It was late on New Year's Day in 2003 when I took a look at my email notifications from GenForum, an old messaging system used by family history enthusiasts. It was there that researchers could post their requests for help and connection, specific to either surnames or local geographic areas.
Earlier in the previous year, I had gone wandering, much like I have this month, in an attempt to figure out the connection between my husband's second great-grandfather, John Kelly, and a man by the name of Timothy Kelly. The two Kelly men surely were related in some way, as they had gone in together on the purchase of a family burial plot at the Catholic Cemetery in Fort Wayne, Indiana. But how, I couldn't figure out.
I had gone from John Kelly's family tree, to constructing a private unsearchable tree for Timothy Kelly's family, to tracing the line of Timothy's second wife, a woman by the name of Mary Danehy. As she had brought a daughter into the Kelly marriage, I was in the midst of even attempting to discover the origin of that step-daughter—of whom all I knew was her name, Margaret Sweeney—when I got a reply to my query.
The answer said simply,
Timothy Kelly married my GG Aunt in 1880. Her name was Mary Danehy. Timothy and his first wife Ellen...had six children.
This, of course, I already knew, but perhaps it wasn't evident to my respondent. After all, having gone so far afield of my original research goal, I had posted my request in the forum for Sweeney family researchers, not in the Kelly department. However, this respondent followed up with one irresistible question: "Where do you fit into the picture?"
There began a long volley of emails, as two researchers traced the various paths leading to their nexus, a man in Fort Wayne who himself somehow got there from some place in County Kerry, Ireland. We exchanged notes. Shared most recent discoveries. Even traded photocopies of newspaper clippings and documents by snail mail from one end of the country to the other at a time when not everything was at our fingertips online. Yet, despite all our earnest efforts, we still couldn't make the connection or trace the Kelly family back to their place of origin.
Eventually, my corresponding researcher sent me a note. It was following the time of the second Gulf War, and he had decided to use his experience in the construction industry to serve as a contractor in Afghanistan to rebuild schools in that country. Promising to pick up on our joint research venture upon his return home, he was off to a land where genealogical pursuits were not highest among their priorities.
Several years passed, and I began to wonder how he had fared on his adventure. I tried updated emails without any answer. Finally, because this researcher had such an unusual name, I tried googling it. Sadly, I found my answer through a lovingly crafted obituary posted on Find A Grave.
Even though it's been nearly two decades since that first email opened up the opportunity to share a research project with a fellow family member, I still think about endeavors like that. Of course, on the easy side, now knowing what I've been able to discover about Timothy Kelly, I wish there was a way to utilize DNA testing to see whether that venue would provide corroboration. But more important than that, experiences like the many research connections made in those past genealogy forums remind me of the value of connecting with other researchers—and continuing to work together to find answers to our family history questions.
Some research questions simply cannot be answered without sustained effort, persevering through many steps until we find the answer we need. Sometimes, such efforts are better achieved in partnership with others pursuing the same answers. Yet, it seems it has been a long time since I've met up with others willing to collaborate to that extent. I've seen some people complain that they are lucky to even receive just one reply to an emailed inquiry. Were such diligent researchers just a product of a bygone generation? Where have they all gone?
Of course, I'll still plod onward with my Kelly questions. There are, after all, encouraging signs linking Timothy Kelly to Abbie—or Debora, or Gobnait, or whoever she turns out to be—and they, in turn, seem to be linked to someone named John Kelly. And yet, on the other hand, there are confusing signs that just don't seem to add up right.
Whatever the conclusion of the matter, though, it will likely be through some solitary effort that I'll arrive at an answer—no matter how much I yearn to find those research partners of decades now gone. But I can still hope there are others out there who realize it is certainly more fun to share the research adventure together.