Friday, June 12, 2015

With a Little Help From Some Friends

Sometimes, it takes a village—of fellow genealogical researchers—to help solve a family history mystery. That's what it was beginning to feel like, when I muddled through the Ryan family in 1900 Walsh County, North Dakota.

Later in life, Edward Ryan and his wife—the former Johanna Tully, sister of my husband's great grandfather, John Tully—had immigrated to what was then the Territory of Dakota. At least, that's what I presume. It was easy to find their one son, James, who was listed in the 1900 census in which the new state of North Dakota made its first appearance. It was also fairly uncomplicated to discover that their other son, Dennis, had already passed away, leaving a wife (Mary) and four children.

Unfortunately—and isn't this always the case when researching the unmarried female relatives in a family—it was not as easy to determine what had become of Edward and Johanna Ryan's two daughters, Margaret and Mary. For one thing, their dates of birth were close: Margaret, born approximately 1858 in Ontario, Canada, was two years older than Mary. The main issue, though, was the difficulty of tracking possible marriages in the face of such common names, coupled with the magnitude of the move from eastern Canada to the territorial outreaches of the western United States.

True, one or both of the sisters could have married and remained in their home in Huron County, Ontario, left behind by their aging parents and older (and, at that point, still unmarried) brothers. Also—though hardly as likely—one or both of them could have remained in Canada as spinsters, while the rest of their family embarked on this wild adventure in a distant locale where the more hands available would help make the work lighter and more successful.

While I can say that it's my hunch that each of them accompanied the rest of the Ryan family in their move westward, I know you'll be hesitant to buy that. Having a "hunch" just doesn't cut it, when it comes to serious genealogical research. We want to see proof.

Sometimes, however, proof is not forthcoming. After all, I'm a denizen of the West Coast of the United States. It's unlikely that I'll just hop a jet and zoom over to Ontario, just to thumb through old marriage records that haven't yet made their appearance online. And I love the thrill of the hunt too much to cave and shell out the bucks to hire a professional to answer those questions for me.

So, I did the next best thing: I turned to my genealogy friends online—those denizens of the genealogy forums which were still in their heyday when I struggled with this research dilemma almost ten years ago. Focusing on the 1906 Canadian census clue I had found in Saskatchewan, in which a William Guinan had reported step-children by the name of Ryan—Chester Ryan, in particular—I went looking for any other researchers working on the same line.

Because I had done some exploratory work on the Guinan line—the surname of that step-dad who had apparently married widow Mary McMartin Ryan in Winnipeg in 1900—I knew some of the other surnames associated with that family. Through a search in an online forum, I found someone from a related line who could answer my questions.

Since I do so much research besides the classic name-date-place documentation of strict genealogical pursuit, over the years, I've assembled pages of records on obituaries, news clippings, and other records on several of the people I've researched. All those find a home in the notes section of my family history database. Dated and cross-referenced with the provider's contact information, each entry helps lead me back to the person who first directed me on any given question I've studied.

In the case of this William Guinan and second wife, Mary McMartin Ryan, I ran into a genealogy forum respondent who happened to have corresponded with someone from another branch known to be part of this family. Now that I look back on her notes, I'm so grateful I saved them, verbatim.

Basically, thanks to this forum contact, I now benefited from the notes of yet another researcher. Here's what the note told me:
Firstly it [the note from the other family researcher] indicates...he [William Guinan] remarried in 1900 to Mary McMartin Ryan "the widow of his brother-in-law" (sorry it didn't say which bro-in-law, but Dennis could be right) who had children of her own. William homesteaded in Sask [Saskatchewan] with 11 people in his household. He died in a car accident near Saskatoon in 1919, and was taken for burial with his first wife in North Dakota by "James Ryan and wife from Winnipeg." William was "survived by his wife, three sons and two dgts."
Of course, that fit nicely with the scenario I was beginning to see unfold with the 1900 U.S. census and the November, 1900, marriage record I mentioned yesterday. If you've been absorbing this tangle of names and dates, you'll recognize the name James Ryan as belonging to our Ryan family, being Dennis' only brother.

