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Siblings May Be the Key to Solving Your Family Riddles

Siblings Are Likely the Key to Solving Your Family History Riddles

By Bridget M. Sunderlin, CG®

Every family has one great champion, and mine was Minnie Doyle. Had it not been for Minnie’s story, my own may still be a mystery. Minnie came to America from Ireland in about 1896. She secured a job as a domestic servant in Philadelphia and, in 1903, Minnie met and married James Gallagher, a railroad worker from Ballyscullion, Ireland. They had a son John less than one year later, in 1904. Then, Minnie’s world imploded.

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Her beloved James died when he was crushed by an express train just outside the city limits. Pregnant with their second child, Minnie gave birth to daughter Lizzie in December 1905. Devastated by this great loss Minnie left America, returning to her homeland of Kilskeery, Ireland. She and her young family moved in with her father, Thomas.

In 1908, Minnie returned to Philadelphia with her young son John in tow. Daughter, Lizzie, remained in Ireland. Her son, it seems, was quite sick with a heart condition however and died only six months later. Tragically, Minnie’s story did not really improve after this. She and her second husband committed double-suicide in 1930.

As devastating as Minnie’s life appears to us on the outside, hers is also a riveting story. And one worth remembering. But I would have never discovered it if I had not taken the time to research my ancestor’s siblings. You see, Minnie was not a great grandmother. She was a great aunt.

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Read: Are You Making the Direct-Line Mistake in Your Family Tree?

Yet, had Minnie not lived through the trauma that she did. Had she never left America, only to return a few years later, I may never have solved the brick wall that also happens to be her brother, John Doyle – my great-grandfather.

John Doyle left very few, if any, evidence of his life back in Ireland. Thanks to his sister Minnie, however, I was able to identify the specific townland they came from and the parents who gave birth to them, Thomas and Elizabeth Doyle.

My gratefulness to Minnie for leaving the clues that led me back to Ireland is immeasurable. Minnie’s story demonstrates the power that sibling research can have on your family history. Had I never hypothesized that Minnie was John’s sister, I may never have identified Kilskeery as his homeland, nor Thomas as his father.

It was two critical records that connected Minnie and John.

One was his passenger list to Philadelphia in 1898, in which he identified Minnie Doyle as the woman who paid for his passage. The second was her 1930 death certificate that was signed by John Doyle, as informant. Using these two records, research shifted from John to Minnie until the entire Doyle family was identified and documented.

When your ancestor leaves few clues behind, it is imperative to search his or her records to identify possible siblings. Then perform exhaustive research on the siblings to solve mysteries of parentage or place of origin.

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How to Use Siblings in Your Own Family History Research

Power of Siblings Tip 1:

When you find an unknown member within the family group, always research siblings to identify and gather evidence of possible relationships. When one ancestor’s trail back to the homeland grows cold, use one or more siblings to heat things up again.

A Tale of Three Italian Siblings

When researching the life of Sebastian Messina, I stumbled upon a curious find. In the 1920 U.S. census Sebastian was living in Pittsburgh with his wife Maria and their two daughters, Angelina and Theresa. When I located them in the 1930 census however, a mystery son appeared. Young Salvatore was the same age as his inferred sister Theresa. A very curious find, indeed. I had no idea what to make of this new addition to the family. Well, not until I researched and found Sebastian Messina’s brother, also named Salvatore.

At first, I was simply gathering facts for my cousin’s great-grandfather, Sebastian Messina. My genealogical question (learn more about developing research questions in Family History Daily’s online courses) was to identify his parents and his place of origin in Italy. This type of question is not always an easy task. Not, perhaps, until you use the Power of Siblings methodology to solve the mystery.

Brothers Sebastian and Salvatore Messina emigrated to the United States through Philadelphia in 1912. Within their illuminating passenger lists, their homeland of Carrabba was identified. In-depth research was performed in Italian records, yet no civil birth records nor baptisms were located for either brother. Returning to American research, Sebastian’s records were few and far between, so research was shifted to his brother, Salvatore. That’s when everything quickly came together.

In 1919, Salvatore Messina married Rosa Caruso, a woman from his hometown of Carrabba. Rosa arrived in New York City with her brother Giovanni Caruso and his wife, Angelina. Salvatore and Rosa married in Manhattan seven days later and then relocated to Pittsburgh.

