Saturday, March 26, 2016

Making Mary MIne - Finding Evidence

Making Mary Mine - Finding Evidence

A McDade ancestor. Photo courtesy of Betsy Martin Dooley ©©

This blog post is about the way in which I found evidence to prove that a family in the 1851 Scottish census was mine. 

Online records made available by organisations such as, FindmyPast, My Heritage and FamilySearch, have made researching family history much easier, especially when researching from a distance. Easy access however, does not automatically equate with thorough research.  As records are digitised and made available worldwide, the family historian needs to keep in mind that information is not FACT until it is proven to be evidence through diligent research. In this blog post I hope to illustrate how I conducted an exhaustive genealogical search and over time, turned information into evidence and prove a generation of my MCDADE family was mine. 

My grandfather Colin Hamilton MCDADE, born Cumbernauld, Glasgow, 1901

My maiden name was McDade, and my paternal Scottish line of family was one of the first that I attempted to trace when I began researching my family history some years ago. Diligent research is a key element of family history. Since prior to the digital age, finding records relating to the 'wrong' person has always been a natural part of the genealogy journey and now with a wealth of records easily accessed online, we have the opportunity to examine 'wrong' records even more frequently. By 'wrong' I mean records which do not relate to our own family and in the absence of carefully conducted research, wrong records and wrong people can easily end up on the wrong family tree.

Image Wikimedia  permissiom granted under Creative Commons Lic.©©

I spent a long time searching unsuccessfully for my great great great grandparents, James and Catherine (McCleary) McDade in Scotland, in the 1851 census.  I knew that the family had moved from Ireland to Scotland and were settled in Glasgow by 1850, since their youngest child was born in Dunbartonshire on August 11, 1850. My McDade ancestors were most likely victims of the 1845 - 1852 Potato Famine, which was the cause of a great surge of emigration from Ireland during this period.

The Great Irish Famine 'an Gorta Mor' by artist James Mahony Image Wikipedia ©©

I had documented each and every McDade family in the 1851 Census along with variations of surname spellings which  included MCDAID, MCDEAD, MCDAD, MCDEADE, MCDAVIT, MCDOD.  I concluded my search with a research log of families in the 1851 Scottish census who were NOT mine, although one family was similar enough to warrant further research. A MCDEAD family I found had at its head,  a father named James and children with the same names as my family, but a mother named Marg't. As much as I would have liked to have assumed that the name was a mistake and popped the jolly lot of them on to my family tree, as my three times great grandparents and great great uncles and aunts, I could not do so without finding evidence that they were really my ancestors.

Image Wikimedia ©©

Confusing and contradictory information such as variations of the spelling of names, the unreliability of given ages, as well as mistakes on original documents and in transcriptions, are just some of the factors which make researching family history so challenging but undoubtedly more interesting. It is also why diligent research, research logs and cross-checking is a necessary part of researching family history.

In my search for James and Catherine MCDADE in the 1851 Scottish census, I found  MCDADE families with a mother named Catherine but no father named James, and I found many fathers named James but with no spouse named Catherine.  There were families with children of the same names and similar ages as those in my family but none of these MCDADE families or even those with variations of  this surname seemed to be  a perfect match for the family I was searching for. I discovered a lot of negative evidence which showed who was NOT my family and I hit a BRICK WALL. The one thing that that enabled me to find my family eventually, was the research log that I kept of those families who were NOT mine. I recorded my negative evidence and it was only becaue I did so that I found my family eventually.

...But for a log book of negative evidence, a niggling suspicion which would not go away and a great deal of research, I would never have discovered the whereabouts of my McDade ancestors...  

Image Sharn White ©

...I began with a hunch....

In my log of negative finds resulting from my search of the 1851 Scottish census was a family who spelled their surname as MCDEAD. This family had some startling similarities to my own family, but with a significant difference, in that the mother's name was Marg't (Margaret) and not Catherine. At first I had outright dismissed the family since I knew that the mother of my four known McDADE children was named Catherine McCleary (with variations such as McClure and McAleer). She was named on all of the four childrens' marriage and death records along with her husband James McDade. Her name was given as Catherine on all of the children's marriage records as well as on the birth record for the youngest McDade child born in 1850 in Dunbartonshire, Glasgow. This evidence eliminated the likelihood of a previous wife named Margaret for James McDade and the fact that Catherine gave birth to a child belonging to James in 1850 was proof that she should have appreared as his wife on the 1851 Scottish census.

