The Mixed-up Family Stories of Johanna Geary


Contains Geary/Cummins family history researched and recorded by Jo Cummins Langdon, Johanna’s granddaughter, and by Mary Ellen Moran, whose husband John was Joanna’s grandson.

Johanna Geary’s story is complicated and contradictory.   Even the most careful chroniclers can get it wrong.

It should be straightforward.  She’s the only one of my eight great-grandparents born in the USA.  From her early teens, Johanna lived on farms in south central Iowa.  She married a farmer named James Cummins.  Together they raised 10 children.  She lived out her final years in a small house in the small town of Melrose Iowa.

Her birthplace is the first contradiction:  Her obituary (Melrose Bell, April 23, 1925) says she was born in Pennsylvania on June 3, 1845.  The 1860 census record also lists Pennsylvania as her place of birth.

In Jo Langdon’s account, “Johanna Geary was born in Albany, New York to Margaret and Edward Geary.  Early on the family moved from Albany to Pennsylvania.  They farmed there but had to move on because of a black substance in the stream that was used for drinking water.  Oil was later discovered on that land.”

The Gearys may have tried to farm near Oil Creek Pennsylvania. “The curious dark liquid that occasionally oozed from the ground in northwestern Pennsylvania” attracted interest in the early 1850s.  Interest was centered around an area called Oil Creek”[].

Mary Ellen Moran wrote, “The family came west in a covered wagon.”  The obituary version:  “She came with her parents and family to Keokuk, Iowa, when a small child.”

In the 1850 census Johanna Geary lives in Keokuk Iowa with her father Edward Geary and mother Margaret, both listed as 40 years old.  Canada is listed as the birthplace for sister Ellen (age 14).  New York is listed as the birthplace of brother David (age 12).  Pennsylvania is listed as birthplace for sisters Anna (age 10) and Margaret (age 8) as well as Johanna (age 8) and her younger sister Elizabeth (age 5).  If you believe obituary birthdate and 1860 census, Johanna isn’t eight years old in 1850.  She’s six years old.

Family lore has it that Edward Geary was a “walking boss” for the railroad and died of cholera in the 1850s.  By the 1860 census, Johanna’s mother has aged only two years to 42 and is married to 30-year-old John Dempsey.  The couple live on a farm in Monroe County Iowa with 16-year-old Johanna and 14-year-old Elizabeth.

In Jo Langdon’s narrative the family travels a different route. “From Pennsylvania they moved on to Ohio.  Grandmother was a young woman by that time.  She worked as a cook at a stage station.  Aunt Nellie told the story that her mother cooked and served breakfast to President Garfield.  He was a Lieutenant General in the Union Army then.”

It is difficult to place Johanna Geary in Ohio during the Civil War.  Dempsey’s farm where she was listed in the 1860 census would have been near today’s Highway 34 which bisects Iowa east to west.  In the days before highways, this was a stage route.  Joanna may have worked at a nearby stage station.  However, I cannot find any record of James Garfield in Iowa during the early years of the Civil War.

Another family story:  The family needed cash.  Johanna took Emmett the baby (born 1885) and daughter Annie, and went to work at a meal stop restaurant for train passengers. While working there she served Ulysses S. Grant.

Contradiction: It’s well-documented that Ulysses S. Grant was not traveling in Iowa in 1885.  He was living near Sarasota Springs, New York.  He was completing his memoirs.  He died of throat cancer on July 23, 1885.  Since Emmett was born in 1885, the Grant story cannot be true.

Jo Langdon’s version is the more plausible:  “When Emmett was very young, Grandmother Cummins took a job to help out with the family income (she was before her time) as a cook for the Burlington Railroad.  The railroad was called the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad then.  She cooked meals for the section hands who were working near Creston, Iowa.  And, she took her older daughter Annie along to watch Emmett.”

Johanna probably worked at a stage station before her marriage and years later cooked for railroad section hands.  Thus the scrambled story.  She probably fed James Garfield between 1861 and 1863.  In Iowa?  In Ohio?  It’s still a mystery.

But Johanna Geary’s real story is not about making breakfast for a future president.  Her real story is that of an Irish immigrant family moving west with the building of the railroads.  Her real story is about raising 10 children on a farm in the middle of Iowa.

Johanna leaves her husband and eight other children, takes baby Emmett and daughter Annie, and works as a cook for railroad section hands.  Why? For the money the family needed to make it through another year, perhaps to pay the taxes and keep the farm.

That’s the real story.

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2 Responses to The Mixed-up Family Stories of Johanna Geary

  1. Jeanne Brady says:

    It is amazing to read about the unique experiences of these people who were just trying to live a good life and provide for their families! I am truly proud to call Joanna Geary my ancestor.

  2. Ellen Fraser says:

    These conflicting stories about Joanna Geary heightened my interest in exploring my ancestry. There are so many stories and clues to sift through. In the process I can gain insight into history and the personalities I am proud to call my ancestors. This post about my great grandmother provided both.

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