IRELAND: Interesting Discoveries

After 55 years of researching Gillespies, here are a few interesting discoveries I made that might help you in your research:

  1. Certain Gillespie first names are more common in certain locations than others. Condy, for example is a first name for a Gillespie that has only been found in Co Donegal records so far. Occasionally there are first names that appear in any location only once and never occur again anywhere.  Certain first names might be generational (popular)  as one gets closer to today,  or reflect the language of a nation in which a person lived (thinking of Spanish first names). But up until the mid 1800s, and especially earlier, first names were used to honour previous generations in a family.

2. First names often hint to the identify of the origins of someone, that is,  if the person was Irish, Scottish or having English roots. Only a few first names were used by all three nationalities.

The Scots preferred names like Archibald, Duncan, Margaret; the Irish preferred Patrick, Bridget, as examples. James and William are  very common  Gillespie first names, and  and may hint to English origins,  or all three. Scottish names are found in Northern Ireland because of a migration scheme in the 1600s that brought many Scots to take over land from which  Catholics were expelled by an English King. English settlers also were involved in other areas; hence, the influence of all three backgrounds  has affected the history of Ireland, and is a marvelous introduction to a branch of study, yet to be explored in greater detail.

Since first names were repeated each generation for several hundred years, this poses a problem for researchers until one discovers that some first names (especially beginning with the letter ‘D“),  died out abruptly in a country for a time, example, Scotland, and are found  in the same time frame in  Canada, specifically Upper Canada/Canada West, early names for today’s province of Ontario.

Remember, this study is for Gillespies, and  does not necessarily reflect the whole picture within Scotland or anywhere. I have been challenged about this  on a trip to Scotland.  I can defend it quite strongly for Gillespies, but have not extended my search very deeply into other last names, leaving that to researchers of those families. Also, tracing female Gillespies after marriage is too time consuming for me, and I lack interest,  so my work focuses on the Gillespie male. However, I had had greater success finding family records by using the maiden names of Gillespie wives, than scanning pages and pages of male first names.

I provide an overview of Gillespie families worldwide from another website, Forebears.   My  statements are hints,  and offer anyone a depth of research that is fascinating, especially the study of names.

Finding these immigrants (Donald, Dugald, Duncan Gillespie for example) in early Canadian records was one thing, but the real surprise in later study revealed there are more Scottish Gillespies in Ontario  from Islay than anywhere else in Scotland.  I know this from plotting every Gillespie arrival on Township Maps for Ontario and by doing every early Gillespie family histories  for the Province over the years.  I have not yet found Islay folk in  Maritimes records, that I can remember.  More about this in a moment. But Islay Scottish immigrants  in Ontario did move out west to Manitoba when land was opened up for settlement in the 1870s and 1880s, Their descendants continue west. Only a few returned to Ontario in later years.

Just to digress for a moment:

The study of the Islay, Scottish group that moved to New York in the 1700s was found by others and shared with me, and those records are found on the Immigration page of this website, with resource that I studied for some time. (see Left Menu Bar).  If no menu bar there, look below, or reduce the size of the font on this page when the left menu should reappear.  The size of your computer screen and its setting,  and even size of font used affects what you see.  It is easy to block out information on a page without realizing it. It is also easy to skim information out of boredom and miss a lot.

A  later group of early Islay folk went to North Carolina in the Americas, but after awhile some of them moved north to join others arriving directly from Scotland to Ontario. I have not tried to identify how many other families other than Gillespie made that journey.  Nor have I made an extensive research of Islay Gillespies in the USA,  except when found through other research.

I did wonder about Australia, with its many Irish immigrants, but have not uncovered a similar pattern anywhere else in the world.  History tells us why people were directed in certain directions in these early immigrations. I have been in contact with many Islay researchers, even attended Islay reunions. I am especially grateful for the Gillespie DNA study over the past 16 years, which has uncovered the genetic marker for Gillespies from Islay, and other locations. Serious discussions are available on those  Gillespie DNA research webpages.  The moment I spot a Gillespie male with his first name beginning with Ds, I wonder if I have found a  Islay descendant.  The name David is the exception to this observation,  as it is not a name associated with the Isle of Islay.

Because these D first names are only found in a specific location in Scotland prior to this migration,  (Isle of Islay, Argyllshire)  this gives a strong indication as to that origin whenever the name is found elsewhere. It holds true many  times for later descendants, but there are exceptions. In some families a Scottish first name was passed down each generation into the 1900s. The name Samuel certainly has in my own family history. I have met other researchers who have told me the same thing, even doing the same things with naming their sons.  It seems only to affect male names in this D study.

