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March 12, 2011

From Theory to Fact: 30 Years in the Making

For 30 plus years I've searched for a record showing where my McGinnis family came from in Ireland. I don't mean the town or village (although that would be nice), I mean the County.

Lest you think I'm a pretty bad genealogist who can't find what might seem to be a simple little record, let me explain:

My McGinnis roots stem from a large family group that arrived in Puslinch Township, Wellington County Ontario circa 1831. That's early for Ontario. At that time it was a wilderness called Upper Canada and was very sparsely populated.

As anyone who has searched for ancestors in Upper Canada can testify, genealogy records pre 1851 are few and far between. There are no census records (they didn't begin until 1851), no vital registrations (they didn't start until 1869) and church records are sparse.

If, like mine, your ancestors were Catholics in Ontario you're pretty much out of luck for church records as most are in the hands of local priests who have them locked securely away. The public is not allowed access even to older records in the mid 1800s.

There were few newspapers in that time period. Of the few that were published, not many have survived. Those that survive for the area I need are not indexed. So an approximate date of an event is a necessity in order to hunt for an obit or other record.

Ships passenger lists were not archived until 1865. There are substitutes but my McGinnis don't show up on any. Don't get me wrong - there ARE some records for this early time period in Ontario - tax and assessment records, land records, and a few other miscellaneous record sets. But every local area has different records that have survived.  So it's a long process to find out what records exist and where they are kept.

Back to my Irish family who arrived from somewhere in Ireland circa 1831. I have land records for them. I have tax and assessment records back to 1833. I have death records. I have marriage records. I have some Catholic Church records of baptisms in the 1840s. I have  Catholic Church burial records for many of them. In fact with my 30 plus years of research on all branches of the original McGinnis settlers, I've got an entire filing cabinet drawer full of relevant documents.

In order to learn where in Ireland my McGinnis family originated I have searched all 9 children down several generations. I've hunted for obituaries and death records in particular, praying for a mention of a town or county in Ireland.  Nothing.

However there was one son for whom I have not been able to find a death record or obituary. I knew he died between 1881 and 1891. I knew where he lived. But nothing could be found.

Family lore from descendants of his branch claimed Belfast as his place of birth. Family lore from my branch claimed Belfast as the place of birth of my great-grandfather's sister.

I had my brother's DNA done. We linked in with McGinnis families near Belfast. I contacted a descendant of one of the two known sisters from Ireland. She had early photos and on the back of one was written, in period handwriting, "Katesbridge Ireland" Katesbridge is in Co. Down and not far from Belfast.

This was all pretty exciting for me as it definitely gave me enough clues and pieces of circumstantial evidence to hesitantly proclaim that PERHAPS my Joseph McGinnis was from Katesbridge or Belfast in Co. Down. Perhaps.

Still unable to find a death date for the one remaining brother (Hugh) who was born in Ireland, I set my research aside. Then the breakthrough - two amazing women who have written several history books, spent many years going through newspapers to gather obituaries for (drum roll please!) people who had lived in Puslinch Township.  Doesn't sound impressive? It is. "A Celebration of Lives: Obituaries of Puslinch Township Wellington County Ontario" was published recently as a two-volume set consisting of 1,408 pages. There are over 6,500 obituaries. It's impressive.

It had limited printing but I managed to get the last copy. It arrived last week. Of course I skipped right to the "M" pages and unbelievably there it was - an obituary for my Hugh McGinnis of Hespeler. His obit stated he was born in Co. Down Ireland.  I know an obituary is only as reliable as the person giving the information but it is another piece of evidence. I wish I could find his death registration but still no luck, even with now knowing the month and year and location of his death.

This morning I scrolled through every image on for a period of 12 months from his death with no success. His death is not there. But I have the obituary and that thrills me! It adds to the growing weight of clues.

Second wonderful item - Hugh's wife was born in USA circa 1810. Due to finding other bits and pieces of clues, including finding her parents' and siblings' names, I found a record in 1830 in Potsdam New York which I was pretty sure was her family. Pretty sure, but not positively proven, so not good enough for me.

