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Getting the Big Picture-A Clue to Finding Your Missing Ancestors
By James W. Petty, AG, CG

Ownie and Elizabeth were in love. It was 1902 and spring flowers were popping up all over Lynn, Massachusetts. A mile to the east was the vast Atlantic Ocean, across which Owen Gallagher had traveled when he left his beloved, yet troubled Irish homeland, back in 1884 when just fifteen years old.

He had come alone, hoping to join cousins in America , and was followed in later years by several brothers and sisters and eventually, his widowed mother. Here he met Miss Elizabeth Gertrude Conroy from the neighboring community of Peabody , and was taken by this beautiful Irish lass. She had been born in Massachusetts of Irish parents who had fled their country in the days of the Great Famine, and found their bit of paradise in this new land.

Lizzie and Ownie had courted, and now secure that their love would last forever, they made marriage plans. Together they went to the town hall in Lynn where he lived and filed their intention to marry on May 31st. Then they went to the home of the Catholic priest in her town of Peabody , and in the presence of Owen’s cousins, Mrs. Annie Lynch and Mrs. Rose Knox, they were married. Owen and Elizabeth Gallagher led a quiet life, supported by his trade as a shoemaker. They had five children between 1903 and 1912. Owen passed away in 1918 when only 48 years of age, leaving Elizabeth to rear and guide their children, until her death in 1937.

A century later, after Owen and Elizabeth and their children and grandchildren had lived and died, little knowledge remained about this simple family. In this generation, Ownie and Lizzie’s descendants began exploring the origins and story of these ancestors. But soon, what all thought would have been an easy quest because of the availability of so many modern records, became a puzzle.

Numerous searches of the town halls in Lynn and Peabody, Massachusetts , and of surrounding communities in Essex County, failed to produce a record of the 1902 marriage for this couple; nor did the registers of the various Catholic and Protestant churches in these communities. Interestingly, there was no marriage notice registered in the Lynn Daily Evening Item, the local newspaper. For the great grandchildren of Owen and Elizabeth, the question arose, “were great grandpa and great grandma really married?”

Genealogy research isn’t always a straight-forward and orderly process; in fact, it seldom is. We search for the events that make up the lives that identify our ancestors to discover the truth about them. Often times, this view of who people were is minimized or truncated into finding names, birthdates, and marriage dates, and then it’s off to find another ancestor.

Unfortunately, looking for just these three identifiers in history creates a misunderstanding about what our purposes, our responsibilities, and our capabilities are in family history and genealogical studies. The purposes of doing genealogy are to renew the memory of who our ancestors were and to provide eternally saving ordinances for our family. Our responsibilities are to share that discovered memory accurately and openly with our families and with the world. Our capabilities for researching and finding the memory of these ancestors are expanding daily in libraries, on the Internet, and in the hearts of researchers throughout the world.

Information Sometimes Hard to Find

Many people undertaking genealogy research think that birth, marriage, and death records can be found easily in vital record files, church registers, or in newspapers of the time. When the desired information is not found in those places, too many researchers throw in the towel and tell themselves, and their families, the information can’t be found, or it doesn’t exist ; and so family stories are created, unsubstantiated by recorded evidence. But, in fact, many of these records can be found in one or a dozen of scores of different resources. Like anything of value and importance, genealogy answers may be found by searching for the big picture, learning as much about a person’s life as may be needed, and learning who they really were. This is a process of discovery, and the result is a turning of the heart to that ancestor. And with the turning of the heart, other rewards follow.

Considering the Whole of a Person’s Life

Getting the big picture of your ancestor is fundamental in good genealogy research. But, the big picture is not composed of a combination of records. The big picture of an individual always exists, because the person existed.

In order to see the big picture, we must take into consideration the whole of a person’s life, the possible range of events, the historical context, the location, the time period; we must consider the society and family circumstances in which they lived, and the culture and social relationships they had over a lifetime. This purposeful overview of an ancestor’s life, or timeline, guides us to discovering the actual events of their history through research and documentation.

For instance, supposing a man is born in Poland in 1815 and died in Memphis , Tennessee in 1881. His life story is not a compilation of documents pertaining to different events in his experience. His big picture already exists; our job is to pre-evaluate or make a timeline for what that life might have involved, and then study the historical resources that will confirm or discount those happenings during his life.

In Poland in that era his family was most likely recorded in Civil Registration of Births and Deaths. They probably attended a Christian Church or were members of a Jewish Synagogue. He may have served in the military, and might also have obtained an education.

At some point this man immigrated to America. He probably arrived at New York City , or Philadelphia . The man may have migrated to western Tennessee over land or by ship, entering the country again at the port of New Orleans . He could have married in Poland , or later in America . In this country he might have been a participant of the Civil War in the 1860’s. He may have been a farmer, or pursued a profession. He may have owned property, acquired a homestead, or lived on a pension. How did railroads or riverboats fit in with his story of travel? When he died in 1881, Memphis, Tennessee was suffering through a serious Yellow Fever epidemic; that may have been the cause of his death. Historical and genealogical records potentially exist for all these aspects of this person’s big picture.

All of the above is supposition; but without a shred of evidence, it does paint a big picture. A researcher’s goal is to consider possibilities first and then search for records that illustrate the actuality of the life events of the ancestor, giving careful consideration to the nuances actually known about the ancestor so you will not needlessly search in records that probably do not apply.

And what of Owen and Elizabeth Gallagher? Their life was also a big picture. We had learned about his immigration. We knew when and where he died. Two wars occurred in America during his lifetime after his arrival in this country. Could either of these have a bearing on Owen’s experience? After exhausting the usual sources, contacting civil and religious officials in Massachusetts , arrangements were made to go to Lynn , Massachusetts . Newspapers were searched; wills and probate records examined, along with naturalization files and other court documents. Then a visit to St. Joseph ‘s Cemetery on the north of town was made to see if any clues might be found at the grave site. The grave was located. No information was given about the marriage; but next to the monument for the Gallagher family was a small marker recognizing Owen J. Gallagher as a veteran of Company I, 8th Massachusetts Regiment in the Spanish American War. When Owen died leaving a widow in 1918, she would have been entitled to a pension; and that record would have required proof of her marriage. A marriage record could be found for this family.

The military pension file for Owen J. Gallagher and his widow Elizabeth G. Gallagher was obtained, and the story unfolded about their filing an intention to marry in Lynn , Massachusetts ; and then going to Peabody with their cousins to be married. But the pension revealed that the original 1902 marriage ceremony was never reported or recorded, either by the Church officials or by the Town clerks. During the last three months of his life Owen Gallagher was cared for in the Veteran’s Home in Chelsea , Massachusetts . During this time, he learned that his marriage to his wife Elizabeth was being questioned because no document of their marriage could be found. He informed Elizabeth of this matter on February 13th, 1918. She immediately left and brought the local Catholic Priest back to the Veteran’s Home, and she and Owen were “legally” married.

Once again, purposes were met; responsibilities recognized; and capabilities understood to bring to light the true record of these ancestors. It required time and perseverance, but the big picture made it possible to find the right information. Family memory has been renewed, the hearts of children have been turned, and a heritage will now be shared and remembered forever.

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