Was there a breakthrough moment in the research for Suite Harmonic, or a surprise discovery? Did anything in the process of doing the genealogy research, or anything you learned from it, affect the way you view your own family or yourself?
—Michael Moran, Boston, Massachusetts
There really were two aspects of the research as your question suggests, Michael. One was the part in which I learned about all the battles John Given fought in and what happened to the people in Company A, what the demographics of New Harmony were like, and other general matters of that kind. There was some overlap, but a majority of the work I did specifically on John and his family members involved using genealogical records and making the kinds of searches genealogists usually make. I’d like to focus on the genealogy part of your question a bit first, and then let things spill into other parts of the research.
The fact is that, other than putting together a skimpy, somewhat inaccurate family tree for a class when I was in high school, I was new to genealogy when I began the research for Suite Harmonic. I had only the most rudimentary idea of what sources were available and I didn’t realize how tedious and often unproductive a lot of the labor is. It was a huge help when censuses began to be available on line and were searchable, and they were a major tool for creating some parameters in the research. But much of the work meant going through microfilm or original documents, line by line, trying to work quickly, but trying not to miss things. I was soon reminded of something I’d learned about myself in graduate school in history. It takes all my drive and patience to do that kind of research, and I don’t like to waste the time. I had so many, many things to research that I couldn’t add additional tasks or distractions. In effect, genealogy became a powerful tool for research, but never an end in itself. I’m OK having lots of missing branches on my personal family tree. Somehow, it felt more important to me to try to understand a few ancestors deeply than to fill in lots and lots of names on my family charts. And, perhaps oddly, I felt I gained some understanding of all the people whose names are missing by looking closely at the ones whose story I could re-create. So you could say, I guess, that I felt the research gave me a broader sense of the struggles and hardships of all those who went before me. I feel a sense of gratitude toward them.
Since there were so many aspects to my research, and aspects to the aspects, there was never a moment when everything in a given area suddenly fell into my lap. If my focus had only been genealogical, when another researcher provided me with generations and generations of names in one branch of the family, it could have been a moment like that. As it was, that information didn’t really add anything usable for the story line except maybe a phrase or two, so I was happy to get it, but it didn’t push some mountain aside. Mostly, there were many small discoveries that day after day and month after month helped me to build the grid of facts I relied on, and they came from all different kinds of research, genealogical and beyond.
I can tell you about a few of them. In looking at the 1860 New Harmony census, I found Kate Given and Margaret Mulhern listed as “help” in the homes of two of the families I knew were descended from New Harmony’s utopian settlers. That was exciting, seeing them listed with their ages. More importantly, it gave me their specific jobs, which in turn gave me ideas to flesh out with other research and imagined scenes that helped build the story. I spent a lot of time going through the journals of Achilles Fretageot, grandson of the Madame Fretageot who was important in the Owen communities, to get a sense of New Harmony during the war years. I was always on the lookout for John Given’s name, but I only found it a couple of times since he and Achilles were in different social spheres in New Harmony. Both times gave me key bits of information. In one entry, John was one of the young men listed as bagging corn for the Fretageots (presumably, for their store), so that made it clear he did at least some manual labor for hire. The bigger find was the mention of him that became a chapter epigraph in Suite Harmonic when Achilles is on his way to see his ill brother with the first cavalry and has to stop in Memphis: “ [I]determined to go to the camp of the 25th. It was a long dusty walk. Nobody knew where they were, but I finally found them. Everybody was out on a scout except for Ab Boren, Henry Schafer, Bill Reid, and John Given.” This particular quote was a gold mine of information for me because it dovetailed with information I found in John’s letters and records and with knowledge I had gained about the other men and the 25th. Another of the surprise finds was John’s name in the WMI records near the end of the war, which yielded another plot point, after I combined it with personal stories from his letters and what I had learned from the Fretageot journals about Achilles’s trip East.
