52 Ancestors Week 1 – Fresh Start

This week’s prompt is Fresh Start. This prompt made me think about when I had to make a fresh start researching my father’s family. I think many genealogists have had to make a fresh start with their research at some point. In my case, I learned a valuable lesson to not make assumptions, no matter how strong the circumstantial evidence!

     As I’ve mentioned before, my late father was adopted. When I started out in my research, I did not know much. I knew his birth name, first and last, which was huge! But other than that, all I had heard was that his birth mother was an unwed teenager. That’s it. When the 1940 census was released in 2012, I prepared for a long night of researching. Dad was born in 1950, so his mother would likely be on this census as I was fairly certain she was over the age of ten when he was born! 

     I settled in with coffee and Girl Scout cookies and searched page by page for families with his birth surname. Surprisingly, there were only two in Rhode Island. One was a husband and wife in their 70’s. The other was a family with 4 children. Two boys and two girls. In 1950 the boys would have been 28 and 26. The girls would have been 22 and 15. This must be my father’s family! However, my mother suggested that perhaps his mother was from another state and was only in RI to give birth and place the baby for adoption. Possible, but I didn’t think it likely. One of these 4 must be my father’s parent. Years later, one of the sons worked with my maternal grandfather and my mother went to school with his children. My mother said my father bore a strong resemblance to one of the sons that was in her class. I suspected they were either half brothers or first cousins, so naturally they would look alike.

     I really thought it must be one of the girls who was my father’s mother. Surely his birth surname must be the mother’s name since she was reportedly unmarried. The oldest gave birth to a son 4 months after my father was born, so it clearly wasn’t her. The other girl would have been 15 when my father was born, so that went along with the narrative that his mother was an unwed teenager. I did extensive research on the family and traced their roots back to Colonial America and the settling of Quebec. I began seeing DNA matches to other people who also shared these same ancestors. Distant matches, but clear matches. I still wasn’t 100% sure which one of the siblings was my grandparent, but it was pretty clear it was one of them.

     I had never suspected I had any French Canadian ancestry. I set about learning their history and culture. I dusted off my passport and took a short trip to Quebec to see the area where my ancestors came from. I visited a cemetery where some of the family was buried and paid my respects. I was talking to my mom the evening after visiting the cemetery and told her I would feel pretty foolish if these weren’t my people. My mother, who until this time had been playing devil’s advocate with every new piece of circumstantial evidence I uncovered, said, “Oh, Ellen, they must be.” 

     One day I received a message on Ancestry from a woman who had noticed I was researching the family. She asked what my connection was. I explained I was researching them trying to trace my father’s birth family. She was a cousin to the 4 siblings, but hadn’t had contact with them for years. We shared our online trees with each other and she wrote to me that when she saw the photos of my father, “she gasped and had tears” because he looked so much like her late brother. She shared the photos with other members of her family, and they all agreed my father must be their cousin. 

     I’d like to say that I did not go any further down this rabbit hole, but… I was thoroughly convinced the youngest daughter was my grandmother and decided to write her a letter. The letter was very nice and I simply told her my father’s birth name and  birth date and of my research into her family. I told her of my DNA matches to other descendants of her ancestors. I told her I was only researching to discover my roots and was not looking to forge a relationship or cause any upset. I gave her my email address and phone number in case she had any questions or wanted any other information. A couple of months later I received an email. The poor woman was probably trying to figure out how to deal with this lunatic writing to her. She said she was not my grandmother. I had no idea whether or not to believe her. After all, if she had been keeping this secret for over 6 decades, wouldn’t she be expected to deny it? 

     A few months later I petitioned the court, and received a copy of my father’s original birth certificate and his adoption records. When I opened the envelope, I fully expected to see my suspicions confirmed. I was momentarily stunned to see a name I had never heard of written on the sheet of paper. His mother was married? And 22? Where was the unwed teenager I had been told about? No wonder I didn’t find her on the 1940 census; Her surname in 1950 was her husband’s as she had been married in 1945. Her husband was not from Rhode Island – she met him while he was serving in the Navy. I discovered my father’s true birth mother also had French Canadian ancestry. I also learned that nearly all people with French Canadian ancestry are interconnected, so it wasn’t surprising that I would share ancestors with the other family I was so convinced I was related to.

     Armed with the information about the correct birth mother, I started a new family tree. It pained me to delete the tree with the wrong family. I had spent nearly two years researching them. I didn’t really mind having to make a fresh start. I love the research, and was quite happy to have another branch of my family to uncover. Making the fresh start led me to some lovely aunts and cousins that I never would have found otherwise!



