By Jim Hagarty
I have had a lifelong interest in my roots. In 1994, this interest led me to Ireland where I found the farm my ancestors left during the Famine in the 1840s. Amazingly to me, the house they had lived in was still standing. In 1999, I published a 400-page hardcover book detailing my research and findings.
I would like to offer some tips on researching your roots. I hope they are helpful. Good luck with your project.
Write down in great detail what you think you already know. This might be your most important step. You probably already know more than you thought you did. Be thorough.
Do not set limited goals such as just wanting to find out your country and town of origin. This is a true detective exercise. Don’t take it on with any energy unless you are willing to follow the paths you uncover. This might include some roads you don’t want to go down. For example, some of what you thought was true about you and your family, might have been little more than folklore. But following trails will probably be something you will be unable to resist, so finding the energy will probably take care of itself. In fact, don’t be surprised if you become obsessed with the hunt for a while. When I completed my years-long family history project, I was exhausted and looking to just do normal things. I went through a period of a few years where I couldn’t even face the prospect of any more genealogy. Family members were a bit shocked when they tried to interest me in yet another unknown fact and I was less than overwhelmed. I was burned out. But I am slowly coming back, now getting interested in things again.
Resist the urge to run to the Internet and sign up for genealogy websites. Especially the ones that cost money. There might be time later for some judicial spending on that sort of thing, but for now, rely on the human beings you know and to whom you are related to help build the foundation of your research. Go go them and never think Uncle Ben would not have a story or two to tell. Don’t count anyone out. And sometimes the quality of the information you end up getting will depend on the quality of your questions. When Ben launches into a story, don’t shut him down by saying, “Yeah, I already know that.” Let him keep going. He may reveal things you didn’t know. Treat every bit of information as valuable even if it doesn’t appear to be at the time you discover it. And follow every lead. When Ben says you need to go talk to Aunt Bessie, go talk to her. Especially if she is in a nursing home. The thing you have in your favour is that people (of any age) like to reminisce and like to be asked about their lives. So Bessie wants to talk for an hour about the household chores she and her sisters had to do every Saturday morning. She wants to describe them in detail. Record her stories. They may seem mundane to you, but not to Bessie’s descendants a hundred years from now. In fact, get Bessie to describe her chores in great detail. When it comes to family history research, it is impossible to have too much detail. You might not use it all, but you need to have it.
Believe it or not, there are people older in your family than you are. And their interest in genealogy probably predates your new-found interest by decades. They might not have had the technological advantages you have but they did have access to relatives of your who are now long gone. Those older people in your life are your only link to some of the people in those earlier generations who have passed on. They are more valuable to you than any dot com facility. And what might surprise you, is that some of your elders probably wrote down accounts of what they found out during their own interviews of their elders. Those accounts might not be typed out or neatly bound. They might just be a few pages of handwritten scribbles. But later on, when you are trying to put together your own impressive opus, you will rely on those scribbles more than on any computer screen. As your elders if they wrote anything down or if they know of any other relatives who did. When they made their notes, those notes represent the information that was fresh in their minds at the time. Now, 40 years later, their memories have faded. But the letters and diaries have not. As for them, treat them with the respect they deserve, and copy them. Some day, when the estates of these folks are being settled, someone who is not interested yet in family history, will find these (to them) meaningless scribbles and throw them out. You won’t care because you have copies of them.
Maybe I need to backtrack. “But Jim,” you say. “I just want a little bit of information about my past. I have no plans to go all in like you apparently did.” Good point. But I had no plans for an all-out assault on my heritage either. Whether or not you have an obsessive personality, my guess is you will either walk away from your research after 10 minutes and dismiss it as too boring and a waste of your time, or you will jump in with both feet – arms, legs, torso, head and everything else you have. So here’s your chance to get out. Put down the gauntlet and walk away slowly. Can’t do it, can you? You’re hooked and will be for a while. At some point, and you can’t guess when that will come, you will have exhausted yourself and will crave normalcy. I hope you find it. I might advise that you set a goal before your begin but then I realize how crazy that exercise sounds to me now. The best you can probably do is set yourself some sort of limit and stick to it. In my case, I gave myself this restriction. Having a young family at the time sort of made it a must. I would make one phone call per day to someone, somewhere in the world. I would have my conversation, short or long as it might be. I would then detail everything that came out of the conversation in my computer. And that was it for that day. Usually, by the end of that, I would have at least one prospect for the next day’s call. And lest you think I did things half way, I called people on several continents before I was done. I hope you have a good phone plan working in your favour.
