When Work Feeds Your Addiction: Researching with Ancestry.com


Many academics recognize that working with Ancestry.com and genealogical data can become quite addictive. That’s me: I am one of those historians.

I can lose track of time while exploring the individual histories of the GMM project patients. I get a thrill running one of the thousands of patients’ names we have gathered through Ancestry’s search interface and then finding the person I am looking for. Equally, not finding anything about them in Ancestry’s more than 30 billion records can be devastating, especially considering that the GMM project is historicizing people that, until not long ago, had no history. 

Upon completing the profile for a patient in Ancestry, that person becomes more real to me. They were someone that lived and breathed, had a family, had loved ones, and made human choices. I get to know them beyond just a name on a medical file. My imagination runs wild when I start to put together their full picture. I enjoy learning where they came from, into which the communities they settled, and the name of church to which they often went.

Take, for instance, the case of Margaret Meeghan. When I first searched for “Margaret Meeghan”, I obtained 666,559 results on Ancestry, a number that made finding the woman who was a Beauport Asylum patient  something of an impossibility. After filtering those results to North America/Canada/Québec, 4,624 women still remained. On the Beauport files very little to almost nothing was stated about her, but key information was mentioned that could be used to find her on Ancestry’s databases: 

“Margaret is the mother of seven young children the eldest only Eleven years of Age and the Youngest still at her breast- That the said William Wilson being a man of the class and being charged with the maintenance of his large young family is totally incapable of alleviating the suffering of his afflicted wife… Bridget Meehan, sister [signed with an X mark], Dennis Kenny, brother in law, husband of her sister.” [capitalized as in the original].

By using the personal information extracted from her Beauport file, I was finally able to find a match for Margaret. The magic of Ancestry is that once you have one match, their algorithms start to point you to other records and hints. My detective-esque job is then to follow clue after clue in what seems like an endless and highly addictive process. 

An important finding I made within Ancestry’s databases is the Drouin Collection, one of the main genealogical repositories for Québec’s family historians. The paragraph cited above was all I had about Margaret; however, after matching her within these records, I made several discoveries about her life:

1. Margaret Meeghan was not a Famine migrant. A large part of her immediate family arrived in Canada around 1833, including her and her parents. The origin of Margaret’s family seems to have been in Ballymacahil townland, Inver Parish, Barony of Banagh in Co. Donegal. In Québec, they made the Parish of Cap-Santé, Portneuf County, their adopted home. Four out of her seven siblings settled near her in Cap-Santé, including her sister Bridget, and two of her brothers, James and John, who became farmers. Another sister seems to have emigrated to Lancashire in Britain.

2. Margaret seems to have been illiterate. Only an X mark appears on her marriage record.

3. If Margaret’s father’s religion can be taken as indicative of the family’s faith, then the Meeghans were most likely Roman Catholics. However, by 1836, Margaret had married William K. Wilson, an Irish Protestant man who was originally from Co. Tyrone. When Margaret died at the Beauport Asylum in 1849, she was an Anglican.

In the 1842 Census of Canada East (Lower Canada/Québec), Margaret’s family occupied 150 acres or arpents of land, and nine of those were categorized as “improved land.” They grew rye, oats, wheat, but the staple that dominated was potatoes. They owned only one horse, and no one in the family was reported as suffering from mental illnesses. So, what happened to Margaret between 1842 and 1849, when she was confined at Beauport? She was admitted in August and dead by December at only thirty-one years of age. Her cause of death remains an unsolved mystery. Why did the medical authorities refer to her as “aliennée et furieuse”, and someone “suddenly deprived of her intellectual faculties [who] is now a complete maniac in the midst of her distressed family”?  What was their corroborating evidence for those diagnostic descriptions? 

In 1849, Margaret was admitted to the Beauport Asylum because “la vie de ces enfans [sic] est en danger…” [quote originally in French]. A relevant question that this research project explores is that of motherhood within the Asylum. We do not know much yet about Margaret’s condition, what led to her institutionalization, and the circumstances of her death, but we do know that being a mother was of such importance that it is mentioned twice in her brief admission file. “Margaret is the mother of seven young children the eldest only Eleven years of Age and the Youngest still at her breast.” [capitalized as in the original].

Using Ancestry, I was able to find out more about six of her seven children. Only one seems to have remained in Québec, four emigrated to the United States (three to Missouri and one to Illinois), and another one left Québec for Manitoba. To what degree their mother’s illness impacted them is a question I am still asking myself.

Overall, Ancestry’s records left in me the impression that the Meeghan family were hard-working immigrants of humble origins, mostly small farmers and artisans. They were still adapting to making a living in Canada when they went through the distressing circumstances of Margaret’s confinement in Beauport’s Asylum.  

~ GGG

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