Interview with Dr. Carol McCoy

So you’ve found your ancestors on census records, and you have obtained copies of their birth, marriage, and death records. But what other records are available? Come to NERGC 2019 in Manchester, NH from April 3rd through April 6th to find out from Carol McCoy! Carol will be offering 3 presentations at this year’s conference:

  • Using Deeds to Solve Genealogy Problems (This is a 2 hour workshop being offered on Wednesday from 3:30pm-5:30pm)
  • Tax Records in Genealogy Can Be a Good Thing (Saturday 10am-11am)
  • Proving Mayflower Ancestry: Margaret York Randall of Maine, New York, and Alabama (Saturday 3:15pm-4:15pm)

I was at one of Carol’s presentations at NERGC 2017. She is knowledgeable and entertaining, and I’m looking forward to her presentations this year. Carol was kind enough to allow me to interview her.

You began your professional life as a teacher and a professional development consultant. What made you become a full time genealogist?


I have always been interested in psychology and what makes people the way they are. My doctorate in social Personality Psychology focused on early childhood memories and adult personality. Later I taught psychology and studied psychoanalysis in New York City. My hope was to understand people. Ultimately one cannot understand people without understanding their family dynamics and  what is passed on through the generations of one’s family. So, as I learned more about my family origins and also did some free family searches for dear friends, I discovered that I loved doing this research. I give presentations because I love to share whatever I have learned that I believe can help others.


What are your other interests outside of genealogy? 

First and foremost, baseball, especially following the New York Yankees, which can be a challenge in New England. I love playing the guitar and singing folk music being a child of the 60s and 70s—now I listen more than I sing. I also love to garden with enthusiasm if not skill. And my favorite interest is my sweet cat, Mr. Spice Pie, who offers me companionship, snuggles and amusement.


What is your favorite, most helpful resource that you feel is underutilized?  What are the biggest challenges of Maine research? 

Definitely New England town records including tax records. They can be hard to find, hard to decipher, hard to make sense of, but they are so worthwhile in terms of adding details about the location and times in which one’s ancestors lived and also about their lives.


Recording of vital records was not required until 1892 and so not all towns were diligent about recording them. Shortly after 1892 about 20% of Maine towns forwarded their records to Augusta but clearly that excludes many towns. In some locations, such as the Cumberland County Court House, records burned. The early Cumberland probate records prior to 1908 were destroyed. In general record keeping was not as rigorous as in Massachusetts proper. Records are not always located in a logical place and sometimes custodians guard them very fiercely.  Maine deeds, many of which are online, can be tremendously helpful but researchers need to cast a wider net regarding time, place, names and other details to make the most of them. People need to pay attention to county changes. For example all of Maine was in York County until 1760 when Cumberland and Lincoln Counties were formed. York Deeds were published in about 18 volumes, which covered transactions up to about 1737—this leaves the time period from about 1738 up to 1760 unpublished. Some people assume that everything is published. Maine research is challenging but rewarding—local records provide many clues. The Maine Historical Society in Portland, the Maine State Library and Maine State Archives in Augusta, and other repositories are tremendously helpful. The Maine Genealogical Society, which has published more than 80 volumes of town/city transcriptions and also Maine Families in 1790, is a great resource. People should check our web: www.maineroots.org.



Two of your lectures at this year’s conference concern tax records and land deeds. Are there any of these records that would be helpful for folks researching female ancestors or other ancestors who may not have owned property? 

Definitely yes. Women could be included in tax records if they headed a household or were widows.  Deeds often mention release of dower by a wife and include the wife’s name, indicating if she could write or if she signed with her mark. Women may be mentioned as neighbors. Tax records often included a poll tax based on a male between the ages of either 21 (sometimes 16 or 18) and perhaps 65. If John Allen was taxed for 3 polls one year, that indicated 3 males were of taxable age that year. If the next year he was taxed for 4 polls, this indicated that someone else in the household had come of age. If the next year there were only 2 taxable polls, perhaps a male had died or moved out of the household or became unratable as a poll. The more you learn about these records, the more clues you can find in them.


What does this year’s conference theme mean to you?  What would you say to convince a first-timer to attend? 

Family– Link to the Past and Bridge to the Future—that says it all. I enjoy learning more family stories about my ancestors, but even more I enjoy finding as yet undiscovered relatives and sharing family stories with the next generation.


This is my favorite conference. There are always excellent speakers discussing useful topics and friendly participants willing to share their knowledge, time and friendship. If you have New England ancestors, the conference is especially helpful. Even if you don’t think you have New England ancestors, you might have them, and the Conference provides much helpful information on how to conduct genealogy research.


There are still spots available for Carol’s workshop on Wednesday, so register quickly before they fill up! The conference is not just great workshops, lectures, and fantastic featured speakers. There is also a marvelous exhibit area featuring books, gadgets, and representatives from genealogical societies. Did I mention books? I also love the chance to spend a few days with other people who are passionate about family history. Each conference is an opportunity to make new friends and connect with old ones. See you in Manchester!



