Friday, September 2, 2022

Fact Checking James' Journey


It helps, when researching a hard-to-trace ancestor, to discover that ancestor had a well-known relative. I'll take a collateral line with lots of documentation any time. Such may be the case with Eliza Murdock's brother James. Heralded as a "self-made" man, James Murdock's passing in 1908 was reported in newspapers small and significant. Listed as a millionaire and "noted financier," this Irish immigrant started life in America working in a brick yard, and ended up a successful entrepreneur of his era.

Though he may have been an astute businessman, that is not why I am following his life story now. My only interest in the enterprising James Murdock of Lafayette, Indiana, is owing to the biographical sketches lavished upon someone so successful. In those reports are the details of his early life—details which may also reveal the path followed by the rest of his family, including his sister Eliza. And Eliza's story I am chasing in hopes of learning more about the second woman John Stevens, my husband's ancestor, chose to make his bride.

According to James Murdock's biographical sketch, he came to Lafayette in 1853, after the death of his father. Of course, there is no way for us to check that fact through such documents as census records—his first appearance there was in 1860. However, those reports in various local history books state that James' father, John Murdock, died in 1853 in Wayne County, Indiana, which gives us an idea of where to find the family before 1860.

Here, though, we face another problem: inability to find a death record or burial for John Murdock in Wayne County. Checking record availability for that county, though, shows that death records may not have been kept until 1882, far after our date of interest. Probate records for 1853 would be available in the county—if, however, an itinerant Irish immigrant family had stayed there long enough to acquire any property. At first glance, I could find no such record for any Murdock family in Wayne County, even using the alternate spelling of Murdoch.

Although one biographical sketch for James Murdock indicated the family's previous stop was in Ohio, that report didn't specify where. However, another sketch did include the Ohio county's name: Vermilion.

As we are beginning to suspect, there is also a problem with this part of James Murdock's biographical narrative. There is no county named Vermilion in Ohio. However, there is a city by that name in that state. Or how about the county named Vermillion in Indiana?

Fact checking the rest of the Murdock immigration story may be riddled with just as many problems. One option is to search for any signs of the Murdock family in those alternate name-alike locations. Another option is to continue the search through the earlier portion of the timeline—after all, at some point, we should bump into something promising. And I'll likely take time to pursue both options.

In the meantime, thanks to James' business success in Lafayette, and indeed in the larger region of Indiana, he did leave some mementos of his existence. His 1891 home on Columbia Street, now considered part of the Saint Mary's Historic District, still is designated by his name. Perhaps such tokens of his life are a sign that, if we keep looking, there may be more to find of this man's story—and thus, the story of the rest of his family.

Image: Photograph of James Murdock, from page 528 of the 1909 book, Past and Present of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, Richard P. DeHart, editor; in the public domain.


  1. I love it when you hit close to my home. Vermillion the city is not to far away from me. I believe that, at that time, it was located in either Huron or Lorain counties as it's current boundaries put it in Erie County (which did not exist in the mid 1800's). I had many Ohio relatives that migrated to Indiana, so it won't be a snap research for him.

    1. It's interesting to see how our paths intertwine from time to time, Miss Merry. Thanks for the tips on Vermillion and those ever-changing county names. This one will indeed seem like a search for the proverbial needle-in-haystack, but I'm game to give it a try.


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