When you've checked every resource you can think of to find that elusive brick wall ancestor—and found nothing new—it is tempting to assume you will never find the answer you are seeking, and give up the chase. The paper trail can only reach so far, leading us step by step from our own immediate relative back through the generations, especially when we are seeking an immigrant ancestor. With a common surname. From a country that everyone left in droves, all at the same time. And then, the chain is broken.
That is the frustrating realization I've come to, in my quest to reach back just one more generation from my father-in-law's great-grandmother, Catherine Kelly Stevens. All evidence of her existence dropped off earlier than the birth of her eldest son James in 1854. And shortly after she gave birth to her third son William in 1858, once again records of her passing seemed to be swallowed up by time.
Embedded within her life story, though, are shreds of evidence we can sift through to piece together a narrative. It won't necessarily come to us by virtue of carefully preserved records, but we can glean details by inferences left by her extended family. We've already discovered that in the listing of her three sons in her siblings' household rather than her husband's home for the census subsequent to her passing.
Still, that is not enough to grant me my goal of finding her origin in Ireland. There likely won't be any further tangible resources to find such a detail. So, should I give up? Not necessarily.
When I realized that my research dilemma seems to generate more questions than answers, I began taking a closer look at those questions. They led me further and further away from the detail-oriented laser focus of finding answers specific to the minutiae of the who, the what, the when, and especially the where, and closer to the overarching scenario that led the Kelly family away from Ireland and to the unlikely landing place of Lafayette, Indiana.
The questions also reminded me that part of my search so far had been informed by guesses—educated guesses, to be sure, but suppositions on my part, rather than solid evidence. That realization prompted me to play a guessing game of "What If?"
What if...the Kelly family arrived in Indiana much earlier than I thought?
What if...Catherine met and married her husband, John Stevens, somewhere other than Lafayette?
What if...there were other Kelly siblings whose life story might reveal the clues I'm seeking?
Beyond those questions, I could see the need to delve deeper into the underlying and broader historical basis—the events and timeline which caught up not only the Kelly and Stevens families, but impacted a broad swath of humanity through then-current events. What were the historic impedances keeping them from choosing one immigration pathway, or redirecting them to paths less traveled? Were there others who faced these same difficulties? Could it be that the Kelly family didn't just pop up with the novel idea to travel to Lafayette instead of, say, Boston? Perhaps they traveled with others—or followed others—to this unusual destination, leaving me an as yet unseen trail of Friends, Associates, and Neighbors.
There was clearly a lot yet to be learned about immigration in general—and Indiana's Irish specifically—which might further inform my search. Before I can choose the finality of giving up on this search for the Kelly family, there's some due diligence to attend to, first.