Recently I presented a talk for the Naugatuck Valley Genealogy Club that I’d like to post (in part and expanded) here. I hope it may be helpful for researchers at any stage of experience.
Many years ago I worked at a public library. This was where I first encountered people actively looking up information in city directories. It seemed to me like such an odd thing to do, as if they were stalkers! I remembered this ironically when poring over the archives of Naugatuck Historical Society city directories myself. Preserved moments in this format initially helped me locate primary people throughout decades of time as I began to envision a larger picture. Now I feel much more poetic about this and other kinds of research we do in the world of genealogy, which is ultimately about honoring our ancestors while learning about who we, ourselves, really are. One thing is certain. Our stories are not simply lying in wait for us—neither physically nor virtually, details all neatly in place somewhere—unless we or one of our relatives already did actual research and published it. The pieces of our stories, however, may be lying in wait everywhere.
Genealogical research is often referred to as a puzzle, but, as an artist by primary profession, I’ve come to think that the process is actually more like making art. Those who do puzzles usually have a reference image already printed on a box cover to which they can compare their progress. In doing genealogical research, by contrast, we have no idea what might be revealed until we finish collecting all the unknown elements and eventually become able to put them together in some logical, beautiful way. That is a creative process. In many ways, I feel as if what I have accomplished in this area has been the most difficult and most rewarding work I have done in my life to date. It has, however, required all my skills acquired over a lifetime as an artist, and those of a hitherto-unrealized professional scholar to uncover what I have. These experiences and struggles joined in opening a new world to me. I feel that this work has been entirely worth doing, and is important for posterity—not typically the feeling I have after mounting an art exhibition! The work would probably never have been done if I had not decided to commit to a challenge that seemed to have fallen intentionally into my lap, then simply roll up my sleeves and begin.
Simultaneous to creating a beautiful product, family historians and genealogists search for TRUTH. This is where genealogy takes a turn from the act of art-making. In this type of endeavor we need to be careful about accuracy, which leads us into the scientific method. Even as novices we need to approach our project as if we would actually become experts about our particular area of research. (Thank you to the person who once told me—received, albeit, in utter disbelief—that I would become an “expert” on the Mahers!) This means that not only must we gather information from far and wide, but that we must spend the extra time trying to be as thorough and accurate as possible. It is important to find some way to keep our notes in order, to look for multiple sources of the same information, and to document EVERYTHING. Anyone should be able to find the information we present by retracing our foot- and endnotes to our sources, so they can decide for themselves if we were correct in our findings and hypotheses. (This is decidedly NOT like art-making, where we create as we will and call it complete as we feel.)
We develop our research methods along the way. One friend introduced me to her system of keeping three-ring binder notebooks for every family or person, including clear slip sheets that protected documents and were able to contain varied sized pieces of paper. This seemingly small tip was extremely helpful, affording me not only practical advice but also hinting at how vast an undertaking this project might end up becoming. (Forewarned is forearmed!) We all eventually end up with many different kinds of computer files, physical boxes of stuffed folders, overflowing shelves, data in family tree software, as well as, publicly and/or privately, trees on Ancestry.com. In addition to good storage systems, I highly recommend investing in a good magnifying glass. It will become the handiest of tools!
We typically start with very little information beyond the knowledge of our immediate family. Like artists, we dare to face a blank beginning and trust that something good will result, worth the time we’re willing to invest into a long and complicated process. As we sense how some information relates to other information, more and larger questions emerge. We may find that we need to pause and go off on what could seem to be a wide range of tangents. We might, for example, need to study more about an aspect of history in order to better understand the context for a small but important fact that we found. We will likely read a mountain of books about topics we never dreamed would some day become fascinating to us.
We often work on different parts of the amorphous overarching story at different times, allowing some parts to rest until other aspects come into the mix that will allow earlier topics to develop further. This multi-faceted activity requires an all-consuming focus (generally unavailable) that will allow for a larger view to develop over myriad tiny details. It is an organic, intuitive process that requires open-ended time and a fair amount of wandering in wonder. As in art, in the world of genealogy we know that our wanderings are simply part of the path toward other discoveries and that the work is also part of the satisfaction.
We try to picture our ancestors alive in order to holistically grasp who they were or might have been. We imagine ourselves as flies on their walls. What would they reveal if the veils between us suddenly dissolved? We try to speak with whomever is alive, available and willing to share stories about the time and place that our ancestors inhabited. This, if it is possible, is the most important gift. The concrete memories that another person has, the little details that would rarely be found in an archive, best illuminate the humanity of the people with whom we are hoping to connect through our research.
It is only recently that someone told me that into the twentieth century the last of my family’s first generation Irish-American ancestors pronounced our surname in Naugatuck in the Irish way, with two syllables, not in the way I was taught to do, with one! That is one of many treasures living people have made possible for me along this journey.