Carol Prescott McCoy, Ph.D., lives in Brunswick, Maine with her beloved cat, Spice Pie. She grew up in Bronxville, N.Y., attended Connecticut College and Rutgers University where she earned her doctorate in psychology. She taught psychology for many years, then management development at Chase Manhattan Bank in NYC and at Unum in Portland, Maine. She founded McCoy Training and Development Resources (a one person consulting company) in 1999 and then started Find-Your-Roots.com about 2004 (still a one-person company.) She has been a professional genealogist for about 15 years and has been the president of the Maine Genealogical Society since Jan 2018. Finally, she is ready to write her own family history and so she will be stepping down from most of her professional responsibilities. She will continue to help others as a genealogy coach. Her family roots are in Northern Ireland, Germany and England, West Virginia, New York and New England with a delightful mixture of Scot Irish and Jewish roots. 

Week 24 – Father’s Day

Week 24 is all about fathers. I considered writing about my grandfather’s mysterious father, but like my Mother’s Day post, I find I can only write about my own dad.

I do not remember a time before knowing my dad. You’re probably reading this, and thinking, “well, duh!” But the dad I’m talking about is actually my stepfather. He entered my life when I was just 3 years old, so despite having my biological father in my life, my stepfather has always been the man I think of as Dad. I very rarely refer to him as my stepfather. Just about the only time I use the ‘step’ qualifier is when I’m talking about genealogy. It makes it easier for people to understand which man I’m talking about. Most people who know me well know that I nearly always say ‘father’ when talking about my biological father, and ‘dad’ when talking about the great man who raised me. The reverse is also true. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard Dad call me his stepdaughter. I’ve never felt less than his daughter. Some stepfathers complain about having to provide for another man’s child. Especially when the biological father is not willing to pay support. Not my dad. Not once did he complain about paying for clothes, shoes, or even orthodontics.

Even before he began dating my mother, my dad was a part of my life. He was our neighbor, and lived across the street with his parents. We lived on a quiet dead end street, and everyone knew each other. After my mother and father separated, Mom began dating the cute guy across the street. On August 6, 1978 they were married. I was not quite 6, and so happy. I remember at the rehearsal, I was so excited that I hugged my soon-to-be stepfather around the legs. The minister kindly said that he knew I loved my new father, but that I couldn’t hug him like that during the ceremony the next day. I don’t like to post a photo twice, but I have to share this photo of the wedding day again. My love for my dad is clearly evident.

Dad has always been a hard worker. When I was young, he went back to school in order to become a CNC Machinist. As a CNC Machinist, he makes intricate machine parts. I still don’t understand how he can make calculations to a fraction of a millimeter, and have everything come out right. Once, he brought home something he had machined. I’m sure it has a proper name, but to me it was an oversized nut and bolt. I don’t know why he had made it, as it was not typical of the things he machined, but I loved it. It sat on our bookcase for many years, and I loved unscrewing the nut from the bolt, and screwing it back together again. Even as a teenager, I’d sit in the recliner chatting on the phone, absentmindedly spinning the bolt, and marveling that my dad had made it. Most Sundays in the fall, Dad would head out to the woods with his father and brother, and cut wood for the winter. Dad would come home with his pickup loaded with logs, and I’d run outside with my work gloves on, ready to help unload the truck and stack the wood in the garage.

Dad always had a big vegetable garden. Each spring, he’d plant row after row of delicious veggies. Corn, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, summer squash, to name just a few. Some years he planted pumpkins. If I recall, those had a tendency to take over the entire backyard. Occasionally, I’d beg for a particular crop. One year it was carrots. Dad said they wouldn’t grow well, but I pleaded and he relented. He said the carrots were my responsibility. I was delighted to be put in charge of the carrots. I was given a small section of the garden and planted my seeds. I was so excited when the lacy green leaves first started to appear. I’d go out in the afternoons and pull out the weeds. When they were ready for harvest, my carrots were short and fat instead of long and skinny. Dad had tried telling me that we didn’t have the right soil for carrots, but I had been determined to prove him wrong. An early lesson proving Dad is usually right. No matter what was growing, I loved spending summer days with Dad in the garden.

Even our vacations were work for my dad, but like the woodcutting and gardening, I think it was work he enjoyed. Most of our family vacations were camping trips. Dad would do the driving, set up the tents, and do most of the cooking on the camp stove. Not to mention building the campfires and prepping fresh, green sticks for s’mores. He also played the role of tour guide, driving us to see the sights.

When Dad was 32, he stopped drinking alcohol. He began doing more hiking, and before too long he and my mother had hiked the New Hampshire Four Thousand Footers – 48 mountains with elevations of at least 4,000 feet. What an accomplishment! They were both recognized by the Appalachian Mountain Club at an annual event. There was an awards banquet, patches for their backpacks, and certificates of achievement.

