As a genealogist, I'm on the receiving end of lots of inquiries from journalists. Usually they're wondering about the roots of this or that famous person, but recently, Laura Ryder, an Irish reporter I interviewed with about tracing Barack Obama's roots to her corner of the world in County Offaly, contacted me to see if I could help with a history mystery of a more personal nature:
"I've just agreed to help my dad out with searching for relatives of someone who emigrated to the US in 1902 . . . A guy called Richard Mills and his sister emigrated to their sister Maggie in New York in September 1902. He returned to Ireland later and lived there for the rest of his life, but his sisters remained in the U.S. My dad would love to trace their families to pass on info about their Irish roots before it's lost from living memory."
Being of half-Irish heritage myself, it would be a fantasy for one of my Irish cousins to contact me out of the blue, so I thought I would do what I could to make that happen for this family. Somewhat surprisingly, I was able to follow the trail of her diaspora cousins using exclusively online resources (yes, I know many think it's all online by now, but you'd be astonished how much isn't!), but it took some doing, so I've decided to share the steps I took in the hope of providing an idea or two for other cousin-seekers out there.
Since Laura had been specific enough to mention the month and year that Richard and his sister arrived in New York, I figured she had their passenger arrival record, so that's where I decided to start. 1902 was a decade after Ellis Island opened, so I knew I could surface find this record at either EllisIsland.org or Ancestry.com. As expected, the manifest furnished some additional details, including the fact that Richard was born about 1880 and his sister -- apparently named Elizabeth -- about 1879. They were listed as being from "Lanesboro" in Ireland. I was off to a good start.
Mills is a painfully common surname, so I wanted to try to place Richard and Elizabeth with their family back in Ireland to obtain more specifics to help ensure I was following the correct people moving forward. Thanking my lucky stars that the Irish government uploaded the 1901 and 1911 census online (for free, no less), I knew exactly where to look.
I decided to search for a Richard Mills of an appropriate age and surfaced a few possibilities. Knowing that the Mills family was from a place called Lanesboro, I had Googled the location and was delighted to discover only two candidates -- one Lanesborough in Co. Roscommon and another in Co. Longford -- so it caught my eye when one of the Richards was from Longford. I clicked through to view the actual census record, and sure enough, he had a sister named Eliza of the same age as the one who had traveled to America. An email exchange with Laura would later confirm that her family was indeed from Longford.
Thanks to the census record, I now knew that the parents of the Mills siblings were named John and Mary. I wasn't sure how useful such common names would be, but I went to one of my favorite websites, FamilySearch, and looked for either a Margaret or Elizabeth Mills with parents named John Mills and Mary. And there was the 1905 New York City marriage of Elizabeth to Albert Edbridge Flanders.
This entry gave the mother's maiden name as Rollins, so I did another search for anyone with parents named John Mills and Mary Rollins, and was rewarded with the 1875 birth of Margaret Mills back in Longford. A little more poking around turned up the births of Richard and Elizabeth as well, so even though I hadn't heard back from Laura yet, I was quite confident I was on the trail of the right family.
Following the Flanders
Now equipped with the somewhat unusual name of Elizabeth's husband, I checked online family trees and found a couple that included Albert and was surprised to learn that he was seemingly from Quebec in Canada. I say "seemingly" because I love having easy Internet access to so many family trees, but am aware that they are often peppered with misinformation depending on the research skills of the tree owner, so tend to take the details included as a starting point to be proved or disproved.
In this case, I quickly discovered that the trees were correct about Albert's Quebecois origins when I went looking for him with Elizabeth in census records. Not finding them in New York in the 1910 U.S. census, I swiftly spotted them in the 1911 Canadian census in Stanstead, Quebec. This document told me that they had three children -- Elsie, Myrtle and Sydney -- in the first six years of their marriage, so I now had traction on the next generation.
With the names of five family members as well as a location, I had a go at Googling combinations of the names and "Stanstead." One of the first hits was for Interment.net and included cemetery details for seven family members. Albert and Elsie were there, as were several new names. Based on years of birth, I figured that at least several of them were for other children born after the 1911 census.
Digging deeper into Google by clicking into "news" and then "archives," I unearthed the 1967 obituary of Albert and Elizabeth's oldest daughter. In addition to explaining that she had been born in New York City and moved to Canada with her parents at the age of three months, her obituary provided a host of useful information such as the names and locations of her siblings as of 1967.
This one obituary furnished plenty of details to allow me to look for the obituaries of other siblings. A couple were revealed through additional googling that led to the website of a Canadian funeral home, while others were found on GenealogyBank, an online newspaper treasure trove.
I was hoping to learn that at least one of Elizabeth's children was still alive, but sadly, the last one passed away in 2006. But the obituaries I found for five of her children informed me that Laura has oodles of North American cousins. Each one mentioned anywhere from seven to 26 grandchildren, and one even noted 61 great-grandchildren and 32 great-great-grandchildren!
At this point, all I had to do was pick some of Elizabeth's grandchildren and look for them in a variety of resources ranging from the Canadian white pages to Privateeye.com. I've shared contact information for six of them with Laura and her excited father, so sometime soon, a cluster of Canadians and Americans will be getting a surprise call -- and a piece of their family past -- from a cousin in Ireland. I'd say it's time to start booking tickets!