Of Cofflins and Rohans

A few years ago I got an email from cousin John O’Connor who had recently cleared out his elderly mother’s Florida beach house. In the process, he came across an index card that most folks would have tossed away without a thought, and, fortunately, John  thought about it. He scrutinized his mother’s  faded and cryptic notations and realized he had 3X5 inch version of 19th-century Iowa family history.

ROHAN-J.OConnor.mom

Image of faded original doctored to make it easier to read.

When he emailed me to see what I could make of it, I was intrigued to learn about the Galway trio of Larry Cofflin, Pete and Rohan! But I was frustrated, too.  This information failed to resonate with anything I knew about our shared ancestry.  John’s forbear was Patrick Roane, the brother of  my John P. Roane. Both men married in Lowell, Massachusetts, but while John stayed, Patrick struck out to obtain newly available government land  in Iowa.

Since my initial confusion, I’m happy to relay, I’ve learned a lot.  I discovered more descendants of the Midwest families, and resources that enabled me, at last, to interpret the notes made by John’s mother, Joanne Rowan O’Connor (1931-2013).

In 1950, a book came out that was written by Leo Ward,  a Monroe County, Iowa native and priest, titled, Concerning Mary Ann. It is a fictionalized account  of the life of his grandmother, Mary Ann (Coughlin) Murray (1859-1957),  and the Irish Catholic settlement known as Staceyville. Ward wielded elements of history, language and character to evoke a unique time and place, – and tells a good tale with authenticity.

However, the first name on the card about Rowan history, is “Larry Cofflin,”  who was Mary Ann’s father. Then, though I’ve found documents using Roane, Roan, and Rowan variant spellings, the only place I’ve found “Rohan,” is in Leo Ward’s book. I believe the excerpts below show that the first lines came straight from Concerning Mary Ann.

            “ON a lovely Autumn day in 1857, the sun hazy in the sky, Larry Cofflin…was en route from Boston to Iowa… as his train of an engine and two coaches steamed and puffed its way out of Chicago and across the top of Illinois and went with the sun toward the Mississippi…

“In his native County Galway, the Potato Famines had hit hard. No fooling about it, no escaping it. The Famines hit people in the stomach. All over Ireland, when it was averaged up, half the people died during and following the Famines of 1846-48

“He had good companions, too, …two sandy-haired, neat-set-up men of his own age were Pete and Ed Rohan. …they were from the same townland with him in Ireland, townies of his…so alike were they in the firm square shoulders, the loose-built bodies, the florid round faces, alike even to the snore. “Brother and brother, twins for it,” thought Larry… With Larry Cofflin they were of one mind, headed west with him to take up land in golden Iowa.”

I believe that well researched fiction can inform us about lives and times of our ancestors. However, even if we know real people inspired characters in a book, it is a mistake to accept those accounts as fact, without careful examination. We are lucky today to have online records easily available that help sort truth from fiction.

Ward’s book describes bachelors traveling together in 1857, but we have documented that Patrick Roane married in 1853 and came to Iowa with his wife and daughter.  But we have strong evidence that Lawrence Coughlin, Patrick Roane and Edward Roane were in league together for on June 3, 1856, each received patents on parcels of abutting land from the Chariton Land office. Census records from 1870 until 1900 show Lawrence Coughlin and Patrick Roan families occupied neighboring farms, but Edward Roane is absent.

However, it is not surprising that Mary Ann Coughlin remembered the names, “Pete and Ed Rohan.” They belonged to her generation of immigrants’ children. The book describes times she shared with the same-age friend, Rose Anne Roan. She was Patrick’s daughter and had brothers, Peter (1863-1942) and Edward (1868-1928). There was also, a set of twin boys, Edward and Lawrence, born to the younger Edward in 1905. These fellows just happen to be brothers of Pierce “Pete” Rowan, whom Joanne O’Connor identifies as her father.

The index card is decoded as part truth and part literary legend, with some mysteries yet to plumb (Were the two Roanes were really twin brothers? What happened to the elder Edward Roane?). And thus did Joanne Rowan O’Connor succeed in passing on a priceless bit of tradition for her children and grandchildren.

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