3.  Variant spellings of names were common in early years in North America because many people were illiterate and did not know how to spell their names. (they could not read or write). When an educated census taker tried to record a family in records but facing  an unfamiliar name, the recorder depended on how he interpreted phonetically the sounds that he heard from people with a strong accent of another country. My own family name was spelled five different ways in records in Canada before the spelling “Gillespie”  became commonly used.

People who are strongly locked down on a variant spelling of names might at least review this. I also noticed that  Scottish census takers used the letter ‘e’ a lot in spelling the Gellespee name, and Irish census takers used “a” , Galaspy, Gallasby, Gilaspie.  Not discussed by anyone one else that I know of, so just an interesting observation many years ago.  But it does relate. Those chosen as census takers  in the early years were well educated but living near others that often were not. The Irish lived together in a township and the Scots in another, all across the land with togetherness only in large communities   If you find an ancestor in Upper Canada, background unknown,  notice the origin of the census taker as another possible hint of your ancestor’s  possible origin.

4. The Irish naming pattern was commonly used by the Irish up to about 1850. Scots had their own naming pattern.   If you are able to line up all of a couple’s children in birth order, you can get a strong hint as to the names of previous two generations on both sides of the family. If a child died as an infant, a later baby was often given the same name to maintain the honour of a relative. Many websites provide guidance on this.

5. There were several strong movements out of Ireland, especially the Potato famine in mid 1840s to early 1850s,  but some other reasons have been uncovered: :

  •  A big cold wind swept across Northern Ireland in 1830 and devastated the land. A flood of Northern Ireland immigrants arrived in Canadian ports later that same year.
  • My study of the counties along the St Lawrence River in Upper Canada (Ontario) indicated two major waves of immigrants 1820 and 1840. All Gillespie who settled in these locations in this time frame ALL came from either Co Armagh or Co Tyrone  Could the Big Wind have influenced some of these departures?
  • There was a powerful departure from Co Donegal of young people in the early 1900s just before World War I. Almost all of them headed to New York. (I sent out a newsletter about this). Were they frightened of being conscripted,  as war threatened? It devastated  Co Donegal of its Gillespie and other youth,  most in their 20s. They must have known they wouldn’t see their families again. What could we uncover in our study of this movement? I plotted ships in this wave of immigrants, watching them arrive at Ellis Island. But it still puzzles me.  Did they even know war was coming or was there another reason?  But so few details are available, unless you find the Ellis Island record that provides more documentation.   It may prove important in your research, yet unknown. Always remembering the 5 Ws;

Where, Why, What, Who, When.

An Irish family suddenly deciding to go to America had only a few or maybe only one ship arriving at a nearby port once a month from spring until fall on which to travel, and even the time of year influenced that. Ports froze over during the winter halting all traffic to certain places.  No one travelled to Quebec City after early December, so  be alert to time of year for arrivals and how that must have influenced the travel inland for the person you are researching. When do the ports along the American east coast shut down for the winter? Or do they?

The Irish had never known the extremes of climate in America, nor of the rigors demanded to suddenly find a way to make some money, built a shanty in which to live, even figure out how to get to the lot assigned them, which might be hundreds of miles into a wilderness interior.  It has been a pleasure to try to figure out the old Mail route of the 1830s from Barrie to Collingwood area, Ontario and film many locations of historical significance. Look at old photos for clues.

6. It is wonderful to walk where your early ancestors walked, even if the landmarks have long ago disappeared.  To stand over an immigrant’s grave, and looking for a tombstone in the hopes that maybe it tells where from where the person immigrated.  The joy of backtracking to the site of their family home in Ireland and Scotland, was of real help in visualizing distances and other situations. I am the first one in my family to have ever done so since my paternal great grandfather, William Gillespie,  arrived in Canada from Ireland, almost a hundred years ago.  Tombstones often gave memories of an earlier location.

There are so many tombstones in Scotland from the 1600s, that it was a wonder to discover them. I have yet to see the same in Ireland, perhaps because the people were so poor that fled to America.  If you cannot discover your ancestor’s origins in any of these ways consider looking for family members in the cemeteries of the home land.  I walked Torquay in Devon,  especially along the beach, and road a bus to explore this lovely town, and finally found the grave of my guardian’s mother. He had left England for Canada after serving in World War I.

