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How Our Ancestors Died

Editor’s Note: The following article is written by author Dr. Terrence Punch. His work includes multiple volumes on Irish immigration to Atlantic Canada, Some Early Scots in Maritime Canada, Volumes I-III, North America’s Maritime FunnelThe Ships that Brought the Irish, 1749-1852 and Montbeliard Immigration to Nova Scotia, 1749-1752. Dr. Punch has authored other articles we’ve shared on this blog including Canadian Maritime Provinces and New England: Differences in Record Keeping, Part I and Canadian Maritime Provinces and New England: Differences in Record Keeping, Part II. He can also be heard as a resident genealogist on CBC Radio. 

In this article, “What Our Ancestors Died Of,” Dr. Punch shares tips on how to identify how our ancestors died when the causes can be mislabeled or unclear. This piece contains a list of frequently seen causes of death, and what they actually mean, as well as additional resources to help you on your search. 

Some genealogists collect only ancestors, that is, people from whom they are personally descended. When traced out on a sheet of paper or a spreadsheet you often have a pattern resembling an inverted Christmas tree, wide at the top and pointed at the bottom. Others take a great deal of trouble to track down collateral relatives, the siblings of ancestors and their descendants. If they began with a couple of progenitors, the result will tend to spread more widely with the passing of the generations.

This is not always the case. One couple had eleven children, sixteen grandchildren, but just four great-grandchildren, all four of whom grew to adulthood, two of them married and none of them had children. Within three generations a large family had completely died out. Imagine the original matriarch, dying in 1883 leaving eight children and nine grandchildren, and in 2003 her last descendant died, childless.

One of the reasons why people try to compile genealogies linking collateral relatives as well as direct ancestors is to produce a health history of their wider family circle. They ask questions about age at death, causes of death, conditions that appeared to run in the family, handicaps, tendency to accidents and mishaps, even towards suicide. Continue reading…

Military Ancestry

Bogus Stories Complicate Search for Military Ancestry

Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of Richard Hite’s book, Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact from Fiction in Family Legends, entitled “Military Service of Ancestors.” As Mr. Hite points out, bogus stories of military ancestors can confound family historians, and make tracing your military ancestry a much murkier and more difficult task. However, confounding stories of military forebears illustrates just one way genealogists can be lead down the primrose path in their research. Mr. Hite’s acclaimed book, Sustainable Genealogy is full of such cautionary tales and ways to avoid pitfalls and missteps. 

When I hear of some of the wildly exaggerated claims of the military exploits of my own ancestors and anyone else’s, I am reminded of “The Battle of Mayberry” episode of the Andy Griffith Show.  In one episode, Opie’s class was assigned to write an essay about the so-called “Battle of Mayberry” which had involved the early settlers of the town of Mayberry and the Native American population two centuries earlier.  Andy and Aunt Bea immediately told Opie about his own ancestor, Colonel Carlton Taylor who, by their account, played a leading role in the battle.  Opie then went on to talk to all of the major characters in the town  . . . [who] all told stories about ancestors who held the rank of “Colonel” at the time of the battle.  All of them described the settlers winning the battle with only fifty armed men facing 500 Native Americans.  Andy, realizing Opie’s confusion over the conflicting accounts, took him to visit a local Native American named Tom Strongbow . . .  who told of his own ancestor, Chief Strongbow, leading fifty warriors to a victory over 500 armed settlers.  . . .  Finally, Andy took Opie to Raleigh, North Carolina, the state capital, to give him an opportunity to look up contemporary accounts of the battle.  What Opie found was a newspaper account that told of a dispute that started over a cow accidentally killed by a Native American in Mayberry.  Instead of fighting a battle though, fifty settlers and fifty braves settled the dispute by sharing several jugs of liquor and killing some deer to compensate the owner of the cow.

