Family Mystery and Mythology, part 1

Family Mystery and Mythology, part 1

Note: This will be a multi-part post as it will involve research and information that is still being accumulated.

Genealogy has been an interest and on-and-off hobby of mine for a number of years. I first became interested in it in my mid-20s when my dad undertook it as a hobby. I think prior to that time I had a vague sense that people had family lines but that only rich and famous people kept track of theirs. I was visiting my dad at one point when he started telling me about his research into the family history; he showed me the historical “coat of arms”* that was associated with his family name and explained to me that he had traced the family tree back to his ancestor who immigrated here from England.

I wouldn’t say I was fascinated at that point but I was certainly interested, and I asked him if he would share the info he had found. He shared some, but unfortunately he died before he could share all of it and his second family – my step-family – didn’t share the rest of the info with us.

It did set off an interest in heraldry and blazonry – the art of familial achievements of arms, and the language used to describe them. I could write an entire other post (and probably will at some point) about heraldry and what it all means, but that’s only tangentially the point of this particular post. There are all kinds of places online you can buy artistic depictions of “your family crest” but it’s not to say that your family is related to or descended from the family granted the crest. Just like today there can be people with the same last name as you to whom you are not related, so it was true in the middle ages.

In recent years with the advent of access to genealogical repositories such as Ancestry and Rootsweb, my interest in tracing my family history was revived. I decided to get my DNA report from 23andMe.

This is an important thing to mention here: You are very likely, as you delve into ancestry and DNA, to find things you didn’t expect. In my particular case it was just some “family mythology” that turned out not to be entirely correct, and that was very minor (and likely more a case of generational “telephone” than any intent to deceive or mislead). I’ve heard stories of people either discovering siblings they did not know about, or discovering they had a different father than they thought. It’s really important to go into a deep dive like this with the awareness that you will find things you didn’t expect, and they can range from amusing and innocuous, to emotionally devastating. You don’t necessarily realize the extent to which your identity as a person is built on the foundation of who you think you are relative to your family until you find out that some aspects of that aren’t what you thought they were.

My first forays into my genealogy were of course into my father’s family line, the Winfield line (related to Wingfield, which Winfield is derived from). This particular branch turned out to be extremely well-documented and in joining the Wingfield Family Society, I was able to dig up a considerable amount of information. I believe I’ve been able to recreate the information my father originally dug up, as I’ve traced his family line back to the 17th century and found the ancestor that did indeed come from England close to 400 years ago. Again, I’ll touch on that more in-depth in other posts as that history, though it was the easiest to trace, has some fascinating stories that deserve their own tellings.

I wanted to do some research into my mother’s family lines. My maternal grandmother had done a considerable amount of research herself into her family history and I have that around here somewhere on a CD, sent to me by a cousin of hers who found me on one of the genealogy forums. It’s also pretty solidly documented online via other family members on my maternal side similarly interested in their genealogy. What I decided to focus on was my maternal grandfather’s line, the Morrin line.

My maternal grandfather, Arthur W. Morrin, died when I was just six. I remember him, but with the sort of rosy/hazy memory of a little kid for a beloved granddaddy who willingly shared his bacon. What I knew about him from family stories wasn’t a whole lot more fleshed out. I knew he was Irish and Catholic and that at least at some point he lived in Oklahoma, as that’s where my mother was born. Everything else was family mythologies, some of which conflicted.

I’d heard variously: He was born in Ireland. He was born in the US, but his father was born in Ireland. He was from the Mourne Mountains and that’s why the family name was Morrin, because it was a misspelling of his place of birth because his family name was too complex. His father died when he was 5 and his new stepfather kicked him out. He was taken in and raised by “indians”. Some of this, heard through the ears of a small child, may have been family members joking around or relating things they themselves heard but to my child ears came across as “stories about family history”. One of the aims I had in researching his family line was to sort as much as I could about his actual history and by extension, the history of his family.

