Information Wanted: Missing Persons and Missing Pieces

In my time as a research assistant for the Information Wanted Database, I have encountered hundreds of advertisements for missing persons that offer a tantalizing but frustratingly brief snapshot of a potentially compelling back story. The searchable online database contains information taken from “Missing Friends”, a popular column that ran in the Boston Pilot between 1831 and 1921, most commonly used by Irish immigrants to make contact with lost loved ones. Several of the lives described in these advertisements stick in my mind. Among the most memorable are tales of elopement, victims of mental illness, inheritance disputes, or runaway children. I often find it frustrating, however, that as our evidence comes from a missing person’s column, we never discover how these stories ended. While one advertisement can provide a lot of information, the final piece in the story is always missing. Frustratingly, we will probably never find out if our seekers found who they were looking for, if families were reunited, or if jilted husbands ever tracked down their absconding wives.

“Information Wanted” column heading, Boston Pilot, 1864.

Every so often, however, there are exceptions to this pattern, usually because there is more than one advertisement for the same missing person or people. It is probably for this reason that the Cantwell family from County Kilkenny remain among the most resilient figures in my mental store of missing friends. Members of the Cantwell family placed four adverts in The Pilot between June, 1864 and April, 1865, which, taken together, offer more pieces of the puzzle than is the case with the vast majority of postings.

In 1846, Nicholas and Margaret Cantwell left their home in Ballyouskill, Co. Kilkenny, with their four sons Michael, Thomas, John, and Patrick (an infant at the time) and sailed from Waterford to Quebec to begin a new life somewhere in North America. The posting does not indicate whether the family left as a result of the Famine, but given the date and their place of origin, it is likely that this was the case. Nicholas and Margaret left one son, Martin, behind in Ireland, placing him in the care of his paternal aunt Bridget and her husband Robert Broderick who lived in a neighboring parish near the town of Freshford.

Eighteen years later, Martin followed his family across the Atlantic, arriving in Quebec on May 4, 1864. Sadly, he received news soon after landing that his mother had passed away. This appears to have been the last bit of information Martin received about his family and there is no suggestion that he had any idea where they might have been living at this stage. So, at the end of June, Martin placed an advert in the“Missing Friends” columnseeking the remaining members of his family – his father and four brothers.

Cantwell advertisement, Boston Pilot, June, 1864

Three months later, on September 24, a second advertisement appeared indicating that Martin’s first appeal was (partially) successful – he had been reunited with his father Nicholas and his brother John. By this time, the pair were living together in Cincinnati, but since moving to the United States, the family had undergone a second separation. At some point, three of the brothers, Michael, Thomas, and Patrick, had left their parents and struck out on their own. According to the advert, Nicholas and John last heard from the three brothers in 1860, at which time they were living together in Steven’s Point, Portage County, Michigan. They also believed that the trio were still together and living in either Wisconsin or Michigan. That the three reunited Cantwells placed this second advert, followed by two more in January and April 1865, indicates their determination to find the missing three brothers and reunite entire the family. Unfortunately this is the point at which the Information Wanted column’s account of the Cantwell family ends, and, as with almost every other set of seekers and sought, the last piece of the story is missing. Barring further, fruitful research, we may never find out if the two halves of the Cantwell family ever reconnected.

Cantwell advertisement, Boston Pilot, January, 1865.

Perhaps because we’ve been treated to more steps in this story than are typically revealed, the many unknowns are even more maddening. But one aspect of this family’s experience does appear to be clear. Despite eighteen years of separation, the Cantwell family’s bond remained strong enough to compel Martin to seek his father and brothers almost immediately after landing in North America. We might wonder why or how Martin lost touch with them to begin with, or why Michael, Thomas, and Patrick failed to contact their father for five years. Certainly the circumstances of migration, difficulties involved in communication in the mid-nineteenth century, and perhaps events of the U.S. Civil War may have forced this family into involuntary separation. Still, it appears that portions of the family were able to stick together. Perhaps they always imagined that somewhere down the road, the entire Cantwell clan would find each other again.

  • Gráinne McEvoy, Research Assistant for the Information Wanted Database & Doctoral candidate in the Department of History

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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One Response to Information Wanted: Missing Persons and Missing Pieces

  1. KellyP says:

    Great post! I love this kind of mystery, frustrating as it is.

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