It was not difficult for me to imagine an error in the recording of Catherine's name as Marg't. It would have been simple  to assume this and claim the MCDEAD family plus three older children as mine, but I knew that further research was necessary to find substantial evidence. 

Below is are the details of the MCDADE family I knew to be mine in the 1861 census, living at the Garscube Colliery, New Kilpatrick, Scotland. I have highlighted the similarities to the  MCDEAD family that I found in the 1851 census.

James MCDADE 60   Born Ireland, Coal Miner
Catherine              58    Born Ireland
James                   23    Born Ireland 1838, Coal MIner
John                     20    Born Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire, Scotland, 1842
Sarah                   16    Born Bridge of Weir, Renfrew, Scotland 1845 
Charles                8      Born 1850, Dunbartonshire, Scotland

Here is the MCDEAD family that I found living at the Netherton Colliery, New Kilpatrick in the 1851 census, in which the mother's name is Marg't. The highlighted similarities to my own family may indicate why I felt the need to further research this family. I had a feeling that they were mine but more proof was needed than the names and birthplaces of four children.

James       MCDEAD   45   Born Ireland, Coal Miner 
Marg't               40               Born Ireland
Mary                 17               Born Ireland
Patrick               23              Born Ireland, Coal Miner
Andrew             19              Born Ireland, Coal Miner
James                14             Born Ireland, Coal Miner 1837
John                  11             Born Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire, Scotland Coal Miner 1843
Sarah                  8             Born Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire, Scotland 1843
Charles               8 Mths    Born  1850 Dunbartonshire, Scotland

I had a hunch...
                                      but that's not evidence

Since the mother's name in the MCDEAD family in the 1851 census was not Catherine and the surname was spelled differently to my MCDADE, I needed evidence to prove this either WAS or WAS NOT my family. I devised a new research strategy which began with a list of WHAT I KNEW.

... I made a list of 
              the information I already had...

  • James McDade and his wife Catherine McCleary/McClure/McLure/McAleer  (I wish that our ancestors had known how to spell their surnames) were born in Ireland acording to census and death records. 
  • The family was living in  Scotland by 1850 since this was the year that their youngest child Charles was born in Dunbartonshire.
  •  James and Catherine were both born between 1801 and 1806, although Catherine's age varied on census and her death record.  [My three times great grandmother Catherine McDade appears to have been rather reticent about her age. By some illusion of eternal youth, between 1851 and 1891, records show Catherine McDade aging a mere ten years!]
  • James and Catherine McDade had four children living with them at the time of the 1861 census.1. James (Born in Ireland in 1838, according to census, marriage and death records) 2. John (born in Bridge of Weir, Scotland in 1842, according to census, marriage and death records). 3.Sarah (born in Bridge of Weir, Scotland in 1845 according to Census, marriage and death records), 4. Charles (born in Dunbartonshire, Scotland in 1850 (according to a birth and baptism record, census, marriage and death records). 
  • James, John, Sarah and Charles were the correct children for James and Catherine. I had documented the major events in their lives ( birth and or marriage, death, census) and proved beyond reasonable doubt that these were my relatives. Descendants from two of these children and my three times great grandparents have also been matched to me through DNA testing. 
  • James and Catherine McDade's address in the 1861 census was the Garscube Colliery, New Kilpatrick.  James was a coal miner as were sons James and John. Daughter Sarah was a steam loom weaver. Charles aged 10 was a scholar.
  • James and Catherine McDade lived in East Kilpatrick, Dunbartonshire in June 1850 at the time of the birth of their son Charles.
  •  Charles McDade's baptism record from the Glasgow Immaculate Church shows he was was born on August 11, 1850 and baptised the following day on August 12. He would have been 7 1/2  months old at the time of the 1851 census. 
  • In the 1851 Scottish census  I found 19 Catherine McDades (including surname variations). Subtracting those who were too young, I was left with two Catherines by the name of  MCDADE, two of the surname MCDEAD and two Catherine MCDODs. Although several had children of similar or the same names, none of these Catherines had a husband named James. 
  • In the 1851 Scottish census there were five possible matches for James McDade, aged between 40 and 55 (based on his age in the 1861 and 1871 census). None matched my James MCDADE being widowed, single or having no spouse named Catherine. A wider search for James MCDADE using a variety of search methods, all possible name variations and with no age range, resulted in 45 possible matches. Not one James had a wife named Catherine.

