Intergenerational Influences (Written in 2002)

My Great-great Grandmother:   Mary Ann McGinn Mears   1834-1894

My Great-grandmother:   Mary Ann Mears Watters   1867(?) – 1935

My Grandmother (Gungee):   Mary Lauretta Watters McKenna Moriarity Schmidt   1900-1977

My Aunt:   Patricia Annellen McKenna Dougherty   1927-present

Myself:   Karen Adair McKenna (aka Fisher)   1949-present

I was nine days old before I met my mother. My sister and I had been taken from our mother’s womb while she struggled to overcome the effects of the drugs given to women in 1949 to ease labor. The twin babies were rushed to incubators in the hospital nursery where they struggled to survive. This happened in the in the days when human emotions took second place to hospital rules and sick babies were taken from their mothers. Finally, a sympathetic nun wandered into my mother’s room on the ninth day and found her sobbing because she had yet to meet her daughters.

I know that the story of my birth led to my adamant attempt to control the births of my own children and my resolve to have them at home. Since my Great-grandmother had been a midwife, I was very shocked at my usually supportive Grandmother’s plea to go to a hospital. Twenty-five years later, I still wonder how the daughter of a midwife could have such fears of birth at home.

I defended my decision to have my baby at home by taunting my Grandmother, Gungee, with the fact that her own mother had been a midwife! She replied that the terrible trials of her mother were exactly why she didn’t want me to birth at home. Since Gungee was in Texas and I was in Minnesota, we did not have a chance to go into the stories in her memory. I was forever unable to find out why she was so full of fear of childbirth: three weeks after my first son was born, my Grandmother died unexpectedly.

I only know the midwife, Great-grandmother Mears, from a portrait given to me when my own grandmother died. I know that Great-grandmother Mears was regal and thin and beautifully coifed. As was the custom of her generation, no smile touched her lips in this professional portrait, yet she is not severe, but soft and pleasant. My Great-grandmother Mears was 68 years old when she died and at first glance, she appears to be close to that age in the portrait, probably because of her white hair. Further examination shows her face to be unlined and her dress is definitely not 1930’s. The dress is formal: high-necked and form-fitted and probably full length. The bodice is covered with lace and a satin tie falls gracefully from the high satin collar. Her hair is in a soft bun on the back of her head in a style that reminds me of the first two decades of the twentieth century. I presume she must’ve been in her late forties or early fifties: between 1910 and 1920.

I also know her name: Mary Ann Mears. My Grandmother, Gungee, always used this name when she talked to me about her mother, but the name was actually my Great-grandmother’s maiden name. Since women’s identity usually took on that of their husband in the 1800’s, the use of her maiden name by Gungee may have been to keep the genealogical information clear. But I also remember my Aunt telling me once that she didn’t know what had become of the portrait of Grandmother Mears. I’m sure she was known as Mary Ann Watters in real life, but in my mind she was always Great-grandmother Mears. Could this have been an unconscious intergenerational influence on my decision to keep my maiden name when I married?

The only one alive who knew my Great-grandma Mears is my father’s sister, Patricia Annellen McKenna Dougherty. Mary Ann Mears has taken on a saintly image in my aunt’s memory. I found an undated (probably from the late 1970’s) letter written to my mother in which Aunt Pat defends my Great-grandfather’s reputation. A former resident of their town has evidently portrayed him to my mother as the town drunk and abusive to Great-grandmother.

My Aunt’s reply (in part): “Far from hurting Grandmother [Mears], he may just have been her salvation. Their relationship settled into a warm comradely (sic) one, tinged with humor and, I think, with respect – like a good team in harness, aware of and responding to the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps he was perceived as weak as he was open and not vocally forceful, but, in reality as sound as his earth and animals.”

This is an interesting view from the youngest grandchild who was seven years old when her grandmother died. It is also relevant to note that a guide dealing with ethnicity for family therapists cautions that an Irish “family may tolerate heavy drinking without labeling it a problem.”

But the human perspective of my Great-grandmother Mears comes alive through this 73 year old Aunt. She feels that Mary Ann Mears was a “truly remarkable woman,” yet she admits that a lot of her reflections were based on hearsay since she was only seven when Great-grandmother Mears died.

