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Chicago Genealogy & Cook County Genealogy

* How to Research your Chicago Ancestors *

Chicago has such a rich history, and is so ethnically diverse, that it just begs you to search all the various goldmines around the city for clues to solving your family mysteries.  Immigrants flooded the city in the mid to late 1800’s, which helped to shape the Chicago that we know and love today.   Your ancestors could have helped build the railroads, rebuild the city after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, and design and build the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, also known as the White City. 

There is a lot to learn about Chicago Genealogy and what is available to research, but here are some of my favorite resources and what they can tell you:

Chicago Vital Records – After 1871, vital records are available and fairly easy to research.  The challenge is that birth, death and marriage records before 1900 do not name parents.  But other clues can be gathered, including where the person lived on a birth or death certificate, or whether the person was married in a church or by the Justice of the Peace.   And the Illinois index of early marriages and deaths is a great resource, especially for finding misspelled names. 

Church Records – While the Great Chicago Fire destroyed all vital records before 1871, Church Records help to fill in those early blanks and can take you back as early as 1850.   Certain Catholic Churches even kept records that identified where the person was born and when.  This is especially true in the Italian and Polish ethnic churches.   

Cemetery Records – Not only can you find the date of death, but headstones can include place of birth, year of birth and if lucky, where they were born.  You can also see who they are buried with, or near, for major clues.  Don’t just rely on Find a Grave.  Go visit the cemetery in person.  One of my favorite stories is how I began to research the Catholic Cemetery of Calvary in Evanston.  I started out by pulling the cemetery record of my Irish Great Great Grandmother.  What I uncovered was a burial plot with 8 people in the same grave.  Then it spiraled out of control - who were these people buried with my Julia who died in 1884?  Over a period of about a year, I bet I went back to this cemetery 25 times, becoming fast friends with the office manager.  But my biggest discovery was finding my 3x Great Grandfather from Quebec who was buried in the same plot with his grandson.  I had no idea he even came to the US and never thought to search vital records for him.  Without searching for his grandson’s cemetery record, I would have never found him in Chicago.   

Voter Registrations of 1888, 1890 and 1892 – These records identify the courthouse where the person was naturalized, how long the person lived in Chicago, how long they lived in Illinois, and their current address.  It is often in alphabetical order by last name so it can help you see other potential family members.  This is a great replacement for the destroyed 1890 Federal Census.

City Directories & Telephone Directories – Published books began around 1839 and help you plot the areas where your family lived, and when they moved.  These addresses help you define nearby relatives and what churches they may have attended.

Ward Maps – The city was constantly changing its street names and ward boundaries.  It’s important to identify where your ancestors lived, but that can also be a challenge.  Sometimes they lived in the same house on multiple census records, but the street names are different.  Ward maps can help you figure out these changes.

Census Records – Chicago census records show the street a person lived on starting in the 1880 census. 

Naturalization Records – There are 3 places where an individual could have been naturalized in Cook County:  Circuit Court, Superior Court and District Court.  The first 2 are found at the Daley Center, while the District Court filings are found at the NARA Great Lakes Region.

Immigration – the Newberry Library houses many books on ethnic immigration that has an index of names, making it easier to find often misspelled names. 

NARA Great Lakes Region – This repository houses the District Court Naturalization records of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, along with many other court records.

Divorce Records – While records are off-site, once you find an index of a divorce, the record is a goldmine for information.  The divorce of my adopted Grandmother’s birth mother led to naming her sister as a witness in the trial.  That led to helping me find where the birth mother ended up dying, and ultimately where she was born.

Probates – Again, these records are kept off-site.  If an index is found for that person, then it takes up to 2 weeks for them to arrive for viewing.

Land Records – Did your ancestors own the property they were living in and for how long?  That can be found by researching land records. 

Adoptions, Orphanages and Guardianships – There are various ways to research this difficult area of your tree.   Illinois adoptee birth records prior to 1946 can now be obtained by family.  Also, Catholic Charities can be helpful in finding records at a Catholic Orphanage.  Guardianship Records in Cook County can be viewed on microfilm, and census records can be combed for children living at local orphanages. 

