Waking John McCartan: the search for my Irish roots

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William and Marie McCartan. (Courtesy Ancestry.com.)
William and Marie McCartan on their wedding day.  This picture was submitted by a distant relative of mine. (Courtesy Ancestry.com.)

The Daughters of the American Revolution is a society of women who can trace their lineage back to veterans of the American Revolution. I am neither a woman, nor the descendant of a Revolutionary veteran — in fact, I come from a long legacy of Irish laborers, coal mining immigrants raised in the roguish underbelly of America, the gangs and rioters from the age of Molly Maguires — but on Thursday, I asked the DAR and the Williamsburg Regional Library to help me trace my lineage back to our revolutionary America, the America of my Irish ancestors.

Members of DAR, in partnership with WRL, were volunteering their time and genealogy skills for their national day of service.  When I arrived to WRL I was shown the biography, local history, and reference sections.  The library is home to local newspaper articles dating back centuries, and its reference section features books with titles such as, “Notable Southern Families,” “Virginia Historical Genealogies,” and “Mayflower Families.”  While my family was neither a Mayflower family, nor very notable for that matter, I was still hoping to find enough information to write their story.

I soon met with Virginia Lee, Regent of the Williamsburg Chapter of DAR, and Charlotte Burcher, Adult Services Librarian at WRL. Lee had just finished helping another eager history-seeker when I arrived and she was happy to put DAR and its Revolutionary War database at my disposal. Unfortunately I could not trace my family tree back to the American Revolution, but there were other ways to discover my roots.

Armed with very little information- the names of my maternal great-great-grandparents, as well as their years of birth- we were able to uncover a stunning amount about their lives.

John J. McCartan. (Ancestry.com.)
John J. McCartan. (Ancestry.com.)

My great-great-grandfather John J. McCartan was born in County Down, Ireland in 1844.  I already knew that at some point in his life he immigrated to America, but after seeing his name in the 1861 Canadian census I found that the United States was not his first destination.  At the time he immigrated to Canada, he was 17 and single, but by the 1870 census McCartan was living in Philadelphia, had married Johanna Mary Barnes, and fathered four children.

“I like to trace the family through the census and see where they are every ten years,” was a piece of advice Lee gave me, and we adhered to that plan.

Unfortunately, tracing McCartan to the 1880 census revealed a great deal about how difficult the previous decade had been for him.  By 1880, my great-great-grandfather had married his second wife, Johanna Barnes of Vermont, because his first wife died in her early 30s, some time between 1870 and 1880.  Something that piqued my interest was the fact that none of the four children from McCartan’s first wife were living in his household in 1880, although all would have been between ages eleven and eighteen.

In ten years, my great-great-grandfather had lost a wife, left four children and likely lost a home. By 1880, he had moved to McKean County in northwestern Pennsylvania, and the census listed McCartan’s occupation as “teaming,” which likely meant that he worked in one of central Pennsylvania’s many coal mines. The latter decades of the 18th century were a challenging time for Irish immigrants, and my great-great-grandfather was no exception.

“Conditions were terrible in the Pennsylvania mines – safety regulations were non-existent or neglected,” read one description of the time and place in which my great-great grandfather lived. “Northeastern Pennsylvania was in many ways like the Wild West. An isolated region with towns that had few, if any, police and constant conflict between the coal operators and their workers, disputes were settled by the men who took action.”

By 1900, McCartan’s life seems to have improved considerably.  At age 56, he owned a home and had six children with Johanna, including my great-grandfather, William, who was 19.  The family continued to live in McKean County for a generation — and both McCartan and his son William’s occupations were listed as simply “day laborer.”

Johanna Barnes McCartan. (Courtesy Ancestry.com.)
Johanna Barnes McCartan. (Courtesy Ancestry.com.)

McCartan was beginning to embody the American dream. Census data indicated that he became a fruit farmer in 1910 and operated his own business.  He was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in the years prior to the dawn of the 20th century.  Lee, Charlotte and I were able to find his death certificate, which showed us that he died in 1920 in Warren, Pennsylvania at age 76 from chronic myocharditis, an inflammation or damage to the heart muscle. He was survived by his wife Johanna, who died in 1928, and ten of his twelve children born from his two marriages.

Born in 1881, my great-grandfather William McCartan remained in McKean County for virtually his entire life.  At some point in his early adult years he became a railroad clerk, a position he would hold until retirement. He married Marie Ellen Smith at age 23, and the two had five children together. Perhaps my favorite moment of research was when I saw my grandfather’s name, Bernard, first appear in census data- as a one-year-old in 1920. I was born when my grandfather was 70, and it was surreal to see a record of him as a newborn.

At this point I was satisfied with our search.  We had gone back four generations, mapped out their lives, struggles, and families, and successfully traced a link to a relative I had personally known and loved.  Fortunately for me, the best was yet to come.

WIlliam and Marie McCartan. (Courtesy Ancestry.com.)
WIlliam and Marie McCartan. (Courtesy Ancestry.com.)

We were also able to find photographs of John and Johanna, and William and Marie.  I had to pinch myself as I looked at direct ancestors of whom I had no photos in family albums. My mother was one of ten children, and I chuckled as I noted resemblances between my aunts and uncles and those who came before them in the photos.

I was able to find all of this data through WRL resources.  WRL has a subscription to Ancestry.com, and anyone with a library card- as I do- is able to use the website at any library computer for free.  Lee and Burcher showed me how to access it through the library’s website.  Hovering over a drop-down menu labeled “What We Have” will reveal a “research and databases” link.  We clicked the link, and followed another link named “Genealogy and Bio.”  This page provides several research options for library cardholders, including Ancestry.com, local obituary indexes, and access to over 300,000 biographies.

The library has two computers designated specifically for genealogy, and the librarians are willing and able to help you with your own search. I only hope it proves as fruitful as mine.