Tag Archives: family

Happy St. Pat’s

So many Americans can claim significant Irish ancestry it sometimes seems to lose its uniqueness as an identity or shared heritage. Estimates are that over seven million souls emigrated to America from Ireland over the last three centuries, over a million making the journey from 1846 to 1851, during the Great Famine, where another million perished (Laxton, 1997). Today, perhaps upward of forty million Americans have Irish ancestry.

I am at least one-third Irish. The Dugans in the Songs were inspired by my maternal grandfather’s Irish family, primarily through his father, though his mother’s family shared a very similar experience (the Farrells, Bayeses, and Calahans are in her ancestral tree). Through this man I receive one-quarter of my DNA, and it is all Irish.

Last St. Patrick’s Day Vice President Joe Biden said, ”So my mom . . . Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden, used to say . . . to be Irish is about family, it’s about faith, but most of all, it’s about courage, for without courage, you cannot love with abandon.” And I see all this in my grandfather’s family. In fact, this is much of what the Songs are about.

Year: 1851; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 095; Line: 2; List Number: 80

Year: 1851; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 095; Line: 2; List Number: 80

This, for example, is the ship’s manifest for the Mullins family, where my great-great grandfather is listed as fifteen years old. Along with him are brothers Michael and David, little Roddie, mother Mary, and sister Margaret. They arrived in January of 1851 on the Colonist, one of five thousands ships to make the crossing during those six years. But it wasn’t until these latter years that autumn and winter crossings became the norm, for obvious reasons. A single mother facing the Atlantic in winter, having suffered starvation for months if not years, now living off a pound of food a day in crammed quarters rife with illness. One word comes to mind: desperation.

But a few others, also: Faith, love, family, and courage.

But their hardships were far from over. Where we might consider them simply “white” on every day except St. Patrick’s Day in today’s America, the Irish in 1850s northeastern cities were vilified, demonized, and considered one step above slaves in the social hierarchy of the times. Referred to as “bog-trotters,” “Paddys,” and “white niggers,” they were considered a scourge in New England cities.

Which is why so many of them came to Kansas in the 1850s, 60s, and beyond. Patrick moved to Kansas in 1857 with his new wife, Maria, and in their neighborhood were the Kelleys, Finnegans, Colgans…the list goes on, and it was known as “Irish Point.”

Patrick Mullins didn’t get there easily, as I’ve written before. In fact, he didn’t own land until 1866, having arrived in 1857. What did he do in the meantime?

Atchison Globe, March 1917.

Atchison Globe, March 1917.

He trudged to California and back. This article evidences so, as does this 1860 census record, which lists him as a “teamster.” Starving as a boy, crossing a frozen ocean as a teenager, half the continent as a young husband, and now and an entire wilderness behind a team of oxen as a new father.

1865 Kansas State Census. Microfilm reels K-1 – K-8. Kansas State Historical Society.

1865 Kansas State Census. Microfilm reels K-1 – K-8. Kansas State Historical Society.








For faith, love, family, and courage.

I find this inspiring enough to base large parts of several novels on it, but the truth is that the story of the Mullinses, and the Dugans, is a very common one in America. And we actually needn’t look to history to understand it. All we have to do is look at what is the current giant wave of American immigration: the Latin Americans. In 2010 there were over twenty-one million souls currently residing in America who were born in Latin American or the Caribbean. And over eleven million of them were born in one nation: Mexico (U.S. Census, 2010).

Indeed, one can see the current wave of Mexican national immigration as very similar to the Irish wave of the 19th century. Fleeing economic depression, violence, underemployment and corruption, they risk everything for their families. This is courage, and love, just as Biden says.

More on that next time.

 Laxton, Edward (1997). The famine ships: The Irish exodus to America. Holt: New York.

On Nellie Part 4

I still have a few records to hunt down, but it’s quite likely I’ll never know what really happened to Ellen “Nellie” Farrell, my great-great grandmother. I know she was “adjudged insane” in 1886, just weeks after her baby boy died. The cause of that insanity is probably lost to history.

Elizabeth Packard

Elizabeth Packard

History has an unpleasant story to tell about “insanity” in women in the 19th century, too. One of the more infamous stories comes from “Elizabeth Packard, who differed with the theology of her clergyman husband, was forcibly placed in an Illinois state hospital. She remained there for 3 years. At that time, Illinois law stated that ‘married’ women could be hospitalized at a husband’s request without the evidence required in other cases” (NLM, Diseases of the Mind). After her release she wrote three books, bringing public attention to the state of asylums in the United States.

