Standing on the Bones of My Ancestors

As the human race zooms towards the 7 billion mark, it is interesting to remember that our survival was never assured. In fact there is evidence that suggests that several times throughout its history our species almost became extinct, with as few as 26,000 individuals 1.2 million years ago. The myth that we all descended from a single woman in Africa may not be completely true, but it does highlight the truth that at certain bottlenecks in the past our species came close to dying out. Yet our ancestors managed to navigate through those dangerous times, surviving through skill, determination and of course luck.

Although I’m the youngest of six I am the family historian. Being the resident genealogist isn’t easy, especially when it has become imperative that I capture old stories and the names of people in old photographs before the eldest living members pass on. This task is made all the more difficult when people simply don’t care about the past. As my wife’s grandmother once told her before she became one of them, “Why do you want to know about all those old dead people for?” Maybe it’s because we recognize that what poetess and avant garde musician Laurie Anderson says is true, we die three times: First when our body dies, next when everyone we knew dies, and finally when the last person says our name. At least for family historians, our ancestors will never die because we repeat their names numerous times, searching for information about them, trying to understand their lives and the times in which they lived. Usually the dead refuse to speak and rarely give up their secrets. Such silence becomes an obsession only another historian can understand.

For 12 years I have searched for the parents of my great-grandfather, an Irishman with a French name, Maurice Kirwin. Over the years I have mapped out his residences, the various jobs he held, and the children he reared and sometimes buried. Although he started out humbly, by the time of his death in 1931 he had several children, grandchildren and even a smattering of great-grandchildren. Although I didn’t know how he was born, he died solidly middle class as a retired carpenter and home builder.

But I had no clue about his origins. He appears out of nowhere in a city directory in 1877 age 24 before the rest of his life is recorded in public records and censuses. I scoured online records for St. Louis in the 1860s and 1870s but could not find him. He consistently claimed he had been born on February 22, 1853 in Missouri, but in doubt I poured over emigration records from the 1850s finding nothing. He simply stepped out of the shadows of the past and became the patriarch of the family whose name I carry today and even passed down to my son. It isn’t much considering most everyone has a last name (Prince and Fabio are the exceptions that prove the rule), but the name Kirwin can trace its ancestry back to a long ago immigration from Celtic Spain to Celtic Ireland. It is considered one of the original 14 Tribes of Galway, but somewhere that link between Ireland and America was broken at Maurice.

As the years passed I began to suspect that the only way Maurice could appear in public records as an adult was to have been an orphan as a child, so I began to pursue that thread. Unfortunately it didn’t take me very far because orphanage records weren’t meant to be looked at by the future public. Some remain inaccessible except by court order even 150 years later; others have little helpful information – often simply a name and an arrival date. The orphanages in St. Louis in the 1850s were filled with children. Some had lost their parents to Yellow fever epidemics that had raged through the city. Others had been dropped off by parents who could no longer afford to feed them. As I explored the records, it was difficult to restrain my imagination from conjuring up the horrors each entry must have felt walking through the entryway into a children’s home. Although I assume they had escorts when they crossed the threshold I have no doubt that they were alone when they entered.

Finally in frustration I decided to contact the St. Louis Catholic archdiocese. I told the pleasant but harried director of records my situation, and she promised to investigate for me. But before ending the call she asked an important question: Had I investigated everyone buried along with my Maurice? I had, but I humored her as she directed me to the cemetery website and plot in Maurice’s name. I had all the Kirwins buried in the cemetery for years, but the search came up with a result I hadn’t expected because I had never searched by a specific plot. Searching within Maurice’s plot there were several names I had missed – his granddaughters buried using their married names. I knew of them, although I hadn’t realized they had been buried with their grandparents. But I didn’t recognize one name: Margaret Savage.

Margaret Savage had been buried in 1909 at the age of 85 in the plot purchased by Maurice. I did the math and I realized that she was the right age to be his mother – but she could still be an aunt or even a family friend. Over the next two weeks I began researching Margaret Savage. As happens so often, I ended up spending a lot of research time on a Margaret Savage who was born the exact same month as “Maurice’s Margaret” but who left St. Louis and led a child-filled but quiet life in northeast Missouri. Such genealogical “goose chases” are common, and I’m on another one right now with an ancestor of the Wife, but it is impossible to know whether one is chasing poultry or the Truth until the very end of the chase.

After wasting time on the Margaret Savage records I decided to research Margaret Kirwin. I found exactly one record: a marriage entry by a priest certifying that on October 31, 1857 he had married Margaret Kirwin and John Savage.

