Who Do I Think I Am?

I am going to admit one of my guilty TV pleasure. No, it’s not a cheesy tween show on the CW, although I have a few of those.  I love “Who Do You Think You Are?”  It’s the find-your-roots NBC series that heavily promotes its sponsor, Ancestry.com. Each week a new celebrity traces his or her roots, which usually leads them across the world to an ancient cemetery where they stand and say they feel proud of whom they are now, not so alone.  It’s a little cheesy, a little predictable, always riveting.

New England Genealogy Society

I thought it would be fun to see if there are any compelling stories hidden in my family tree.  Being of Irish decent with roots in Boston, I was half hoping to uncover a bootlegger or something equally retro-chic.  Most important, being a genealogist seems like a pretty cool job: part research, part detective, surprises at every turn.  To test this theory I headed to the New England Genealogical Society on Newbury Street to see what I could dig up.

My mother was born in Milton, Massachusetts, and her family, the Kinnealeys, have lived in the Boston area for several generations (I assumed, like most Irish, my forbearers immigrated to America around the time of the Potato Famine), but other than my great-grandparents, I don’t know much about their journey.

Marie Daily, one of the society’s researchers, helped me get started by searching for records of my great-grandparents in the census from the late 19th century. This process is a lot less exciting than the TV show would lead you to believe.  For every family find, there were several searches that turned up a Kinnealey spelled a different way, or located in another part of the country or world, or a plain old dead-end.  But when I did find something, it felt as if I had won the lottery.

City of Boston marriage record for Bridget and William Kinnealey

With Marie’s patient assistance, I found my great-grandparents and the names of their respective parents, including my great-great grandparents, Bridget and William Kinnealey.  I found their marriage record (right), hand written in beautiful script.  I have to admit, just like those celebrities on “Who Do You Think You Are?” I got goose bumps as I uncovered little nuggets of information about my relatives.  I learned that when Bridget and William emigrated from Ireland (separately, around 1865), neither could read nor write.  This was not uncommon at that time, but to see that fact written out on old documents was eerie.  I started thinking about how hard it must have been to navigate the world without those basic skills.  I also thought how lucky I am that I grew up in the circumstances that I did.

I found another document that listed my great-grandfather William’s place of work as the Boston Custom House, which is right next to my office.  When we have a fire drill at work, we line up on the steps of the Custom House.

My great-grandparents,William and Alice, with three of their six children, from left to right, Joe, Tom and Arthur, my grandfather*

After several more hours of playing detective, I walked out of the Genealogical Society and took a stroll over to the Custom House, then over to Quincy Market, where my grandfather and my great uncles, respectively, started their businesses over 70 years ago.  Incrementally, generation after generation my family has marched up the economic scale, with a constant emphasis on the family.

For us, the family is not just a mother, father, sisters and brothers, but rather a large network of cousins, nieces, nephews and aunts and uncles who are like second sets of parents.  We all gathered together this past weekend for Easter, which coupled with our annual family football game on Thanksgiving Day are traditions that go back decades (over 70 years for the football game by my aunt’s count).

While I am relatively new to Boston in many ways, I’m now able to see the history, my history, surrounding me on nearly every street I walk down, and every building I pass.  I know I am not unique in this regard, but sometimes we need a reminder to put it all in perspective: our singular experience in the grand scheme of our history.  My day as a genealogist certainly gave me this perspective.  We are all an amalgamation of those who came before us. Now, much like those silly celebrities I made fun of, my heart is full, I feel tremendously blessed and I don’t feel so alone.

My grandparents on the Cape, circa 1938

My grandfather holding my mother and aunt

* Correction: in an earlier version of this post I stated that Alice and William Kinnealey had five children, in fact they had six.  Thanks Mom, my diligent copy editor.

I found a host of wonderful and heartbreaking tidbits about my family, far too many to include here. Anyone can use the resources at The New England Genealogical Society for $15. If you like doing research and have roots in New England I highly recommend you consider a visit. I was not compensated in any way for this post.