... I examined my information
                      and concluded...

I had no doubt I had the correct family from the 1861 census onward and I thought it highly unlikely that the family had popped back to potato famine stricken Ireland to show off the new baby at the time of the 1851 census. This family should NOT have been missing!

My MCDADE family seemed to be  missing from the 1851 census. Image Wikimedia ©©

armed with my list...
                 I searched again...

It was easy to imagine a tired enumerator, trekking up and down  the streets of Glasgow, , at the end of March, when the weather might have been still chilly, recording the same names over and over again, household after household. John, James, Margaret, Mary, Elizabeth..... It was not difficult to see how he, or the person responsible for copying the census data into an enumeration book, might write a name as Marg't instead of Catherine. In theory, this was a very plausible conjecture, but to prove my rationale accurate, I needed to conduct an exhaustive search  for EVIDENCE.

what is NOT there... 
                can show you what IS....

I began my new search with the information I had. Charles MCDADE, the youngest child of James and Catherine, was born in August of 1850 and by that reckoning, should have been been around seven and a half months of age on census day, March 30, 1851. A search of the 1851 Scottish census found no infant under the age of three years named Charles MCDADE. A wider search under surname variations resulted in only one match. The the only possible match for him was Charles MCDEAD, the 8 month old son of James and Marg't. The same James and Marg't I had found and dismissed.

The 'wrong' family I had found in the 1851 census and previously filed in my log of negative evidence, was the ONLY family with the surname or variation of MCDADE (MCDEAD) with a son under three years of age.  My Charles MCDADE would have been 13 days short of 8  months old on March 30, 1851. This Charles MCDEAD was listed in the census as being 8 months old. 

The absence of any evidence of any other baby named Charles MCDADE or a variation of that surname in the 1851 census, strongly supported my theory that this family was mine. On its own, however,  this information was still speculation until I proved it to be evidence.

finding the evidence....

To prove that the MCDEAD family I had found in the 1851 census were my MCDADES  somehow I would have to connect the three older children of James and Marg't MCDEAD to James and Catherine MCDADE. The four youngerMCDEAD children already matched my own family.

when there are no records...
                       you take another path....

In the absence of birth records from Ireland, I set out to search for marriages of Mary, Patrick and Andrew MCDEAD since marriage records provide the names of parents of the bride and groom. To find out if my James and Catherine MCDADE had older children, I had to search for the marriages of every Mary, Patrick and Andrew MCDADE or variation of this surname within a calculated timeframe, based on their ages.  I chose Mary to begin my search with.  

Could I make Mary mine? Image Wikimedia ©©

I searched for possible marriages for Mary MCDADE, including surname variations and wildcards in my searches. The 1851 census record had recorded Mary MCDEAD's birthplace as Ireland and dated it around 1835-1836, which prompted a search for a marriage in Scotland between 1853 and 1866 when she would have been aged 18 years to 30 years of age.

My search for a marriage for Mary MCDADE between 1855 and 1866 on the Scotlands People website resulted in 19 matches. None of the brides had parents named James and Catherine McCLure, McCleary/ McAleer.

A second search for a marriage between 1855 and 1866 for Mary MCDEAD resulted in 5 matches. , the most likely one being Mary MCDEAD who married Peter O'Brien in 1855 in New Kilpatrick. I had a MATCH!  Mary's parents were named as James MCDADE, Coal Miner, and Catherine MCLURE. McCLure was a variation of Catherine's surname that was familiar to me since it had appeared on the marriages of several of her four children already known to me.

If I could prove that this Mary was the daughter of my three times great grandparents, James and Catherine MCDADE, I would have made an accidental but significant discovery. On her marriage record, Mary McDead stated her birth place to be ARTEA, COUNTY TYRONE, IRELAND. If Mary was mine, she had just told me the birthplace of my MCDADE ancestors!

Image Wikipedia ©©

making mary mine...

I knew MCCLURE, the name of Mary's mother, was used by my McDade family as a variation of Catherine's maiden surname and in fact I do not know which of the many variations of her name is actually the correct name. I am not sure my ancestors did either!  It appears frequently as MCCLURE, MCLURE, MCCLEARY and MCALEER.  Catherine McClure appeared to be the correct mother of Mary to make her mine, however, because of the inconsistency in the spelling of Catherine's maiden name, I could not accept this as evidence that THIS Mary was the daughter of MY Catherine.  I was definitely gathering an increasing amount of information which appeared to support my belief that James and Catherine MCDADE had at least one older child and that the MCDEAD family I had found in the 1851 census might indeed be the correct family albeit the wrong name for Catherine.