Despite a truly benevolent beginning, asylums began to devolve by the time Elizabeth, and Nellie, experienced them. Misunderstanding and unfair, even masochistic, treatment of women in mental health was rampant throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. I still think other explanations are quite plausible, but circumstances suggest Nellie’s life in Topeka was grim and that she was likely committed for grief, not an uncommon occurrence: “The grief experienced after the death of a loved one and domestic troubles were also diagnoses given to women (Pouba & Tianen, 2006).”

This may not surprise many of us, and I suppose that is a good thing. Understanding the injustices of the past may help us avoid them now, and in the future. But for it to be so personal, in my family, is an odd experience. Adding to this discomfort is the possibility my great-great grandfather had something to do with it: “Women diagnosed with insanity by domestic troubles were frequently admitted by their husbands (Pouba & Tianen, 2006).” Perhaps just as Ms. Packard’s husband did.

I will look into Kansas law at the time, but if Nellie’s husband’s testimony is what lead to her being committed, this is the image of that man. Edward Hugh Farrell, my great-great grandfather.

Despite his beard, I don’t think it’s fair to automatically assign nefarious purposes to him.

Edward Hugh Farrell

Edward Hugh Farrell

Compassion for him within me suggests he may have been scared by his wife’s grief, grieving for his son himself, lonely, lost, ignorant, and subject to the influence of his community and culture.

But Nellie, oh Nellie. To grieve, to be torn away from your family, and die young in an institution among strangers. Life in the 1880s had plenty of suffering to offer humans, as it always has and always will, but this is a particularly terrifying, and all to common, offering. And certainly one of the darker stories in my family history that will lead to something in the Songs.

On Nellie, Part 3

1900 Census, Topeka State "Insane Asylum"

1900 Census, Topeka State Hospital

I now think that Nellie was still in the hospital as of the 1900 U.S. Census. This record lists her birthday as September of 1858, which would have made her 27 years old when she was “adjudged insane” in 1886, which matches the newspaper report. It also lists her as “Ellen,” which matches the tombstone. This record also indicates she is the mother of 3, with 2 surviving children (which would account for John’s death at 6 months). So, I think the date of birth in the cemetery is wrong, but that it is her grave, and this is she, in 1900.


There are definitely many remaining questions. A closer look reveals she reports she is married in 1900, but the Family Search HTML record shows she is married for one year. My understanding is that her husband, Edward, left Kansas and remarried. Perhaps they divorced and Nellie remarried, too. But on closer inspection, I’m not so sure the “1” interpreted by FamilySearch (either an indexer or an automatic OCR system) is correct.


It sure looks like a “1,” (circled in red on the black line) but it has tails on either side, and the vast majority of the “1s” in the document do not, such as that just to its upper-right, also circled in red. It’s also interesting that at least 7 of these people have this two-tailed “1” listed as their “number of years married.” So, there was either something in the hospital water in 1899, or this character is not a “1,” but something else. Perhaps shorthand for “person doesn’t know how long they’ve been married,” or something like that…??

I feel I now know where she is buried, that she was in the hospital until her death. But what really led to her being “adjudged insane?” I’m contacting the Kansas State Historical Society to see what parts of her records I can view, and I’ll track down her husband and kids (one of them being my great-grandmother Mabel), but I’ve a feeling Nellie will remain largely a mystery to me.

Great fodder for writing. But sad.


On Nellie, Part 2

The more I look into the life of my great-great grandmother, the sadder I feel it must have been. As I wrote last time, I don’t yet know what became of her after 1886. Much less what precipitated her “insanity,” as the courts deemed it.

NelliesgraveMy great-aunt, before I decided I shouldn’t ask more about it, told me “Nellie” was a nickname and that she was buried at Mt. Calvary Cemetery with her mother. She told me her mother (Nellie’s daughter) would not speak of her mother, but her father told her this, and also that she died around the age of 36, the speculation being suicide.

I believe this may be her grave. It is adjacent to Nellie’s mother’s, I know that, and it’s the final resting place of a 34 year-old woman named “Ellen.” Her birthdate does not match that of the woman in the article, however, who in 1886 was reported to be 27. The woman interred here would have been 20. One or the other could be wrong. Or perhaps this isn’t her grave.

The Topeka State Hospital where she was likely sent did keep records of those who perished there during the late 19th century. There is no Ellen or Nellie Farrell recorded in cemetery records. The closest match is a woman listed as “Nellie Fennell,” who died on this day, in  fact, in 1937. Perhaps this is her. But I think the grave in Atchison is more likely.JohnFarrell

If so, what is saddest is that just to the right of Ellen’s grave is this one–that of a 6 month old boy, John E. Farrell. It lists him as passing away on June 28, 1886. Just two weeks before Nellie was “adjudged insane.” Could it be she was simply grieving for her son? The article reports her symptoms developing “about a month ago,” which would be a couple weeks before John’s death. Maybe he was sick? It also reports that she would not let her mother or husband touch her children. Could it be he was sick and she felt they were worsening his condition? Maybe they were? Or, perhaps something entirely different happened. Maybe she suffered from post-partum depression and actually had something to do with John’s demise.

