Friday, July 16, 2021

Resisting Temptation


After poring hours of effort into dislodging an ancestor from a brick wall—hint: it still isn't working—it can be tempting to grasp at clues showing up at one's Ancestry doorstep.

I'm still stuck on the origin of the Stevens brothers' deceased mother's family. Ireland is the certain answer—but where in Ireland?

It doesn't help that the surname we are seeking is Kelly. And no, it isn't that particularly trying fact that Kelly can be—and often has been—spelled in two formats: Kelly and Kelley. The problem lies with the lack of records either preserved and passed down, or maybe never kept in the first place. After all, we are looking for a family who arrived in what was then the outer fringes of America in the early 1850s.

It's not like they followed the tried and true immigration pathway, either. At least, if they took the same route as John Stevens had, in arriving in western Indiana via the Mississippi River tributaries from New Orleans, passenger records from the east coast ports would be of no service to us.

What I do have, fortunately, is a fairly large Kelly family living in Lafayette, complete with the telltale sign of the three Stevens boys living in that same Kelly household after their mother, Catherine, died in 1858. So why can't I find any sign of James and Mary and their six children—Matthew, Rose, Catherine, Bridget, Thomas, and Ann—arriving on the New World's shores?

For one thing, it is possible that, like many immigrants, the Kelly family engaged in "serial" immigration. In other words, one sibling was the first to come over, secure employment, and send money back to the homeland to bring the others to America, likely one by one. With that in mind, it was tempting, after not having found the Kelly family constellation in the 1850 census, to try and stuff one promising early arrival, Rose Kelley of about the right age in the 1850 census, servant to an attorney in town, into that slot for our Catherine's sister.

But I resisted the temptation.

Likewise, knowing how the Irish of that time period tended to follow a traditional naming pattern for their children, I couldn't help notice in following Catherine's brother Thomas, that he named his oldest son James—a nice confirmation tying Thomas and Catherine together with their father James, who died shortly after reaching Indiana.

Right after noticing that detail, up popped a hint at Ancestry for my consideration: a baptismal record for a Thomas of just the right age, with parents James and Mary, from a parish in County Westmeath. Added bonus: the maiden name for mother Mary. Not to mention, the proximity of the county to Dublin aligns nicely with oral family tradition that Catherine came to America from Dublin. Should I take this hint?

Again, I'm resisting the temptation. While it is a valuable way-sign, what I'll need to do first is see whether those baptismal records also provide entries for all the other children in our Kelly family—attached to a Mary with that same maiden name. The encouraging news, though, is if this does turn out to be a keeper, County Westmeath happens to be one of the few Irish counties whose 1841 census records are still partially extant.

Although matching details can be alluring, we can't just spring for the two or three data points which line up just right. After all, we're talking about a surname like Kelly in Ireland. The chances that a Thomas was son of a James and Mary likely was a scenario repeated over and over again in that location. We need to fit a much larger set of data points into such a comparison—for instance, the names of members of the entire family, intact, into that same test case. That will take much more work before we can safely accept such a hint. It's not just Thomas we're looking for; it's the entire Kelly family.

Regarding that Kelly family which arrived in Lafayette, Indiana, we have one other way to check out the family connections: DNA testing. It's fortunate that we do have the listing of Catherine's many siblings, and that I've been able to trace many of their descendants. It is the youngest of the Kelly family line which provided me with genetic confirmation of our connection—but that is a story to save for next week. 

"6th [September 1837] Bapt[ized] Tho[ma]s s[on] of James Kelly and Mary Coffey sp[onso]r Honora Shanaugham" from Catholic Parish Registers 1655-1915, Castletown-Geoghegan, County Westmeath; courtesy


  1. Jacqi. Have you found baptism records in Indiana? Have had good luck with sponsors lately. Kat

  2. I get so excited when I get those hints! And I just hate it when I research and they dont' belong to me . . .


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