Behind the scenes in the Genealogy Advisory Service

The fun of the genealogy service in the National Library is that we never know in advance who we’ll meet, or what stories we’ll hear. Our job is to listen, to identify verifiable facts and events, and to guide enquirers in their research. The search never ends, because family history isn’t just about the past, it allows people to construct their own personal identity.
Here are some of the stories we’ve heard from recent visitors to the Library’s Genealogy Room.

If you’ve spent any time with the U.S. Census records, you’ll know that your immigrant ancestors didn’t usually travel solo. ‘Chain migration’ facilitated European immigrants to hold onto their cultural identity. The American Civil War transformed the experience of many Irish immigrants. Irish involvement on both sides of the American Civil War was one of the defining moments in the creation of an Irish-American identity.

We recently met Mr. Walter Manser, of Mobile, Alabama in the Library. Walter’s great grandfather arrived in the 1860s in America, following in the footsteps of an older brother. Although the two brothers arrived within ten years of one another, they experienced very different opportunities. Walter Manser’s family-history captures the rapid pace of change in America during the Civil War, and immediately after.

In the 1850s Irish-born James Manser settled in Mobile, Alabama. Through hard work and a certain amount of luck, he gradually established a thriving grocery business in the city. In 1861 the Civil War broke out and after 1862 James was drafted into the Confederate Army.

In 1863 the younger Manser brother, Robert Manser, stepped off a boat in the port of New York and was offered $500 to take the place of an American drafted into the Union Army. $500 was a healthy stake to invest in his future: all he had to do was to survive. He took the money, and fought in the Union Army until 1865, when the War ended. His pension records are/were in the name of ‘Robert Manser, otherwise Robert Collins’ – the man for whom he substituted during the War.

Once peace broke out, Robert Manser travelled south to Alabama to join his brother. James welcomed him, but explained to Robert the greater problem they now faced.  As a former serving Union soldier, Robert was not welcome in the South. The brothers put their heads together and devised a solution. Robert left Mobile, returning within three years, to all intents and purposes just off the boat from Ireland.

The Manser brothers found a way to save face; they kept their reputation and the respect of the community they settled in, while proving that blood is thicker than water.

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Sometimes the enquiries we get in the Library are about whether it’s possible to reach back across oceans and through time, to trace early origins in Ireland. As a rule of thumb, the earlier the date when an ancestor left Ireland, the more difficult it can be to document. Diana and Colin Hansen inherited a small family archive of newspaper cuttings, letters and documents that dated back to an Irish ancestor in the first generation of colonial settlement in Australia.

William Craig was born about 1772 in Ireland, place unknown, and died in Australia in 1828.  He was convicted of an unknown felony and transported to Australia, arriving in 1821 aboard the convict ship S.S Prince Regent. William’s son Richard Craig (1812-1855), arrived at the same time or shortly after with his mother.

The Hansens believe they were brought over on the same sailing of the Prince Regent, which if it proves true, would have been very unusual.  On his release, William Craig set himself up as a butcher in Windsor Sydney.  In 1828 William and his son Richard were convicted of rustling cattle.  William was sent to Norfolk Island and died there. Richard Craig, the son was sent to ‘work in chains’ in Morton Bay. He escaped and was taken in by Aborigines. Richard learned the skills of a bushman and familiarised himself with the territory. Using his knowledge of the terrain, he explored the ‘Big River’ (now the Clarence), identified the rich pasture land along the river, and opened up a cross-country route – known as Craig’s Line – in the area now known as Grafton. Richard received a free pardon, settled in the district of the Clarence Valley, and raised a large family.

The total sum of the Hansen’s information was from Australia. When we met them in the Library they wanted to find out about the life that the Craig family left behind in Ireland. Specifically, where they were from, the crime that led to a sentence of Transportation, and why the convicted man’s wife and son were brought out to Australia at the same time.

Transportation Registers from Ireland 1790 to 1835 were destroyed in 1922. However, record-keeping in Australia is unusually good, and there are very many online sources and data-bases. The first step was to consult an online resource – Peter Mayberry’s Irish Convicts to New South Wales 1788-1849 http://members.pcug.org.au/~ppmay/cgi-bin/irish/irish.cgi

This confirmed what we already knew about William Craig (his age, the boat and year he arrived in Australia), but it also gave further leads: William’s native place was given as Strokestown, county Roscommon; his calling was ‘butcher’ and ‘farmer’; he was tried in Cavan and sentenced to 7 years Transportation.

Using this evidence, we guided the Hansens to search the Irish newspaper collection, focusing on coverage of trials before the Cavan Assizes 1820 and 1821 – up to 12 months before William Craig arrived in Australia. http://search.findmypast.ie/search/irish-newspapers

The Freeman’s Journal informed us that in the 1820 Spring Assizes held in Cavan, William Craig was convicted of sheep-stealing, and sentenced to 7 years Transportation.

So in a short time, we were able to guide the Hansen’s research so as to provide answers to some of the long-standing questions that remained about their ancestors’ Irish origins. A concrete research result also meant that Colin and Diana immediately revised their travel plans, to include a visit to Cavan and Roscommon.

We will post regular updates to this blog throughout the summer.

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