When Genealogy Research Yields More Questions Than Answers

I ran into one of those moments this weekend, when discovering a new piece of information only added to my list of questions. I am in the process of filling in details on a three Bannon sisters in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Until recently I hadn’t known they existed because they married shortly after arriving in New Haven and so were never listed as a Bannon in any Census or City Directories. I recently had downloaded an ebook copy of old New Haven births, marriages and deaths and decided to look for my family. I found the marriages for these three Bannon sisters and realized that the Preston and Shields families that I had seen mentioned in connection with my Bannon family were in fact related!

One sister, Margaret, married a Thomas Preston in 1843 in New Haven. This new bit of information did help to solve a lot of questions, the biggest being “where were our Bannons from in Ireland”. With a new surname to search, I found the headstone for Thomas and Margaret Bannon Preston in St. Bernard’s in New Haven and it stated that they were both from “Fermanagh”! This is the exact location that my Aunt Lillian had said that our Bannons were from. So I was excited. I felt like I was really making progress. Right off the bat though I ran in to one puzzle that I’m still confused about. Thomas’ headstone inscription looks as if it says that he died in 1897, when he was still living at time of 1900 Census as well as the 1902 publication of a biography of him. I’m hoping to find his death record this week, but in the meantime, I’m guessing that the headstone was erected years after his and Margaret’s death and whom ever erected it did not know when he died.

Thomas Preston
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Another exciting discovery was another ebook copy of an old 1902 publication that included biographies of prominent New Haven County residents and found that Thomas Preston was included. Not only did I get a lot of valuable info from the biography, but it also had a photo of Thomas! That was a major find!

I went on to fill in info on Margaret and Thomas’ children. I had a lot of info to work on including Census, and various newspaper announcements. One of their children, Thomas J, went on to be a prominent Catholic Priest. One daughter, Margaret, married John Waddock, who was President of the Alderman of New Haven and died fairly young at age 34. Another daughter, Mary Catherine, married someone named “Loughery” and this lead to more than a few questions, the first of which being “What was Mr. Loughery’s first name?”. First I’ll give you some of what I DID know.. In 1900 Mary Catherine lived with her widowed father and was listed with her maiden name. In 1902 biography she is listed as being “Mrs. Mary Catherine Loughery”. In 1910 she is living with her widowed sister, Margaret Waddock, and listed with her married name. These facts led me to believe that she was married shortly after 1900 Census and that her husband had died prior to 1910. I had looked for a wedding announcement earlier, but after looking for a possible husband in the New Haven City Directories, I realized that there were a couple of possible spellings for Loughery/Loughrey in New Haven, so I did a new search for newspaper articles with the new spellings and had success! I found the marriage announcement for Catherine Preston (She usually went by

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Katherine/Catherine/Katie) and Michael Loughrey.. but the date was 8 Sept 1891!! It’s definitely the correct Catherine Preston, even though for some reason they list her father’s name as Joseph! Ahh, you gotta love genealogy research!. So the date of the wedding leads to a whole new set of questions.. Why was Katie living with her father in 1900? Did Michael die prior to that? Were they divorced ro separated? When did Michael die? I still do not have the answer to those questions. Michael’s death record is another thing that I hope to find in the New Haven Vital Records. In the mean time, I’m going with the assumption that the couple separated sometime before 1900. I think that Michael may have left town. I’m basing the “separation” theory on the fact that in that time frame, the only females listed in the City Directories were widows. While Katie’s sister, Mrs. Margaret Waddock, was listed, Katie is not listed in City Directories either as a widow, or under her maiden name.

This whole research project can teach a couple of lessons for those of you working on your own genealogy research. The first being that you should always make sure to check multiple spellings of a surname, even if you are sure you know how the family spelled it themselves ( See my earlier post about my Ratcliffe/ Radcliffe family). Secondly, you cannot be too quick to base assumptions on one piece of information, no matter how legit it seems to be. I often go back and see if I can DISPROVE an assumption after it looks to be promising. In this case I wasn’t necessarily looking to DISPROVE it, but that is what happened when I found the wedding announcement. The third is to keep looking for new possible research sources. I’ll often google a family name that I’ve already searched for and find new things online that were not there the first time around. In this case, finding the newly uploaded ebook of New Haven families was a really great find!

So this week I’m off to scour the New Haven Vital records.. AGAIN.. in hopes of finding more concrete information on my elusive Bannon sisters. Of course the third Bannon sister, Ann, married a James Smith, so that should be loads of fun searching for a John Smith born in Ireland!! Not!!

The Confusing Origins of Thomas Burnham

St. Leonards, Hatfield, Herefordshire
The following is my personal opinion on the puzzle surrounding where in England Thomas Burnham of Windsor, Connecticut originated. I offer this opinion, not to denigrate other’s research , but instead, as a way of sharing my thoughts and to welcome other opinions on the issues raised here.

