52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 10 ‘Strong Woman’

I have written before about my great-grandfather, John Bellas and his frequent journeys from County Durham, England to Kimberley, South Africa to work in the mines. His wife, my great-grandmother, Ann Wilson, married at age 20, becoming an instant mother to John’s small child from his first marriage. She was a woman who, for many years as John traveled to find work, raised their children alone. She crossed an ocean to an unknown land with her young family to be with her husband. She buried six children before she was 41 years old. She was a strong and beloved woman.

Anne and John Bellas.

Ann Wilson was the second wife of John Bellas, they married in 1887 in County Durham. 1 Ann was 20 years old when they married and settled in Newbottle, a small village occupied mostly by coal miners and their families. John Bellas had been widowed in 1886, leaving him with a young child, also named John Bellas. Upon her marriage to John, Ann became a mother, taking over the care of four year old, John. In August of 1888, Ann gave birth to her first child, a son they named Thomas Bellas. Unfortunately tragedy struck a year later, in 1889, when John died at the age of five.

A few months later, Ann found herself pregnant again, this time with twins. The twins were born on 14 May 1890 and were named John and Elizabeth Jane.2 John lived only one day. Elizabeth Jane lived 15 days. Ann had buried three children and was only 23 years old.

In October 1893, John Bellas left England, making the 17-day journey by ship to South Africa. Ann had given birth in March 1893 to a baby girl, Mary Hannah.3 For the next six years, John was only home for short periods of time as he traveled back and forth between England and South Africa.

I imagine that life was not easy for Ann, having her husband gone for long intervals. In 1899, newspapers in County Durham began to report on the developing tensions in South Africa, especially around the town of Kimberley.  This must have caused great anxiety for Ann. John joined up with the Kimberley Town Guard to defend Kimberley from Boer attacks. The Boers besieged the town for 124 days but ultimately failed to take Kimberley, which had finally been relieved by the advancing British forces. All of this was constantly being reported on in the newspapers of the day, no doubt causing much worry for Ann over her husband’s safety.

The 1901 census 4 shows the entry for Annie Bellas and her four children in the village of Shiney Row, County Durham. Ann is described as the head of the household, aged 35. She has no occupation listed indicating she likely relied on the money that John was able to send back to the family from South Africa. The children were aged 12, 8, 4 and 2 years old.  Basically a single mother for much of those six years, Ann was fortunate to have some family support with her in-laws, David and Margaret Bellas, living next door.

1901 census of England, County Durham, Shiney Row, p. 12 (stamped), Annie Bellas; image, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 April 2012); citing The National Archives, RG13, piece 4694, folio 55, p. 13; Houghton-le-Spring registration district, ED 14, household 76.

John Bellas was fortunately unharmed in the skirmishes around Kimberley and in 1903 returned to his family in County Durham. Again, this was only for a short time, but this time, Ann and the children accompanied John on his return to South Africa. Had Ann had enough of being left behind and insisted the family goes with him? Did she simply miss her husband and not want to be parted from him? The impetus for the move is unknown but Ann did pack up the family and she and the four children joined John Bellas on his return trip.

One can only imagine how much strength and courage this must have taken. Ann had never left County Durham and was now taking her children on a journey across the ocean to South Africa. She was 35 years old. The children were 14, 9, 6 and 4 years of age.

John and Ann would have another 5 children born in Kimberley, South Africa between 1903 and 1909. Unfortunately, three of the children died in infancy, two from influenza and one from meningitis. Ann had now buried 6 children (including John, the child she became a mother to upon marrying John Bellas).

Ann and John stayed in South Africa until July 1911. Boarding the steam ship ‘Durham Castle’ the family, with the exception of two of their children, traveled via Delagoa Bay, Mozambique to Southampton, London.5 Eldest son, Thomas, had been working in the Kimberley mines since he was 15 years old and stayed behind to continue working. Daughter Mary Hannah had married earlier in 1911 and also stayed behind. Ann left behind the tiny graves of the three children born in South Africa and her eldest son and a daughter. It surely must have been a difficult goodbye.

JohnBellas passenger
UK Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960, database with images, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 April 2012), “Names and Description of British Passengers,” entry for John Bellas family, arrived 16 August 1911 on Durham Castle from Delagoa Bay.

