Posted by Ancestry Team on May 1, 2016 in Who Do You Think You Are?

As genealogists we focus on identifying our family amid the mass of humanity surrounding them. At times having a Chris Nothnarrow focus serves us well. For instance, it was extremely important when searching for Chris’s ancestor John McGuire to find the correct John McGuire in British military and local Irish records (rest assured, there are a lot of John McGuires in Ireland). However, it is also important to take a step back to gain a broader perspective of the world surrounding our ancestors. The history of the time and place they lived in often helps answer the “whys” that we encounter in our family research.

This was the case as Chris Noth tried to determine why his ancestor Charles McGuire was the head of household in the 1880 census, with his two minor siblings in his household. What happened to his parents who appeared with them just 10 years earlier? After scouring death records, newspapers, city directories, personal accounts of the Great Chicago Fire, and Catholic Church records for the entire extended family, we finally had to acknowledge that we may never know exactly what happened to Dennis McGuire or why Ann did not live with her children.

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However, by comparing details from these records with maps of Chicago we were able to confirm that the McGuires did live in an area that was utterly decimated by the fire. Although we have no known personal accounts written by the McGuire family, the archives and libraries in Chicago hold a myriad of maps, pictures, and personal accounts of the fire and the experiences of those who lived in its aftermath. We made extensive use of the archivists, librarians, and historians in the area to better understand the experience of the McGuire family. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and talk with the local archivists, librarians, and historians. They are experts in the local holdings and can help you discover the historical background you’re looking for.

Even when you feel flush with records, a broader historical perspective will provide insight that you cannot glean from the records of your family alone. If your ancestor was a member of the British military, like John McGuire, be prepared for a wealth of information. There are pay lists, muster rolls, enrollment records, pension records, and medal award rolls―to name just a few. In the case of John McGuire, the paper trail for his military service is quite long (95 documents and counting). Each of these documents provides a piece of the story, but it is only as these records are included in the context of history that his story comes to life. 

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Tips from AncestryProGenealogists

  • Although city directories are not as detailed as census records, since they were published every year, they can provide information about a person’s location and occupation from year to year. It was common for residents of large cities to move frequently, so don’t be surprised if you see your ancestor move to a different address every couple of years. If you are having a difficult time finding your ancestor in the city directories using the search feature, try browsing through the city directory for the particular city and year of interest.
  • Military records frequently lack the details that help us identify our ancestors, such as birth date, birthplace, and names of relatives. If you find yourself struggling to identify your ancestor in military records, look for mention of his military service in records created later in life when he can be located with his family. Pensions, obituaries, tombstones, and other burial records are a great place to learn details about the regiment in which a veteran served.
  • Tracing your ancestors back to a specific location in Ireland can be a challenge. Don’t give up! Look at all records that you can find for your ancestor, their family, and all of their close associates. Here a few places that you should look: church records, obituaries (including Irish ethnic newspapers), burial records and tombstones, censuses, naturalization records, and Irish organizations.



Learn more about Chris’s journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 9|8c on TLC.



  1. Loved watching the show tonight! My brother did our genealogy several years ago and we also have a John McGuire from Ireland in the military. I am sure there are a lot of John MCGUIRES from Ireland but it was interesting for me. I love finding out more about our ancestors. Love the show! Thank you!

  2. Kamantha

    I somewhat enjoyed the episode, but I’m confused. Chris was in search of his fathers family. True, his fathers mother is his fathers family. But why didn’t he search his fathers line, the Noth side?

  3. Heather Kennedy

    I’m certain that the Census Record had the name DONNIE McGuire, not Dennis. This may be the reason why no other records were found.

  4. Maureen West

    As a Maguire descendant from Cavan this episode was of particular interest to me, and had me hooked until the visit to Knockbride cemetery. On John McGuire’s military record his place of birth is stated as the patristics of Kilbride (south of Cavan, near Co Meath) but the cemetery was in Knockbride (west of Cavan, near Co Monaghan). Did I miss something? What paper trail led the program makers to Knockbride?

  5. Jane

    I’m also searching for a ‘common name’ (John F Coyle) of NY & NJ, so I appreciate some of the ‘specifics’ mentioned in above article. I would like to see ANCESTRY ‘walk members through, step-by-step’ of someone not famous but who has a ‘common name’. That would be great (especially if in NYC of mid-1880s or later in NJ….doesn’t hurt to ask, right? 🙂 Thank you for your programs & guidance!!!

  6. I am trying todo family research on ancestry on my iPad and each time I go into I have to fill the blanks into your service and if I stop for a couple hour you have me to redo the same thing over and over and I have not obtain any new information.

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