Suddenly events began to unfold quickly. I searched John Savage in the 1860 census and found him, Margaret Savage, Christopher Savage, Maurice Savage and Hannah Savage. In the 1870 census I found no John but did find Margaret Savage, Maurice Savage, Hannah Savage, Anna Savage. The dates were exact; Maurice Savage was 7 in 1860, 17 in 1870 – as they should have been. In 1874 I found the death record of Christopher Kirwin – the exact same age as Christopher Savage, and in 1877 Maurice appears on his own as a Kirwin. Maurice wasn’t an orphan after all. He had been documented as a Savage.

During a visit to my family in St. Louis, a trip to the county library at first yielded nothing. I had only minutes left to devote to researching the dead before the obligations of the living took precedence, so I stopped searching old newspapers on microfilm for obituaries and went upstairs where the special collections are held. As I reached the top of the stairs I noticed a cabinet filled with microfilms of Missouri records from the 1850s, so I asked one of the librarians whether there were records that hadn’t been digitized. She explained that before the 1860s religious records were better, and after listening to a rambling description of my situation, handed me two rolls of microfilm containing Irish parish records.

The first one was a dud, but as I scrolled through the second and the chronology of baptisms rolled past, 12 years of searching came to an abrupt end. Two weeks after Maurice had been born, the priest in the largest Irish catholic church in the city, St. Patricks, had baptized him, and noted his father’s name, his mother’s name including maiden name, as well as the names of his sponsors. Maurice’s story was complete and could finally be told.

Thomas Kirwin and his wife Margaret arrived in St. Louis from Ireland with their infant son Christopher around 1851 (Records state Christopher was born in Ireland, and both the 1860 and 1870 censuses give his birth year as 1849). Two years later Maurice is born and baptized. Two years after Maurice a daughter is born, Hannah. But the little family would soon be ripped apart. In September 1855 Thomas dies of cholera, leaving Margaret with three young children (the death record appeared spontaneously on my ancestry.com family tree as soon as I joined Thomas to it). Just over two years later, John Savage marries Margaret and gives these three children a home (marriage record and 1860 census). In 1864 Margaret bears him a daughter, but he dies before the 1870 census, and for the rest of her days Margaret is known as Margaret Savage, widow of John (Gould’s city directories of various years). Then at the age of 85 she dies in an “accident” according to the burial notice in the St. Louis Globe Democrat, and is buried by her son in a plot he had originally purchased for his daughter, and where she and his beloved wife Ellen lay (Ellen’s obituary). Maurice wouldn’t join his family until burying several others in the plot including his young grandson, my uncle, who left my grandfather racked with guilt for his entire life because he drank the money his wife had given him to buy him new shoes. After he was buried, my grandmother was laid to rest there seven years later, and then the plot was forgotten, more easily so because Maurice never got around to buying a stone marker. My family moved southward out of the city and were buried in other cemeteries, and I was probably the first to visit it in decades when I sought it out and on a hot June afternoon stood atop the bones of my ancestors, including those of Maurice.

Kirwin family plot
Unmarked resting place for seven of my ancestors

Many things could have happened to my great-grandfather at that treacherous time soon after his father’s death. His mother could have succumbed to the temptation of leaving him and his siblings at one of the local orphanages. John Savage could have refused to care for them – as a maternal grandfather had refused to care for my grandmother’s nieces orphaned by the Flu Epidemic in 1918. He claimed he couldn’t afford to care for them, but he could afford enough booze to slap around my mother and grandmother to the point they hid in the closet when he came home from the local tavern on the weekends.

But Margaret stayed with her children and John opened his home to them. Because of their actions my great-grandfather survived and by all appearances had a successful life. Then the name was passed to my grandfather, who passed it to my father who passed it to me, and in a delivery room in Kyoto Japan on beautiful Autumn afternoon several years ago I passed it to my son. That afternoon was truly special; my wife passed along her name to him as well so our son has two great names with rich histories that I am gradually piecing together for him. I’ve even had the distinct pleasure of tracing her heritage back to the Norman Conquest of England, a legacy that my son now carries forward.

Although I am now more proud of my name than ever, I would be equally as proud to have been named Savage in honor of the man who protected my ancestors at a very perilous time. He is a complete stranger to me whose kindness over 150 years ago is still apparent today. And wherever he is, I hope that he knows that I appreciate it.

