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 Many opportunities for gathering family information present themselves, but not too many are as fraught with potential as a family reunion. How well it works for you is based on preparation. By thinking ahead and organizing, you can make this or a similar event very fruitful.

 Having two dedicated genealogists in the greater family, our family tree is recorded much better than most. We share a conCosanguinity Chartsanguinity based on us both being direct great-grandchildren from a shared ancestor. We are connected through the first relative arriving in America on the O’Brien side.  Then, due to marriages, we naturally branch off from the other.  Regardless, we both prepare for joint reunions; but we do it very differently.

 One method Dennis used was bringing his laptop with Family Tree Maker. He left it open and ready for input. His collection method was asking for reviews and confirmations of the data he had in his database. The other data collection hoped for was that reunion attendees would add themselves or their family’s updates. New children, divorces, new spouses, grandchildren, deaths, military duty, all the details genealogists relish.

 My approach was more from the educational approach. Knowing the various branches attending, under the umbrella of our shared heritage from our first Irish ancestors to arrive in America, I prepared posters showing each family and their family tree. Attached to each poster was a marker in the hopes that attendees would mark-up the tree with information. Overall, it was a similar approach, but one which could be shared by multiple attendees at a time and low-tech. I also collected their email address (if I didn’t have them already).  This way, I was confident in their input. If, for any reason I did doubt the feedback, I knew who to reach out to for a verification. 

If you are just starting out on your genealogy search, consider starting with family group sheets at your next family gathering. These forms are available on a number of web sites, but I’ve posted one from Brigham Young University that is very well designed.  Ask one member of each family to either fill it out then or mail it to you later. Be sure to offer a stamped, self-addressed envelope to increase the odds of receiving it.  familygroupsheet 

 Bring a recorder with you for oral stories. Once upon a time, taking a tabletop recorder was required. Now, it is so easy with iPhones, iPads, and other digital equipment to be ready in a moments notice. Again, have some questions ready encouraging relative’s stories. The critical stories are usually from the oldest in the crowd. There is a natural tendency and near instinctual drive for them to pass along their memories to ensure, they and the people they built them with are remembered.

There are other ideas for future postings. If you start with these, and take them seriously, you’ll be very busy until I post the next phase!



WHERE THERE IS A WILL (there is a William)

When a loved one or a close friend dies, our minds immediately start thinking about our loss.  Following that, our thoughts enter into a phase of wondering about whether or not they planned for their business and personal affairs. Many of us consider these issues as still caring for the deceased.

Planning for the here after might be thought of as a purely religious experience. We ask ourselves if we have acted properly when we were alive and reflect on whether we are at peace with our God as we know him or her. All of that is admirable, but; we all know there are far more corporeal affairs to address. last will image

The other side of the fence presents the administration of an estate. Some people are wonderful about addressing their personal affairs. They have written their wills, crossing their Ts and dotting there Is, making sure the silver goes to a favorite cousin and their car to a nephew.  They may have even been prepared by administering an advanced medical directive, and have appointed a fair-minded relative or friend who is going to be acting their executor.

 A huge key is to have an original will, or a certified copy of it, in the hands of others and not just with an attorney.  The deceased person’s attorney might be out-of-town or the country for that matter when needed most. Having copies handily available to responsible people, especially your executor, is critical.


Probate usually strikes fear in the hearts of many. As a matter of fact, during the 1970s books started surfacing with exotic titles such as “How to Beat Probate.”  It was all the rage and is still a subject of interest.  Even for those who have planned each and every detail could end up with an executor who has died before they have and their will would still fall into Probate Court. Cases routed through the probate process are there regardless of their monetary value.


What is remarkable is the amount of information these files offer a genealogist. Some wills found in the courthouse point to a crisp snapshot of a person’s life. Their specified relatives or loved ones names are there along with their contact information as of the related probate processing timeframe. Also, there is an itemized statement of their worldly possessions, who received them, and their worth.

 That should promise you enough information to make the trip to an associated court house worthy of your invested time. See you are the court house!

Focusing on the Past

Focusing on the past; illuminating the future is more than a slogan for Brannigan and Murphy.  It entails being involved in lifelong learning. To that end, there has been a tremendous effort on our part acquiring additional skills while sharpening those already held. We hold new credentials in several areas, the most notable being an investigator. It is always good having the most up-to-date information and expertise possible.  Additionally, genealogy is enjoying and ever increasing interest. Brannigan and Murphy have received research requests in keeping with this growth rate.


Individual family searches are always wonderful challenges.  One search for my friend, Marcia, revealed that an ancestor built a diving bell to recover 20 tons of iron bars had fallen off his ship. The freight was located at a depth of 62 feet during low tide.  Talk about a challenge.