“Grandmother [Mears] was indeed a remarkable, dependable, giving woman. ‘Giving’ probably in every way but emotionally. The ‘poor-hard-life’ I just do not believe is true of her married-family life. At least until the 1920’s, if then. The descriptive adjectives (and I think true ones) were picked up by the little girl [Aunt Pat] from her Mears-McGinn-Dowling relatives and others of the Iowa contingent who knew of Grandma’s background and who had settled in the Centerville area.” (Taken from the same letter)

My Great-grandmother Mears’ Irish parents were born near Ottawa, Canada and emigrated to a homestead in eastern Iowa in 1856. Times were hard, with a monetary panic going on and weather wreaking havoc. Aunt Pat has found the census records for that period and only remembers that they were not right. She had a feeling that the census-taker was a drunk or that there was something queer going on in that house. She thinks the census showed that there were a couple of boys and that a young daughter, Elizabeth, had died.
Aunt Pat discovered the discrepancy in Mary Ann Mears’ birthdate in the 1880 census. According to the date Great-grandma Mears gave as her birthdate, she would’ve been about 12 or 13. In this census, she is listed as the person giving the census-taker the information and she told him she was 16. Either she is lying or her birthdate is wrong. Aunt Pat is convinced from her genealogical research that Great-grandma Mears has shaved years from her age. If she was older than she claimed, the portrait described earlier would be more accurate for the period: instead of being between 43 and 53 years old when it was taken, she could have been somewhere between 47 and 57. That would make the white hair more age-appropriate.

She also told the census-taker that her mother was dead (which was not true) and that she was keeping house for her father while one younger brother and two younger sisters were in school. “Irish families often paid as much attention to the education of their daughters as their sons” (Families in Therapy). While this was not the case for Mary Ann Mears, she was very proud of the fact that she was able to help keep her younger brother and sisters in school. She was almost illiterate herself, but literate enough to keep a log of home births later in her life.

Her lie about her mother has intrigued Aunt Pat for years. She was unable to find out what happened to my Great-grandmother’s mother, Mary Ann McGinn Mears. When the family moved to South Dakota from Iowa, Great-great-grandmother McGinn did not come along. Great-grandmother Mears never spoke of her mother to her granddaughter.

When she researched the family through census records, Aunt Pat discovered that Mary Ann McGinn had moved from Canada with her husband and other children to Eastern Iowa in 1856 before Great-grandmother Mears was born (somewhere around 1863-1867). The 1860 and 1870 census show the family on a rented farm near Pertersville, Iowa in DeWitt County. They had several sons and a daughter, Elizabeth, who later died as an infant.

By the 1880 census, Mary Ann McGinn’s husband was listed as a widower (by his own daughter), but the date on Mary Ann McGinn’s tombstone in Petersville, Iowa is 1894. That means that Great-great-grandmother McGinn was estranged from her family for fourteen to twenty-four years before she died.

No one has discovered what became of Great-great-grandmother McGinn between 1870 and 1894. Aunt Pat checked the records in mental institutions and even went to a McGinn family reunion, but no one knew anything about Mary Ann McGinn Mears. She may have gone to a sister who had moved to western Iowa. Perhaps future computer access to census records will find the trail of Great-great-grandmother McGinn. Whatever the reason, Mary Ann McGinn Mears seems to have abandoned the family and Mary Ann Mears had to step into the mother’s role when she was somewhere between 6 and 16 years old.

In researching the Irish, I discovered a description of a characteristic of the Irish which fits this side of my family. “They are clannish and place great stock in loyalty to their own, yet they often cut off relationships totally… Because the Irish have such difficulty dealing directly with differences and conflicts, feelings tend to be submerged, leading each party to feel betrayed by the “disloyalty” of the other… Similarly, their traditional solution to marital problems was silent withdrawal, distance, or separation.” Could her parents’ marriage have dissolved? “Except under the guise of wit, ridicule, sarcasm, or other indirect humorous expression, hostility, pain and anger in the family are generally dealt with by a silent build-up of resentments, often culminating in cutting-off the relationship without a word—a form of social excommunication for interpersonal wrongdoing.” (Families in Therapy)

Mary Ann Mears appears to have remained the caretaker of her family until the family moved from Iowa to Davis, South Dakota. Her future husband’s family had lived near the Mears’ family in Iowa and had also moved on to South Dakota, yet Great-grandmother Mears met Thomas Watters after the families moved to South Dakota.

Mary Ann Mears considered herself a cut above the Watters, who had also immigrated from Ireland through Canada, but were still Gaelic speaking and referred to as “Shanty Irish.” There was no education available for the Watters’ sons and the family was too poor to own cattle. She was in her mid-to-late twenties and her husband was in his thirties when they married.

I can find no official records of this marriage, but family genealogical records provide the date and locale. She married my Great-grandfather Watters at St. Jacob’s Church in Hurley, South Dakota on June 20, 1892. They were married by Father Joseph O. Accorsini and witnessed by Robert Henry and Great-grandma Mears’ younger sister, Theresa Mears.

As a young, married couple, they lived on a rented farm near Parker, South Dakota in Home Township. Most of the few stories I remember hearing were about her later life in Centerville, South Dakota. Centerville is a small town in a farming community. She and her husband must’ve farmed there, but eventually lived on the edge of town. Aunt Pat remembers…

“I don’t think they were materially poor for the time and place. The parlor organ, a violin and lessons for John, houseplants, a fine team, nice dining linens, a daughter sent away to secretarial school, a radio and victrola. Well, it just doesn’t speak of real poverty… “(Taken from the same letter)

Aunt Pat has no memory of Great-grandmother Mears as a midwife, except for the time she went with her to visit a home where Great-grandmother Mears had assisted a birth. Great-grandmother Mears listed in a large book every birth she attended along with the data surrounding the birth. Aunt Pat accidentally threw this historical treasure away in the 1990’s. She remembers this book to be full of names.

Aunt Pat believes that Great-grandmother Mears assisted a doctor at births and then stayed with the family for a week or so until the mother got back on her feet. How Great-grandmother Mears became a midwife still remains a mystery, but we do know that she was the midwife for the births of most of her own grandchildren. She assisted Gungee with four of her five births (Aunt Pat was born in a hospital!); with all of her younger son’s children; and with two of the four children of her eldest son, John.

The power in Aunt Pat’s reflections comes through when she talks about how this woman became the center of her life:

Aunt Pat’s mother (my grandmother, Gungee) was married to an alcoholic man who beat her. Although they lived in another town, Gungee would periodically leave him and return to her parents’ home with her children. Divorce in the 1920’s was not acceptable and repeated reconciliation always ended with Gungee carrying a new child. The fourth child, Aunt Pat, was conceived after the longest separation so far, and born near her parent’s rented farm in Milbank, South Dakota. It wasn’t long before Gungee abandoned her husband again: he was now beating her eldest son, my father, as well as beating her.

“It is remarkable that the Irish Catholic Church, which has been so vehement against divorce and abortion, has not a word to say about wife and child beating…Indeed, Ireland is a country in which 95% of the population is Roman Catholic, [and] divorce was constitutionally forbidden until 1996.” (Families in Therapy)

Since my Great-grandmother Mears was a staunch Irish Catholic, beaten wives and alcoholic husbands were nothing new. You supported other women through these trials, but divorce was not an option. Once again, Gungee took her young children and returned to her husband. Once again she took refuge with her parents, pregnant with her fifth child.

This time her husband, my Grandfather McKenna left his rented farm and followed his wife to live in her parent’s house. One night, in a drunken rage, he beat Gungee so severely that the fifth child was aborted. My Great-grandmother Mears had to assist her daughter with the labor of miscarriage. The child was a son, but not developed enough to survive. Divorce finally became an option.

When Gungee divorced her alcoholic abusive husband (in 1929!), she and her four children moved in permanently with her parents. Gungee got a job on the railroad and was gone for days at a time. Great-grandma Mears took over much of the parenting of her grandchildren.

Aunt Pat was two years old. My Great-grandmother Mears became the adored adult in her life. Aunt Pat went everywhere with her and this woman took on the mother’s role while the real mother traveled with the railroad to support the four surviving children.

At this point Great-grandmother Mears was somewhere between sixty and seventy years old. The ensuing five-year relationship between the child and her grandmother cemented Aunt Pat’s view of intergenerational love and support. The opportunity to bond so tightly to a grandmother was ironically cut short in 1935 when Great-grandma Mears died of pneumonia and malnutrition.

Aunt Pat remembers being told that when Great-grandma Mears died, the stores in Centerville closed for the funeral. She was unable, however, to find verification of this in the archived newspapers of Centerville, SD. I was skeptical of this piece of information at first, but, if she had been present at most of the births in the community, this honor may have been bestowed upon her.

Aunt Pat doesn’t remember the funeral, but does remember the body displayed at the house. She remembers sitting at a table while the neighbor women hurried around, and writing on a little piece of paper “I hop (sic) you go to heaven.” She dropped it into the casket, but it was taken out.

Gungee told me (and all my cousins) the following account of Great-grandma Mear’s death. Gungee went to the mortuary to sit with her mother. Historically, Irish wakes lasted round-the-clock to keep the dead one supported as she left this earth. When Gungee arrived at the mortuary, no one was there. She found her mother uncovered, sprawled naked on a table. Gungee was horrified, and made all of her children and grandchildren promise that someone would stay with her own body when she died, so that a similar indignation would not happen to her. My Aunt Pat stayed with her mother’s body when Gungee died.

Funerals are considered the most important life cycle transitions for the Irish… Interestingly, the Irish are perhaps the only culture to have a ritual around emigration, which was referred to as an “American wake,” and for which all the rites of death rituals were observed, including the custom of staying with the departing person all night before the departure, just as they “waked” the corpse with all-night vigils from time of death until burial (Metree, 1990). Like the wake for the dead, the “American wake” involved public participation allowing the family and community members to grieve over the loss. Attendance reaffirmed family and group ties. At the same time, one could ritualistically rejoice at the rebirth to a new state, because death and emigration freed one forever from the stark hopelessness of poverty (Metree, 1990). Public involvement acknowledge the altered relationships that both death and emigration brought about. These were of concern not only to the individual but also to the group as a whole. The high level of public participation in both wakes and emigration rituals reaffirmed the cohesiveness of the family and demonstrated the importance of social networks. The peculiar mix of celebration and sorrow that marked Irish wakes stood as testimony to the deprivation suffered by the living and the freedom enjoyed by the departed. The “American wake” reflecting Irish life, Irish death customs, and Irish ways of dealing with loss, was unique to Ireland. This ritual illustrates how profoundly the Irish react to the pain of loss. (Families in Therapy)

I have the feeling that my Great-grandmother Mears was a strong woman. In order to survive as a poor Irish transplant in barren, bleak, and bitter South Dakota, she must have worked from dawn to dusk. But, I know nothing of her young married life and the childhood of my Grandmother.

My husband and I played at pioneering in our twenties when we bought 40 acres in the middle of a Minnesota swamp and built a hand-hewn log cabin. We were 25 miles from the closest town, had no electricity or telephone, and hauled in all our water. We grew and canned some of our food and all three sons were born in that cabin. It was a difficult, but satisfying life, and gave us a wealth of information about the daily lives of our forebears. In retrospect, that portion of my life makes me feel closer to the women who were not able to have as many opportunities for self-fulfillment that modern comforts provide.

Who was this woman who helped so many women through the pain of childbirth? Although she is only three generations away from me, I am unable to touch her essence. However, I feel the strong connection and influence between a great-grandmother and her great-grandchild, even though we never met. What are her gestures that I might unconsciously use? How might her expertise have helped me stay sure during the births of my sons? Did her experience as an Irish-Catholic wife influence my abandonment of Catholicism and make my marriage much more equal? Or does she see my life as a heresy of all she held dear?

I believe that this woman is part of my generational soul.
I could not be who I am if she had not been who she was.
I yearn to know more about her…
to learn more about myself,
to learn about my descendants.

Hello Genealogists!

In an attempt to further my research into my ancestors, I have created this blog: to share what I know and to invite you to share what you know. I am a descendant of Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in 1847. I know the names of their direct descendants and some information about them and their descendants. However, I know nothing about their ancestors, the people of Ireland. I have been unable to get further back than the generation who immigrated.

In my quest to find out more, and hopefully climb over my brick wall and find an Irish connection, I am researching all the McKenna lines that have a connection to the Van Horne, Iowa area. That is where my McKenna ancestors lived for at least 30 years.

Please join me in sharing the information you may have about any McKennas who lived in that area.

  • Post your gedcoms
  • Share documents and photos
  • Tell the stories that have passed down through your families

James McKenna 1802-1881

James MCKENNA was born in 1802 in County Monaghan or County Tyrone, Ireland. He married Jane McQuade (not sure where or when they married).

He immigrated to Kentville, Kings County, Nova Scotia sometime before the birth of his first son, John, in 1841. Three more children were born in Nova Scotia: James (1843), Catherine (1844) and Andrew (1847).

The following letter gives information about the Church they were associated with in Nova Scotia, but the date of the baptism conflicts with the date of entry into the United States.

A letter from Marion Oldershaw, Nova Scotia, 9 Set 1985:
Dear Mrs. Dougherty:
I found the baptism for ANDREW MCKENNA:
In 1848: 2 Jan at Kentville: baptized Andrew aged two weeks: legitimate son of James McKenna and Jane McQuade. Sponsors: Eugene McGarry and Mary Treanor by Thomas Walsh.
This entry was in the register of St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, Windsor, NS
Evidently the records for the years 1840-1845 were not available for micro-filming. But at least we found the baptism record for your ancestor, which proves that the family was here, and that they were living in the community of Kentville, Kings County, Nova Scotia. That community was originally called Cornwallis, and was settled in 1762 by families from New England. The Acadians were there before them. The first Catholic Church was not built until 1854. Before then, the community was served by St John’s, in Windsor.
This is not on the worksheet, but today while reading the same reel for another client, I found the baptism for George, age three years, son of Edward Monohan and Mary McKenna, 28 June, 1846, sponsors Laurence Dermott and Anne Walsh at Horton. So evidently there were other McKenna families in the area. Perhaps that is why James and Jane went there.
(ANOTHER LEAD TO CHECK OUT: Edward Monohan and Mary McKenna and their son George)

