Monday, June 7, 2010

Frank Murray pt 2: His Wild Irish Rose

This post is a follow-up to my earlier post "Frank Murray pt 1: From Rocking Babies to Herding Cattle." In part 1, I wrote about my great-grandfather Frank Murray's journey from his family's farm in Nebraska westward to Pullman, Washington, where he began working for his uncle, William H. "Bill" Kincaid. When we last left Frank, he had just caught his first glimpse of my great-grandmother, Jennie Ryan.

Frank Murray and Jennie Ryan, c. 1913. Excerpt from a family photo.

I don't know how Frank and Jennie actually met, but the family story about that first sighting (see part 1) suggests that Bill Kincaid or Bill's son Charlie may have introduced them, perhaps around 1910-1912.[1] Although Frank probably lived on Charlie's Kincaid's farm a few miles outside of town much of the time, he likely visited his uncle Bill in Pullman often. Jennie also lived in Pullman, with her father, Patrick Ryan. As two prominent, well-off landowners living in the same small town, Bill and Patrick were probably at least slightly acquainted.

According to the 1910 U.S. census, Bill Kincaid lived at 1714 B Street, an address Google Maps puts at just a little over a mile northeast of Patrick Ryan's 315 West Main Street house. Google may not have the addresses perfectly placed, but at the right you'll see one possible route between the two houses, with Bill Kincaid's place as (roughly) point A and Patrick Ryan's as (roughly) point B.[2]

Frank most certainly found Jennie Ryan a woman worth traveling a mile for. Born in Lewis County, New York, in the early 1880s, Jennie was probably just a toddler when her parents, Patrick and Jane (White) Ryan, decided to move across the continent to homestead in Garfield County, Washington. Arriving around April 30, 1884, the Ryans laid claim to a plot of land on the cheerily named Deadman Creek near the town of Pomeroy.[3] According to Grand*a Murray's Jennie Ryan Letter, the homestead was very isolated: "It must have been a spartan and lonely life," *e wrote. Neighbors would have been spread far apart, and for the next few years (until the family sold the homestead and moved to Whitman County), Jennie had few playmates. Her two older brothers, Ed and Will, were probably too busy with schoolwork and farm chores to play much; her baby brother, Paul, wasn't born until 1888; and a ten-year age difference separated her from her only sister, Nellie.[4] This meant Jennie had to learn to amuse herself when she wasn't helping her family with chores. It also meant that she grew up a little wild. As Grand*a Murray wrote,
Jennie used to chase the wild range horses. She would hide behind some sage brush and jump out at them.
"It was a dangerous game," Grand*a continues--but then, Jennie could be dangerous, too:
Once she chased a little colt until it died from exhaustion. [Her father] spanked her, and that was the only spanking she ever had.[5]
As she grew older, Jennie learned to ride and to shoot, developing both skills to a high level of mastery. My mother tells me that Grand*a Murray and other relatives always said Jennie could ride a horse as well as any man. And according to the Pullman Herald newspaper, as a young woman Jennie won second place in a contest to find the "best saddle horse, ridden by a lady," proving she could not only ride a horse--she looked good doing it.[6] As for her marksmanship, Grand*a Murray contends she was a crack shot:
Once when she was practicing target shooting, a man held up his hat and said, "I'll give you five dollars if you can hit it." She took aim and shot a hole in his hat.[7]
I remembered hearing a different take on this tale, so I asked Mom about it. "Oh, Grand*a cleaned that story up," she told me. In the version Mom heard from various Murray relatives as a child, Jennie shot the man's hat from her own front porch--not from some shooting range. And she didn't make the shot on a bet, either: somehow the man had made her mad and she wanted to get rid of him, so she grabbed her gun and shot the hat off his head. Mom has no idea who the man was or what he'd done to irritate Jennie. When Mom was a kid, she says that the story was often told to illustrate Jennie's spooky-good marksmanship--but that whenever shocked and fascinated grandchildren like herself asked follow-up questions, the adults always quickly changed the subject. A century later, we'll never know what actually happened. But it's clear that Jennie's immediate descendants saw her as a woman who was capable of
  1. shooting a hole in a man's hat to prove she could do it
  2. shooting a man's hat off because he annoyed her
There are other stories I could tell here, too--more hints, around the edges, of a nasty temper. But I think I've given you a basic idea of Jennie's wild, strong-minded, Annie-Oakley side. Without question, she was a spirited woman.

