Many of us have stories passed down from our parents or grandparents that are partly based in truth, but are partly out in the puckerbrush. All I can say is, “Me too!”
One oft-repeated story involves my maternal great-grandfather, J.P. Ryan. My mother, the person who told ME the story, only knew her grandfather until she was ten years old (when he died). She would have sworn on a stack of bibles that she was relaying the entire truth.
As the story goes “an impoverished young Irish lad fled his native land of Ireland to avoid starvation. Arriving in the United States, he lived in Vermont. He served during the Civil War at the tender age of 14, being a drummer boy. His name was J.P. Ryan, and he stood over 6 feet tall.”
And so based on this story, a then-naive young 23 year old (me) began her research into the life of her great grandfather. It took me twenty years to sort it entirely out, probably because I believed my mother's version of the truth. Using a variety of resources including census records, town records (Jay, Vermont), and vital records, an entirely different picture evolved. And so if there is any advice I might give to other researchers in the same position–”Don't believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.”
My first shock was to learn that J.P. Ryan's name was originally Patrick, and not the moniker “John Patrick,” that my uncle, brother and several cousins has been given to honor him. His parents called him Patrick in both the 1850 and 1860 censuses, on his marriage record, on his children's birth records, and on land/deed records. He arrived in the United States around the age of 10 with his parents and family. They weren't exactly destitute, as early on they were buying and selling large portions of real estate, and Patrick's father was selectman of the town where they lived (an honor usually reserved for someone with money and influence).
In 1860 Patrick (at the age of 21) was single and still living with his parents, and several siblings in Jay, Vermont. Hmm… ok… the Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865. This blows the “enlisted at the age of 14″ statement clearly out of the water. But Patrick's (or J.P.'s) tombstone indicated he was a Civil War veteran, so I figured that part was probably true. I set about to find his enlistment papers.
Between the various names he may have used to enlist, I researched “Patrick,” “John,” “John P.,” and “Patrick J.,” Ryans who had enlisted from Vermont. But I could not conclusively determine which of these were “my” Patrick. At the time it was just too expensive for me to send away for the Smithsonian documents for ALL of them, and so I kept looking for more clues.
Patrick's death record was unremarkable, but in discussing it with my mother, she indicated that at the time he had been on leave from the Old Soldier's Home in Tilton, New Hampshire. This was exciting news. I sent an inquiry to the Home and quickly received notice that a man named Jackson P. Ryan had indeed stayed there–his birth date and death date matched Patrick's exactly. They also provided information on his military enlistment.
Jackson P. Ryan!! Surely this was a mistake. I brought this name to my mother's attention, who offhandedly said, “Oh yes, my grandfather LIKED that name.” To which I replied, “Well mom, apparently he liked it so much, he USED it!“ To this day I have no clue WHY he chose an alias, but it does explain the J.P. initials he used later in his life. At the same time he preferred the nickname of “Jack,” probably short for his adopted Jackson moniker. Relatives around him thought Jack was short for John, and thusly erroneously named their children.
Jackson P. Ryan, age 22, enlisted on 18 September 1862 in Company H of the 15th Vermont Infantry, with the rank of Eighth Corporal. He mustered out 5 August 1863 at Brattleboro VT.
Oh, and he may have looked really tall to a short ten year old, but his Civil War enlistment papers show he stood 5 feet 10 inches tall.
PS: This story connects to New Hampshire genealogy. Several of J.P. Ryan's daughters moved first to Nashua, and then to the Greater Manchester (NH) area between 1900 and 1910. His daughter Addie (my grandmother) married and had 13 children, 10 of whom lived to adulthood, and who grew up in Manchester. Hundreds of her descendants survive, many of them still in New Hampshire. The photograph above shows my mother, Mary Manning with her grandfather, J.P. Ryan, circa 1924.
This article was written for the .31st Carnival of Genealogy. with the topic “Confirm or Debunk: Family Myths, Legends, and Lore,” hosted by Craig Manson at GeneaBlogie. Stop on over and read some amazing family stories.