I did not pull the lucky ring on this genealogy merry go round ride. Researching someone with a name as common as John Kelly will not be easy.
But you know I’m up to it. At least this time, I’ve found clues.
Since John Kelly was an immigrant to Fort Wayne, Indiana, discovering his origins will likely mean connecting with his family from the previous generation. Sometimes, this ride brings me so close to that goal, I think I can almost reach out and touch it.
Pinpointing the Kelly family’s arrival in Fort Wayne isn’t too hard. All it takes is a good look at a census record to spot the brief window of time in which the cross-Atlantic journey could be made.
Take the 1880 census, for instance. John, figuring as head of household, declared his age to be sixty six, which gives us a tentative birth year of 1814. His wife Johanna, quite a bit younger at fifty, was likely born in 1830. The listing of children, given with the location of their birth, provides us the tool with which to pinpoint the family's arrival in the United States. Oldest—and the one we’ve already met—was their son, Timothy. He, along with his two sisters Catherine and Mary, was born in Ireland. Arrival of the youngest of those Irish natives was in March of 1867.
The first of John and Johanna’s children to be born in the United States was their son, Patrick, who joined the family in July, 1869. That date draws the final line for the family’s possible arrival times in Fort Wayne.
That leaves us with a range of travel times no sooner than March, 1867, and no later than July, 1869, for the family to leave their homeland and arrive in one of the many American harbors. Given the challenges of cross-Atlantic travel at that time, for Johanna’s sake, one would hope that range was even a bit narrower.
With emigration dates in that range, the Kelly family’s arrival certainly pre-dates use of Ellis Island—but it does fall nicely within the time period in which Castle Garden functioned as America’s first immigration station. If, that is, John Kelly and his family traveled from Ireland to New York City.
If, however, John Kelly chose a route similar to that of one of our other Irish immigrant families—John Stevens, who journeyed to Lafayette, on the other side of the state from Fort Wayne—he and his family might have sailed for New Orleans and then up the Mississippi.
Or, the family could have followed the steps of another one of our Irish ancestors and, instead of heading to America, gone north to Canada, and through the Great Lakes, made their way to the Midwest via such cities as Detroit or Chicago.
So, you see, trying to track someone by such a name as John Kelly could be a real challenge here, with multiple choices for travel routes. It certainly would be nice to have a little help with this one.
With something as simple as the insertion of an initial—“T,” in this case—it wouldn’t seem to make much of a difference. At this point, though, I’ll take anything. Remember, I’ve been around this block before and come back empty-handed.
It took jumping to the end of John’s story to find that simple middle initial. In the quaint manner of nineteenth century obituaries—many words, few facts—I found that little detail. Here’s how The Fort Wayne Sentinel put it, wrapping up the week for death notices on February 27, 1892:
ABSENT, BUT NOT FORGOTTENHomes Where Sorrow Dwells and in Which There is the Vacant Chair.The following are the deaths reported by the city undertakers for the week ending February 27th:...Jno. T. Kelly, 84 years, old age.
That little initial had enough staying power to be included in his obituary, too—assuring me that it wasn’t just a matter of editorial inattention. Under the headline, “John T. Kelly, a Pioneer, Called From Earth,” the text once again specified this particular John Kelly:
John T. Kelly died from the effects of old age at his residence 81 Hoagland avenue, last evening. The deceased was eighty-four years old and for many years was an employe in the Pennsylvania shops. He leaves a wife and family of grown children. The funeral will occur Sunday.
And, following that February 27 obituary, the next day a brief funeral notice made sure to carry that same little detail:
The funeral of John T. Kelly, of 81 Hoagland avenue, will be held this afternoon at 1:30 from St. Patrick's church.
Think this man wanted to make sure he wasn’t confused with any other John Kelly?
Of course, that probably wasn’t the reason that “T” trailed him throughout his years in Fort Wayne. But I’m certainly glad he saw to it that it was attached to what, otherwise, might have been the kind of name that could have gotten him lost in the crowd.