Kernan Immigration History

Oral family history and family records provide few details about the Kernan family’s immigration history. Although these sources are clear that the family traces back to Ireland, they provide no account of how the family came to be in the United States, particularly when the family immigrated from Ireland. However, these sources do imply two possible immigration facts. A family group sheet for Owen Francis Kiernan (1836-1901), which details information from the Bible of Delmar Clair Kernan (1908-1979), states Owen was born in “Northern Ireland,” and that he married his wife, Harriet, in 1863 in St. Paul, Ramsey Co., Minnesota. Both of these details from family records imply that the family immigrated to the United States from Ireland at some point before 1863. Despite what family records may imply, historical records provide a clearer, though incomplete, account of the Kernan family’s immigration history.

From Ireland to Quebec, Canada

Research into available historical records both provides some details about the family’s immigration, as well as correcting what could be implied from family records. Available historical records, such as baptismal, birth, death, and census records, reveal that the family immigrated from Ireland to Canada, before immigrating to the United States. The 1857 Minnesota Census and the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, for example, show that the earliest confirmed ancestors of the family, Felix Kiernan (ca. 1796-1882) and his wife Martha Rose Sheridan (ca. 1797-?), along with two of their children (Matthew and Bridget), were born in Ireland, while their remaining six children, including Owen Francis Kiernan (1836-1901), were born in Canada.

1860 U.S. Federal Census showing the Kiernan family living in Sibley Co., Minnesota. Also shows birth locations of family members as being Ireland and Canada.
The 1860 U.S. Federal Census showing the Kiernan family living in Sibley Co., Minnesota and the oldest members of the Kernan family as having been born in Ireland and others having been born in Canada.

Although available historical records make it clear that the family immigrated from Ireland to Canada before immigrating to the United States, they provide no specific details about the family’s immigration, particularly when they immigrated from Ireland to Canada, as no immigration record has been discovered for any members of the family. The reason for this may very well be that they do not exist. Although some early immigration records exist they are not extensive as there was no requirement prior to 1865 for passenger and crew lists to be made or kept for immigration to Canada from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Despite this, available historical records do suggest that the family immigrated from Ireland to Canada sometime between about 1830 and 1832. This time frame is based on the fact that Felix and Martha’s second child, Bridget, is recorded in various historical records, including the 1860 U.S. Federal Census shown above, as having been born in about 1830 in Ireland, while all of their children born after her are recorded as having been born in Canada, with the third child, Mary, having been born there in 1832. Thus, this establishes a likely time frame for when the family immigrated to Canada from Ireland.

The time frame of about 1830 to 1832 is supported by additional historical records from Canada, particularly the birth and baptismal records for Felix and Martha Kiernan’s six children born in Canada as recorded in the Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection), 1621-1967. These records establish that the earliest of their children born in Canada, Mary, was indeed born in 1832. Although no birth or baptismal record for their second child, Bridget, has been discovered, most other records (such as those already mentioned) state she was born in about 1830 in Ireland. Thus, it is clear that the family likely immigrated to Canada from Ireland within this time frame. Table 1 below shows the names, birth years, and birth locations for the known children of Felix and Martha Kiernan, which illustrates the time frame of when the Kiernan family immigrated to Canada based on the birth years of their second and third children.

Table 1: Birth Years & Locations of Felix & Martha Kiernan’s Children
Name Birth Year Birth/Baptismal Location
Matthew Kiernan 1826 Ireland
Bridget Kiernan ca. 1830 Ireland
Mary Kiernan 1832 Nicolet, Quebec, Canada
Anne Kiernan 1834 Nicolet, Quebec, Canada
Owen Kiernan 1836 Nicolet, Quebec, Canada
Rose Kiernan 1839 Nicolet, Quebec, Canada
Catherine Kiernan 1841 Nicolet, Quebec, Canada
Felix Kiernan, Jr. 1844 Nicolet, Quebec, Canada

In addition to supporting the likely time frame for the immigration of the family to Canada from Ireland, these birth and baptismal records also reveal that the family specifically immigrated to the Canadian Province of Québec, settling in the town of Nicolet. Nicolet is in the regional county municipality of Nicolet-Yamaska in the Centre-du-Québec region of southern Quebec and is situated where the Saint-Lawrence and Nicolet rivers meet. Additionally, Nicolet lies about 96 miles away from Montreal.

Map showing the location of Nicolet, Quebec, Canada. Nicolet is about 96 miles away from Montreal.
Map showing the location of Nicolet, Quebec, Canada (indicate by red marker).