We look for everything that pertains to individuals in our various tree branches—vital records, baptism and marriage data, voting registrations, bits about them in newspapers, yearbooks, military and land records—anything that might provide more clarity. I am interested in also finding every person’s tombstone. What is inscribed on it? What does it look like and what might that say about the person? Who is buried nearby?
Importantly, for Irish-Catholic immigrants and their descendants, the witnesses at weddings and baptisms may be invaluable for helping to establish connections between people. While many Connecticut church baptism and marriage registries were microfilmed and can be viewed at the Archdiocese of Hartford, some were not filmed and several early books have long been lost. Whether or not one would be allowed to look at records in a rectory is a gamble. The Immaculate Conception Basilica in Waterbury, for example, will not allow this. To see early Immaculate Conception records one must make an appointment at the Archdiocese (and bring your magnifying glass along!).
Data helps to inform photographs, and so can images help to inform data. There are many articles about estimating dates of old photographs through the fashions of the time and types of photography produced. One book I recommend is Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900, which provides a broad study of cultural, photographic and clothing history. Since childhood I’ve had an artist’s sense that if I stared at certain photographs long enough and puzzled over them, eventually they would start to reveal themselves to me. Similarly, as I learned in adulthood more about my family’s history, certain characters from the past who peered out from old photos seemed to will me to find them and give them a chance to live again through my researching and chronicling of their life stories.
In order to try to identify unmarked photographs we may need to learn more about an entire community. Who else might have ended up in photographs that were saved over the decades? Who made up the extended families? What groups were individuals involved with? Where did everyone live? Who were their neighbors? The earliest Irish settlers of Naugatuck, Connecticut, were a very tight and interconnected community. Studying their neighborhoods and intermarriages became illuminating, combined with an in-depth focus upon the first Catholic cemetery, where so many of them ended up buried together.
Tools for Irish and Other Research in Connecticut
In Connecticut it is necessary to become a member of a genealogical organization recognized by the various departments of Vital Records (such as the Connecticut Society of Genealogists) in order to be able to do independent research. The Connecticut State Library website clearly explains what is allowed to be accessed. Do not assume that finding an immigrant’s death record will neatly provide the person’s parentage or his or her townland in Ireland. If one is lucky, however, a county might be listed and a mother’s maiden name. The early records usually do not include parents’ full names, and the birth place listed is usually, simply, Ireland (hence the title for Irish genealogist Jane Lyon’s premier web site — From Ireland).
Early in my years of researching in Connecticut I would plan to stay over in hotels or with very generous friends and family members. I was primed for (mostly) standing up throughout the days taking notes in various vital records offices, always prepared with cash to purchase certain ones (at $20 a pop!). I eventually learned that it is possible to rent microfilm from Utah that can be read at one’s nearby Latter Day Saints Family History Center. Thankfully, I happen to have one about 45 minutes away from where I live, and after renewing a film three times it remains on semi-permanent loan there. This allowed me to look at some Connecticut and Irish data when I cleared time to go out there, without the pressure of having the reels sent back within a few weeks.
Like places in Connecticut include: New Milford Public Library, and Family History Centers in Goshen, Newtown, Southington and New Haven. In these offices one can sit and study to heart’s content or until the places close, then come back again another day. In some, digital copies of the records can be saved to a thumb/flash drive and taken home.
Newspapers and microfilm can also be accessed at the Connecticut State Library, some of which can be checked out three reels at a time via interlibrary loan. See their web site for a list of what is available in their collection (in addition to clicking on other links I’ve provided here). You can also purchase a card to easily use their copy machine and not need a pocketful of change. By researching in these ways to find index information, it is then possible to go to a Town Hall and purchase copies of the necessary documents—a much more convenient way to go about things.
All town libraries have some kind of local history collection, and the main Silas Bronson Library branch in Waterbury is a good size. This library also has nineteenth century newspapers on reel that can be researched. With a library card you can access Heritage Quest from home via most libraries, and, likewise in some libraries, Ancestry.com. (At some point you will likely bite the bullet and pay for your own subscription.)
In Middletown the Godfrey Memorial Library is a treasure-trove of a collection, and they offer an online subscription membership, as does the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. I have also found the publications of the Irish Genealogical Society International, based in Minnesota, to be quite good. Their Sept back issues that focused upon Irish counties were very helpful when I started out.
I had a subscription for a few years for Newspaper Archive, which has three Connecticut papers in its database, one of which is the Naugatuck Daily News. (Some of these may also be available on Ancestry.com.) The early papers were full of excellent tidbits about people visiting each other between cities and states and other human interest events that may help tie people together in one’s research.
