The stories that lead to me

When you went on Google today, you saw a doodle dedicated to Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneer girl, whose 148th birthday is today. I have always loved her books, and today she got me thinking about my own family’s stories.

For those of you less familiar (obsessed) with the Little House books, you may believe that the series is comprised of just the books Wilder wrote about her own childhood and young adulthood. You would be wrong, other writers have expanded her literary genealogy, there are several books about (and one by) her daughter Rose, and then a few on every direct female ancestor going back to Boston in the 1700s. In the backs of the books there is a family tree that shows at least five generations, it absolutely fascinated me as a child, simply the fact that someone could trace their lineage that far was amazing and foreign to me.

Having two moms, read having a sperm donor as a father, makes it rather unlikely that I’ll ever piece together a real genetic genealogy, but that’s never really mattered to me. I’m more concerned with a psychic genealogy, the stories my families believe about themselves and the information that is passed down, I think that tells more about where you came from than genetics does. So here it is, at least some of it, the people and stories that made me.

the irish
This is the side I’m actually related too, but it’s also the side without a mythology, so I took it upon myself to do some research with what little information I did know. You can see some of it in the leading image, I filled up eight pages of that journal going back and making assumptions until I ran out of leads to follow.

My maternal grandfather’s father came over on the boat from Ireland when he was two. His name was John O’Connor. My maternal grandmother was also fully Irish. This was the entirety of the information that was passed on to my mother and then on to me. So taking this dearth of information, I started at the beginning, thanks to the excellent family search websites organized by the Mormon church, I started filling in blanks.

Marie Ward, my grandmother, was one of six, both of her parents were Irish and born in New Jersey in the 1890s. Her Father was Thomas Patrick Ward, one of ten, and both of his parents were born in New York in the 1840s. Thomas’ grandparents however, were all born in Ireland, making them part of the earlier wave of emigrants. After this the Ward family trail disappeared, those great-great-great-grandparents of mine would have arrived in New York before Ellis Island was established, and given that they settled in New York, they wouldn’t have arrived with much meaning tracking them down with customs forms would be a long shot, even if I had known there names.

So on to the next branch, John Francis O’Connor was my grandfather and one of only three, the smallest family in the O’Connor lineage until my own. As previously mentioned, his father John was born in ‘the Irish free state’ while his mother was born in Middletown, NY. As it turns out I was able to track John down thanks to the Mormons. This was especially amazing to me because in the fifth grade on a field trip to Ellis Island, my mom and I made a rubbing of his name on the memorial wall. The wall came up to my 10 year old eye level, and one entire column repeated the name John O’Connor for that height. I picked one to be my relation, and we had a whole sheet with 15 or so John O’Connors rubbed onto it in graphite. I never thought I’d be able to find him in the ocean of Irish immigrants to New York, but I did, maybe.

John C. O’Connor was born in Ireland in December of 1891, he emigrated with his parents and four siblings in 1893. They shuffled around New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and eventually grew to be a family of seven children. Now, Irish records are incredibly patchy, especially for this time period, but amazingly Daniel O’Connor, an older brother who was about eleven when the family emigrated was registered in the Civil Registration system. He was either the only one who was, or more likely, the only one whose records survived to digitization. So for the first time in three generations, an O’Connor knew were in Ireland they come from. My family can trace its’ roots to County Limerick.

Now on a research high, I moved on to my next branch, Elizabeth Bradley, John C’s wife, my great grandmother. Both of her parents were born in New Jersey, and her Father had my new favorite name for hipster babies, Reverdy Bradley. Isn’t that great! Anyway, Elizabeth was one of nine, and her parents kept boarders, so there were 13 people living in their house in 1920! Reverdy’s parents were born in New York, but his wife Annie’s parents were both born in Ireland.

Born Annie Healy, her parents were Michael Healy and Bridget Fitzsimmons. They were married at St Mary’s in Jersey City, April 13, 1873. Annie was christened in the same church that September, and she was born in August, making Bridget four to five months pregnant at the wedding. After this the trails peter out, some people with the same name as Bridget’s father are listed in Irish records, and some Michael Healys are listed in ships records but nothing clear. The one other potential relation is a Mary Fitzsimmons born in 1869 to a Bridget Fitzsimmons in Cavan Ireland. If it is the same Bridget, she would have been 16 at the time of birth, and there are no records of Mary ever arriving in the United States.