Although John would make one more trip to South Africa in early 1912, Ann remained in County Durham. John returned to England in 1913 and rejoined the family. Ann lived to be 64 years old, passing away in Shiney Row, County Durham on 22 August 19306. John passed away in 1938.7

Funeral Notice for Ann Bellas

Ann was obviously a much beloved wife and mother and deeply missed as is shown in the memorials published in the newspaper by her husband and children from 1931 through 1940. Each year on the anniversary of her death, her husband and children placed an ‘In Memoriam’ piece in the local newspaper.8

AnneWilson1866_memoriam 1933

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 10 prompt: Strong Woman

  1. England, marriage certificate for John Bellas and Ann Wilson, married 25 June 1887, registered April quarter 1887, Houghton-le-Spring District 10a/600, Registry Office, Durham. 
  2. England, birth of John and Elizabeth Jane Bellas, born 14 May 1890; registered April quarter 1890, Durham District 10a/487, Houghton-le-Spring District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. 
  3. England, birth of Mary Hannah Bellas, born 21 March 1893; registered April quarter 1893, Durham District 10a/503, Houghton-le-Spring District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. 
  4. 1901 census of England, County Durham, Shiney Row, p. 12 (stamped), Annie Bellas; image, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 April 2012); citing The National Archives, RG13, piece 4694, folio 55, p. 13; Houghton-le-Spring registration district, ED 14, household 76. 
  5. UK Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960, database with images, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 April 2012), “Names and Description of British Passengers,” entry for John Bellas family, arrived 16 August 1911 on Durham Castle from Delagoa Bay. 
  6. England, death of Annie Bellas, 22 August 1930; registered September 1930, Durham District 10a/422, Houghton District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. 
  7. England, death of John Bellas, 27 January 1938; registered March 1938, Durham District 10a/528, Houghton District, Durham; General Registry Office, Southport. 
  8. “In Memoriam,” Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, Durham, England, 22 August 1933, p. 8, col. 1. 

Guest Post – Full Circle: A Transplant Michigander’s Surprise Homecoming

by Kirsten McNelly Bibbes

Orphan.  I was an “orphan” in Lansing, Michigan for many years.  Don’t get me wrong—my parents were alive and pretty perky—but lived in Arizona.  Not knowing a soul, I moved to Lansing in 1996.  I started my legal career based in Lansing, practicing in Ingham, Clinton, and the surrounding counties.  I was lucky enough to appear in many of the area’s old courthouses.

(Ingham County Courthouse, Mason, Michigan)

Making Roots.  In time, I worked my way to partner with a historic downtown Lansing law firm, Foster Swift, founded in 1902.  From time to time, I visited old area cemeteries.  Twice each day on my way to work, I passed the beautiful Mount Hope Cemetery, opened in 1874.  Michigan was home.  I always felt that I had roots there.  I had no idea just how deep those roots ran, taking hold long before I arrived.

mt hope
(Mt. Hope Cemetery, Lansing, Michigan)

Finding Roots.  Until genealogist Sue McNelly got in touch with me, I had no idea that I had a family connection not just to Lansing, but to the area’s legal profession as far back as the mid-1800s.  Turns out, “Lansing’s oldest resident,” Daniel Case, is my fourth great grand-uncle. He and some of his family members are buried right in the Mt. Hope cemetery!


A “Pioneer Resident” of Lansing, Daniel L. Case.  Sue had come across (what do I call him, “Uncle Case?”) Daniel Case’s obituary while doing genealogy research.  I was fascinated to learn that my ancestor not only was one of Lansing’s pioneer residents, but he was a lawyer who practiced law in the very same counties as me.  For three years, he was Mason, Michigan’s prosecuting attorney.

McNelly discovered that along with practicing law, by 1847 Daniel Case worked as a farmer and owned one of two general stores in “Lower Town,” located where Grand River and Center Street intersect today.

Daniel Case newspaper
(April 28, 1955 State Journal article detailing the area’s first settlers)

Case’s Legacy.  My great-great-great-great uncle was an anti-slavery activist, and even, for a time, worked as trustee and resident manager at the Michigan School for the Blind (which stands today).  I try to imagine where he may have delivered the passionate anti-slavery address documented in his obituary, and wish there were a surviving transcript:

Mr. Case had always been an active Democrat until the bitter and bloody contest in Kansas between pro slavery and free state parties.  The conduct of President pierce toward the slave power forced Mr. Case to sever his relations with his party, and in 1856 he fully identified himself with the [anti-slavery] Republican party and canvassed the state for Fremont and Dayton.  During that exciting campaign, Mr. Case delivered an address to the democracy of Ingham County, giving the reason for his political change, which was considered one of its most powerful and convincing political arguments of the time.

