Tracing my family tree one leaf at a time

My great-grandparents, James Francis and Mary Ellen Maloney Sheerin.

All of this cemetery walking I’ve been doing has piqued my curiousity about my own family tree.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled in tracing my roots. I’ve had some relatives who have done a lot of work and they’ve shared some information – although no one really wanted to share the bulk of the information. Just bits and pieces here and there.

And tracing your ancestry is like a mystery with a thousand plot twists and a million roads that will all lead to a legitimate clue. You’re only hinderance is time and patience.

So last week, I pulled out the old notebooks and folders and headed to the Rochester local history department, and then Brighton Memorial Library, because they have a free library edition of

I’ve been working on one mystery in particular: why my great, great grandmother is known as both Mary Ann McDevitt and also Mary Ann McDade.

Here’s the mystery: on the birth records and marriage records of the children of my great, great-grandparents John P Sheerin and Mary Ann McDevitt, her last name has been listed as McDevitt, McDavett, McDavid and McDade, McDeid, McDaid.

The first time I came upon the McDade variation, I passed the record up, because it was a birth record for a son, John, born in Willksbarre, PA. Wrong last name of the mother, and the other children I’d already found were all born in Berkshire County.

Then I found a photo that my mom’s cousin Suzanne had given to me before she died: a photo of two women she identified as “Mary Ann McDevitt (McDade)” and her sister, “Nellie McDevitt (McDade).”


These women have been identifed as:
Seated: Mary Ann McDevitt (McDade), mother of James Francis
Standing: Nelline McDevitt (McDade) sister of Mary Ann, aunt of James Francis

Then I got the cemetery records for the family plot in St. Joseph’s cemetery, and buried in there with the Sheerins is an Ellen McDeid.

Huh again.

So most of the last week – about 20+ hours at least – has been spent tracing every one of my grandfather’s aunts and uncles – the children of John and Mary Ann Sheerin – to find any references I could of Mary Ann McDevitt or McDade, or any variation of either.

And last night, I found it.

It was the 1879 birth record for a stillborn baby whose parents were John and Mary McDade Sheerin of Hinsdale, MA, in Berkshire County.

That led me to the birth records for a son, William, with the mother listed as “McDade”, born in Hinsdale, MA. Using those birth records along with the marriage and birth records, draft cards, directories, and more I’d already amassed over the last weeks for the other Sheerin children, I was able to confirm addresses, places of birth, dates of death and burial in the cemetery and relationships to my grandfather.

I also was able to confirm the Wilksbarre connection: just from listening to family stories over the years, I knew that my mother’s great aunt “Minnie” married a man named Downs. Minnie is actually Mary Ann Sheerin; on her marriage record to James Downs it lists her birthplace as Wilksbarre, PA.

So the search moves to Pennsylvania, which actually makes sense, because supposedly my great, great-grandfather arrived from Ireland to the port in Philadephia. Or that’s where he went when he got here. Or something like that.

Even though I’ve confirmed that Mary Ann McDevitt and Mary Ann McDade are one in the same, yet the mysteries remain unsolved. Who are the McDades? Why the various spellings, even by family members? Is Nellie actually Ellen, and if so, is she the same Ellen who was a servant in Dalton, MA – right dates, right age, right area? When did Mary Ann McDade become McDevitt? When did John and Mary Ann marry, when they come here from Ireland? Did they meet here? Over there?

My mother’s oldest sister Rosemary passed away last year, and with her the bulk of the family geneology. Their cousin Suzanne passed away a few years before that; she passed on the information to her daughter, whom I have not yet been able to track down. I’ve heard there are relatives in Philadelphia with the original paperwork from my ancestors. I’d  love to connect with them but with150+ years of marriages and divorces and changes in surname, it might be easier to track down the identity of Ellen McDeid.

Not that the mysteries hinder further research. Now that I know that sometimes I’m looking for my great, great grandmother with two different last names – and also various spellings of Sheerin, depending on who was transcribing information on the records (Sherun, Sheeran) I can cross check information to confirm I have the right John Sheerin or Mary or Katherine. I know for sure where at various points in time the family lived (including street addresses; I even have the phone number for William and Katherine in Philly in 1942.)

Question: Why did every Irishman in MA name is son John or James and his daughter Catherine or some form of Mary (Mary Ellen, Margaret, Mary Ann, Margaret Ellen). It makes tracing the family one gigantic pain in the rear end.

Of course, it’s not all mystery. Sometimes it’s just plain fun. Here’s a bit of trivia that made me laugh at the absurdity of trying to make sense of all of this:

In 1913, Katherine Sheerin, daughter of John and Mary McDevitt Sheerin, married a man named Daniel Francis Moynihan. Four years later, in 1917, Katherine’s brother Joseph amarried Daniel’s sister … Catherine. Hence, Katherine Sheerin became Katherine Moynihan, and Catherine Moynihan became Catherine Sheerin.

Not wanting to be left out, William Sheerin married a woman named … you guessed it … Katherine. No word on if she was related to the Moynihans.



4 responses to “Tracing my family tree one leaf at a time

  1. This was an awesome post. I love the first picture, she was quite beautiful. I do a little genealogy and I hate it when the names are spelled with different variants!!

    • I had no idea that it could vary that much! I’ve even found that when lists the record, when you look at the actual record the name is spelled differently.

      Good thing I love puzzles, lol!!

  2. Pingback: My family tree: famine, poverty and religious persecution | Notes From The Funny Farm

  3. I also have a Mary Ann McDevitt. Though my family is from Glasgow and I have the same problem. McDevitt, McDivitt, McDivit, McDivot, McDade, McDavid, I could go on. I think that the rebellion against England is what caused the name changes. There was great turmoil in those days as England took over Ireland-starting in 1801. If you were Catholic (as I believe the McDevitt’s were), you may have been known as a rebel and had to change your name for fear of being jailed, or hung.

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