When I began researching years ago, I knew the names of my grandparents and what country in Europe their ancestors were from, but not much more. I have now traced most of my ancestors back to the Old Country, some to the 1600s. But there remained four ancestors with unknown places of origin among my sixteen 2x great-grandparents. A week or so ago, I decided to go back to the online resources, focusing on James Inglis, the Scottish seaman, and his Irish wife, Anne Corliss. This time I was more experienced, and I was determined to find the records.
Several sources confirmed that James’ parents were James and Isabella. Unfortunately, more than one James Inglis was born about 1838 to parents with these names. I had already ruled these Jameses out, because they were living in Scotland during the 1861 census, while my ancestor was by that time married and living in New York City. Scottish birth, marriage, and death records are incomplete before 1855 when civil registration was required; neither the marriage of James’ parents, nor his birth record were online.
There is another set of records: Scottish censuses began in 1841. The only James of the correct age not otherwise accounted for on the first census is a James Inglis, age 3, living in Glasgow with John and Ann Inglis, 65 and 60, and their children John, 25, and Ann, 20. These are not James’ parents. Could they be his grandparents? This couple does not appear on the 1851 census, but there is a James Inglis, 13, errand boy, living with the family of his uncle John Inglis not far from where the family lived in 1841; this John like the Johns on the earlier census is a tailor. Again, there is no other James. The elder John and Ann had a son James born in 1811, who would have been 27 in 1838. He and his wife must have died around the time of the birth of their son. I find no records of their deaths, but the slum area where the family lived was crowded and rife with disease. I feel confident I have found the right James. Since Glasgow is a port city, James could easily have gone to sea from there.
The Scottish census lists addresses. Astonishingly, there is a photograph online of the street where James and his grandparents lived, taken as documentation before the area was demolished as part of slum clearance in 1868.
There is also a photograph of the street where the elder John Inglis had his tailor shop.
I now know exactly where my ancestor lived and played as a boy. I know his grandparents’ and two great-grandparents’ names and that his grandmother was born in Glasgow, while his grandfather was born elsewhere in Scotland.
This new information can be correlated with an indenture record for James Inglis, 15, in the Merchant Navy in November, 1853. This James’ last address was recorded as Renfrew, the county where Port Glasgow is found. But is this the right James? The record shows that the indenture was cancelled in December, 1855, just after James’ first child was born. James and Anne were married on February 10, 1855 and the baptism of their daughter Isabella was on December 1, 1855. I don’t think this is coincidence.
One down, one to go.
I turned to James’ wife Anne Corliss. My research was hampered by the fact that Anne’s estimated birth year is anywhere from 1834 to 1841, depending on the record and that her last name is spelled in a variety of ways. I remembered hearing that Irish records are incomplete due to a fire in the records office during the struggle for independence. Based on my experience with James, I worried that even if I found a document with the correct names, I would not be sure that it was for the right person. I was further disheartened by not knowing Anne’s date of birth. However, a video on Irish research on Ancestry.com explained that Irish immigrants had no conception of birth years and often stated ages that varied by five years or more. This enabled me to understand that I could not expect Anne to know her birthday. Anne’s arrival record in 1854 indicated a birth year of 1840, the 1855 census, 1835.
When I looked again for Anne, I found only one record that had her parents’ first names (as on her death record) and a date within a reasonable range of years. This was for Anne Curlis, born in Tuam, July 5, 1837 to James and Mary Kelly. I had discounted this record because the name was spelled differently and the birth year was earlier than on the arrival record. But when I researched further, I found the name recorded as Corlis for two of James’ sisters. Since Anne (and her birth family) could not read or write, any variant of C * rl * s(s) is a likely transcription. I also learned that the Roman Catholic Irish parish records on Ancestry are reasonably complete after 1829; it was Church of Ireland records that were burned. Finally, a birth date for Anne in 1837 would make her 17 at the time of her marriage and 18 when she first gave birth, not 14 and 15 as suggested by the arrival record, which makes more sense.
Anne’s birthplace was Tuam (town), Tuam (diocese) in Galway. I found birth records for her parents and one of her grandparents there.
Anne would have been 8 years old when the famine began in 1845. 1.5 million Irish emigrated during the famine years, and another 1 million died. In Tuam, the population declined by 50%, and whole villages were abandoned. Anne’s family did not emigrate at the height of the famine. This suggests that her family was allowed to stay on their land while neighbors were evicted; or that her father had a trade; or that the family moved to a city in Ireland or England where her father found work. Nonetheless, there were probably several children in the family who died of disease or starvation.
The reason for the family’s emigration seems have been the death of Anne’s father in 1853. Their only alternative would have been the workhouse where conditions were deplorable and families were separated. Often the poor were offered free passage to get them off the public rolls. May Carless, 35, her daughter Ann 13, and her sons Hudson, 7, and Hugh, 5 months, left Liverpool in December 1853, arriving in New York in January 1854. Hudson and Hugh, along with over 10% of the passengers, died on the ship. While conditions were cramped and unsanitary for German emigrants too, most of them arrived in good health. In contrast, the ships carrying Irish passengers were called “coffin ships.” Due to the famine, many people boarded the ship already ill, many died on board, and many others arrived too sick to survive for long. Anne’s mother must have died shortly after she got off the boat and would have been buried in a pauper’s grave.
How Anne survived during the year between her arrival and her marriage is not known. I suspect she was taken in by an Irish family.
Anne and James must have met near the docks when James was in port in 1854. I imagine her sitting on the steps of a tenement building crying. She must have told him she was alone with no one to take care of her. Proud that he was seaman, he might have said, “Don’t worry, I will look after you.” She would have been 17 when they married in 1855; he was probably only 16. More common ages for marriage at the time were 20 for the bride and 25 for the groom. Because they were both orphans without siblings, Anne and James must have decided to create the family they both lacked, though they were little more than children themselves.
Anne and James lived their entire married lives in the tenements of the dock area of New York City, while James came and went on the ships. Anne bore nine children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. If this photograph of them, which was probably taken in February 1884 when their two oldest children married, is any indication, theirs was a happy marriage.
Some might say: Why do you bother with all of this, especially when the stories are so sad? I reply that for me every additional piece of my ancestors’ histories helps me to plant my feet more firmly on the earth. I love knowing these stories, and I am happy to have places in Scotland and Ireland to call home.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator currently living in Pachia Ammos, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.