its waters. It is the Catholic Chapel of Lagg, the first erected in the barony, and built by Dan O’Donnell in 1784.”

When I first came to this place in 1971, I watched people walk over the hills to Mass. I was told that, before they built an oratory in Ballyliffen, folk from the Isle of Doagh used to pack boats and row to Lagg chapel. I remember cyclists too – men in serge suits with bicycle clips. Today nobody walks or rows, and only blow-ins cycle.

Vikings came to this site when a monastery stood here. You can see them in a stained-glass window inside the chapel. They approach in a boat, sails billowing, axes raised. Recalling these invaders, crows gather on Cranny Hill like a black storm. Wind thrashes Trawbreaga. The bay runs white.

My imagination senses the panic when a sail was spotted beyond Glashedy. Monks run to the dunes, arms full of silver chalices and gold pattens. The Abbot digs a hole and buries gospel manuscripts wrapped in sheep fleeces. A bell peals violently. Driven inland by terrified children, cattle low and sheep bleat. Women sob and cling to each other; their men gather stones and take up positions on the dunes. Out beyond the bar-mouth, a striped sail and a prow carved in the shape of a beast approach the shore. Above the howl of wind, you hear the beat of a drum. The sun catches a glint of steel in axes. Terrified boys smell fear and shiver; soon they will taste blood.

I had forgotten all this until mass on Sunday, when tall Father Brendan swooped among us in green vestments and clasped our hands.

“Peace be with you!”

“And also with you!”


The 1901 Irish Census Goes Live Online

Waiting for the census taker? Image from iStockphoto digital restoration by Steve Wynn Photography.

Waiting for the census taker? Image from iStockphoto digital restoration by Steve Wynn Photography.

Where was your Irish ancestor on the night of March 31, 1901?

If you thought that was a question you might never see answered, think again. Thanks to the National Archives of Ireland, the 1901 census for all 32 counties North and South, is available online.

This is Ireland’s earliest surviving set of census records (the 1911 census also survived intact and was put online a few years ago), but all others beginning with the 1921 records were destroyed long ago. The loss of so many population records, particularly in the 1922 fire at the Public Records Office, makes the existence of the 1901 census all the more precious to researchers today.

Ireland’s unique approach to census taking—the forms were filled out and signed by the actual head of each household on the night of March 31st, known as “census night”—means that the information was provided directly by the family. If the head of household couldn’t write, an enumerator filled it out in front of a witness.

Initially opened to public perusal beginning in 1961, those original forms are now transcribed and indexed exactly as they were filled out, and in this age of immediate internet access, both the transcripts and the originals are able to be accessed 24 hours a day by researchers worldwide.

The records are searchable by any member of a given household, and able to be narrowed down by county, townland or street, district electoral division (DED), and age (plus or minus 5 years is automatically tallied). In fact, if you were so inclined, you could enter just a county name, and call up all the people living in, say, Waterford, in 1901. If you were so inclined…

But the information found on the actual forms themselves is the true gold. Birthplace, marital status, religion and any physical disabilities are all noted. In addition to the basic family page, there are three more forms included for each return; they deal with “religious denomination, classification of buildings and out-offices and farm-steadings, filled out by the Enumerator for that townland/street.”

And just because your ancestors may have already emigrated before 1901 doesn’t mean you won’t find family. All those who stayed behind—parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins—they’re all there in the records, waiting to be discovered at 2 a.m. by a thrilled descendent.

So what are you waiting for? Go see where your Irish ancestor was on the night of March 31, 1901!


Finding Where the Faerie Folks Hid Our Ancestors

Deborah Large Fox

Deborah Large Fox

As anyone who has ever started down the road to discovering their Irish ancestors knows, it’s a path that’s beaten, fraught with stones, at times narrow and crooked, never the one of least resistance. Aand every once in a while a black cat will cross it in front of you.

In other words, Irish genealogy is a challenge.

I, myself, have been known to muse on occasion that clearly my missing ancestors discovered the portal to hell in a cave in County Roscommon, and a few of them liked it so much they stayed.

Deborah Large Fox, former-prosecutor-turned-family-historian, has a kinder, gentler theory to explain the difficulty in locating her forefathers and mothers: this past January she began writing a blog titled “Help! The Faerie Folk Hid My Ancestors!”

The blog developed out of classes and talks that she’s been facilitating over a number of years. Fox explains that she‘s always “receiving new information and research tips…and blogging might be the best way to pass these tips to a larger audience.”

Interestingly, when Fox first began teaching genealogy classes, it was on the general topic of family research. But she noticed a trend developing: the majority of her attendees were focused specifically on their Irish ancestry. And, fortunately for all of us here in the Philadelphia area, that’s a road Fox has been traveling for years.

She started her own family research back in the days before the Internet, making several trips to Ireland in her quest. Her visits included trips to her family townlands, as well as time spent researching at The National Library of Ireland in Dublin.