Ultimately, I am writing a fictional character in the Second Song, so whatever I uncover in history will only point me in directions, and I will choose what seems best for the novel. But I’m also now utterly intrigued, and will continue trying to figure out what happened to Nellie Farrell.

On Nellie, Part 1

Picture1Because the Songs of the Jayhawk are a trilogy, I sometimes have to think ahead to the next book as I am plotting. Characters I’m currently writing about, and their children, will bring their experiences from these passages with them into future passages. And those passages are not only not written yet; I really have no idea what they will be about. Most of the time anyway. It strikes me that writing these books, in this respect, is sort of like living them, as well. The past is carried into an always unknown and oftentimes unpredictable future.

In the Second Song, coming 2015, the Dugans and Hawkinses are joined in their Township by many other families. Maria’s mother and sister, her uncle and his family are among them. The quarter-section directly to the north of the Hawkins farm is claimed by a man with a markedly younger wife and their daughter. This daughter is two or three years old, and I know she is going to play a crucial role in the Third Song. Just what that role will be, I’m not quite sure yet.

I do know that the life of this girl is going to be inspired by my understanding of one of my great-great grandparents, my grandfather’s mother’s mother. There are nubs of memories of family stories somewhere within me, but it wasn’t until a few years ago, when an uncle sent this newspaper article from 1886, that I learned she was committed to the Topeka State Mental Hospital that year. The article reports she “started setting small fires to the house,” and later “failed to recognize her husband and mother.” And even more painful is that she would not let them touch her children. So sad. So incredibly sad, and mysterious. What became of her after 1886, I am just not sure.

By the time I learned this, my grandpa was too ill with Alzheimer’s to ask, and in talkiPicture2ng to his sister, I realized that while she did have, and share, some information, it was painful to talk about. In fact, I believe I was insensitive in even raising the issue. These are the best sorts of stories for a writer, but not so much for a family member. A line I am always aware of in my writing, especially when I cross it.

For now, I am following a few leads to try and find what became of her, and in the meantime letting this information, the characters around her, and my own imagination shape and form this young girl in the Second Song.

On Family, On History, and Family History

Last week the man who sparked my interest in Kansas history passed away at 97. James Henry Mullins Jr. was the father of nine, grandfather of twenty, and great-grandfather of 25. And we were all there this weekend, in Atchison, to celebrate the life of a man who, despite these impressive numbers in his progeny, was only with one person at a time. You. When you were speaking with him, he was only with you. At both the rosary and the funeral, two uncles and the priest all spoke of how grandpa taught us all how to be a family. They spoke of how accepting he was of difference, his quiet demeanor, his dry sense of humor. I don’t remember anyone ever seeming to feel judged by him, belittled in any way, or ignored. He would sit, or stand next to you, and when you spoke there was nothing else on his mind but what you were saying. He made all his grandchildren feel as if he loved them most of all. That is how he taught us to be a family, because it isn’t always easy: when you are with someone, be with them. Don’t let your mind take you somewhere else, some other time. Even if you’re a novelist.

The day of the rosary three of his sons and three of his grandsons (including me) played his favorite golf course–once a cow pasture, a course he helped found in the 60s–and I could feel him as I stepped onto the tee-box on 1, overlooking the broad, sloping fairway; in the northerly wind as it spread the old oak leaves on 4; but mostly, as I kneeled on the 9th green and watched my uncles, and my cousins, as they shared this cool, sunny afternoon together. We were doing what he seemed always to do–just being together. Just being. And he was with me. He is with me now, as I write this, folded back gently into the God from which he came in 1917. And now, as I’ve returned to Denver, my job and commute and parenting, and all my 44 cousins and 7 surviving aunts and uncles return to their lives (not to mention the countless friends of the family who spent the weekend with us) and Facebook is flooded with pictures of the weekend, I’m reminded to do just that–just be.

The characters in the Second Song, as well as the first, struggle with this as well, of course. Monsters from their past, their future, thoughts of what they should be or should have been torment them. But every now and then, perhaps on a porch with family, it all dissolves away. These are the most precious moments in any life, in any age. I’ve written about this before, but something about history and family history also compels me to just be.

This photo is of Mabelgrandpa’s mom, Mabel Mullins, her sister Edith, and a family friend with her son. It’s just like so many of the pictures flooding my social media world today, various groupings of sisters and cousins and uncles and second-cousins, just being together. And it leaves me to believe that grandpa would have it no other way, except that this being would transcend familial ties. I think he would ask us all to see that time, and place, and blood, are all transcended. If we decided, here and now, to just be.