A paper delivered at "That Elusive Irish Ancestor Conference," Belfast 1991.
Printed in the conference proceedings, Familia, 2:8 (1992). Updated 2002.

Edward J.O'Day

For over two centuries Irish people have looked to the Americas, and particularly to the United States, as a land where unparalleled riches are within the reach of ordinary beings and where labor is justly rewarded. Although transforming that popular image of the New World into personal reality proved elusive for many an emigrant, the dream of a new and abundant life abroad remained remarkably consistent from the eighteenth century into the twentieth. Irish-American descendants who undertake to recreate the emigrant saga of their families sometimes adopt a type of reverse-image version of that dream, imagining the rediscovery of happy pastoral Irish kinfolk who had the good sense to stay on the island of their birth. But for those more interested in reconstructing the emigrant experience than in flights of fancy into an imagined past, the United States is still a land of great riches. Americans of Irish origin may find genealogical evidence of their families in the United States as abundant as the mother lode of California which lured many an Irish person westward across both ocean and continent.

Such American sources can open up paths to effective use of Irish records, and on occasion they may document pre-emigration events in the lives of ancestors which are no where else recorded. As compared to source materials extant for Ireland itself, eighteenth and nineteenth century records in the United States which can be used for genealogical purposes are abundant beyond measure. Virginia and the New England colonies legislated the keeping of vital records early in the 17th century, though local churches were left to fulfil the task, and enforcement by the state was lax until long after independence. Massachusetts in 1841 initiated the first systematic statewide reporting of vital statistics, and many northeastern states followed its example later in the nineteenth century.(1) In midwestern and southern states, church files and privately kept Bible records (often now published by local and state genealogical or historical societies) provide workable alternatives to such state-compiled documents.

The federal decennial census, required by the constitution for purposes of determining representation in Congress, though limited to naming heads of households through 1840, began listing all residents a decade later. Subsequent population counts reported significant details of family structure and social standing. These censuses, now open to all researchers through 1920, reveal occupations, ages, gender, and birthplaces for individuals; marital status and literacy levels for adults; and school attendance for children. Those from 1880 reveal the relationship of all residents to the head of the family, and beginning in 1900 reports enumerated the length of marital unions and the number of children still living. Some censuses recorded the value of taxable property and distinguished home owners from renters, while others indicated if the foreign born were naturalized, and the year of their immigration. Many states held additional censuses, usually midway between the ten year intervals of the federal census. These supplement the nationally compiled data and can be especially useful for tracing highly mobile recent immigrants.

Each of these items from census reports suggests to the skilled genealogist the possible existence of other documents which may confirm, correct, or expand upon the census data. Numerous published city and county directories, compiled for commercial use, appeared regularly in major cities. Though replete with inaccuracies, such listings attempted to include domestics, laborers and boarders, as well as the rich and famous, and these directories can reveal residential mobility, shifts from rental to home ownership, and the entry of young adults into the work force. One may deduce from them approximate dates of marriages and deaths, removals to other jurisdictions, and relationships among families of similar name. For periods between censuses or as substitutes for the destroyed 1890 census, these urban directories are invaluable.

Following census and directory leads, the historian of immigrant families must search out documentary evidence such as declarations of citizenship intent, naturalization records, voter registration data, and passenger lists for incoming vessels. Any of these may record an ancestor's age and birthplace, residence or destination, and present or past employment. Among the most rewarding American sources for the genealogist are military service and pension records, often replete with personal data about the soldier and his family. Deeds to land ownership, homesteader's claims, tax rolls, mortgages covering real or personal property, and wills or estate settlements for those who died seized of property abound in tens of thousands of probate and county courts across the United States. For immigrants whose American dream went unrealized, even temporarily, these same county repositories may also preserve detailed guardianship or orphanage records, and account books of insane asylums, prisons and nineteenth century "poor farms."(2)

When public records of this type are combined with family memorabilia--reminiscences of the living as well as cherished scraps and letters by those now deceased--it is often possible to reconstruct the immigrant family and to chronicle its adjustment to the new homeland. The emigrant experience of Edmond and Bridget (Coen) O'Dea and seven of their children, all of whom ventured across the waters in the 1840's, may serve to illustrate the process of using this type of evidence. Inquiry into the family from which I had sprung initially encountered the narrow parameters of a collective memory which had preserved neither the date of emigration nor their Irish county origins. Were I to one day tell my children about their immigrant ancestors, I had first to learn the story myself.