From Private to Major

That whole story is, of course, fictitious but exaggerated accounts of ancestors’ military exploits are a dime a dozen in oral history whether “truly oral” or “written oral.”  One of the most common mistakes is an inflated rank assigned to an ancestor.  A likely source of this, particularly for Civil War soldiers, stems from the late 19th and early 20th century habit of referring to elderly veterans of that war as “Colonel” or “Major” – even for those that never rose above the rank of private.  This was most common for Confederate veterans, but Union veterans were also referred to by these honorary titles in some instances.  It is easy for overeager descendants who hear an ancestor referred to by an honorary rank to jump to the conclusion that he actually did hold such a rank while in the service.  Usually, these claims of such high rank are relatively easy to check, especially for Civil War soldiers.  Records for soldiers in earlier wars are not so voluminous but there are many, nonetheless.  Service records and pension applications give the ranks soldiers achieved and it is not at all unusual to learn that an honorary major never actually rose above the rank of private.  In the case of common names, proof (or disproof) may be a bit more of a challenge.  A descendant of a private named John Smith will undoubtedly have little trouble finding a colonel or a major with that rank in some regiment from the state their own ancestor served from.  In this kind of a case, researchers should examine the economic circumstances of the ancestors, before and after the war.  Assuming that a man named John Smith, who owned less than fifty dollars’ worth of real estate at the time of the 1860 and 1870 census enumerations held the rank of “Colonel” during the Civil War is not a leap of faith I would make. Continue reading…

Death Records

Death Records: Ten Documents Every Genealogist Should Own

Editor’s Note: William Dollarhide knows how to organize, manage and execute a genealogy project. His tricks, rules and witty tips provide valuable guidance to genealogy researchers at all levels. Following are his ten documents every genealogist should own and tips on where to find them:

Go Get the Death Records!

A death certificate is not enough, and it might not even be correct. If you know a person’s exact date and place of death, then you have several more sources pertaining to a person’s death. If you can obtain these other death records, you will certainly learn more about your ancestors.

Here are ten places to look for a death record. All ten sources should be obtained for every ancestor on your pedigree chart and every member of a family on your family group sheet.

1. Death Certificates. A rule in genealogy is to treat the brothers and sisters of your ancestors as equals. That means you need to obtain genealogical sources for all of them. For instance, for every ancestor on your pedigree chart, and for every brother or sister of an ancestor, you need to obtain a death certificate (assuming they are dead). If there were six siblings in an ancestor’s family, a death certificate for each sibling will give six different sources about the same parents, places where the family lived, names of spouses, names of cemeteries, names of funeral directors, and other facts about a family. If a death certificate for your ancestor fails to provide the name of the deceased’s mother, for example, a sibling’s death certificate might give the full maiden name. How do you get a death certificate? Go to the site, where detailed information about accessing death records can be found. It is a free-access website, and all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories or possessions are represented. Always start with a death certificate because the names, dates, and places you will find on a death certificate will lead you to further records.

2. Funeral Records. A death certificate may mention the name and location of a funeral director. Find a current funeral home in North America at This site has the listings from a directory of funeral homes called “The Yellow Book.” A funeral record may include names of survivors, names of the persons responsible for the funeral expenses, and, often, obscure biographical information about the deceased not available anywhere else. Modern funeral records are full of genealogical information about the deceased and may include copies of newspaper obituaries, death certificates, printed eulogies, funeral programs, and other details about the person. A reference to a burial permit, cremation, or cemetery can be found here as well. Generally, funeral directors are very easy to talk to and very cooperative. Even if the old name of a funeral home is not listed in a current directory, it should be possible to locate the current funeral home holding the records of an earlier one. Funeral homes rarely go out of business but, more often, are taken over by another funeral director. If at one time a town had two or three funeral homes, but only one today, the “Yellow Book” listing is still the source for finding the current funeral home in that town because it can lead you to information about the older funeral home. Funeral directors are also experts on the location of cemeteries in their area.

3. Cemetery Records. If the name of a cemetery is mentioned on the death certificate or funeral record, that cemetery is now a source of information about the person who died. There may be a record in the sexton’s office of the cemetery, or off-site at a caretaker’s home; and the gravestone inscription may be revealing as well. When you contact a funeral home, ask about the cemetery where the person was buried and whether the funeral home has an address or phone number for the cemetery office, or at least know who might be the keeper of records for the cemetery. At the same time, ask the funeral director for the names of monument sellers/stone masons who cater to cemeteries in the area. As a back-up, a local stone mason may have a record of a monument inscription for the deceased’s gravestone. To locate a cemetery anywhere in the U.S., a special list can be obtained from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) within their Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). The GNIS contains the names of over two million place names (map features) in America, of which about 107,000 are cemeteries. Visit the GNIS website and click on “Domestic Names” to search for any named cemetery. Continue reading…

Northern Ireland Genealogy

A Look at Northern Ireland Genealogy – Part II

Editor’s Note: The following is a continuation of our earlier discussion on research related to Northern Ireland genealogy, an adaptation of a post by the late Carolyn L. Barkley. Please read A Look at Northern Ireland Genealogy – Part I to read a brief history of Northern Ireland. Part III will contain resources to help you as you reconstruct your ancestry of Northern Ireland.

