Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Where’s William?

While I am not entirely sure I’ve located the correct information on the Catherine Kelly who married my husband’s great-great grandfather, John Stevens, it has been possible to obtain some evidence about this particular Catherine Kelly. That, however, has only become possible, owing to records regarding her third-born and—ominously—final son, William H. Stevens.

I had already known that Catherine died young—best I can tell, in 1858—and that her untimely death was likely owing to complications following the birth of her third son, William. Perhaps as a result of the circumstances surrounding his arrival, William’s own date of birth had not been captured by any documents—at least not any that I can find.

That introduces a corollary difficulty in extrapolating the date of Catherine’s death, for depending on which document I rely upon to determine her baby’s date of birth, the year of her passing fluctuates somewhat. For instance, the 1900 census gives March, 1860, as the date William was born. The 1910 census advances his age, appropriately, ten years—providing a sense of confidence in this 1860 revelation.

Yet, to confirm this report, I am at a loss to find William in the 1880 census. He is not in his father’s household. The senior John Stevens had remarried soon after the loss of his first wife, and now had three daughters to raise.

Nor was William in his oldest brother’s home in that 1880 census. His brother James had married Ella Nash and was situated comfortably near the household of his in-laws—but with no sign of William anywhere on that census page. Their other brother—John Kelly Stevens, whom we’ve discussed in detail in the past—was also married and living across the state in Fort Wayne, with no sign of his brother William there.

That, incidentally, was the case even for the 1870 census. Though James and John were in the listing for the “Stephens” family’s household, along with their half-sisters—Sarah, Mary and Elizabeth—there was no sign of William. Ditto 1860, though William would have been an infant or very young child at that point—unless he was yet to be born.

On the other hand, a look at William’s June 8, 1939, obituary in the Lafayette, Indiana, Journal Courier, indicated the possibility of a year of birth a little earlier than 1860:
William Stevens, 81, lifelong resident of Tippecanoe County, died at 1 p.m. today at the County Farm where he had lived since 1935. Mr. Stevens had worked for many years as an employee of the Lafayette Street Railway Company. Surviving are the wife, and four children: Elmer, New York; Miss Ruth Stevens, New York; Mrs. Jesse Wood, Shoals; and Mrs. Delmar Bellinger, Ft. Huron, Michigan.

The implied year of birth as 1858, gained from this obituary detail, would conveniently match the supposed year of death of his mother, Catherine Kelly Stevens. But, given the absence of this child from his father’s census records, could it be possible that William wasn’t really Catherine’s son, and that she had died from other causes?

While indexed material is not as reliable as the documentation from which it is drawn, we do have three reports linking William to Catherine—but only vaguely.

One, a marriage index labeled Indiana Select Marriages, 1780-1992, provides the basic information on the June 29, 1892, marriage of William H. Stevens to Alice Munger in Tippecanoe County. Remember that bride’s name, Alice Munger, as we move through the various available indices to explore the evolution of transcription reporting.

The next entry I found was also extracted from the source cited above. A separate entry under the name “Wm. H. Stevens,” it included that same birth year of 1860, as well as the names of William’s father and mother. Seeing John Stevens given for the father’s name is predicable. The mother’s surname, however, was supplied as Riley—a discrepancy over which I’m not too concerned, seeing her first name was listed as “Catherne.” Perhaps that “R” was actually a “K” and the “i” really an “e.” I don’t get too concerned over this when I look ahead and realize that even the bride’s name wasn’t immune from clerical errors: Alice’s maiden name was provided as a choice between “Myer” or “Muryer.” Not at all the surname Munger which it was supposed to be. Perhaps the handwriting was so abysmal as to stump the transcriber.

Another source, Indiana Marriage Collection, 1800-1941, provided “about 1860” as the estimate for William’s birth year, and transcribed his mother’s name as Catherine “Rilly”—a version from which the name “Kelly” could easily be extrapolated. In this case, again, William’s father’s name was cited as John.

Could the Catherine in the various transcriptions of William’s marriage record actually have represented a mis-read entry of the surname Kelly? With each of these instances being index formats only, with no provision allowing a glimpse at the handwriting in the original document, it is hard to tell. It seems reasonable to conclude that it was.

The question remains, though, about William: was he really the son of our John and Catherine Kelly Stevens? Why was he never in his father John’s household in any census records?

To settle the relationship question about William, two obituaries come into play. One, that of his brother John Kelly Stevens, which included in its 1929 listing of survivors, “one brother, William Stevens, of Lafayette.” The other, the 1926 obituary of his half-sister, Mary Stevens Mackessy, mentioned “another brother, William Stevens, of this city.”

Death record of brother of William Stevens with verification of names of their parents
With the first of these obituaries providing some confidence that William was related to a man for whom we know the parents were John and Catherine Kelly Stevens, and the second supporting the connection to that same elder John Stevens, it seems safe to believe that William’s mother was indeed our Catherine Kelly Stevens.

Still not being able to pinpoint the date of William’s birth, we’re nonetheless left with a fairly narrow date range of 1858-1860—both for William’s birth, and his mother’s passing.

With that, we’ll take a look at what can be found in Lafayette cemeteries for a Catherine Kelly Stevens who died there on or before 1860.


  1. Given William was 20-ish in 1880, I'm not surprised he isn't around in that one - 'back in the day" a boy was considered old enough to be on his own (and went to be on his own) as young as perhaps 16.

    The 1870 census is the one that makes one think. He as 10-12... perhaps he was in "boarding school"?

    1. I've even wondered about military involvement or heading out west--William seemed to have disappeared from the time of his birth until he re-surfaced in Lafayette in time for his marriage to Alice Munger. Unless, of course, his name was spelled so creatively as to not be able to guess the formula...

  2. I would check relatives...especially grandparents and Aunts. Often times babies were farmed out until they were older if their mother died. My grandmother went to live with her fathers sister I think if memory serves me correctly.

    1. That was my guess, too, Far Side--either family or some intervention by their church. If I remember correctly, I couldn't find their father in the 1860 census, either. Until his marriage in December, 1860, he had, I guess, delved fully into work somewhere, perhaps even away from his children. Wherever he was, though, it's obvious someone had to provide adequate care to children so young.

  3. My grandfather and all his siblings were "given away" when their mother died. I finally did find him living with a family who also had his surname as maiden names but I could never connect them as relatives. Another great grandfather was in the Ward's Island orphanage and then later worked for his future wife's family as a farm hand. I don't know where his father was that census year. I've found ancestors in the most unlikely places. Creative spelling is the pits! And the worst problem of all are the families who all named their children after each other. Generation after generation.

    1. Yes, those name-afters can get confusing, especially when it ends up that cousins born within the year of each other are given that same name. Two boys with the same complete name, born the same year in the same place can make for some research headaches!

      I also wonder how thorough those census enumerators were in capturing all the information on a county's residents. It seems it was fairly easy to "disappear" at census time back then...

  4. I have found often that when children are listed in other households, their surnames are "hidden" by the surname of the head of household. The same is often the case when the mother remarries. One never knows if the enumerator even asked for the children's surnames and just "assumed."

    1. That's a valuable thought, Lisa. In a case like that, being able to search for a constellation of siblings would be most helpful--in my case, the "James, John, William" trio.

      However, as I discovered in this particular search case, just looking at the actual document--instead of relying only on the transcription provided by the online service--reveals that omissions are not only the domain of the enumerator. Some transcribers neglect to switch surnames that were provided by the enumerator on the original document!


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