Research Strategies

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DNA to Paper Trail: Where to Look First

At this point, there is no paper trail connecting any of the three lines (Barry, Berry, Hamilton). A comparison of the research done on each line yields no common ancestor. However, it might be useful to compare and contrast what we know about the three lines. In this way, we might find some clues about where to look to find that common ancestor.

Two of the lines (Berry and Hamilton) seem to have lived in the same general area at roughly the same time - Kentucky / Virginia in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Both these lines include an immigrant to the New World in the 1700s or earlier. That immigrant could have been a common ancestor to both these lines, or the connection between these two lines could have occurred prior to immigration. By contrast, the immigrant generation in the third line (Barry) is known to have come to the US from Ireland in the 1850s. So it appears a common ancestor to the Barry line will almost certainly be found in Ireland. This suggests that the earliest common ancestor for all three lines lived in Ireland rather than in the US, and almost certainly in the 1700s or earlier.

At this point, a person uninitiated in the rigors of Irish research might be tempted to start looking in Ireland for the common ancestor of all three lines, say, in records from the 1700s. But there are several reasons why this approach would be unwise. Irish genealogy research is a very complex subject. In this brief space, we can touch on only a few of the problems one encounters in tracing Irish ancestors.

The chief difficulty is lack of records, particularly in the period prior to the 1800s. In many cases, the kinds of records on which American researchers rely are simply not available for the vast majority of Irish. Either the records never existed or they have suffered attrition through the years. For example, Irish census records for some years were accidentally destroyed in the 1800s due to a miscommunication between officials. Many more were destroyed in 1922, when the repository where they were housed was destroyed. The result is that the earliest complete census records available for Ireland are from 1901.

Civil registration did not begin in Ireland until 1845 for marriages in the Church of Ireland, the Irish counterpart to the Church of England (and the official state church for the period of most interest to our research). Civil registration of marriages for other denominations (including Catholics), as well as registration of all births and deaths, did not begin until 1864 - well after any ancestors of the men above had left Ireland. So, the birth, marriage and death records kept by the Irish government will probably not be of much help in our search because of their late starting dates.

Even Catholic parish registers were often not kept in many Irish locations until the mid-1800s; few date to before 1800, the exception being some larger towns whose records began in the mid-1700s. For example, records in the part of southern Limerick where one member of Bill Barry's family is known to have lived do not begin until after the births of the two immigrant brothers, Martin (b. abt 1820) and Edward (b. abt 1825) Barry. Many Church of Ireland parish registers were destroyed in the 1922 explosion. In any case, to search church records requires that you know the parish (Catholic or Church of Ireland) where people lived.

England occupied Ireland for several hundred years. Although Catholics were a large majority in Ireland, they were systematically barred by law from practicing their religion, owning or inheriting land, voting, holding public office, etc. The vast majority of Irish therefore created few of the public records with which American researchers are familiar - deeds and probate records, voters' lists, etc. Land and power was concentrated in the hands of the few (usually wealthy English transplants) - it is usually their names that are found in public records in Ireland.

Two exceptions were tax records and census records. We have already mentioned the major loss of pre-1901 Irish census records. That leaves tax records. Even people who rented their land from large landholders usually had to pay some type of tax on that land. However, most of the extant tax lists date only to the mid-1800s and later. And not everyone was included in those records, which in any event are little more than name lists. Without knowing additional information (such as an exact location in Ireland), it is almost impossible to differentiate a particular person among the many others of the same name in tax records.

This lack of records was cruelly compounded by the destruction in 1922 of the main repository for Irish records - the Four Courts in Dublin. In one day, 600 years of Irish records kept in this complex were, for the most part, destroyed in an explosion. Nearly all census records, court records, land records, many Church of Ireland parish registers and much more were totally destroyed. Only a few census fragments and a few record indexes (but not the records themselves) survived.

However, some tax records which were kept in another location did survive. Those who research people who lived in 19th century Ireland rely heavily on these very few, incomplete tax records, which usually offer little more than the name of the person who paid the tax. The most well-known of these are the Tithe Applotments (a list of people paying tithes to the Church of Ireland - these had to be paid regardless of religion) and the Valuation records (in particular, Griffith's Valuation and later revisions). One has to be very familiar with the nuances of these records in order to get the most out of them.

This lack of records affects everyone tracing Irish ancestors. Furthermore, the records that do exist are arranged according to a large set of different, often confusing and sometimes overlapping jurisdictions - townlands, civil parishes, Catholic parishes, Church of Ireland parishes, Poor Law Unions, Baronies, Electoral Districts, etc. Suffice it to say that doing Irish research means (for a person accustomed to US research) learning to do research all over again. This is not to say that researching Irish ancestors is an impossible task. Rather, you have to spend the time learning how to do it. You have to understand the limitations inherent in Irish research and look for creative ways around them. And you have to already know a lot about the members of the immigrant generation before you begin looking for them in Irish records.