Ireland – A brief look at civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions

Records are usually created in response to a particular historical, political, religious, or socioeconomic event or trend. In considering Irish records, it is important to understand the several types of boundaries within which individuals lived in order to locate appropriate records. As much of our research of Northern Ireland genealogy probably falls into the pre-1921 era, the following information applies to all counties.

First, there are civil jurisdictions. Beginning with the smallest civil division, an individual fell within the jurisdiction of a townland, a rather amorphous entity varying in size from ten to several thousand acres. Creating confusion is the fact that townlands do not contain towns and might not even contain any inhabitants, but are part of the address of many individuals, particularly those in rural areas. There are approximately 64,000 townlands. They are normally organized into civil parishes, which can contain as many as twenty-five to thirty townlands as well as actual towns and villages. There are approximately 2,500 civil parishes.

The next type of jurisdiction, baronies, are groups of civil parishes. However, just to complicate things again, barony boundaries may not always conform to the boundaries of the civil parishes they contain. There are 273 baronies.

The Irish county is the most constant type of organization.  There are thirty-two counties and they are, in turn, organized into provinces (Connaught, Leinster, Munster, and Ulster). Should the progression of townland, civil parish, barony, county, province not be enough for you to master, there are also cities, towns, boroughs, poor law unions (established in 1838 and named after a local large town), and general registrar districts (areas within which birth, marriage, and death records are collected, but which do not match county boundaries). This can be quite confusing. Hang in there!

A source that will significantly help you in sorting out these civil divisions is the General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland. If, for example, you look up the townland known as Drumbeecross, you will find that it is situated in County Armagh, the Barony of Fews Lower, the Parish of Mullaghbrack, and the Poor Law Union (in 1857) of Armagh. The Index also provides a citation to the townland census of 1851 and the number of the sheet on which Drumbeecross appears in the Ordnance Survey Maps.

To further compound the records complexity, there are ecclesiastical divisions, including church parishes, presided over by a priest or minister. Church of Ireland (Protestant) parishes usually encompass the same area as the civil parish, but Catholic parishes do not. Parishes are grouped into dioceses, presided over by a bishop. These dioceses again do not conform to county boundaries, nor do Church of Ireland parishes encompass the same localities as Catholic parishes.

Finally, there are General Registrar’s Districts, usually named for a large town falling within their boundaries, which are responsible for the civil registration of birth, marriage and death records that are not maintained on a county basis. More complications: Centralized registration for the Church of Ireland began in 1845, but universal civil registration did not occur until 1864.

Maps of ecclesiastical divisions can be found in the second edition of Brian Mitchell’s New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland. Information useful in determining extant parish registers is available in Mitchell’s A Guide to Irish Parish Registers. If, for example, you look up the civil parish of Mullaghbrack in County Armagh, you will find that its Church of Ireland parish of the same name was established in 1787, that its Roman Catholic parishes are Ballymore and Mullaghbrack, and that its Presbyterian parishes included Markethill, Drumminis, and Redrock, with some mergers throughout the years. In addition, there was a Methodist Parish of Markethill, established in 1830.

A brief look at uniquely Irish records

Space does not allow an in-depth discussion of Irish record types. A few, however, are important enough to Northern Ireland genealogy research to warrant at least brief mention:

  • Tithe Applotment Survey. The Church of Ireland became the established church in 1867. Tithes were levied to provide for the maintenance of the Church. Valuations, conducted between 1823 and 1837, determined the tithe payable by each landowner. This list is not comprehensive as only certain types of land were taxable and urban residents were not included. Tithe Applotment Survey information for the six counties of modern-day Northern Ireland is available on a CD entitled Tithe Applotment Books, 1823-1838.
  • Griffith’s Valuation Survey. All lands in Ireland were surveyed between 1848 and 1864 in order to establish the levy rate for local taxes payable by each land or leaseholder. This survey lists each landholder or householder and provides the name of the townland, a description of the property, the name of the landlord, and the annual valuation. An index of the names in the Title Applotment and Griffith’s Valuation Surveys is available on microfilm from the National Library of Ireland as well as on CD (An Index to Griffith’s Valuation 1848-1864) from Genealogical Publishing Company. Another helpful source is James R. Reilly’s Richard Griffith and His Valuations of Ireland.
  • Spinning Wheel Premium Bounty List. This list, sometimes referred to as the Flax Growers List, was published in 1796 by the Irish Linen Board and includes the names of almost 60,000 individuals who received awards for planting a specified acreage of flax. The information includes the name of the grower, the civil parish and county where the flax was grown.
  • Rate Books. The Poor Law Relief Act was enacted in 1838. Under this welfare law, landholders were required to contribute to programs to help the poor in their area. As if there were not already enough jurisdictions, new divisions called Poor Law Unions were established in order to collect and distribute the contributions, known as rates. The Rate Books list payers by area, holding and valuation.