My dad has always been there for me and has set the example of how to live a life of integrity. He has taught me so much. I still remember my first time riding my two-wheeled bike down the street without the training wheels. And there was Dad holding on to the back of the bike til I got my balance and confidence. Dad was also beside me when I drove a car on the road for the first time. When I finally ventured out of the parking lot where I had been practicing, he was a calming presence in the seat next to me. Thanks to Dad I know to water outdoor plants after the sun goes down, how to change a tire, the importance of family, all the rules of baseball, how to properly cook and eat a lobster, and many, many other important life skills. I could fill an entire book with stories about my dad’s great qualities, and things I have learned from him, but this is supposed to be a short blog post…

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! And as Gramps (Dad’s father) would say, “ I love ya and I ‘preciate ya!”

Week 20 – Another Language

The prompt for week 20 is Another Language. Most of my ancestors are from English speaking countries, so I do not have many records that are in other languages. I do have French Canadian ancestry, and some fairly recently discovered Italian, so I have definitely felt the frustration of trying to decipher records that were written in an unfamiliar language.

My late father’s maternal line has a good bit of French Canadian. When I started researching these ancestors, I made a list of translated keywords that you would expect to find on a birth, marriage, or death index. Son, daughter, mother, father, born, married, died, etc. I also included the names of the months, and common prepositions. I’ve found my list invaluable, as it saves me from running to Google Translate for every other word. I’m so easily distracted, and know that every time I look at anything other than the record I’m working on, there is a great possibility that I’ll fall down some other research rabbit hole.

Even armed with such a list, foreign records can be so hard to figure out. Most of the records I’ve looked at have been online. So, in addition to the strange language, the image maybe be poor. And the archaic handwriting! That can be hard enough to read when the document is in English. Let’s not forget spelling errors. If a record is in English, I at least have a chance of detecting a spelling error. They’re near impossible to spot when dealing with a different language.

My mom’s ancestors are primarily Irish, and I haven’t found any documents written in the Irish language. Yet… Though, I have found some that were written in Latin. Mostly church documents, as you might expect. I find those easier than the French. I took a year of Latin in High School, and though it was nearly 3 decades ago, I remember much more of it than I would expect to. The tricky thing about the church records is that the given name of each person is written using the Latin equivalent. Some are easy to decipher; Elisabeth for Elizabeth, Marcus for Mark, etc. Others require looking up. Thank goodness for the internet! Otherwise, I’d likely never figure out that Coemgenus is Kevin or Jacomus is James.

My Dad’s paternal grandparents were both from Poland. I have had no luck (so far) finding Polish records online. The changing boundaries in Eastern Europe in the 19th century don’t make searching any easier. And don’t get me started on the creative spelling of names by the record keepers. Having seen some of the documents, I’m almost relieved I haven’t come across any relating to Dad’s family!

Closing the dash far too soon

Genealogists often speak of “closing the dash”. The dash they’re talking about is the one on a gravestone between the persons birth and death dates. It usually falls to the family historian to record the date of death in family records. We refer to this as closing the dash. Earlier this week, a beautiful life ended much sooner than it should have, and I find I cannot remain silent.

When I was younger, I thought that the people involved with drugs were of a certain type. You’d hear about someone overdosing, and assume it was a longstanding addict who finally took a little too much. Sure, there were exceptions. I always think of Len Bias, the basketball player who overdosed on cocaine while out celebrating being signed to the Boston Celtics. Everyone close to him said that he had never tried cocaine before; that it was just that once while out celebrating with his friends. I was 14 when he died, and I think it was his death, more than any lecture I received from my parents, that kept me away from drugs. I’ve always been afraid that with my luck, I too would die the first time I tried anything.

A few years ago, I saw a documentary about young adults from Cape Cod who were all struggling with opioid addiction. Nearly all of them were good kids, from good homes. Most of them had sustained an injury that they were prescribed prescription painkillers for. Once the prescriptions dried up, they turned to illegal drugs to lessen their pain. The documentary was eye-opening and quite sobering. It haunted me for weeks. At the time, I only personally knew one person who had overdosed. A friend of the family had chronic pain from a childhood illness and from a car accident he had as an adult. He had turned to prescription narcotics to ease his pain and died from an overdose.

There are countless stories of famous people who have died as a result of overdoses. These stories come to light because of the celebrity of the person involved. It seems when a celebrity dies, unless they’re older or have a known illness, it is automatically assumed that the death must’ve been drug related. One of the saddest celebrity deaths in recent years was that of musician, Tom Petty. He died of an overdose of prescription pills. Many of the news reports left it at that, and people shook their heads at another rocker living the high life and paying the consequences. The more thorough reports told the full story. They told of his need for hip surgery, and the excruciating pain he was in. They told of his desire to finish the concert tour he was on before scheduling the surgery that would have hopefully put an end to the pain. They pointed out that it was likely he timed his dosage wrong, or accidentally took the wrong combo just to try to get some relief.

Earlier this week, a young woman left her grandmother’s house for a night out with her friends. High school graduation was at the end of the week, and the teenagers were going to let off a little steam. She laughingly told her grandmother that she was going out to “party hearty”. Her grandmother told her to be sensible, and she said she would. The following morning, her friends found her unresponsive. She was taken to the hospital, and was gone before her mother could arrive.