When it comes to family history research, there seems to be two kinds of people. There are those who have absolutely no interest in the past and cannot understand their strange relatives who find importance in it. Some of these folks can be almost belligerent about their disdain for genealogy. Sometimes it will just be a case of the stage a person is at in their life. Too many present-day worries to be concerned about the past. Some day, they might change their minds. With others, it’s more definite. Life is to be lived in the present moment and the past has very little to do with getting on with things. There is nothing wrong with this orientation and about the only thing you can do with these people is not annoy them by incessantly discussing your amazing genealogical findings. What sometimes does perk people up, however, occurs when there appears to be information from the past that does have a bearing on the present. A boy who seems to exhibit an artistic flare, might be inspired to know that his grandfather was an accomplished artist. It helps the boy explain himself to himself and encourages him to develop what seems to be a genetic talent. Others can get interested when they discover health issues, such as depression, that plagued previous generations. It also helps if the genealogist can do a bit of name-dropping. In my case, I uncovered the unshakeable belief among some of my elders that my great-grandfather’s brother knew Jesse James. As well, and this is documented, another of great-grandfather’s brother was once given gifts by Chief Sitting Bull while the chief was hiding out in Canada for a time. A celebrated tobacco pouch is one of those gifts that is still in the possession of the man’s descendants. The other kind of person is the ones who fall into the genealogical vat for a while and can’t climb back out. That extreme reaction is OK. It won’t last forever. Genealogical curiosity can be liked to a fever that comes and goes. When it invades the body, you are pretty much helpless. The only thing that will break the high temperature is to go with the obsession until it plays itself out. But beware. It will return.
I get it. You don’t know if you can handle all the details the seem inconsequential to you as you dig. You don’t want to get lost in the bushes. I have some news for you. It’s all bushes. You are not going to click on a link and there it is – your entire family history laid out for you for $29.95 a month. I think if it were that easy, no one would bother searching their roots. It really is an adventure and what is appealing about it, for me anyway, is the fact that you are about to meet (on the phone, if not in person) all sorts of people you never heard of. People who emerged from the same gene pool as you. My great-grandparents were married in Ireland in 1821. By 1999, when I wrote my book about them and their journey, they had accumulated more than 1,400 descendants. Add in the spouses, and my genealogy list at the back of the book contained more than 2,000 names. That’s a lot of kissin’ cousins. And I recorded every single detail that was generously passed on to me. I didn’t use them all, but you never know when you start what will be important in the end and what won’t. Remember, this is not a family picnic; it’s a investigation and you’re the private eye. Good luck Sherlock!
Learn to be a sweet talker. As willing as your relatives might be to help you with your project, you will meet some unexpected resistance. Some people might be reluctant to share artifacts. They don’t want to see their photos removed from their albums, their old manuscripts lent to someone they don’t maybe know all that well. Don’t ask, in most cases, to remove any items from anyone’s home. That will make them nervous and with good reason. I know of a successful author who wrote about a famous local history event. He interviewed dozens of people and asked to borrow certain items – old clay pipes, eyeglasses, etc. He never gave the materials back and that was his intention. He put together his own mini museum of stolen items. Good historian, crappy person. Don’t be that person. So photograph everything instead. In this day and age. that is easy to do. Don’t remove photos from albums. Instead, take them to a place with natural daylight, outside if possible, put your camera on “flower” focus mode, and do the best you can. I realize there might be names on the back of some of those album photos. Maybe their owner can be talked into letting you remove a few. Loose photos can be scanned. You can also photograph manuscripts, books, etc. The other resistance you might meet is with information. Some old folks, especially, might be unwilling to share a family secret that is considered shameful. They will hint at it. But go no further. Prod them a little but if the wall is high, don’t worry. It is rare in this world that only one person will know a thing. So you might have to ask around till you find someone who is more willing to share the bad news. If you want to do a true history, you need the good stuff and the bad. I am doing some research now and finding that a relative might have shot a cop in the United States in the 1800s and fled back to Canada to hide out. Not many details yet. It will be a grind to uncover. Remember, you are a detective and an investigative reporter. But sooner or later, you might run into a wall. An elderly relative of mine had an invaluable photo I wanted desperately for the book I published in 1999. She lost it somewhere in her home. I gently asked if I could come to her place and search for it. She would not give me permission. Eventually she moved to a nursing home. I assume the photo is gone forever. Maybe I should have pushed harder but there are limits as to how far you can go.