A dividing bell was constructed by her ancestor, Captain Richard Tripe, and an adventure ensued.  During the recovery process, a physician examined his hearing and physical well-being.  The impressive part is that the year was in 1805. It was the Piscataqua River near Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Dr. Benjamin Silliman was the first professor of chemistry at Yale, and Captain Tripe successfully recovered the iron bar shipment.

Dig back far enough and everyone has an interesting tale in his or her family tree. Contact us if you are in the market for a discovery in one of your branches or limbs.


This last week another case brought me to an interesting word that isn’t used too frequently: Cenotaph.  The term has roots in Old French, Latin, and Greek. Each language expresses the meaning “empty tomb.”  A cenotaph is a tribute to a dead person or percenotaph flight 103sons who are buried in a different location. There are not too many situations to use this word, but it is an interesting one, rating cenotaph plaqueright up there with sarcophagus.

Through the years, I have visited several cenotaphs and felt the solemn tribute it gave to those buried elsewhere. A recent case presented asking Brannigan and Murphy to photograph the cenotaph honoring, in part, Lawanda Thomas (1967-1988). Lawanda was a 22-year-old enlisted Senior Airman with the U.S. Air Force from Detroit, Michigan. She lost her life, along with many others, in a peacetime terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Many bodies, including Lawanda’s, have not been recovered.  One cenotaph honoring all lives lost during that event is located in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, DC while another is in Lockerbie, Scotland.


It is always handy having a solid piece of trivia in your pocket. Here is one you may find useful. Who is the only U.S. President buried in Washington, DC? Many will say Kennedy but his grave is in Arlington, Virginia. The correct answer is Woodrow Wilson. He, and his wife Edith, are both located in the Washington National Cathedral. You can find Woodrow’s sarcophagus just near the window encasing the only moon rock outside the U.S. Government’s control, midway down the center aisle on the right.

Signers of the Declaration of Independence

     Have you ever wondered what happened to the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence?
     Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army; another had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War. They signed and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. What kind of men were they?
      Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists. Eleven were merchants, nine were farmers and large plantation owners; men of means, well educated. But they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured.
Find out here!!!!

Oh, do not cry – be good children and we will all meet in heaven. ~~ Andrew Jackson, US President, d. 1845

To say that Andrew Jackson was a rebel is to totally under sell him. He was a man who was, like many other national leaders, larger than life. He had many desirable attributes, but the negative ones were monumental. One fiercely poor decision was the near total annihilation of the Indian nation. Not a proud time or action on the country’s part. However, on the other side of the spectrum, Jackson is the only president to have the national debt paid-in-full. No small feat, my friends, but I shudder to think of at what cost.

Reading a will is a fairly foolproof method of having an intimate look at someone’s soul. It peels back the veneer and allows witnessing of a person’s true values and an assessment of what they feel is of worth. Andrew Jackson’s will offers you no less than that.    This link should lead you to his last will and testament. Please contact me if there is a dead link, pun intended.


Much like the beloved President James Madison, Jackson’s financial affairs were in a total shambles due to the fiscal frolicking of his adopted son. Both presidents married women who took them as their second spouse and entered the marriage with a son. Dolley’s husband had the good graces to die due to natural causes prior to her meeting James. The same can’t be said about Mrs. Jackson’s first.  It seems that a good year after her wedding with Andrew Jackson, Rachel’s first husband surfaced with the incomplete divorce papers Mrs. Jackson had served on him. Being called a bigamist was a cross she bore for the rest of her marriage. Perhaps it is why she was so dedicated to her church as it acted as a remedy and gave her solace.

At an event at Nashville area race track, Jackson met his contentious neighbor, Charles Dickenson, and once again faced off.  Dickenson called the future president “a scoundrel, coward, and an equivocator” and Rachel a bigamist.  Back then, as they say “them’s fightin’ words”.  And those statements were insult enough, but the real injury took place when Dickenson ensured that the comments were published in the National Review. Not being able to withstand this level of attack, Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel.  Dickenson fired and hit Jackson in the chest. Jackson fired and missed Dickenson. Then, setting aside protocol of the match, Jackson decided to exceed his permitted allotment of a single shot and fired again, killing Dickinson.  Oddly enough, that didn’t have an impact on his presidential race later in his life. It would be interesting to see how that would fly in today’s political arena.

As mentioned before, Jackson’s finances were in sad straights because he had indulged his adopted son’s habits of acquiring land he couldn’t afford. Although he didn’t mortgage The Hermitage, he did borrow huge sums of money from well-heeled friends in Washington, DC and New Orleans, LA.   These amounts are among the first mentioned in the will. Jackson wanted them paid before any other disbursement of his worth.

