Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The one who Refuses to be Found


For some of those recalcitrant, brick-wall ancestors, if we hadn't stumbled upon a trace of their existence locally, perhaps we'd never have known anything about them at all. This certainly was true for my husband's second great-grandfather, John Stevens, who may—or may not—have come to Indiana from County Mayo, Ireland. It may be even more true for his apparent relative Hugh Stevens, who followed the same migration pathway, trailing John by almost exactly two years.

Finding Hugh Stevens has proven a far greater challenge than I'm up to, from my long-distance vantage point. I'm well over one thousand miles away from Tippecanoe County, Indiana, and not likely to head in that direction any time soon. However, I did get this one consolation prize from my last trip back east: not only a copy of the Declaration of Intention signed with an "x" by John Stevens, but an almost identical document, subsequently drawn up by local government officials on behalf of someone named Hugh Stevens.

Brothers? Cousins? I can't yet be sure. But there surely is a high likelihood that the two Stevens men are related. I mean, what are the chances that this second Stevens trip in 1851 to tiny Lafayette was a mere coincidence? After all, "chain migration" was one oft-used means of reuniting family among Irish emigrants. Perhaps John Stevens sent money back to County Mayo to bring Hugh Stevens across the ocean and up the Mississippi to join him. Perhaps he sent back a word of advice about that traveler's tip to avoid malaria-ridden New Orleans at all costs, unless Hugh could arrive there in December.

I would love to test that hypothesis—except for one thing: other than his Declaration of Intent, the one sign of Hugh's existence in Lafayette, the man seemingly disappeared. Among other research difficulties, that was one detail which made me doubt that either of the men was actually named Stevens.

Though each journey was separated by almost precisely two years, the two Stevens men both took the same route to get to Indiana—from County Mayo to Liverpool, sailing to New Orleans and then northward on the river routes landing them at or near the river port at Lafayette—and completed the first step in their naturalization process at the same local courthouse. After that, John stayed in Lafayette, but Hugh disappeared. I sometimes find myself blinking and wondering whether I simply imagined that second immigration journey. Whatever happened to Hugh?

Not that his home turf back in Ireland was in any shape to provide supporting documentation. Seldom were there any passenger records at that tumultuous time, back in Ireland, to corroborate what we found on the American side. Nor have I been able to construct any reasonable explanation for where Hugh went, or any logical argument to demonstrate that any other man by that same name might actually have been our Hugh.

Like any researcher would for the others who belong in that circle of friends, family, and other associates and neighbors we dub the "F.A.N. Club," I still keep Hugh Stevens' name and itinerary close at hand. Just in case. One never knows when another page from the passenger lists at the port of New Orleans may show up with his name included.

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