Friday, May 25, 2012

Not the Right Thomas Flannigan

Sometimes, the research trail seems promising, but leads to the wrong conclusion. While that does seem frustrating, it helps to follow that mistaken path just long enough to construct a solid argument articulating the reasons for rejecting your former premise.

That’s exactly what we’ll do today.

You see, it seems tempting to claim as our own the subjects from a newspaper clipping such as the following:
Misses Agnes and Catherine Flannigan of Ishpeming, Mich., have arrived for a visit with their brother, T. A. Flannigan, general superintendent of the Republic Iron & Steel company.

The newspaper in which this remark was included was the Duluth Evening Herald. The plot thickens as we realize the connection both with another Flannigan family member—Catherine Flannigan Cook’s daughter, who married Duluth area mining engineer, William Crago—and another implied connection via Catherine’s sister Agatha, who eventually died in Duluth. Despite what seems like the incorrect detail of the location of Ishpeming, there seems to be enough to connect this Thomas Flannigan with the Thomas we are interested in, the brother of Catherine and Agatha Flannigan.

After all, wasn’t Agatha called Agnes in some records? And though the Flannigans lived in Marquette in the Upper Peninsula, Ishpeming was in the same county. Besides, the family moved there from Greenland, Michigan, and one brother moved yet again to settle in Norway, Michigan—all in the Upper Peninsula. It is quite conceivable that Thomas’ sisters could have moved, themselves, at a later date.

The thread of mining in this family’s heritage seems to tie this man to the family in yet another way. An excerpt from Thomas A. Flannigan’s biographical sketch in a local publication solidifies the link:
Thomas A. Flannigan, general superintendent of the Republic Iron and Steel Company, is one of the best-known men in his calling in northern Minnesota, and a commanding figure at Gilbert. He was born at Ishpeming, Michigan, April 19, 1881, a son of Thomas A. and Johanna (Fogarty) Flannigan.
Though that report confirms the mining link, it discards the possibility that this Thomas is brother to our Catherine and Agnes (also known as Agatha). The 1881 birth year places him in the wrong generation. However, there is still the possibility that this could be a nephew of Catherine and Agnes, and his father their brother.

The biography continues:
The elder Thomas A. Flannigan was born in Ireland in 1831, but came to the United States when he was eighteen years of age, and immediately became identified with mining operations.
At this point, we need to go back to documents from earlier years to confirm this scenario. Looking at the 1860 census, we begin to see problems. In the household of our Thomas’ father, James Flannigan, the census record shows that Thomas is indeed born in Ireland, and he does list his occupation as being involved with mining. However, at age 19, his year of birth is closer to 1841 than 1831.

Birth dates seem to be rather fluid during that time period, however, so checking another source would be helpful. Looking to the 1870 census, though, Thomas is not showing in his parents’ household. Nor, for that matter, does he show in the 1873 city directory for the town in which his family now resides.

We don’t find our Thomas again in the Flannigan household until the 1880 census, after his mother, Ellen, has died. There—true to form with that era’s morphing dates of birth—his age given would put him as born even later, in 1844.

The 1880 census also shows a shift in occupation from mining to a related field: railroads. He is now listed as a locomotive engineer.

Perhaps that designation helps explain why he seems to have disappeared from subsequent public records. With a job in the railroad industry, he could transfer to any of several possible cities involved in the company’s routes. Finding him—especially given the multiple variables in spelling that surname—would now be difficult. He could very well have moved to Duluth. Or elsewhere.

Just in case, though, I checked the two online sources I use for Michigan death records when both and fail me. But neither Michigan’s Genealogical Death Indexing System, which provides transcriptions from 1867 to 1897, nor Seeking Michigan, which is my source for digitized copies of death certificates in that state for 1897 to 1920, showed any material for a possible Thomas Flannigan. Anywhere. In any spelling variant. If the Thomas who showed up in James Flannigan’s household for the 1880 census died in Michigan, it would need to have been after 1920.

So what about that 1880 census record? While it shows both Thomas and, tantalizingly, his sisters Catherine and Agnes, could there be another Thomas Flannigan in Marquette county records for that census year?

You know I wouldn’t ask that question if I didn’t already know the answer, don’t you?

And yes, here it is: the 1880 census record for a Thomas Flannigan, living in the Marquette County town of Ishpeming. He is listed, along with his wife Johanna and their children—though, of course, not including the younger Thomas, who did not make his appearance until his birthday in 1881. And though we have to wait until the 1900 census to see this confirmation, this Thomas also boasts siblings by the names of Catherine and Agnes, providing the very snare that caused us to stumble in the first place.

But just to make sure—in case this hasn’t provided enough ammo to shoot any false theories out of the water here—let’s find another way to demonstrate that the Thomas who is father of the Duluth mining superintendent could not possibly be one and the same as the Thomas of the Flannigan family we are pursuing.

Fortunately, one of those handy Michigan websites has provided us with a copy of Johanna’s husband’s death certificate. There, if his father’s name were James, I’d seriously doubt myself. And, considering how little variation these Irish immigrants allow in their naming habits, there is a good chance that I could be snared all over again.

That is not the case, though, for the Duluth Thomas’s father’s death certificate shows the man with the earlier birth date had a father named—and here we go, once again!—Thomas Flannigan. And the mother’s name was Mary Ryan. A far cry from our Thomas’ parents, James and Ellen Sullivan Flannigan.

All this to say that, if you happen to have posted an online family tree mixing up your Thomases just as I was tempted to do, you now have your cue to revisit the research trail and rectify the matter.

For it was not our Thomas at all—nor his son—who made the move from the one mining region in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the nearby mining operations of that small city of Duluth.

And, oh…if you’re still not sure, I have one more fact in my back pocket. Remember that newspaper article that mentioned the sisters visiting Thomas in Duluth? I neglected to mention that the date of the newspaper edition was April 1, 1916. By then, not only was our Thomas’ sister Catherine no longer single, she was no longer alive.

Photograph: Thomas A. Flannigan of Duluth, Minnesota; from Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota: their story and people. Chicago: American Historical Society, 1921. Photograph in the public domain.


  1. Great research! I feel like you were talking right at ME! HAHA! I am going right now to modify my tree on Ancestry. You are very astute!

    1. Not really, Connie, but I'm glad to have motivated you to make some revisions :)

      There are actually a number of family trees I've found online that replicate this sequence with the wrong Thomas Flannigan. I'm hoping that, if this is convincing enough for them, they will make the changes so others don't pass along misinformation. The Internet takes on a life of its own, which we always need to keep in mind whenever we post online.

  2. Great research..corrections can always be made in the family record to keep it correct for future generations:)

  3. Felt pretty scolded too... to buckle down and be more careful.


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