Monday, April 27, 2015

Thoughts on John Stephen Craig

Not long after my grandparents’, Rose Stroesser and Jack Hoyt’s, marriage they moved from the midst of their families in the Omaha, Nebraska/Council Bluffs, Iowa area halfway across the country to Oregon. Therefore, they raised their children with the knowledge of a multitude of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, but with little actual contact with that extended family.

So when we learned that a Stroesser cousin was coming to visit and wanted to meet her Hoyt cousins, we (Rose and Jack’s children and grandchildren) swooped down upon her, voracious for kinship. I was present for an evening’s potluck with the family, during which our “new” cousin posed the question: “Did you ever hear that Grandma was supposed to ride on the Titanic?”

The Titanic at the docks
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We all eagerly assented to our having heard that rumor before. And that set me on a course of thought which finally led to a breakthrough.

Every seasoned genealogist has heard that well-known rumor of an ancestor who was supposed to ride the Titanic but luckily didn’t—and we have all been taught to scoff at such wishful oral history. But oral history quite often contains a kernel of truth, and the trick is to tease that truth out into the open. Quite some time ago I believed I had discovered the truth of my family’s Titanic story: I found a ship’s passenger list containing two people who appeared to be my great-grandmother Mary Craig and her father John Craig. And how did this tie to the Titanic? The ship they were riding on was the Mauretania, which turned out to be the sister ship of the Lusitania. If you recall high school history class, you may remember that the sinking of the Lusitania was an impetus for the U.S. becoming involved in World War I. And if you have any understanding of human nature, you can easily see how one famous sunken ship could become confused with another when retelling an imperfectly remembered tale.

The Mauretania and the Lusitania passing one another
By UnknownAquitania at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

You will notice I said “I believed I had discovered” and “who appeared to be my great-grandmother.” I had not been able to prove to myself that the John and Mary Craig on the passenger list were my John and Mary Craig. The evidence on the list inclined me to think that they probably were, but there just wasn’t enough information to be sure. But I had long ago laid this question aside to focus on other research objectives, and filed away my conclusions as an interesting sidenote.

However, this turned out to be a very opportune time to return my thoughts to the passenger list. My experience with the 1907 passenger list of Nicholas Stroesser revealing my great-grandfather’s pre-Omaha residence was still fairly fresh in my mind, and it struck me that perhaps like that manifest the Mauretania’s had a second page. I returned to the image on Ancestry to check. Sure enough, it had. And it contained not only the certainty I was seeking, but another much-needed piece of John Craig’s puzzle.

And now, before I address the aforementioned much-needed piece of the puzzle, I need to back up a little. John Craig is, of course, my great-great-grandfather who was an unsolved murder in Omaha. My knowledge of his life is scanty despite a number of sources: apart from those articles I have already shared concerning his death, I had some other articles (which I will undoubtedly share sometime, for they paint a portrait of a very... ornery man), some city directories, a couple censuses, and a marriage record.

However, he seemed to have fallen out of the sky to marry Martha Robbenult, because I had been utterly unable to confirm any record prior to that. Although the marriage record conveniently identified his parents and said he was born in Scotland, try looking for a James and Margaret Craig with their son John in Scotland! And then expand the search to all of England as well, because some sources give his birthplace as England. Even narrowing it down to only those of the right age, there are far too many to choose from. I needed more information.

But there, on the second page of the portion of the Mauretania’s manifest applying to John Craig, was a birthplace listed. The first one I had ever seen that specified not only the country of his birth, but the town as well: Whitehaven, England.

The Old Quay at Whitehaven
Humphrey Bolton [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

So naturally the first thing I did was to google Whitehaven. I learned that it is situated in the county of Cumberland, in the far north of England, bordering Scotland. That geographical location could explain why John Craig is sometimes described as Scottish. The next thing I did was to plug this new information into what I already knew about John Craig and search for a census record. The result was almost immediate: a household popped up in the 1881 census, and I read the list of names. There were James and Margaret—the former born in Ireland, the latter in Scotland—there was John himself, slightly older than expected but in the right range and born in Whitehaven. As my eye ran farther down the list chills ran up my spine. The next two names were Matthew and Mary, siblings here but familiar to me as the names of two of John’s own children. Perhaps these were those children’s namesakes.

I was able to locate this family in three other census years as well. Although I haven’t found the proverbial smoking gun to confirm beyond a doubt that these are indeed my 3great-grandparents, all the evidence thus far tends to support that conclusion. (When I find evidence that this Margaret’s maiden name is Mury or Murray I will finally rest easy.) In a future post I will lay out all the evidence in detail, but this post is already long enough.


1861 census of England, Cumberland, Whitehaven registration district, Egremont ecclesiastical district, Egremont parish, folio 73, page 30-31, Household of James Craig; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry ( : accessed 25 Apr 2015); citing PRO RG 9/3952.

1871 census of England, Cumberland, Egremont civil parish, folio 66, page 8-9, Household of Janes Crag; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry ( : accessed 25 Apr 2015); citing PRO RG 10/5262.

1881 census of England, Cumberland, Cleator Moor, civil parish of Cleator, folio 117, page 48, Household of James Craig; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry ( : accessed 25 Apr 2015); citing PRO RG 11/5191.

1891 census of England, Cumberland, Cleator Moor, civil parish of Cleator, Egremont parliamentary division, ecclesiastical parish of St. Johns, folio 91, page 19, Household of James Craig; digital images, Ancestry, Ancestry ( : accessed 25 Apr 2015); citing PRO RG 12/4317.

FamilySearch, “Iowa, County Marriages, 1838-1934,” database, FamilySearch ( : accessed 5 May 2013), entry for John Stephen Craig and M. M.Robbenult’s 1886 marriage; citing Crawford, Iowa, United States, county courthouses, Iowa; Reference ID: p 60, GS Film Number: 1035129, Digital Folder Number: 004311125.

New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” online images, Ancestry ( : accessed 14 Feb 2010), manifest, S.S. Mauretania, 10 Mar 1911, list 6, lines 18-19, John Craig and Mary Craig; citing Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957, Microfilm Publication M237, 675 rolls; Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Record Group 36; National Archives at Washington, D.C; Microfilm Roll: Roll 1637; Line: 19; Page Number: 68.

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