Autopsy Records – These records don’t necessarily lead to family clues, but are interesting and help shape the stories of a person’s life.

Newspaper Obituaries – The challenge with early obituaries in Chicago is that the city had so many people dying on any given day, that the obits were just kept to the basics.  Unless the person was of prominence or had an interesting life story, the most you can get from them are maiden names, children, if the person was single or married, along with what church they attended and where the burial will take place.  On a few obituaries, it will tell you what country they were born, but that is rare.

Libraries – Several key libraries are essential to finding nuggets of Genealogy information:  Newberry Library, Harold Washington Library, Family History Library, and Northeastern Illinois University Library

If any of your ancestors lived in Chicago, or even had a brief stay in this great city, then I strongly encourage you research them immediately.  My simple advice is to never give up until you exhaust all avenues available to you.  Based on my years of experience in Chicago, it can be an expansive yet rewarding search.

Adoption Mystery Solved

Ancestry Sisters just helped our client solve his family's adoption mystery from 1900.  Read the story below.

My maternal grandmother was a wonderful Christian woman born October 1, 1900, in Fulton, Illinois. She played her churches organ every Sunday for more than thirty five years. She told me a sad story she thought was true: her mother, Ethel Lynn, died during her birth. This caused her great pain and worse, she believed that her father apparently could not care for five children with one a newborn. She was told that he moved them to York, Nebraska, then asked the County of York to assume guardianship of them in about 1905. My grandmother passed away in 1994, but she got to meet her one sister after a separation of seventy-one years. Her three brothers had all died before she found out who they were from a family descendant in 1984. She died believing that her birth caused the death of her mother and the wardship and separation of her and all four of her siblings, a sister and three brothers, by York County because her father could not raise five children. 

I retained Ancestry Sisters to investigate the facts because they sounded odd to me. It was discovered that her mother, Ethel, became ill with “consumption” a full five months after my grandmother was born and died on 3 July 1901, nearly a full nine months after her birth and five months after becoming ill.  Her mother’s death was unrelated to her birth. Her father had moved to Clinton, Iowa, across the Mississippi River from Fulton, IL, and Ethel’s sister, Elisabeth, and Elisabeth’s husband, George, assumed their guardianship in July 1902. In May 1904 the York County, Nebraska, Court ordered the adoption of my four year old grandmother by the couple whom she always knew as her loving parents, Charles B. and Ella Mae of York, Nebraska. 

A professionally authored and persuasive letter prepared by Ancestry Sisters persuaded the York County Court to release the adoption record (which is routinely a sealed document). The factual revelations Ancestry Sisters discovered gave me the true story behind my grandmother’s past, one quite different from the one she died believing. I just wish I had acted before that wonderful Christian woman passed away.

Walter, California


Ellen Heffernan is my great great grandmother.  That much I know for sure.  But beyond that, I cannot figure out a single thing about her life in Ireland, including her parents, siblings, and where in Ireland she was born. 

It has been a frustrating bunch of years trying to write her life story.   I tire of using the phrase Brick Wall.  Quite frankly, she is not a brick, nor a wall.  She is my Direct Ancestor, whom I share her name. 

So thus, I am sharing my research to date, and asking for suggestions and ideas for what I have missed and where I go next.  I am thinking that I am too close to her story and am missing a clue.

