26 August 2010


    At almost every presentation, there is a person waiting for me afterwards with a sheet of paper. He or she has unfocused, bloodshot eyes, a furrowed forehead with permanently scrunched eyebrows, and a pathetic, pleading look in their crossed eyes. I know what is coming, and reach into my bag for the magnifier. It is "can-you-read-this-handwriting-I-have-been-trying-for-years-and-no-one-else-can-read-it-either" time. It is why I needed bifocals by my mid-thirties.  
     Illegible handwriting and creative spelling are the evil twins of genealogy. Even the most beautiful and elegant penmanship on old records can be impossible to decipher due to changes in styles and writing instruments. So what's a family historian to do?
     Luckily, a magnifier is not our only weapon. There are quite a few tricks that we family history detectives can use to break the code.
     The first trick is to look for other instances of the mystery letters in a word that is clear to you. If the first letter of the mystery word is formed the same as that in a very clear "Murphy" and looks completely different from the one beginning "Wexford," then you know you have an "M" and not a "W." Rather like playing one of those fill-in-the-blanks word games, isn't it?
     Rid your mind of its preconceptions. Sometimes, we have our own idea--or wish--of what  the word could be.
      A row of spikes can look like closed letters "e" and "l" but might be the letters "u" or "w."  so we get it into our heads that we are looking at a "ill" when the letters are "uel." Sometimes, the first impression of a the letters sticks in our minds.  Other times, someone offers a suggestion that we just can't shake out of our vision (another reason to ALWAYS look at an original records, and not someone else's transcription, whenever possible).
     Here are some ways to take a fresh and original look at the illegible scribble:
1. Change the size of the image. Sometimes minimizing the letter reveals a word. Magnifying an image can enable you to see the individual strokes of each letter. You might be better able to discern if a mark is a dot to an "i" or if it is just an errant ink splotch.
2. Remove preconceptions from your mind. If you thought you saw "Lenge" on a census entry, you will keep seeing "Lenge" and never see the true surname "Large." To prevent your mind from  filling in letters for you, try to read the word upside down, or flip it to its mirror image. These techniques are also helpful in trying to determine the individual letters.
3. Experiment with contrast. Turn the image into a negative one--white writing on a black background. If you have the computer skills, experiment with different photo sharpening and contrast tools. If you are working with a paper copy, try a colored plastic film, especially a yellow one. This type of film works great when placed over the image projected by microfilm viewers.
4. Add dots and crosses to letters containing loops and stick strokes.
     Don't forget to share the image with others. You might not want to tell them your guess at first, so that their mind is not vulnerable to suggestion.
     If you ever get the chance to take a class or buy a book about historical styles of handwriting, do so. Just seeing all the different styles will open your eyes and mind to diciphering all sorts of writing. And, don't forget to "roll the word off your tongue." Say your guesses out loud--your ears will help you make sense out of what your eyes may see as gibberish!
CYNDI'S LIST: links to sites about handwriting and script

NOTE: A local colleague of mine will be teaching genealogy classes on cruise ships next year, while I stay on dry land. I will pass along the link to these genealogical cruises should any readers with seafaring inclinations be interested: Worldwide Cruises


20 August 2010


     We are becoming accustomed to hearing about genealogical discoveries made through the miracles of DNA analysis. But a recent genealogical breakthrough was made by a much older means--noticing a family dental trait.
      In 1832, fifty seven recent Irish immigrants died while working on a track of railroad, known as Duffy's Cut, outside of Philadelphia. An excavation of the bodies is ongoing. Recent discoveries have revealed that some of the men did not die of cholera, but of blows to the head. Others may have been shot. An excellent article by Lori Lander Murphy, describing the history and discoveries at Duffy's cut,  can be found via the link below.
         One skull was found to have a missing front molar (from birth). Members of the Ruddy family in Co. Donegal, hearing about the research being done in Pennsylvania, alerted the researchers that many members of their family has a genetic quirk--a missing front molar! So, the body of young John Ruddy was the first to be identified and matched with his Irish family.
     The story makes me wonder how many of us consider physical and anatomical characteristics in our family history research? Have you examined causes of death on death records to see if certain conditions might be genetically linked or might run in a family? Very often, military records note physical chararcteristics and abnormalities. Don't skip over these details when looking for genealogical clues.
      Noticing small physical details can be helpful in identifying photographs, also, to determine if a person in a photo might be family. Some of the details can be as noticeable as a large gap between the front teeth, or a strong, square jaw. Others can be more subtle. I have been able to identify a couple of photographs from the 1800's as the same ancestor because of an almost imperceptable bump in his left arlobe.