My grandfather, born to immigrant parents, had worked for $26 a week in a corset factory and raised a family of four in the small Massachusetts town where I later grew up. His death in 1926 (before I was born), followed by the onset of the Great Depression and outbreak of the Second World War appear in retrospect to have severed the family's ties to its emigrant past. Local religious and ethnic prejudice against the Irish, common in the nineteenth century, had flared again in the 1920's, but not in my generation, and my O'Day family seemed secure in the positions of respect they had won in the community. Like many second generation Irish-Americans, they did not look back across the waters, and were content to "melt into the American pot," which had finally ceased to boil around them.

My father, like his father before him, was the only male child to survive to adulthood, and I had often heard his claim that we had "no relatives by the name of O'Day." He showed little curiosity about his ancestry, but assisted me in sketching a family tree early in the 1960's. It had but few branches and the passage of time had obscured its Irish roots.

From my home in the Midwest I explored the unknown reaches of my immigrant past in libraries of the region, making annual visits to New England to consult relatives and local sources. The 1850 federal census, vital records, and local tax rolls quickly provided evidence of an O'Day immigrant group of larger dimensions and more generations than my father had knowledge of. Variants of the family name abounded in the documents, from an occasional "O'Dea" (following Irish spelling), to "Ody," "O'Dale," and "O'Day," versions more familiar to the eye or ear of the Massachusetts Yankee. The records left little doubt that an extensive clan of Irish immigrants--be they O'Deas or O'Days--had made its initial home in the United States within the confines of the west parish of Brookfield in central Massachusetts.(3)

In September 1850, when the first federal count was taken of the newly incorporated town of West Brookfield, the household of Irish-born "Edward Ody," aged 64, included two other males of similar name, Edmond, aged 25 and Edwin, apparently 11. Living with them were Bridget, aged 50, who might be the spouse of the eldest male, Michael, 30 and Dennis, 17, either of whom could be the progenitor of the California line which my father had mentioned. Only the young adult Edmond fit the anticipated age of my great-grandfather, and while the elder Edward might be his father, the ages made it unlikely that the younger Edwin was his son. Interpreting the census taker's report on the seventh member of the household would require the powers of a seer. A youngster named Bridget, of some undecipherable age under ten, was very clearly identified as male.(4) In a nearby separate household lived Patrick and Sabina O'Day, both in their early twenties. Since no relationships were indicated for either Ody/O'Day family, the limitations of the census for genealogical research were apparent.

Civil records of births and deaths, some filed locally, others at the county seat twenty miles distant, supplemented by Catholic church records of marriage (most of which had escaped civil registration), slowly brought the family structure more clearly into focus. Sacramental records confirmed the marriage of Edmond O'Day to another Galway-born immigrant, Mary Mooney, early in 1851 and civil records contained my grandfather's birth in 1854. Similar sources verified the unions of Patrick O'Day with Sabina Leonard and Catherine O'Day with Richard Flynn.

Poll tax records (for males over 21) in 1853 showed collections from Edman O'Dey and Edman Jr., each of whom had filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen in the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas in the previous year. These documents were amazingly rich in detail, identifying the common birthplace of both men as "Anniedown" (Annaghdown), County Galway, where the elder had been born in 1786 and the younger in 1822. Both births had occurred before the keeping of records in that parish. The declarations also included the name of their transatlantic ship--the Bark "Messenger"--and gave their place and date of arrival in the United States as New York, April 23, 1849. The ship manifest which had previously eluded my search now readily provided the names of those who had accompanied them.

In another office of the county courthouse which housed the citizenship papers, probate records contained the will of Edmond O'Day the elder, written in 1857 and signed in his own hand. He enumerated and provided for six surviving children--Michael, Edmond (my great grandfather), Patrick, Catherine O'Day Flynn, Dennis and Bridget. At last there was solid evidence of family relationships at which the census had only hinted, but now a wider research arena lay ahead. Edmond O'Dea's children had begun to scatter even before he died in 1863. By the time his estate was settled in 1866, the eldest and two youngest were in California, while Patrick had moved to Connecticut after seeing battle as a Union soldier during the Civil War.(5) Of the immigrants, only my great-grandfather and his sister Catherine Flynn then remained in Massachusetts. Research had made the O'Dea immigrants no longer invisible, and the family tree had assumed a distinct shape, its Irish roots now exposed to view.