I don’t know how this happened. Was this a one time thing, or had her drug use been going on for a while? All I know is that parents have lost a child and are going through what no parent should have to face. This past Wednesday, the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee voted on new legislation that would enable drug dealers to be charged with murder and face the possibility of a life sentence if a person were to die from the drugs they sold. Her mother appeared before the Committee just 2 days after losing her daughter and read a statement in support of the legislation. She was interviewed on the local news, and this grieving mother bravely told the story of her beloved daughters death. I cannot imagine having that strength.

Olivia was just 18 with her whole life ahead of her. She was about to graduate from high school. She talked of traveling the world, and I couldn’t wait to see where life took her. A fatal choice put an end to all of her possibilities. My beautiful, smart, funny, loving cousin Livvie is now a statistic.

The Len Bias story is not an urban myth. You CAN die even if you only try something once. There is no one ‘type’ that is involved with drugs. This epidemic is hitting everyone. If you lose a loved one to drugs, do not remain silent. Speak up. Tell their stories. Tell your stories. Let everyone know that it CAN happen to them, and how it will affect those left behind. Let’s end this.

Week 19 – Mother’s Day

Due to moving and traveling, I’ve fallen a bit behind in my blogposts, so this one is a couple of weeks late… The prompt for week 18 was “Mother’s Day”. When I hear “Mother’s Day”, there is only one person I can write about. My best friend. My mom. Despite the fact that I normally try to avoid writing about the living, I cannot write about anyone else.

My mother is the strongest, most courageous woman I know. She’s very intelligent and has a quick wit. She’s also a woman of principles. In fact, one of her phrases I remember most from my childhood is, “it’s the principle of the matter.” As an adult, I admire those principles, and often hear myself uttering the same phrase. As a teenager, her principles were a source of embarrassment at times. I remember once when she stopped at a local store to buy mustard. I was in high school, and one of my classmates was the cashier. When he told my mother the amount she owed, she was quick to point out that because the item was food, there should be no sales tax. I don’t remember the outcome of the conversation (I was busy praying the floor would open and swallow me whole), but knowing my mother, I’m pretty sure she left the mustard and bought it somewhere else.

One Mother’s Day when I was a child, I saw my mother sitting on the edge of her bed crying softly. My mother very rarely cried. I asked her why she was crying, and she said it was because it was Mother’s Day. Now I was really confused. It was a day that was all about her. I mean, cards and presents, what was there to cry about? She said she was sad because she no longer had her mother. My grandmother had died when my mother was only 24. I was just a toddler when she passed and had no memory of her. I’ve never forgotten my mother’s sadness that day, and always try to give my mom a wonderful Mother’s Day.

When I was very young, Mom made the very wise decision to divorce my biological father. My father had a propensity for making poor choices, and I’m glad my mom realized we would be better off without him around. I’ve often thought it was the best decision she has ever made. Without her making the decision to divorce my father, I would not have gained an amazing stepfather. This year, he and my mother will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. I never think of him as my stepfather. He’s simply, “Dad”. Their wedding was one of the happiest days of my life.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I always preferred sitting indoors reading, rather than being outside engaging in physical activity. My mother is the one who instilled the love of reading in me, but she also did her best to get me outside and active. She would try to make it fun, and would get me to race her in our backyard. Once, mid-race, I plopped down on the grass next to my dad and remarked, “Look at the old girl go!” My mother was probably in her late 20’s at the time… We would also go to the local community center to play tennis. I enjoyed playing, but was quite terrible. My mother loved to play, and was good, so it must’ve been so frustrating to play against a child who rarely made contact with the ball. I was always glad when my dad could go with us. They would play tennis and I would watch from the swings.

Dad mostly worked second shift when I was growing up, so most nights it was just Mom and I at home. Mom worked full time during the day. Even though many women in the late 70’s worked, it seemed like very few of my friends had working moms. I was so proud to tell my friends that my mother had a job. Despite working full time, she still found time to chaperone field trips and bake cupcakes with me and my friends.

My mother has a great sense of humor. Though as a teenager, I didn’t always appreciate it… As a rule, she is quiet and dignified, but occasionally, she would come out with something outrageous just for shock value. Once, I had a male friend over the house and Mom told him he looked constipated. He later asked me what made him look constipated. I assured him that he didn’t – it was just my mom’s sense of humor. Another time, my mother and I were playing miniature golf at a course within walking distance of our house. About halfway through, I caught her writing “Ellen loves boys” with the scoring pencils on the pedestals at each hole. And you know those little pencils don’t have erasers! Since I was the only Ellen in my school, everyone would know it was written about me. When I complained about it, my mother looked at me with the most innocent expression and said, “What? You don’t like boys?” What were once major sources of embarrassment are now cherished memories. I know that if I had a daughter of my own, she would be tortured in much the same way.