When researching the early settlers of Connecticut, you learn early on that records from the 1600s in New England are not easy to come by and therefore, many of us do rely on some extensive genealogies of the early settlers of the area that were done in the late 1800s. One of those being the GENEALOGICAL RECORDS OF THOMAS BURNHAM, the Emigrant, WHO WAS AMONG THE EARLY SETTLERS AT HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT, U. S. AMERICA, HIS DESCENDANTS by RODERICK H. BURNHAM. This book was published by Cash, Lockwood & Brainard Co. in 1884.

When using these works, including the one by Mr. Burnham, I always use it as a “starting point” and try to double check as much info as was possible and besides confirming data, I also often find errors. However, for the most part, I found Mr. Burnham’s work to be very reliable. Others by such historians as Lucius Barbour, were full of many more errors than Mr. Burnham’s work was. I therefore have been very comfortable using Mr. Burnham’s work as a “source” in my Burnham genealogy research.

In his history of the Burnham Family of Windsor, CT, Mr. Burnham gives an argument for the family originating from Hatfield, Herefordshire, England. The following is what he wrote:

The following extract is from a letter received by the compiler from one
of the descendants of Thomas Burnham, sen., of Hartford, Conn.

” In a letter which I received from Herefordshire, England, a
number of years ago, the writer, a lady, informed me, that from
deeds in possession of her husband’s family (his name being
Burnam), it would appear ‘ that his predecessors once resided at
an ancient seat, now a ruin, called Hatfield, between Bromyard’
and Leominster, towns in Herefordshire, and that they were
related to the old family of Geers, from whom the place and
property descended to our late County Member, Sir John Geers
Cotterell, Bart. These facts leave little or no doubt that the
Burnhams were an old Herefordshire family, and the same from
which you are descended.’ ”

” My correspondent goes on to say, that she has old books, as
old as 1570, with the name of ‘Thomas Burnam’ written in
them. The name is now extinct in that part of England.” *

Since commencing the preparation of this second edition for
publication, the compiler has used every effort to discover the
writer of the above letter (the letter lost, with the address of the
writer) received by him some sixteen years since, in order that
he might obtain a clue to the family in England possessed of
the papers referred to, that they might be used in establishing
the connection between the American family and its English
ancestors. But not succeeding, he wrote to the Vicar of Hat-
field, who in his very interesting work, entitled ” Episodes in the
Life of an Indian Chaplain ” (page 360), says ” The Church of
Hatfield, in the prettily-wooded county of Hereford, presents
little of interest, with the exception of some curious old monu-
ments, with quaint inscriptions, of the Burnam family. This
ancient and honorable family dated back to A.D. 1100, and still
have descendants in the U. S. America…”

Mr. Burnham’s assumption that the family was from Herefordshire had become a standard belief among Burnham researchers, even though no one has been able to prove it. As of now, no one has been able to find any concrete proof that connects Thomas of Windsor to the Burnhams of Hatfield.

No new research had been done on the origins of this family until recently. I had seen mention of an article published in New England Historic Genealogical Society’s publication. It was written by Cathy Soughton, a genealogist in England. I recently was able to read the article and while hoping that it would result in definitive proof of the origins of Thomas Burnham of Windsor, CT, I find that instead it raises a few questions for me.

Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire
Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire
It seems that a few years ago, Ms. Soughton, carried out some research for an Australian client regarding their Burnham ancestors in Buckinghamshire, England. While researching that family, she came across the will of William Burnham, of Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire date April 1649. Two of the beneficiaries were his nephew Thomas Burnham in New England and Thomas’ son, William. The clients were curious as to what happened to this branch of the family and so Ms. Soughton researched Burnhams in New England during the matching time period.

Ms. Soughton contacted Henry B. Hoff, the editor of the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s publication. Mr. Hoff supposedly researched what records were available in the US and he came to the “firm conclusion” that Thomas Burnham who settled in Windsor, CT, and who had a son William Burnham, was the same man mentioned in the will. Ms. Soughton investigated English records and found a Thomas Burnham baptized in Long Crendon in 1619.

These findings coupled with the information that I have gathered leads me to two problems with thinking that Thomas of Windsor and his son William are the one’s mentioned in the will of William in Long Crendon. First, based on Roderick Burnham’s info, William son of Thomas of Windsor was not born yet it 1649. Second, he had three older brothers who are not mentioned in the will. This doesn’t make sense to me. Reading the will, it sounds as if William of Long Crendon is mentioning William (in New England) as the oldest son of Thomas in New England. Why would he mention a younger son and not the older ones? Coupled with the fact that William in Windsor was not even born in 1649 makes me reluctant to believe that this will really is proof of the origins of Thomas Burnham of Windsor.