This might seem obvious, but don’t go for the gold right off the bat. Always works from what you know to what you don’t know. And to know what it is you know, as boring as the exercise might be, get all that data down and review it regularly. You might always be working backwards. But you need a starting point. As mentioned, you probably already have a lot more than you think you have. But start with the now and go backwards to the then. Of the many aunts I had in my family, there were two sisters – Rose and Anna. Nice names. I never really asked where those names came from. Why would I? Names have to come from somewhere. But it is rare for names to be plucked out of thin air. Maybe not so unusual today, but go back a generation or five, and it was a different story. Names were almost always a nod to the past. Parents then used their naming power to pay respect and homage to the significant people in their past. Only in the past year and only by accident, did I discover through a cousin that Rose and Anna’s grandmother’s name was Roseanna. In this case, my grandfather, in naming two of his seven children, paid homage to his mother twice. Anna, especially, had been a bit of a puzzle. There were lots of Anns and Annes around, but not that many Annas. Why would she be named Anna. Similarly with geography. People a hundred or two hundred years ago, when they emigrated to a new land, didn’t just accidentally end up somewhere else. There was usually a reason they settled on a location in the New World. North America is a pretty big place. The ancestors finally settled on one spot. Why? I am sure there are instances where their final destination was random, but there were often other factors. On both my mother and father’s sides, the answer could be found in the fact that their ancestors came to places where they already knew people from the Old Country. In both my parents’ cases, it was a matter of moving to be with relatives who had already come. But why didn’t those relatives choose this spot? We tend to think of these long-ago immigrants as being almost alien-like with motives and practices so unlike our own. But they weren’t. So if we take our own experiences of how we do things, we can often find parallels in how our ancestors behaved. Everything seems so mysterious but as the puzzle pieces fall into place, we start to see patterns and realize things were not so different back then as we might have always believed. At the same time, the joy in uncovering the past if getting a look at the ways in which they were very much different from us. Our present lives become enriched when we get glimpses of the bravery, the hardships, the victories, the failures of those who came before us. Oh, and Roseanna has a Spanish ring to it. A photo of her reveals a Spanish look in her features. There was a large Spanish influence in Irish history. It had never once occurred to me that some of my heritage could be traced to Spain. All that came from just a name and a photo.
You will have allies in your quest to uncover details of your family’s past. Others in the family who are equally interested but who lack the time or opportunities or skills to do what you have set out to do. Don’t make this a one-person show, or that is what it will end up being and the results will show themselves as that. Don’t be afraid to ask for help but remember that the enthusiasm of others has its limits. And accept others’ contributions with enthusiasm as you should because you can’t know at the beginning how valuable each piece of information, each set of dates, each list of names and each old photo will be in the end or whether or not some of it will even be part of the puzzle when it is completed. I solicited photos and stories from relatives for the book I created. From some people, the contributions were enormous, even overwhelming. But the book developed a scope of its own and I wasn’t able to use everything I was given. I had to do a lot of editing and culling. But as far as I know there was no disappointment from people who had contributed volumes. They seem to take the final product at is worth and I think they saw the logic behind sticking to themes and not getting lost in the weeds. But take everything you can get. It is better to have an overabundance of material than too little. However, you might have to develop a mean streak. If you try to please everyone and stray from your goals, you will end up with an imbalance. A few families will be over-represented, some others neglected. It’s a balancing act. And who is to say that all that material that you didn’t use this time won’t be useful in some other, future venture?