7. It  took some time before the owners of ships moving across the ocean in the 1700s and early 1800s changed their focus from profits from fishing or furs, or transporting  military families and troops across the world.  A sudden demand to transport passengers (e.g, Highland Clearances)  was handled by empty ships crossing the oceans to pick up goods elsewhere and sell them in European or British markets. A few individuals on the move were glad to pay passage on one of these sailing vessels.

This was especially true once North American settlers found a way to make a bit of money from all the trees they had to chop down to clear land and build homes: the sale of barrels of potash (a fertilizer found in the ashes of destroyed trees) or shipping logs for lumber.   It encouraged ships to come to America for this profitable cargo. However, the sudden flood of  the immigrants from Ireland during the Potato Famine overwhelmed everything,  but these were the founding families of so many of us today. This was history and history tells a story. All provide clues perhaps yet to be explored as one finds Business Directories of early periods. Many have been published.  Sharing what one has learned with others may help them, just as others have helped me.

My Testimony

I knew nothing about family history as a nine year old. My Daddy had come for a visit from Toronto,  where he lived with my younger brother during the week. Just before bedtime, in the dead of winter, he took me for a walk from our farm along the road to the Deer River and its bridge.. He taught me not to be afraid of the night sounds, the crackling of ice in the distance that scared me,  instead looking together upward to the the lovely twinkling stars far above. We didn’t know we were saying goodbye.

Sam Gillespie (1875-1954) & his daughter, Norma

In April he was dead.  l don’t remember much for a long time afterwards.  But when I was 20, I  finally found his grave, just a grassy spot, but I dug up a footstone, then went to the Cemetery office. They gave me a copy of their records that Sam was buried beside a wife,   Elizabeth Gillespie, who had died long before I was born. Who was she?  She wasn’t my Mom.

It has taken me a life time to answer that, and so many other questions that have arisen over the years. Thankfully, the journey to discover my Dad’s roots has brought many happy memories in my life, and has led to the creation of this web site. I know far more about other people’s history than I do my own,  but I know enough.  Dad’s roots were Irish, and before that Scottish and beyond that?……mmm.  I am so glad the journey is never done.

So,  what I have learned of my Irish, Scottish,  English and German roots is that we are just people passing through life, all  of us trying to find our way and to find a worthwhile purpose in in it. I found mine in preserving history,  in memory of my Father.  I believe now the greatest joy comes from helping others. Let’s learn to enjoy the journey. If the times get tough, look up……, way up. I certainly do.


Each ship had a home port (where the crew’s families lived, the sailor returned and was paid and had a rest between voyages). Each ship had specific ports of call and destinations. Sometimes these changed, but infrequently.  One can use this knowledge  to help someone identify where some people may have gone,  what port they probably landed at, if all you have is a name a destination   and some understanding of time frame.

I have plotted many ship routes and continue to do so, to help me figure out both in Canada and the American colonies the probable route someone took to  a certain location, e.g. 1820,  Ohio.  Maps are  of great help and I provide them on this site for this purpose. Knowing which ports a certain ship stopped, or ended at, can help one backtrack to either Ireland, Greenock in Scotland or Liverpool, England, the major departure ports from Great Britain where most Gillespies lived before immigrating to America. Ships were travelling all over the world.

Pier 21 in Halifax, and St John, New Brunswick port seem to be forgotten with the flood of Irish immigrants who landed at Quebec City.  Most people know of Ellis Island in New York Harbor. But few know of Partridge Island and its quarantine stop as a ship approached Canada.  These places have records.

Find the name of the ship that carried your ancestor, because it is one of the best records to give the origin of an immigrant, where he came from– especially in Ireland. Study other passengers on the same ship to see where they came from,  if your Gillespie’s origin is not listed. Most ships in Ireland left from Londonderry in the early years, the sailing vessel usually arriving from Liverpool. In early periods, some people had to go to England to catch a ship, all depending on where they came from, where they wanted to go, the time of year, and the available vessels closest to the port of the immigrant’s interest.

I do not remember finding any  Gillespies from Ireland going to Greenock to head to America, although many Irish went to Scotland to work and live. Usually it is only Scots from that port who  sailed directly to either Canada or the USA. But this is an ongoing study, and I now I wonder  why ships sailing from Scotland rarely stopped at an Irish port before continuing on to America. Most ships carried people from only one  country of origin, that is Scots from Greenock, or Irish from Londonderry in the early years. Ship owners chose ports for profits gained for stopping there.  It cost a lot to obtain a vessel, hire and pay a crew and feed them, and others on board.  The dangers on the sea is revealed in many wrecks that occurred.