As I researched his life, his will became even more interesting to me. Rachel and Andrew Jackson never had any children of their own.  Rachel’s brother, Sovern Donaldson and his wife Elizabeth, offered their three children to the Jackson’s to raise. (One reference mentioned ill health on the part of Elizabeth, but no other reason was listed.) Twin brothers, and another sibling, came to live at The Hermitage.  I am surmising that the younger sibling and one of the twins died during childhood as no mention is made of them in Jackson’s will.

Jackson took an interest in one of the boy twins named Andrew Jackson Donaldson, going as far as adopting him. He was renamed Andrew Jackson, Junior, and was treated as if he was Jackson’s biological son.  There were many other children living at  The Hermitage because Jackson was a favorite to be declared guardian  of children of family and friends by the Nashville court system. Through the years  these children all benefited from many privileges; but, it was his “adopted” son Andrew who received the bulk of his attention and finances.

Andrew “Junior” was named as “Senior’s” executor even though he was the benefactor of any real property. Aside from The Hermitage and the associated land, the only items cited specifically awarded others were decorative swords from various battle campaigns, dueling pistols once owned by Pierre L’Enfant, and additional personal items. “The true intent and meaning of this my last will and testament is, that all my estate, real, personal, and mixed…”

The “mixed” portion was the most egregious part of his will by today’s terms. Jackson detailed that “all the appurtenances thereto belonging or in any wise appertaining, with all my negroes that I may die possessed of”.

Jackson specifically willed selected slaves to certain family members. Additionally, he extended it to include “and all their issue forever” to his heirs. An incredible note realizing that, as president, he upheld the Constitution and its certain inalienable rights.  Something tells me the slaves willed to his descendents may have had life; but their liberty and pursuit of happiness was greatly hampered.

For all his incredible damage against the Indian nations, a strange action on Jackson’s part was sending home an orphaned Indian infant boy who he found next to the baby’s dead mother on the battlefield. He raised him with the other children at The Hermitage which seems to go against all his other beliefs regarding those nations.  Lyncoya lived to be about 17 years old. Jackson was determined to send him to West Point, but the application was declined. So, he sent him to school to become a saddle maker, certainly not a close second to the West Point degree and education.

Generally, my view of Andrew Jackson is that of a very proud, independent leader who was also a very loose canon. He was kind and generous to a fault on one level and absolutely criminal and lethal on the other. A real study in human contrasts.

If you are ever in the Nashville area, stop at The Hermitage. You’ll be impressed that his “mixed” legacy is still living on.

The Great Mr. Madison

James Madison: The last of the Founding Fathers.

On June 28, 1836 James Madison died in the company of his trusted enslaved manservant, Paul Jennings while Dolley seemingly made herself scarce. It was only 14 months earlier, on April 15th, that he executed his will.

I imagine him to look like this even as a child.

Madison had always lived in a constant state of physical frailty; but, after leaving the presidency, intense anxiety and finances added to that concern.

The pressures of running the United States were all consuming for Madison. There was the little matter of that pesky 1812 War: the war which ended in a stalemate and no clear winner. With all the focus on the business at hand, Madison’s plantation based business was summarily neglected. By the time he returned to his personal business eight years later, it was in a sad state of affairs.

Later, he acted as a representative to the Virginia Convention of 1829 where the state constitution was being revised. During the time he was there he worked on trying to resolve voting rights and slavery. In the end, he was chiefly ignored by his fellow legislators. This, along with the condition of his finances, broke his spirit.

In the end, his will provided for his wife’s son, who squandered his money as well as that of Dolley, his enabling mother. As a result of indulging her son, Dolley herself lived in relative poverty in Washington, DC.

Having had no children of his own, Madison also willed money to his 30 nieces and nephews. He willed his library to Dolley and anything she didn’t want he titled to the University of Virginia.

A graduate of the forerunner of Princeton, he included that college as well as the University of Virginia and, a rather odd choice, the Washington and Jefferson College in Uniontown, PA. My guess is that it was a nod to his great friends and fellow Founding Fathers. The college was founded 30 miles south of Pittsburgh in 1781.

Upon the death of Jefferson, James Madison became the president of the University of Virginia. This position lasted ten years, until his death. On April 15, 1835 Madison wrote and signed his last will and testament. A mere 14 months later he died on June 28, 1836.

Several years ago I was privileged to study at the Center for the Constitution which is held on the ground of Montpelier. Attendees are housed in cottages built by the DuPonts when they owned the home. We were free to walk the property and explore in addition to the incredible guided tours which were held specifically for our group.