I can’t express how much I would like to sit down and talk with Daniel L. Case.  Putting aside modern conveniences, I can’t imagine his life was all that different than mine.  I am proud to be descended from this man, and now better understand why I have always felt at home in Lansing.

(12/8/1898 Ingham County Democrat)

Kirsten McNelly Bibbes is a litigation attorney who practiced in Lansing, Michigan from 1997-2011.  She now practices in San Francisco and can be reached at kmcnelly@gmail.com.  

What’s in a (Maiden) Name?

Many years ago I received the birth certificate for my great-grandfather James Thomas, born in Medomsley, County Durham, England in 1862.   I knew his parents to be William and Susan Thomas, but I had not been able to find Susan’s maiden name.   I eagerly opened the envelope anticipating the beautifully written maiden name of my great great grandmother.  It was not to be.  The handwriting, while not the worst I have ever seen, was not that easily read:

James Thomas, 29 January 1862, birth certificate.

From James’ birth record I was able to make out that Susan was formerly BASH-something.  It looked like it could be BASHLON, BASHLOW, or BASHTON.  I noticed too that Susan was not able to sign her name and instead had added her mark  (x).

Using James as a starting point I was able to find the family on the 1871 U.K. census.  This gave me the names of some of James’ siblings, specifically of his older brother, William Henry Thomas.  I sent off for William Henry’s birth certificate, hoping for better handwriting that would confirm his mother Susan’s maiden name.

While waiting for the birth certificate to arrive from London I began a search to see if I could locate a marriage record between William Thomas and Susan BASH-(something).   I was fairly confident that the maiden name began with ‘Bash’ as those were the 4 letters I could easily read.  No luck!

Six weeks later I had my hands on William Henry Thomas’ birth certificate.   The handwriting was better and there was Susan’s maiden name …. BASTON.   Not what I was expecting to find.

William Henry Thomas, 28 September 1859, birth certificate.

What I had thought was BASH-(something) was now BASTON.  The 1871 U.K. census had shown that William Henry Thomas had been born in Cardiganshire, Wales but that he had an older sister, Mary Ann Thomas who had been born in St. Agnes, Cornwall circa 1857.   Hoping that Mary Ann Thomas was their first child, I began a new search for a marriage record for William Thomas and Susan BASTON, in Cornwall in the years before 1857.  The search was negative again.  Using FreeBMD I was able to search for all marriages between 1850 and 1857 (when Mary Ann was born), with William Thomas and Susan (leaving out any last name) as parents, and across all districts and all counties in the U.K.  I received 44 results.  I searched through each one looking at the maiden name of the bride.  The only record which came close was a marriage between William Thomas and a Susan BOSTON, in Aberystwyth, Wales in 1854.   Could they have met and married in Wales, moved back to Cornwall and had Mary Ann Thomas there in 1857, and returned to Wales where William Henry Thomas was born in 1859?

Image from FreeBMD, http://www.freebmd.org.uk/

Working backwards from the 1871 census to the 1861 and 1851 U.K.censuses I was able to track the family’s movements and noted that in 1851 William Thomas, aged 17,  was living with his parents in the village of Goginan, Melindwr, Cardiganshire, Wales which is within the Aberystwyth registration district.   The FreeBMD marriage index I had previously found seemed to be the right one.

So far my search for Susan’s maiden name had resulted in:

1854:  Marriage of William Thomas and Susan BOSTON
1859:  Birth of son William Henry Thomas – mother’s maiden name BASTON
1862:  Birth of son James Thomas – mother’s maiden name BASH-(lon, ton, low, tow)

The recent launch of birth, marriage and death indexes at the General Register Office in England has given genealogists the opportunity to search for births with a maiden name, which was not possible before (only available now for births before 1911).    I began to search for each of William and Susan’s children with the following results:

1857:  Birth of Mary Ann Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BACTIAN)
1859:  Birth of William Henry Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BASTON)
1862:  Birth of James Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BASHTON)
1864:  Birth of Emma Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BASHTON)
1867:  Birth of Matilda Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BASHTON)
1869:  Birth of Elizabeth Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BUSHTON)
1879:  Birth of Joseph Thomas (mother’s maiden name is BASHTON)

This is certainly a great way to get a first look at information before ordering a certificate.