About 15 years ago, Mom and Dad moved from Rhode Island to Maine. I found it difficult at first. Gone were our impulsive coffee dates. No longer could she call me and invite me along for an errand. Thank goodness for free long distance plans. Mom and I talk on the phone nearly every day. The drive is only a few hours, so I see them often. When I became interested in genealogy, Mom became interested as well. I love sharing my discoveries with her, even when they’re from my father’s side of the family. With most of Mom’s ancestors being from Ireland, she had always wanted to visit that country. After my biological father died at age 61, I decided life was too short, and we should take her dream vacation. Dad remained at home as it wasn’t his dream vacation, and someone needed to be around to care for their cat. We had an amazing time. We visited the areas where some of our ancestors were from. It was a magical trip. After that vacation we decided to take a trip together every other year near Mother’s Day. For our next trip we rented a cottage on a beach in Florida. When we thought about where this year’s trip would take us, Mom suggested a return trip to Ireland. I couldn’t say no!

When I started this blogpost, she was sitting beside me 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, as we headed to Dublin. During our last trip to Ireland, we spent most of our time off the beaten path, visiting non-touristy places in search of our roots. This time, we stayed in Dublin. We took a bus trip to Belfast, and another to tour the scenic Ring of Kerry. We also traveled to England, visiting Manchester to see where our Marsden and Whittle ancestors were from. We visited the cemetery where Mom’s third great grandfather is buried and saw the church where her great grandfather was baptized. The hotel we stayed at was comprised of converted 17th century farm buildings and located less than a mile from the church and cemetery. It’s not much of a stretch to think that our ancestors spent at least some time at that property. It was an incredible trip, and I’m glad I was able to share the experience with my mom.

I’m so lucky to have such an amazing mom. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you so very, very much!


Week 17 – Cemetery

The prompt for week 17 is Cemetery. I’ve been looking forward to this week since the April prompts were announced. What genealogist doesn’t like cemeteries?!? Not only are they a delight to wander through, there’s often a lot of information to be found. There are so many different ways to interpret this prompt. Nevermind 52 weeks of ancestors; I think I could write 52 weeks of cemetery posts! For this post, I have chosen to write about my favorite cemetery, Greenwood Cemetery.

I have been going to Greenwood Cemetery in Coventry, Rhode Island for as long as I can remember. When I was young, I spent a lot of time with my father’s parents, Goff and Hazel Hawkins,  and they were of the generation who always put flowers on graves. Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as my grandmother still called it, was the big event. My grandmother would go to the local nursery about a week before Memorial Day to be sure to get the best plants before they were all picked over. She went armed with a list of the graves in need of geraniums and painstakingly picked out a special color for each person. My grandfather was tasked with digging the holes and filling them with a new geranium plant. Decorating the graves was an all day affair. First we went to the small, family cemeteries. They were small, historical cemeteries containing just a few stones. I’m pretty sure my grandparents were the only ones who visited some of these graves, as they were always overgrown. My grandfather was always prepared and brought heavy-duty pruning shears along with his other implements of planting. Then, onto Greenwood Cemetery, where my grandmother’s parents and grandparents are buried. The final stop was the cemetery in Rehoboth, Massachusetts where my grandfather’s father and grandparents were buried. This cemetery was about a half hour’s drive, which to a Rhode Islander requires packing, if not a full lunch, than at least a hearty snack and a cooler of cold drinks.

Greenwood is my favorite of all the cemeteries we would visit. It is big without being too big. The cemetery is still in use, so it has new graves alongside the graves of Revolutionary War heroes. The cemetery is full of dirt tracks leading to different parts of the cemetery. Plenty of places to park the car along the way so you can get out and explore.

When my step-dad’s brother, Stevan Lewonis, died in 1996, he was buried at Greenwood. Uncle Steve is buried near my grandmother’s sister, Adelaide. It’s pretty neat that two completely unrelated sides of my family are neighbors in the same cemetery.

Over the years, more of my family has been laid to rest at Greenwood. Aunt Judy has joined Uncle Steve, and my grandparents Bernard and Nancy Lewonis are in the plot behind Steve and Judy.

A short distance away are Goff and Hazel Hawkins, laid to rest next to their daughter, Judith Marseglia.

After Grandma Hawkins died in 2009, I knew it fell to me to carry on the tradition of planting the flowers for Memorial Day. I have my own list of graves to visit and typically buy begonias instead of geraniums. Once I began researching my family history, I found myself in cemeteries far more often than just on Memorial Day. When I discovered the identity of my father’s birth mother, I was delighted to learn some of his maternal ancestors were buried in Greenwood Cemetery. This is the grave of my father’s great grandmother, Grace Gilkerson (née Johnson). You can read about how she may or may not have helped me solve a genealogical mystery, here.

I visit the cemetery often, and do my best to keep the graves of my ancestors neat and tidy. I’ve even invested in a jug of D2. D2 is a biological cleaner and one of a very few products that is approved by preservation societies for gravestone cleaning. It is used at Arlington National Cemetery.