Apart from the Canadian birth and baptismal records for six of Felix and Martha’s children born in Canada, other Canadian records are relevant to the discussion of the approximate time frame for the immigration of the family to Canada from Ireland. One of these is the 1831 Canada Census. Given the approximate time frame of about 1830 to 1832 for the family’s immigration to Canada, it seems likely they would be enumerated on this census record, or rather Felix would have been as only heads of households were named. However, efforts to find a match for Felix have proven unsuccessful. Although the reason for this is unclear, there are several possible explanations. It is possible that spelling or other enumeration errors like those on other records for the family (see “The Kernan Surname“) may be responsible for why a match has not been found. Additionally, the condition of the record may explain a lack of a match. According to the description of the census from the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) website, the census was microfilmed in 1955 and the original handwritten copies were destroyed. Unfortunately, “the microfilming of these records was not of consistent quality and not all images are readable.” Thus, some of the recorded information from the 1831 Canada Census has been lost. It is possible that the page containing Felix’s entry was among these. It is also possible that Felix and his family lived with someone else, and thus Felix would not have been specifically named on the census. Although one of these could explain the apparent lack of a match, it is also possible that this indicates that the family actually immigrated between the last day the census was taken (1 October 1831) and the date Felix and Martha’s third child, Mary, was born in Nicolet (6 April 1832).

Another relevant Canadian record is the 1851 Canada Census. As with other records discussed so far, this census record shows Felix and Martha’s second and third children, Bridget and Mary respectively, and some indication of their approximate birth years (here their approximate ages in 1851), which is the relevant clue. However, there are noticeable differences between this record and others that have been discussed. According to this record, Felix and Martha’s second child, Bridget (shown “Bregit”), was about 23 years old in 1851, making her birth year about 1828. As for Felix and Martha’s third child, Mary (shown “Mary Anne”), she was about 18 years old in 1851, making her birth year about 1833. It is clear from these birth years that this record is not precise, as the birth/baptismal record for Mary (discussed above) clearly states she was born in 1832 not 1833. Additionally, most records for Bridget shows her birth year to be about 1830 instead of 1828. Another unusual difference is this record states that Bridget was born in Canada. It is very likely that this is an error, as other records for Bridget state she was born in Ireland and no birth or baptismal record has been discovered for her in Canadian records. Although there are some differences between this record and others, the approximate time frame of 1830 to 1832 for the family’s immigration to Canada from Ireland can still be regarded as relatively reliable.

1851 Canada Census showing the oldest members of the family as having been born in Ireland.
The 1851 Canada Census showing the oldest members of the Kernan family as having been born in Ireland and others having been born in Canada.

According to this record, Felix, Martha, and some of their children were still living in Quebec, Canada, but not in Nicolet; rather, they were living in the village and Parish of Sainte-Monique, which is not only a part of the same regional county municipality as Nicolet, but lies just across the southern border of Nicolet. The village of Sainte-Monique lies about eight miles from Nicolet.

nicolet-saintemonique2
Map showing the locations of Nicolet and Sainte-Monique (indicated by red markers)

Identifying the likely time frame of the family’s immigration from Ireland to Quebec, Canada raises the question of why they immigrated in the first place. Although the immigration history of most Irish families involves the Great Potato Famine (1845-1852), other historical circumstances likely provide an explanation for the family’s immigration, given the fact that the family immigrated before the Famine years. In the 1830s, Ireland faced difficult economic conditions, which drove many Irish to immigrate to North America. A fall in agricultural prices and a decline in the textile industry, along with an increase in population, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars resulted in a significant rise in unemployment and poverty. The majority of land being controlled by absentee English landlords that were quick to evict the poor, along with Irish inheritance laws resulting in divisions of land too small to support a family further increased poverty, unemployment, and homelessness. In addition to economic conditions in Ireland, British policies in Ireland also served to drive many Irish to immigrate. The enforced tithe policies requiring all Irish, including Catholics and the poor, to pay for the upkeep of the Anglican Church of Ireland resulted in tensions, the seizure of private property, and a series of violent incidents known as the “Tithe War” (1831-36). Beyond these circumstances, some of the Irish that immigrated to Canada did not have a choice. Amendments to the Poor Law passed in the 1830s and 1840s put the poor in Ireland at the mercy of “poor law unions” who either granted poor relief or issued removal orders.

