There’s no doubt that searching for your family roots is much like a detective novel, only you know that there’s going to be a case solved at the end of the novel… not always the case in genealogy. You may not always find exactly what you’re looking for, but the process of discovery can be thrilling. And with technology, you can do a lot of the detective work right in your own home. More online information and new resources in digital to become available almost every day. But, like a detective, there’s nothing like visiting the scene of the crime so to speak – on in this case the scene of the old family home in Ireland.
We had the good fortune to be able to visit the ancestral city of my great-great-grandfather George James in Londonderry, as it was commonly referred to in the mid-1800s. Combining a vacation with a genealogy search is becoming more and more popular especially in places like Ireland with such a great population of the descendants of Irish immigrants. Even if you run into a historical dead end in your search, you have the joy of visiting the amazing Irish countryside and vibrant towns and cities. Not to mention enjoying the music, culture and sampling the impressive emerging Irish cuisine.
The only downside of our visit was the limited time we had to visit, so we had to decide what would be the most important things we wanted to accomplish while we were here. We decided to get the help of a noted genealogist who lived in the city would be better than trying to do research in the historical archives in Dublin and Belfast. And again much of that information is now available online. Our primary mission was to find and visit the location of the old family farm and perhaps the cemetery where we knew that our great-great-great-grandmother was buried.
We met Brian Mitchell at our Londonderry hotel, The Bishops Gate in the informal dining room. We had e-mailed him all of the information that we had on the James family in Ireland. That wasn’t much, we knew from my brother’s research and visit to Ireland years before that the family had a farm in the nearby community of Coshquin, right on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The last we knew of the family was that our great-great-grandfather George had immigrated from Londonderry to Philadelphia in January 1852 on the passenger ship Creole, leaving their father, Robert and older brother Rankin to run the farm. We couldn’t find any records taking the family past that time, and didn’t know where the James family originally came from and when.
Over a bowl of seafood chowder, Mitchell had some good news and bad news. He had found a death notice dated 1892 for Rankin James, meaning he had lived a long life; the bad news was that he died in a workhouse in the city. He also speculated that the family had originally come from Scotland because we knew that our grandmother x 2 Anne Warr was buried in a nearby Presbyterian cemetery call the old Burt. And that Rankin’s name was most likely a Scottish surname, and would have likely been a surname on the maternal side of the family tree.
We were a bit relieved when Mitchell said that workhouses in that time we not as bad as in earlier periods in Irish history, but were places people could come when they were too sick to fend for themselves. There was actually little work to be done in the workhouses of the time and in the late 1800s, the facilities had trained medical staffs to take care of the patients.
So now we knew something of the family after our branch of the family left Ireland, and we knew that the James family probably didn’t have the farm at this time and we knew that the line had probably come from Scotland which jived with family lore saying we were Scotch Irish. Of course, this left more questions than answers, did Rankin have a family and did it live on in Ireland and what happened to the farm. For now, we would have to be satisfied that we had made progress, perhaps we could find out a bit more if we interviewed the owners of the property where the James family once farmed. It was time to take a ride back in time.
Fortunately, we had a trusty driver and guide, Denis O’Connor, who would help us in the quest. At first, the weather cooperated in our venture, sunny and cool, perfect for a road trip, but about the time we crossed the river out of Londonderry, it began to rain. We knew the address of the farm was 58 Coshquin Road, which should make finding it a no-brainer especially since we had GPS maps. It didn’t take long to find the road which began right after crossing the bridge, a narrow almost one lane affair with thick trees flanking both sides.
The rain turned into a torrent, as we peered at any opening in the wall of trees, they were few and far between and the few driveways we saw didn’t have addresses. Finally, we found a gated driveway with a 31 Cosquin Road sign on the iron gates, surely the next open driveway would be our destination. About a quarter mile later we spot a likely suspect and had Denis pull over and let Mary and I out in the downpour. The GPS was just a confused as we were.
Umbrella in hand we made our way through the tree-lined path up to a large white two-story house that had seen better days. It didn’t feel right, but we had traveled this far so we knocked on the front door. No reply. The storm was howling now, and we were getting soaked, so I made one last attempt and knocked once more. Nothing. We turned away eager to get back to the shelter of the Van and were about halfway down the the driveway when we heard the front door open and an old man dressed in pajamas and a robe poked his head out and yelled “Hello,” he yelled over the noise, “ can I help you.”
We explained our mission and asked if this was the old James farm? We told him the GP? We told him the GPS indicated the farm was here or nearby. He laughed and explained a tour bus following GPS turned into his driveway and got stuck. It was quite a sight he laughed and then said: “no this wasn’t the James farm at any time”.
Then I remembered the brother talked to a David Crockett, who now owned the farm and I asked him if he had heard of him. He laughed and pointed, and said the Crockett farm is about a half mile on the right – look for a little yellow house. And then looked at the soaked American’s in front of him and asked if we would like to come in for a bit of coffee or tea. We thanked him for his kind offer but told them we had a driver in the car and had to get back.
Indeed, after about a half mile more up the road, we see a neat little yellow house surrounded by wide field populated by a whole lot of sheep. There were no cars in the driveway so I got out of the car to find no one home. In the rain, I slowly walked around the house to get a full view of the expansive property. In my mind’s eye, I was seeing the same rolling green hills that my ancestors saw two hundred years ago. I was walking where they walked, where dreams were dashed and realized, where some were born and where they died.
Our next mission was to find the Old Burt cemetery where my great-great grandmother and perhaps other James’s were laid to rest. We continued on Coshquin Road on to even narrower roads with grass growing in the middle. I think Denis was getting concerned about getting stuck or at least getting mud all over his pride and joy, but he didn’t flinch from continuing our mission. For nearly an hour we drove up and down the hillsides, even stopping to ask an old lady for directions. She smiled showing her one good tooth and pointed down the road indicating it was somewhere in that direction. We continued our search for another half hour and abandoned our quest. We had found the farm and that was enough for me on this trip.
In 1955, I met my great-grandfather William James in Washington State, then an active 80+-year-old who walked miles every day and did a comb over his still dark brown hair. It seems unreal that his father helped farm this land until he set out for America and a new life. That very real connection makes me a living part of this story. Then and now, I feel a bond with that lovely farm on Cosqhin Road and with Ireland.
Oh, I’m sure the Crockett’s were wondering about who left their travel writer business card on their front door when they did return to their little yellow farmhouse.
After our trip to Ireland, we learned a bit more about the fate of the James family in Ireland. With a lot of help from folks on the Facebook page for Londonderry, we found an advertisement in the city newspaper offering the Rankin Farm for sale. The ad mentioned that it 46 acres which was quite large for a farm in those days and it mentioned the livestock and produce raised on it with no mention of flax so that business had dried up.
They also found a classified ad placed years later that asked if anyone had any information on Rankin James’ wife and daughter Margaret So we now know that Rankin got married and had a child. While working on this story I happened to run across the list of Flax growers in Londonderry in 1779 and there was the farm owned by Anne James, who would be the oldest James ancestor that we know of. And that placed the James family in Ireland back to a time that indicates that they were a part of the original Plantation movement in the 1600s.