Compiling a family history may seem like a relatively easy task at first. As long as the relatives have oral histories or some written records and artifacts to share, a basic narrative can be constructed to pass down to the next generations. Many families do this and do it well. Others show little knowledge of or interest in the family tree. Anyone from this kind of background is on their own, and starting from scratch can be daunting. Constructing a pedigree chart or any other genealogical tool can require patience and diligence if information is not readily available.
Fortunately, I had grandmothers who appreciated and encouraged my interest. My father’s mother had stories, photographs, and some family tree charts, especially for the Finney side, which was of Irish and German extraction. My mother’s mother did not have too many stories for me, but she did pass down a collection of Civil War medals that had belonged to her grandfather (see image below). My mother did provide me with some information, but she did not have many historical details at her immediate disposal. She said her side was mostly German with some Polish, French, Scots-Irish, and Cherokee mixed in.
My maternal grandmother died in Virginia in 1974 when she was 63 and I was 13. A few years later I moved to California and went off to college. Busy with school and work, I did not return to my genealogical interest for many years. Then in the spring of 1992, after moving to a small town north of Wichita, I began listening to an NPR show on Radio Kansas called “The Thistle and Shamrock”. Scottish radio host Fiona Ritchie had developed a thematic program highlighting the connections between Appalachian folk music and traditional Celtic songs and ballads from northwestern Europe. I was able to listen to the entire hour each Sunday afternoon as I drove through the long expanses of wheat and sunflowers along U.S. 50.
As someone of Irish and Scottish heritage who spent much of my boyhood in Appalachia, I quickly became an avid fan of her show. I knew from childhood that my surname was originally spelled O’Feeney and was changed to Finney around the time of the Civil War. But there were few other stories of my Irish heritage passed down to me as a boy. I was hungry for more information. I visited the local public library and checked out everything they had on Ireland.
Digging deeper, I discovered that the name Feeney was Fiadhne in Gaelic and was derived from ancient legends of Irish warriors. The Feeney clan were Irish speakers from Connaught in western Ireland. Many left the potato famine for North America in the 1840s and brought their emigration songs with them. When I first heard the poignant lament “Green Fields of Canada” by the Irish band Deanta on Ritchie’s weekly broadcast, I was surprised to find myself overwhelmed with emotion. Something had struck a deep chord.
When I returned to California that fall, I continued to listen to “The Thistle and Shamrock,” this time on Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. I continued my genealogical research, contacting relatives on both sides and compiling primary and secondary sources. One of my father’s cousins sent me an extensive notebook with many helpful names and dates. Another lived in an historic 1850s farmhouse in the Gold Rush town of Sutter Creek, only a few hours drive from where I was living, and I spent a day with her as she shared family photos and stories. From these family records, I began constructing the family tree chart pictured above.
On my mother’s side, I found three Union Civil War soldiers, Ohioan Michael Schneider and father and son Thomas and Samuel Laughery from Iowa. Family charts listed the regiments in which they had served, and with just this information I was able to order their military service records from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It was a thrilling moment to receive and open these documents and read through them for the first time. Here before my eyes were the signatures of my Civil War ancestors and the stories of their wartime service. The medals wrapped in tissue paper from my late grandmother suddenly took on human form.
I began filling out a pedigree chart for both sides of my family and drawing individual charts for each branch (see handmade diagrams below). I filled in as much information as I could from the family history records at my disposal, including birth, marriage, and death dates, full names, birthplaces and places of death, and baptismal and other church records. When I ran into a dead end, I had to look elsewhere. In the 1990s when I was heavily involved in this activity, that meant calling courthouses and making road trips across the country. The internet was first making its public debut and online genealogical resources were in their infancy. I had to use “old school” methods.
Most of the vital records offices I contacted by telephone were very helpful. I managed to obtain a few death certificates on my father’s Irish side and some photographs from the German side. More family heirlooms arrived from distant relatives. One sent me my great-grandmother’s Roman Catholic Confirmation prayer book from 1885. Another sent me my grandfather’s 1919 high school yearbook from Sheridan, Oregon. I contacted the historical societies of several of the counties in Oregon and Ohio where my ancestors had lived and was able to glean some bits on land and marriage records.
By the end of 1994 I had compiled quite an extensive scrapbook with several pedigree charts and family narratives. I visited the local LDS family history library, which kept an impressive genealogical collection that was available to non-members such as myself, and was able to gather a few more details on dates and locations. Then I came up cold. There were no more details to be found, at least in the sources available to me. I had to fill in the blanks myself.
I began by researching the time periods and locations in which my ancestors lived. I studied the history of the Irish potato famine, including the ordeal endured by passengers on the notorious “coffin ships” across the Atlantic in the 1840s. I read British historian Cecil Woodham-Smith’s classic The Great Hunger (1962) and exchanged a series of letters with my father’s cousin in Portland, Oregon who had done extensive research on that period. I ordered the regimental histories of my Civil War ancestors’ units from the Ohio and Iowa state archives and included them in my scrapbook. Armed with more contextual information, I began asking more specific questions of relatives and was able to fill in some more blanks.
Then in the summer of 1995 I decided to take a road trip north from Sacramento to Marion County, Oregon. I learned that my great-great-grandparents from Ireland were buried in the St. Louis Catholic Cemetery outside the small farming town of Gervais. It was a long drive in the heat and humidity along Interstate 5. When I finally arrived at my destination, I was overwhelmed to stand in front of my ancestors’ graves. Buried with James and Mary Ann Finney was their son Francis (Frank), who was the fourth of their seven children to die before the age of 30.
Scores of other Irish and French immigrants were buried around them. The peaceful surrounding fields, silent tombstones, and white wooden church where my great-grandparents were married a century earlier seemed to have changed little in appearance since that earlier time. Afterwards, I visited the graves of my German immigrant great-great-grandparents and Irish-American great-grandparents in nearby Salem. All in all, it was a life changing experience. I felt a deep connection to my roots and this land that I had not sensed before. I felt the presence and blessing of my ancestors.
Over the next two decades, I added more information to my genealogy scrapbook as online resources became more available. I returned from a visit to my mother in Oklahoma in the summer of 2001 with a large collection of family photographs and memorabilia, which I photocopied and returned to her. That year I also found a Feeney cousin living in County Offaly, Ireland, who wrote to me with stories and information. A genealogical society in County Roscommon I contacted by email was very helpful. I compiled an online family tree which I shared with distant relatives who found me on the internet.
Ancestry.com and familysearch.org are among the many excellent tools with which to conduct research. Vital records from counties and states across the country as well as federal military records can also be obtained by digital means. But in the end, an old-fashioned phone call, conversation, or road trip is still the best way to learn some things. Find out who has the photos, the stories, and the artifacts in your family. That is always a good place to start. Genealogy can become a rewarding, lifelong hobby. Understanding your roots can help you live a more grounded and fruitful life.
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