Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mortuary Records Of The Catholic Order of Foresters Talk

I got to attend my first Back To Our Past conference in Dublin a few weeks ago and there was one talk in particular that I had earmarked to attend: Finding Your American Cousins - A New Source for Massachusetts Mortuary Records, 1880 - 1943. This talk was about a topic I have blogged about before, the mortuary records of the Catholic Order of Foresters (COF) (access here and here). 

To quickly recap, the COF was a fraternal life insurance organization founded in Boston in 1879 by a group of Irish immigrants. Over the ensuing decades, the organization spread throughout the state and by the end of the 19th century there were ninety-five branches throughout Massachusetts.[1]

Mary Choppa, of the Massachusetts based Irish Ancestral Research Association, and Joanne Riley, an archivist at the Healey Library, University of Massachusetts Boston, crossed the Atlantic to give the talk. They started by outlining what the Catholic Order of Foresters was, what information was contained in the mortuary records, and how they came into the possession of TIARA and then the Healey library.

The genealogical strength of the mortuary records lie in the considerable level of detail that a person had to provide to get an insurance policy and the efforts and correspondence that were undertaken to ensure all relevant parties received a payout when the policy holder passed away. I hope to have an example of such a mortuary record on this blog in the next couple of weeks but for now I'll summarize the main points that were discussed.
  • Women were admitted to the Order, starting in 1894
  • The branches that were set up all over Massachusetts were called courts and there are surviving records of the activities of each court
  • There are 79,000 records available and they cover the years 1879 up to the late 1960s/early 1970s.
  • Each record contains between 8 and 29 pages
  • Information in the records include details such as name, address, information about parents and siblings including when and how parents died, name and address of one friend, details about beneficiaries including maiden and married name of females, names of family members even if they were not beneficiaries
  • The beneficiaries were sometimes family members who lived in Ireland. The records for such a person include correspondence between the family members in Ireland and the COF.
  • They are currently open for people to access up to 1943. A 72 year rule of access applies and as each year passes, one more new year of records will be accessible to the public
  • A different death certificate was supplied than the state/city issued civil death certificate, which can potentially have different information
  • The court that a person was a member of can indicate where the person resided in the state

The speakers noted that practically every Irish American family in Massachusetts today has at least one ancestor who can be found in these records. Currently, you can search an index of names through 1935 and apply to the Healey library for a copy of the documents. Records for the years 1936 to 1943 are also available and contact should be made with the Healey Library to search those years. An added bonus was disclosed at that talk in that the records up to 1935 will be making their way onto in the future.  They will be indexed and all images will be digitized. No date was provided so keep an eye on the regular new record announcements.

[1] TIARA. Tiara Foresters Project. 2011. accessed 16 December 2013.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Catholic Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia

The land for St Mary's Catholic Cemetery in Norfolk, Virginia was purchased in 1854. Since that date, it has served as the resting place for Catholics from the Norfolk, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach areas of the state. This is an area of the United States that did not see a lot of immigration of Catholic from Ireland. As a result, the few Catholic parishes and cemeteries that they helped to create are important resources for genealogical research.

The About section of the cemeteries' website has a link to a database of interments that is hosted on the US Gen Web Archive. The database is considerable, with burials from the 1850s to the 21st century included. What makes this such a useful resource is that the information provided for each person was drawn from a number of different sources including original cemetery records, parish records, local death records, headstone inscriptions, obituaries and other records.

Names, dates of burial, dates of death, estimated years of birth, actual dates of birth and a link to an image of the headstone are provided for those in the database. Significantly, place of origin in Ireland is also included for some of the deceased.

For example, John M. O' Connor died on 16 October 1908. He was born about 1866 in Galway. Even though he is buried in Norfolk, Virginia, he died in Baltimore, Maryland.[1] Patrick McCarrick was born in Ballina, County Mayo on 16 June 1821 and died 3 February 1888. He was a captain in the Confederate Navy.[2]

Note: It is important to remember that the information in this database is a secondary source and was derived from primary source documentation. It is possible that mistakes occurred in the creation of this database so the primary source should be obtained wherever possible in your research.

[1] Alesia Raper, Tim Bonney, Robert B. Hitchings, Bill Inge, Colin Boklage, Marian Rudd, Emilie Hauser, Connie Kean & Candice Cheshire. St Mary's Cemetery Interment Database - O. Date Unknown. : 10 October 2015
[2] Alesia Raper, Tim Bonney, Robert B. Hitchings, Bill Inge, Colin Boklage, Marian Rudd, Emilie Hauser, Connie Kean & Candice Cheshire. St Mary's Cemetery Interment Database - McC - McK. Date Unknown. : 10 October 2015

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Clann Mór - The Blue Ridge Railway Project

Beginning in the 1840s, thousands of Irish immigrants found jobs all over the eastern half of the United States building railroads. Researching these men and their families can be difficult due to the transient nature of their lives, lack of employment records, and the inherent dangers of the job resulting in high mortality rates. An excellent website, Clann Mór - The Blur Ridge Railway Project, is dedicated to researching the African-American slaves and Irish immigrants who toiled on the construction of one small part of the vast American railroad system - the Blue Ridge Railroad in central Virginia in the 1850s.

 The most useful part of the website for genealogist is the Research section. Amongst other interesting articles and pieces of research, first hand accounts from newspapers and diaries are provided from the time of construction, including an interesting yet typically nativist account from a young lady passing through the area:[1]
               "One of the poor men who work on the railroad had made a clearing among the trees in order to plant his potatoes. There are a great many Irish cabins on each side of the mountains, which reminded me of descriptions I have read of the manner of living of the lowest class in Ireland. They are mere hovels, & most of them have one or two barrels on the top of the chimney, but in some of them, we saw muslin curtains, a strange mixture of dirt & finery. The people are real Irish - wretched, miserable & dirty in appearance, but they hold on to Irish fun & Irish potatoes, as well as Irish tempers. Father called to a man who was at the door of one of the cabins & told him he had often seen double barreled guns but had never before heard of double barreled chimnies [sic], and he seemed very much pleased."

The crowning achievement of the website creators is the fantastic Master List of Irish Workers and Slaves that those behind the website have created. Information for over 2,000 workers and their families is provided and was drawn from census, vital, newspaper and employment records. Some of the entries are vividly real: Morris Griffin died on 21 January 1851 with the notation remarking - "Irish blown up in large tunnell."[2] Irish counties of origin are also provided for some of the workers as the creators of the master list utilized the Information Wanted Ads in the Boston Pilot newspaper as well as local records.

[1]  Clann Mhór - First Hand Accounts. Date Unknown. : accessed 1 October 2015. Original at: Diary of Mary Jane Boggs Holladay [manuscript] 1851-61. Call numbers MSS 6436-h. The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. University of Virginia.
[2]  Clann Mhór Master List of Irish Workers and Slaves. January 2013. Available online at