Image Credit: Ballintoy Harbour, Northern Ireland. Image belongs to and accessed from

Norther Ireland Genealogy

A Look at Northern Ireland Genealogy Research – Part I

Editor’s Note: The post below has been adapted from a post by the late Carolyn L. Barkley. The topic of Northern Ireland Genealogy is extensive, and what we attempt to address in three parts is merely brushing the surface. We aim to provide a foundation in the history, records, and resources to assist those looking for their roots in Northern Ireland Genealogy. 

Some may find Irish research more difficult than other immigrant-related genealogy. It is not enough to know the unique record categories of Irish genealogy – Title Applotments, Griffith’s Valuation, and the Spinning Wheel Premium Bounty List – to name only a few. Instead, to do Irish research well requires an understanding of its history and jurisdictions as well as its records.

To help you delve into your own Irish-related genealogy, let’s take a brief look at the history of the Northern Ireland, the various jurisdictional divisions effecting Irish records, and a few of the more unique record types. Obviously, these topics are more extensive than we have space allowed here. Even so, the information will be presented in three parts. (Please see Part II to learn more about jurisdictions and records, and Part III for resources to assist your research.)

Ireland – A brief look at the historical perspective

Ireland’s history is characterized by invasion: the earliest arrivals in 6500 B.C., the Danes and the Vikings in the eighth and ninth centuries, the Normans in the twelfth century, and the mid-sixteenth century “reconquest” begun by England’s Henry VIII. As might be expected, these invasions ran into severe resistance and the subsequent uprisings seemed continual. In Ulster, the O’Neills and the O’Donnells fought back unsuccessfully during the Nine Years War (1594-1603), resulting in the “flight of the Earls” in 1607. Their defeat opened the door for the “planting” of English and Scottish families in the northern counties – the Ulster Plantation. Another wave of rebellion occurred in 1641, but was finally extinguished in 1649 following Cromwell’s victory in the English Civil War.

With the advent of a degree of peace, much of the land was removed from the indigenous Catholic ownership and redistributed to individuals in favor with the new government in London. Following the return of the Stuarts to the throne, James II invited many settlers into Ireland, particularly Protestants, in an attempt to stifle rebellion and to gain firmer control over the island.  When James was himself defeated in Ireland by William of Orange in 1690, the resulting rent increases, wide-spread emigration of Catholics, and imposition of the Penal Laws not only restricted Catholic rights, but often applied to Presbyterians as well, prompting their emigration to North American and Canada.

While the beauty of the Irish countryside suggested a bucolic peacefulness, such an image was misleading. In 1800, under the Acts of Union, the Kingdom of Ireland was combined with the Kingdom of Great Britain forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Following the abolition of the Irish Parliament and the transfer of representation to Westminster, unrest became more frequent and vocal.

The rising in 1916, known as the Easter Rebellion, led to twenty-six counties choosing independence and eventually, five years later in 1921, to the creation of the Republic of Ireland [or “The Irish Free State” for those of us who went to school at a certain time]. Six counties, however, – Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Derry, and Tyrone, chose to remain within the United Kingdom and became known as “Northern Ireland.” Modern history attests to the fact that struggle, often violent, remains a part of life in Northern Ireland. Sectarian feelings remain strong and a fragile co-existence has been achieved only within the past decade.

Please visit Northern Ireland Genealogy – Part II which includes civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions, and Northern Ireland Genealogy – Part III Research Resources (coming soon) to learn more.

Image Credit: Andy Hay, via The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Please visit their website to see the image in context and learn more about RSPB work in Northern Ireland: .