That’s not bad for the information I had and only using online resources, but it should be better. Every single family I found in US census records was massive, I should have dozens of second cousins, but my mother’s family never talked about themselves. My mother only learned the names of my grandmother’s parents from me. I can only assume that these things weren’t talked about because of the anti-Irish prejudice that would have been prominent in my families lives. They lived exclusively in the New York metropolitan area, an area absolutely filled with poor Irish refugees and the older established Americans did not want them there. And they would have stuck out as clearly Irish, with names like Annie and Bridget, followed by Bradley or O’Connor, and far more kids than any other ethnic group, they would never have been able to ‘pass’ for anything else.

But what did I learn about my family really? For starters this side of my family has been in America a lot longer than I’d ever thought, the one relative I did know about made me the third generation born in America and I assumed that would be pretty standard, as it turns out John C was the exception. Most branches of my family had been in the US for six generations before me, and only one sliver of my family went through Ellis Island. But now I have a location in Ireland, and that is something concrete that I am proud to be able to incorporate into my idea of my family.

lead miners and pig farmers

On the side of my family I’m not related to, I have the exact opposite configuration, lots of mythology that I can’t for the life of me turn into database results. So the mythology. I am the seventh generation Johnson to be born in America. One segment of my family can trace itself back to Jamestown, they’re called the Huddlestowns and were Scottish, but overwhelmingly this side is German. This squares with what I know, German immigrants were rather richer when they emigrated, they fled not poverty but unification and the loss of property to a centralizing government so they were able to get themselves to the plains where land was cheap to free for white people willing and able to work on it. According to family legend, some of these ancestors were small time princes, this sounds impressive until you learn that the rapidly unifying Germany had been composed of up to 300 small states, so yeah maybe, they wouldn’t have been royalty but being a landowner who called himself a prince had a modicum of control over local government isn’t impossible. This bourgeois family history also explains some of the family habits, going back at least three generations everyone had a college degree, even the women, and music was always important. It had to be if you had two pianos in frontier Missouri in the 1850s.

There are facts mixed up in the unconfirmable. My great grandfather was the first superintendent of the Leadwood, Missouri school district, and his wife taught in a one room school house for years. So the family was clearly privileged, but on the other hand there is mythology that praises a certain degree of what is perhaps best described as redneck pride. When asked what the family does they said they were lead miners and pig farmers, this isn’t the redneck pride part but it is weird.

Leadwood Missouri was founded as a company town by the St Joe Lead company and was apparently one of the most important lead mines in the world for a time. Nowadays it has a population of about 1,000 and is held as the spiritual home of the Johnson family. So the setting makes sense for lead mining, but I’ve never actually had a relative be able to say who exactly it was in the family who mined lead, and it frankly doesn’t make sense that they would have been lead miners if they were educated enough to become superintendent or a teacher. Mining is dangerous and difficult, and especially in company towns in the frontier in the 1800s not well paid. So I don’t really think my family was mining lead, but it was very important to them to say they were, so they clearly wanted to be seen as down to earth and of the people, in the same way you can see Republicans today get all homesy in Iowa.

But what about that redneck stuff? Yes that, Leadwood is in the South of Missouri, and Missouri was of course a slave state but it did not join the Confederacy during the Civil War. This made some of my great-uncles very angry, so they went and joined it by themselves and fought for the South. Apparently even decades later, some members of my family would stand and face the south and remove their hats whenever the song Dixie was played. Going from that I am certain that members of my family were in the Ku Klux Klan, given how widespread it was during the late 1800s and early 1900s and the sympathies (or rather lack thereof) of those family members, I’m probably not as far removed in time from card carrying racists as I would like to be.

Finally though, there are those family stories that don’t fit into a narrative, because ultimately families aren’t narratives, they’re collections of interconnected short stories that don’t form a unified voice. One of these is about an uncle who was probably not in the KKK. He apparently married a Cherokee woman, I know every white American claims to be part Cherokee and I’m a little skeptical too, but hear me out. They apparently didn’t have kids and when they eventually died, the cemetery wouldn’t let her be buried on its grounds. She was supposedly buried just outside the fence, which makes me think this one might be true, if your going to make up a Native ancestor you presumably don’t use it as an opportunity to show how racist and petty your community is right? Then there was someone’s girlfriend who was going to come over for Sunday lunch after church, this must have been in the 50s, she got to the door, and the man of the house wouldn’t let her in because she had red lipstick or shoes or something. Anyway, it was a harlot’s color and she was not allowed to come and be near the children with it.

I’ve always loved family histories, I blame American Girl, Dear America, the Princess Diaries, and Little House on the Prairie, I read all of them constantly, and the things I heard about my own history always seemed so much rawer than what these children’s books provided. I’d like to one day collect all of the legends and write it down, I think it’d be an interesting project. Until then, where do you come from? Or where do you believe you come from? I’ll write you again tomorrow, until then ❤


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