Locally, she did a lot of investigating through the resources at the Family History Center in Cherry Hill. When they approached her about facilitating a monthly group for Irish researchers about a year and a half ago, she was happy to do so.

The group meets on the first Thursday of every month, and as I discovered for myself a few weeks ago, it’s a magical place where folks can go and share information, brainstorm together about brick walls, discover new avenues to research, and sometimes even chance upon relatives.

“I had cousins meet here a few months ago,” Fox told me. “I love the people that come.”

Each month, Fox introduces a different theme, “something out of the ordinary, like music.” April’s topic was “Irish Culture,” and it centered on how to pick out cultural clues. “Many Irish family history researchers become frustrated when they can’t find the county or townland of origin of their ancestors,” without realizing that things like special recipes passed down within the family, or childhood games taught to them as children, hold an association with a particular county or region of Ireland.

“People talking about songs and poems…these are cultural hints to rely on, any little clues you can grab onto, which sometimes in Irish research is all you have to work with,” says Fox.

One woman had an immigrant grandfather who wrote poetry, so she brought copies of two of his poems to pass around the group. Even though it didn’t lead back to Ireland, the knowledge shared that day gave her some new inspiration. One of the poems, when decoded by new eyes, appeared to be telling a tale from the days of Prohibition; she remembered that her grandfather had owned a pub in Philadelphia back during that era–a light bulb moment.

“It’s the hobby that never ends,” Fox laughed. “It’s just amazing. And I’m having so much fun with it.”

Fox’s blog has many fabulous resources linked into it, far too many to even begin to try to re-list here. You simply must check out her site for yourself. But, I have coerced a promise out her that as I stumble down my own path of research, she will ably assist me, so look forward to more genealogy articles at in the near future.


Calling All Gallaghers!

Our friend, Nancy Lyons, a Delaware-based genealogist, tells us that there’s a big Gallagher Clan Reunion taking place July 12-19 in Maryland, Washington, DC, and Adams County, PA. Last year, the Gallaghers (try saying it with the second “G” silent and you’ll have the Irish pronunciation of your name) met their Irish cousins in County Donegal, where the Gallagher name originates.

They’re expecting Gallaghers from all corners of the globe to descend to learn about the Gallaghers who served in the Civil War, attend the Adams County Irish Festival, see a baseball game, and enjoy some fireworks.

Of course, there’ll be plenty of sessions to discuss and share Gallagher genealogy and hear an update on the Gallagher DNA project.

For more information, contact:
Timothy P. Gallagher
5496 Ross Court
New Market, MD 21774 USA
Phone: 301-831-3994

You’re a Gallagher if you have Gallaghers in your family tree—and the name can be spelled many different ways, including but not limited to these spellings: Gallagher, Galagher, Galaher, Galigher, Gallaghar, Gallagher, Gallahar, Gallaher, Gallaugher, Galliher, Gallihur, Gallocher, Gallogher, Galloher, Gallougher, Galligher, Goligher, Gollagher, Gollaher, Golliher, Gollocher, Gollogher, Golloher, Gollougher, Goloher.


Answered Prayers

Tracey Farrell Munro, right, with her cousin Mary Ann Farrell LaPorta, and one of Tracey's father's trophies the family has kept.

Tracey Farrell Munro, right, with her cousin Mary Ann Farrell LaPorta, and one of Tracey's father's trophies the family has kept.

For those who don’t believe in the power of prayer, consider the case of Tracey Farrell Munro.

The Hamilton,Ontario-based landscape designer grew up on Long Island, NY, the daughter of a tennis champion who taught the game to the likes of the Rothschilds and Rockefellers, and his wife, a former fashion model for Vogue and Bazaar. Tracey had two siblings, but their family splintered when her parents divorced when she was 10. Later, after her own marriage failed, she raised her son, Charles, by herself.

“What I wanted more than anything was a family,” says Munro. “I have prayed for a family. All my affirmations about the life I wanted to create I saw in terms of family. If I thought it would never happen, it would break my heart.”

Then, one day, she got a phone call.

A man named Will Hill of Wyndmoor was on the other line. He was contacting her, after a search that took five years, to let her know that they were cousins. They shared the same great grandfather, Patrick Hill, from County Cavan. And she had a family—a big family—in Pennsylvania.

“My father was Joe Farrell and I knew his mother was a Hill,” Munro says. “And my sister’s name is Erin Hill Farrell.”

As they chatted, Will Hill recalls, “it was clear that we weren’t only relatives, we had so much in common as people.” They made plans to meet, and Munro traveled to Philadelphia several weeks ago. . .for a family reunion.

“It’s been awesome!” Munro said at a family dinner at The Shanachie Restaurant in Ambler. What’s been most remarkable for the newest member of the Hill family is seeing her DNA in action.

