I’ve located my maternal great-grandparents, John and Margaret Ellen (Cunningham) Haffey in Wayne County, Ohio in the 1880 census. I’m trying to locate their births in Ireland. I have their death records, but they didn’t list a specific Irish birthplace. I have found a record in the New York Emigrant Savings Bank for a John Haffey and James Cunningham; either could access the account. ~ Sandra H.
We’ve found that one of the strongest motivations for a person’s desire to reconstruct their family’s tree is the desire to discover where their ancestors once lived, especially before they migrated to the United States, whether that be in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia. Finding the names of our ancestors, of course, is the necessary first step; but then finding where those ancestors hailed from can be just as exciting.
Why? Because there’s something deeply reassuring about being able to point to a map and say, “This is where my people came from.” Geography “roots” or centers us in the world, just as surely as identifying the names of “our people” does. But finding where our ancestors once lived can be quite a challenge, even when we know their names and birth or death dates. And this is especially difficult with our Irish ancestors. We both have some personal experience with this since we both are descended from Irish ancestors.
Discovering an ancestor’s elusive Irish birthplace really is a big deal for genealogists. On what we might think of as “the scale of genealogical difficulty,” tracing Irish roots is right there near the top of the list. The search can be extraordinarily challenging, but the payoff can be so very exhilarating! One key to solving this mystery is keeping people you are searching for in context. What does that mean? Well, who were your ancestor’s neighbors, and who–according to records–did they keep associating with? Whose names keep popping up near theirs? Taking account of the names of your ancestor’s neighbors and friends can yield amazing results.
In 1880, John, Margaret, and their family were living in Pike Station, Wayne County, Ohio. The census shows that their daughter, Ella, was born in Ireland around 1860 and their son, Edward, was born in Ireland around 1862. Daughter Maggie was born in New York around 1866, and children William, Mary A., John Jr., and Catherine were all born in Ohio. Keeping the whole family in mind will be important as we move through the family’s paper trail.
Emigrant Savings Bank
The Emigrant Savings Bank was founded in 1850 by the Irish Emigrant Society and became a safe place for Irish immigrants to save their money. They invented an ingenious system of using biographical information to tell the difference between people with the same names, such as the various James Cunninghams or John Haffeys, who kept accounts at the bank. (We would cringe because of privacy issues if anyone did this today, but it sure makes it handy for researching Irish ancestors!)
You were definitely on the right track exploring the records of the Emigrant Savings Bank, which can be a gold mine of data for tracing Irish ancestry. And in your case, we are pleased to say, you’ve struck gold! It turns out that the bank had four accounts that stood out for John Haffey, each of which offered us more clues about your family’s origins.
In 1862, a man named James Cunningham, “for John Haffey,” opened account number 32881. The bank’s record for this account says that John was born in 1828 in County Donegal and was married to Margaret Cunningham, with two children Ella and Edward. (We should note that this birth year is off from the one recorded in the 1880 census, but it is consistent with that listed in the 1870 census. This often happens, so no worries about that!) Having John’s wife’s name and the name of their two children gives us confidence that this is the correct John Haffey; account 32881 was definitely opened by the John Haffey we’re looking for.
What else can we learn from this bank record? Well, the person named James Cunningham, who opened the account on behalf of John Haffey, was living at 233 Mulberry Street. This turns out to be a key piece of information. (Mulberry Street is located in the section of Manhattan known as “Little Italy” today.)
Back in 1855, James Cunningham of 233 Mulberry Street had opened account number 8691 “in trust for John Haffey.” Incredibly, this record is a treasure trove of information about John! It states that John was from Minnarock [sic], in the parish of Killaghtee, County Donegal; he arrived in the United States in September 1852 on a ship named [either?] “George Green” or “James Nesbith” from Liverpool; his father, Ned Haffey, is dead; his mother, Ellen Carr, is living in Ireland; and he’s single.
(Unfortunately, the record for account 32881 (the one where we’re sure it’s our John) doesn’t state that it is the same as account 8691 (the one where we learn John’s hometown and parents.) There’s just an incomplete note “Is same as.” (Would it have killed them to list the account number?!) But the fact that James Cunningham and/or John Haffey was living at 233 Mulberry Street in these four accounts is a strong indication that we are talking about the same people.)
Other places to explore
Okay, now that you have this information, where do you search next? It’s tempting to explore church records in “Minnarock” (probably Meenabrock) and grab onto any mention of John Haffey. You’ll definitely want to explore those records, but you should get a fuller idea of your John Haffey’s identify first, so you’ll know if you have found the information about the right person. Remember, just because a name is the same doesn’t necessarily mean that the person whose records you’re examining is the person you are searching for!
You should also keep an eye out for the other passengers who arrived in this country on the same ship with John. We didn’t find him in 1852, but we did find him in 1854 on the “James Nesmith” (not Nesbitt, as listed in the bank record), with an approximate birth year of 1829 (consistent with the bank record and the 1870 census).
Baptismal records can be another source of useful information. People usually name relatives or close friends as their childrens’ godparents. The baptism records for John and Margaret’s children could hold clues. St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Wooster as well as St. Vincent in Akron would be good places to start looking.
It might come as a surprise to us today, but people “back in the day” typically didn’t move all by themselves. Neighbors often turn out to be related. Who are the Irish neighbors around John and Margaret in 1870 and 1880? Who else lived on Mulberry Street in New York when John lived there?
Learning as much as you can about John and Margaret in Ohio and New York will help you to establish a better context for them when looking at possible records back in Ireland. Whether you’re looking at records in Meenabrock or elsewhere in County Donegal, you will want to keep in mind the other people who you’ve identified as being associated with John and Margaret in the United States. Good luck!
Do you have a mystery in your own family tree? Or have you wondered what family history discoveries you could make with a DNA test? Send Henry Louis Gates, Jr and his team of Ancestry experts your question at email@example.com.
By Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University
By Anne Gillespie Mitchell
Genealogist and senior product manager at Ancestry.com