Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Starting With What we Know

For immigrants from Ireland, United States records often provide only the most generic of details about their place of origin. Thus, to start on this journey to uncover more information on our Johanna Falvey Kelly means we will start with very little. Furthermore, we begin with the handicap of one of the most common Irish names for Johanna's husband: John Kelly. To somehow connect each of them to a specific spot on the Irish map seems a daunting task at the outset.

Still, the principle always is: start with what we know. And what we start with, in this case, is the end of the story for both John and Johanna.

Actually, we can begin our chase beyond that point. We can start in even more recent times, with the death certificates of their three children who lived to adulthood—and who lived until well into the 1900s, when death records began recording useful information such as names of parents. Though the step may seem simple, we need to confirm that we are indeed searching for the roots of the right maiden name for Johanna.

John and Johanna had five children that we know of, three of whom lived well into adulthood and died in the 1900s: their daughter Mary Ann, who married Patrick Phillips; their second-born son Patrick; and their youngest child, John J. Kelly. Of these three Kelly children, only Mary Ann's death certificate lists "unknown" for mother's maiden name—no small surprise, considering Mary Ann's daughter Grace, who was born the same year Johanna died, served as informant.

Both Patrick's and John's death certificates include their mother's maiden name. In Patrick's case, the listing was spelled Falvey, and in John's case, it was rendered Falvy—but no matter; it gives the sense of what we need to search for.

And yet, if only those death certificates could have been a bit more specific about Johanna's origin. All that was written was that she came from Ireland.

Local newspapers could possibly provide a second source of information, of course—but considering our general caution over what newspapers report, any such mention would itself likely need further corroboration.

For instance, for John Kelly's funeral notice, Fort Wayne's Weekly Sentinel for March 2, 1892, provided all sorts of information about his health—that he died of "old age and la grippe"—and about his work experience. We learn that he "was formerly one of the most faithful blacksmiths at the Pittsburg shops" who several years before had had to "quit work and live retired." And yet, when it came to where he was born, all the newspaper could offer was that he was a native of Ireland. Surely someone knew a bit more about that detail.

Eleven years later, when it came time for Johanna's last breath, the art of writing obituaries had advanced enough to at least include names of the bereaved. And yet, even that was limited to immediate family. More maddeningly, reports varied, depending on which newspaper ran the story—and even which edition of the newspaper carried the report.

We have, for instance, the following about Johanna's siblings:

Which one to believe—if any?

Fortunately, every one of the several insertions concerning Johanna's passing all agreed that she came from County Kerry, Ireland, narrowing down the possibilities just a little bit for us.

There was, however, one other clue embedded in Johanna's life story that could be of help: of her five children who lived past infancy, three were actually born in Ireland. The oldest two of these children died in America too soon for records to capture any details about their origins, but for the third child, I held out hope that someone, somewhere might have flubbed up their official duties and mistakenly entered more than just the country of origin.

While I am still looking for that golden mistake, we have another option for seeking information on Johanna's three Irish-born children: the uploading of Irish parish records to a number of websites, both in Ireland and in the United States. If we can find any birth record of the three oldest Kelly children—Timothy, Catherine, or Mary—or even the marriage record for John and Johanna, themselves, we may be able to find that Falvey connection another way.

After all, narrowing our Kelly connection to just one Irish county should be enough to help us—right?

Above: Listing of parents' names from the March 12, 1925, death certificate of Johanna Falvey Kelly's son John J. Kelly; image courtesy Ancestry.com.


  1. The maiden name!! It's a start! I have so many death certificates with information marked "unknown". What is really maddening is that I know the person filling it out (my grandfather is one of them) knew the information and I think was just too lazy to have them write it in. He knew his maternal grandparents, grew up with his maternal grandparents, he certainly knew their last name.

    1. While that is certainly frustrating, Miss Merry, I've learned to cut my relatives some slack, when it comes to being the reporting party just hours after losing a loved one. The stress of the moment can cause some people to do the strangest of things--including forgetting names they have known their whole life!

  2. Replies
    1. I've been down this way before, Far Side...I'm just hoping this time, I'll make it a bit further down this road towards some answers.


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