Boston College hosts a database of October 1831 – October 1921 Missing Friends postings in the Boston Pilot Newspaper by Irish nationals and immigrants trying to find one another. This can prove to be of help in one’s research, as can finding evidence of ancestors in the Emigrant Savings Bank.
Research about Irish immigrants is especially difficult if critical documents do not exist. Given all of the above, one might still not find important missing pieces. While learning how and what to research in America, it is necessary to simultaneously attempt to comprehend the history of Ireland, particularly in the era that a known family member had lived there. Historical clues might suggest possible reasons for a family or individual’s emigration and even, perhaps, why they might have kept “a low profile” once they arrived in their newly adopted homeland. Maybe there was a good reason that one’s ancestors cannot be definitively found in a passenger-list database.
It is important to know that the earliest decades of Anglo settlement in America were vehemently anti-Catholic (the majority religion of the Irish people), and to recall that religion was the primary weapon used by the English monarchy against the Irish over the centuries. Those who sought their own freedom claimed territory that was already inhabited by Native Americans, a variation on Ireland’s own colonization. Colonial America was predominantly Puritan, as was Oliver Cromwell, who succeeded in devastating Ireland in the seventeenth century. Some members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans came into early Connecticut, which was predominantly Congregationalist, where a few other Protestant sects were also allowed in. Religion ruled the day for our earliest ancestors, whatever their persuasion.
The eventual overt entry of Irish Catholics into a very settled Connecticut society pre-Irish Famine and throughout the 1850s was no small thing. How this played out in all the different towns varied, particularly during the pre-Civil War era of the Know-Nothings. The earliest Irish Catholics, while bound and determined to establish and feel free to practice their religion in America, also likely tried to assimilate as quickly as possible and not make waves among the established ruling class. They sought to be considered Yankees, first and foremost. They often would seek to marry an American, which might help ensure future economic stability, as such alliances with Protestants, other non-native or Anglo-Irish residents had done in Ireland. That so many early Irish-Americans nonetheless died unmarried might have been partly attributed to their difficulty in finding an established or otherwise suitable spouse who was also Catholic or who was not still prejudiced against either the Irish or Catholicism.
Catholic laborers in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries had significantly less means in both Ireland and America than those with aforementioned ties, unless they had finally been able to become educated, enter the merchant, health care or teaching professions, or become part of the wave of Catholic middlemen—i.e. sub-leasing rent collectors. Those who were once noble had been stripped of their ancestral lands. Some sought, or were forced into military service in other countries. Some were able to rise into some level of public service, although information about such individuals is not as difficult to find. There are no bounds to the kinds of details that factored into the quality of life that Irish were able to lead both in their homeland and once they emigrated, particularly in their ability to acquire and retain property.
Many emigrated as outlaws, slaves, or indentured servants and began their American chapter in relative obscurity. Many who worked in the coal mines, quarries, laying railroad tracks, building roads and bridges, or other grueling physical jobs likely experienced life in conditions far worse than those which they had left in Ireland. Working extremely hard, earning very little money, many died quite young, some from the infectious illnesses that spread quickly through communities. (Tuberculosis appeared amid many of the families I have studied.) There may have been few or no records at all generated about many of the early Irish in America, especially if they lived and died here between the census years.
I’ve spent some time studying databases that contain indexes about Irish men and women who were considered convicts—even for such actions as stealing food during times of starvation. It could well be that someone’s elder siblings and/or parents were convicted of crimes, killed or deported, lost in such ways to the genealogical winds.
Whether we find what we need or not, in this collaborative endeavor, I, for one, am grateful for the wonderful people I’ve become involved with over the last seven years. Some have helped me learn to do this kind of research and others have been willing to share their families’ stories with me. All have helped to build a picture of early Irish New Haven County through our various perspectives and lenses, and I am bound now, in turn, to offer guidance to others. There will always be more to learn and to do in our time available, even as life pulls us in so many other directions. I have returned 180 degrees back to my studio practice, although I suspect that I will never entirely leave this research. It may simmer quietly on the back burner, so to speak, forever. I, however, am somehow altered due to what I have learned about my own lineage. For that grounding I will be forever grateful.
I have honed in on a particular area of Ireland and am interested in scouring that location in the way that I have New Haven County and the Naugatuck Valley. I am even more interested in revisiting my new-found Irish friends and meeting in person potential future ones. I have untangled some of the origins of Kilkenny-based Meagher families who have Connecticut connections, and even found Maher links to the original Sisters of Mercy in America and New Zealand. However, I can’t help but still hope to learn more about my TEN southern Irish immigrant direct ancestors with two intermarried other lines—not only all there is to learn about the illusive Meaghers!
May those who read this have much success in finding all you still seek and true Irish luck in also finding happiness and friendship along the way!
©2013 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
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