There are two central aspects of genealogical research. The bones and the meat. The bones are what is suggested by the word: the bare bones. These are the historical facts of your heritage. Beginning with the names of people. Get them all, get them right. People do not have confidence in your reporting if you cannot get simple things such as names correct. Do not assume that the name Sarah is spelled Sarah. Make sure you have it right. And don’t assume anything. Don’t assume that because your great aunt was always known as Sarah, that Sarah is her real name. Perhaps it is Elizabeth Sarah and her family took to calling her Sarah to avoid confusion with another Elizabeth in the family. Maybe Sarah has a third given name: Elizabeth Sarah Mary. You maybe think it is not important to know and record all three. It might be vitally important. Where did her parents come up with those three names? Who were they honoring by giving them to their new little girl when they named her? You do not know the name of Sarah’s maternal grandmother. Do not be surprised if it was Elizabeth, Sarah, or Mary. These could be major clues. But if you don’t take the time to get people’s full names, you will potentially rob yourself of what might turn out to be very important clues. My surname, on my birth certificate, is Hagarty. I was surprised to find, in my research, that our name in Ireland was spelled Hegarty. In fact, in Ireland, there are very few Hagartys. So how did my ancestors’ surname come to be spelled differently than it used to be originally? An Irish historian explained it to me this way. The Irish “e” is pronounced “a” in America. When my family got off the boat in the United States in the 1840s, they would have been asked by an official to give their name. They would have responded, “Haygarty.” In their minds, they were saying “Hegarty.” The official heard “Hagarty” and that is how he recorded it. The family never changed it. But it’s a funny thing. Three of the “Hagarty” boys ended up in the U.S. while the rest of the family went to Canada. One of those boys started spelling his name “Heggarty” while another used “Haggerty”. Also, in a point I will go into in a future step, the giving of first names was not haphazard, at least with the Irish. There was a fairly rigid pattern that was followed. Learning about that pattern helped me find out the names of earlier generations. Also, beyond names, the “bones” of your history will include dates. Be scrupulous and be precise. The “meat” of your family history is the stories. There will always be less precision with these but they are what make your story interesting. More to say about that in coming steps.
I cannot stress enough the importance of names. Especially of given names. Surnames descend from the ether. It is not that they are not significant, but perhaps they are not as important as the Internet family history sites would have you believe. “Find out the meaning of your name!” they breathlessly promise. And while it is interesting to discover that as a Baker, your name means “one who bakes”, or as a Miller means “one who mills”, the excitement of those discoveries wears off fairly quickly. Hagarty means: “Progeny of the Unjust One.” Oh yay! The first of our family to have a name was a guy called Donal. He must have been a creep. People started calling him something like “eigchart” or, “the unjust one.” Don’t know what he did but seems he was not popular. When he and the poor female who partnered with him began having offspring, the suffix “ic” was attached to make it “eigchartic”, or progeny of the unjust one. Anglicized and modernized, it is Hagarty or some variation of the spelling. So, it’s kind of fun knowing all that, but it doesn’t do a lot for tracing ancestry. The given names are the cave in which the treasure lies. In my research, I began to recognize patterns in the given names. I won’t list them all, but for the males, John, Peter, Timothy, Michael and Daniel were common, showing up in generation after generation. For females, the common names were Abigail, Ellen, Bridget and Mary. How this has been helpful to me is this. These names have helped me eliminate avenues that were tempting but misleading to go down. When I see a George, or Robert, or William or Alexander Hagarty, I can be pretty certain that line is not one of ours. The female names are not quite as determining, but our family, at least until the beginning of the 20th century, did not have very many Catherines or Sarahs or Elizabeths or Margarets. So when I encounter a George Hagarty in my searchs, I don’t get too excited. Peter, John, Abigail, Timothy – for sure. Also, those given names carry forward when the surnames change over time with marriages. A George Thompson might not be relate. A man named Timothy John Daniel Thompson, maybe.
So you’ve begun on a journey. You aren’t quite sure why you are on it, where it might take you, or where you want to end up. That’s fine. It is an unusual journey for sure in that there are almost no road signs, no maps to follow, no GPS. You’re heading into the woods and not provided with a compass. It’s more of an adventure than a journey, in fact. But that is what makes it so interesting. Time is nothing to worry about, is it? Or is it? The ones with the most knowledge in your family about your family are the ones who are older than you and they are not getting younger. Get out of the archives and the libraries and the cemeteries and go see them. Go all investigative journalist on them. Ask them if they would mind an audio recording of your interview. Make that interviews. Go back and see them a couple of times or more. You are jogging their memory with each visit. They will have a little more when you go back. People of any age, and I am going to say especially people of considerable age, enjoy talking about their lives. Take advantage of that. You are not exploiting them. You are offering them a few golden hours with someone who really wants to know all about them. And mean ALL about them. Get them to describe what the inside of their childhood home looked like. In vivid detail. The old crank phone on the wall. How many times did they have to twist the handle to make a call? What was their phone number? They probably still remember it. What paintings and photographs hung on their walls? Did they have a woodstove in the kitchen? They say you should never say never but I will break that rule and say you can NEVER have too much information or too many details. Gather it all up, treat it with respect, enter into your laptop, file it, preserve it. You might use only 10 per cent of what Bessie told you this time around, but there might be another project somewhere along the line. That information will be waiting for you there. Aunt Bessie won’t be, bless her soul.