Tracking the immigrant family across the vast reaches of the United States might not have been possible were it not for the assistance of a half dozen or so family members who helped open new avenues of inquiry. Treasured mementos, correspondence from long ago, and the remarkable memories of several octogenarians filled many a gap or helped me interpret what I had found in the public record.(6)

My father's unmarried sister Anna had important knowledge of the female members of her father's family, a group otherwise very difficult to trace. Catherine O'Day Flynn had lived out her life within a ten mile radius of her original Massachusetts home, following her husband's moves among several boot and shoe factories which were among the area's largest employers. My aunt recalled attending her funeral in 1904 and knew of her descendants in New Jersey, Ohio, and Virginia. From her I learned also that "father's aunt Bridget," Mrs. Michael Madden but separated from her husband, had sustained herself and a daughter by working as a domestic in San Francisco. They had lived in New England for short time after the great earthquake of 1906, but later returned to California. Bridget, the youngest of Edmond and Bridget O'Dea's children, was the only member of her generation who can be documented on both sides of the ocean. The Annaghdown parish register contains her birth date (August 2, 1837) as well the day of her baptism (August 13); the certificate recording her death on February 9, 1924 is filed in San Francisco City Hall.

My aunt had also maintained an irregular but unbroken correspondence since 1908 with the descendants of Dennis of San Francisco. Dennis, the immigrant teenager of 1849, pioneered the re-migration of part of the family to California in 1855. As a teamster there he profited from the gold fever then feeding San Francisco's growth, and by 1890 had sufficient income from real estate to be identified as a "capitalist" on the California Great Register of voters.(7) Since his descendants had made visits among New England cousins, most recently in the 1960's, renewing contacts and returning the visits during a research trip to San Francisco was not difficult. One of his great granddaughters now preserves the family Bible which Dennis and his Leitrim-born wife, Jane Meehan, brought from Massachusetts.

Wounded in the Civil War, Patrick O'Day died within a few years of the end of the conflict, and contact between his branch of the family and relatives in Massachusetts and California broke off shortly after the turn of this century. Military records in the National Archives include an unmarried daughter's petition for a federal pension, containing a complete list of Patrick's ten children by his wife Sabina Leonard. Despite such evidence, attempts to trace descendants of their two male children who reached adulthood have proven unsuccessful.

Mystery still surrounded Michael, the youth Edwin, and the "male" youngster named Bridget. Neither my aunt nor Dennis' people knew anything; the Flynns were equally unknowing. Could I prove their relationship to one another and to me, and reconstruct the entire family, some 130 years after it had emigrated? From the scanty evidence at hand, I speculated that Michael was by 1850 a widower, and that Bridget and Edwin, living in the "Ody" household in Massachusetts at that time, were his children. Though testing that supposition took more than a decade, bits and pieces of evidence matching my speculation gradually fell into place.

Payrolls of the Western Railroad, where my great grandfather had found work in 1849, revealed that a Michael O'Dea was already employed on the railroad in 1848, a year prior to arrival of the other O'Deas aboard the "Messenger." The passenger list of an earlier ship, the "Cushlamachree" out of Galway in March 1848, yielded the names of Michael and Mary O'Dea, accompanied by children Edward and Catherine. If the 1850 census, the payroll and that ship manifest all referred to the same Michael, then he was a forerunner of the rest of the family. This suggestion of chain migration of the type so well known in the Irish emigrant experience, with hints that Michael's American earnings assisted the passage of others, increased my determination to discover what had become of him.

Irish records produced traces of Michael in his Annaghdown parish, where the priest recorded baptisms of Bridget (1843), Edmond (1845) and Catherine (1846), children of Michael O'Dea and Maria Shaunessy (or Shannacy). Children of those names and approximate ages had arrived on the two immigrant ships previously identified--Bridget, carried as a non-paying infant on the "Messenger;" Edmond and Catherine on the "Cushlamachree."(8) Research strategy called for moving forward in time, to the 1860 census of San Francisco. There the enumerator of Ward 3 in July found "Michael O'Dane," his wife Catherine, and teenagers Bridget and Edmond, all of them born in Ireland.(9) Four younger children had been born in Massachusetts, and one month old Michael was a native Californian. The family profile fit my hypothesis.

