The advent of “Story” in the world of genealogy has been particularly touted on the conference scene this year as every event from RootsTech last March through—undoubtedly—the upcoming Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference in August has included speakers urging the inclusion of more than just the dry recital of “BMD.”
While birth, marriage and death dates are certainly pertinent facts to employ when we are reporting on our ancestors, “Story” is hardly a radical departure from what’s been going on around here at A Family Tapestry for well over that same time period.
I promised to introduce the next character in our cast of players in the Stevens story, today. We’ll begin discussing Will Stevens’ father, John Kelly Stevens.
However, unlike the series on Will’s son, Frank—where we had a thick stack of letters to rely upon to gain a better picture of what the man was really like—we are now venturing into territory from which precious few artifacts emerged.
Without letters home, without journals, without even photographs, how can we gain a sense of who such an ancestor was?
For those ancestors who were fortunate to live in a town small enough to include a newspaper which was not above reporting, say, what was served at the Smiths’ Sunday dinner, we are still able to glean a few details about our ancestors’ lives.
If we were about to examine my own paternal grandparents’ lines, however, we would be out of luck, as they swam invisibly in a sea of people in the major metropolitan area of New York City. The names of people such as those would not be showing up in The New York Times (thought they might make the Daily News).
If, on the other hand, we wanted to pursue the details of, say, my husband’s distant Ryan cousins as they set up housekeeping in the Dakota Territory in the early 1880s, we would still be disappointed, as the region at that time had no communities large enough to even support the formation of a newspaper.
I’m sure you are beginning to spot a trend here: finding any details on the lives of our ancestors may require gleaning reports from newspapers. In order to successfully do that, though, it requires residence in a place that is not too big and not too small.
It has to be a place that is just right.
Thankfully, Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the late 1880s through the early 1920s was that kind of place: it was just right.
While John Kelly Stevens was born elsewhere—the small town of Lafayette in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, to be precise—he spent his adult life in Fort Wayne, a town of not one, not two, but three competing newspapers. And though John Kelly was not famous by any stretch of the imagination, nor even “important” by virtue of any role of prominent businessman or politician, he certainly had more than his fair share of mentions within the pages of these three publications.
Serving for many of those years as a patrolman for the city’s police force, John Kelly saw his name appearing often in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. If his name wasn’t in print there, the Fort Wayne Sentinel or the Daily News was sure to pick up the report.
Considering that John Kelly Stevens was born on May 15 of 1856, the journalistic narrative didn’t catch up with him until he was at least forty years of age. He made the switch from private person to public figure upon his appointment to the police force. From that time on, every interesting caper from the center of town to the edge of city limits seemed to include his name in print.
With the resources now available to discover these stories online, I’ve been able to piece together a timeline of John Kelly’s work day from the week of his appointment to the eve of his retirement, twenty six years later.
Of course, you know how I feel about newspaper reports: there’s an edgy, tentative truce between us. I crave the information but deplore the reporting errors. This new journey in discovering John Kelly Stevens will be no different. You’ll see those occasional mistakes as we make our way through his timeline. Thankfully, collateral documentation will help us tiptoe our way through these factual landmines.
Yet, I have to keep in mind, that, if it weren’t for the goldmines of these historical journals, there would be precious little I’d otherwise find on this ancestor. I’d be reduced to relying on that stripped-down model BMD: the un-compelling saga of John Kelly Stevens’ birth, marriage and death.
Instead, I can chuckle over the escapades he endured, all in a day’s work, and savor the outrageous sense of humor that oozed from him, almost as if it were imprinted in his very genes—for in a way, there is a vaguely reminiscent aura about this man.
All told, despite the occasional journalistic errors, I have to remind myself to maintain a sense of gratitude for such a resource—and for the fact that John Kelly Stevens chose to live in a town that was not too big, not too small, but just right.