I recently presented my “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way…” lecture to the Belfair Chapter of the Puget Sound Genealogical Society. Here’s one of the stories I shared.
In 1873, my great–great-grandfather, James Ahern, suddenly found himself a 42-year-old single father with a house full of children. His wife, Jane, died delivering baby number six. James died 25 years later but never remarried. For a man in that day and age, a farmer with not only six youngsters to raise but a 160-acre farm and a barn full of dairy cattle to tend to, it’s quite unusual to not have found a helpmate to marry. But research into the will of his next-door neighbor shed a little light on how he might have managed to get his kids raised without taking another wife.
The 1880 census begins to tell the tale. James appears with his six children, from Mary Agnes, age 20, down through Henry, James, Sarah, and Jane to John C, age 7. I think Mary Agnes was probably pretty capable of taking on much of the responsibility for her younger siblings. She was 14 when her mother died, and she went on to raise a large family of her own.
Right next door are Isaac and Mary Ingram. Isaac and Mary had no children of their own. But on October 20, 1871, Isaac and Mary served as godparents to Jane Isabella Ahern, so clearly the Ingrams had a close relationship with the Aherns. I can see among the farmhands living with the Ingrams in 1880 is one Patrick Bradley, a 32-year-old Pennsylvanian. About a year and a half after that census was taken, Mary Agnes Ahern married Patrick. I can just see Mary Ingram finding excuses to fix these two up – “I baked a cake, Patrick, why don’t you take it over to the Aherns?”
Just on a hunch, when I was visiting the courthouse in Santa Rosa, I looked up Mary Ingram’s will, and in it I found a few more details to confirm my theory that Mrs. Ingram likely played a pretty active role in the lives of the motherless children next door. She had three nieces and a nephew who were remembered in her will with specific bequests of $1000 each and additional named beneficiaries included “my friend Lizzie Bradley” (Patrick and Mary Bradley’s oldest daughter) who was bequeathed $200, “my friend Mary Bradley,” given $200, and “my friend Sarah Ahern” who was given $100. Once the specific bequests were made and the final expenses paid, Mary divided the residuary of her estate two-ninths to each of her nieces and nephews and one-ninth to Lizzie Bradley. Lizzie was deaf, and perhaps this disability led Mary Ingram to be particularly generous toward her.
Wondering about how it was that a widower with a whole passel of children could manage to survive without a wife… imagining what kind of an influence Mary Ingram might have had in bringing lovebirds Patrick and Mary together… these thoughts led me to look for the will of my ancestor’s neighbor. I don’t think many genealogists have the next-door-neighbor’s will on their list of “must get” documents, but I’m glad I thought to put it on mine!
 Sonoma County California death records, 1873-1890, Volume 41, page 1, Jane Aheran, October 9, 1873
 US Federal Census Year: 1880; Census Place: Vallejo, Sonoma, California; Roll: 84; Family History Film: 1254084; Page: 23D; Enumeration District: 121; Image: 0049
 Baptismal records of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Petaluma, Sonoma, California
 Marriage records of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Petaluma, Sonoma, California
 Sonoma County, California Record of Wills, Volume J, page 252
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.