In search of evidence of Michael O'Dea's remarriage, I found in Boston diocesan archives a Michael who had wed Catherine Burke at St. Mary's North End in January 1852. Since neither witness to the marriage was a known relative, the church record provided nothing to associate that Michael O'Dea with my family line. The civil record, however, listed the marriage as the groom's second and identified his father as Edmund O'Day [sic]. While evidence supporting my hypothesis was mounting, caution reigned, since many a careful genealogist has been led astray by wishful thinking. No documents had yet demonstrated that the Michael O'Dea of Annaghdown, of the "Cushlamachree," of West Brookfield, of Boston, and of San Francisco was one person. The "smoking gun" was still missing.

The 1870 federal census for San Francisco provided the first clue that Michael O'Dea had not long survived his family's move to California. Catherine O'Day, 43, then headed a household which matched the "O'Dane" family of 1860, but Michael was missing. All children over the age of twelve had entered the workforce, including Bridget and Edmond, her presumed stepchildren. City directories confirmed that Catherine was a widow. The task began of tracking this entire family through three generations, using later censuses, San Francisco city directories, and area telephone books. Without computer assistance, the effort was labor-intensive, but proved successful in identifying two of Michael's great grandsons who replied to my correspondence.

In later meetings with them, I found that neither had heard mention of the Edmond O'Days of West Brookfield, nor were they aware of any relationship to fellow San Franciscans Dennis O'Day or Bridget Madden. Their Michael O'Dea was "probably" from County Cork, but he was known to have lived on Cape Cod (approximately 100 miles from the Brookfields) prior to arriving in California. Such claims threatened my hypothesis, shook my self-confidence, and for a time made my directory efforts seem foolish, but I nevertheless kept up the search. Following the Cape Cod lead, I turned to the Massachusetts state census of 1855. Living in Brewster, a coastal town of the Cape's Barnstable County, were Michael and Catherine O'Dea, with children Edmond, Mary and John. Edmond, born in Ireland, was seven years older than Mary, the first of two children born in Massachusetts. While this age differential could support my widower-remarriage thesis and suggested that Edmond was the "Edwin" of 1850, the data could be open to other interpretation. This Cape Cod family was finally linked to the O'Days of West Brookfield through vital records of the city of San Francisco. One of very few official books to survive destruction by the earthquake of 1906 included record of Michael O'Dea's death on July 28, 1869. A newspaper notice of his wake identified him as a native of County Galway.(10) Michael's great grandson Albert had told me about John O'Dea of the Barnstable census, apprenticed to a tinsmith at fifteen after his father died. John had become an independent plumber in San Francisco by the turn of the century, and Albert was six and living with his grandparents when the post-earthquake fire had devoured the city, destroying the O'Dea home and his grandfather's business. Exhausted by efforts to rebuild, John A. O'Dea died a few months later, of what a modern specialist might call "post-earthquake stress syndrome." This story relayed by an eyewitness really needed no verifying, but I nevertheless ordered copies of death certificates for John O'Dea, his siblings, and his presumed half-sister Bridget O'Dea, later Mrs. Michael Caulfield.

Mary O'Dea, the first of Catherine Burke's children by Michael O'Dea, and likewise counted on the Barnstable census, had married a successful produce wholesaler in San Francisco named Thomas Burns. They were childless, Albert had told me, and since she had no descendants I might have passed her by, or simply closed her file. Luckily I did not. With her death certificate, which reported the date and place of her birth as January 1853 in Brookfield, Massachusetts, I had at last struck genealogical California gold. Her birth, which numerous searches of Massachusetts civil and church records had failed to document, had occurred in the town where Michael O'Dea obtained employment in 1848, and to which his parents and the rest of the family had come in 1849. While this death certificate provided a vital tie between the Massachusetts and California families, it lacked crucial data on Mary O'Dea Burns' parents. Fortunately, the newspaper account of her death identified all her siblings, including Bridget Caulfield. Death records for John A. and Michael W. O'Dea were found to include the full names of their parents--Michael O'Dea and Catherine Burke--and the certificate of Thomas M.'s death in 1938 identified both of them as natives of County Galway.(11)

Ninety years after Michael O'Dea sailed from Galway, eighty after he left Massachusetts for California, and nearly two decades after his name had jumped at me from a census microfilm, the elusive Michael was positively identified. The preponderance of evidence, gathered from Galway to San Francisco and points in between, finally demonstrated that Michael O'Dea, a San Francisco stevedore who died in 1869, was one of four sons named in the will of Edmond O'Dea of West Brookfield, formerly of Annaghdown. At long last the case was clinched, settled not by a smoking gun or a single document, but by a mosaic of evidence which reunited on a twentieth century genealogical chart an immigrant family of the mid nineteenth century.(12)

A Genealogy of Edmond and Bridget Coen O'Dea, their children and grandchildren.