“When is he going to get around to mentioning the Internet?” you ask. I guess now would be a good time. By all means, have fun on the World Wide Web. Plug your name in seven ways to Sunday. See what comes back. Record every little dribble that might dribble onto your monitor. But at this point, try to avoid websites that offer a lot and charge even more. There might be a time to invest in them. You will probably know when that time arrives. For now, see what you can get for free. Here is what I have found. The big, global sites such as ancestry.com are pricey and may yield a bit. Or not much at all. The site’s slick and omnipresent advertising makes it seem they have teams of researchers digging into your family heritage. Unless I am wrong, that is not the case. Ancestry.com is a fancy blog which aggregates family trees from all over the world. But what they have to share, for their fees, is only what people have contributed. If you are lucky enough to have long-lost relatives contributing a lot to the site, bingo! If not, there won’t be much there for you. A good place to start is with the Mormon Church. The way it has been explained to me, the Mormons believe they can release all souls waiting in Purgatory by praying for them and helping them get to Heaven. But only if they can identify them by name. So the Mormons are doing the world a great service, beyond the Heaven part, by accumulating and offering for mostly free treasure troves of genealogy. Many of the churches have research libraries you can use for free. And you can order microfilms through each library from Salt Lake City, Utah. My total bill on one big day of research, if I remember right, was six dollars. The cost of shipping, in other words. The microfilm was priceless. Also, the church has kept up with the times and has a free research site called familysearch.org. It is great. There might be some small fees for this or that and a gold plan or something, but it is not a money-making venture. Try that, among the first things you try, and keep coming back to it as it will probably be updated as new material is made available. If you have too much money in your bank account, which I don’t, spend away on the fancy sites. But even if you do, you might not get as much material as you would on the free or mostly free sites. The other thing I found out, is that small towns and counties and cities around the world have free sites where they share stuff pertinent to their locale that might be good for you if you know where you came from already. These sites are not sophisticated but sometimes very thorough. I think their material comes from a lot of volunteers and voluntary contributions. And even if a site is bare bones, you might still grab a small fact or two that can lead you to greater understanding and influence your path ahead.
Details, details, details. How many are too many? The answer is simple. There can’t be too many, when it is the past your seek to uncover. As mentioned, get all you can, use what you need, save the rest for later. You cannot preserve what you do not have. And two or three little details scratched down on a piece of paper and stuff at the bottom of a filing box somewhere, might just help you out big time. My father left school at the age of 12 to go home and work on the farm where he stayed the rest of his life. He read voraciously and was a well-educated man. But he wrote little. He didn’t like his handwriting and it didn’t come naturally to him. I don’t know why he did this, but one day he scratched down on a small piece of paper, all the names of his grandfather’s siblings. And a word or two beside some of the names to describe what became of them. If there were 30 words on that paper, including the names, I would probably be exaggerating. Ellen, Bridget, John, Timothy, Peter, Michael, Cornelius and Daniel. All Hegartys, born in Ireland, emigrated to America. Beside Peter’s name, he had written the information that he had been killed in a railroad building accident. I used that slip of paper in my research but in the course of my study, I came across very detailed information including newspaper reports about how Peter’s brother Michael had died in a bridge construction accident in Richmond, Virginia. My Dad was gone by then, and I decided that he must have been wrong about Peter, that it was Michael who died, and in a bridge construction accident, not while building a railroad. I wrote and published my 400-page book on the Hegartys. I included a chapter about Peter and debated what might have become of him. And I had a long chapter about Michael and went into great detail about his tragic death. Years after I published my book, I learned that Peter had, in fact, died in a railroad building accident in Venezuela. He fell off the side of the mountain where the tracks were being laid. These little, seemingly insignificant scratchings from my father turned out to be accurate. But I decided that it had to have been too much of a coincidence that both brothers died in construction accidents, so I overruled my father’s brief account. I regret that. But I now want to follow up and see what I can find out about Peter’s tragic end. Before my book was published, I came into possession of several bits of paper such as my Dad’s from various relatives wishing to help. These bits were invaluable. In one case, the paper opened up a whole new avenue of research. It gave me, for the first time, the news that Peter and his wife Johanna had two children, John and Mary. Do not discount the little things that might come your way in small, insignificant packages. They might turn out to be gold mines. One word, “married”, beside a name, can fire up the engines. You always thought he was a bachelor. Someone else might present you with 20 pages which contain less important information than that one word “married.”