Not too long ago, the home I was renting sustained some structural damage and I needed to relocate for a short while. My landlord happened to have a vacant property available, and I moved there temporarily. The house abutted my cemetery! I would have been happy living next to any cemetery, but was beyond thrilled to be living next to MY cemetery. I could even see my great great grandmother Grace’s grave from the windows on the back side of the house. Each night when I went to bed, I’d look out my bedroom window, and say, “Goodnight, family.

Week 16 – Storms

The prompt for week 16 is Storms. I don’t know of any ancestors who may have been affected by a natural disaster, so I have decided to write about a family that weathered some personal storms – my 4th great uncle Robert Whittle and his wife Sarah.

Robert Whittle was born about 1859 in Halliwell, Lancashire, England. He was the younger brother of my 3rd great grandmother Anne. You can read about her, here. Robert married Sarah Ann Johnson in the last quarter of 1882. The following year they welcomed their first child, and another 5 children followed within the next 15 years.

Robert’s niece, Annie, came to live with them between 1889-1891. I don’t know that Annie was a ‘storm’, but there must’ve been a certain amount of upheaval in their lives. I’m sure Annie was a big help to Sarah – helping with the children and probably chores, too.

Their youngest son, William died in March of 1889. He had just turned a year old. I imagine this was the first major storm that the couple weathered.

The family was living in Egerton, Bolton, Lancashire, when World War I broke out. Their son Robert was just 18, living at home, and soon enlisted. The oldest son, Frank, was in New Brunswick, Canada and enlisted there 29 June 1915.

Both men were stationed in France. How the family must have worried! Robert was killed in action on 05 December 1915. He is buried in the Browns Road Military Cemetery in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France. The cemetery has 1,071 casualty burials, with 407 of those brave soldiers unidentified. Robert’s grave is marked with an engraved stone.

On 06 May 1917, Frank was killed in action. He was 31. Frank was buried in La Chaudiere Military Cemetery, also in Nord-de-Calais. This cemetery contains the graves of 907 servicemen, 314 of whom are unidentified.


In 1921, a memorial was erected in Bolton, honoring the men from that town who were lost in the First World War. In later years, casualties from WWII and the Falklands Conflict were added. Robert and Sarah died in 1930 and 1931, respectively. I’m glad they were still living to see their sons memorialized with this monument.

Week 15 – Taxes

The prompt this week is taxes. Instead of writing about property taxes, I have chosen to write about an ancestor I found very taxing to research.

Archie Edward Gilkerson was my great great grandfather. For quite a long time, that was about all I knew about him. My great great grandmother Grace was his second wife. Census records showed he was born in Illinois somewhere around 1865. But where in Illinois? Who were his parents?

Archie had lived in several New England states, so I wasn’t entirely sure where he died. I found an online index of Rhode Island deaths and burials that showed Archie had died 15 November 1925 in Coventry, Rhode Island. Since he had been dead more than 50 years, I was able to get a copy of his death record from the Town Hall in Coventry. I grew up in Coventry, and still live nearby, so it was no hardship to go there for the record. I stopped in after work one afternoon, and the clerk made me a copy. I waited until I got home to look at it. Place of Birth: Springfield, Illinois. Parents: blank. Ugh! No parents listed! But, I now knew he was from Springfield. Or was he? I guessed that the information was provided by his wife. Did she know for certain where in Illinois her husband was from, or did she just name the capital city?


My next step was to search for his obituary. I checked the local paper that served Coventry and the neighboring towns at that time, and found no obituary. The statewide newspaper is available on microfiche, but only the Providence Public Library holds all years. Most local libraries only have recent copies, or have done away with microfiche all together. I love looking through old newspapers, and need to set aside an entire day for it – even when I’m only looking for one specific thing. I am so easily distracted by all the articles. I especially love all the gossipy bits. “Mr and Mrs Jones of Cranston have returned home following two weeks in Connecticut visiting their daughter Julie, formerly of this city.” Before I know it, hours have gone by and I’ve only gone through a few months of papers… But I did find Archie’s obit. There were no details!

Having struck out locally a few times, I decided to contact the vital records office in Illinois. I explained I was looking for a birth record from 1866. The clerk’s response stunned me. “We don’t have records going that far back.” THAT FAR BACK?!? What the…? It was that moment that I realized how lucky I am that most of my ancestors are from New England. I have been spoiled by access to records dating back to the Mayflower’s arrival.

