If the census enumerators of a decade long gone had any idea how many contortions they’ve since instigated among genealogical researchers, thanks to impossible handwriting and well-meant but poorly executed line strikes, I wonder how different our pursuit of ancestors might have been. That musing, however, might encroach upon the realm of doubtful debate, so I’ll let it be. I will, however, take this brief opportunity, by way of explanation, to register my complaint.
One helpful way to pursue difficult ancestors is to follow the trail of their close relatives. Often, a clue may be gleaned from the notes, letters, or newspaper reports (think: obituaries) of family members.
Having discovered the possibility that Johanna Tully Ryan had not only moved from her native Ireland to Canada West—and then further, with her husband Edward and children, to the Dakota Territory in the American West—I certainly needed some additional clues to confirm what I was finding. After all, tracking a name like Edward Ryan might be difficult, considering how common the name was.
That’s why it was helpful to have a solid record of the family constellation from the Canadian censuses of 1861, 1871 and 1881—all in the same general vicinity of the province of Ontario. I now knew I was looking for Edward, husband of Johanna and father of James, Dennis, Margaret and Mary—not just for a solitary Edward Ryan, born in Ireland.
Of course, it was reassuring to locate Edward and Johanna in the 1900 U.S. Census in North Dakota. After all, hints from one of the Ryans’ direct descendants had helped lead me to that American territory. But owing to the loss of the American 1890 census, the gap between the Ryans’ last known address in Canada and their new home in the West meant I was now seeking a household that might only contain an aging Edward and Johanna.
Thankfully, a Dakota Territory census, completed just before North Dakota achieved statehood, provided some clues that the adult Ryan children had traveled with their parents to their new home in this Newest World. I first found these via the North Dakota State University archives, accessible online. Since the archives then provided Ancestry.com with the microfilms to make digitized copies, I was able to pull up the actual files through my subscription there.
Although son Dennis’ entry was indexed at NDSU as “Discus,” there he was in Walsh County, with his wife Mary and young daughter, along with his parents Edward and Johanna. His older brother James, though harder to find, was likely there in a nearby county.
The puzzle comes with the whereabouts of the two daughters, Margaret and Mary. By the time of this 1885 territorial census, each of them would have been in their twenties—the potential time of invisibility, thanks to the tradition of name-changing upon marriage. Compounding this challenge was another one: by the time of the 1900 census, their mother declared that she was the mother of four children, with only two still living. Eldest son James—he of the direct descendant who has been helping me with documentation from his family's own records—was still alive, married, and with a growing family of his own. I already had discovered that Edward and Johanna’s son Dennis had died—in 1892—so which of the two daughters was lost?
As we’ll soon see, thanks to handwriting errors in various documents, that has not been an easy task to decipher.