I watched an interesting documentary a while back which traced the genealogy of supermodel Cindy Crawford. Her search took her from the United States to Great Britain and she was having an amazing time of it. Documents were unfurled that directly linked her to some mighty high-powered people dating back to the 1600s. Wow. But the search went on until it pretty much ended at Charlemagne in the 700s. She travelled then to the emperor’s fantastic cathedral in Aachen in Germany which still stands and which I have visited. Crawford was gobstruck as I would be. So is there an emperor or two in your heritage? Who knows? My guess is there is not, but sooner or later we are all related so you never can tell. I am of Irish descent and apparently millions of Irishmen are all descended from some king whose name, I think, was Rory, so maybe I have Irish royal blood in me. A lot of men are also descended from Genghis Kahn, so who knows. There must be a despot in my past somewhere. To make famous connections is great but not really the goal, in my opinion. And here’s a bit of sobering news. Apparently when you go back 11 generations or almost 300 years, we are not really related any more to those people back then even if we do share the same surnames. The bloodlines have been thinned out so much by now, that we are basically strangers. But all is not lost if there is no Charlemagne to crow about. There are also important events we might have a connection to. Revolutions, civil wars, coronations, explorers’ escapades. Who knows what connections our ancestors made? There might be a richer tapestry to be woven out of those things than whatever relationships to famous ancestors we might uncover. But who doesn’t like to brag about a little fancy livin’ in our past?
This is a short aside. If you have an intense interest in your family history, it can probably be surmised that you have some affection for history in general. And having that, you like to read. And maybe read some history. Biographies of the rich and famous or of despots and dictators. If this description is accurate, you can put this interest of yours to work by reading whatever you can about your country of origin. And as your research starts to point you in the direction of specific towns and cities and rural areas of that country, graduate to more local histories. The Hegartys first show up in Irish history, it seems, in the most northeasterly area of Ireland, not far from Scandinavia. Knowing this, and knowing that Ireland began as a nation of immigrants, my Dad always speculated that the Hegartys were probably Scandinavian. In its history, Ireland was not a country at all of course, but a collection of tribes ruled by regional kings who were often at war with each other. Apparently, some of those northern Hegartys became soldiers and followed a northern king on the warpath to a southern part of the island. It was a bit of a disastrous venture and after the battles, some of the Hegartys stayed in the south rather than return home. Thus, my family emerged from what became County Cork. The history of Ireland is fascinating but you can’t read much of it before you are compelled to investigate the history of England, then Scotland and Wales. Maybe even beyond. It helps your specific family history research to see at least some of the bigger picture. Like the 12 blindfolded man who were led to an elephant, told to feel the animal and describe what the beast was like. Of course, whatever section each man landed on, he mistook for being the whole animal. One man thought it was all trunk, others, big stout legs, others gigantic ears. Don’t be one of those men. Stand back, look at the whole elephant. It is hard to be specific about what this might bring you but let me put it this way: It won’t hurt.
We all have an idea of what our history has been. We would not be human if we didn’t want that history to be squeaky clean and, if not glorious, at least honourable. What do we do with research that might show the odd stinkweed among the roses? If we ignore it, then what we will produce will be laundered and lame. What would you do with the discovery that an ancestor had been a Nazi? My advice would be to acknowledge the reality. It does no good, in my mind, to put forth only those things that seem appropriate and good. Don’t worry, there will not likely be too many ghosts in your past. I didn’t find many bad guys in my research but then again, I wasn’t looking for them. The one association I did find was a relative who befriended a man who eventually was judged to be a traitor to his nation and hanged. On the upside, the doomed man, 125 years later, has become a bit of a folk hero, so it didn’t hurt too badly to acknowledge the brother of my ancestor’s connection. I was actually a bit thrilled to discover it.
