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Minnie Sprague Mitchell

Frank and Minnie Mitchell on their 25th Anniversary in 1939.

   I went to add an ornament to the Advent Calendar this morning and realized it was my grandmother's birthday.  Minnie was my father's mother, who, when discussing her Irish heritage, adamantly stated she was from the North!  Of course she came to the United States many years before Ireland was split.   I was very close to my grandmother and spent most weekends with her.  On Saturday nights she would tuck me into bed, bring me tea and often tell me stories about her childhood in Ireland.  I also remember her telling me that her name was Rachel Harriet May Isabell Sprague Mitchell (but she had always been called Minnie).  Unfortunately I didn't become interested in genealogy until a few years after she died, and I only remember bits and pieces of the stories she told.  By her own admission, she was frequently in trouble.  I remember one story about a boy pulling at her braids in school, so she lay in wait for him on the way home and gave him a black eye!  I sometimes think that's where by middle daughter got her spunk...I got called to school one day after she gave a boy a bloody nose for saying her goal didn't count because she was a girl. 

   When I began to research my grandmother, I quickly discovered she was not a reliable source of information.  As I collected documents I found multiple birth dates as well as locations of her birth.   On my grandfather's naturalization she claimed to be born in Aberdeen, Scotland on 12 August and made the same claim on her marriage license.  It was her Voter Registration Card that gave her correct birthplace as Ballyshannon, Ireland on 12 December 1892.  I have her birth record to confirm this location and it gives her name as Rachel Hewston Sprague (not sure where all the other names came from). As an added point of fact, Ballyshannon is in Donegal, part of the Republic of Ireland.  I point this out to emphasize the importance of doing an "exhaustive search" for records and not stopping at the first record you find.  As I often say in lectures, one thing I can guarantee (like death and taxes) is that you will find conflicting information when researching your Irish ancestors.  Had I stopped at the first record (my grandfather's naturalization) I would have been searching for my grandmother's birth certificate in the wrong location. Had this been a common name I might easily have ended up researching the wrong family.  

   My grandmother was the oldest child of James Hay Sprague and Rachel Mackey.  James was born in Midlothian, Leith, Scotland (not even Aberdeen) and was a stone mason.  He died in 1899 at the age of 36 in Dundalk, Louth where he was working on St. Nicholas (Anglican) church leaving his wife and five children, his youngest less than 3 months old.   My great grandmother married in 1903 Robert Spooner and their emigration story began in 1905 when Robert left Ireland with his brother-in-law Thomas Mackey and settled in Greenwich, Connecticut where another brother-in-law, Robert Mackey was already established.  Rachel and her youngest child, Thomas emigrated later in 1905 joining her husband in Greenwich.  My grandmother and the other children remained in Ireland living with their grandparents in Kinlough in County Leitrim.  I was surprised when I discovered this as I don't remember my grandmother every mentioning it.  Minnie, her sister Flory and brother Willie finally joined their mother in 1909 traveling with their Aunt, Sadie Mackey.  The other brother, George appeared living with his grandmother in the 1911 census in Ireland and emigrated later that year, appearing to travel by himself.  His age is listed as 11, but he was actually 15.  Another point to remember is that most of the records we search during this time period have self-reported information so discrepancies such as in ages are common.  Was it less expensive for him to travel as an 11 year old?  This is a good example of chain migration practiced by the Irish.  If you're trying to find that all important piece of information (location in Ireland), try to find those members of the family who emigrated later when more information was available on the manifests and in naturalization records.

   Minnie worked as a domestic, taking care of children in the Belle Haven area of Greenwich, met and married a chauffeur for another family in the area, Frank J. Mitchell and had two sons, my uncle Frank Sprague Mitchell and my father, Thomas John Mitchell.  My grandfather died in 1942 at the age of 56 before my parents were married.  When I started my research and began asking about my grandfather I was told that he was Austrian and his name was changed at Ellis Island.  On his death certificate (informant being Minnie) I learned he was born in Vienna, another fabrication.  The 1920 census told me he was Polish and the 1930 census identified him as Czech.  Because of the border changes in Europe he was born in the Austria-Hungarian empire, but in the Galicia area (not even close to Vienna).  The town where he was born was Liski, now in the Ukraine.  Although my grandmother claimed not to know his original name, when I finally found the change of name petition, she had signed it as Minnie Mylytczuk.


   Minnie died in 1985 in Ft. Myers, Florida at the age of 92.  My father and his brother had both moved to Florida in the 1970's and had moved my grandmother into a nursing home there.  Her health had been fairly good, although she had developed dementia in her late 80's.  Even though I saw her only a few times a year she always recognized me.  

   Although I didn't begin my genealogy until the early 1990's my grandmother probably influenced my interest early on.  Happy Birthday, Nanny.


I will be researching in Salt Lake City from January 25 - February 1st.  If you would like to commission research please let me know.

© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2013