Dear Zoe, This is Where You Came From


My 8-year-old very English daughter went to a very American summer camp last week, in the middle of a forest, near a great U-shaped bend in the great Ohio River.  In a quiet house, with a lot of time on our hands, my mother and I sifted through some of the boxes full of photographs, letters, and other ephemera that she and her cousins had painstakingly assembled over the years, the repository of family history of which she is now a guardian.  Synthesising it with the information available about our family on the Internet, it was a lot of information and terribly confusing.  People had lots of children, they didn’t seem to vary the names they used very much, and I kept getting everything mixed up.  The only way to keep it straight in my head was to make it into a kind of story.   Why not? I thought.  In addition to being an efficient way of organising information in my head, it could be a nice thing to pass on to the next generation.  Realising that there was a one-way email system available to contact campers, I decided to write a letter to my absent daughter.


Dear Zoe,

I have been doing some research about your ancestors, following the line of mothers down through the generations.  Zoe, Elaine, Beth, Elizabeth (your middle name is all because of her), Beatrice, Annie, Mary, Katherine.  Katherine is your great-great-great-great-great grandmother, and you share something with her, even though she lived long ago.  Mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, lives in our cells and helps make us what we are.  mtDNA is special – it makes up only a little part of our genes and is only passed down from mother to daughter.  If you had genetic testing, it could tell you who your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was all the way back in history.  We don’t need genetic testing, though, for me to tell you a true story about Katherine, with whom you share 37 genes.

As far as we can tell – people didn’t always know exactly how old they were back then – Katherine was born in 1822 in County Longford, Ireland.  Believe it or not, if that year is right, she was only 12 years old – only four years older than you are now – when she married your great-great-great-great-great grandfather, James, in 1834.  James was from County Longford too, and both he and Katharine were Irish Catholic.  He was an adult and she was a child – that wouldn’t happen anymore! Not long after the wedding, James and Katherine decided that it would be a good idea to go and live in America.  They didn’t have aeroplanes then, so it was a long and often dangerous boat journey across the Atlantic Ocean.  James decided that he would go first and check it out. Sailing across sea, he landed in New Orleans, down south in Louisiana.  Perhaps he didn’t care for such a hot and swampy place after the cooler weather of Ireland, so he got a job as a ship’s mate and travelled north, up the big wide Mississippi River.  The Mississippi feeds into a smaller river, the Ohio, which is the river that you can see from Grandmama and Pop’s house. (You’ve been on that river on a boat, which gives you something else in common with your great-great-great-great-great grandparents!)  He  looked around Louisville and liked what he saw, so he sent his young wife Katharine a letter encouraging her to come and join him.

Letters between America and Ireland travelled by boat and would have been very slow, and Katherine must have been waiting to hear from him for months.  When she finally received his message, she quickly made arrangements and got on a ship.  She can’t have been very old then, only a very young teenager, and she must have been frightened.  She must have been quite brave, but apparently she later said that she would never again trust her life to a ‘handful of sticks’, so it must not have been a very sturdy-feeling vessel.  After a long while she arrived in a big, dirty, unfamiliar city in an strange country.  New York was pretty crazy back then and looked nothing like the city that it is now.   James collected her, and she must have been very happy to see a familiar face.


Very soon after Katherine arrived, she and James had their first baby, Mary.  First James got a job in Butchertown in Louisville, working as the big boss of a large pork house – that’s where they make pigs into sausages.  They moved across the river to New Albany, Indiana, in 1848.  They had more children, and James got a job preparing the ground for railroads, including one that ran from New Albany to Salem.  Katherine stayed at home with Mary, John and Ellen.  (We don’t know which house they lived in, but there are still many houses in New Albany that were around a long time ago, so maybe we could find it someday.)  In 1850, Katharine gave birth to the couple’s fourth child, Edward.  She’d been having babies since she was very young, and maybe this last childbirth made her a bit weak, for when little Edward was only seven months old, Katharine died.  She was only 29 years old.  That’s quite sad, isn’t it?  Mary was a young teenager and could help look after the littler ones, but it was a lot for their father James to cope with, so he looked for a new wife.  He married a second time – she was called Mary too – and she was quite a bit younger than him, just like his first wife.  The family moved to Cloverport, Kentucky. That’s on the Ohio River too, and back in those days you would have most likely travelled there from Louisville by boat.  Now it’s about 1-1/2 hours away by car.  James and his new wife started a grocery store in Cloverport, and his oldest daughter Mary started to look around for a husband – that’s what teenage girls did in those days.

Pretty soon, your great-great-great-great grandmother Mary (that’s four greats!) met someone who was an Irishman like her dad, although this man was from County Donegal, not County Longford, so he would have had a very different accent.  He was a few years older than her, but Mary thought he was pretty nice.  His name was John Haffey, called Haughey back in Ireland.  They got married in Cloverport when she was just 18 years old – that sort of thing was pretty normal back then too.


She moved in with her new husband, which was probably a good thing because her stepmother – who was only a couple of years older than Mary! – was busy having loads more babies and it would have been pretty annoying.  John turned out to be a pretty successful guy, so John and Mary must have had a nice life down in Cloverport, Kentucky. Ten years after they married, when the city needed someone to build a new wharf – that’s the place where the boats come in from the river to load and unload their cargo – John Haffey got the job.  A few years after he did that job Annie Haffey was born, and *she* was your great-great-great grandmother.  I’ll tell you more about her another time.

So Katherine and James came from Ireland, which is the country right next door to where you were born, but since then, for nearly 200 years, your family hasn’t been able to tear themselves away from the Ohio River.  Your great uncles lived next to it, and your great grandparents, and now your aunts and uncles and cousins all have their houses a stone’s throw away from it. Your grandparents’ house overlooks it.  And now, at this very moment, you’re at a camp just down the river from where your great-great-great-great-great grandparents lived.  I think that’s very cool.




My little daughter thought that this was a rather unorthodox communication, a bit over the top, and she let me know it.  Settling into the back seat of the car, her hair unwashed, her feet blackened from a week’s revelry in the woods, her teeth somewhat suspect after days of ‘brushing’ them with her finger, she inquired what on earth I’d been thinking.

‘Why did you write me such a long letter that it had to be stapled together?’ she asked.

‘Ah, was that a bit weird?’ I said.

‘Well, yes,’ she said. ‘And I don’t think she and I have *anything* in common.’

Well, I reckon that she’ll appreciate it all someday.  Given the fascination she showed when visiting the grave of her great grandparents, that day might not be as far off as all that.