He entered the United States through Boston in 1847, and it appears the family went directly to Naperville, DuPage County, Illinois (west of Chicago) where three more children were born. Edward (1856), Thomas (1854; he died in 1873 at the age of 19 in Van Horne, IA. He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Van Horne, IA), and Alice (1855; she died in 1870 at the age of 15 in Van Horne, IA. She was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Van Horne, IA).

James may have completed his naturalization papers in Dupage County. (I would like to get a copy of those papers.) immigration records this weekend. Found James McKenna listed in the Index of Naturalization of Dupage Co, Il, but I already knew that. Was hoping to find the actual record.
Name: James McKenna
Year: 1847
Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Source Publication Code: 3435.33
Primary Immigrant: McKenna, James
Annotation: Date and port of arrival or date and place of declaration of intention. Birth date, birth locality, and birth country are also provided. Additionally, the petition and declaration court as well as the petition and declaration number, volume and date ar
County (IL) Genealogical Society, 1999. 248p. Page: 143

I also have this about his possible Naturalization (this is not confirmed yet):

Re: Naturalization Index Look-up Please!
Posted: 4 Mar 2009 10:43PM
Classification: Lookup
Surnames: McKenna, Mcquade
I am seeking the naturalization records of James McKenna. Why does it seem that only the men became citizens? I do not find his wife’s name in any list…

And received this response:

Re: Naturalization Index Look-up Please!
pmh1122_1 (View posts)
Posted: 5 Mar 2009 12:40AM
Classification: Query
Before a certain time period, women did not have to be naturalized. They became citizens under their father’s or their husband’s naturalization. A few women chose to be naturalized in their own right, but not many.

McKenna, James: birth: County Tirone (Tyrone) Ireland 1806,
Declaration court: #1 3 Apr 1855; loose papers: yes; Arrival: BOMA (I believe this means Boston, MA) 1 Jun 1847.

His file is in the loose papers. Which makes it a very early record. It may be a declaration or it may be an actual naturalization paper, or both. You’d have to apply to the Dupage County Courthouse for the record to see what it is.

Write to the 18th Judicial Circuit Court, Attn: Genealogy Dept, 505 N. County Farm Rd, Wheaton, IL 60187. Fees are set by state regulations. They should have a web page, if you need more information.

These two documents, if they are actually James’ information, conflict with the baptismal date of their son Andrew in Nova Scotia.

(2018: There is another James McKenna b 1820 who came to NY from Ireland in 1847 and died in Clinton Co IA in 1903. He might be the James that is listed in my census sources below, but I remember my aunt telling me they lived in Illinois before coming to Iowa.)

1850 Census has James McKenna living in Naperville, DuPage County, IL but spells the name as McKinney. He was listed as a laborer.1850 Census #271 James McKenna, listed as McKinney It is not very legible, so this close up is better:  James McKenn 1850 Census Close up. He is listed as 34 years old — that would make his birth year around 1816.

I found him on the 1860 Census also under the name of McKinney. Now the family is in an Illinois County further west: DeKalb County and in Clinton Township. (DeKalb is west of Kane, which is west of Dupage; the modern town in that area is Waterman). James is now listed as 50 or 51 — hard to read — which would make his birth year 1810 or 1809.  A farm laborer from Ireland has joined them; I can’t read his first name, but the last name of Cheney. 1860 Census James McKenna 1860 Census close up

Knowing that two official documents spelled his name as McKinney throws off my naturalization guesses!

James lived in Illinois for several years and then went to Benton County, Union Township, Van Horne, Iowa. The 1870 census has him in Benton County but he has aged considerably: 67 years (indicating a birth year of 1802 or 1803): 1870 Census James McKenna and a close up: 1870 Census Close Up  He died on 22 Jul 1881 in Van Horne, IA. He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery. I have a copy of his will dated 1880; it is witnessed by Michael and Peter McKenna (Are these nephews? Peter was married to Catherine Sculley. They are both buried in Calvary Cemetary in Van Horne, IA). The will states that James is 78 years old, which would make his birthdate 1802. It says that he is living in Leroy Township, Benton County, IA.