Cemeteries. They are your granite covered archives. Filled with so much information. Some of it will be in error, however. Mistakes were made. And sometimes those errors were not mistakes. The family’s final and most long-lasting chance to memorialize their loved ones was open to some editorializing and still is to this day. So, a black sheep son might not be recorded. A second wife or husband is left out. You can rely on what you find to a point. But like all the sources you use to gather your information, what you get from a cemetery needs to be cross checked against other material you have. My great-grandparents Hegarty were born in the 1800s in Ireland and died in southwestern Ontario, far away from their country of origin. A Famine in the Old World and a New World opening up in the west, changed everything. But when they died in the 1870s, they were buried in a small town cemetery where many of my ancestors now lie. On on their white marble tombstone, below their names, is inscribed, “Natives of County Cork, Ireland.” This is a big clue for family history researchers. I hope you get lucky this way. But my advice would be to get to know your cemeteries very well. Not just your ancestors. But many of the stones around them tell the stories of your ancestors’ relatives and of their neighbours. This can pay dividends. There is a cemetery not far from where I live where there is one big tombstone with nine names inscribed on it. The dates of birth beside each name differ from one another, of course. The dates of death do not. They all died in the 1800s on the same day. The story: A Christmas candle on a window sill set some curtains ablaze. Mom, Dad and their seven children all died that night. The tombstone does not tell that story. A man who knew the story took me there to show me. But tombstones often host what really turn out to be headlines. The rest of the story is not there. But that doesn’t mean that the story is gone and forgotten. In 1880, not far from where I live, there was a terrible massacre of five members of a family by their outraged, drunken neighbours. The tombstone at the cemetery where all five were buried, carried the word “murdered” under each name. It stayed there many decades till the community replaced it, tired of the shame. The word “murdered” is not engraved on the new stone. No one seems to know where the original stone is. A relative of mine, who lived nearby at the time of the murders and who apparently knew they were going to happen, is buried not far from the doomed family.
Names are so important. We all want to know the meaning of our surnames. We don’t spend as much time on our given names. But they have meanings and because they do, sometimes, they can contain clues you might need. Even nicknames can be of unexpected value. I was searching for Michael Hegarty’s wife. I knew her name was Ann Foley. But I couldn’t find Michael and his wife. I did, however, find references in the 1800s to Michael and Nancy Hegarty. Not Ann. Then a vague hunch came over me. Somewhere in the far reaches of my memory, it seemed to me there was a connection between the name Ann and Nancy. I couldn’t think what it was. An internet search soon showed that in those days, Nancy was a nickname for Ann. Aha! I had my guy and gal. Further searches revealed that indeed, Nancy Foley and Ann Foley were the same person. I was off to the races on that one. I just got lucky. But without that clue, I would have moved on from Michael and Nancy and maybe never found what I needed. As I have stated, surnames are what we fixate on, but surnames dropped down out of the sky. Given names did not. They were given by the parents. Rarely was this done thoughtlessly. There are patterns to watch for. A lot of linkages can be made from one generation to the next. Don’t discount them.
To be truly effective at family history research, you have to be knee deep into it. Because there are so many threads, so much data, so many side streets to go down, if you take a vacation from it all, it will take you a long time to pick up where you left off. That is why you are either into it all the way or you are not into at all. It needs to become an obsession. You need to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning thinking about it. And sooner or later you will come to realize that you are pretty much alone in this, at this moment. No one else can be found who is similarly obsessed. It doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. They just aren’t ready to dive in. It might seem to some people that it is the old people in the family who are hell bent to discover their roots. I have found this to be only marginally true. The old have moved on. They aren’t thinking about the past as much as we might assume. I think true genealogical passion happens in mid life, when you have the resources and energy but also when you are most inspired to trace your roots. Often, it is the arrival of children into your life that inspires you. You want to do it for them. Also, as you are no longer interested in denying that someday, you won’t be around, the imperative to leave behind whatever you can grows.
