Thursday, July 22, 2021

Collecting Questions


Some may see genealogy as an effort to collect facts about their forebears, and in some ways, perhaps it is. But if that act of collecting remains limited to names and dates of key events—birth, marriage, death—we're not only missing some of the most important details about an ancestor's life, we're missing out on the excitement, wonder, and plain ol' fun of getting to know our family's stories.

In the case of my father in law's great-grandmother, Catherine Kelly Stevens, it turns out that all I can collect is questions. And there are plenty of them.

Perhaps that is a good thing. Otherwise, I'd have been satisfied with the tale of her tragic, shortened life—born somewhere in Ireland before a devastating famine, uprooted from her homeland and enduring a difficult passage across an ocean to America, then settling with her family in western Indiana only to marry, bear three sons, and die young, before any governmental record-keeping could catch up with her.

Even though there are minimal records which seem to indicate that her parents were James and Mary Kelly and her siblings Matthew, Rose, Thomas, Ann, and Bridget, finding documentation on their existence in and around Lafayette, Indiana, was not enough. The more I've thought about this research dilemma—I'm hoping to push back the family line just one more generation to their specific location in Ireland—the more I realize there are several aberrations from the "normal" Irish immigrant story.

It is those "aberrations" which may hold the key to actually attaining my research goal.

For one thing, why did the Kelly family end up in Indiana? Reading most material written about the waves of Irish immigration to North America, it is obvious that the major destinations, leading up to the early 1850s, were either eastern Canadian ports or the American ports of New York and Boston. Indiana is not exactly the kind of spot one thinks of when imagining the quintessential Irish immigrant.

In addition, the one thing immigrants came to America for was to obtain a better future for themselves and their families. That translates into decent jobs—or at least a plot of land suitable for farming. What type of work did the Kelly family hope to attain by coming to Indiana? There had to be a connection between the motivation to come here and the abilities these immigrants brought with them. Of this, I currently know nothing.

The one thing I do know about the Kelly family's condition upon arrival was their religion: they were Catholic. By virtue of their religion, their immigration choices may have been directed far differently than had they been, say, of a Protestant persuasion.

Similar to that might be a clue about their native tongue. While we assume the Irish, being part of the kingdom of Great Britain, spoke English, in the 1850s (not to mention before that decade), there were many Irish who did not speak English—or spoke very little of it at all. If there is any way to glean indications of their mother tongue, that might help in providing clues about why the Kelly family chose to settle in Indiana, rather than an eastern, coastal city where many of their fellow countrymen would have lived.

One of my main questions, though, is this: How did they get there? What route brought the Kelly family to Lafayette? The city—back in 1850 only a town of six thousand people—was founded only twenty five years before that point. How would anyone from Ireland even have known to travel to such a small, insignificant destination?

As it turns out, delving into the history of such small locales—especially if they eventually claimed our ancestors as their residents—helps broaden our understanding of why our ancestors might have made the immigration choices they made. Clues embedded in a city's history—or transportation's history, or occupational or religious history—help us get into the heads of our ancestors. Those clues may not make it entirely clear what choices our ancestors made, or even why they made such choices, but as we'll see this week, those details will lead us at least closer to some research possibilities.

Any step closer to our research goals is well worth the effort. Not to mention, each detail we glean about the "big picture" of life-as-they-lived-it will illuminate our ancestors' stories, gifting us with a greater appreciation for the challenges they faced within the framework of the times in which they lived—not assumptions simply lifted from our own era. As we finish out this month's research goal of finding more about Catherine Kelly's origin in Ireland, we'll examine what can be discovered about the bigger picture of Irish immigration specifically to Indiana. 


  1. I am hoping these answers are in the city's history!

    1. I'm a firm believer in the usefulness of background information, Miss Merry, even if the answers aren't immediately apparent. I like to remind myself, in dilemmas like these, that research really is an adventure more than simply a predictable journey to a destination of answers.


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