DNA to the Rescue! Solving an Irish Genealogy “Brick Wall”
A case study that demonstrates how to use document evidence in conjunction with DNA evidence to resolve an Irish genealogy “brick wall”.
*Shared with client permission
Researchers with Irish ancestors have often thrown up their hands in despair when they learn about the massive record loss on that small island. Knowing one’s birthdate or even one’s age was not an Irish cultural value until well into the 20th century, which further complicates Irish research. “Crossing the pond” to document Irish immigrants in their homeland requires careful research in records in the countries where they settled to find any possible clues to their origin. One recent case at Legacy Tree Genealogists involved extending the ancestry of Miles Jennings, said to have been born in Ireland in May 1851. His great-grandson had been gathering documents about this family for over forty years.
Tackling Irish Genealogy “Brick Walls”
The client provided a transcription of the marriage record for Miles Jennings to Catherine Murray on 19 September 1894 in Limestone, Cattaraugus County, New York, that he had obtained from St. Patrick’s Rectory at Limestone. Miles and Catherine were the parents of two daughters, Mary Margaret Jennings and Anna Catherine Jennings, born in Carrollton, Cattaraugus County, in 1895 and 1898. Their mother, Kate (Murray) Jennings, died 31 January 1899 in Carrolton; the client also provided a copy of her death certificate. Miles was said to have returned to Ireland after his wife’s death. The two Jennings girls were raised by a maternal aunt, Bridget (Murray) McDonough and her husband; they appeared on the 1910 census with them in Bradford, McKean County, Pennsylvania. A final bit of unsourced information provided at the outset of the project was that Miles Jennings had a sister named Mary, born in Ireland in 1865, who also came to New York and married a man named James T. Burke. Together they had children Miles, James, and Anna Burke, though no marriage record for the parents or birth information for their children was included.
Combining Traditional Genealogy Research with DNA
Research began by verifying the information provided by the client. The only possible document found for Miles Jennings was the 1892 New York State Census in Carrollton, though that man was 20 years old on that record, so he was not born in May 1851. However, he was listed after the entries for James T. and Mary “Burk” with their probable son Thomas. Further down the page was an entry for the family of James and Bridget Murray with Katy Murray, age 22. The 1892 state census did not include relationships between the individuals listed, but this document seemed promising, as it was a possible match for the target ancestor living near the Burkes and the Murrays.
With little to go on using traditional research, a search of the client’s DNA matches was conducted.
- One of the DNA matches was a great-granddaughter of Mary (Jennings) Burke, shown in later research to have been the same person as on the 1892 New York State Census. Based on family trees of the client and this match, she would be a third cousin to the client, supported by the amount of DNA they share. Additional research on Mary (Jennings) Burke conducted for this project showed she was born in Ireland in March 1865 and was buried in Chautauqua County, New York, in 1942.
- Another DNA match was to a great-grandchild of a Bridget (Jennings) Murray, not previously identified as a relative to Miles Jennings. Bridget’s death certificate from Philadelphia indicated she was born in Ireland about 1876, based on her age at death. Her descendants were identified forward in time to a daughter who married a man with the surname listed for this match, substantiating the DNA evidence with a document trail.
The birth record for Myles Jennings on 2 June 1869 in Cool Lodge townland, Castlebar district in County Mayo seemed to be good match for the age of the Miles Jennings on the 1892 census in Carrollton, New York. He was the son of Patrick Jennings and Margaret Mullen.
If this was the birth record for the ancestor, he should have had sisters named Mary and Bridget. Such was the case. Mary Jennings was born 13 March 1864 and Bridget Jennings was born 13 February 1873, both to Patrick Jennings and Margaret Mullen at Cool Lodge townland. Another child of this couple, Betty Jennings, was born 21 August 1867 at Cool Lodge, and may have also come to the United States.
According to her death certificate, Elizabeth Jennings was born in Ireland on 4 August 1881 to Patrick Jennings and Margaret Mullin and died in Philadelphia on 27 June 1941. She never married. Margaret McDonald served as informant; Bridget (Jennings) Murray had a granddaughter of that name. There were no indexed births for children of the ancestral couple in 1881, but again, it was not an Irish cultural value to know one’s age in the 1800s, and the informant on Elizabeth’s death certificate was likely her grand-niece who may have guessed at the birthdate of the deceased. It is possible the birth record for Betty Jennings and the death record for Elizabeth Jennings were not for the same person, though the parents’ names on both records matched.
Without DNA matches to the client, it is likely the parents of Miles Jennings would never have been identified. There were so few records about him in the United States, and only the 1892 New York State Census gave an indication of his age. DNA research bridges the gaps in documents. It can be complicated, but Legacy Tree Genealogists has a host of specialists ready to assist if you have some DNA matches we can work with.
Do you have a genealogy “brick wall”? At Legacy Tree Genealogists, we look at all possible sources of evidence, both document and DNA, to find answers for our clients. If you’re ready to make progress on your family history mystery, contact us today to get started!