Addresses. Do the members of your family who will presumably read whatever family history treatise you manage to scrabble together at the end of all your madness care about addresses? Is it important to note that Uncle Joe lived at 147 Peach Tree Lane, Upper Skunk’s Hollow? Why not just write that he lived in a town in Tennessee? For your surviving, immediate relatives, specific directions to Joe’s shack might not be important. To someone many years and decades from now, to be able to go to Skunk’s Hollow and stand in the house Uncle Joe used to live in, will be amazing. I used this principle when writing my own history. If you have a detail such as that, what does it hurt to include it? The name of the church Joe was married in. Directions to the cemetery where Joe took up residence after the tragic tiddly winks disaster. Put them in there. The local Tiddly Winks Society might want to honour him some day. And so they should.
For a genealogist, discovering a cache of old photos is like a gold strike to a prospector. That is because a picture is worth a thousand words. So much information can be gleaned from old photos, the supply is almost endless. Do not treasure only those photos that show the people from your past. Of course, they are the great prize. But copy every single photo that is fished out of a box and placed before you on somebody’s table. Pictures of cars, barns, houses, streets, road signs, high school classmates. Anything. I have a photo that was given to me of my Dad when he was eight years old, standing with his classmates and teacher in front of their one-room country schoolhouse. There is lots to observe in the photo, but one thing stands out almost immediately. Many of the children in the photo, taken in spring or fall, are wearing no shoes or socks. And this school was located on a gravel road. My father was wearing shoes. This was 1920. Could the families of those school kids not afford shoes or did farm kids back then just love the freedom of going without? I have written about photos before; they are very important. And it is extremely vital that you treat them like the treasures they are and don’t remove them from the house where you found them, even if the owner of the photos is fine with you making off with them. You don’t know when you will be back and memories being what they are, those photos might never get back where they belong. As a family historian, your goal is to “give”, not take. People will trust you more if a good reputation precedes you.
In the newspaper business, there is an adage that used to be adhered to: When in doubt, leave it out. As a newspaperman, it was hard to me to break away from that guiding principle when I researched and wrote my family history. But I did break away from it for this reason. If I knew some “information” to be wrong, of course, I didn’t use it. But if I merely had doubt about something, I often used it. But I qualified it. I would be told a good story which would take me years and many thousands of dollars to verify if I wanted to run it to ground. I wanted to believe the story and wanted to share it. In a few instances, several people would tell me the same story and therefore, I included the story in my book, explaining that I could not verify it, but I did know for sure that it was a family legend. For example, two people from opposite ends of the country who did not even know each other but who were descended from the man, told me that Dr. Daniel Hagarty, a brother of my great-grandfather John, “got mixed up” with Louis Riel, a rabblerouser in Canada’s early history who was hanged for treason. I did try a bit of verification. As it turned out, Riel and Hagarty attended McGill Universty in Montreal at the same time, Riel in law, Hagarty in medicine. As well, Dr. Hagarty became the medical inspector for western Canada, where Riel was located. And when Riel was hanged, Hagarty lost his commission as medical inspector when the Canadian government took it away. Punishment for his Riel sympathies? In another instance, Daniel’s brother Cornelius is said to have known Jesse James. He bragged about that when he came back to Canada for visits. I did a little research again and found that Con (nickname for Cornelius) was a fence builder in the area of the United States where Jesse James farmed when he wasn’t robbing banks and trains. Did Con build a fence for Jesse? So I have entered these stories and others into the family lore, not because I can prove they are true, but because they are interesting and no one has ever shown me any evidence that they are untrue.
Official records. Yuk. I have never much liked poring over old documents, but it is necessary leg work. A certain amount of it cannot be escaped. I spent many hours in the National Library in Dublin, Ireland, on two occasions and came away with very little. However, in the county archives in Cork City, I had great luck. There was a man there who, though very busy, took the time to help me. He kept bringing me old book after old log and explained things to me. Because of what I got from him and the archives, I was soon able to locate the 26 acres in Ireland where my ancestors had farmed in the early to mid 1800s. My older brother Bill was much more patient, thorough and dogged in his pursuit of official records. It was using his research as the base that help me and others in my family in our successful research. Get used to the inside of your local archives. And then work out from there. Try the free Mormon research centres. And finally, have at the Internet. There is material there and I have been lucky to get some information through the net, but I would use it as just one more tool.