Cluster research is a strategy particularly suited to Irish research. Instead of looking only for your immigrant ancestor in Irish records (and by the way, you do already know his parents' names and when and where in Ireland he was born, don't you?), you also identify relatives and known associates of the immigrant in the country in which he lived after leaving Ireland. The limited pool of names in use in Ireland means that you had better know lots of details to distinguish your "John Barry" from the hundreds of other men of that same name living in Ireland at the same time as your ancestor. Identifying relatives and associates who settled near the immigrant in his new country provides additional names to look for in Irish records. It is often easier to identify a group or cluster of people in records instead of one lone individual.

So, the place to begin researching Irish immigrant ancestors is not in Ireland but in the places in which they lived after leaving Ireland. By identifying as many relatives and associates as possible in the country to which that ancestor immigrated, you have a much better chance of finding them in Ireland. In this case, that brings us back again to the United States, or to the British colonies prior to the Revolutionary War.

Previous genealogical research by the three participants suggests that links between two of the three yDNA lines (Berry and Hamilton) might be found in Virginia records dating to the late 1700s or earlier. The third line does not immediately seem to fit into this research strategy, since the known Barry immigrants to the US did not leave Ireland until the 1850s. However, in order to find a possible link between all three in Ireland, it is important that the immigrant generations from all three lines be identified in as much detail as possible using US records.

Below, we look at two different research strategies we might employ as we look for the common ancestor of the three lines.

Researching to find a common ancestor: two general approaches

We consider below two general approaches to locating a common ancestor of the three lines using genealogy research.

1. We can trace each line individually, following it back in time and adding to our knowledge of each separate family line. If we can trace each line back far enough, we should find ancestors in one line who also appear in the other lines.

Each of us has probably been tracing our own lines this way for many years. This is standard practice in genealogy research. We can still continue to research the individual lines, but now we can also be alert for clues that might lead us to connections to the other matching yDNA lines. This approach may eventually lead to a brick wall in an individual line before the common ancestor is found, but it is still important that we continue this mode of research until that point is reached.

Of course, we don't mean to imply that we are tracing only our paternal ancestors back from son to father to grandfather, etc. while ignoring other family members. Even though the male lines (the yDNA matches) are the driving force behind this research, to concentrate only on tracing them means we will certainly be missing many important clues. We must also include other family members in our research.

Our ancestors' brothers and sisters (and half-siblings or step-siblings) may have left more illuminating records about our ancestors than did our own ancestors, and their descendants may have inherited the family bible or family stories that could provide important research clues. (The males might also have inherited the family DNA, which can be tested!) And of course, each male ancestor had a spouse (perhaps more than one). Researching spouses might also lead to breakthroughs in research that are relevant to the males who are the source of the YDNA matches. And what about the man who witnessed an ancestor's will (or the will of an ancestor's brother)? Could he have been a relative also? What might his records tell us about our ancestors? I think you get the picture... We are interested in finding a wide circle of relatives and their associates in as many records as possible.

2. In addition to tracing each of the three lines independently, we can use our knowledge of the yDNA matches to pursue new avenues of research.

This second approach involves thinking about where the connections between any of these three lines might have occurred - at what place and time would ancestors common to these lines have lived? What were their lives like? Who were they - farmers, soldiers or adventurers? What was their religious affiliation, if any? What records might they have generated that could reveal connections to any of the three lines? Do those records still exist and if so, where?

We then search those records, looking for families or groups of families that fit the proposed characteristics - people who lived in places and at times that fit with the picture we have formed of these ancestors. After locating families with those characteristics in records, we then research them to see if they actually do connect to the Berry, Barry or Hamilton yDNA lines. Perhaps these families - or their ancestors - will prove to be the common ancestors between the lines. Perhaps not.

We sometimes follow this second practice in trying to overcome research blocks in our own individual lines. We now apply the same method to our search for connections between the three lines.

At first glance, this second type of research might not seem to be directly connected to any of the yDNA lines. But it is part of a strategy of looking for close family connections between people with the surnames Barry, Berry or Hamilton who lived in areas where any two of the three lines lived (or might have plausibly lived) and tracing them to see if we can uncover some connection. Such research can be very time-consuming and in the end, might not prove fruitful. It is therefore important to choose very carefully the families we research this way so as to make the best use of our time. If the research we choose to pursue does not bear fruit, at least we will have eliminated one possibility and can then try another. This strategy might also help us locate new individuals whose yDNA can be tested.

We hope that this second strategy, in tandem with our continuing research on all three lines, will eventually lead to a breakthrough in our genealogy research and reveal a common ancestor for all three lines.