Most genealogists love wandering through cemeteries and I’m no exception. A girlfriend and I have a running joke about her father going to the cemetery to talk to dead mémères. I don’t usually set out to talk to dead grandmothers, but I will admit to saying hello and introducing myself when I visit the grave of an ancestor for the first time. I don’t really think they can hear me, but don’t want to be rude just in case. One summer day I was wandering through my favorite cemetery and stopped at Grace’s grave. Grace died in 1914 at age 30 having been married to Archie for only 5 years. I decided to have a little chat with her while I was there. I told her I was trying to find more info about Archie. I told her I knew she hadn’t been married to him for too long, but surely she must know more about him than I did. I told her I enjoy research and wasn’t looking for an easy answer. I said that I didn’t expect her to give me the information, but would appreciate a hint pointing me in the right direction. I left the cemetery and went about my day. Ran errands and other mundane stuff. I didn’t give Grace or my conversation with her another thought. Later that night I realized I hadn’t checked my DNA matches on Ancestry recently. I logged into my Ancestry account and saw a green leaf hint on my family tree. I clicked on it and was surprised to see a hint for Archie. It led me to the record of his marriage to his first wife. It showed he was born in El Dara, Illinois (not Springfield!) and listed his parents names. It was then I remembered asking Grace for a hint. I really don’t think that Grace provided assistance from beyond to grave, but it’s certainly a coincidence. I went back to the cemetery the next day to say thanks. Best not to seem ungrateful just in case…

On the marriage record, the father’s name was clearly Robert. The mother’s name began with an E and it looked like the maiden name might be Brothers. I called the Milbury, Massachusetts Town Clerk. I told her I had found an image online of the marriage record, but couldn’t quite make out the name of the groom’s mother. The original record was very clear, and the clerk said that the mother’s name was definitely Elizabeth Crothers. Woo-hoo! I finally got the information I had been looking for!

It was most frustrating because he is such a recent ancestor. I knew the information had to be out there somewhere. I have other brick walls, but Archie was by far the most taxing to break down.

Week 14 – Maiden Aunt

This week’s prompt is “maiden aunt”. Nearly every family has a maiden aunt.  Often this is the person who has the least information about them to be found. In the ‘olden days’ unmarried women did not generate the wealth of records genealogists live for. They did not typically own property. They lived with their parents, adult siblings, and then sometimes their nieces and nephews as they aged. No marriage records, no birth records for their children, and no land deeds or property records. Hopefully, future generations will have better luck researching their maiden aunts. These days, many single women are purchasing property and leaving plenty of records behind. Not to mention social media… I can only imagine what future generations of  genealogists will think when they see our social media posts.

In my own family, there are quite a few unmarried women. I look at the names on my family tree and wonder why they never married. Were they unattractive? Unpleasant? Did they prefer the company of women? As a single woman myself, I know it’s silly to think these are the reasons my ancestors remained single, and there are many other reasons to be unmarried.

My third great aunt, Sarah Alphonse O’Connell was born 05 September 1869 in Providence, Rhode Island. Her parents were Irish immigrants who met and married in Providence. Sarah was the youngest of five children born to James and Mary (née Batt) O’Connell. Her oldest sister Catherine and her brother John, also never married. The next oldest sibling, Helen, died at age 35 and left behind her 3 year old daughter, Grace. The middle child, Michael Frank, was my second great grandfather. Sarah, Catherine, and John lived at home until the deaths of their parents. James died in 1877 when Sarah was seven and Catherine was eighteen.

Two years before James died, all the children attended Catholic school, except for Catherine, who at 16 worked as a carder in a woolen mill.

1880 all Mary’s children were living at home. The four oldest, ranging in age from 13 to 21 all worked for a jeweler. It seems all but the youngest went to work after James died, rather than finish school. Sarah, at 10 years old, was the only one still in school.

In the years between 1880 and 1900, Helen married, had two children, and passed away. Helen’s youngest child only lived a few months, and Helen died within 3 months of her baby daughter. Michael Frank married and began his own family.

1900 found Catherine and Sarah living with their mother. Also living with them was their brother John and Grace, Helen’s daughter.

Mary died in May of 1905 and when Rhode Islanders were enumerated in June for the State Census, 10 year old Grace was living with Catherine, Sarah, and John. John is now listed as the head of household.

John passed away in 1907 and the next census shows Catherine, Sarah, and Grace still together. The census also shows that the family had taken in two boarders. A father and his 9 year old daughter.

In 1915, Catherine, Sarah, and Grace still had their boarder, Gladys, but her father was no longer residing with them. They also had a young man of 19 named Joseph as a lodger. In 1915 neither Gladys or Joseph were working, so how did they pay their way?

Catherine died in 1915 and Grace married in 1918, so by the 1920 census, Sarah was on her own, taking in various lodgers to help make ends meet. Sarah worked as a sales lady in a millenary shop for many years, and died 11 June 1947, outliving all her siblings.

I wonder why Catherine, Sarah, and John all remained single? Did they not find anyone suitable? I have another maiden aunt, Sadie McKenna (1888-1967), who according to my great grandmother, was an attractive woman and had several offers, but was too choosy. Before she knew it, she was in her 50’s with no husband or children. I wonder how these maiden aunts (and bachelor uncles) felt about being single? I hope they had happy lives full of good friends, family, and maybe a cat or seven.