Hiding in the Branches


This week I invited inveterate ancestry devotee Mary Dolan to share her experience digging out her ancestor’s secrets.

Genealogy is mainstream. The British series Who Do You Think You Are and its American counterpart and Henry Louis  Gates’ African American Lives and Faces of America entertain us with celebrities discovering their often humble and always surprising roots. I’ve enjoyed these shows, but I am more entertained by what I’ve discovered hiding in the branches of my own family tree.

My documented family history begins in the mid 1800s when my eight great grandparents were swept across the Atlantic in the tsunami of Irish fleeing the Great Famine.  Eventually they all landed on the shores of Iowa.

Great-grandfather John Duffy and great-grandmother Margaret McLaughlin married in 1864 and produced my maternal grandmother Ellen who produced my mother Mary Ellen who produced me.  Here’s some of what I’ve discovered while researching this family.

From my mother, I knew two facts about John Duffy–he lived to his mid 90s and he taught himself to read and write after he arrived in America. What I discovered: John Duffy was 20 years old when he immigrated with his parents, Patrick and Alice, his eleven brothers, and three sisters. The twelve brothers with their Biblical names were referred to as The Twelve Apostles in their community. The father Patrick  and sons homesteaded (each farmed 160 acre parcels). The road that bordered  their adjacent farms is named Duffy Road.

All I knew from my mother about Margaret was her name-Margaret McLaughlin. What I discovered: Margaret immigrated alone. Margaret ‘s obituary says she arrived in Boston as a 16 year old and remained in Boston for 5 years. She was likely an indentured servant working off her passage. After the five years of servitude were completed, she traveled to Iowa where she had a married sister.

My grandmother talked about her five sisters and two brothers. What I discovered: My grandmother had seven sisters, but two were killed in a horrific fire that also disfigured Margaret’s face. Here is a description from the May 1, 1884 Iowa Bulletin Journal, Independence, Iowa:

“A heart-rending calamity occurred Friday night of last week for the family of John Duffy…Every member of the family was badly burned and will bear to their graves the marks of the experience of that terrible night. But Mrs. Duffy and a six-year-old child whom she carried out in her arms are very seriously hurt…Their faces are so disfigured as to be unrecognizable, and the burns on other portions of their bodies are deep and serious.”

In another article, the reporter describes how 12-year-old Lizzie turned back for baby Burt, not knowing that her father had already carried Burt to safety. When the second floor collapsed, Lizzie tumbled to a fiery death.  Rose, the six-year-old in her mother’s arms, died a few weeks later.

John Duffy sired 10 children and lived to his mid 90s. What I discovered: One sister, Bridget, and John’s eleven brothers also lived long lives and had large families. In 1914 their family reunion was newsworthy.

Largest Family Yet On Record.An interesting compilation of figures, estimating the number of Duffy relatives was made at the large Duffy reunion held at the old homestead five miles north of Fairbank, Sunday, and the list probably exceeds that of any other family in this part of the country.  The father of the family was Patrick Duffy, who died 25 years ago, leaving twelve sons and one daughter. Since that time there have been no deaths in the family’s ranks and the aggregate number of offspring reported by the thirteen is 168.  The grandchildren are about 200, hence there were over 300 in attendance at the gathering last Sunday.  [ Waterloo [Iowa] Evening Courier and Reporter, August 20, 1914

A happy spinoff of this research has been connecting to a number of living relatives, all of us descendents of the 168 offspring mentioned in the article. In addition to genealogy, we’ve shared pictures and family stories.

So go ahead–find those ancestors hiding in the branches of your family tree. You’ll be glad you did.





1 Comment

  1. Absolutely amazing. That is a huge family! You will need a panoramic camera for the photo at that family reunion!

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