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Irish Case Study: U.S. Resources

Follow one researcher's trails through American and Irish records, beginning with U.S. resources.


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I have spent many hours searching my family tree in the library. I spent even more time writing letters and making phone calls. I did all this in pursuit of the maiden name of my great-great grandmother, Mrs. Patrick McGuigan. This three-part series explores that quest, suggesting avenues and resources for others researching their Irish ancestry, beginning with U.S. resources, followed by research in Irish records, finally, reviewing facts and putting it all together.

Collect Family Tradition

First, I collected the oral tradition of my eldest family members. This is always a good place to start. Keep in mind that family stories often contain some mistakes, but, overall, these stories set the stage for identifying family names and how the names fit together.

I learned that my paternal grandmother was Sarah Alice Goodwin. She was born 1 Feb 1896 in New York City. Her parents were Irish immigrants who had married in County Tyrone, Ireland. Their names were John Goodwin (originally McGuigan) and Catherine McGinn. The Goodwins had sons named John, Patrick and Hugh that were older than Sarah. John Jr. remained in Ireland on the farm with his paternal aunts and uncles. He came over to the U.S. for about six months when he was sixteen but did not like it, so he returned to Ireland.

John Goodwin Sr. died in New York City when his daughter was young, circa 1905. His widow remarried and had a son with her second husband. Both were named Francis Gormley. She died before Sarah was an adult, around 1915. They were both buried in Queens at Calvary Cemetery.

John Goodwin had a brother that also immigrated. He was married and had three children; Owen, Thomas, and Kathleen. After their parents died, they lived with Kate Goodwin's sister, who was not a blood relative. This woman sent Kathleen back to the farm in Ireland, while Thomas and Owen remained. Kathleen returned to the U.S. in the 1930s, after the aunts and uncles had died.

The next step was to put flesh on this skeleton by searching records and retrieving documents.

Check the Parish Records

I started my paper research by writing the parishes my aunt mentioned. Sarah Goodwin was baptized at St. Raphael on the west side of Manhattan. St. Raphael replied immediately. She was the child of John Goodwin and Kate McGinn. Her sponsors were John Gormley and Bridget McGinn. I learned that Grandma might have been born on 31 Jan 1896, which disagreed with family tradition and the Social Security Death Index (SSDI).

St. Raphael was also able to find a baptismal entry from 1905 for Francis Gormley but not for his older half-brothers; Patrick and Hugh Goodwin. (Interestingly Catherine Gormley was listed as Catherine Goodwin on her youngest son's baptismal certificate. Might she have been asked what was your name when you got married instead of maiden name?)

The marriage certificate provided minimal details; names of parties, witnesses and priest. Sarah married Joseph Cassidy on 2 Mar 1919 at Ascension Church on West 108th Street.

US Census Records

The United States Census was taken every ten years to set the number of seats each state received in the House of Representatives. From 1850 forward each individual in a household was named in the census. This created a wealth of information on the population and one must search for every ancestor in every census in which they were enumerated. Over time this process has become easier with the Internet and digitization of records.

My first goal was to find the Goodwin family in the 1900 Census. No John Goodwin family was located in Manhattan in 1900. Checking the Soundex for Kate Goodwin, found them at 554 West 46th Street. Kate Goodwin was a widow with children John, 12, Patrick, 10, Hugh, 6 and Sarah, 4. Her brother, Owen McGinn, and three boarders also resided in the apartment. Family lore said when this brother later moved out, Kate had to remarry to keep her male boarders.

The months of birth listed in the census later proved to be incorrect. I knew that Sarah was not born in April, but it proved difficult to research further with faulty dates. John Goodwin Jr. was not supposed to have come over to the USA by 1900 and should not have been enumerated. Might Kate have answered the question, "What are the names of your children?" and not, "Who lives here?" The possibility existed that John did come over to the USA earlier than believed. This census also recorded that Kate arrived in 1889 in the USA.

Finding the Frank and Catherine Gormley family in 1910 was my next step. Without a Miracode listing and before the advent of digitization, this meant I had to scroll block by block. Frank and Catherine were married seven years and it was a second marriage for both. The census stated that Catherine arrived in the U.S. in 1890. Their son Frank Gormley was age 4. Pat Goodwin was 19, Hugh Goodwin was 16, Sarah Goodwin was 14 and Thomas Goodwin was 14. Pat, Hugh, and Sarah were identified as stepchildren and Thomas was listed as nephew. They lived at 594 11th Avenue.

Local and State Censuses

While the U.S. census provided a wealth of information, it is a great idea to determine if any local censuses exist that enumerated your ancestors. These additional snapshots often provide little details that complete the picture when included with other documents.

New York State took several censuses between the decennial censuses conducted by the federal government. In 1905, Frank and Catherine Gormley were enumerated with John Gormley (sic) 17, Patrick Goodwin, 14, Hugh Goodwin, 11 and Sarah Goodwin, 9. John Gormley was born in Ireland and had emigrated two years earlier according to the census. He was listed as a farmer (unlikely in NYC). I am confident that this John was actually Catherine's eldest son and was misidentified, as so many stepchildren were in the census. She emigrated 16 years earlier suggesting an 1889 arrival date. The family lived in the same general neighborhood at 532 West 43rd Street.

