Trust but Verify...

I still have the notes I took the first time I interviewed a relative about our family history.  I was around twelve years old and saw myself as quite the detective, with my small spiral notepad in hand and a pencil behind my ear.  My grandfather told me that his parents were immigrants.  His father came from England and his mother from Ireland -- and that she had come to America alone, on a cattle boat.

Of course, I asked all the wrong questions and left out the most important ones, but those notes are precious to me because my grandfather died before I had the chance to sit down with him again and do it right.  So the notes I took as a twelve-year old were all I had to direct my research.  

But..... as we all know well:  you can't take any evidence at face value, even from the best of sources.  For years I assumed my great-grandmother Julia had no family in America, because her son told me that she came over by herself.  If I had just accepted Granddad's statement as literal fact, I would still be staring at that dreaded brick wall.  

The secret is to keep asking questions about your hypotheses, play devil's advocate...and please, don't assume the records are all 100% accurate! (I've got another blog post coming up about how an "official" city marriage record is dead wrong....)  So follow that old Russian proverb from the cold war and "trust, but verify!"  

For those who are interested in the family of Julia Flynn and John Joseph Hill of Geneva, New York, here are some details on my research process:

The first evidence I found for Julia Flynn was her 1896 marriage to John Joseph Hill in Geneva -- the marriage record gives us a link to an earlier generation by including the names of their parents (Julia was the daughter of Margaret Kelly and John Flynn; John Joseph was the son of Thomas Hill and Elizabeth Scott).  After that, Julia and John Joseph appear in the 1900 and 1910 federal census of Geneva (Julia is also found in all other census enumerations through 1940).  The only other records I have for them are John Joseph's 1916 death certificate and both of their burial records from St. Patrick's Cemetery in Geneva.   As recent immigrants, they didn't leave much of a trail.
John Joseph Hill, Julia Flynn Hill and son Robert, ante 1916
Not too long ago, FamilySearch digitized many of the NY State censuses, which provided the break I needed.  The 1892 state census was taken four years before Julia's marriage, so I searched for her under her maiden name, "Flynn" and, as expected, found her in Geneva:

One problem with the 1892 NY census was that it did not list people by household; it is just one running list of individuals.  You can only guess about the composition of the households by seeing who is enumerated next to whom.  In this case, Julia appeared at the top of the page, but if you look at the person directly before her in the list, you find this:

 Margaret Flynn..... hmmm.... I know from her marriage record that Julia's mother's name was Margaret.  I wonder if this could be her??????

So next I went back to the 1900 census of Geneva, and found a Margaret Flynn of about the same age listed as "mother-in-law" in the household of Agnes and William O'Brien.  And, applying genealogy rule #1, I went back and rechecked my earlier sources:
  • I found that an Agnes Flynn had witnessed Julia and John Joseph's 1896 marriage.
  • My grandfather had said that his mother had two sisters and a brother:  Aggie, Maggie, and Jim.  Somehow, over the years (since I was 12...) I had forgotten that detail!  It just reminds me how important it is to reexamine your sources every now and then.  Facts that you overlook one time may jump out at you when you look at them later.

Certainly Agnes must be "Aggie!"  I checked to see if there were any newspaper articles about her on  Old Fulton Postcards, and found a 1948 obituary, which included information that she left a sister, Mrs. Julia Hill, and five nephews.  Score!
Geneva (NY) Daily Times, 3 March 1948

Julia's sister Margaret's story is more poignant.  In the 1910 census, the O'Brien household included a widowed Margaret Fitton, identified as William O'Brien's sister-in-law.  This household also included his wife Agnes C., a 7-year old nephew John V. Fitton, and his mother-in-law, Margaret Flynn.  By the 1915 NY state census, both the O'Brien and Fitton families had moved to Rochester, and the younger Margaret had remarried.  Her second husband, John Culhane, was a widower, and they had a blended household  consisting of his two children, Margaret's son, and her mother.  So with that outline of their family structure, I then went back to the newspapers and discovered her story.

On 27 September 1898, the Geneva Advertiser reported that John Fitton had become totally blind, saying: "It came on him very suddenly early in the summer.  He was at work, and at first he says spots seemed to float before his eyes, then everything seemed to turn yellow, then dark, and he hastened home while he was able to get there."  Doctors gave him very little hope of regaining his vision, and the paper editorialized: "Brethren, this is tough.  He is a young man, with a wife but no children, and the future cannot be bright for him." According to the census records, their only son, John V. Fitton, was born ca. 1903, after his father became blind.

The Geneva Daily Times carried this story in its edition of 27 April 1905:

The article continues on, describing John's last moments in great detail. To me, the most interesting thing about it is that it ends by naming the parents, siblings, and child of the deceased, but notes only that he left "a widow," without naming her.  Am I being paranoid to think that this might be an example of anti-Irish sentiment?  The article also ties together several clues from other sources -- it confirms that John A. and Margaret Fitton lived on Burrall Street, the same street as Julia and John Joseph Hill.  It also confirms that John A.'s father lived on Main Street, as did a Dr. Hopkins, who treated him after he took the arsenic.  In the 1900 census, a Margaret Fitton was enumerated as a married servant in the household of a Dr. William Hopkins, residing on Main Street in Geneva!

The underlying theme of this entire research project is to find Julia's origins in Ireland.  Once I knew Julia's sisters and mother were in America, too, I did a few searches on, and found the following passenger record from the port of Philadelphia, dated 12 August 1888, which looks suspiciously like our family:

Unfortunately, no record was made of their home town, so the search continues.

Still, out of all the Flynn siblings, I really knew nothing about Julia's brother Jim.  The notes I took when I interviewed my grandfather all those years ago suggest that he died in St. Louis.  That was good luck, because the Missouri state archives has placed a wealth of data online, and I was easily able to find this:

This was a major breakthrough -- the first documented evidence I've found so far of this family's place of origin in Ireland.  (I'll leave the ensuing happy dance to your imagination!)

As you can see, this is ongoing research.  I still need to find the death certificate for the matriarch, Margaret Flynn, as well as birth and marriage records for Julia's sisters and their families.  This is high on my "to do" list for my next visit to the National Archives in Manhattan, which is the closest repository for the NY birth/marriage/death index.  Another open question is when and where were they all naturalized?  As early as 1892, the Flynn women appear as "citizens" on the census.  Sometimes this was just the census taker being lazy, but it was consistent enough to make me think that they had a male relative who was naturalized and through whom they automatically became citizens.  Was this James, or did their father, John, come over as well?  The latter doesn't seem likely because the mother didn't arrive in America until 1888.  Maybe now I know where to look, I can find records for the family in County Cork!

Click this link to see a spreadsheet summarizing all the documents I have found for this family.  I find it a really useful way to see all the data I have for one person at a glance. By examining the consistency of the data, together with the reliability of each data source, I can more readily assess the accuracy of my evidence.