Thursday, September 22, 2022

Not the Details We Were Expecting


It is exciting—at long last—to find ourselves on the brink of the big reveal, examining the evidence we had been seeking, knowing that finally, we can obtain the confirmation of our research hypothesis. In our case this week, though, the elation of finding the record was quickly followed by the deflation of realizing these were not the details we were expecting.

We've been on a long search lately, trying to find a Murdock sibling whose records might divulge the family's origin in Ireland. It seems each sibling leads us farther away from our goal. Even though it was exciting to discover there were two more sisters to follow, along with the several Murdock brothers we had already found, tracing younger sister Sarah Murdock Nolan has not been an easy task.

We are currently searching for Sarah seven hundred miles from the Murdock siblings' adopted American home in Lafayette, Indiana, wondering whether the Sarah Nolan in Wichita, Kansas, is really the Sarah we are looking for. The signs so far seemed promising—names, birth years and locations in the 1880 census agreed with our last sighting of the Nolan family back in 1860.

There is, however, one slight problem: this Sarah was listed as a widow in the 1880 census, so we don't really know if this was Sarah, wife of John, or another Sarah. One approach was to follow the trail of each of the children to see whether any subsequent documentation mentioned their father's name.

I started this new search with James Nolan, the oldest child, which led me to a memorial showing a small, cracked headstone for a man by that name who died young at thirty nine years of age. Included was a note by a volunteer stating that James was "on stone with Sarah and John J. Nolan." That prompted me to search for another memorial at the same cemetery—Calvary Cemetery, Wichita's oldest Catholic cemetery—to confirm those were the names of James' parents.

Sure enough, the information pointed to ages that seemed reasonably older than James' 1853 year of birth. On this other, significantly larger headstone, Sarah Nolan's age was given as sixty five, and John's was listed as fifty eight.

There was, however, one stumbling block with this discovery. While the 1880 census had shown our Sarah as a widow—no sign of a husband's name included in that household—John Nolan's entry on that headstone indicated his year of death was 1882. Where was John in the 1880 census?

I have observed, in researching other families during this time period, that women who were divorced or separated from their husband would sometimes take the socially easier route of just claiming they were widowed. Perhaps this was the case with this Sarah in Wichita. The next question would be: where was John for the last two years of his life? Really, the bigger question would be: was this the same Sarah on the headstone the same as the one I had found in the 1880 census? And would this John and Sarah be one and the same as the couple who lived in Indiana, back in 1860?

Nothing is ever easy. In fact, family history research can be quite messy. In first spotting James, rather than his parents John and Sarah, I searched for some other records to confirm I had the right son. In the process, I stumbled upon a sad explanation which ran its course through three editions of the local newspaper. In talking about those reports tomorrow, we'll see what else can be gleaned about this Nolan family in the process. 

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