Roderick Burnham gave us the following children with birth dates which he admits are approximate, however the birth ORDER of children does seem to hold up with further research:

1. Thomas Burnham, Senr., of Hartford and Potunke;
born in England 1617 ; died June 28, 1688 ; se 71 years ;
married 1639 ? Anna (Wright?) ; born in England 1620 ? ;’ died Aug. 5, 1703.

Elizabeth, b. *1640, m. Nicholas Morecock, d. Dec. 2, 1720.
Mary, b. 1642, m. Mar. 21, 1670 William Morton, d. Jan. 25, 1720.
Anna, b. . 1644, m. Apr. 7, 1665 Samuel Gaines, d. Nov. 29, 1722.
2 Thomas, b.. 1646, m. Jan. 4, 1676 Naomi Hull, d. Mar. 19, 1726.
3 John, b. 1648, m. Nov. 12, 1684 Mary Olcott, d. Apr. 20, 1721.
4 Samuel, b. 1650, m. Oct. 8, 1684 Mary Cadwell, d. Apr. 12, 1728.
5 William, b. 1652, m. June 28, 1681 Elizabeth Loomis, d. Dec. 12, 1730.
6 Richard, b. 1654, m. June 11, 1680 Sarah Humphries, d. Apr. 28, 1731.
Rebecca, b. 1656, m. Apr. 5, 1685 William Mann, d.

* These approximate the dates of birth.

I have found nothing that discredits the above information, and in fact have been able to prove much of it and elaborate on the information for the children of Thomas of Windsor.

As for there being a Thomas Burnham baptized in Long Crendon, I can’t credit that as proof of the connection since “Thomas” was such a common name in that time period. The fact that there are so many Burnhams with the same first names has always added to the confusion with sorting out families in Connecticut and even in all of New England. Every Burnham family has it’s share of individuals named John, William, Thomas, Richard et al.

I will continue to keep my eyes open for any new information concerning this family and welcome any thoughts you may have on this issue. In the meantime, I’ve ordered the films of the Hatfield, Herefordshire Parish Records so that I can see for myself that there is nothing there to connect to our Burnhams.

Because Roderick Burnham does not offer concrete proof of the family being from Hatfield, Herefordshire , I have decided to not include a location in England in my family history. This does not mean that I discredit either theory, however, just I can’t say that Roderick Burnham’s letter proves anything, neither can I embrace the new found information as “proof” that Roderick Burnham was wrong.

Interesting Article on Discovery of Capt Michael Burnham’s Grave in Suriname

I have admittedly not been working on Burnham Genealogy lately, but have recently been reviewing my information. While doing so, I stumbled on this article which I found fascinating!

Interestingly, Capt. Michael Burnham’s grandson, Michael Burnham, son of Capt. Ashbel Burnham, died nearby in Cayenne, French Guiana in 1788 at age 22.

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Graves Of Connecticut Sea Captains Discovered In South America
January 02, 2012|By ERIK HESSELBERG, Special to The Courant, The Hartford Courant

The Republic of Suriname, a former Dutch sugar colony on the northern coast of South America, is not often a topic of conversation around here. But a team of researchers may make the tiny state of interest to Connecticut residents, thanks to their discovery of the graves of two 18th-century sea captains.

One headstone, bearing the date of 1758, is that of Capt. Michael Burnham of Middletown, a swashbuckling adventurer who made a fortune as a privateer and most likely trafficked in slaves. Another, made of Portland brownstone, marks the grave of New London Capt. William Barbut. Nearby are the graves of Rhode Island merchants Capt. Nathaniel Angel and Capt. William Gardner Wanton.

The graves of the New England seafarers were uncovered on Oct. 29 in the Dutch colonial cemetery of Nieuw Oranjetuin in Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital city, by researchers who used machetes to hack away the vines covering the old headstones. One of those researchers, a former Connecticut resident, Tom Hart, immediately communicated the find to the Middlesex County Historical Society. The expedition was led by Paramaribo historian Bas Spek.

Hart said in an email that the location of old sea captains’ tombs had been known to a few locals, but never officially documented. He said he hopes the discovery will spark interest in these seafarers and the close ties New England once had with this subtropical region. “I think any contributions we made were taking an interest in these Americans … and bringing the information to the attention of potentially interested American institutions,” Hart wrote.

Middlesex Historical Society Director Debbie Shapiro was excited to learn about Middletown’s connection to Suriname in the days when the city was a major seaport, with ships sailing to exotic lands. “They say that the Internet has made the world smaller, but the more we learn, the more we discover that it was a small world back then, too,” she said.