One evening while I was there, I walked to the front of James and Dolley’s home with my omni-present cup of coffee, sat on their steps and watched the sun set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was astounding to me that I was enjoying the same view they had during their lifetimes. It was humbling and exhilarating at the same time.

James Madison deserved better during his lifetime after creating such a legacy for our country. To read his last will and testament, please refer to this link:



For many reasons, I’ve always held Patrick Henry in a special place. Perhaps it is because of his captivating speech. Maybe it is for the energy his viewpoints produced inciting other patriots during the early days of our country. He, like many others during that time, were larger than life.

After studying him, I have even greater admiration. Imagine: you are a staunch believer of revolution nagainst an oppressor and your wife dies leaving you with six children to raise. Yes, times were very different and he did have slaves to support these endeavors and responsibilities. Even so, this is a difficult passage for anyone. No wonder he was so passionate about having “liberty or death.”

Recently, while researching wills and testaments related to probate genealogy, I paused to read his parting message in his last will and testament. What impressed me is how he delineated between the boys and the girls. It came to light that he directed that his wife make the decision of which two sons would inherit and share the family land where they lived. He had six sons who lived to adulthood. Talk about an interesting family reunion after that decision, especially since she was his second wife and she was deciding about his fist wife’s children. You’d think he would have spared her that, but I am sure he had his reasons. Additionally, he also made the stipulation that if his wife remarried, all her inheritance from him would divert to his children. Is it any wonder his widow married his cousin who was the executor of his will. His will is slated for posting  in a future in deference to focusing on his family structure in this article.


Patrick Henry was born 29 May 1736 at Studley and died at “Red Hill” on 6 June 1799 at age 63. He is buried at “Red Hill,” Charlotte Co., VA.

He married his first wife, Sarah Shelton in 1754. She was born at “Rural Plains”  and died at “Scotchtown” in Hanover Co., VA in 1775.  She is buried in Hanover Co., VA.

Patrick married Dorothea Dandridge 25 Oct 1777.  She was born 25 Sept 1755 (or 1757) at “Chelsea” and died 14 Feb 1831 at age 73 at “Seven Islands”, Halifax Co., VA.  She is because of inclement weather, she is interred at “Red Hill” beside Patrick Henry. Dorothea did remarry to Judge Edmund Winston. He was his first cousin and served as Henry’s executor. She was Martha Dandridge Custis Washington’s first cousin.

We live in a day and time when life expectancy is the longest it has ever been in history. During these early days of our country, it was not all that lengthy.  A healthy life was a precious commodity, as it is today, but then it was a much more delicate proposition.

Patrick Henry and his wives gave birth to 17 children total. Several did not live to adulthood; many died rather young leaving small children and wives behind; others lived to rather ripe old ages. All this seems like the usual mix of events, but I can’t help but feel sad for this family. Not only did six children lose their mother when his first wife, Sarah Shelton Henry, died in 1775 in the throws of preparing for the American Revolution, Patrick lived longer than six of his own children.  People expect that they may lose a spouse, but burying your children nearly goes against natural law.


  1. Martha “Patsy” –  d. 1818, age 63
  2. John  – d. 1791, age 34, predeceased Patrick by 8 years
  3. William –  d. 1798, age 35, predeceased Patrick by 1 year
  4. Anne – d. 1799, age 31, predeceased Patrick by 15 days
  5. Elizabeth – d. 1842, age 73
  6. Edward – d. 1794, age 23, predeceased Patrick by 5 years


  1. Dorothea – d. 1854, age 75
  2. Sara – d. 1856, age 76
  3. Martha Cathrina – d. 1801, age 19
  4. Patrick – d. 1804, age 21
  5. Fayette – d. 1813, age 27
  6. Alexander Spotswood – d. 1851, age 65
  7. Nathaniel West – d. 1851, age 61
  8. Richard –  d. 1793, age 17, predeceased Patrick by 6 years
  9. Edward Winston – d. 1872, age 78
  10. John – d. 1868, age 71
  11. Jane Robertson – d. 1798, predeceased Patrick by 4 days

For most people, it is difficult to relate to having this many children. During those times it is imagined that having a large family was more common.  Illness claimed countless children as life was more fragile and less protected by medicine.  Even acknowledging that, it is noteworthy that Patrick was still expanding his family during his 50s and 60s.  Since finding out about more about his family has illuminated more about this man than I ever anticipated before starting.  Everyone deserves this insight into their own ancestry.

To read Patrick Henry’s last will and testament, please refer to this link: