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Breaking Down a Brick Wall Part 1 | Our Prairie Nest
Breaking Down a 26-Year Brick Wall: Part 1

After 26 years of wondering and guessing, digging and hypothesizing, flailing and sometimes giving up, it happened.

When I originally posted “2019: The Year I Find Emma” on January 4, 2019, my entire focus was on DNA. Would you believe that, after all these years, DNA was not what led me to answers? Instead, it was 3 of our most-often overlooked genealogical resources: burial, probate, and land records. I think we often focus on births, marriages, deaths, and census records for facts, but this experience is a reminder that all records are valuable.

I’d been trying for several years to get someone to take a critical look at my research and timeline on Great-Great Grandma Emma Anna (Murphy) (Reagan) Shaw, wife of Erastus Bartlett Shaw of Middleborough, Massachusetts. Sometimes another perspective will give us fresh insights and ideas. My questions were: 1. When and where was Emma born and 2. Who was her first husband? It was getting this outside perspective that led me to the records I needed to dismantle the wall I’d been staring at since I was 18.

From her 1888 marriage to Erastus to the 1970 death certificate of my great-grandfather Harrison Shaw, every piece of evidence offered conflicting information on her place and date of birth. Was it Nova Scotia, Maine, or Massachusetts? And were her parents born in Massachusetts, Maine, Canada, England, Ireland, or Scotland? And there wasn’t even a spark of hope when it came to the elusive Mr. Reagan beyond the entry in the 1930 Census stating that Emma was first married at the age of 16. Only nominally useful when her age varied from document to document!

I did have one thread of hope that formed the basis of a hypothesis about her origins, though. Roughly 10 years ago, before so many records were available via FamilySearch, Barbara Poole of Life From the Roots, found an 1871 Canadian Census entry for an Emma Murphy residing in Manchester, Guysborough, Nova Scotia, Canada. It was something, because every other Emma, Anna, or Annie Murphy that I’d tracked in the 1871 and 1881 Canadian Censuses, and 1870 and 1880 U.S. Censuses in Maine and Massachusetts hadn’t borne fruit. Those Emmas had the wrong parents, wrong husbands, the wrong everything. But this Guysborough Emma had, well, nothing. Just the lone census entry.

The Hypothesis

Over the past decade, I built a hypothesis piece by piece around the Guysborough Emma. She was 10-years-old in 1871 and living with the Flavin family. She wasn’t related to them, but there was a baptism for an Emma Ann Wallace, daughter of an Eliza Murphy at St. Ann’s in Guysborough in 1863. Again, just a tiny record and, really, it shouldn’t have meant much. Why? Because my Emma’s parents were supposed to be John Patrick (or John… or Patrick) Murphy and Mary Ann Frazier/Fraser/Frasher.

However, this Eliza Murphy of Guysborough had a sister named Margaret Murphy and a brother named Laurence Murphy, and their parents were a Patrick Murphy and Mary… Lowery. Again, you’d wonder why I clung to this family as a possibility when the names weren’t quite right. Because there were two names that were right: Laurence and Margaret.

Laurence is a family name for us, you see. My grandmother, Barbara Shaw (granddaughter of Emma) had a twin brother. His name was Laurence. Sadly, Laurence died when he and grandma were only 3-years-old. I can’t imagine the pain of losing one’s twin, especially so young. Grandma went on to honor his memory by naming her second son Lawrence, my Uncle Larry.

As you can see, there is no evidence here to prove that the Guysborough Emma was mine, but there was nothing disproving it, either, unlike other Emmas who I’d chased over the years.

Margaret was the other piece of the puzzle that kept me holding on to my theory. Emma purchased property in Middleborough in 1889 with a Maggie Murphy. Somehow, there had to be a connection, but it continued to elude me until 3 years ago.

So what was my hypothesis? It was that Emma was the granddaughter of Patrick Murphy and Mary Ann (Fraser) (Lowery). The pieces fit as far as the ages of the possible grandparents, potential mother, aunts, and uncles, and the fact that this Emma in 1871 was living with an unrelated family in town. But how was I going to prove or disprove it?

Margaret “Maggie” Murphy

In 2016, I tried a new search query on FamilySearch. Instead of searching for Emma or anyone by first name, I searched for the last name Murphy and various combinations of the father’s possible name, “Patrick Murphy” or “John Murphy,” and the mother’s name, “Mary Frasher/Fraser/Frazier” or “Mary Low(e)ry.”

I found 2 possibilities. The first was a James Murphy who was the son of Patrick Murphy and Mary Lowery of Nova Scotia. He died in 1886 off Grand Banks, Newfoundland in the loss of the Schooner Virginia Dare. He’d married an Annie Fitzpatrick in Gloucester in 1882 and had a son, John James Murphy, born a few months after James’ death. John went on to marry Leone Mason in Gloucester in 1907 and have 3 children, 2 of whom lived to adulthood and died in the 1980s. Great… but I didn’t want to pursue descendants without verifying a family connection.

The second hit was Margaret Murphy, daughter of Patrick Murphy and Mary Frazier, born in Nova Scotia and died in Boston in 1890. At last, someone whose parents’ names were the same as those on Emma’s 1888 marriage record and 1945 death certificate! By then, I’d forgotten about the purchase of the property on Plymouth Street, Middleborough in 1889 by Emma and Maggie. But, as you can see, it was another potential piece of evidence that my Emma was the Guysborough Emma.

This still didn’t prove anything, though, because how many Patrick Murphys and Mary Fraziers are out there? And how many Margaret Murphys? The death record also didn’t tell me exactly where Margaret was born or where she was buried. I wasn’t sure where to go from there, but I knew there was more. There had to be. I also continued to put out feelers for someone who might be willing to review my work and give me some fresh ideas.

Finally, I reached out to one genealogical research firm for an assessment, posing the two questions asked above. Their response? “Prognosis: Poor.” They didn’t believe it was possible to identify Emma’s date and place of birth, confirm her parentage, or find her first husband. I decided if they couldn’t do it, my only choice was to sit around and hope for DNA to provide answers…

Read on for Part 2.

Emma Anna Murphy | Our Prairie Nest
Emma Anna Murphy Regan Shaw

I like to go shopping at 7 a.m. Okay, that’s not true. I just so happen to be up at 6:30 to get the kids out the door by 7, and it’s convenient for me to go shopping as soon as they get on the bus. I don’t actually enjoy driving into town that early, but the store is pretty empty, the line at Starbucks is non-existent, and the drive home is peaceful.

Peaceful enough to make me think about the ancestors who are as much a part of my life as if they were still alive. Hello, I’m talking to you, great-great grandma Emma!

I’ve been blogging about Emma since, gosh 2004? Earlier? Emma has been a source of frustration ever since I was 18. I’m now 44, so that’s 26 years of said frustration.

Known records on her start in 1888, when she’s already 25 and marrying her second husband, my great-great grandfather Erastus Bartlett Shaw in Middleborough, Massachusetts. The 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses all give conflicting information about her origin. So do her marriage certificate, her death certificate, and her one and only child’s birth, marriage, and death certificates.

Great-grandpa Harrison Clifford Shaw, their only child, died before I was born and his wife, my great-grandma Nina (Blake) Shaw, died in January 1975, one month after I was born. So I never got to ask either of them questions. I interviewed their daughter, my grandmother, and typed my entire transcript, but she didn’t know precisely where her grandma Emma was born. My closest living link to Emma now is her great-grandchildren – my father and my aunt. Both have been kind enough to test their DNA (thanks to Uncle Pete for his help!).

And that’s been wonderful. In fact, I’ve found likely cousins on that side of the family. Not close cousins – there’s still a gap that needs to be bridged – but there is hope.

Anyway, I’m rambling as usual and here’s the thing about those quiet morning drives alongside the cornfields of rural eastern Nebraska: I have plenty of time to think.

Today I thought about money and my great-great grandma’s relationship to it. The family stories about her almost always mention money:

  1. She was business-minded and ran her own store;
  2. She showed her grandkids pictures of schooners owned by wealthy relatives;
  3. She buried thousands of dollars inside coffee cans in her yard, according to rumor;
  4. She sewed over $4000 in paper money in her dress/es, another rumor.

I started muttering to myself, as I often do when I have nothing but 15 minutes alone in my truck with a cup of coffee and NPR on in the background.

“Why do so many of the stories about Emma center around money? What was Emma’s relationship with money? What in her life informed her views on money?”

I thought about the Great Depression (1929-1939), but decided that had little relevance to Emma’s mentality about money. For contrast and additional context, I considered my great-grandmother, Mildred Marian (Burrell) (St. Onge) Haley.

Mildred Burrell St. Onge Haley | Our Prairie Nest
Mildred Marian Burrell St. Onge Haley

I remember being 32 and how that was still a formative time in my life, learning, growing, and realizing so many things about myself. I simply can’t imagine being that age and having given birth to 7 children, all living in various homes because I couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them. Times were hard throughout the 1920s and I think Mildred never got to a place where she fully recovered or got ahead in life.

