Researching your family history leads you down many different paths. As you start delving into first-generation Americans, it can be difficult to trace ancestors to their homelands. Each country and culture has it’s own idiosyncrasies when it comes to naming conventions, especially the Irish. Additionally, finding official documents, especially vital records, can be difficult for many reasons, including wars or fires that may have destroyed important records. Case Zahn gave some insight into researching Irish ancestors.
Before conducting your research, it is important to remember 2 crucial things:
- Create a timeline associated with each ancestor you are investigating.
- Always remember to cite your sources!
Casey follows a general pattern when investigating a specific ancestor. First, start with their death and find a gravestone or death record. FindAGrave has digitized images of millions of headstones with corresponding cemetery records, including information about where to find a person’s death record if applicable. Once you have a date of death, you can then look for an obituary, which may give you more information about where they are buried (possibly next to other family members), where they lived, any relatives that are survived, and other information about their lives that may be useful in your timeline or research. Also, look in the newspaper for a few days beyond the obituary in case there are any other mentions of the deceased in letters to the editor or other testimonies that may have been published.
State and Federal Censuses
Next, move on to the state and federal censuses. These resources can provide tons of information about a person including where they lived in a particular year, their marital status, children, occupation, and perhaps most importantly, place of birth for the individual as well as mother and father. This can greatly narrow your search as you try and trace that ancestor and their family back farther. Many censuses, up to the federal census of 1940, are available through sites like Ancestry and FamilySearch. When searching these sites, avoid including a middle name, look for city and state only, and do not check exact match as this can exclude relevant results that may include name misspellings.
In regards to Irish ancestors, anything after 1922 will differentiate between the Irish Free State (Southern Ireland) and Ireland Northern (part of the United Kingdom). Additionally, the Ireland Northern designation may include the counties on the border that are actually part of the Irish Free State. When it comes to Catholics and French Canadians, Joseph was a very popular name so many Josephs were referred to by their middle name, including on the census, so be aware of all variations of your ancestor’s name, both first, middle, and last.
The census also can provide important information about the neighbors that lived around your ancestors. This is particularly important for Irish ancestors since many times they settled with or near relatives so by looking at the page before and after where your ancestor is located may reveal other important information that can help fill in your timeline.
After looking at censuses, look for your ancestors and other relatives in city directories. This can tell you exactly where they lived if they changed residences in between the censuses, and even other surnames. After you consulted with the city directories, check wills for other familial connections as well as passenger records to help narrow down when your ancestor came over, from which port, and if they came with other relatives. This can help you find naturalization records that can provide information about their place of residence before coming to the United States. However, before September 1922, only men and married women would have naturalization records and when a woman married, her nationality was recorded as that of her husband, so be aware of these discrepancies.
If your ancestor was born in Ireland, locating vital records can be difficult, especially before the creation of the Irish Civil Registration n 1864. FamilySearch does have digitized indexes of the Irish Civil Registrations for birth, marriage, and death records. If your ancestor was Catholic, you may be able to find church records going farther back than 1864. The National Library of Ireland has digitized many of these records and they are available at www.nli.ie. When searching for vital records, especially repositories, be aware that there are differences between civil registration districts and parish districts, so the location of vital records may be in different places. If your ancestor is of Protestant decent, records are available through the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.
For a copy of the handout prepared by Casey, please visit https://www.njstatelib.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Searching-Your-Irish-Roots-Handout.docx. A recording of the webinar is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMpvkUJflFs.