Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Difficulties of Being John and Mary

Irish immigrants James and Ellen Sullivan Flannigan arrived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan accompanied by at least four sons. To this were added several more, so that eventually they would note that they were proud parents of ten sons and three daughters. For the most part, as we’ve already noted, those young men passed away at a young age. Of the older sons—the ones hailing from Ireland—John is one for whom we are, fortunately, able to find records.

Although we might have to adjust that note: there are just a few more records than can be considered helpful, in this case.

John, listed with the family in the 1860 census, was born in Ireland around 1844. He is not listed with the family in the 1870 census. By that time, he would have been twenty six, and most likely on his own; perhaps he preceded the family in their move from the old homestead in Ontonagon County to the new residence in nearby Marquette. There was, after all, a listing—well, make that two—for a John “Flanigan” in the 1873 city directory there.

By 1871, the Return of Marriages in the County of Marquette has a line entry of interest. John Flannigan takes Ireland-born Mary Bolan as his wife, united in marriage by Father Eis on November 11 of that year. John’s sister Catherine signs as one of the witnesses.

As is usually the case in those times, it is not surprising to discover that, by 1872, John and Mary are new parents. This, however, is where tracking those historical documents gets tricky. In the Return of Births in the County of Marquette, there is an entry for the birth of Patrick, son of John and Mary “Flanagan” on June 9.

It would have been so helpful if the record had entered the mother’s maiden name, but it didn’t. Both John and Mary are listed as “Flanagan.” The only facts going in our favor are the location of the birth—Marquette, where the young couple had settled—and the notation, again, that both the parents were born in Ireland. The father’s occupation was listed as “engine driver,” which does seem to match the upcoming 1880 census entry as “engineer.”

Despite the faint glimmer of hope these hints seem to encourage, there is another wrinkle in this record. The index was actually not officially recorded until July 25 of the following year! How’s that for reliability?!

But that’s not all. On page 223 of the Return of Births in the County of Marquette—yes, that would be three pages past the preceding entry we’ve already discussed—the county diligently records the birth of Patrick Flanagan on June 26, 1872, to Irish immigrants John and Mary Flanagan of Marquette. Duly noted—in like remarkable speed—on July 25 of 1873. Pity the lack of maiden name once again. It’s those pesky details that seem so unnecessary until they are missing.

As if that weren’t enough to frustrate, in the middle of that same month of birth—er, births—comes another puzzling date: the death of infant Patrick. Once again, the surname is spelled “Flanagan.” The birthplace is Marquette. The parents are noted as the near-anonymous John and Mary. The age given for the child was “0” years. The date itself, June 18, nicely inserts itself between the dates of birth for the “two” Patricks.

What of this? Could it be that tiny Marquette was home to two "Flanagan" couples? After all, there were two “John Flanigan” entries in the 1873 city directory.  Were there twin sets of couples known in Marquette as Mr. and Mrs. John Flannigan? Did each mother—coincidentally both called Mary—have a son born in June of the same year? Did they both choose the name Patrick to bestow on those duplicate identities?

If that is so, how do we go about ascertaining who had the Patrick who lived? With cemetery records for that time period—actually from the “old” cemetery of which remains were, sometime in the early 1900s, removed to the nearby Holy Cross Cemetery—not accessible at this point, how do we find the answer to our question? The Catholic diocese in the Upper Peninsula during those years was still a mission-outpost type of operation. It would be a challenge to find and examine records from that time period.

The only link to a possible answer is the entry on the 1880 census. For this John and Mary, there is no mention of a son Patrick by the time of that record. And with that decade-long blink of an eye, the whole agony of having—and then losing—one’s firstborn son is erased as if it never had happened.

Or did it?

Perhaps that belongs to the story of another John and Mary.

Photograph: Saint Peter Cathedral of Marquette, Michigan, completed in 1890. Photograph by  Bobak Ha'Eri licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported and 2.5 Generic licenses via Wikipedia.


  1. In my family, there are several cases where infants that died, had their names recycled and bestowed on a later baby. Makes for a bit of teeth grinding, as one has to be careful with their birthdates.

    It would have been nice if this family had a last name that was spelling proof! Like Flint.

  2. We have another clue about John's children. The 1900 census states Mary as having 7 children and 5 living children. So two would have died. Also Patrick was born around 8 months after the marriage so he would have been born premature. Must have been sad for them to lose their first child...their son.

  3. It was a kind sentiment of John and Mary to name their first son Patrick...after John's brother!


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