Did I mention that one of Hugh's brothers married one of his wife's sisters? The finding of the Potsdam record was important because I know that Hugh (and probably his siblings) was in America before 1831. This would give me more locations for searching if my theory about Potsdam was correct.

And there it was in my new-found obituary book. The obit for Hugh's wife stating that she was born in Potsdam New York in 1810!

I love it when a theory becomes fact. Proven fact. I don't care how long it takes, I refuse to give up! And the moral of my story is that you should never give up either. You never know when that little tidbit of information will fall into your hands. Maybe it wasn't available when you first began your research. New data is being found and transcribed all the time. Who knows, maybe the piece you need is waiting for you right now.

So stop reading this blog post and go back and look over your earlier research! Is there a clue there? Something you couldn't find 10 or 15 or more years ago, but  maybe now you can? What are you waiting for???!!


txlynnage said...

Congrats! I wish I had that much luck with my elusive great grandfather John Flanagan. I am not giving up yet!

Becky Jamison said...

I'll bet you've also spent a bit of time reading through all those other obituaries. This is a wonderful discovery for you and I'm happy for you, Lorine! Thanks for sharing the details.

Mary J. Lohr said...

Congratulations on your persistence ... which led to your success. Sometimes the genealogy wait makes it all worthwhile. I found your description and sleuthing work inspiring. Those Irish are not always easy to find. (Mine took some time, also.)

Marie said...


Bet that feels good! I know how I felt when I finally discovered the townland one of my family branches originated from - amazing - and I followed it up with a visit which was really great.

Geniaus said...

Congratulations, persistence pasy off!
You have given me hope that I may get somewhre with a couple of Irish-Australian brick walls.
Can't imagine how satisfied you must be feeling

Tamura Jones said...

I understand your enthusiasm at finding this information, but an obituary is at best a secondary source. It is also a non-legal and non-official source.
Now that you have an approximate date and a place to verify, you should try to find her official birth record there.

Leslie Brinkley Lawson said...

You give me hope that I might yet solve the puzzle! My Adam Finlay/Finley and his family came over from County Down between 1815 and 1824. Maybe it IS time for another review! Thank you for the inspiration!

Genealogy Blogger said...

Tamura - As I said in my original post "I know an obituary is only as reliable as the person giving the information but it is another piece of evidence"

I use obits as clues, to follow up on and verify.

Not sure what you're talking about when you say they are not "legal". Legal? As in against the law? Seriously, you've confused me.

I do my genealogy research to suit me. Meaning I do it to the best of my ability, I verify what I find. I postulate and then seek out sources to prove or disprove my theories. I leave no stone unturned. I weigh each piece of data I find to determine it's validity and it's merit as a clue.

I've been researching and writing articles for many years. But I've never heard the term "legal" as applied to a resource. Can you explain?

DianaR said...

How wonderful! It's amazing how things that we've looked for for so many years finally show up - good for you! Can't wait to hear what else you find now that you have these additional pieces of information.

Diane B. said...

Congratulations, Lorine! Let's hear it for the ladies who preserved genealogical information on the local level.

Diane B.

Laurie M said...

Your mystery sounds so similar to mine. I'm tracing my Uphaus/Uphouse family and desperately trying to connect to their German village. I have a very strong theory...and always love the thrill of a break thru!

Geolover said...

Thanks so much for sharing this story and its lesson!

I had let go looking for answers to an 1880 enumeration entry for a distant cousin, last time she appears in County records. In 'marital status' is a big 'D' but she had borne her father's surname in all known records.

Just last year I searched the web for her name and among the results was an entry for a State Supreme Court case in _Southeast Reporter_ in a volume that had been digitized. Took a look and holy cow! She had married (not recorded in the County or elsewhere in the State), borne a child in 1839 (before birth records kept); hubby left her and divorced her in ~a distant state~ and later came and just took the child, renamed him, remarried, and 40 years later the child claimed a share of land owned by the woman enumerated for 1880 as 'D', who died later that year. All this was summarized in the Court Opinion from witness affidavits.

Ya never know where the treasure is buried, and ya certainly don't find it if ya don't look!