From Denver County to County Kerry: An American Adoptee Explores Her Irish Roots (Part I)
I first met Marsi in 2017 when at Lorna Moloney Clans & Surnames Conference in Nenagh. Lorna asked me if I could give any help to one of the groups who was exploring her probable Irish ancestry. As one of life’s coincidences, we had barely started our conversation when Marsi mentioned the name Pattwell which is a very unusual name in north Kerry and my great grandmother had been a Pattwell. I am not going to spoil her story as she is now going to tell it herself. It will be in two parts, the first part here started in 1987 and it deals with how Marsi researched her birth parents when she didn’t even know their names:
by guest blogger Marsi Buckmelter.
If the course of true love never did run smooth, then neither did genealogical research. No matter who you are or how much you think you know as you set down the bumpy course of Irish genealogy, at some point the road won’t rise to meet you. You’ll hit a brick wall (indeed, likely many of them) and you’ll be challenged to find your way over, under, through, or around it.
In this series of posts, I will share my brick-wall experiences as an American adoptee in search: first, in search of my biological parents and the circumstances of my birth, and next, in search of my ancestral connection to County Kerry. I hope my search techniques may be useful to anyone conducting Stateside genealogical research on either an adopted child or a birth parent with Irish roots, or who wants to familiarize themselves with obtaining birth records for American-born persons whether adopted or not.
I was born in late 1966 in Denver, Colorado, to an unmarried Catholic couple in their early 20s. An unwed Catholic mother raising a baby all on her lonesome in 1966 was no more a realistic option in America than it was in Ireland at the time, so off I went into the custody of Denver Catholic Charities, just a few days after I was born. I was placed with my adoptive family when I was one month old.
Adoption in 1960s America was a closed secret: no names were revealed, all records were sealed by court order, birth certificates were reissued with new names. Collectively, these legal actions erased the past as if it had never happened at all. If you think you run into brick walls when you know your parents’ names, imagine the ones you’ll hit if you don’t.
When I began my research in 1987 at age twenty-one, my first step was to request from Denver Catholic Charities the nonidentifying information about my birth parents they had on record. The afternoon that letter arrived, I had the uncanny experience of sitting on the porch of my house, dizzy as the blood sank from my head into my belly, while I read about my very own self for the first time in my life. After more than two decades of suspecting I’d hatched from an egg on account of growing up looking like no one I knew, at last, I knew that I had indeed been born—and born of two actual humans, a mother and a father, rather than a couple of chickens.
From this nonidentifying information, I learned about:
- The time and unusual place of my birth
- The lengths of my Swedish-Catholic birth mother’s pregnancy, labour, and delivery
- Her age, height, and weight; hair, eyes, and complexion colouring; nationality; and educational background
- My Irish-Catholic birth father’s age, height, and weight; hair, eyes, and complexion colouring; nationality; and educational background
- Social and medical information for my birth mother and her immediate family
- Social and medical information for my birth father and his immediate family
- The reason I was relinquished for adoption
Elated as I was to have these details, they gave me nothing to go on as a researcher. At this point, I turned to a methodology developed by Mary J. Rillera, author of The Adoption Searchbook: Techniques for Tracing People (1981). Figure 1 depicts the Check List I used as the primary organizing document that guided my research. Because adoption is a legal action, it leaves a significant paper trail to follow. Excluding the amended birth certificate (which is issued upon a child’s adoption and shows his or her new adoptive name and the names of the adoptive parents, and which many adoptees consequently view as a fraudulent document), any one of the court documents related to relinquishment and adoption is a source of identifying information—provided the court has not redacted the information before releasing it to you.
Using this Check List and filling in the blanks of the Search Pattern (Figure 2) and the Individual Data Sheets (Figure 3) for myself and each of my birth parents, I began whacking away at document requests, writing to the courts of both my relinquishment and adoption to request official copies of my original birth certificate, my relinquishment order, the adoption petition and decree. Time and time again, the courts sent me redacted copies that obscured my birth name and the names of my birth parents. Not to be deterred, each time I received a redacted document, I’d wait a few weeks and request it again, hoping that a different clerk of court would respond to my request and maybe I’d get lucky and accidentally be sent an unredacted copy.
Concurrent to making these recursive court requests, I was also pouring over details of the nonidentifying information from Denver Catholic Charities and corresponding with their social worker, digging for more details about the timeline (When was I discharged from the hospital? When was my birth mother?), my birth families (Did my birth father sign any papers? Did either birth parent attend parochial high school?), and the interpersonal components of these events (How long did my birth parents date? Did they tell their parents about me?). When you have nothing, anything could be something, so with these questions, I was looking for any small detail that could point my research in a new direction.
A mere ten months into my adoption search, what brought down the brick wall was a slip-up from the court that had finalized my adoption. The very thing I hoped would happen by re-petitioning the court for documents—that someone would inadvertently send me an unredacted document containing identifying information—is exactly what occurred.
So, once again after fetching the day’s mail, my head swam as I lowered myself onto the porch, holding unredacted copies of the Petition to Adopt, the Final Decree of Adoption, and the Final Order of Relinquishment. “You probably already have,” wrote the district judge, “all of the information provided by these documents,” as I laid eyes on my own birth name for the first time in my life.
The unredacted Final Order of Relinquishment revealed both my name at birth and my birth mother’s name. Her surname was uncommon, and her first name was so unusual it looked like a typo—or, in the parlance of a genealogist: a gift. The very next day, I was at the Denver Public Library paging through its Polk City Directories. In the pre-internet era, Polk’s was a brilliant search assistant. It was like a supercharged phone book that that listed a person’s name, street address, and place of employment during any given year. Thanks to my birth mother’s unusual name, I easily tracked her whereabouts in Denver from 1965 to 1976. From 1977 to the present (1988), she had dropped from sight.
This is the type of brick wall every genealogist will eventually confront: what happened to my person? Maybe my birth mother moved out of state. Perhaps she got married and took her husband’s surname. Maybe she even died. At least I knew her name and where she worked in 1976, and that was a lead to follow. I wrote to the Human Resources Department where she had worked in 1976 and, on the off-chance, they still knew her whereabouts, asked if they would forward my contact information to her. It seemed such a long shot that I literally forgot about it as soon as I dropped the letter in the mailbox.
You know I’m going to say she still worked there, right?
She still worked there. She was on the phone with me the minute Human Resources gave her my note: “Are you, my daughter?” My birth mother and I met two weeks later and experienced the great love-crush between mother and child, as well as the ups and downs, and joys and complications, that are a natural part of adoption reunions.
Following this reunion, the biggest blank left to fill in the research side was, of course, my birth father’s name. My birth mother’s lifelong best friend was my birth father’s first cousin. Though she never again communicated with my birth father after her ordeal, she still knew about his life—including his whereabouts, roughly— because of her friendship with his cousin. My research consisted of looking up my birth father in the phone book and sending him a note and a photo. We met a few days later, and one of the things I most remember about that day was him telling me how much I resembled his Irish-American mother, who had died in 1976 without ever knowing of my existence. For me to have lived my whole life up to that point looking like no one I knew, what a revelation to finally see myself in another person’s face.
Coming up in Part II of this series, my genealogical research picks up again after a thirty-year lapse, resuming this time in Ireland and brick walls ensue.
Marsi Buckmelter is a legal editor and writer living in Seattle. Her affinity for all things Hibernian takes her to Ireland about once a year.