Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Clues from a Spouse


While it helps to glean hints about brick-wall ancestors from collateral lines and even the "F.A.N. Club" of other associates, those clues need to be read carefully. In one connection to John Stevens, the Irish immigrant ancestor we've been chasing throughout this month, I nearly read those resources incorrectly.

We can sometimes read volumes into the choice of a spouse. In the case of John Stevens' second wife, Eliza Murdock, that was exactly what I attempted to do. After all, who in the 1860s would not have carefully selected a bride based on similar background, tendencies, and preferences? In some cases, the choice of a spouse could point to a long line of clues about an ancestor's extended family.

With widower John Stevens' second wife, we see a woman whose surname—at least to me—seemed more Scottish than Irish. Though Eliza and her family were, like John Stevens, immigrants who settled in Lafayette, Indiana, on account of her brothers, she could claim a family name which was significant in the local community.

Eliza's brother James had a story which sounded like an echo of another immigrant's rise from humble beginnings to incredible success: the story of Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie. Indeed, in one county history book published in 1909, Past and Present of Tippecanoe County Indiana, the entire second volume opened with much space dedicated to businessman James Murdock's portrait and biography.

While the surname Murdock—as well as its more well-known variant, Murdoch—does have some roots reaching back centuries in Scotland, it is primarily a Gaelic surname. Though at first I was concerned to see John Stevens choosing to marry a woman whose name seemed to indicate a Scottish, rather than Irish, heritage, I was relieved to see that surname history. Once again, my doubts had surfaced about John Stevens being the person he claimed he was.

As it turns out, James Murdock—John Stevens' brother-in-law—was apparently born in County Sligo, Ireland. That, at least, was what was reported on James' 1908 death certificate. If indeed that report was correct, it is reassuring to find that County Sligo bordered on the county of John Stevens' birth, County Mayo. While admittedly, those more northern regions of the island of Ireland did have displaced peoples and migration from other parts of the British empire, that is a story from a far earlier history than the years of John Stevens' own residence in Ireland.

While some researchers have suggested that the choice of an immigrant's spouse—having married after arrival in the new homeland—might reveal that the two families knew each other back in Ireland, I don't believe that would be true in this case. Though John Stevens and the Murdock family arrived in Indiana at roughly the same time, their migration pathways were not similar—the Murdock family sailing first to Canada, then migrating in stages through various states before arriving in Indiana. Their acquaintance was most likely made after each party had settled in Lafayette.

Does exploration of a spouse's history help determine more about an immigrant's own origin? Perhaps, in some cases. Not that I can see, so far, in the case of John Stevens. Though hints of Scottish, rather than Irish, roots do show up in the Murdock story—James' father John was said to have been "a Scotch-man by birth"—such details only set my own suspicions about John Stevens resonating; there is no solid evidence to lend me a paper trail, or even point a possible way to fresh discovery. While collateral line exploration may often open up our eyes to possibilities, in this case, it only reminds me to proceed further with caution.  


  1. Your dedication and persistence is impressive!

    1. Kathy, I guess that's a sign of just how much I really want to know!


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