You would think that with BASHTON being the most commonly occurring name in all the records so far that I would be fairly confident in thinking that to be Susan’s maiden name.  The other variations of the name can be ascribed to the fact that it’s probable neither Susan or her husband William were able to write their names (they always used their mark ‘x’ in place of a signature) and BASHTON can easily sound like BASTON or BOSTON or BUSHTON to the person they were reporting the birth to.  Right?

Wrong!  Using her ages given on the various census to come up with an approximate birth year, my searches for a birth record for a Susan BASHTON born about 1837 in Chacewater, Cornwall were all negative.   However, an 1851 Welsh census record for a family with a daughter named Susannah, born about 1837 in ‘Chesswater, Cornwall’ caught my eye.  This family was living in Melindwr, Cardiganshire, putting them in the same place as William Thomas and his family, at the same time.  And the last name of the family was       BASTIAN.

1851 Wales Census for Melindwr, Cardiganshire; Ancestry.com, http://www.ancestry.com, citing Susannah Bastian.

A quick look back at the birth of Mary Ann Thomas (first child of William and Susan Thomas) revealed that the maiden name of the mother was BACTIAN, only a slight variation from BASTIAN.  Unfortunately, despite searching through parish records, page by page, and surrounding parishes to Chacewater, Cornwall,  I have not been able to find Susan BASTIAN’s birth or christening record.

My confidence in Susan’s maiden name as BASTIAN comes from:

  • Susan’s parents and siblings are recorded as BASTIAN on the 1841 and 1851 census.
  • In 1841 Susan and her family are living in Kerley Downs, Kea, Cornwall.  Kerley Downs is described as a very small moorland to the southeast of Chacewater.  There are 7 very large BASTIAN families living there.
  • The christening records for all of Susan’s younger siblings show BASTIAN as the last name.
  • The marriage record for Susan’s parents, John and Susanna Evans, shows the last name as BASTIAN.
  • Susan’s father, John was christened in 1805 as ‘John, son of Henry BASTIAN’

It is an interesting lesson in not always believing the first record you find.  Had I not gone any further than the first 2 birth certificates ordered I would today have in my records a great great grandmother with the incorrect maiden name of Bashton. And while the General Register Office search facility is extremely helpful in being able to provide results coupled with a maiden name, those results must always be corroborated with further proof.   This is the emphasis of the third point of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) – all information, sources, and evidence must be analyzed and conflicting evidence resolved, resulting in a credible conclusion.   And of course, all of this rests on the first point of the GPS, reasonably exhaustive research.   My search therefore continues to find Susan’s birth record and confirm that Susan’s maiden name was in fact BASTIAN.


The Life of a Miner: from County Durham, England to Kimberley, South Africa.

John Bellas (1859-1938)

I have always been fascinated by the life of my great-grandfather John Bellas.  Born into a coal mining family originally from Flintshire, Wales, he spent his entire life working down the mines.  John was born in 1859 in St Giles, County Durham, England.  He was the third child and first son for David Bellis and his wife, Margaret Williams.  There would eventually be 9 children in the family. David Bellis and Margaret Williams were both of Welsh birth but by 1851 the family had left Wales and moved to the coal fields of County Durham, England. [At some stage John changed the spelling of his surname from Bellis to Bellas].

County Durham Coal Miners.  Photo in public domain.

The 1871 England Census for Thornley, County Durham shows David Bellis and sons John Bellas (age 12) and Thomas Bellas (age 10) working as miners in the Thornley Colliery.

1871 England Census, Thornley, County Durham, Class: RG10; Piece: 4976; Folio: 31;  Page: 60, Ancestry.com

John Bellas’ life was marred at times by tragedy beginning with his first wife Elizabeth Jane Robson.  They married in 1880 and had 4 children together.  Tragically all four children died in infancy or early childhood.  Elizabeth herself died in 1886 at age 24, only one month after her 3rd child died. She left behind her husband John and 2-year-old son, also named John.   A year later, in June 1887, John married Anne Wilson.  John and Elizabeth’s surviving child (John) passed away in June of 1889.  John and his second wife, Anne Wilson went on to have 11 children, five of which also died in infancy.

