Births. Deaths. Marriages. Divorces. These are all records available “at the courthouse.” They hold rich information for any genealogist. But they’re not what drew me to the courthouse. I went for the land records. While people populate the branches of all family trees, place is an important player for families where deep roots have been put down. This is especially true for the Irish.

In 1997, while visiting my daughter Maggie, who was studying in Ireland, I noticed new homes being built next to ancient ones that were crumbling and, in such ill repair, were unlivable. “Why aren’t they bulldozing those homes and clearing them away?” I asked Maggie.

“I think the Irish are lazy,” she quipped.

A few days later, on a ferry ride to the Aran Islands, I learned there was more to it than that. I asked a particularly congenial Irishman, whom I had struck up a conversation with, why they didn’t demolish those homes.

“Oh, my dear, we would never do that. They stand as a tribute to those whose lives were formed there.”

To drive home his point, he told me about American wakes held in Ireland during the potato famine. When adult children decided to migrate to America, the family staying behind waked them, knowing they would never see their loved ones again. When the last of the family in Ireland died, the neighbors would roll a large stone up to the entrance of their home, rather than destroying it. If any descendants returned from America, they could simply roll the stone away and be home.

One of Patrick Lavelle's 1855 Land Patents
My great-great grandfather, Patrick Lavelle, was a first-generation immigrant who came from Ireland to America. The first time I find documentation about his presence here is in the land patent records at the St. Croix County Courthouse in Hudson, Wisconsin. Little did I know the hints I culled from these records would open a path for me to learn more about Patrick than I had before. 

David Eitemiller, Patrick’s great-great grandson, surmised in his family history that Patrick had sailed from Sligo, Ireland on the Dromshair, arriving in New York on November 1, 1848. Eitemiller’s supposition was based on others listed on the passenger manifest who had the same surnames as people living in Erin Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1870, the same community where Patrick lived. However, none of his neighbors carried the same first names of those people. 

It’s likely that Patrick came over some time in the 1840s when Irish immigration was sharply increasing in the United States. In 1849, almost 220,000 of the nearly 300,000 emigrants (73%) who came to this country were from Ireland.* Names like Lavelle and those he sailed with—Mulloney, Padden and Reilly—were fairly common Irish names.

However, census, church and other vital statistic records with information about Patrick’s life are sparse before 1855. If he did arrive here in 1848, it is only a guess as to where he was and what he did until 1855 when he was issued two—or possibly more—land patents. I pinned my hopes on those records to learn more about him.

Land patents were created by the federal government to encourage a growing population on the east coast to move off into the woods out west. At various times throughout the 1800s, the government sold land to those daring souls. A land patent was an early form of a title, recording a sale of a piece of land from the government. Those holding a land patent could use it to claim their ownership of the land against all others.

Michael Martin's & Patrick Lavelle's side-by-side farms, 1876 Erin Prairie Plat
On December 15,1855, Patrick Lavelle was granted land patents for 120 acres at the General Land Office in Hudson, Wisconsin. Eighty acres were two adjoined forty-acre parcels in Erin Prairie, and another forty acres were in the neighboring town of Emerald. The names of the towns reflect that area’s large Irish population at the time.

In his 1848 field notes about the land in Erin Prairie, surveyor Henry B. Walsh described it this way: The surface of this township is generally rolling, the soil generally good, the timber is aspen and W & B oak. Grass on the prairie for the most part is heavy. Springs and streams scarce. Willow River is the only stream of any note within the township and indeed, the only running water; the left bank is high and the right bank is low, the current rapid; hard gravel bottom. [Note: B could stand for Black or Bur oak. I defaulted to Black since Bur is part of the White oak family.]

Specific to Patrick’s land patent property in Erin Prairie, Walsh’s records show that Patrick had ten acres of prairie and 30 non-prairie acres in his upper 40 acres. Walsh wrote that the entire 80 acres had “rolling good 2nd rate land, aspen timber and bushes of Hazel, B berry, etc.” [Note: B berry is probably blackberry, which still grows in abundance in that area.]**

The same day Patrick received his land patents, Michael Martin was also granted two forty-acre parcels in Erin Prairie, which ran parallel to Patrick’s on the west side. “Was this intentional?” I wondered. “Were Patrick and Michael friends? If they were, where was their friendship forged?” I started looking for information about Michael to see if I could find clues about where his and Patrick’s lives first intersected. 

