With personal genealogy services on the rise in popularity in the past decade or so, services like 23 & Me, Ancestry.com, and others are now readily available for those interested in learning more about where they come from.
Those services do great work, but they rarely provide a complete picture. You may receive genetic or archival information back in the mail, giving you an idea of what ethnic groups you are made up from, or the name of the city where, say, your great grandfather was born and raised. And you might be feeling a bit lost with just those results thinking, “well, what next?”
What’s next is the specialty of Michael and Kathleen Lancor.
The Lancors were genealogy hobbyists for many years before deciding to make their services official and open up Old Friends Genealogy in July of 2015. They have no employees or even an intern – the whole business is just the two of them.
“We had both been doing our own ancestry searches for a total of 70+ years, between the two of us,” Mike explains in a Zoom interview with Celtic Life International from the couple’s home in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. “After chasing our own ancestors, and the ancestors of numerous friends, we decided to go into business ourselves. Kate said to me, ‘we can’t get back to Adam and Eve, so it’s time we went into business to help others find out where their ancestors lived.’”
“And it was fun,” Kate interjects enthusiastically. “We would stay up until midnight or later, trying to solve our friends’ ancestry dilemmas. It was something we both really enjoyed.”
Technology had also helpfully caught up to the Lancors’ research vigour by the time they opened their doors professionally, making it easier for them to use their skills to help others.
“We currently have 10 subscription websites that we use,” Mike explains. “Several of them are for searches for records in Ireland and the U.K., which includes Scotland, Wales, and England. We’re covering the Celtics. But when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of trying to identify where one’s Celtic ancestors come from, you really need to be able to access some of these subscription websites. That’s where the records are held.”
Mike describes himself as the “left-brained” member of the company, excelling at scouring records for the small details – birth dates, marriage licenses, death certificates, and all the myriad paperwork one accumulates through life in between. Which, logically, makes Kate the right half of their cerebrum.
“Kate’s focus is much more on the history of the times. Chasing your ancestors isn’t all about records – it is also about learning as much as you can about the history,” Mike says, before Kate adds, “and the person.”
Kate tells just one story of her own ancestor, her great grandmother Mary Waters Fitzpatrick, to elaborate on how much these anecdotal accounts can fill in the gaps between dates and locations.
“We found this record where my great-great-grandmother was arrested with her brothers, for stealing a cow,” Kate recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘why would she ever steal a cow?’ So, we went to that town, and we found out that they were dying of starvation at that time. They stole the cow from someone who had 300 cattle. And I mean, it just smacks you right in the gut.”
The Lancors have, and continue to mak,e numerous trips around the world for their research, which is another way they enhance the results they can offer their clients. For one, older records are often not or not-yet digitized online, so the only real way to study them is to go where they physically reside.
But, as another one of Kate’s personal heritage journeys to Ireland reveals, standing in your ancestors’ footsteps adds a whole other dimension to one’s ability to connect with them.
“I wanted to know, why didn’t my ancestors ever go back,” Kate ponders, referring again to her great grandmother Mary, who left Ireland for greener pastures. “But when I started looking in their footsteps – I can’t even talk about it, it’s so emotional – when I saw this tenement where Mary had once lived…just seeing that, that was not my vision of where my great-grandmother came from. I didn’t realize until I was there, walking in her footsteps, how difficult her life had been…”
“That’s what happens to our clients,” Kate continues. “So many times, they are so excited going to Ireland, but when they really get the history smacked in their heads – that they had to leave, they were really forced out or would starve. For my Mary Waters, that was actually the case. I could see why she never wanted to go back.”
One of the Lancors’ most recent clients is Siobhan Covington – the publisher of Celtic Life International.
“Mike and Kate are partners with Celtic Life International,” Siobhan explains over Zoom from her home office in Ontario, stating how she wanted to work with the two on her own ancestry journey. “We just thought this would be a very interesting editorial, and that we could start having a conversation with many of our readers who might be interested in the same thing. With a lot of the ancestry sites, it is very easy to get started, but you might not know how to get the complete story.”
Siobhan knows far more about her paternal ancestry than her maternal side, besides memories her mother and grandmothers might have shared with her.
“I knew my family name, and I knew some of the history directly from my mom – she spent quite a lot of time with her Irish relatives. But past that, we really didn’t have too many details.”
One thing she did know was that her great-grandfather was the mayor of Cork in Ireland for a spell. Armed with his Wikipedia page and scarcely more than that, she sent the Lancors on their mission.
“I knew that much, and I had my mom’s stories, so I was able to provide them with some information. They came back very quickly with some additional info – my great-grandfather’s parents, and his wife’s parents, where they were born, and so forth.”
It didn’t take the Lancors long to unearth some results.
“Siobhan had several very strong women in her ancestral line,” Mike recounts. “One of the ones that we really had focused on was her maternal great-grandmother, Elizabeth ‘Lizzy’ Powell. The reason we looked at Lizzy as having such an interesting life is because she was born in 1878 in Co. Cork, and unfortunately, Lizzy died in 1924. She was only 47 years old at the time. She had given birth to at least seven children that we can find and had lost one of those children. When she died, she had four children who were still minors – less than 18 years old. So, she was a mainstay in that family.
“One of the things we found very interesting about Siobhan’s Irish ancestry was, for one, it’s deeply connected to the county of Cork,” Mike adds. “Going back as far as 1846, and earlier than that time period as well, in her case – and as is always the case – the women often overlooked as to their role and impact on family genealogy. But all those women we just mentioned, just when you look at historical records, turned out to be the anchors in many ways for their families.”
Siobhan has travelled to England to visit with her father’s side of the family, but as she puts it, all of those visits involved returning to a place that represents living memory. She’s eager to make a sojourn to see where her great grandmother lived, in order to make a connection that transcends lifetimes.
“I think it’s fascinating, how we could be connected through generations. And it’s a nice way to connect with people that, perhaps, you have heard about from somebody’s living memory, but you have never met that person. I remember both my grandmothers very fondly, but people who had already passed away by the time I was born or was old enough to know who they were, you only have the memories of somebody else.
“You do have that connection, regardless of whether you met the person or not. I think knowing where they came from, where they lived, their surroundings, really informs you knowing them. Until you stand there, it’s not as personal an experience.”
For Kate, helping people like Siobhan have those personal experiences with loved ones long past is the only reason they went into business at all.
“We want more people to get in touch with their ancestors,” says Kate. “That’s the most important thing for us. We’re not in it for the job, really. It’s trying to connect people living today with their past. It’s important to see what they came from.”
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