In 1893 John Bellas left on his first trip to South Africa.  This was the beginning of numerous trips back and forth between England and South Africa between 1893 and 1911. It’s not clear what precipitated the trip to South Africa but perhaps prospects there were better than in the coal fields of County Durham. For many years newspapers had reported on the ease with which diamonds could be found in South Africa and implied a man could get rich very quickly.

Manchester Evening News, Tuesday 12 September 1871.

The discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and 1870s caused a great influx of men, particularly experienced miners, seeking their fortunes in the diamond fields of South Africa. Because the labor needs of the diamond fields were so great, the British encouraged labor migration to Kimberley.

Diamond Mine. Kimberley, South Africa 1896.  Photos.com/jupiterimages

In 1893 John Bellas was hired by the De Beers Diamond Mines in Kimberley, South Africa.  Through correspondence with the De Beers Archivist and the Africana Research Library in Kimberley, and using employment records and passenger lists, I was able to track John Bellas’ movements in South Africa.  Between 1893 and 1898 John traveled back and forth between County Durham and Kimberley, South Africa four times.  Approximate travel time was 17 days via one of the Union Castle steam ships which traveled weekly between Southampton, London and ports in South and East Africa.

One of the many advertisements for the Union Castle Line. Photo in public domain.

Throughout these years of back and forth travel, Anne Bellas and their 4 young children remained behind in County Durham. In 1899 newspapers in County Durham began to report on the developing tensions in South Africa, especially around the town of Kimberley.  This must have caused great anxiety for Ann Bellas.

Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. Tuesday 31 October 1899

                               “The Siege of Kimberley.  Boers Building Forts.
                                      (Reuter’s Telegram) CapeTown, Monday.
                It is reported from Barkly West that the Boers are building forts
                     around Kimberley for the purpose of shelling the town.”

Ultimately the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand, and the influx of foreigners as a result of that discovery, led to increased tensions between the Boers (Afrikaans speaking settlers) and the ‘Uitlanders’ (foreigners).  The Boers feared that the Uitlanders would seize all political power and therefore passed laws that made Uitlanders in effect, second class citizens.  Tensions escalated between these two groups. Britain was in control of the Cape Colony and wanted to incorporate the Boer Republics and keep them under British control.  Failed negotiations between Britain and the Boer Republics in 1899 and the failure to remove British troops congregating on the borders of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State led to the declaration of war.

John Bellas began serving with the Kimberley Town Guard ‘D’ Company Division II.  The town guard had been raised in October 1899 to defend the town of Kimberley from Boer attack.  The Boers besieged the town for 124 days but ultimately failed to take Kimberley, which had finally been relieved by the advancing British forces.

Dundee Evening Post. 30 March 1900.

Transcription: “The Siege of Kimberley:  Town Guard Defending Carter’s Ridge.
The Kimberley town Guard lost twenty-one killed and forty-one wounded in defending this position.”


Kimberley Town Guard.  Photo credit: angloboerwar.com

In March 1900 the Kimberley Town Guard was officially dismissed.  There was no work to be had at the mines which had shut down during the Siege of Kimberley and John Bellas returned to England in July 1900.

South Wales Daily News. 12 March 1900

It was not long before John Bellas returned again to Kimberley and employment with De Beers Mines.  This time his family traveled with him.  John and Anne Bellas and their 4 young children made the journey to Kimberley about 1902/1903. Five more children were born in Kimberley between 1902/1903 and 1909.  Unfortunately 3 of the children died in infancy, two from influenza and one from meningitis.  My grandmother, Elizabeth Bellas, was about 7 years old when she moved to Kimberley and 15 years old when the family returned to England permanently in 1911.  In her older years she could still remember a word or two of Afrikaans which she had learned as a young child in South Africa.

Although Anne Bellas and children never returned to South Africa again, John Bellas traveled back again in early 1912.  He only stayed a few months, returning for the final time to County Durham in December 1912.

John Bellas seems to have been a man who didn’t mind adventure and many years spent going back and forth across the ocean between countries.  He was the first in the family to set foot in South Africa but certainly not the last.  His daughter, Elizabeth Bellas, would have a son, my father, who would eventually immigrate from County Durham to South Africa and raise John Bellas’ great grandchildren there.


Tracking a Family with City Directories and Voter Registration Indexes


City Directories and Voter Registration indexes can supplement our research and help track individuals over time and place.  They are both often overlooked as a source of genealogical information.

