Every month, I pick a new genealogy project to focus on. Mother’s Day is celebrated in May here in the US, so I’ve decided this month I’ll work on the origins of my matrilineal line. It’s a quest that starts with family lore, searches for historical documents to support that story, and will end up exploring DNA evidence in order to draw a conclusion.
I like to say that genealogy is in my DNA. If passions can be inherited, mine was passed down from my mom. And one of the greatest gifts she left me was her interest in taking her family tree up, down, and sideways. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mom tracked down her mother’s surviving first and second cousins and asked them to share their family histories, and then she began her self-taught dive into genealogy.
Mom passed away in 2013, and I inherited 10 boxes of her research papers. When I began to go through them, one of the treasures I discovered was a large index card labeled Purtell (or Purtill).
Now, I knew that Mom’s mom’s maternal grandmother was Bridget Purtell, who was born around 1835 in the infamous “somewhere in Ireland”.
Bridget left Ireland in the 1850s, married Michael Cahill in 1860, and died in Michigan in 1903. I dearly want to know a more specific origin.
And the genealogy process is the same, whether we want to know where someone was born or who someone’s parents were. We start with our extended family and see what lore they might know.
Image 1. Bridget Purtell, photo in collection of the author.
This Purtell (or Purtill) index card is in my mom’s handwriting and says “3 sisters & 1 bro from Labasheeda left from Cork prob. One sister (with a tall son) stayed behind m. to Kilty (or Quilty.)”
Don’t you love that tall son comment? My mom noted her source: “per Leona Mitchell Reinhard, grd of Margaret Purtell Carr”. The index card also noted information about Margaret from the 1871 census and added that Margaret’s two immigrant sisters were Ann and Bridget and their brother was Thomas. Thomas had 5 sons and 1 daughter and farmed near Sarnia [Ontario]. See image 2.
Image 2. Index card written by Lois Harrigan, ca. 1980s, in collection of the author.
Can I trust this information? I don’t know about you, but I definitely have some other family lore that turned out to be completely wrong. Let’s examine things more closely.
- Was Leona really the granddaughter of Margaret Purtell Carr? Yes, I was able to confirm that with vital records.
- Did Leona learn these details directly from her grandmother? No. Leona was born in 1901 and her grandmother died in 1903. Leona may have met the aforementioned Thomas Purtell–he died in 1916–but he lived in Ontario and Leona lived in Michigan. I don’t know if they ever met.
- How reliable was Leona’s memory? I don’t know that either, but she was in her late 70s or 80s at the time she shared her roots with my mom.
- Does Labasheeda mean the family came from that specific village, or was that perhaps the closest community of any size and they lived in a more rural location in the general area? Food for thought….
- Did the card accurately capture what Leona thought she knew? Mom might have misread or mistranscribed something Leona sent. And I can’t be certain that Leona gave all those details to my mom. Some notes might have been added by Mom from her own research or hypotheses.
All this suggests that I shouldn’t take this card at face value and assume that my ancestor Bridget Purtell was born in or near Labasheeda, in County Clare, Ireland. It’s a great lead (and I’m so lucky to have this!), but I want more evidence to support the claim.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far from census records, church and vital records. (Note: whenever I mention the Purtell siblings, the stated relationship is still hypothetical–I’m not done gathering evidence to support it or disprove it. All these facts need citations too.)
- Margaret, Thomas, Bridget, and Ann Purtell were born in Ireland between 1828 and 1842.
- Margaret and Thomas emigrated about 1854. No records identify what year Bridget or Ann left Ireland.
- All four married in North America. Margaret and Bridget married in 1860; their marriage records confirm their maiden names were Purtell. In the 1861 census, they appear as Irish Catholic immigrants living in Plympton Twp, Lambton County, Ontario, as did Thomas. Proximity supports the theory that they were siblings, but they were in three different households with no direct evidence of kinship. The youngest, Ann, may have arrived between 1861 and 1863.
