Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Wife and Helpmeet

Despite my bitter complaints, a while back, about the difficulty of researching women in family history, the case becomes quite different when I get to Johanna, wife of John Kelly. If it wasn’t for what I was able to find on Johanna, I wouldn’t know much about John at all.

There are a few reasons for such topsy-turvy research results. First, in researching family history, the more recent the ancestor’s death, the more likely information can be found. Those who died after the turn of the last century—particularly those passing after about 1909—had their personal records preserved under much more scrutiny than those who gave up the ghost in earlier times.

Then, too, customs changed over the years. Even such aspects as what was considered proper to include in newspaper reports and obituaries changed with the times. Whereas a widow in an 1892 obituary might simply be referred to as “the wife,” by the early 1900s, that “wife” had found a name—and she wasn’t afraid to use it.

Even the decennial census report reflected those incremental changes. Consider how the 1880 census was an improvement over that of 1870 by inclusion of the simple notation of relationships within a household. The 1900 census gave even more wiggle room for attention to women, counting the number of living children remaining of all to whom they’d given birth.

If it weren’t for these few items, I might not have learned much about Johanna, either. But I’m grateful for what I can find. Just this bit of a research edge gave me enough clues to discover more about not only Johanna, but her husband and Irish-born children, too.

When I first began researching Johanna, it was years ago—not quite those prehistoric, wood-burning years of genealogical research, but close. It was definitely during the pre-Web 2.0 era. Thanks to a trip to Fort Wayne, I had been able to pull up some newspaper microfilms at the Genealogy Center and locate Johanna’s obituary from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette—undated, of course, because I wasn’t savvy about noting such details at that point.

Back home from that early research journey, I began testing the waters of online forums as they became available. I ran into a helpful volunteer on an Allen County genealogy forum, who informed me of local resources I knew nothing about—like a file of county death certificates, complete with all those little details no one but genealogists could appreciate. It was from this helpful yet anonymous kind soul that I first gleaned Johanna’s maiden name: Falvey.

Armed with this knowledge, in my presumptuous way, I thought, “Hey, Johanna’s a somewhat unusual name, and I certainly haven’t ever heard of a surname like Falvey, so why not jump the pond and see what I can see in the Emerald Isle?” While this sort of thinking is premature, I can hardly say it is ill-advised. It does no harm, other than to pleasantly waste one’s time. As you can tell from one of my recent forays, I yield to such temptations even now.

Bottom line, though, is the realization, once again, that slow and steady is the best approach for genealogy work. In the meantime, I did learn a few details:
  • While “Johanna” may seem an unusual name in the United States, it is not rare in Ireland
  • While relatively uncommon outside Ireland, within the homeland’s history, Falvey passed down through the years from regional chiefs and even later “retained a leading status” on the Dingle peninsula.

What? Did that mean I was researching yet another surname as common as Smith in its native habitat? Surely, Falvey wasn’t an Irish counterpart as widespread as Kelly, was it?

Taking a look at a number of resources to help trace distribution of surnames, it did appear that Falvey was prevalent, if no place else, in County Kerry and County Cork. (Of course, it was also widespread—everywhere from France and Spain in western Europe to North America to Australia and New Zealand.)

Such an experiment as that, though, pre-dated the wonderland of online international records now available. I’m still plodding through, properly doing my due diligence in connecting line upon line of documentation.

Some of those documents, though, substantiated my ooh-shiny leap of faith in those previous, over-zealous years of wanting to cut straight to the chase. Not only that, but these discoveries—especially as they provided a counterpoint to my difficulties in trying to pin down any details on John Kelly’s past—gifted me with a new realization that at least this one wife was helpmeet to her husband in one different, unexpected but much appreciated way: Johanna helped me find more about her husband’s roots.

One of the first items to prove I’d struck bedrock upon which to build my case was Johanna’s obituary. We’ll take a look at that tomorrow.


  1. Yay! Perhaps this road will be easier:)

  2. Speaking of Irish names, my aunt says she "heard" that my great-grandmother's mother was named "Nora." When I started looking for Nora Sheehan, I ran up against "Honora" quite a bit and now have to consider that Nora was perhaps a nickname.

    1. It may well have been a nickname--or an Americanized version of her given name. Then again, sometimes what our relatives "heard" turns out to be incorrect. But in the meantime, you just have to consider the possibility of it being true. times two!

  3. Looks like we will be a'learnin' something about the Irish - how their government lines work - and their history. The history of Ireland goes way back - I was surprised at just how far back it goes!!!

    But hopefully I will learn something from you - or something will rub off - that helps me look for my paternal grandma's family. :)

    1. We'll all have something to learn in this journey, Iggy--and those who have the answers will hopefully chime in and add their recommendations and comments.

      Online Irish document resources have yet to come into their own for genealogical research, but thankfully, much is being added all the time. The difficulty is that there seems to be a window of time--say, from the point of the mass emigration during the years of the Great Famine until those hard-won government changes in the early 1900s--in which the gap in documentation exacerbates many Irish-Americans' research challenges. Our Kelly, as well as Stevens, Tully, and other Irish ancestors' lines fall into that gap, but I'm learning--slowly--that there are work-arounds for even those problems.

      With you seeking your paternal grandmother's family in Ireland, and I with these several Irish lines, I'm sure we'll find ourselves in good company here as we proceed with The Search in Ireland.

    2. Only 'bout 150 more days til Saint Paddy's Day... and we can be wearin' the green and (hopefully) gettin' kissed.



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