  1. Her death certificate says she was born May, 1829 in Ireland.  No parents were listed.  Figures.
  2. Her obituary says she came to the US at the age of 14 with her parents, but they failed to name her parents (grrrrr).  This puts her immigration around 1843.  An Immigration Record has not been found because it was a few years before the great migration, and records are sparse.  Also, there are many Ellen Heffernan’s coming to the US in the 1840’s.  Who knew……..
  3. Now I know her parents came to America with her.  But where they are is a mystery as well.
  4. Ellen married John O’Connor sometime around 1851 and they lived in Seymour, Connecticut. 
  5. I cannot for the life of me find Ellen in the 1850 census.  I found John in Chicopee, Massachusetts as a single man with his sister and 4 brothers, but Ellen does not appear to be living in that area.
  6. No marriage record has been found.  I went thru the Chicopee town records by hand, and the Catholic Church records in Connecticut, but nothing.
  7. Her first born baby was a girl named Bridget born in Seymour Connecticut and baptized at St. Mary’s Derby, CT.  Ellen and John clearly followed the traditional naming patterns of the Irish, so I am 100% confident that this is her mother’s name.  However, her father’s name is unclear.  Their first born son was David, and that is John’s father.  Second born son was named John, which usually the 3rd born son is named after the baby’s father, and 2nd born after the Mother’s father.  So was baby John named after the father, or Ellen’s father, or both?  Or was there a baby that died at birth?   Based on the fact that she had a baby almost every year, there is a window where another son could have been born.
  8. There was another Heffernan living in Seymour, Connecticut.  His name was Patrick Heffernan and I did find his marriage record in 1855 at the approximate age of 37.  Ellen is not a witness to the marriage.  She does not appear to be a sponsor to any of Patrick’s children.  However, there is a Patrick Halloren as a witness to baby John.  Was this a misspelling for Heffernan?  Patrick’s marriage record at the Derby Courthouse says he was born in Limerick.  I doubt this was his first marriage but I cannot connect the dots to another one.
  9. There is an Ann Heffernan living as a servant in Seymour, Connecticut in the 1850 census.  At first, I thought this was Ellen, thinking the census taker misunderstood her when she spoke her name.  That is until I found the marriage of Ann Heffernan and James Plunkett in 1851.  Is Ann a sister?  Ann goes missing along with her husband and son after the 1860 census.
  10. Ellen spent up to 40 years in the Connecticut Valley Hospital from 1873 to her death in 1916.  Now you see why I am obsessed with figuring out her life??   Diagnosis was melancholy from having too many babies (at least 12 that I know of).  The hospital exists today and they sent me her medical records from 1873 – 1886, but no clues help define her past other than her condition was hereditary.  Gee thanks, that’s helpful.
  11. Baby Bridget’s sponsors were Michael Heffernan and Mary Gannon.  I am confident these are siblings.  Mary Gannon has been elusive to find.  As for Michael, would you believe there were 2 Michael Heffernan’s that died in Derby CT.  One in 1899 and the other in 1900.  The first died as a pauper in a poor house, having lost his wife, child and house, and father was listed as Michael Heffernan on the D/C.  The 2nd died as a widow, before the 1900 census was taken, but father was listed as James Heffernan, and James is buried in the same cemetery as his son.  I tend to think her brother was the first one that died as a pauper.  His obit says he had a sister Bridget Heffernan who lived in New Haven.  Ellen wasn’t listed, but then Ellen had been in the hospital for over 20 years at this point.  Were they embarrassed to name her, or had they forgotten about her?  God I hate this journey at this point.
  12. James Heffernan, father of Michael Heffernan, has the parish of Glenroe County Limerick on his headstone.  But guess what?  Church records for Glenroe don’t start until 1850.  I even visited the church on my trip to Ireland in 2012, but there wasn’t a single Heffernan Headstone at the Glenroe cemetery.  I still wonder about Glenroe, because it is all of 15 miles from where John O’Connor was born.
  13. Ellen’s last baby was born in 1874, the year after she was admitted to the hospital for the first time and then sent home 2 months later.  Margaret O’Connor was raised by her sisters (including my great grandmother) since her mother was in the hospital for her entire childhood.  I have a picture of Margaret and now have a very clear understanding of where my blue gray eyes with the dark rim around the iris came from.  I have the eyes of either a Heffernan or O’Connor.
  14. The Heffernan name is misspelled in so many ways – Hefron, Hefen, Hefferen, etc.  Online searching is a nightmare
  15. No Land Records or a Will were found at the courthouse.
  16. Ellen is buried at the Catholic Cemetery in Seymour, but no headstone or location of burial plot was found.  No burial card, nothing.  The cemetery caretaker told me that the Irish were discriminated against at that time, and even the priest wasn’t interested in keeping proper records.  Sigh.
  17. I have a subscription to Find My Past.  They have a large database of Irish birth records in Limerick.  In looking for any Ellen Heffernan’s born to a mother named Bridget around May, 1829, there are a couple of options.  But none of the father’s listed were either John, Michael or James.  Another lovely needle in a haystack.