- Margaret, Thomas, and Bridget attended the same church, according to their children’s baptism records. Ann appears as a witness at Thomas’s marriage in 1863. Shortly after, she married in Washtenaw Co., Michigan. Bridget was a baptismal sponsor for Margaret’s daughter Helen in 1865 in Ontario. By the end of the decade, Bridget and her husband and children had moved to Sanilac Co., Michigan. Margaret and Thomas remained in Lambton Co., Ontario.
Common surname, common location, common religion, expected age range, and participation in some of each other’s sacramental events all lend credence to the claim on the index card that they were siblings. But no other record directly states their relationship.
I haven’t exhausted all reasonable sources though. For example, obituaries might name surviving brothers or sisters, but I haven’t found all of them yet. (Some newspapers are not online but libraries may have copies. That goes on my To-Do list when libraries and archives re-open.)
Marriage records and death records exist for the four Purtells, but only one marriage record names the parents, and death records carry conflicting information.
- Bridget’s marriage record 1860: parents James Purtell and Bridget Meskill
- Bridget’s death record 1903: parents Thomas Purtle and Bridget Mescal. (The informant was her only son, Thomas.)
- Thomas Purtell’s death record 1916: father James Purtell and mother unknown.
- Ann’s death record 1908: parents as Thomas and Anna Purtel.
- Margaret’s death record 1903: parents not recorded.
I will address this issue in more detail when I finish my analysis, but I want to consider DNA evidence in this project too.
First, I should review my research question. Where in Ireland was Bridget Purtell, wife of Michael Cahill, born? My preliminary source (the index card) has two leads to follow. Leona said her grandmother Margaret and three siblings came from Labasheeda and that a sister remained there, married to a Quilty or Kilty. Here’s what I learned about those assertions.
Margaret’s grave marker says she was Margaret Purtell, native of County Clare, Ireland, wife of James Carr. Labasheeda is in County Clare, so that was an exciting find–supporting Leona’s claim.
Image 3. Labasheeda area of County Clare, Ireland.
And what about the mystery Purtell sister back in Ireland? Irish civil records don’t begin until 1864, but some earlier church records survive. Labasheeda was in the Catholic parish of Kilmurry-McMahon, and the National Library of Ireland has digitized those records. I found a marriage record there for Mary Purtell and Patrick Quilty in 1846. Unfortunately, that parish’s baptism records don’t start until 1845, well after the siblings were born.
I’m not finished searching for documentary evidence to prove that Mary, Margaret, Thomas, Bridget, and Ann Purtell were related, but DNA evidence could help in this case too. If they were siblings, testers who descend from them would be mostly 4th cousins to each other.
Ancestry’s ThruLines is an easy place to start. I input Bridget Purtell’s parents from her 1860 marriage record to Michael Cahill. I add the siblings, with an Ancestry [hypothesis] tag. Even if trees of descendents of the siblings don’t go back this far, Ancestry may internally connect them in ThruLines.
ThruLines did match me to one or two descendants of all four of Bridget’s hypothesized siblings! Yay!
But there are genealogy standards to consider. The book Genealogy Standards by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2nd edition, is my guide to deciding if/when I have adequately used DNA and documentary evidence to support a conclusion.
How well does this meet Genealogy Standard 52, Analyzing DNA Test Results?
Size: Fourth cousins share an average of 35 cM, but 0-139 cM is feasible. My ThruLine matches are all 8-11 cM. That’s within reason for fourth cousins, but matches under 15 cM have some risk of being false positives. Fortunately, I have tested a maternal first cousin Lisa (like me, a descendant of Bridget Purtell) who also matches descendants of Margaret, Ann, and Mary; each match is between 27 and 38 cM. That’s more reassuring.
Accuracy of trees: I need to be sure the lineages between the matches and their Purtell ancestor are correct. In fact, many of their trees don’t go back to the immigrant; Ancestry is just predicting that they could. I need to make sure. I’ll be working on this in May.