Apart from the difficult economic and political situation in Ireland, certain conditions in Canada, particularly Quebec, drove many Irish to immigrate there. Favorable economic conditions in the 1830s in Canada were the most important factor attracting the Irish to Canada. Land grants in Canada following the War of 1812 were a major attraction, as were organized colonies of Irish settlements in Quebec that began in the 1820s. Employment in labor jobs in large construction projects in Quebec, such as the Lachine Canal, as well as employment in the timber industry was also a major attraction to Irish immigrants. The cost of immigrating was also a factor attracting Irish immigrants to Canada, as it was cheaper (about two to three times cheaper) to immigrate to Canada than to the United States, a fact that did not change until the passage of the British Passenger Act (1848). In addition to economic conditions in Canada, the relatively good relationship the Irish had with the French made immigration to Quebec highly likely. Of particular importance, the majority of Irish immigrants and French Canadians shared the same religion (Catholicism), both were primarily rural oriented, and both shared a feeling of antipathy towards the British.

From Quebec, Canada to Minnesota, USA

The Kernan family’s immigration from Ireland to Quebec, Canada, moreover, is not the end of the family’s immigration history. Available historical records reveal that the family did not remain in Quebec, but rather immigrated to the United States. As with the family’s immigration from Ireland to Canada, available historical records provide no specific details about the family’s immigration from Canada to the United States, particularly when they immigrated. However, these records do suggest that the family immigrated from Quebec, Canada to the United States sometime between about 1851 and 1857. This time frame is based on the fact that the family is enumerated on the 1851 Canadian Census living in Sainte-Monique, Nicolet-Yamaska, Centre-du-Québec, Québec, Canada, where Felix was a farmer (or “cultivateur”), and on the 1857 Minnesota Census living in Sibley County, Minnesota, where Felix was also a farmer. Thus, it is highly likely that the family immigrated to the United States between about 1851 and 1857. Presently, the 1857 Minnesota Census is the earliest discovered record in the United States for the family. It is possible, however, that the time frame could be narrowed to between 1855 and 1857, as the family has not yet been found enumerated on the 1855 Minnesota Census.

1857 Minnesota Census of the Kiernan family (shown Connon) living in Sibley Co., Minnesota. Record also shows birth locations as being Ireland and Canada.
1857 Minnesota Census of the Kiernan family (shown Connon) living in Sibley Co., Minnesota. Record also shows birth locations as being Ireland and Canada.

As with Identifying the likely time frame of the family’s immigration from Ireland to Quebec, Canada, identifying the likely time frame of the family’s immigration from Quebec, Canada to the United States raises the question of why they immigrated in the first place. Certain unfavorable conditions in Canada in the 1850s may provide a partial answer. An increase in the number of persons immigrating to Canada by the 1850s, particularly large numbers of Irish immigrants during the Great Potato Famine years, increased competition for labor jobs and land. Tensions and conflicts between ethnically French and ethnically Irish communities in Quebec by the 1850s also contributed to many Irish in Quebec to immigrate to the United States. In addition to unfavorable conditions in Canada, certain conditions in the 1850s in the United States attracted the Irish to the United States, particularly the upper Midwestern states and territories. The development of inland canals near the Great Lakes attracted many Irish workers. Further expansion of the railroad system, which had grown to 9,000 miles of lines by 1850, also attracted many.

In addition to general factors that attracted many Irish to the United States, several factors attracted many Irish to Minnesota in particular. The close proximity to the Canadian border and to Canadian canal systems was an important factor. The Minnesota Territory, as it was known prior to 1858, was a rapidly developing territory. Growth in industry, farming, and railroads were a major attraction for immigrants. Large number of homesteads for sale throughout the territory was a huge attraction to Irish immigrants eager to start a new life in the United States. Additionally, the Midwestern states and territories became increasingly attractive to Irish and Canadian immigrants as many began to move there from the East Coast states, Ireland, and Canada, establishing communities that attracted more and more Irish and Canadians.

Although a time frame of 1851-1857 (or possibly 1855-1857) for the family’s immigration to the United States from Canada is suggested by historical records, moreover, their means of transportation and the route they took cannot, as no immigration record for Felix, his wife Martha, or any of their children has yet been discovered.  Nevertheless, historical accounts state that many immigrants to Canada eventually immigrated to the United States after a brief period of settlement in Canada; and that many immigrating from Canada to the United States did so by traveling through Ontario and then Michigan, after which they either remained in Michigan or traveled on to other states, including the Midwestern states. It is interesting to note that a survey of some of Felix and Martha’s neighbors show that they too were from Ireland and Canada, and that the area in which they are first found, Sibley County, Minnesota, is just north of a county named Nicollet in Minnesota, where a lot of Irish and Canadians settled. The following map shows a modern route from Nicolet, Quebec, Canada to Sibley County, Minnesota.