To illustrate the use of City Directories and Voter Registration records let’s use the McNelly family of San Francisco, California.  At first glance, the information I already have on George L. McNelly and his family  leads me to make the following broad conclusion:  they moved to San Francisco sometime between 1900 and 1908 (they appear in Chicago, Illinois on the 1900 census and a death record for one of their children, Russell Thomas McNelly, states that he died in San Francisco, California in 1908 at the age of 3). They are enumerated on the 1910, 1930 and 1940 U.S. Federal Census living in San Francisco, California.   This is a very brief summary of 40 plus years of their life and lacks any depth.

Considering that I have not been able to locate the family on the 1920 census I have a gap in time that I have not accounted for with any records. City Directories and Voter Registrations can be used to fill in that gap and begin to give a more rounded picture of the family.  By gathering the information they provide and creating a spreadsheet patterns emerge that may otherwise have been missed.


City Directories help to narrow the year the McNelly family relocated to San Francisco, CA.

Very briefly,  George L. McNelly was born about 1844 in Rochester, New York.  In 1883 he married Dora Lantry in Wilton, Iowa.  By 1900 the family had moved to Chicago, Illinois with their 4 children.  A fifth child was born there in 1905:

George McNelly Jr (born 1883, Iowa)
Winifred Margaret McNelly (born 1885, Iowa)
William Henry McNelly (born 1887, Iowa)
Genevieve Delphina McNelly (born 1893, Iowa)
Russell Thomas McNelly (born 1905, Illinois)

George L. McNelly is first located in the 1907 San Francisco City Directory which gives us a clue as to when they may have moved from Chicago, Illinois.

San Francisco, California, City Directory, 1907. U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989, database, ancestry.com

The family does not appear in any directory in the San Francisco area prior to 1907.  After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire two City Directories were published:  one that listed only those businesses forced to relocate after the earthquake and fire, the other contained a very short post-earthquake and fire directory.   The McNelly family does not appear in those two 1906 directories.

City Directories give us an overview of the occupation of the McNelly men over the years, showing us how a son and grandson followed in George L. McNelly’s footsteps.

In Chicago, Illinois in 1900 George L. McNelly made his living working as an upholsterer.

United States Federal Census, Year: 1900;  Census Place:  Chicago Ward 3, Cook, Illinois;  Roll: T623_247;  Page: 5A;  Enumeration District: 71, citing George McNelly

By examining the City Directory information over the years we can see that only twice, in 1925 and 1940 did George L. McNelly indicate that he was an upholsterer.  In all the other years he worked as a salesman.  However the City Directories and Voter Registrations indicate that his son, George McNelly Jr, did follow in those earlier footsteps and worked as an upholsterer all his life.  In fact, George McNelly Jr’s son, George Wesley McNelly (b. 1917) also followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and worked as an upholsterer.

City Directories and Voter Registrations allow us to track the changes in family residence over the years.

Perhaps the most noticeable insight that an analysis of the City Directory and Voter Registration information gives us is the fact that we see the change in residence of the McNelly family over the years.  Census information alone would not give us this insight.  Plotting these addresses on a map gives us a way to visualize their movements:

Google Map with stars showing household locations of McNelly family between 1907-1948

We immediately notice that most of the time the McNelly family stayed close to or within the Mission District of San Francisco.  Employment in the upholstery business was good here. The Mission district rebounded well after the fire of 1906 and there were many businesses that were flourishing in the home retail trades. The American Carpet and Upholstery Journal of 1909 reported that the mission district had always been a great center of business but that it had recently become even more important in the house furnishing trades.

The American Carpet and Upholstery Journal, Vol. XXVII, January 10, 1909;  The Trades Publishing Col., John R. Kenrick, publisher;  page 68.  Via google books, public domain.

Why did the family move so regularly though?  Did they move closer to places of employment within the Mission district?  What precipitated the moves to Oakland, California in 1912 and to San Rafael, California in 1925? Was it to find cheaper rent or a bigger home as the family grew?   Without the information from the City Directories and Voter Registration Indexes these are questions we would not have even known to ask.

City Directories can help locate a family when they have not been found on a census.

The 1920 San Francisco City Directory provides us with the location of George McNelly and his wife Josie at 537 Valencia Street, San Francisco. Although they remain elusive on the 1920 census I have an address I can use to locate the Enumeration District on the 1920 Census and from there can do a search, page by page, of that district to determine if the family still lived at the same address at the time of the census.  Without the City Directory information confirming that the family was still there I might assume, incorrectly in this case, that the family had moved from the area.

