By J. L. Starkey
“There are only two kinds of people in the world.
The Irish and those who wish they were.”– Irish Saying
I stared at the page in frustration, certain that I had made an error. The 1887 Washington, D.C., marriage index couldn’t be for my great-great-grandparents, William and Melcena Baugh. After all, my Melcena was a Chicago native who lived in the Midwest her entire life. The Melcena listed in the index was also born in Chicago, but she lived in Richmond, Virginia, at the time of her marriage to William. Did I find the correct couple?
As it so happens, I did. And I have my bachelor uncle, George Payne O’Neill, to thank for that.
The O’Neill Surprises Continue
“Did you know that the O’Neill family was from Northern Ireland?” I had been waiting all week to spring that question on my mother. She knew she had Irish roots but thought her ancestors were from Cork and Tipperary. She told us that the rest of her family was, “…oh, some Danish…and probably English.”
So this new locale? This was a find.
In college, one of my favorite courses was Professor Rhys Williams’ “Comparative Racial and Ethnic Relations.” His lectures and discussions helped me to understand how Ireland became so divided during certain eras . Given what I knew, I wondered how awkward the holidays were for my Irish ancestors . But that may be a story for another time.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to 1845, so that I can properly introduce my bachelor-uncle-turned-accidental-matchmaker.
Uncle George Serves His Country
Born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1845, George Payne O’Neill II was the youngest son of Armagh, Northern Ireland, native George Payne O’Neill I and Melcena (Irvine) O’Neill . The older brother of Gabriella, George had a close relationship with his sister, and even served as witness to one of her three marriages .
By all accounts, George was a hard worker who supported his mother and siblings, perhaps because his brothers refused to, or were unable to do so . Just one day after his nineteenth birthday, he enlisted in the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and he served as a musician during the final years of the Civil War. After his discharge at Brownsville, Texas, he joined his family in Chicago and found work as a carriage trimmer .
By 1870, perhaps sensing that hard times were ahead for his employer, George moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where he found work as a wagon maker . By 1874, he had returned to Chicago, was still single, and was working as an upholsterer .
Though Uncle George appeared to be a confirmed bachelor, by 1882 he was actually a divorcee. His ill-fated March 1880 marriage to Alberta Baker lasted less than two years on paper and less than 90 days in reality. By the time of the 1880 census, George, who was again living with his mother and siblings, reported himself as single. That life seemed to suit him best, and he never remarried.
Uncle George Gets a New Job: Matchmaker
By 1886, George had again left Chicago. Although he returned by the early 1890s, I couldn’t account for those missing four years. At the same time, I continued to question how his future nephew-in-law, the southern-born William Baugh, ended up living in post-reconstruction Chicago. William had no connections to the area, and none of his siblings had made such a drastic move.
Where was the missing puzzle piece? I knew that, like George, William worked as an upholsterer in Chicago . I also knew that George and William shared a business – and a residence – from the early 1890s until George’s death in 1914 . But where did the men meet? To find that answer, I turned to one of my favorite resources: the directory.
If William and Melcena had indeed married in D.C., I theorized that a member of Melcena’s family must have had a connection to the area . Based on that assumption, I searched Richmond and D.C. directories for variations of the O’Neill surname.
My suspicions were correct. In 1886, William Baugh was living in Richmond and working as an upholsterer. And guess who was also working as an upholsterer while living with William’s father, Everett ? It was none other than bachelor uncle, George O’Neill!
Though the actual “how they met” story will never be known, I assume that William met Melcena when she stayed with her Uncle George at Everett Baugh’s home. The couple must have had a whirlwind courtship; on July 4, 1887, they married in Washington, D.C. The newlyweds then moved to Fredericksburg, where William and George opened O’Neill & Baugh, a cabinet and upholstery shop . The men would run the business together – first in Fredericksburg and then in Chicago – until George O’Neill’s death in 1914.
Finally, about those awkward family dinners…
There seem to be two camps of family history researchers: those who do research collateral lines, and those who do not. I am in the first camp and make no apologies for my journeys down ancestral rabbit holes. Yes, it is time consuming, and sometimes that extra research does nothing to break down a brick wall.
But then there are those other times…and that is what makes it all worthwhile.
I am so happy that I got to take a peek into the life of George Payne O’Neill. Bachelor uncle, businessman, would-be matchmaker? Uncle George was all three of those things. Were it not for him and his accidental matchmaking, the chances are good that I would not be here today.
And it’s just a hunch, but I would bet that he was darn proud of his Irish heritage at all of those awkward family dinners.
- Rhys H. Williams, PhD, is now Director of the McNamara Center for the Social Study of Religion, Loyola University Chicago. You can learn more about him at https://www.luc.edu/sociology/faculty/rhyshwilliamsphd.shtml.
- For a brief overview of Ireland’s turbulent history, see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/20930976/northern-irelands-violent-history-explained.
- “Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1994,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2MQ-P9J5 : 8 Mar 2018), George Payne O Neill, 30 Nov 1914; citing Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States, source reference 14238, record number , Cook County Courthouse, Chicago; FHL microfilm 1,239,986.
- Presbyterian Historical Society; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Book Title: Register 1858-1885; Accession Number: Vault BX 9211 .N74202 C32 v.1.
- Louis De Planque in Thompson, Jerry, and Lawrence T. Jones III, Civil War & Revolution on the Rio Grande Frontier. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2004. Public domain image,
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print.
- An example is found in the 1870 census for George’s brother Thomas, an inmate at the Illinois State Penitentiary:
Joliet, Will, Illinois; Roll: M593_291; Page: 149B; FHL microfilm: 545790.
- “United States Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939K-FHQ3-8K?cc=1832324&wc=M6RB-36N%3A162659801 : 22 May 2014), O’Neill, Abby – Opocensky, Frank W.>image 114 of 684; citing NARA microfilm publication M850 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, n.d.). (See also: Historical Data Systems, comp. U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2009; and Chicago, Illinois, City Directory, 1867. p. 679, col. 1. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.)
- 1870 United States Census, Jackson, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: M593_730; Page: 748A; FHL microfilm: 552229.
- Chicago, Illinois, City Directory, 1874. p. 840, col. 2. Retrieved from
Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
- Chicago, Illinois, City Directory, 1890. p. 1668, col. 1. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
- Illinois, Cook County Deaths 1878–1922.” Index. FamilySearch, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2010. Illinois Department of Public Health. “Birth and Death Records, 1916–present.” Division of Vital Records, Springfield, Illinois.
- “District of Columbia Marriages, 1811-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QK9B-P6SX : 11 February 2018), William Everitt Bough and Malcena Angeline Millison, 04 Jul 1887; citing p. 10432, Records Office, Washington D.C.; FHL microfilm 2,025,891.
- Richmond, Virginia, City Directory, 1886, p. 317, col. 1, and p. 118, col. 2. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
- Chataigne’s Fredericksburg and Falmouth City Directory, 1888-’89. Electronic version created by the Center for Historic Preservation, Mary Washington College, vagenweb.org. Original on file at Central Rappahannock Regional Library (CRRL), Fredericksburg, Virginia.