Friday, June 17, 2011

Catherine Kelly and Catherine Kelly

The smartest way to get started in family research is the simplest: sit down with elder members of the family and ask them about the relatives they knew. I did that one day with Uncle Ed. By that time, he was in his eighties, but it was still highly evident that he was always a savvy businessman. He knew his stuff.

We began with the obvious starting point: name of his parents. He told me everything he could about William Stevens and his bride of 1912, Agnes Tully. He had kept handwritten notes from years prior so that he would be able to pass their story along. I wrote as fast as I could, not wanting to miss any notes that might turn out to be valuable hints later on.

Then to their parents’ lines. We started with the paternal: William’s dad was John Kelly Stevens of Fort Wayne, Indiana. His mother was Catherine Kelly from Ireland.

Ah, so soon we get the chance to leap the big puddle, I thought. And where in Ireland was she from? “Lakes of Killarney.”

That is the name of a region, not a town. Not even a county. But it would have to do for the time.

We moved on. Who was John Kelly Stevens’ father? “John Stevens.”

Oh. We now enter the dangerous water of name-afters. No wonder John Kelly Stevens was called John Kelly Stevens! I foresaw many duplicates of this pattern.

“And who was John Kelly Stevens’ mother?” I continued.

“But Catherine Kelly was John’s wife.”


“Then how can she be his mother?”

A confused look from the astute businessman. He didn’t know what to tell me. But that was what he had on his records.

Make that another note taken that might turn out to be a valuable hint later on....

It turns out that there are many Catherine Kellys out there in the genealogy world. As you can imagine, this decreases the certainty of any research find.

As has been so characteristic of me in my earlier work, I yearned to make a big find on one of the ships’ lists indexes, but searching for a Catherine Kelly from Ireland seemed impossible.

Once I found some census information on clusters of family names and possible dates of immigration, things got a bit clearer, but at that point, online resources were still quite slim.

I was fortunate, though, that my local library had the support of an active Genealogical Society, which translated into a sizeable selection of reference materials. It just so happened that one of the books was an index of ships’ lists.

There was a Catherine Kelly listed in that book. I scribbled down the note, took it home, but then sat on it. Something didn’t seem quite right. I couldn’t be sure that was my Catherine Kelly.

I moved on. Remembering those faithful virtual friends on the various internet forums I frequented, I posted a query about my doubts on the passenger list where I found Catherine. And waited for an answer.

Meanwhile, I pushed back one more generation, sending for documentation that would confirm John Kelly Stevens’ mother’s name. Usually, a death certificate will indicate a name, but considering the stressful circumstances surrounding the moment when an informant provides the information for the certificate, it is usually wise to cross-check with another document.

It was hard finding John Kelly Stevens’ father. I knew John had two brothers, James and William, but the probable father, John Stevens, in their hometown of Lafayette, Indiana, also had daughters. Besides, he was married to someone named Eliza. That didn’t match.

Sifting through documents, now made a bit easier with the library’s subscription to the then-nascent, I found a record stating John Kelly’s brother William Stevens’ mother was Catherine Kelly.

I kept looking and found other records to confirm: John Kelly Stevens not only had a wife named Catherine Kelly, his mother was named Catherine Kelly, too. “Kelly” in son John’s case was not a given name as is so often the case with middle names, but the passing on of a mother’s maiden name. That was customary in a certain time period and among the more prosperous segments of society, but not something I would have expected from poverty-stricken Irish fleeing a land of starvation. In retrospect, though, it made sense in explaining why John Kelly Stevens was always “John Kelly.

It took quite a few years to find the evidence, but in the end, Uncle Ed was right.

I would so have loved to tell Uncle Ed. And I would have loved to report to him my findings on where in Ireland his ancestors originated. But one fine summer day in 2005, he slipped away. I still haven’t found all the answers, of course, but when I do, I hope he’ll see what I found.

Or perhaps he already knows.


  1. =)

    Yes, perhaps he already knows, and has heard directly from the source(s) who is who and who did what when.

  2. Is the photo of John Kelly or Uncle Ed? I'm guessing Ed. In any case, a handsome man who has "the map of Ireland on his face," as they used to say in the Irish part of my family. Also, my mother's maiden name was passed down to me as my middle name, and it was probably an Irish name: Kirven.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...