At the same time, though, Jennie was a conventional farmer's daughter. Despite her occasional hat-directed violence, she spent most of her time, as girl and woman, taking care of family in one way or another. She fed chickens. She made jam. She worried (at least sometimes) what the neighbors might think. (I've already written about how sensitive--even vain--she was about her age.) Page after page of the Jennie Ryan Letter describes the many domestic chores Jennie grew up tackling every day, from hauling water and milking cows to baking bread and making clothes. Some of these tasks she seems to have genuinely enjoyed: she was a good enough cook to sell her wares when money was tight, and I think the name of the sewing club she started--the Pleasant Stitches Club--reflects her feelings about that occupation. She was a warm, hardworking, intensely social woman who welcomed guests and was always "ready to go"--out to local plays, festivals, and potluck dinners, over to neighbors' houses, or even just into town. She loved to visit with people, to laugh and joke and sing and dance. "Mother was fun," Grand*a writes simply.[8]

With such a potent blend of characteristics, it's easy to see why Frank Murray--a hardworking farmer who wasn't without his adventurous side--might set his cap for a woman like Jennie Ryan. Luckily for him, she liked the set of his cap, and the two decided to marry.

There was, however, a problem with the match: Jennie was a Catholic. I have no idea what faith, if any, Frank was born to, but he was certainly not Catholic.[9] Worse for them, Jennie wasn't just any sort of Catholic--she was an Irishman's daughter.

Jennie's father, Patrick Ryan, was born in County Tipperary, Ireland, within a couple of years of the outbreak of the devastating Irish Potato Famine. Over the next few years, many neighbors, friends, and relatives left the Ryans' neighborhood for a better life in America. A group of these Tipperary refugees settled in what's called the Maple Ridge area of Lewis County, New York, and eventually Patrick Ryan's whole family emigrated to join them. The members of the "Maple Ridge Migration" were a close-knit group, sharing culture, faith, and family ties. At the center of this newly American Irish community was the local Catholic church--and not only did the Ryans attend that church, they helped to build it in the first place.[10]

In 1871, Patrick Ryan married Jane White, who'd grown up in a nearby Lewis County town. Although Jane was an American, both of her parents were Irish immigrants, and her family was, like Patrick's, Catholic. The Whites were so Catholic, in fact, that Jane's mother reportedly died in church--on her knees--praying. ("She must have been a saint," says the Murray-Ryan Packet.)[11]

So Patrick married into a family that was much like his own in culture, faith, and devotion. When he and Jane decided to take their children and move to Washington, they operated on the Maple Ridge model: they stuck with family (Patrick's brother Thomas also moved his family to Garfield County), and they stuck to their church. The Jennie Ryan Letter describes how, during the Ryans' early years in rural Washington--come blasting heat or winter snow--they'd ride in an open wagon across rutted dirt roads to Mass every Sunday. It was ten or eleven miles to the nearest Catholic church, so the round trip took all day. After the Ryans moved to Pullman, the situation improved: while there was still no Catholic church in town, there was at least a denser population of Catholics (many of them Irish immigrants or their children), and the local parish would send a priest around from time to time to minister to that flock. On such occasions, local Catholics would gather to hear Mass and receive communion--and often, they gathered at Patrick Ryan's house. One of Grand*a Murray's first cousins told my mother that Patrick's house was sometimes referred to as "Little Ireland."

Knowing all of these things, it's possible to imagine Patrick's reaction when Jennie announced her intention to marry un-Catholic Frank Murray. Jennie was, by this time, Patrick's only surviving daughter, and he must have had hopes that she would find some good, well-off, clean-living Irish lad to marry--a man who knew the old songs and would raise the grandkids to work hard, go to Mass, and hate the English. Patrick's other daughter, Nellie, had died tragically young around 1897--but she had become a nun! Now here was Jennie, ready to marry a man who, in Patrick's book, must have had at least three black marks against him:
  1. He didn't own his own farm--or indeed any property (that I'm aware of). How would he provide for a woman who was used to living in town and having her own riding horse?
  2. He wasn't Irish. True, Frank did have some Irish blood in him, but his parents hailed from Illinois, not Cork or Tipperary.
  3. The clincher: not Catholic. Worse, according to my mother (who has trouble imagining her grandfather as strongly religious at any stage of his life), Frank may not have even been a regular church-goer when he and Jennie met.
Frank couldn't do much about (probable) objections number one and two, but he did commit to a Catholic wedding. This would have involved months of instruction and counseling by a priest. I don't know whether or not Frank considered full conversion, but the Ryan-Murray Packet is clear that he did not convert at that time. In the Jennie Ryan Letter, Grand*a Murray explains that Frank struggled to learn about Catholicism because, in those days, everything was still in Latin.