The spelling of Catherine's name as MCCLURE sent me in search for more evidence that this was MY Catherine McCleary/ McClure/ McAleer on Mary's marriage record. The witnesses to her marriage held no clues for me as I did not recognise the names John MORRISON or Alexander PATERSON.

Elizabeth GIBSON, wife of  my great grandfather John MCDADE, son of James and Catherine.

re-examining the information I had...

I re-examined the information I had previously gathered about James and Catherine MCDADE, bearing in mind that when I had researched in the past, I was not looking for older children named Mary, Patrick and Andrew.  My hope was that there was something relevant I had missed in my research in  the early days of family history research when I did not always extend my searches to the streets, neighbourhoods and wider locations to look for family members.

 I am now an enthusiast of researching FANS, a term I believe was coined by genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills. This is also referred to as cluster searching. It involves looking at the people associated with your ancestors. I have found that the people who witnessed the significant events in my ancestors' lives can be most useful in helping me to confirm the identity of my ancestors. Witnesses to marriages tended to be people close to family, such as siblings, cousins or neighbours or friends. Now, I set out to search for people associated with the MCDEAD family, in the hope that I might find some evidence or confirmation that Mary belonged to my own MCDADE family.

I began my search with census records and looked at the entire neighbourhood of New Kilpatrick where  James and Catherine McDade lived in 1861. This was not something I had done previously. Family members often remained close by each other and I knew that as coal miners my McDade ancestors tended to work at the same mines. Something to bear in mind is that when you find a census record transcription on and if you do not look at the original record, you can miss significant names of neighbours. It often pays to view the pages before and after the one on which you find ancestors on a census record.

As soon as I looked at the census page following the one on which I found James and Catherine McDade in 1861, I realised that my earlier search had missed something significant.

finding what I had missed...

In  the street where James and Catherine McDade lived at the Garscube Colliery at the time of the 1861 census, and living RIGHT NEXT DOOR  was a coal miner named ANDREW MCDADE. Andrew was 26 years old and born in Ireland. This close proximity suggested a relationship with James and Catherine McDade. He was living with his wife Martha, daughter Sarah 3 years, and son James 4 months. Sarah's birthplace was Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire and James was born in Dunbartonshire.

A quick search for a marriage found Andrew MCDEAD  (address New Kilpatrick) marrying Martha MULVENAN ( Bridge of Weir) on October 25, 1858. Andrew's parents were... DRUM ROLL.... James MCDEAD, coal miner, and Catherine MCALEER. I knew this had to be the same parents as those for Mary but once again the spelling variation of Catherine's maiden surname frustrated me. I just needed to find a name, a clue.. something evidential that would connect Andrew and Mary to my James and Catherine MCDADE.

looking at the next generation.....

Although I believed that Mary and Andrew were brother and sister and children of my third great grandparents James and Catherine  McDade, I still did not have suffficient evidence to place the MCDEAD family I had found in the 1851 census on my family tree. I could find nothing about the third child, Patrick so I began to look at the next generation. I had researched the children of  James, John , Sarah and Charles MCDADE. I knew the names of their children and generations beyond. Now I turned to the children of Mary MCDEAD and Peter O'BRIEN in the wild hope of finding a conncetion to my MCDADEs.

making mary mine...

mary MCDEAD and Peter O'BRIEN had nine children. I began with a search for a marriage for the eldest of Mary's nine children in the hope of finding evidence of a relationship with James and Catherine McDade.

Mary eldest child Edward O'BRIEN , married Mary COLLINS in 1887 in St James, Renfrew.  Mary's name was spelled as MCDEAD on the record. Mary on the record,  had 'made her mark' and not signed her name suggesting that she could not write.  This was often the reason for variations of spelling in in family surnames. The witnesses at Edward's marriage were JOHN MCDADE and Elizabeth COLLINS. John McDade could very well have been Edwards uncle or cousin but the name John McDade was too a common a name to prove who he was. What  witness John McDade did propose to me was that Mary's surname might be spelled MCDADE as well as MCDEAD.

