Wednesday, September 21, 2022

To Play Devil's Advocate


Is it possible to play devil's advocate in genealogy? 

In trying to discover what became of Sarah Murdock and her husband, John Nolan, we're faced with the disappearance of John—in fact, of the entire family from the place where we last found them—by 1880. What we do have, however, is a census entry in a place seven hundred miles from the city where we last saw them, in Lafayette, Indiana. Only problem: no John, no son George, no daughter Mary Ann in 1880—but the addition of several other children previously unaccounted for. Could this be our Nolan household?

Let's play devil's advocate by arguing that this Nolan family in the 1880 census—sans John—is the same as that of John and Sarah, back in Lafayette.

Taking a look at the 1880 census in Wichita, we can trace that Nolan family's movements through the midwest, simply by using the birth locations listed for each of the Nolan children—if, of course, they belong to the right Nolan family.

Here are the names found in the Nolan household in 1880 Kansas, far from the place our Nolan family called home in Lafayette, Indiana. With oldest son James, we realize the family had once settled in Ohio. Son John was born in Wisconsin, but the rest of the family showed their birthplace in Indiana, up through the youngest child, Sarah, born about 1874. Even though the younger children—Samuel, Tony, Peter, Sabina, and Sarah—did not appear in the last census in which we had found our Nolan family (way back in 1860), if this is the right family, this record shows us the family had remained in Indiana for quite a while.

The question is: if this is our Nolan family, when did they arrive in Kansas? Fortunately, we have a way to possibly answer that question. Like many other states which call for an enumeration to be taken halfway between the decade marks of the federal census, Kansas followed suit. Copies of their census record for 1875 can be found online.

The trouble for us is that, no matter which way I searched, I could not find the Nolans in Kansas for the 1875 census. That is not surprising. After all, what mother would want to undertake a seven hundred mile journey to a new home with a newborn in tow?

However, if we jump forward to the 1885 census in Kansas, the birth estimate for baby Sarah edges forward to 1875. Thus, with her place of birth again pinpointed as Indiana, we can call off the chase for any shred of evidence in Kansas, back in 1875. The family must still have resided in Indiana at that point—if we can trust the reporting party to have given correct answers and the enumerator to have written them down correctly.

That detail also provides indirect evidence of father John Nolan's presence in Indiana up to about the same time, give or take about nine months. But if this was indeed the right family in Kansas, where was John in 1880?

We can, of course, go straight to the chase, assuming John Nolan died sometime between 1875 and 1880, and look for cemetery records either in Lafayette or Wichita. However, with some of the Nolan children buried in the Catholic cemetery in Lafayette—but not alongside their father John in the family plot—it seems safe to assume Indiana was not the place of John's passing.

On the other hand, there is conveniently a headstone bearing John Nolan's name in a Catholic cemetery in Wichita. But don't get too excited just yet. Despite what seem like reasonable arguments supporting the contention that this Nolan household in Sedgwick County is indeed that of our Sarah, the Nolan headstone in Wichita presents another sticky detail. We'll consider that problem tomorrow, and see whether there is any information to support or reject our hypothesis that we have found the right Nolan household.

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