One day, her family took her to visit the gardens her great grandfather designed in the Philadelphia suburbs. “What he did is very similar to the projects that I’m doing—on large estates, swimming pools, waterfalls. . .” she marvels. A singer (“in two different a cappela choirs and chanting”), she was thrilled to learn that her Philadelphia family is musical: Will’s son, Tim, plays the bodhran, whistle, flute and uilleann pipes and is a fixture at the Shanachie and The Plough and the Stars’ Irish sessions. The author of several books of poetry, Munro was stunned to learn that her cousin, Joe Hill, is also a published author. “I really feel like I’m beginning to understand where I came from,” she says. “I felt like I now had all the pieces.”

The Hills made sure Munro really saw where she came from. One day, she and Will visited the location of the Farrell’s farm—her father’s home—near what is now Halligan’s Pub on Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown. They located two older homes that fit the description of the old homestead on Mill Road, then known as Cleaver’s Mill Road. “I have information from the 1910 Census when her dad was only two years old,” says Will.

One thing that really surprised Munro was learning that two of her father’s many tennis trophies were still in the family that really never knew him. “They told me that Aunt Doris, who recently passed away, used to polish my father’s silver cups,” she says. “He was a whole lot more important in the tennis world than I ever knew. My sister told me that he had hundreds of them in boxes in our basement. But he never kept any out. I don’t think he really identified with him. His attitude was, ‘It’s something I did.’ That’s the way I am too. This has really reminded me that I am my father’s daughter.”

Will Hill and his brother, Patrick, have been working on their family history since 1980 and started actively searching for Munro and her family in 2004. Her father—whose mother, Louise, was the sister of Will and Patrick’s grandfather, Patrick—left the Philadelphia area and never returned, at least as far as Munro knows.

What broke their “case” was a posting that Will made on the genealogy website, “A relative on her mother’s side recognized the names I’d listed and responded,” he explains. “She knew where Tracey’s brother lived and I called him. He has since passed away, but he gave me contact information for Tracey and her sister.”

When Will called her, Munro remembers, “I thought, this is what I’ve been praying for.” In fact, it might be even a little bit more. Munro, like the Hills, felt an instant kinship. “When we got together we laughed, cried, went to lunch, went to pretty places, and had a blast. When you’re with your own people, there’s definitely a kind of connection that’s unspoken and automatic,” she says. “It’s been awe-inspiring, exciting, and very embracing.”


The Lazy Person’s Guide to Genealogy

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, 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.

Cyndi’s List

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.

US GenWeb

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.

Access Genealogy

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, 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.


The Further Adventures of the Lazy Genealogist

When it comes to genealogy, it doesn’t get any lazier than this: using other people’s research. For one thing, you don’t have to do any of that really hard, musty, and expensive digging on your own if someone has been kind enough to do it for you and transcribe it to the web. The best thing about these sites is that they’re labors of love and you don’t have to pay to search them.

You may not always get a hit, but it’s worth a look at: You can find selected extracts of Griffiths Valuation of Ireland 1848-1864 (this was the “census substitute” for mid-19th century Ireland; the first systematic valuation of all property holdings in Ireland) the 1901 Ireland census, 17th century Hearth Money Roles for Armagh, Louth, Sligo, and Monahan, the Irish Flax Growers’ list (also known as the Spinner’s list) for 1796, selected Irish marriage records for 1600-1900, plus a number of documents from Cork, Dublin, and smaller towns along with photos, maps and historical documents. The documents were compiled by John Hayes in the course of his own ancestor-hunting. “It’s nice to hear from people who find the site useful and or have found some relative through the site,” John told me. It’s a little hit or miss, but that’s because this site, hosted by major player rootsweb, is supplied with transcriptions by volunteers (God bless ‘em!). Click on the county you’re interested in and you’ll find window after window of information, from family home pages (like the one mentioned above, often a rich source of data) to transcriptions of historical documents, including hearth rolls and census records. Each county site includes a list of common surnames and the name of a researcher you can contact to ask about your ancestor. If, like me, your ancestors came from Donegal, this site developed and maintained by Australian researcher Lindel Buckley is a treasure trove. Lindel has compiled headstone transcriptions from 18 cemeteries, commercial directories, passenger lists, census records, parish resources, land records, occupation-related indexes (including blacksmiths!), old Donegal photographs, a list of more than 100 books with a synopsis of each, and links to other resources. This site is manned by volunteers who are willing to do a “lookup” for you–perhaps a birth or death certificate, or even a headstone inscription. You can post your needs on the message board and with any luck, someone will offer to look it up for you. There is also a state-by-state list of people who love to prowl cemeteries to transcribe inscriptions, dig up census info, marriage licenses (there are fewer of those), and births (not too many). Of course, like many organizations, this one is always looking for volunteers.