John Goodwin Sr. arrived in Manhattan before 1890, but since the U.S. Census for that year was mostly lost it eliminated a place to find his age listed. Since Kate was a widow by 1900 there was no census record for John Sr. in the USA. Luckily, a second census was taken for Manhattan in 1890. I found John and Catherine Goodwin and their infant son Patrick in the 1890 NYC Police Census. This census is a great substitute for the lost 1890 US Census. It was taken in the fall of 1890 because New York was unhappy with the federal census count. Only the records for Manhattan and the Bronx survive from this second count. This police census was available through the Family History Library (FHL). I found John and his family, scrolling block by block. John Goodwin was 25 and his wife Catherine was 26. They lived at 660 11th Avenue.

Cemetery Deeds and Records

Death created a lot of records. It was also the last time that official documents were created regarding an ancestor. Knowing where the Goodwin family was buried helped to answer the questions of when they died and to obtain their death certificates.

I had a copy of the John Goodwin Sr. cemetery deed and obtained an interment list from the cemetery office. This reiterated when the grave was purchased and exactly who was buried there, age at death and when they were buried. The first burial was for a 5-month-old infant named Owen Goodwin. He fit nicely in the gap between Patrick and Hugh. John Goodwin Sr., 34 was buried 27 Dec 1897, before Sarah was 2. Catherine McGinn McGuigan/Goodwin Gormley, 47, was laid to rest on 26 Dec 1911, when Sarah was 15. Family tradition had been a bit off but now I was able to get death certificates, and hopefully, learn more about these immigrants.

New York City Vital Records

I ordered the death certificates from the New York City Municipal Archives, once I knew the burial dates of my great-grandparents. John Goodwin was killed by injuries sustained when he was run over by his own wagon on 24 Dec 1897. His parents' names were not supplied on the death certificate. His death certificate from the very end of the year, suggested that at 34 he was born in 1863. Catherine Gormley's death certificate listed her parents as Patrick McGinn and Alice McWilliams and listed her birthplace as Tyrone, Ireland. She had died 23 Dec 1911. Finding John's parents was going to take some more work.

Another vital record that proved helpful was the birth certificate. This record often listed the age of the parents and helped me narrow down the span of years to find birth or baptismal records of the older generations. Since John's death certificate did not identify his parents, finding his birth or baptismal record became more crucial.

Two of John and Kate Goodwin's children had birth certificates in NYC. His age was listed on the birth certificates for his children Hugh and Sarah, listed at age 27 in Feb 1894 and age 34 in Jan 1896. (My grandmother's birth certificate stated that she was born on 31 Jan 1896 and not the traditional 1 Feb 1896. I now had two separate records that challenged my grandmother.) John Goodwin was born sometime between 1861-1867 using the dates from the vital records and the police census.

Irish Vital Records and the Family History Library

It is important to not search the Irish records too quickly. Since I knew that my great-grandparents had married in County Tyrone in the late 1880s, I hoped to find a copy of their marriage record. Too often researchers try to find an ancestor with insufficient information. Success in the Irish records rested heavily on knowing the location they were from and their approximate date of marriage.

My local family history center had many Irish Civil Registration Indexes on permanent loan. I tried to find the McGuigan-McGinn or Goodwin-McGinn wedding and failed. I tried again after recognizing that the 1900 Census for this family left a lot to be desired. With wider time parameters, I found them in the Irish Marriages Index, 1st Quarter 1888, on page 24 Catherine M'Ginn, Clogher, Volume 3 Page 105 and on page 25 John M'Guigan, Clogher, Volume 3, Page 105. I wrote down the information and wrote to Dublin for a copy of the marriage record.

The record arrived in a few weeks and provided that John was a farmer, aged 22, the son of a farmer, Patrick of Tulnafoil townland, in Clogher parish, County Tyrone. (A townland is the equivalent of a rural address.) I expected to find them in Omagh based on my aunt's recollection, but Clogher is just down the road from Omagh. The marriage certificate established that Patrick M'Guigan was alive as late as 14 Feb 1888. Unfortunately, Irish civil marriage records did not record the mother's name, but at least I had the father's name and a specific parish to write to and hopefully get more information. It confirmed that the father's name on Catherine's 1911 death certificate was correct and established that he too was alive in 1888.

Contacting a Priest in Ireland

Since I had received good cooperation with the Catholic parishes in Manhattan, I thought writing to the Irish parish was the next step. This was a big misconception.

I wrote the priest in Clogher and received the shock of my life. I was not sure how to handle international donations, so I included a ten-dollar bill with my request and an International Reply Coupon. In a week or so I had my reply. My cash and letter were returned. On the top of my letter was written, "Fee for a search is $1000." I was stunned because I was writing to the church where the wedding took place and the townland names would be local addresses to the pastor. Other researchers told me that this priest must not want to have anything to do with genealogy so he set the price ridiculously high.

Dismayed but not defeated, I decided to search Irish records I could access, and ordered the film from Salt Lake City. The second article in this series explores research in Irish records.

Other articles in this series:

Irish Case Study: Irish Records

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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