This approach has already shown some success: research on Hamilton and Berry families who created records together in Bath County, Virginia in the early 1800s has led to the discovery of the parents and siblings of Hamilton yDNA ancestor Samuel Berry Hamilton. (To learn more about this discovery, see the section below or go to Records and Analysis.) As we identify likely groups of people to research and begin following them in records, we focus on these three points:

  • Finding connections to any of the three yDNA lines. If we find a link to even one line, that will add to our knowledge and open up further research.
  • Searching for clues to a possible common ancestor between any two (or all three) of the yDNA lines.
  • Identifying living descendants whom we can contact, both to share what we have found and to ask them about participating in the yDNA study and about information they might have about their families (Bible records, family stories, etc.)


So, we need to continue looking in US records for the immigrant generations in the Berry and Hamilton lines. We have considered two general research strategies in light of the yDNA matches and reviewed some things to keep in mind as we continue our research. Now we turn to more specific research strategies.

Researching possible Barry, Berry, Hamilton connections: the specifics

The paper trails for the three yDNA lines suggest some very specific practices to follow while researching these lines and the possible connections between them.

The first practice is to be flexible about the way the family name is spelled. We are all attached to the way our family spells its surname. Although we use the spellings Barry and Berry on this website to distinguish between two different paternal lines, it is clear that they can and should be thought of as different spellings of the same surname. As genealogists, we know that variant spellings for a name are often found in different records, or even within the same record. These spelling differences can become established in different branches of the same family. All this suggests one very specific research strategy: that we look for all possible spellings whenever we search records. That means looking for Barry, Bary, Berry, Berrey, Hamelton, Hambleton, etc.

Given that Barry and Berry can be variant spellings of the same name, a close yDNA match between two men with these surnames is not too surprising; however, the exact match at 67 markers is a bit surprising, given their known paper trails. This exact match suggests we might expect a common ancestor in the very near past. So far, we have not found him. It also suggests we try to locate males in other branches of both paternal lines for DNA testing to see if they also show the same identical matches.

The Hamilton connection is particularly intriguing because of the difference in surname. Looking for this second name (Hamilton) in proximity to Berry or Barry might provide the extra clue needed to identify potential common ancestors for all three men. This second surname, Hamilton, therefore provides us with a new research strategy: look for Berry families with connections to Hamiltons.

When we began to think about this Berry-Hamilton connection, a very common scenario occurred to us that could explain both the yDNA results and the middle name of Samuel Berry Hamilton. This scenario also suggests some very specific research strategies. Given the short average lifespans of people who lived in the 19th century, there were many young widows and widowers who often married again - perhaps several times - after the death of a spouse. We consider this possibility: a Berry male marries, he and his wife have a son (surname Berry), the husband then dies, leaving a widow and at least one son. The widow then marries a Hamilton male. If the Berry child were young enough, he might be raised as a child of the stepfather, i.e., taking the surname Hamilton. He might also retain the middle name of Berry as a reminder of his true Berry father. A similar thing might happen if the parents of a male child named Berry died and the child was raised by a Hamilton family.

The possibilities described above suggest what kind of paper trail we might want to look for. It is unlikely that such a child would have been formally adopted. (Formal adoption did not begin in the US until 1851, in Massachusetts, and we are dealing here with events that probably happened in the 1830s or earlier.) However, clues to such a situation might be found by looking for guardianship papers, probate documents or marriage records involving families named Berry and Hamilton.

The male child in the scenario described above could have been Samuel B. Hamilton or any one of his male ancestors. The name Berry, once in use in the family, could conceivably have been passed down as a family name through several generations. At the very least, it is clear that Samuel Hamilton's family had some close association with a Berry family. Identifying and tracing Samuel B. Hamilton's ancestors could lead us to the common ancestor of all three lines.

Because of the discovery of the yDNA matches, a search was begun for possible Berry-Hamilton connections in US records. Several interesting associations between Berrys and Hamiltons were found, some of which looked promising enough to warrant more investigation. Some leads were briefly explored, but discarded as not of interest. Other leads were followed and still look promising after some initial research, although no connection to any of the three lines has yet been found. For example, two other Hamilton groups have not yet been pursued enough to determine if there is a connection. See [here] for more on those.

One lead, however, has yielded some very exciting results. In pursuing a link between Hamilton and Berry families of Bath County, Virginia and Lee County, Iowa, the family of Samuel Berry Hamilton was found! Samuel's parents were identified as James N. Hamilton and Rachel Berry. Rachel's maiden name Berry explains the use of the middle name Berry for Samuel, but does not explain the close yDNA match between the Hamilton and Barry / Berry lines. So we are still left with looking for a paternal Berry connection in the Hamilton line. But we have taken a big step in that direction by uncovering Samuel Berry Hamilton's origins. For more on this new research, see [here]. Records from Bath County, Virginia, show close connections between the Berry and Hamilton families prior to the marriage of James N. Hamilton and Rachel Berry and suggest that more research in Virginia records is needed.