By 1900, those O'Dea descendants still living had scattered to New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey in the East; to Ohio, Illinois and Missouri in the Midwest; and to Washington state in the Northwest. Patrick Henry Flynn, born to Catherine O'Day in West Brookfield, later became a major shoe manufacturer in Xenia, Ohio, and the only known family member to earn an entry in theDictionary of National Biography. Edward F. O'Day, grandson of Dennis O'Day, left the family surname liberally sprinkled in the National Union Catalog of the Library of Congress by his lifetime of work as a journalist, raconteur, and creative writer. Among the less well known were shoemakers, homemakers, and civil servants; stenographers, accountants, and sales personnel; artists, teachers, and members of religious orders. Amidst these successful but ordinary Irish-Americans were individuals who married for money, and others who suffered financial misfortune; there were failed marriages, and long happy ones. Fortunately for the genealogist, few of these family members proved as elusive as had members of the immigrant generation.

Two genealogical lessons emerge from this exercise in emigrant family reconstruction. Always follow up all members of the family, even to the black sheep or those who died without issue, in whom interest is minimal. Their lives--or deaths, like that of Mary Burns--may hold the clue to the lives of many others. Second, never neglect an Irish female, especially an unmarried one. They often know more than anyone else, and the power of their speech can be heard even from the grave.


1. All federal censuses 1790-1920 (except 1890 which was destroyed by fire) have been microfilmed and are readily accessible at regional National Archives centers throughout the nation. The most comprehensive guide to their content is the third edition of Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives (Washington, DC, 2001).

2. The great majority of both government and church records are still held locally or at county or diocesan levels. Locating them would be a daunting task were it not for an extensive microfilming project by the Genealogical Society of Utah, carried out with the cooperation of local and state archives and genealogical societies.

3. My great-grandfather's death record was entered as "O'Dea," as were the birth records of his children. His marriage record, naturalization papers, and land title, however, consistently rendered his name as "O'Day," the spelling adopted by his descendants. Both forms of the name appear in the text which follows, reflecting differences in the records and the retention of "O'Dea" among all of Michael's children.

4. 1850 Census, U.S. National Archives MC432, roll 341, frames 76-77.

5. After providing for a suitable cemetery monument and paying mortgage and other debts, the "estate" distributed to the heirs amounted to $80. The grave, in St. John's Cemetery Worcester, is marked by a small marble obelisk engraved "O'Dey." Cemetery files record purchase of the lot in October 1849 by Edmond O'Dea; Worcester City Deaths, Book I, #699 show that Mary O'Dea, daughter of Edmund, died in West Brookfield of consumption on October 2.

6. Those "research assistants" deserving special mention are Anna O'Day, my father's elder sister; cousins Miriam Ashe and Gardiner Gibson (the Flynn line); Albert O'Dea, great grandson of Michael; and Annette McNeil, whose husband Harold McNeil was Dennis' grandson. All are now deceased.

7. Great Register 11th Precinct, 29th Assembly District, San Francisco County, 1890.

8. Though their ages are reversed on the census, Bridget and Edmond are probably the two children in West Brookfield in 1850. No trace of Catherine and her mother Maria Shaunessy O'Dea can be found in United States records other than the "Cushlamachree" manifest. They may have died before reaching Massachusetts.

9. 1860 Census, U.S. National Archives MC653, roll 67, frame 57. The surname is indistinct, and might be "O'Daye," but others have read it as "O'Dair." The significance of the Massachusetts born children is discussed below.

10. San Francisco City Records, Book I, 280; Daily Morning Call, 29 July 1869.

11. Mary C. Burns Death Certificate, San Francisco #35-6656 and San Francisco Chronicle, 13 October 1935. San Francisco Death Certificates #06-510 (John), #25-6383 (Michael) and #38-7488 (Thomas M.)

12. Unanswered questions linger about Michael's three children by Maria Shaunessy in Annaghdown. Bridget O'Dea Caulfield could not have been identified were it not for mention of her in the obituary of Mary O'Dea Burns. Her death record (#24-7255) has no birth date, though it gives her father's name as Michael. Of Bridget's brother Edmond, registered voter and blacksmith in Oakland, California in 1879, no further trace can be found. Despite excellent United States records, this one immigrant, visible in the sources for thirty years, slips from view again. All others of the immigrant generation who were living in 1850 have been accounted for.