Tracing my family tree: a million crazy puzzle pieces

A family notes sheet in the early stages. I just learned the names of Mary Ann McDevitt’s parents, so I started a family sheet for them, plugging in what little information I have. Their children – Sarah, Ellen and Mary Ann – all have sheets of their own with their family information.

Tracing your family tree is a little like trying to put together a puzzle when the pieces are scattered in a thousand boxes all filled with pieces that belong to other people’s puzzles. You have to sift through millions of pieces to find the ones you need.

Making the task more difficult, as you’re searching, you often don’t know what you’re looking for: an edge, a corner, a blue or pink piece?

Here’s a tip to get started: first, write down all of the facts that you know for sure. Parents names, birthdays, marriage dates, names of siblings, their vital information. Ask questions of living relatives to get the information. These are things you can write in black sharpie marker and know you won’t have to change them, details you can ask of living people and that you can usually verify pretty easily.

Then there is the stuff you can pencil in – you know, maybe, that your grandfather worked in woolen mill, that he had three sisters, that he served in WW11. That your grandmother was a great seamstress. That your mother’s uncle Steve owned a trunk that’s on display in a museum exhibit on the WPA – even if you don’t know anyone named Steve or have a clue what the WPA is.

Then you start digging.

Sometimes you gather information in a very roundabout way. You might be looking for a marriage date of your great grandparents, for example. But you start by looking at your mother’s aunts and uncles, their birth records, their marraige certificates. Those documents give clues – where they were living at the time of their marriage the names of their parents (including their mother’s maiden name), where they were born. By working backwards, you often get to where you’re going.

A family research sheet for my great, great, great grandparents. As I learn more details, I plug them in: marriage date, names of children, etc.

I was researching my great, great grandparents, John Sheerin and Mary Ann McDevitt. I’m having a bit of a problem because Sometimes Mary Ann’s last  name is listed at McDevitt (and various spellings) as well as McDaid (and those various spellings). No one in the family has been able to offer an explanation for the different last names – and while I knew Mary Ann McDevitt had a sister named Ellen and another named Sarah, I was getting nowhere trying to track them down or figure out why Ellen always used McDaid while Mary Ann alternated last names.

It made trying to find information about Mary Ann and her husband John Sheerin pretty difficult. What were their children’s names? Where did they live? Did they marry in the US? Why can’t I find them on any census records?

Oddly enough, I kept coming back to records for a John and Mary Sheerin in Pennyslvania; my family has always talked about relatives in Philadelphia, but these records were for Wilksebarre, PA. I assumed they weren’t relevant and ignored them all.

Then, looking at a census record for when the family was living in Pittsfield, I noticed that the first two children of John and Mary were born in Pennsylvania. From that, I was able to find their birth records in, you guessed it, Wilksebarre, PA.

I still don’t have an answer to the McDevitt/McDaid mystery, but with each new discovery I have another piece of the puzzle. Another birthdate I can write in ink, another pin on the map as I follow John and Mary Ann McDevitt Sheerin backwards to Ireland.

Don’t get stuck on the proper spelling of anyone’s name, including your own. My family name Sheerin has also been spelled on records Sherin, Sherun, Sheehan, Sheran. My great, great, great grandmother Catherine Touhey is even worse: Toohey, Tuhey, Toughey, Towey, Lomey, Tongsley, Trohey – not necessarily because it’s spelled wrong, but because whoever was reading the records to index them for Ancestry or for local archival simply read the handwriting incorrectly.

I have gathered lots of information about John Sheerin and Mary Ann McDevitt, not only on them but their children. Each child has a sheet like this, and a folder full of notes, copies of census records, etc. Records like this help keep information handy as I research.

That’s where those “in ink” facts come in really handy. They help you weed out the things that can’t possibly apply, and either confirm a record or at least let you put it in the “possible” pile. Maybe you’ve found a record for a man who may be your great grandfather; the birthdays match, the immigration date is close, and he’s boarding in Philadelphia, where you  know you have family. But when you match dates, you realize that when this John Sheerin is bartending in Philly, your great grandfather is living hundreds of miles away, working in a mill, with seven children born in the U.S.

What you weed out is as helpful as what you can confirm. And as you confirm more and more, you can write more and more ink. And that helps you find even more pieces.

Another way you can make research easier is to take notes when your family gets together. You’d be amazed at how helpful those little details can be. For years, whenever my mom and her family would gather for holidays or funerals, or even when she just starts talking on the phone, I pull out a notebook and start jotting down names or places.

That’s been immensely helpful as I research. I’ve got pages of notes with names of who married who and cousins in Rhode Island and Kathleen who had a daughter named Kathleen who had a daughter named Kathleen who is the keeper of the family lore. It not only helps connect the dots on census and vital records, but with a little help from Google and the white pages, you can connect with living relatives, too!

I actually found Kathleen, keeper of the family lore, who has been under my nose along, and was only too happy to share information. I learned Sarah McDevitt married a Quinn and then they married into the Quick family – aha! I see the Quinns on the census living next door to John and Mary Ann! That’s completely in keeping with the family tradition of living within shouting distance of family.

I learned Ellen was of the Third Order of the Franciscans – aha! That IS the right Ellen who is a housekeeper for a Catholic priest named Daniel Cronin – the same Father Cronin who would later perform the marriage ceremony when Sarah’s daughter Helen married Daniel Quirk!

And the pieces start falling into place.

Sunday is Father’s Day, and chances are that you’re getting together with your family. Why not take out the tape recorder or set up the video camera and just let it run while you ask questions to your parents, aunts and uncle, grandparents. Where did you meet your spouse? What do you remember about the house you grew up in? What job did your father and/or mother have? Tell me what your family did for fun when you were a child? Did you ever visit cousins in another city?

Those small details may seem insignificant now. But later – when those family members are gone or their memories are – they may hold the key to unlocking your ancestry.

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2 responses to “Tracing my family tree: a million crazy puzzle pieces

  1. your grandfather had four sisters clare ester lottera and marion

  2. Love your post! It was very interesting reminded me of my own search there are so many variables it’s crazy! I love how fast a family expands from just a couple of relatives to hundreds!

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