So when I consider how her life turned out and compare it to Emma’s supposed money hoarding, I think Emma’s handling of money came from a very different place than Mildred’s.

My meandering thought process led me back to my current hypothesis on Emma: that she was born an illegitimate child, that her mother was a Murphy and the daughter of the couple named as Emma’s parents on her marriage and death certificates, thus meaning her supposed parents were actually her maternal grandparents. Furthermore, it appears Emma was reared by another family. I credit Barbara Poole with discovering the only likely pre-1888 census entry for my Emma many years ago.

Sometime between 1871 and 1888, Emma decided to get out of Manchester, Guysborough County, Nova Scotia and find a better life. If she is the Emma I think she is, I can narrow that even further to between 1879, when she was a sponsor at a baptism in Manchester, and 1888. Her first marriage supposedly happened when she was 16, according to one census, but I have yet to find a marriage record for her and Mr. No-First-Name Regan.

Have I been able to absolutely prove my hypothesis? No. Do I think I will eventually? I hope so. It’s the one question that actually keeps me up at night. I have a consultation with Melanie McComb at NEHGS this month and hope she will give me some other avenues to pursue, because Emma remains a brick wall in my family history. I think, in the end, that it will be a combination of hitting upon the right record and my DNA network that makes it happen. But it might not be 2019, as I’d hoped…

The Year I Find Emma | Our Prairie Nest
2019: The Year I Find Emma

I am confident that 2019 will be my year – the year I find the origin of my great-great grandmother, Emma Anna Murphy. Emma, who married first a Mr. Reagan and then my great-great grandfather, Erastus Bartlett Shaw of Middleborough, Massachusetts in 1888.

The first time I tested my DNA was in 2006, before FTDNA offered Family Finder or Ancestry DNA became a thing. The only option available to me was mtDNA, which wasn’t applicable to Emma, but I still wanted to get “in” on this technology. I hoped that this new tool would help me break down the looming Emma brick wall. Since then, I’ve followed up with several autosomal tests, had my father test, and also seen other relatives on that side of the family test.

Now, after 25+ years of attempting to either dismantle or climb it, I think the end is in sight (despite a professional genealogy firm telling me the prognosis of a search for Emma was “poor”)! The technique that I believe will yield answers is that of creating genetic networks or DNA match clusters.

I found that creating a spreadsheet that sorted all DNA matches known to connect to my father’s mother – and therefore, potentially, Emma – was the way to go. Here’s a look at what I did:

You could probably create a network like this in mere moments using DNA Gedcom or Genetic Affairs, but I did this by hand in Excel, person by person, because I wanted to look at each person individually. The process allows us to see patterns in our matches in a different way.

How did I do it? First, this was made based upon my father’s DNA matches. Since Emma is his great-grandmother, it makes sense to work off Dad’s DNA instead of my own. He’s a generation closer to her and thus ought to have more of her DNA than me or my sister do.

I then took the 4 close matches he has who are confirmed as maternal matches. They are my father’s half-niece, his great-niece, a second cousin, and a first cousin, once removed. While the half-niece is my generation and the great-niece is even more generations removed from Emma, they are still useful for pinpointing maternal-only matches for my father. Why? Because my grandmother was married twice and her eldest son (father of the half-niece) and daughter (grandmother of the great-niece) were from her first marriage, while her two younger sons (my other uncle and my father) were from her second marriage, to my grandfather. Thus, these two nieces allow me to absolutely rule out my father’s paternal matches.

Next, I looked at the first cousin, once removed. She is actually a first cousin we didn’t know my grandmother had and I’m sure there’s a story there that the DNA match herself doesn’t even know (one I’ve been trying to approach as sensitively as possible with her). But that isn’t the focus of this post. The nice thing is, I can actually rule out the first cousin, once removed, because she connects to my grandmother’s maternal side, and my focus is my grandmother’s paternal grandmother.

With that large grouping of people in gray set aside, that allows me to move on to the peach, pink, and green matches. A review of the green matches shared with my father’s great-niece didn’t give me much hope that I would find my answer there.

So my focus is on the peach and pink clusters. I’m already biased toward one of them, because two of the matches in it who only match me, my cousins, and one another appear to be likely candidates. However, ruling out all others also helps in this instance, to ensure I’m not chasing the “wrong” cousins. I’ll definitely post updates as I work through this project and let you know if I’m successful!