Merely meeting the requirements to be married in the Catholic church, though, was no substitute, in Patrick's mind, for actually belonging to that faith, and he refused to give his blessing to the match. The couple married anyway, in a small ceremony in the Catholic church in Rosalia, Washington. Patrick did not attend, and there was no announcement in the local paper.

Frank did, however, have some allies in the Ryan family: Jennie's brother Will and his wife, Jess, acted as best man and matron of honor. And as time went on and grandchildren began to arrive, Patrick warmed to his new son-in-law. Frank began seeing more and more of his new Ryan kin and a bit less of his Kincaid relations. In a future post, I'll pick up this story again and begin to explore what I think of as the Irishing of Frank Murray.


[1] Grand*a Murray's Jennie Ryan Letter says that my great-grandparents were married two years after they met, but Grand*a offers no further details. I don't know whether *e was estimating or guessing or where *e got that number. Frank and Jennie married September 25, 1913. Because of some tough family issues surrounding the wedding that I'll get to later in the post, I suspect that they courted for at least a year or two before marrying, hence my upper limit of 1912 for their first meeting; but I have no corroborating evidence for this other than Grand*a's mysterious "two years." As for my lower limit of 1910, this is based on two pieces of pure conjecture. Firstly, I imagine that Frank had probably worked on the Kincaid farm outside town for at least a few months before he and Jennie met--and we don't know that he was in the area until 1910. (For details about when I estimate Frank arrived in Pullman, see part 1, especially note 2.) Secondly, I think it's likely that Frank and Jennie started courting after Patrick Ryan bought his house in town in 1909 (see note 2, below). In Pullman, there would have been more places and opportunities than in the country for single people to rub elbows away from disapproving family members. Now, the whole purpose of this note is to broadcast how shaky my estimate is; I did, however, think it was worth attaching some time frame to their courtship, even if it was only a guess, just to orient the reader.

[2] The Ryan home is still standing today and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (as the William Swain House). Patrick Ryan purchased the home from C. H. Buell in 1909 and planned to move part of his family there within a week of announcing his intention in the 24 September 1909 issue of the Pullman Herald. (The brief announcement appears on p. 4, halfway down the third column of the "Personal" section). Regarding the Google map of the route between the Ryan and Kincaid homes, Pullman has changed quite a bit since the early 1900s as Washington State University has grown, but I used a 1913 map of the WSU campus (it was Washington State College in those days) to trace a route that would have worked back then. It may not be the route that people of that period would have chosen.

[3] According to Patrick Ryan's homestead records, which I photocopied at the National Archives in August or September 2009. 

[4] The names of Jennie's family members are consistent across Mom's Tree, the Ryan-White Tree, the Murray-Ryan Packet, and the Jennie Ryan Letter. They are backed up by family photographs, the memories of living descendants, census records, and official documents obtained through the Washington State Digital Archives. Unless otherwise stated, biographical information about Jennie and her family in the rest of this post is taken from one or more of the written family sources named in the first sentence of this note.

[5] Jennie Ryan Letter.

[6] "All Records Broken at 7th Annual Grange Picnic," Pullman Herald, 10 July 1908, p. 1. Online at the Library of Congress's Chronicling America newspaper collection (view page).

[7] Jennie Ryan Letter.

[8] This paragraph basically boils down and paraphrases information and descriptions of Jennie from the Jennie Ryan Letter and the Murray-Ryan Packet. My description of Jennie as a "conventional farmer's daughter" paraphrases a description in the Letter. Both sources talk about Jennie's cooking and sewing and how she started the Pleasant Stitches Club, though only the Packet gives the club's name. Both talk about the food she prepared and sold to local stores. The Murray-Ryan Packet specifically states that Jennie was hard-working, while the Jennie Ryan Letter lists enough tasks to make that fact plain. Both sources also dwell on Jennie's sociability and her love of music, though only the Letter mentions her sense of humor or how she was always "ready to go." I added one inference of my own: that Jennie worried about what the neighbors would think.

[9] The phrase "not a Catholic" is used repeatedly in my family sources to describe Frank's religious condition before he met Jennie. Nowhere does it say what he was, if not Catholic.

[10] Thomas E. Buckley, S. J., "The Ryan Family in Ireland and America," rev. 2005, online at Father Buckley is a descendant of Patrick Ryan's brother Thomas. Michael F. McGraw, whose website,, hosts Buckley's article, has further developed Buckley's idea of the "Maple Ridge Migration" through a great deal of additional research.

[11] Mom's Tree, the Ryan-White Tree, and the Ryan-Murray Packet all state that Patrick Ryan and Jane White married in 1871 in Copenhagen, New York; that Jane was born in New York; and that both of her parents were Irish. All of this information (except for the marriage location) is confirmed by census records.

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