In the 1920 census, Salvatore and Rosa were actually living in the same home with Sebastian, Maria, and daughters Angelina and Theresa Messina. They were listed as two different families within the same home on Myrtle Avenue. The couple who arrived in New York with Rosa Caruso was connected to the Messinas not only through marriage but also through blood. Giovanni’s wife, Angelina, was also Sebastian and Salvatore Messina’s sister.

Angelina was fifteen years younger than her eldest brother, Sebastian. Her 1896 birth record, along with her recent marriage to Giovanni, offered ample evidence pinpointing her parents as Sebastian and Maria Angelina (Greco) Messina. If these were Rosa’s parents, then we can assume that at least one, if not both, were also the parents of Sebastian and Salvatore Messina.

Sibling research solved almost every Messina mystery, but what of this mystery son in the 1930 census? The sad news is that tragedy struck the Messina family in 1937. In March, Salvatore and his beautiful wife Rosa died on the same day from tuberculosis. The couple left behind three very young sons, Salvatore, Sebastian and Pietro. Salvatore was adopted by Sebastian and Maria Messina, which explains his presence in the 1930 census. Sebastian and Pietro were adopted by Giovanni and Angelina Caruso.

Power of Siblings Tip 2:

When researching women who have few rights to property and possessions, research their male siblings. Their records often include information about female siblings.

Put the “Her” Back in “Herstory”

As my research in Maryland went farther back in history, to the early 1800s, it became increasingly difficult to find records for my fourth great-grandmother. Women of this timeframe left behind few records.

My Rachel Wallace was no exception. She was born about 1777 in Baltimore County. Rachel’s father Andrew died without a will in 1796. Andrew Wallace was possessed of hundreds of acres of land on which Rachel was born. Rachel and her siblings, Andrew, Margaret and William, all stood to inherit their father’s land and money, equally. The children’s’ mother, Ann predeceased her husband in 1789.

In 1797, Rachel’s brother Andrew petitioned the courts to divide their father’s land into four equal parts, to be distributed to all of the siblings. This newfound wealth made Rachel very appealing to potential suitors who might come to call. Not surprisingly, a week after the petition was filed, Rachel Wallace married Samuel Browning.

By 1799, she bore him two sons. Samuel Browning died unexpectedly only two short years later, but not before he sold every acre of land Rachel inherited from her father. This forced Rachel to relocate to a small house in the Fells Point area of Baltimore Town.

Every record used to identify and follow Rachel’s life was created through her male siblings. When her brother Andrew petitioned the court, Rachel’s name was included within the petition. However, only Andrew was indexed as the petitioner. When her brother William died in 1810, he identified Rachel in his will. However, he was the descendant who was indexed. Had my research focused only on Rachel, I may never have found details about her inheritances.

Power of Siblings Tip 3:

Place siblings in your family tree when you find them and use common organizational strategies and forms (like those found in our online courses) to make the most of their information. This organization will help you reveal otherwise hidden details and connections.

Use Charts to Keep ‘Em Together

When it comes to sibling research, organization is the key to keeping all the names straight, and linking family groups together. Placing siblings into your tree is a critical first step that will help you to visualize the entire family. When you are actively researching groups of siblings, a helpful tool to employ is an Evidence Chart. Add areas for notes and citations, so that you can analyze your findings and avoid repeating research.

The Messina Siblings Evidence Chart
Sebastian Messina Salvatore Messina Angelina Messina
Birth –
1881 Carrabba, Italy
Birth –
1886 Carrabba, Italy
Birth –
1896 Carrabba, Italy
Immigration –
1912 Philadelphia, PA
Immigration –
1912 Philadelphia, PA
Immigration –
1919 New York, NY
Marriage –
Maria Cacciola
1918 Pittsburgh, PA
Marriage –
Rosa Caruso
1919 New York, NY
Marriage –
Giovanni Caruso
1918 Carrabba, Italy
Residence –
1920 Pittsburgh, PA
1930 Pittsburgh, PA
1940 Pittsburgh, PA
Residence –
1920 Pittsburgh, PA
1930 Pittsburgh, PA
Residence –
1920 Pittsburgh, PA
1930 Pittsburgh, PA
1940 Pittsburgh, PA
Children –
1919 Angelina
1924 Theresa
Children –
1920 Salvatore
1924 Sebastian
1927 Pietro
Children –
1921 Maria
1925 Concetta
Adopted Children (1937) –
1920 Salvatore
Adopted Children (1937) –
1924 Sebastian
1927 Pietro
Death –
1964 Pittsburgh, PA
Death –
1937 Pittsburgh, PA
Death –
1977 Pittsburgh, PA