In 1850, Michael is living in Dundee, Illinois with his parents. According to the census, his father, Michael, Senior, is a laborer, and his mother, Catherine is at home. Michael is 17 and has a brother, Patrick, 22, and a sister, Mary, 19.

While searching the Martin records, I run across another familiar name—David Clennan. I find him on my mother’s paternal branch of the family tree. He is my second great- grandfather who married Michael’s sister, Mary, in Kane, Illinois in 1851. Now I know I have blood ties to Michael, as well as Patrick—just on different sides of the family tree.

I continued to research the Martins with a new enthusiasm because I wasn’t just looking for a friendship between Michael and Patrick anymore. I was learning about my newly-discovered second- and third-great grandparents. Ironically, since Patrick was my second-great-grandfather through the maternal branch of my family tree, he and Michael were not related by blood.

As I continued looking through the Martin records, I observed that Michael, Senior, and Catherine had had only two children of record—Mary and Michael. That sent me back to the 1850 Illinois census where there is a Patrick Martin listed as their son. His and Michael’s ages are the same difference as the ages between Patrick Lavelle and Michael. Was there a census mistake regarding Patrick’s relationship to the head of household? Could the Patrick Martin listed in the Illinois census really be Patrick Lavelle?

I also learn that in December 1855, Michael is granted another land patent in Erin Prairie that he purchases with Patrick Martin. On the same date, Patrick Martin is also issued two other land grants, individually, in Erin Prairie, which total 160 acres. Could this be Patrick Lavelle? Could he be purchasing land in the same community under two different names, allowing him to create or recover an identity without suspicion?

The earliest plat map I find for Erin Prairie is dated 1876. It reveals that Michael Martin and Patrick Lavelle still owned the adjoining 80 acres they bought in their own names in 1855. The 40 acres purchased by Michael Martin and Patrick Martin are owned by P. Smith at this time, and the 160 acres purchased by Patrick Martin in December 1855 has been split in half with L. Murtagh owning 80 acres and D. O’Keefe owning the other 80 acres.

Despite my speculation, Patrick Lavelle is still shrouded in the pre-1855 past. He’ll remain that way until I can confirm my suspicions and speculations with other records. But his 1855 land records brought Patrick into the light, providing a place for his descendants to see him move forward from there.

Earliest photo of the Lavelle homestead shows the Dry Run Creek, their only water source.

It’s likely that, as a single man, Patrick built a rustic log cabin on his land when he first purchased it. However, on January 5, 1860, at 30-years old, Patrick marries 20-year old Bridget Hines at St. James Church in Hudson. With a new  wife and the prospect of having a family, his bachelor quarters would no longer be suitable accommodations. In 1998, Patrick Lavelle’s great-granddaughter, Jean Marie Laiche Hood, wrote: 

Patrick Lavelle built a log house—perhaps 16 feet x 18 feet—for his new wife Bridget, with room for their family to grow. There was indication of some concrete used. It had one small room beside the main room. There was a loft where the children slept. [The home] was near a running stream (now called Dry Run). This stream had several natural springs so good water was nearby. Patrick also built a barn which was used as a horse stable. The land that Patrick purchased was pristine forest. He made a living “harvesting trees” and probably farmed the land that had been cleared. The logs would be sent down the Willow River to the St. Croix River or possibly by railroad. 

In the 1860 census, Patrick is a farmer whose estate is valued at $240.00. His personal worth is $120.00. His and Bridget’s neighbors are the Clellans and the Martins, who had come from Dundee, Illinois to settle in Erin Prairie. Was Patrick with them when they came? That’s a subject for deeper research. Anything I find will merit its own installment at another time in the 2019 edition of 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks. 

Following their marriage, Patrick and Bridget’s family grew quickly. From 1861 to 1879. they had nine children. When they made their home on the his original 80 acres, he and Bridget Patrick marked the first generation of five who would work and live on that land.

Martin & Lavelle farms, still side-by-side in 1886
Patrick died in 1884 at 54 years old, which was the average life expectancy for men at that time. His property shows up on the 1886 St. Croix County Plat Map, still in his name. In one decade he had doubled the size of his property, from 80 to 160 acres. Michael Martin, whose property still ran parallel with Patrick's now owned 120 acres.

At almost 164 years old, the Patrick Lavelle farm is still a working farm. No one has had to roll a stone up to the front door for descendants to roll back if they return. And even when that land is no longer owned by the family, there will not be a need for one. The land itself is enough. Anyone who returns, just needs to step on it, and be home.

* http://www1.assumption.edu/ahc/irish/overview.html


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