Depth and completeness of trees: I need to consider if any of these matches could be related to me on some other line instead. Do their trees go back to the generation born @ 1800, when the siblings’ parents may have been born? Across all lines? If not, how does this affect my analysis and planning? If most of these ThruLine matches have complete, deep, accurate trees, then the DNA matches are more meaningful evidence for my hypothesis. But if several of these ThruLine matches have patchy trees, I’ll want more matches to mitigate the risk that our common ancestor is on another line.
Another way to strengthen the value of ThruLine matches is if those matches to me (or my cousin Lisa) match each other too. Ancestry doesn’t have a chromosome browser and I can’t do genetic triangulation, but I can ask those matches to give me Viewer access to their match lists. With this step, I was able to prove that
- Lisa (desc from Bridget) matches Ann C (desc from Margaret) for 33 cM
- Lisa (desc from Bridget) matches Shirley (desc from Mary) for 27 cM
- Ann C (desc from Margaret) matches Shirley (desc from Mary) for 34 cM
Genealogy Standard 51 addresses Planning DNA Tests. Do I need to find (or recruit) more testers? I could ask some of these ThruLine matches over 15 cM if they would be interested in testing at 23andMe or consider copying their Ancestry DNA data to other companies where I have my DNA (FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritageDNA, gedmatch), and see who might match both of us there. I’ll be contemplating that question this month.
What about mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)? Mitochondrial DNA follows the matrilineal line; the mother’s mother’s mother’s line. See Image 4, from 23andMe. Bridget Purtell Cahill is my direct matrilineal great-great-grandmother.
My theory is that Bridget was the sister of Mary Purtell Quilty who lived in the Labasheeda area and Margaret Purtell Carr, whose grave marker says she was a native of Co. Clare and whose granddaughter reported she was from Labasheeda. If they were all sisters, my mtDNA test results should match an mtDNA test for their matrilineal descendants. If we don’t match… either there was something of an adoption situation in the interim generations, or my ancestor Bridget was not a sister or matrilineal cousin of Margaret or Mary. It’s always a good idea to try to disprove hypotheses too.
FamilyTreeDNA offers mtDNA testing. But I’ve already tested at 23andMe, and they provide the maternal haplogroup for all testers. Mine is H5b. (23andMe also provides paternal haplogroup for male testers; not relevant here.) I can’t filter matches online at 23andMe by haplogroup, but I can download my matches to a spreadsheet and check that way. I have only two matches at 23andMe in the H5b haplogroup. I wonder if they’ve traced their matrilineal lines back very far. Unfortunately, they have yet to reply to my query.
As noted, I am most interested in comparing my DNA to descendants of Mary and Margaret. Mary married in County Clare in 1846 and died there in 1908. She had only had one daughter who I’ve been able to identify, and that girl died childless. However, Margaret Purtell Carr, whose grave marker said she was a native of County Clare, has at least one matrilineal descendant: my ThruLine match Ann C.
So I reached out to Cousin Ann, and she agreed to take a 23andMe test. Hopefully, in May I will get the results.
That’s just the beginning of things I can add to my DNA To-Do list.
I can also search my matches for surnames of Purtell or Meskill (and spelling variations) in their trees, and look for matches with County Clare locations in their trees. I can look at Shared Matches and the corresponding features at any company where I have my DNA test results. I can run clustering reports. How do I know when I’ve looked hard enough?
The book Genealogy Standards has no hard-and-fast rules about this that would apply to all cases, but the guidelines are helpful. In general, I think, the weaker your documentary evidence is, the more exhaustive your genetic evidence needs to be, but the reverse is also true. A little DNA can make a pretty solid documentary case stronger.
I’ll want to review my progress and eventual write-up with those standards in mind (both for DNA evidence and document-driven evidence). And of course, I still have more digging for documentary evidence too. Eventually, I’ll need to write citations for every place I have looked (from DNA to documents to artifacts like the index card), and I probably should start now and not wait till I’m finished to tackle that.
So – this isn’t a completed case study. It’s just an introduction to the genealogy research question I’ve chosen to focus on for May 2020: my direct matrilineal line, in honor of my mom (who never threw anything away!) Thanks, Mom!
What’s your project this month?
Happy Mother’s Day!
© May 2020, Ann Raymont, CG