In conclusion, I still think my biggest clues are as follows:
  • She was born in the month of May
  • Her mother was named Bridget
  • Possible siblings include Bridget, Ann, Mary, Patrick and Michael
  • Patrick Heffernan says he was from County Limerick

My plan is to go back thru the Connecticut Catholic Church records one more time next year, and look at every entry from 1850 thru 1880 in 3 local churches.  I will look at misspelled names, sponsors of every baby born, and witnesses at every marriage to see if Ellen’s name is listed.

Beyond that, I am out of ideas.  But I cannot quit and will never stop thinking about her.  So offer up any ideas and suggestions on where you think I have missed a clue. 

I have prizes, awards, and a lifetime of accolades for the person the can help me figure this out.

Ireland Reaching Out

Our Chicago client (and friend) Marsha was chosen as part of the Ireland Reaching Out project and featured in the Tar Abhaile video as they traced her roots back to Ireland. We helped her research her Irish relatives in Chicago and now you get to see what she learned on her journey back to County Limerick. This is a fun video and I love how it is spoken in Gaelic. And of course there are great views of Chicago to begin the Journey. Enjoy

Daughters of the American Revolution DAR Application Process

My first experience with the Daughters of the American Revolution was at the very beginning of my family research.  As a matter of fact, the DAR was there to help me solve the very first mystery that drove me crazy for weeks about my great-great grandmother Eliza. 

I had no idea that Eliza even existed.  She died at the young age of 24 in 1872 in Rosamond, Illinois (population 205), and before vital records were required by the state.  It wasn’t until I found a tattered letter in the bottom of my mother’s files where I read the story of the early death of Eliza.  The letter also mentioned the cemetery where she was buried, but that was 132 years ago and a lot of time to erode the etchings on the oversized headstone.

When I called the county’s chamber of commerce, they gave me the name of a local man who was the caretaker of this small but mythical cemetery.  Upon returning my phone call, he first shuffled some papers and immediately confirmed that he did have a record of Eliza being buried at the Rosamond Cemetery in 1872.  In fact, he explained to me how the DAR spent time in 1962 recording every headstone in the cemetery and it was the only record he had with an index of older graves.  1962 may sound like yesterday, but every year that goes by is another year for the outside elements to wear away the script on the headstone.  And 50 years later, her marker is barely legible.

What the DAR did to record a 90 year old headstone is monumental to my family research today. 

The Daughters of the America Revolution is a truly amazing organization with dedicated volunteers and a commitment to preserving our American History, including mine.  And best of all, our family was lucky enough to have a Patriot that fought in the American Revolution.  I was able to document this Patriot, apply to the DAR, and successfully be accepted as a member within a month of my first contact.

Based on what I have learned about the process of applying to become a member of the DAR, here are some tips I can offer up for a successful outcome.

  • Visit the national Daughters of the American Revolution website to verify if your Patriot has already been documented.  If your Patriot is listed in the index, you can then buy the lineage report that details how far down the line the society has proven records.  This will tell you which ancestor in your line that you need to start documenting.
  •  Determine which local chapter you are interested in applying through.  Each chapter’s rules for applying are different.  I filed my application in Chicago and it was a very easy process where I was able to send all the documents via email.  I didn’t even have to print anything out.  The historian filled out the application for me and federal expressed it to me for my signature.  I was approved in all of 4 weeks.  However, I also have worked on a membership for a client in a very small town in Mississippi.  This local MS chapter didn’t have a budget for paper, so I had to mail 2 copies of every document.  We were approved in less than 2 months.
  •  Do your legwork up front before applying.  Gather all your documents for each generation and make sure you have them scanned into your computer in file folders.  I strongly recommend you save and send every census record for each ancestor too.  These may or may not be needed, but I have learned over time that it is better to include everything, otherwise there can be delays due to additional documents needed.
  •  Each generation that requires documents needs to show clear proof of a connection to their parents. 
  •  Government Vital Records (Birth, Marriage and Death certificates) are required for each generation.  Once you get far enough back where vitals were not mandated by the state, then records with clear proof of a family connection to the prior generation need to be found.  This can be in the form of Wills, Land Records, Newspaper Obituaries, Pension Records, and Bible Records (as long as you have the original bible in your possession).
  •  Effective January 1, 2014, the DAR will accept Y-DNA as a supplemental tool of lineage.