City Directories can point to a marriage having taken place and can help locate a spouse’s name.

The appearance of a spouse’s name in the City Directory or Voter Registration Index (after 1911 for women in California) can alert us to the fact that an individual has married since the last Directory entry.  The name of the wife will usually appear in parentheses after the husband’s name:

Son George L. McNelly (named after his father) has married and the 1915 San Francisco City Directory provides his wife’s name as Josephine.

George and Josephine McNelly appear in the 1918 Voter Registration index, an additional source giving evidence of the name of George’s wife.   Ancestry.com. California, Voter Registrations, 1900-1968 [database on-line].
Where to find City Directories and Voter Registration Indexes

City and county directories were generally published annually and listed the local residents and businesses.   The head of the household is usually the person appearing in the directory but widows, working women and adult children at home may be included.

Internet Archive has a wonderful free collection with hundreds of directories available. Ancestry and Fold3.com (paid sites) have large collections of directories. Sites like Online Historical Directories and Cindi’s List are great resources that provide links to various sites which have city directories available.  Public and university libraries are also good places to search for city directories.


Voter Registration Indexes add name, address, occupation and voter affiliation.  They were published every 2 years on even-numbered years and kept on the county level.  Cindi’s List is a good starting point in locating Voter Registration indexes and Ancestry (paid site) has a large indexed collection too.  Search  for local and state historical societies and state archives who may hold Voter Registration records.

Combining city directory records with census and voter registration records helps us advance our research, establishing not only residence in a particular year and place but also occupation and potential family members (to be confirmed with other evidence).  What emerges when these records are compiled is a more precise timeline of our ancestors’ life.









Research Plans, Mind Maps and a Case Study


You’re excited to start researching one of your ancestors.  You jump in but soon find yourself following those BSOs (Bright Shiny Objects) down many different paths. At the end of 2 hours you have little to show for your effort.   This is where a Research Plan can come in handy.

What is a Research Plan?   It’s a plan to help identify what you want to know about a particular person/couple/event and what sources you would need to look at to find that information.  Research plans contain a focused question that we want to answer (the research objective). And a way to answer that question (the research plan).   Research plans of necessity are flexible and adapt as we accept or reject information located in our search. There is no one size fits all research plan.  All of us have different tools we use to approach our research but the basic steps of a Research Plan remain the same:

1)  Begin by revisiting old research.  What do you know about the person/couple/event and how do you know it? Evaluate the information.  How reliable is the information? Are there any obvious contradictions or errors?  Do you have proven information or do you need to confirm it using original sources?

2)  Formulate your research objective.  Write down a specific question.  What is your goal?  What information are you trying to find?  Keep the question focused so that the resulting search is focused.

3)  Create a working hypothesis or just simply brainstorm. Using the information from your previous research, what are your initial thoughts on how to proceed?  What comes to mind as you think about finding the answer to your research objective?  What sources can you think of to consult?  Where are those sources found?

Here is a short example of the creation of a Research Plan to answer the following research objective:

Find and confirm the date of birth or baptism of Emma Glasby born about 1850 in Finningley, Nottinghamshire, England.  Confirm the names of Emma Glasby’s parents.

What do I already know? (Step 1:  Revisit old research and evaluate it)

From previous research I know that Emma Glasby was born about 1850, in Finningley, Nottinghamshire, England.  I have a note that her mother was Elizabeth Glasby (born about 1829 also in Finningley, Nottinghamshire).  Emma Glasby’s grandparents were named as George and Elizabeth Glasby.  I have nothing noted for the name of Emma’s father.

The first clue that I may be adjusting my research objective is the fact that Emma’s last name is the same as her mother. This could mean that either Emma’s mother married someone with the same last name (possible although somewhat unlikely) or that Emma was illegitimate.  If I discover that Emma was illegitimate then the chances are slim (not impossible but very slim!) of finding her biological father.  I may need to adjust my research objective and tailor it to the new information that I have. In evaluating the evidence I note that I do not have a source for Emma’s approximate birth date of 1850.

Revised Research Objective (Step 2: Formulate or refine your research objective)

Find and confirm the date of birth or baptism of Emma Glasby born about 1850 in Finningley, Nottinghamshire, England.  Determine if both parents are named on the document.

