Indirect Evidence to Identify an Ancestral Homeland

Identifying an immigrant ancestor’s origins is one of the most common quests among family historians. A variety of sources created during and after an immigrant ancestor’s lifetime often provide direct evidence of his or her birth location. However, sometimes these sources fall short of providing the information we seek. In such instances, indirect evidence can often provide the answer. The case study, “Finding the Irish Origins of Charles Doherty,” authored by Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens, CG, and published in the September 2004 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ), demonstrates one author’s strategy for identifying an Irish immigrant’s place of origin when none of the records he left behind provided that information.

Kerstens sought to identify the origins of Charles Doherty, a nineteenth-century resident of Detroit, Michigan. She began by gathering basic information about Charles, including details about where he lived, when he died, and the names of his family members. Evidence suggests that he was likely born between 1817 and 1825. Numerous records identify his birth location as Ireland, with no specific county or townland—a typical problem faced by researchers of Irish families. Charles married Maria Helena Piquette or Picket (known as Mary) in 1850, and the couple lived in Detroit. Charles died in 1876.

These basic details about Charles’s life helped focus the research and identify additional records to consult, a crucial next step toward identifying his Irish origins. Charles’s death notice, tombstone, cemetery records, and marriage record do not provide his place of birth. However, the marriage record provides a key piece of information—the names of Charles’s parents, John Doherty and Margaret Lynch.

Reasonably exhaustive research calls for an examination of a variety of sources, including those not expected to provide direct evidence in response to the research question. For Kerstens, city directory entries offered a critical clue—Charles was identified as a soldier in directories published between 1862 and 1865. His involvement in the Civil War opened the door to numerous types of military records, including enlistment papers and a pension file. The pension file includes information about Charles’s family, provided by his wife, Mary. In 1880, she stated that Charles’s father lived to the age of ninety and that his mother died during childbirth. She also offered information about several unnamed siblings: a sister who died at the age of sixty-four, and three brothers—two in Ireland and one in Oakland County, Michigan.

Although the pension records provide no birth location, and Mary’s statement offers no names for Charles’s relatives, the clues are significant toward determining his origins. Kerstens identified a probable brother for Charles—Nicholas Doherty of Oakland County—and began her research into Nicholas by establishing basic facts about his life. Nicholas lived in White Lake Township from at least 1840 through 1880, and was of age to be Charles’s brother. Further research revealed that Nicholas purchased land in White Lake Township with Edmond Doherty and James Doherty. Edmond and James were identified as Nicholas’ brothers in a published history of Oakland County, Michigan, and the family was said to have originated in Tipperary. This information, although related specifically to Nicholas, establishes a possible family group and a probable target birth location for Charles, where further research can be directed.

Irish baptismal records from County Tipperary include Charles Doherty, son of John Doherty and Margaret Lynch, who was born 3 April 1818 and baptized in Caher Parish. Records from Cashel in County Tipperary include two children born to John and Margaret: a son Edmund, born in 1807, and a daughter Margaret, born in 1815. Further research led to a variety of Irish records confirming that the Doherty family was from Outeragh, County Tipperary. Additionally, records can place Charles’s other family members in nearby Livingston County, Michigan.

Kerstens’s case study demonstrates how comprehensive research on an immigrant and his or her collateral relatives can help identify origins. Although no records related to Charles Doherty name his place of origin in Ireland, she was able to prove that he was from Outeragh, County Tipperary. To do so, she researched a variety of sources related to Charles, which led to the discovery of his brother Nicholas in a nearby town. Studying Nicholas’s life led to clues about an extended family network, which offered avenues for further research. In this case study, the collateral relatives were the key to assembling indirect evidence to prove Charles’s origins. This is one of many strategies that can be used when direct evidence of a place of origin cannot be discovered.

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