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Separating Truth from Blarney

Frank and Minnie Sprague Mitchell, 3 Jun 1939

Do you have stories that have been passed down in your family? Some of my clients have insisted that their stories "had to be true" but frequently, like the game of telephone, they've been muddled over time. Minnie Sprague Mitchell was my paternal grandmother, who, when discussing her Irish heritage, adamantly stated she was from the North! Of course she came to the United States many years before Ireland was partitioned. I was very close to my grandmother and spent most weekends with her. On Saturday nights she would tuck me into bed, bring me tea and often tell me stories about her childhood in Ireland. I also remember her telling me that her name was Rachel Harriet May Isabell Sprague Mitchell (but she had always been called Minnie). Unfortunately I didn't become interested in genealogy until a few years after she died, and I only remember bits and pieces of the stories she told. By her own admission, she was frequently in trouble. I remember one story about a boy pulling at her braids in school, so she lay in wait for him on the way home and gave him a black eye! I sometimes think that's where by middle daughter got her spunk...I was called to school one day after she gave a boy a bloody nose for saying her goal didn't count because she was a girl.

When I began to research my grandmother, I quickly discovered neither she, nor my great grandmother were reliable sources of information. As I collected documents I found multiple discrepancies including the date and location of her birth. (It could have been because she was a "premie" born six months after her parents' marriage.😀) Everything in Irish research is dependent on time and place so these pieces of information are important. On my grandfather's naturalization she claimed to be born in Aberdeen, Scotland on 12 August and made the same claim on her marriage license. It was her Voter Registration Card that gave her correct birthplace as Ballyshannon, Ireland on 12 December 1892. I was able to confirm the location by obtaining her birth registration which gives her name as Rachel Hewston Sprague with the corroborating detail of her parents' names. The middle name of Hewston was a surprise and I've come to think it was written down incorrectly and it was actually Rachel Harriet, as that was her mother's name. At the time, the birth registrations were at the General Register Office in Dublin; today you can get them online at from 1864-1920. As an added point of fact, Ballyshannon is in Donegal, and today is part of the Republic of Ireland (not the North although it is part of traditional Ulster). I point this out to emphasize the importance of doing an "exhaustive search" for records and not stopping at the first record you find. As I often say in lectures, one thing I can guarantee (like death and taxes) is that you will find conflicting information when researching your Irish ancestors. Had I stopped at the first record (my grandfather's naturalization) I would have been searching for my grandmother's birth certificate in the wrong country! Had this been a common name I might easily have ended up researching the wrong family.

My grandmother was the oldest child of James Hay Sprague and Rachel Mackey. James was born in Midlothian, Leith, Scotland (not even Aberdeen). He died in 1899 in Dundalk, Louth at the age of 36. James was a stone mason and the family story was that he traveled all over Ireland building churches. I inherited a pin of St. Nicholas' Church in Dundalk which the family story said he received as part of the dedication of the work done on the Church. Unfortunately, multiple letters to the church have gone unanswered. One of these days, I'll have to visit when I'm in Ireland. Back in the 1990s I did stop in Dundalk at the Tourist Office and asked where St. Nicholas' Church was located. The response was, "Which one?" There was both a Catholic and Anglican church by that name. I showed them a picture of the pin and was told it was the "green" church...the Anglican one. As you can see from the picture below, the steeple, which was copper, had oxidized and turned green.

From various records I can confirm that James Sprague was a stone mason (or a plasterer) and he did die in Dundalk, as recorded in Civil Registration. My grandmother, the oldest child, was born in Ballyshannon, Donegal as were two of her siblings; the other two were born in Dundalk. The youngest child was only 3 months old when his father died. In 1903 my great grandmother married Robert Spooner and their emigration story began in 1905. Robert left Ireland with his brother-in-law Thomas Mackey and settled in Greenwich, Connecticut where another brother-in-law, Robert Mackey was already established. Rachel and her youngest child, Thomas emigrated later in 1905 joining her husband in Greenwich. My grandmother and the other children remained in Ireland living with their grandparents in Kinlough in County Leitrim. I was surprised when I discovered this as I don't remember my grandmother every mentioning it. Minnie, her sister Flory and brother Willie finally joined their mother in 1909 traveling with their aunt, Sadie Mackey. The other brother, George was living with his grandmother in the 1911 census in Ireland and emigrated later that year, appearing to travel by himself. His age is listed as 11 on the manifest, but he was actually 15. Another point to remember is that most of the records we search during this time period have self-reported information so discrepancies such as in ages are common. Was it less expensive for him to travel as an 11 year old? This is a good example of chain migration practiced by the Irish. If you're trying to find that all important piece of information (location in Ireland), try to find those members of the family who emigrated later when more information was available on the manifests and in naturalization records.

Minnie worked as a nanny, taking care of children in the Belle Haven area of Greenwich, where she met and married a chauffeur, Frank J. Mitchell who worked for another family in the area. They had two sons, my uncle Frank Sprague Mitchell and my father, Thomas John Mitchell. My grandfather died in 1942 at the age of 56 before my parents were married. When I started my research and began asking about my grandfather I was told that he was Austrian and his name was changed at Ellis Island (hopefully you realize that is another piece of blarney...names were not changed at Ellis Island). On his death certificate (informant being Minnie) it stated he was born in Vienna, another fabrication. Perhaps it was the only place she knew in Austria. The 1920 census told me he was Polish and the 1930 census identified him as Czech. He was born in the Austria-Hungarian empire, but in the Galicia area (not even close to Vienna). Because of the border changes in Europe, the instructions to the census enumerators was to name the place of birth in the country where it was located at the time of the census. Frank was born in a town called Liski, which is now in the Ukraine. Although my grandmother claimed not to know his original name (and neither my father or his brother knew the name), when I finally found the change of name petition, my grandmother had signed it as Minnie Mylytczuk. Once I had the original name I was able to find his immigration record...people left the old country and arrived in the new with the same name.

Minnie died in 1985 in Ft. Myers, Florida at the age of 92. My father and his brother had both retired to Florida in the 1970s and had moved my grandmother into a nursing home there. Her health had been fairly good, although she had developed dementia in her 80's. Even though I saw her only a few times a year she always recognized me. Although I didn't begin my genealogy until the early 1990s my grandmother probably influenced my interest early on.

If you have a family story, look at all of the records you have to put the story into context. It's likely that there is some truth, but you need to coax it out.

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