Thursday, August 11, 2022

Research, Dennis the Menace Style


There is a fabled vignette in which Hank Ketcham's cartoon character, Dennis the Menace, asks his harried mom, "If I can't have a horse, can I have a cookie?"

I say "fabled" because I have no access to the actual cartoon strip itself, but I know the story has been shared by—even analyzed by—many others. While Dennis wryly reflects afterwards on an "invisible horse who's worth his weight in cookies," I'd like to borrow Dennis' original plea for an impossible desire of my own: not for a horse, but to somehow access the truth on John Stevens' origin in County Mayo, Ireland. Hopefully, after all is said and done, I'll end up with at least a cookie.

Is hoping for a research breakthrough on my husband's second great-grandfather as impossible as Dennis' wish for a horse? With what appears to be a dearth of actual records in support of John Stevens' existence back in County Mayo, perhaps that is the case. But there is one small observation to be made, perhaps along the lines of another apocryphal story about a child's Christmas gift of a pony which "must have gotten away": there must be a "pony in here" somewhere.

Take my one and only clue that John Stevens came from County Mayo: the statement he provided on his Declaration of Intent, years after his arrival in Lafayette, Indiana. How do I know that? I had to travel to Lafayette myself to look for—and thankfully retrieve a copy of—the document.

This was not a record I could obtain from any online source—at least, not at that time. Now, there are several online resources for retrieving copies of such documents. But that doesn't make the process easy—or foolproof. The "first papers" in this naturalization process could be filed at almost any time after the immigrant settled in the United States. And that's the problem for those of us chasing that document decades—or over a century—after the fact. An immigrant could have filed two years after arrival—or twenty. If he moved while in the process of establishing citizenship, his papers could have been filed in two different jurisdictions, perhaps located hundreds of miles apart.

Even if the location of the application was certain—in John's case, that would be Tippecanoe County, Indiana—knowing where the document is stored now could also be challenging. Depending on the time frame, the process could have been recorded at the Northern or Southern District of the U.S. District Court in the state of Indiana, but the actual naturalization proceedings could have been conducted at local or state courts, as well as the federal court system. And different courts handled the matter, depending on the year the request was processed: circuit court, probate court, court of common pleas, superior courts, or even the Indiana Supreme Court.

Fortunately—though I say this tongue in cheek—there is an online resource for retrieving such records from Indiana, in case you don't have the means to whisk yourself away just now. The virtual records are currently available online through, though I don't know whether that availability is merely an artifact of the pandemic lockdown. But don't be in too much of a hurry to locate your ancestor's naturalization records from this Indiana collection just yet; apparently the collection is only browsable—sorted by alphabet and date, but in no means organized alphabetically. Hence, hunt and peck. This process may take some time; it may be quicker to fly to Indiana.

That said, that little slip of paper—John Stevens' Declaration of Intention—was the only way I could learn of his Irish origin. And that is the problem I referred to at the beginning of this post. Consider this: if that bit of intel was only available in one hard-to-locate document, what else could be lurking out there in the ether, somewhere between here and County Mayo, Ireland?

Do I see anyone smirking yet? You know I'd be saying this: there must be a "pony" in there somewhere!

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