The historic inner city of Paramaribo, were the graves were found, lies on the left bank of the wide Paramaribo River, 15 miles up from the river’s mouth. UNECSCO recognizes the city as a world heritage site because of its intact 18th- and 19th-century wooden Dutch colonial buildings on spacious lots along tree-lined streets. Within the old city is the Nieuw Oranjetuin Cemetery, a sandy, five-acre plot once known for its lush orange groves. Established in 1755, it was the main cemetery of the Dutch Reform Church.

Some of the tombs are quite elaborate, little shines built of red brick and marble. By contrast, the headstones of the Yankee sea captains, lying flat in the sandy ground, are plain. The four men were buried between 1758 and 1765. The inscriptions offer no clue as to how they died. What is known is that commerce – based on the ubiquitous slave-worked plantations of the sugar islands – drew these canny New Englanders to the area.

Capt. Burnham, as commander in chief in the Provincial Navy, was tasked with protecting this commerce during the French and Indian War – 1754 to 1763 – when American and ritish shipping in the Caribbean was being harassed by French corsairs. Burnham was sent to the West Indies in the winter of 1757 with orders “to distress his Majesties’ enemies…” The 52-year-old commander was put in charge of the 24-gun brigantine Tartar with a crew of 100. Capt. Burnham carried Letters of Marque from the British crown, allowing him to seize French prizes.

Whether the Middletown captain was also running slaves – a common practice then – is not known, but Suriname at this time was a principal destination for Rhode Island slavers, who exchanged horses, lumber, rum and African slaves for sugar, coffee and cocoa – the infamous Triangular Trade.

Indeed, Capt. William Gardner Wanton, who is buried next to Burnham in Paramaribo, belonged to an illustrious clan of Newport merchants notorious for slaving, which included R.I. Gov. Joseph Wanton, one-time privateer and slaver who is pictured in a famous painting of the era by John Greenwood, entitled “Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam.” Capt. Joseph Wanton, during and French and Indian War, was master of the privateer, King of Prussia, which was seized by the French in 1758 off the Bahamas with a cargo of gold dust, rum and 54 slaves.

That same year Capt. Burnham died at the age of 54 and was buried in Paramaribo amid the coconut palms and orange groves just up from the river. The inventory of his estate, compiled in five 15-inch columns of “closely written text,” includes powdered wigs, crimson waistcoats, silk cravats, gold sleeve buttons and a silver-hilted sword, along with prodigious qualities of Madeira and Jamaican rum.

Also listed in his estate are three human beings – Africans – a woman named Sue, a young boy named Julius, and a young man called Cape Coast, whose value is given as 58 pounds.

Lesson Learned: Always Check All Possible Spellings of a Surname!

When originally researching this family, I had hit a couple of brick walls, both involving children “disappearing” after parents were divorced. One was concerned the child of William’s son, Thomas, and his wife Josephine. The other brick wall concerned the son of William’s son by his second wife, Mary.. Frederick Leo. I couldn’t find Frederick Leo and wife Concetta’s son, Frederick, after his parent’s divorce.

I am very used to making sure that when searching for info on a family.. that I search all possible spellings. With the Ratcliffe family, I ran in to that in the very early records where things were sometimes spelled as they sounded, however, with the Ratcliffe’s in the US I had not run in to any alternate spellings with the family who stayed in the Middletown area.

With the release of the 1940 Census and a new subscription to a newspaper archive I had begun an extensive search for these two missing branches of the family. After a few searches with no results, I plugged in “Radcliffe” instead of “Ratcliffe” and struck gold.

It seems that with both Thomas Ratcliffe and Frederick Leo Ratcliffe.. their ex-wives and children began using the Radcliffe spelling after getting divorced. I was first able to find Frederick’s ex wife and son in 1940 living with her mother. (See below)

1940 Census

This new discovery not only allowed me to fill in the missing blanks on the descendents of Frederick Leo Ratcliffe, but while doing a search in the newspaper archive, I found Thomas Ratcliffe’s obituary which listed his daughter’s name!

The lesson for all genealogists it to NEVER limit yourself to one spelling of a surname. Even if a family didn’t use the alternate spelling permanently.. there are often cases where the name gets spelled wrong in various records or news articles. It is therefore always a good idea to check every possible spelling of a surname.

I’ve added a page to the site with the updated lines. You can view the info and the sources here: Update: The Descendends of William Ratcliffe and Selina Shallcross and Mary J. Shevary

As a post script to this story.. I eventually linked one of these Ratcliffe/Radcliffe lines to an Adamaitis family in Bristol, CT. During my genealogy research I did a general google for that surname in Bristol..and did a double take when my husband’s niece’s name showed up. Well.. I hadn’t made the connection that she is engaged to an Adamaitis!! After checking with her family to ask what her fiance’s parents’ names were.. it turns out it’s the same family! So I am related to her fiance! This can be filed in the “It’s a Small World” category for sure!

My research, genealogy tips and anecdotes