Brainstorm (Step 3:  Create a working hypothesis)

I like to use mind mapping as I brainstorm.  Some people prefer to use timelines or a research plan template or to just jot things down on a piece of paper.  Use whichever method works for you.  Below is the mind map I created for working on Emma Glasby:


This was created using iMindMap.  There are a lot of different mind mapping software programs out there.  (I have no connection to iMindMap, I simply like their software).

My research process:

Using FamilySearch I was able to locate a record indicating that Emma’s mother is an Elizabeth Glasby and that Emma Glasby was baptized on 9 Sep 1849 in Finningley, Nottinghamshire.  This date fits with my previous research and the name of the mother as Elizabeth. This is an indexed record, there is no image available.  And while Emma’s mother’s name is given, the record does not name a father, adding some credence to the thought that Emma was likely illegitimate.


Although indexed records are a great finding tool we don’t stop there when attempting to find direct evidence.  Evaluating the original baptism entry, if extant, is imperative.  Is it available online?  We already know that FamilySearch has only the indexed record.   Here is where I return to my mind map and look at the sources that I had written down.  I noted that I would check all the major genealogy websites like Ancestry, Findmypast and MyHeritage. Ancestry has the same indexed record as FamilySearch with no additional information. Findmypast also has the same record indexed but provides further information in the form of the name of the church Emma was baptized in, namely Holy Trinity and St. Oswald in Finningley, Nottinghamshire.  The record is blank where the father’s name should be.

“England and Wales Births, 1837-2006,” database, Findmypast (http://search.findmypast.com/record?id=bmd%2fb%2f1849%2f3%2fah%2f001212%2f035: 20 Sep 2016) Emma Glasby, 09 Sep 1849

Returning to my mind map I can see that I also noted down to check the FamilySearch Wiki to find out what they have on Finningley and on the church Emma Glasby was baptized in.

FamilySearch Wiki entry for Finningley, Nottinghamshire.

I am able to read more about the church and see whether any additional records might exist for it.   There is a link from the FamilySearch Wiki to records at both Findmypast and FamilySearch itself.  These are the records I have already checked.

FamilySearch Wiki showing which records are available for Finningley Parish.

When I was working on my mind map I noted that perhaps the Nottinghamshire Archives might have records online. A Google search quickly gives me the Nottinghamshire Archives website,  but unfortunately only a small collection of indexed records are online and there are no images of those records at all.  There is no online record for the baptism of Emma Glasby at the Nottinghamshire Archives site.  A further avenue for research would be to contact the Archives via email and ask what help they may be able to provide.

Again referencing my mind map I am reminded that I had a thought that perhaps Elizabeth married someone with the same last name and that is why daughter Emma has Glasby has her last name.  A search provides no evidence of a marriage for Elizabeth Glasby within 5 years of the birth of Emma Glasby in 1849.

It’s always good to take a step back and assess what you have:

  • Indexed baptism record found for Emma Glasby, giving date of baptism as 9 Sep 1849 and confirming location as Finningley, Nottinghamshire
  • Indexed baptism record confirms mother as Elizabeth Glasby
  • Indexed baptism record does not have a father listed
  • Indexed baptism record does give name of church where Emma was baptized
  • A search for a marriage for Elizabeth Glasby between 1845 and 1855 has negative results

In summary:  I have been able to confirm preliminarily through an indexed record, that Emma’s mother was Elizabeth Glasby and that Emma was baptized on 9 Sep 1849 in the Anglican church of Holy Trinity and St. Oswald in Finningley, Nottinghamshire.  I was not able to find the actual image of the baptism entry online. I am unable to confirm my theory that Emma was illegitimate (although the initial research strongly suggests that may be the case) and that no father will have been indicated on the original record.  The indexed record on FamilySearch indicates the film number that the record was indexed from. My next step is to order the film from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and locate the actual baptism entry.

FamilySearch source citation gives FHL film numbers

There are many different directions I can keep searching in, but my research objective keeps me focused on the current goal of finding and confirming Emma Glasby’s date of birth/baptism and parentage.  Once I have answered those questions I can move on and create another research objective and research plan and look further at Elizabeth Glasby herself.  A brief glance at the 1851 U.K. census (the first census taking place after Emma’s birth in 1849) indicates that Emma Glasby is one year of age and enumerated with her grandparents and not her mother Elizabeth.  The mystery deepens!

Researching with a plan in mind helps focus us on our objective.  Research plans can be simple or complex; it is really what works for you that is important.