One of the first pieces of advice that you get when you start doing genealogical research is this: if you want to take it seriously, you have to look at all the records and you have to look everywhere you can think of. Why? Here are three examples of what I thought were unusual places to find the information I was looking for.
Bernice Hurley's paternal grandparents were Michael Hurley and Anna Durkin. I hadn't found where they were from, but I was working my way through all nine of their children. One, Joseph Patrick, became the Catholic archbishop of St Augustine, Florida, and was a key figure in the US-Vatican relationship from the late 1930's into the 1950's. Wikipedia quoted from a biography of him which said his father's family was from County Mayo and his mother's from County Sligo. I didn't get any farther with the Hurleys, but I found enough of Anna's siblings to narrow them down to one of two townlands in Ireland. That was the first time Wikipedia helped me solve a genealogical problem.
Catherine Timony's case was similar, but this time it was a combination of local newspapers and a county history that saved the day.
I had found Catherine on all the censuses for San Rafael, California, with her parents Anthony and Mary, but was at a standstill regarding their counties of origin. Finally I just Googled "anthony timony san rafael". That turned up a newspaper obituary for a John D'Arcy Connolly, brother of Mary Timony. He turned out to have been the US Consul to New Zealand, and a county history said he was born "near the town of Clifden, County Galway."
So much for Mary Timony. What about Anthony? I went back to Google and found an obituary for Martin Jordan, a cousin of Anthony who had died in California only three weeks after arriving in the US. Backing up a few weeks, I found Martin's passenger manifest naming his birthplace and home town. I didn't find Anthony's exact townland, but narrowed it down to a small area. And if you go there someone will just know.
I knew my mother's uncle William Rodgers had been born in England. In fact I had known it since I first heard of him 60 or more years ago. But where? His father was a Fenian who had fled Ireland in 1867 and evidently kept a low profile, not showing up on the 1871 census for sure. But I kept plugging away and finally found a "Return of a Birth"1 for one of William's daughters in Cleveland, Ohio, where his parents had eventually settled. The slip said the baby's father William was born in Liverpool. Whether or not William's parents registered his birth with the civil authorities is a question for another day, but there are none in the third quarter of 1871 in Lancashire that match.
So, next time you are tempted to just work backward on your direct line of ancestors–and aren't finding much–remember to look at the siblings, siblings' children, cousins, neighbors, etc. And, above all, look everywhere.
^1. A return of a birth was the slip of paper the midwife or medical attendant filled out and handed in to the city or county. I've never seen a parent's place of birth on a county record that was more specific than just the state or foreign country. But I've found two returns of births that named either a county in Ireland or, in this case, a city in England.