I wasn’t expecting a ton of surprises here. Among the things my DNA map turned up was that 90% of my genetic background comes from the UK, which is largely what I expected. We thought we had a little more Native American than we do, but that’s also another story. The cities/areas my DNA came back mapped to generally speaking London, Northern England (lots of planets have a North!), and in Ireland Counties Cork, Galway, and Dublin. Also, Glasgow City, but nowhere else in Scotland so that may be related to the Northern England part. Also, a small touch of Welsh (again, not a surprise).

In the course of my research, though, I’ve turned up a mystery. My grandfather’s father did indeed die when he was very young, from what appears to be a stroke related possibly to what was then called “Bright’s Disease“. My great-grandfather was only 23 at the time of his death. I’ll come back to this.

Granddaddy’s mother did remarry, but I can find a 1920 census list in Oklahoma listing his stepfather, mother, himself and his sister using the surname of his stepfather. He was 15 at the time, so that clarified one family myth: If he was kicked out, it was in his later teens at least because he was living with his mother and stepfather (along with a sister and two half-siblings) in 1920 at the age of 15. The next record I have is his marriage in 1926 to my grandmother, and the birth of their first daughter – my mother – in 1928. As an interesting side note: In 1920 he was living in Osage, Oklahoma with his mother and stepfather but when he married my grandmother in 1926, it was in Sebastian, Arkansas (and then my mother was born in Tulsa, OK in 1928 so they apparently moved back to OK). Osage City is located on the Osage reservation; could this be the genesis of the “taken in by indians” family story?

Turning to my great-grandfather turned up the mystery. My great-grandfather – James W. Morrin – had precious little available information on him. I did find his obituary that mentioned he was survived by his parents William and Mary Morrin of Effingham, Arkansas and his wife Rose, along with two small children Arthur and Helen. There is also brief mention on that page of his marriage announcement to my great-grandmother Rose. This jibes with what I already know (although I had no idea my grandfather had a sister AND two half-siblings up until this point, I had discovered the sister Helen in my earlier research so that confirmed I had the right “James W Morrin”). However, the big mystery was when I started to do some research on William and Mary Morrin and discovered that my great-grandfather was apparently not their biological son – he was adopted!

I’ve not been able to find any info on the adoption itself or where he came from. Most of what I found suggests there were three children altogether who were adopted by William and Mary Morrin but aside from a mention of their names in Mary’s obituary I haven’t found any other info about them or any suggestion of where/who they were adopted from. What a fascinating mystery!

I did find records of William’s and Mary’s births in Ireland, but haven’t pursued them. They were married in Kansas some years after emigrating here and I don’t believe they knew one another before leaving Ireland. These are on the back-burner for me at this time until I find out more info on James W. I’d like to try and find out more if I could about the circumstances of the adoption.

One thing that deepens the mystery: in the 1900 Federal Census in Kansas, there is a listing for a William and Marry Morrin, both with Ireland listed as place of birth, and with the correct years for the William and Mary who adopted my great grandfather. What’s baffling is the household also lists a “John Cotlow”, age 13 at the time, as a grandson living with them. The year of birth for John Cotlow matches up with my great grandfather (1886) but as mentioned in William’s and Mary’s respective obituaries, they did not have any biological children. Thus, John Cotlow couldn’t have been a biological grandson, but could he have been the son of friends or family that William and Mary took in? Is John Cotlow the same as James W Morrin, possibly renamed after a legal adoption?

Hopefully I can sort this out, because I am HELLA curious.

*Coat of arms is somewhat of a misnomer, in that it refers to the specific design on the shield; a reference to coat as in surcote, an item of apparel worn over armor and bearing the armorial device so as to identify the wearer who might otherwise be unidentifiable while in armor. The overall design as usually depicted – with a helm on top, mantling on the sides, and possibly supporters to either side is referred to collectively as an achievement of arms, of which the coat of arms is one part.

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