You will also see this as confirmation that William's first wife—whoever she was—had passed off the scene before his November, 1900, marriage to second wife Mary McMartin Ryan, widow of Dennis Ryan. The email also tells us that that first wife—whoever she was—was buried not in Canada, but back in North Dakota, likely near where the Guinans had formerly lived.

That, of course, brings us full circle back to the 1900 census and its enigmatic write-over, showing William's first wife to be named either Mary or Margaret. One way to resolve that enigma would be to locate death records for any of her children—but, as we'll soon discover, all her children moved with the family to their new home in Canada, making online access to such records not impossible, but a bit trickier.

It would have been helpful if one of those volunteer websites such as Find A Grave had included a listing for William Guinan's thirty-eight-year-old wife, wherever she was buried in North Dakota. Unfortunately, at this point, only three Guinans are listed in the entire state. While they are undoubtedly relatives of William, none was his unfortunate young wife.

There is, however, another interesting point about the quoted portion this forum participant had passed along to me from the other family researcher: the mention that after his passing, William's remains had been taken back to North Dakota to be buried next to his first wife. The sad duties fell to the brother of William's second wife's first husband.

Doesn't that sound a bit convoluted to you? While that is very kind of him, why was it the lot of James Ryan to bury his former sister-in-law's current husband? Besides, as you can tell from the note, James himself had also moved away from North Dakota and was residing, not in Saskatchewan, the current home of the Guinans, but in Winnipeg, in the province of Manitoba. This "favor" to a former in-law was beginning to take him far out of his way.

As you've likely suspected, there was another reason for such a kind-hearted gesture. James' own wife, Annie, was a Guinan, too. While I've yet to determine her relationship to William, it is close (either sibling or first cousin).

However, I'm also positing that there was a second family connection between James Ryan and William Guinan: that that burial next to William's first wife would put him side by side with James' own sister.

I had some hunches about this possibility—but no solid proof. One nice touch was to look at the 1900 census record and realize how nicely the pattern of their children's names fit within the traditional Irish naming pattern. The first daughter—for whom the lot fell to be named after the mother's mother—the given name was Johanna. The second son—in this case, traditionally the namesake of the mother's father—was named Edward.

Short of finding any death record—and granted, with a death as early as 1900, it would be unlikely that any such record would indicate the name of the deceased's parents—I couldn't say for sure that this was the case. However, enclosed with this forum respondent's email was some additional helpful information. In mentioning that William Guinan's first wife had died in 1899 in North Dakota, my helpful forum contact explained:
William Henry Guinan had married twice, first to Mary Ryan (dgt of Edward and Johanna Tully) with whom he had 7 children.

Granted, being provided with this information does not make it so. Witness the many online trees which label William's one and only wife as Mary McMartin Ryan—disregarding the messy detail that their 1900 marriage would preclude her maternal link to his children born before that date, or the fact that he had Ryan stepchildren in his 1906 household. Documentation of these details would be a nice touch.

On the other hand, if William's first wife was indeed a Ryan, that would provide part of the answer to my question about the reason for James Ryan taking such care to deliver William to his final resting place so far from his home. That she was a Ryan named Mary would provide an additional answer—although, having answered the question instigated by that sloppy census enumerator's 1900 write-over, "Mary or Margaret," now launching us on a second quest to determine what had become of the Ryans' other daughter.

At this point, however, it gives me a rough sketch to go on. Barring any further documentation to the contrary, I'll use this as my working premise for the time being. It certainly provides a better fit than the assumption that the post-1900 wife was mother to all the children in both parts of that blended family.


  1. Find A Grave Memorial# 64907617 looks rather suspicious. I got lost in the -in-law of the brother thingy...

    1. Having two wives, both named Mary, must have added to the confusion as well, Iggy. No wonder family researchers, in some cases, have seemed to record the two women as if they were one.

  2. Walsh County is still looking for volunteers for their cemetery project. Maybe in a few years they will show up. I cannot even figure out how many cemeteries are in that county. Walsh County is not that far from our daughter home. IF I had an inkling where to go to look I would:)

    1. Thank you, Far Side. I'm sure you would. I'm certainly grateful that a Find A Grave volunteer did take some clear photos of Dennis Ryan's headstone. As soon as I can figure out how to contact the cemetery, I will try to get some answers about the other missing family members. I'm sure they must be there, as well.


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