February 2012

Where are all the Byrnes?

Did you happen to find this site while searching for your Byrne ancestors?  I’m glad you visited, but want to warn you up front there are very few Byrnes on ByrneFamily.net.  In fact, of the 18,000+ genealogical records on the site, fewer than 100 are Byrnes.

The reason for the dearth of Byrnes on the site is that my line descends from an early American, John Byrne, born in Windham Connecticut in 1760.  Efforts at tracing this Byrne line back to Ireland or otherwise have been fruitless to date.  And there’s a wrinkle to the story in that John Byrne may not have been a Byrne at all.  Genealogical DNA evidence shows the John Byrne line (or possibly his son, George) actually descend from lines tied to the Cole surname, and it’s likely that at some point in 18th century Connecticut a child fathered by a Cole was given the name Byrne.

So where to go if you’re looking for a comprehensive database of Byrnes?  Aside from the usual spots (e.g. Ancestry.com, Familysearch.org, etc.), Paul Burns has been leading an effort document and publish multiple Byrne/Byrnes/Burn lines via the Byrne DNA project.  While not an uncommon name (Byrne is not even in the top 1000 surnames in the US), it’s extremely popular in Ireland, ranking 7th in popularity, and you’d be well served to check in with the Byrne Clan, which focuses on Irish Byrne descendants.

If you did happen across the site in search of info on John Byrne’s lines, or for that matter some of the other larger branches (Barteau, Rue, Trapnell, Garland, Cosby, etc.), please say hello.  Both myself, and Wayne Garland, who manages the Garland data on the site, are always interested in sharing information with other family researchers.  And for those on the hunt for other Byrnes, best of luck in your search.

Found photos, found cousins

One of the pleasures of hosting a website filled with genealogical records is connecting with family members I might not otherwise know.  Neither of my parents were diligent about maintaining family connections, save for periodic trips to Santa Cruz or Los Angeles to visit my grandparents.  On very rare occasions, we would go on trips that might include a visit to a great uncle or aunt, but these were the exception, once in a lifetime events that were almost never repeated.  Consequently, I grew up able to count the family I knew on my fingers, unaware what I was missing in the common threads I shared with great aunts and uncles, cousins, and their various husbands and wives.

My recent post on Ryland Drennan led to a new connection that reminded me of the value of  shared heritage, and how delightful it can be to reestablish relationships with extended familiy.  A couple of weeks after posting the item, which lamented a lost family photo, my father’s first cousin, Janet Martini, paid one of her occasional visits to the site and spotted the post.  Janet mentioned she had several family photos of Ryland, which she subsequently scanned and sent to me.  In addition to a copy of the lost photo, she included an image I had never seen, featuring Ryland on the deck of a ship with his young nephew, Fernald Byrne.  Fernald died tragically at age 15 on the Giant Dipper roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and is somewhat of a family legend for that terrible event.

Walter Fernald Byrne and Ryland Drennan

Fernald Byrne on deck with his uncle, Ryland Drennan circa 1920.

Looking at the photo of Ryland, it’s a little less glamorous than I remembered, but still a striking image.  The cigarette in his hand gives evidence of just one vice which may have helped end his life at the ripe young age of 50.  But I’m more enchanted by the image of uncle and nephew sharing a happy moment together on deck, and grateful to have connected with a not-so-distant cousin, who went out of their way to share some materials that can now be seen by other family members.

 

Renald Fernald: Early Settler of Portsmouth

Abandoned prison at Portsmouth Naval Yard, originally built to house Spanish American War prisoners. Thomas Fernald plot lies directly below the prison.

A highlight from a recent New England trip was getting to spend some time in and around Portsmouth, NH.  The town has a rich history for shipbuilding, fishing, and as an important port for the region.  More recently, Portsmouth has become a popular tourist destination, and like most of coastal Maine, the town feels a bit overrun in the middle of summer.

The reason for our visit to Portsmouth was to establish a connection with one of its earliest settlers, Renald Fernald, my eighth great-grandfather.  Renald (aka Reginald) Fernald came to Portsmouth in 1631 as the surgeon of Captain John Mason’s Company.  He had previously been a surgeon in the English Navy, and resigned his post to come to America.  In Portsmouth, Renald served in a number of official roles, including Clerk of Court, Recorder of Deeds, Commissioner, Surveyor, and was Town Clerk at the time of his death.  Renald lived on his own island in the Piscataqua River, then called “Doctor’s”, and known these days as Peirce Island (also Pierce’s Island).  He died in the spring-summer of 1656, and is believed to be buried at Point of Graves cemetery, just across the river from his home, along with his wife, Joanna.  Their burials at Point of Graves pre-dated its establishment as a cemetery by 10-15 years, and no headstones prior to 1671 survived due to cattle that grazed the area.

Renald Fernald's original home on Peirce Island, Portsmouth NH

Peirce Island, Portsmouth, NH, site of Renald Fernald’s homestead, now a public park (sewage plant behind the trees)!

Today Peirce island is reached by a short bridge from Point of Graves, and is home to a city park, popular with dog walkers, as well as a large municipal pool.  It’s also the site of a semi-camoflauged sewage treatment plant, surely one of the worst uses of picturesque public open space a city has ever conceived.

Living across the Piscataqua in Kittery, Maine, Renald’s son, Thomas was an early shipbuilder.  In 1645, what were then known as Puddington’s Islands were leased to Thomas by the agent of Sir Ferdinando Gorges for almost no cost (perhaps a related grant to his father, Renald).  In 1671, Thomas deeded one of them to his brother William, “for the fulfilling of the last Will of our Dere father, Renald Fernald.”  Known also as Lay-Claim and Seavey’s Island, Fernald’s Island later conjoined into Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and a naval prison. It was the subject of a border dispute between Maine and New Hampshire in 2001, and is currently considered part of Maine.

Renald Fernald's burial site, Point of Graves, Portsmouth, NH.

Point of Graves, Portsmouth, NH. Renald Fernald and wife Joanna’s burials (in 1656 and 1660, respectively) predate the site officially becoming a cemetery.

Access to the shipyard, an active military facility, required some advanced planning.  Nanette contacted the base’s Public Information Officer, Gary Hildreth, who generously arranged to give us a personal tour.  In addition to being a PIO, Gary is also a historian, with a wealth of knowledge on the Navy Yard’s past, including some of the early land-flipping deals that brought the islands into the government’s hands.  He was familiar with the Fernald history on the island, and augmented the standard highlights of the base with information specific to the Fernald history, including a visit to the Fernald family graveyard, a small, well-tended plot, with a handful of graves dating from the early 1700s.

Fernald cemetery, Portsmouth Navy Yard

Fernald Plot Portsmouth Navy Yard, accessible only by appointment.

Wrapping up our Portsmouth/Kittery visit, we trooped over to East Berwick, where my particular branch of the Fernald’s lived as farmers in the 18th and 19th centuries, before coming to California in the early 1860s.  There we braved poison ivy and hungry mosquitoes in order to visit another family graveyard on private land.  After foraging through the woods and ringing doorbells, we were about to give up when we discovered the plot, which included the flag-adorned grave of my 4th gr-grandfather, Hercules Fernald, a veteran of the American Revolution.

Hercules Fernald grave site, North Berwick, Maine

Hercules Fernald Family Plot, North Berwick, Maine