Monday, September 30, 2013

John McGrath - Luck of the Irish

John McGrath died the day the Titanic hit the iceberg, April 14, 1912.  He wasn't on it. It's just interesting to note things like that.  He had been in the US for at least 55 years. Before he married Rachel Simmons in 1858, I have no record of John, but he may have been somewhere in New York.  Where they got married is a mystery.  Just like in a movie, I think they must have been married by a circuit preacher or wagon train master. 

His birth year varies on records from 1821 to 1841, but the family notes I found in the old trunk in the attic had his birth date as June 24, 1831, born in Ireland.  In the 1860, 1870 and 1880 censuses his birth year figures to be about 1830 and his birth place is always Ireland.  But by 1900 those stats start to change a little.  On the 1897 marriage affidavit he gives his age as 56, born in Ireland.  He was marrying a 51 year old woman, I can understand him not admitting to the age of 67.  In the 1900 census his age is 64 not 69, born in New York.  His death certificate has his age "85 yrs or there about" (81 by my math) and birth place Ireland, his son-in-law Levi Patterson provided the information. The grave stone has his birth year as 1821 which would make him 91 at his death. Incorrect information, plus the look of the grave stone, just makes me think that it was placed several years later. 

Not being able to get a marriage record, I thought I would try for some birth records of their children.  His son, Art, was born in Henry, Illinois in October of 1876.  Birth certificates were not filed in Marshall County that early.  So hoping to find a birth announcement (with no luck), I searched the Henry Republican newspaper and just happened to find this newsy paragraph from May 18, 1876. That last sentence makes me think John was a little annoyed. But this little clipping tells me that he owned land in Illinois, I'd like to find out more about that.

On a beautiful sunny September Friday in 2005, I took a rare family history vacation day and drove from Grand Island to Broken Bow on Scenic Highway 2.  It's a beautiful drive up into the Sandhills, I love it up there.  I went in to the County Clerk's office and asked to look at land records to find out if John McGrath was a homesteader.  The Clerk showed me to the dusty old books and helped me get started and soon I found the McGrath name. The Clerk gave me this plat mat and marked where the land is.   He also tried to tell me how to get there coming in from the north, but I just wasn't sure how I would really know it if I saw it.  I grew up on country roads in a very flat part of Nebraska where the roads are all laid out on a square grid.  The roads in the Sandhills don't have intersections every mile.  I sat in my car debating whether or not to take the drive.  Time wasn't a problem, and it was such a gorgeous day it would be a nice drive anyway.  Then I noticed the line that ran through the part he marked (I marked the line I'm talking about with two red marks).
 A horizontal line with like a T every so often.  It went all the way over to the road south of Oconto.  The idea came to me that maybe that line meant a railroad, so I went back into the Clerk's office and asked him. He said, "No...(major disappointment) but I think it's an overhead power line."  With a huge smile, I thanked him and set out on my road trip!  I decided to go south of Oconto and then west, the dark blue line I have marked.  Following the curves in the road to the point of his mark, and with the power lines overhead there, I was sure I had found John McGrath's homesteaded land - at least a part of it.  I stopped my car on the road and took pictures.  Normally, I would have liked not to have those power lines in the photo, but I was glad to see them that day.  Climbing over the fence and walking around did occur to me, but I was by myself and didn't know what to do with my car.  There was no where to hide it.

So I sent to the Bureau of Land Management for his Homestead claim documents.  The claim was filed in North Platte on October 12, 1888 for the East half of the Southwest quarter and lots numbered 3 and 4 of Section 18 in Township 13 North of Range 23 West of the Sixth principal meridian in Nebraska containing 151 acres and eighty-three hundredths of an acre.  He built a 20 x 22 sod house, sod stable, grainery, chicken coop, well, windmill and pump, cellar and corral.  My Mom has a photo of the Homestead taken by Solomon D Butcher, which can also be found through the LIbrary of Congress, American Memory project here.  

In this "Testimony of Claimant" form, John states he was born in New York, not Ireland as in the early census records.  He established actual residence on that property in March, 1888 with "myself, wife & boy", that would be Rachel and Art.  Question #9 is "What is the character of the land?  Is it timber, mountainous, prairie, grazing or ordinary agricultural land?  State its kind and quality, and for what purpose it is most valuable"  The written answer is "Rolling farming & grazing land & very poor at that". Now I can tell from John's signature at the bottom of the page, that someone else wrote these answers.  For some reason, I can just hear a grumpy old man telling whoever was writing it to "make sure you put that in there!"  This is his signature.
Two other men filed "Testimony of Witness" forms, Alonzo Patterson and Henry Brown. Both men answered "yes" to "Have claimant and family resided continuously on the homestead since first establishing residence thereon".  These are dated April 27, 1895. But when Rachel died in June 1896, they were residing on the "Brown & Hughes farm east of town".  Maybe they moved closer to Cozad when Rachel became ill to be closer to a doctor. The Brown of "Brown & Hughes" could be Henry Brown.  John sold the land in 1909.

I have never found an obituary for John, but I have his will.  Dated March 25, 1912, he left $1.00 to each of his 3 children and "the rest of his property of every kind and description" to his grand daughter Nellie Patterson.  Actually Nellie Patterson was a grand daughter-in-law, but I think there were 2 Nellie Patterson's and I'm not sure which one he meant.  He made no mention of his wife, Susan, she had not been living with him for seven years. But she did attempt to get her portion of his estate.  Art requested reimbursement for some medical expenses in the amount of $211.50, which seems to have been denied.  The funeral expenses totaled $69.00 for a casket, burial robe and use of a hearse.  The funeral expenses were paid, Susan got $200, the Executor's fees were $85 and Nellie Patterson received $318.25 and a promissory note for $50 payable to her.  Whether his children received their $1.00 it doesn't say. 

After finding out about his second marriage from the Will documents, I got this copy of the marriage record from Custer County.  It has John's parents as Arthur (his son's name) and "R McCarty".  Knowing his firstborn daughter's name was Mary Rebecca, I ventured a guess that the R stands for the name Rebecca.  I entered her name in my software as "R (Rebecca?)", and it's in my Rootsweb World Connect Tree that way. It's even noted that I am assuming that's her name.  I have seen a few trees in Ancestry that have her name as "R Rebecca".   

With the story about the wolves, the remark about the land being very poor and the fact that he gave his children $1 in his will, I get the impression that John McGrath could gripe about it all right along with the Walter Matthau & Jack Lemmon characters from "Grumpy Old Men".  Not as mean as the "warped, frustrated, old man" Henry F. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life!", but a guy with a pessimistic attitude.  That attitude may have made its genetic way down to me, my first reaction is most often negative.  But give me a minute to think and I might see things better.  John may not have had the best of luck in his life, but at least he didn't come over on the Titanic. 


  1. Laura: This has been a very interesting and instructive mini-series on your search for John McGrath. I now see why the power lines in the photo were not really a distraction, but rather were guideposts to discovery! :-) I also like the way you weave references to well-known movie characters into your story to give readers a common understanding of what you are conveying. I might steal that technique. ;-)

    Please have a look at today's Saturday Serendipity on The Prism when you have a chance.

    1. Thank you John, I appreciate your comments and the Serendipity! Movies are my second favorite passion. Right or wrong, I like to include a reference - just because I can.