As for Margaret, a note of thanks is also due her. I will never know the details of her life. I can find her name written by a long dead census taker’s hand through the waning decades of the 19th century, but beyond that all I have is conjecture. I can imagine what it must have been like to be a widowed woman with three children under the age of seven in a new land that didn’t think highly of her nationality let alone her gender. She must have been extraordinary to keep her children secure as she did what she had to do including finding a second husband just over two years after losing her first. Then a decade or so later she would again be widowed and remain so for the next 40 years. I don’t know what role she played in the life of my grandfather who would have known her for over twenty years, but Maurice evidently thought enough of her to include her in his family’s burial plot. All it would have taken would have been a brief conversation between my grandfather and father, then another to me and I would have known. Instead I am left staring at handwritten public records, straining to hear whispers from the past.

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14 Comments

  1. timothy:

    That was very nice.

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  6. Dave Schuler:

    Genealogical research can be tricky. Researching my own Irish ancestors has proven frustrating, too. I’ve found that they had a rather casual attitude towards little details like year and place of birth.

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  9. Richard Ong:

    A pleasant story that I especially enjoyed as the historian of my own family. Two of my great aunts formed a successful insurance company in the 19th century so I don’t think this land and its people looked down on their sex.

  10. dahozho:

    I do this occasionally in my professional life as well as keeping tabs on what others in my family have done. My mother’s father and his family have been dedicated to family history and research for the last century. Sadly, my great uncle’s printing and family history papers were destroyed or sold by his children. We do have our “Red Book” that he published in the early 1980s, but obviously, it is badly in need of updating. On-line tools will make this much easier, when I can get to it. Thanks to my grandparents and parents, I know where my ancestors are buried back three generations (paternal) to the early 1600s (maternal, both here and in Surrey).

    In my working with/reviewing other communities’ work and knowledge, the continuity always seems to be only a generation away from being lost. The past is important—it can tell us so much, give us lessons, warnings, and positive examples. Where we have been can assist us on where we are and where we want to go with our lives. Too many people today simply don’t care, don’t see it as relevant. As a professional researcher/historian, I am constantly amazed at the information I gather and piece into narrative.

    As NARA’s motto goes, “the past is prologue.” Kudos to you on wrestling with your gr-grandfather’s story until you hit the right sources!! Beautiful. (And also interesting how far back families’ alcohol problems can be traced (in mine too)—but a very personal ‘hook’ in talking about those issues with your child (I’ll need to have those with mine as well).

    Actually, Margaret’s ethnicity and gender probably did ENORMOUSLY effect her ability to support three small children. Women of a certain class and background (Protestant and NOT Irish) had an easier time if they wanted to do something outside the home.

  11. Pj:

    Given that the family-history mantle has also passed to me, I really enjoyed this one, Scott. I am lucky enough to still have the family-tree I charted out with my grandmother as part of a fifth-grade social studies assignment (undoubtedly my most valuable homework of the year) back in 197x. Over the years I’ve been able to expand some branches beyond my wildest hopes, and remain frustrated by seemingly insurmountable brick-walls. Some of those walls, like your Kirwin/Savage dilemma, loom for years before finally finding that certain document… Still, I am excited by the idea of reviving these people from complete historical obscurity and placing them in their proper context. I hadn’t heard that great quote from Laurie Anderson, though I would argue genealogy offers the hope of resurrection.

    I know that St. Louis Country reading room well and have over the years also made multiple treks to Salt Lake City, the National Archives, Library of Congress, National Archives in Dublin, the Hessen archives in Darmstadt, and countless graveyards, libraries and municipal archives on two continents.

    Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked! Now you just have to take the Kirwins back across the ocean…

  12. Scott Kirwin:

    PJ
    I’m glad you liked it. I’m focused right now on my Bohemian side. My mother is 100% Bohemian; She didn’t realize that until I found that all of her ancestors claimed Bohemia as their country of origin in various censuses. Granted I’m sure that some of them were ethnic Germans, central Europe was pretty mixed up as you no doubt know, but I have found a new pride in the Czech republic. I hope to visit there sometime before I fall off my perch.

    Calvary cemetery, where my Irish ancestors lay, is quite beautiful. It’s just as nice as some of the old cemeteries in New Orleans. And nothing beats St. Louis and the state of Missouri when it comes to online records. I’m researching Linda’s ancestors (all English southerners) and it’s quite hard to do from here. I wonder why STL is big in genealogy. The Mormon influence? Maybe the Catholics too?

  13. Pj:

    Ah, that’s interesting! I’m actually delving really deeply into Czech/Bohemian genealogy at this very moment, due to my wife’s family history. We even visited the old family homestead (and took the cure at Karlsbad) with her father a couple of years ago. The various Czech archives are actually putting loads of documents on the internet, including church books. The only problem is that you need to know either Czech or German and have to be pretty good at the dreaded Suetterlin script. Ugh.

    I’d love to hear more. We should talk elsewhere about the details. Do you have town names?

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