One of my biggest searches involved trying to figure out where John was when he went to the Army of the Potomac. The letter headings were cryptic. I also had a copy of a telegram he’d sent to Major Jesse Walker, assistant adjutant of the 25th Indiana asking him to find a clerkship in the Quartermaster office for him. Following the information in the letters and hunting down all the files at the National Archives that had Captain John Batty in them, I was finally able to put together everything John did in the last months of the war. When I first realized I had found the right Captain Batty and his postings were making sense of John’s letters, it was a great feeling. I’ve written about the most moving discovery, which was also at the National Archives and which also made it into a Suite Harmonic chapter epigraph. That was the deposition John gave for a widow’s pension when he was sick with his final illness and the family was concerned he wouldn’t survive. It was the most surprising and intimate look into his life and an emotional moment for me.
The closest to an aha! moment is another thing I’ve referred to in these questions and answers. For years, I’d tried to figure out just how Margaret Mulhern, a character in both the letters and Suite Harmonic, was related to the Given family. The Mulhern descendants I’d spoken with didn’t have any knowledge of a Given connection and seemed dubious about it. On a trip to Ireland, someone suggested I go to Northern Ireland and the Guild Hall in Londonderry. In looking through my notes, I can’t find what prompted that suggestion, though it seems to have been related to my finding Margaret Mulhern’s brother James’s death certificate in Letterkenny at St. Conal’s Psychiatric Hospital where, oddly, all birth, marriage, and death certificates for County Donegal are held.
In any case, I went to the Guild Hall. The woman I spoke to in one of the offices called a colleague who checked the new Londonderry Ccmetery City Database and found that James Mulhern of Letterfad, a Drimarone townland in the Blue Stacks, had purchased a cemetery plot in 1904. Earlier, at the National Archives in Dublin I had found a Mary Mulhern, listed with James’s family as his sister in the 1901 census. I also had a copy of Margaret Mulhern’s will in which she left money to both James and Mary. According to the database, Mary was the person who was buried in 1904 in the grave James purchased. It also said she was born in Glenties in County Donegal and that her parents were Daniel and Ellen Mulhern, nee O’Donnell. There it was, the family connection, with Ellen O’Donnell Mulhern the perfect age to be John Given’s mother’s sister. The O’Donnell name meant everything finally fell into place. And since Mary Mulhern’s daughter, Ellen Mulhern, was later buried in the same grave, that seemed to be the explanation for unmarried Mary having moved away to Londonderry.
These were some of the small finds that were exciting to make. They and many others like them helped me put the story together that I wanted to tell. Some of the more specifically genealogical questions offered their own surprises. I traced the descendants of John’s siblings as far as I could and ended up with a host of “found” cousins. That was interesting in itself. Some of them became “real” cousins and friends; others I had less in common with. Perhaps that is due to the part of the gene pool we did or didn’t share. I don’t know. But there were some interesting coincidences. I found out that the family has many lawyers and teachers and that a number of the Chicago descendants—even ones that didn’t seem to be in contact—had connections to the telephone company. Perhaps the thing that seemed most uncanny was that one cousin I’d never met has an attorney daughter with the same rather unusual name as my attorney daughter. I assume that’s coincidence at play rather than genetic causality. But it did make me wonder if we inherit tendencies about preferences as well as aptitudes.
I also realized in doing the research that there were far more relatives who had emigrated from Ireland than I had ever realized, far more people who had made that wrenching and difficult separation. It gave me a different and more poignant sense of the large diaspora that so many of us descend from. Yet in terms of what I learned about myself doing research, I think the most significant thing may have had nothing really to do with genealogy. On a trip to New Harmony, I had heard that there might be some house ruins on the Cut-off Island where John’s parents had lived at the end of John Sr.’s life. I really wanted to explore them, so I headed across the bridge into Illinois and I parked my rental car near it.
I was ready to start on what looked like a very long muddy walk to the part of the island where the houses were supposed to have been when a youngish man in a pickup truck pulled up and asked what I was up to. When I answered him, he told me his father owned the island and knew a lot about its history, that he was driving out to the other side of the island to meet him and I could come along. There was nobody around and I had no idea if the man’s story was true, and nobody at all knew where I was. For a second, I had serious doubts, images of ax murderers and other criminals flashing through my mind. Then I got in the front seat of the pickup and said, “Let’s go,” more aware than I’d ever been that, on this particular quest, though I’m not normally a risk taker, purpose invariably trumped threat. It may have been a moment of solidarity with all my ancestors and their step into the unknown. I’d certainly like to believe it was.