As you pull the evidence together, move your information onto Parent or Family Group Sheets.

As you can see by reviewing the Family Group chart below, gaps of several years exist between the births of these three children. Analysis leads me to hypothesize the existence of missing children between these three births. This hypothesis is easier to visualize when studying charts of information, as opposed to paragraphs. Allow your chart analysis to lead to additional targeted research questions.

The Messina Family Group
Husband –
Sebastian Messina
Birthdate –
1855
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Married –
1880
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Residence –
1890
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Death Date –
1926
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Wife –
Maria Angelina Greco
Birthdate –
1860
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Married –
1880
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Residence –
1890
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Death Date –
1919
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Child –
Sebastian Messina
Child’s Spouse –
Maria Cacciola
Birthdate –
1881
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Married –
1918
Place –
Pittsburgh, PA
Death Date –
1964
Place –
Pittsburgh, PA
Child –
Salvatore Messina
Child’s Spouse –
Rosa Caruso
Birthdate –
1886
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Married –
1919
Place –
New York, NY
Death Date –
1937
Place –
Pittsburgh, PA
Child –
Angelina Messina
Child’s Spouse –
Giovanni Caruso
Birthdate –
1896
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Married –
1918
Place –
Carrabba, Italy
Death Date –
1977
Place –
Pittsburgh, PA

For forms you can use in your research, keep an eye out for Family History Daily’s organization course and associated Family History Workbook – coming in Jan 2021. Sign up for newsletters to be notified when this course is live. 

So, if you’re not researching siblings – get started now. Add every one to your tree and start collecting records. You should do this even for those ancestors who you have many details for, but especially for those you do not.

And while this may seem to contradict our last article, Why You Need to Stop Adding Names to Your Family Tree, it doesn’t. Siblings are one of the best ways to develop your ancestors’ stories and are the most important people you can add to your tree – next to your actual ancestors.

More Power of Siblings Research Tips

  • Research using parent names and places as keywords to find siblings.
  • Research with both siblings’ names to locate missing records.
  • Research by an address as the keyword to find more records for family members.
  • Research newspapers, in particular, using the maiden and married names of siblings to locate obituaries, weddings announcements and other family events.
  • Research land and probate records of the 18th and 19th centuries using brothers’ names to locate sisters.
  • Research civil birth records, comparing them to church baptisms to capture the entire family unit.

Bridget M. Sunderlin, CG® practices in Maryland. She is the owner of Be Rooted Genealogy, where she specializes in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ireland, and Scotland research.

Image: [Brothers Private Henry Luther and First Sergeant Herbert E. Larrabee of Company B, 17th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment]. Bet 1861-1865. Library of Congress

2 thoughts on “Siblings Are Likely the Key to Solving Your Family History Riddles”

  1. In my many years in the hobby, and in working with new members, I have encouraged the use of the family group sheet. I rarely see that suggestion made. Family group sheets helps maintain the family unity and as one researches a family, each child should be researched. You will often be surprised by some of the information you learn about the family as a whole, and it helps family connections to become more solid. Each sibling adds a unique aspect to the family. This is an excellent article pointing out how important sibling research can be and is. As I stated, family members add unique aspects to the family, depending on where they fit in. Many things will be learned, some good and some bad. I join in encouraging researchers to search the siblings as well as the main acestor, even if you don’t have a “wall” to overcome. As stated you will learn other aspects of the family you may never have learned by keeping your research to one member of the family.

  2. Would you be interested in reviewing our books on your blog?

    Thanks,

    Joe Garonzik
    Marketing Director
    Genealogical.com
    Genealogical Publishing Company

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