I had wondered if the lack of Scottish ships docking in Ireland en route to America was a prejudice I could not define. Or was it  simply jealousy of ship owners trying to beat another for economic gain, or something else?  Ships made one  trip each month back and forth each season to America and elsewhere,  with time off for the crew on return.  There were longer voyages, but many involved a 30- day turnaround by the mid 1800s. Owners needed to make a profit, and prestige. Some ship’s captain were meticulous in keeping records (Captain D Gillespie), but others were not.

Land agents in Canada must have given all the passengers on an arriving ship the same lots in the same township.  That can be another lead. Where were those agents located? It matters because some of their records are now in print; thus another lead for information. And each agent had specific locations in which to direct human traffic.

During the Potato Famine,  ships that carried up to 400 passengers kept arriving month after month all season,  year after year, and 50 ships at a time might be waiting at Grosse Island for permission to dock at Quebec City.  Imagine having to deal with that demand by everyone for a place to go.  Other smaller boats moved back and forth daily between Quebec City and Montreal, ferrying passengers towards the interior westward into Upper Canada (Ontario).

Trips from Montreal were much more difficult, often by a flat boat sometimes hauled by a horse on the bank, or people simple walked trails cut out of the bush. It wasn’t until after Prescott that conditions gradually improved along the shoreline.  The St Lawrence River was rough water making boating against the current difficult until rapids were overcome in time and dams installed. Small ships began to function of the Great Lakes. The Rideau Canal was developed between Ottawa and Kingston, and settlements expanded.  Each of these major events has records that can help identify setters. I found my own Irish family on the McCabe List of Rideau Canal builders Feb 1829. It gave name, parish and townland in Ireland for each person listed. What a find, an insignificant little document on a shelf I found one day in my travels.

Counties were being surveyed across Upper Canada (or Canada West) and lots released once that was done,  and that affected some locations, even time frame where immigrants were sent. So knowing time lines for the opening of certain locations might be a lead to consider when searching for information about an ancestor.

The development of routes inland directed people a certain way.   Most frustrating of all is the destruction of important documentation because of stupidity or rebellion or deterioration because of the passage of time. We may not find a record, so we have to circumvent something,  and come at it a different way to find what we want, if we can. Don’t just give up, as I did for five years.  Fight the greatest battle inside your own mind– your thoughts. You can do this. You can find a solution and overcome! Control  your thinking, refocus, rest for awhile, ask others, read columns like this for new ideas, and rest some more as you think of possibilities.

I love research just for the mental stimulation, so I use that.I left Dad’s genealogy and focused on Mom’s for awhile. But this is my greatest interest, so returned. I left our family history and expanded it always looking for certain information. Where they did go?  Sometimes there are no answers, so I accept it and move on.  Be careful with all your records. I have found family members on old cemetery sheets I printed off over 10 years ago,  not knowing who these people were back then.  But becoming familiar now with other family names linked to Gillespies that helped me identify married daughters in that  old cemetery.

6.  Recognize that Irish and Scottish settlers often named their new communities after where they came from in the Homeland.  This is especially true of the Irish in Canada.   Ontario is dotted with many Irish and Scottish  names for communities. Seek out local history books, which may give you an unexpected explanation. Also watch for monuments…I was in Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown last summer on vacation, and read the Irish Memorial at the docks. I had no idea so many came early settlers came from one county in Ireland.  Know which one?  Co Monaghan.

7. In Canada, the best, fullest record to find an ancestor including the Irish, is the marriage record. It was my Dad’s marriage record that listed his parents from Ireland, which matched the McCabe List and a property survey of all buy and sales pertaining to their farm,  plus  agricultural census records (not federal ones), year by year from 1839 to 1845 in Carleton County. Even a historical map showed the two Gillespie farms with owner names on them of people now so familiar to me.  My Grampa John Gillespie married the widow next door of one of the sons of his Clifford neighbour.

7.  Genetic Discoveries:  “In 2012, research was published showing that occurrence of genetic markers for the earliest farmers was almost wiped out by Beaker-culture immigrants to Ireland: they carried what was then a new Y-chromosome R1b marker, believed to have originated in Iberia about 2500 BC. The prevalence amongst modern Irish men for this mutation is a remarkable 84%, the highest in the World, and closely matched in other populations along the Atlantic fringes down to Spain. A similar genetic replacement happened with lineages in mitochondrial DNA. The implication of this evidence is a series of migrations and the arrival of the early Irish language,

Read some of the remarks from the 16 years of research into Gillespie DNA from across the world, and more about blood markers that links families over the centuries.  DNA has proven a blood link of my Gillespie family to others in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the United States.