A map showing a modern route from Nicolet, Quebec, Canada to Sibley Co., Minnesota. Note the route passes through Ontario and Michigan.
A map showing a modern route from Nicolet, Quebec, Canada to Sibley Co., Minnesota. Note the route passes through Ontario and Michigan. Nicolet is about 1,400 miles away from Sibley County, Minnesota.

From Minnesota to California, USA

As already stated, upon their arrival in the United States the family appears to have settled in Sibley County, Minnesota, where they are found living by 1857. According to the 1857 Minnesota Census the family was living in Township 113 Range 30, or Bismarck Township. According to the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, the family was living in Dryden, Sibley County, Minnesota. Felix’s son Owen is also enumerated on the 1860 U.S. Federal Census as living in Dryden, Sibley County, Minnesota.

According to family records, moreover, Owen Francis Kiernan (1836-1901) married his wife, Harriet, in 1863 in St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, where the family (or at least Owen) appears to have been living by then. Owen and his family are enumerated as living in St. Paul on the 1870 U.S. Federal Census. By 1876, Owen and his family were living in the state of Nebraska. That the family was in Nebraska by 1876 is based on the fact that their son, Oliver, was born in in that year in Nebraska. Several census records confirm this, including the 1880 U.S. Federal Census and the 1895 Minnesota Census. It is possible, that the family was in Nebraska by 1875, as they have not yet been found on the 1875 Minnesota Census.

Regardless of when the family moved to Nebraska, Owen and his family were living in Maryville, Nodaway County, Missouri by 1880, where they are found enumerated on the 1880 U.S. Federal Census. Although it is not clear how long they remained in Maryville, their son, George Edward Kernan (1884-1960), was born there in 1884. By 1885, Owen and his family were once again in St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, where Owen’s father, Felix Kiernan (ca. 1796-1882), died in 1882.

Owen and his family remained in St. Paul, Minnesota throughout the early and mid-1890s, being found on the St. Paul, Minnesota City Directory and on the 1895 Minnesota Census. After their enumeration on the 1895 Minnesota Census, it becomes unclear how long they remained in that state. By 1901, however, they were living in Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon, where, in that year, Owen died. According to the 1960 obituary of George Edward Kernan (1884-1960), the family moved from St. Paul, Minnesota to Portland, Oregon in about 1890. However, this is inconsistent with available historical records, namely the 1895 Minnesota Census. The only other record available prior to 1901 is the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, which the family has not yet been found enumerated on. Thus, it seems likely that the family moved to Portland, Oregon sometime between 1895 and 1901. Family oral history from Owen and Harriet’s daughter, Rose Amelia (Kernan) Wise (1873-1942), states that her family moved to Oregon in 1900 before moving to Washington by 1910 and California by 1920. It is possible that Owen and Harriet moved their family to Portland, Oregon at that time as well. It is also claimed in Wise family history that the family left Minnesota for Oregon because they disliked the extreme cold weather typical of that state.

Between 1910 and 1940, George Edward Kernan (1884-1960) and his family were living back and forth between Oregon and Washington states. They are enumerated on the 1910 U.S. Federal Census as living in Kelso, Cowlitz County, Washington. They were living back in Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon by 1918, where, in that year, George filed his World War I Draft Registration Card. They are also enumerated on the 1920 U.S. Federal Census as living in Portland.  George and some of his family are enumerated on the 1930 U.S. Federal Census as living in Columbia West, Clark County, Washington. George’s son Delmar Clair Kernan (1908-1979) and his wife, Maxine, however, are enumerated on the 1930 U.S. Federal Census as still living in Portland, Oregon. Both George’s and Delmar’s families are enumerated on the 1940 U.S. Federal Census as living in Portland, Oregon in that year.

The Kernan family remained in Oregon, primarily living in or near Portland, until 1961, when Delmar and Maxine’s son William G. Kernan (LIVING) and his family moved to California, settling in Orange County.

Summary of Kernan Immigration History

The following chart summarizes the Kernan family’s immigration history from their arrival in North America sometime between about 1830 and 1832 until their move to Orange County, California in 1961.

Date Country City/County/State/Province
ca. 1830-32 Canada Nicolet, Québec
By 1851 Canada Sainte-Monique, Québec
ca. 1851-57 United States Sibley County, Minnesota
By 1863 United States St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota
By 1876 United States Nebraska
By 1880 United States Maryville, Nodaway County, Missouri
By 1885 United States St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota
1895-1901 United States Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon
By 1910 United States Kelso, Cowlitz County, Washington
By 1918 United States Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon
By 1961 United States Orange County, California

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