Edward had a daughter born in 1888, and he named her Mary MCDADE O'Brien. This name for Mary's grandaughter confirmed that Mary MCDEAD's surname was spelled by her own family as MCDADE.

steps in the right direction.....
                                   ...yet still not enough evidence

Looking at Mary MCDEAD's son, Edward O'Brien took me on an unexpected journey to in my quest to prove that  Mary was the daughter of James and Catherine MCDADE. The evidence at first sat quietly unobserved on the page of a record for the second marriage of Edward O'Brien, son of Mary McDead and Peter O'Brien. THEN THE NAMES OF THE WITNESSES JUMPED JOYFULLY OFF THE PAGE AT ME. 

On September 22, 1893, Edward O'Brien, a widower of four months, married Elizabeth STEEL at the Maryhill Catholic Church, Lanarkshire. (This was the same church in which my great great grandfather, John McDade, the grandson  of James and Catherine married Elizabeth Gibson the following year in 1894. I don't believe in co-incidences...)

Elizabeth Gibson married John McDade in 1894. They were my great grandparents.

our ancestors'lives were witnessed...

Every important event in our lives is witnessed by other people, often those who are closest to us. Our ancestors were no different. Friends, neighbours and relatives of our ancestors were witnesses to the marriages, births and deaths  and the names of those witnesses can so often narrate a story that we might never otherwise know. So it was with Mary's story.

The WITNESSES on her son Edward O'Brien's marriage record were finally the EVIDENCE  I needed in my search to prove beyond doubt that my three times great grandparents James and Catherine MCDADE had a daughter named Mary. Edward's marriage was witnessed by AGNES MCDADE and MARTIN LEONARD. These names are very significant to me.

The great grandaughter of Agnes and Martin Leonard contacted me some years ago from the USA and I have travelled to Chicago three times in the past year to visit and to meet many  cousins who are descendants of those two witnesses!  Agnes was my great grandfather John McDade's youngest sister. She was my great grand aunt. The witnesses at Edward O'Brien's wedding in 1893, were his first cousin and her fiance. I know for certain we are related and DNA testing in 2015 confirmed the relationship.

Agnes McDade and Martin Leonard married in the Maryhill Catholic Church in June 1894. Agnes was the youngest child of my great great grandparents John MCDADE and Margaret BONNAR and the great grand daughter of James MCDADE and Catherine MCCLURE/ MCCLEARY/ MCALEER. She was the sister of my great grandfather John MCDADE who immigrated to Australia in 1923 with his family. Agnes and Martin Leonard had already emigrated to Illinois before my own great grandparents left for Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

 Agnes McDade and her fiance Martin Leonard provided me with irrefutable evidence to state with confidence that my three times great grandparents, James and Catherine McDade had a daughter named Mary. More importantly I knew that she was the same Mary who was in the 1851 census with her mother incorrectly named as Marg't. I now know that  the neighbour of James and Catherine McDade in the 1861 census named Andrew was also their son. I am still searching for Patrick.

 I had suspected that for some time that my three times great grandmother's name was recorded on the 1851 census incorrectly as Marg't and that the family named MCDEAD that I had filed away safely in my log of negative evidence, were my MCDADE ancestors. All I needed was evidence and it came from the least expected source. Agnes McDade and Martin Leonard had an important story to tell me.

That the descendants of Agnes and Martin Leonard who live in Illinois, USA, had contacted me a few years ago and that I had visited them and become the best of friends with them, just makes this find even more AMAZING! It's just wonderful proof to me that our ancestors still have stories to tell.

And best of all,

mary is mine...

Aussie and American Descendants of Agnes MacDade and John McDade  in Chicago 2015 

Cousins reuinite in Chicago, August 2015. desendants of Agnes McDade  (Illinois) and John McDade ( Australia)


Scottish Birth, Baptism, Death and Marriage Records
Scottish Census Records
Scotlands People


  1. An excellent piece of work, clearly set out to show how thorough you have been. btw that brick wall is familiar ...I remember our photographic meanderings ;)

  2. Thank you, excellent piece! I am a big fan of FANS!

  3. Great job sleuthing and presenting all the information.

  4. You've really done the hard yards.Thanks for taking us through your research.

  5. An excellent example of methodical investigation over many years.

  6. A wonderful guided journey through your research - thanks for sharing and for not giving up

  7. Great research and an interesting outcome, Sharn. Thank you.
    I have listed this post in Interesting Blogs on That Moment in Time..

  8. Hi Sharn,

    This is a wonderful post and amazing research. I am a McDade descendant along the same route (Ireland to Glasgow), facing a similar brick wall. I would love to connect:

    Rob McDade