     Even if you don't have a distinguishing physical family trait, don't forget to document in your records any physical descriptions you can obtain. These descriptions can prove important. For example, I have been able to differentiate two men with the same name, in British military records, based on the physical description of one of the men in his hospital records.
     When you ask relatives what they remember about their ancestors, don't forget to ask for a physical description. Was Grandpa tall? What were Granny's facial features? Which ancestor gave me my blue eyes?
     Don't forget to read Lori's fascinating article on Duffy's Cut at IrishPhiladelphia.com:

12 August 2010


     This posting is not about the Jameson or Bushmills type of spirits--so off you go to a pub if it's whiskey you are seeking.
Co. Derry
     I am writing about those ancestors who hang around long after they are gone, the ones that go BUMP and BOO in the night. Those type of spirits!
     Does your family have any stories of ancestral ghosts? I have heard from a few family history researchers whose families have passed down stories of ghosts and hauntings. Chances are, if your ancestors lived in a castle or large estate house, there might be a tales of the supernatural for you to "dig up" along with your genealogical research. But hauntings are not confined to the rich and famous.Rural Ireland is replete with ghosts--some of whom might share your surname.
     There are tales of local hauntings all around Ireland. You can find these stories many ways. I have seen reports of spirit sightings in local Irish newspapers from the 1800's.  Search the internet for tales of the supernatural in Ireland. When you go to Ireland, book a local "ghost" tour. These tours are springing up all over the country, particularly in the cities. Cork City has its own Irish Ghost Family Festival each September. Don't forget to search local libraries and book shops for tales of local lore. Ask locals if they know of any hauntings nearby.
Co. Kilkenny
     There are other Irish spirits that are genealogical in nature--the banshees. A banshee, (bean-sidhe), is an ancestral female spirit who forewarns members of ancient Irish families of the impending death of a family member. Some legends claim that a banshee appears only to members of the O'Grady, O'Neill, O'Brien, O'Connor, and Kavanagh families, others add many old Irish families such as the O'Leary's and the O'Toole's. Does your family have its own bean-sidhe?
     A particularly scary banshee is featured in the Disney movie, Darby O'Gill and the Little People. (Thanks to fellow Castlecomer researcher Jack for remembering the name of the movie. I had forgotten it, maybe because I had my frightened eyes closed during the banshee scene!).
     Don't wait for Halloween--begin your search for your family spirits with the links below. Post any family ghost stories, also.
Darby O'Gill and the Little People

05 August 2010


     Researching US civil records is relatively easy, at least compared to Irish records. For example, think about the levels of government and administration in the USA, and envision layers of transparent maps. The top map is the outline of the whole country. LIft that map, and the states fill in the borders nicely. Lift the states, and the counties fill in the state outlines, snug as a bug in a rug (are my expressions revealing my age?). And so on with cities, towns, and townships. Nice orderly layers.
     Not so with Irish governmental and administrative districts--their boundaries do not stack neatly, no smaller unit within a larger unit. Rather, it seems that each type of district has its own boundaries, independent of any other governmental unit.
     Irish administrative boundaries reflect the turbulent politics and history of the country. Celtic, Irish, Norman, British, and Republican administrations have all made their mark and collected their records. There are the ancient Irish kingdoms, the Gaelic lordships, the baronies, the counties, the civil/Church of Ireland parishes, the cities and towns and townlands. Throw in the Poor Law Unions, and, if you are not confused yet, you are probably very good at chess, as well as genealogy!
     If you have a geographical location for your ancestors, say a county of townland, you can aid your research by learning what other divisions and districts cover that location. Some of the links posted below can help get your started. A "must have" volume for your genealogical book shelf is Brian Mitchell's A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland. Mitchell's book has the best collection of administrative maps, as well as hard to find maps such as the Presbyterian congregations.
      Make a chart listing all the districts and divisions pertinent to your ancestral location  and have it handy while researching. For example, if you know the townland, you will want to record the Poor Law Union, civil parish, county, and barony in which it is located. You should also include the Church of Ireland diocese on your chart, regardless of your ancestors' religion, in case you need certain records such as wills filed in the perogative courts. Also note the pertinent religious congregations or parishes in your chart, as well as census and modern day electoral districts. Don't forget to include any estate on which your ancestor's home might have been located.  When finished, your chart will be a one-stop resource guide for each ancestral location.
     Noting the dates that certain records were collected at a location is also a good idea. Note the year that Griffiths Valuation was done for your county, and perhaps also record the year of the Freeholders and Tithe lists. Taking the time to note the Griffith's year for each of my counties of interest has saved me quite a bit of research time and confusion.
     You might even break a brick wall by putting such a chart together because the chart will lead you to consider new record sources. For example, you might discover that estate records or Poor Law Union workhouse lists exist for your locality.
     Below are some links to help get you started on charting your way out of administrative confusion.
A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, Second Edition