Be patient and don’t get frustrated.  Delays are inevitable as you need to completely satisfy the society that you are tracing the correct lineage.  But the reward is worth the wait, and your descendants will thank you for your hard work in passing down this bit of family history.

A look back

2013 is almost behind us and as another anniversary for Ancestry Sisters approaches, we look back at some of our most interesting research, which includes multiple divorces with named accomplices; a child given up for adoption only to be given back when the parents were re-married; murder; suicide; orphaned children and more. One of these is even a story involving our own family.  A story we have been working on for many years, even before Ancestry Sisters was formed.  It’s one of the reasons we now do this full time.

Once upon a time, way back in the late 1800’s, there lived a young woman who took several different partners to her married bed.  Upon discovering her with her friend, her husband divorced her and named her friend in a divorce suit.  Not once, but twice he divorced her, naming 2 different friends.  The divorce decree(s) reads like a soap opera!  Who knew that way back when, a friend could be named in a divorce suit?  The wronged husband was given custody of the minor child, only to then give this child up for adoption.  But, when the couple eventually got back together after the 2 divorces (was he forgiving or what?!),  they petitioned the Court that the minor child be given back to them….and that child was returned to its biological parents. Happy ending?  You decide.  In the meantime, another child was born to this woman, but whom this child belongs to, is anyone’s guess.  Oh, and by the way, the couple did not stay together. 
This does not mean we are ever giving up on finding the true identity of this 2nd child.  The search continues…..

One late summer night on a rural road in the late 1800’s, a distraught husband allegedly killed his wife.  When discovered by the authorities a few days later, he stole the gun from the Sheriff and killed himself.  Here begins the story of 3 young, orphaned children.

A young couple from the Midwest heads West during the California gold rush.  Gold wasn’t lucky for them, but real estate was and the family was able to buy several lots in a city where downtown real estate was important.  So important in fact, that their child was allegedly kidnapped and murdered, as protest against this successful family.  This particular family kept us busy researching for the better part of 6 months and we learned so much.

Everyone has heard this one….the story of how the woman you thought was your grouchy Great Aunt, was really your grouchy Great Grandmother.  We researched and verified several of these, and almost learned a foreign language in the process.

Our research took us to Ireland last year and among the interesting research we discovered, was that our clients’ great grandparents were cousins and had to get special dispensation from the Catholic Church in order to marry.  Thankfully, our client took the news very well!

This year alone, we conducted research in more than 20 of the lower 48 United States; in hundreds of counties; in 2 Canadian provinces; in Australia and in 5 European countries.  We viewed close to 250 films both locally and in Salt Lake City.  We attended classes, seminars and even a convention.  We put more than 750  miles on our cars in search of answers for our clients, by visiting libraries, cemeteries, courthouses and genealogical societies, just to name a few places.  We sent over 1,500 emails, made countless phone calls participated in conference calls, learned to use a hand held voice recorder, and along the way we made some remarkable friendships from literally all over the world.  We can practically apply for DAR and Mayflower society memberships in our sleep, and at one point, knew more about the state of Virginia than we did about our own home state.

Try not to be afraid to dig into your family’s past.  We have as much drama and dirty laundry as anybody else.  It simply makes up our family quilt.

We are looking forward to what’s coming next………