The Keelans of Pennsylvania

THE OLD KEELANS By Mary Clare Keelan McGeever© 

The Irish name Keelan is a simplification of O'Kealahan, Ceileachain in Gaelic, a very old Oriel family. Oriel was part of ancient Ireland comprising the present counties of Armagh, Monaghan, and parts of Down, Louth and Fermanagh. Although Keelan is not a particularly common name, it is still found in this part of Ireland. 

Keelans apparently started immigrating to the United States in the early 19th century. There was a William Keelan in Adams County, Pennsylvania in 1820. Jacob Keelan lived in Philadelphia County in 1840. By 1850, Keelans could be found in Bucks, Westmoreland, Schuylkill and Cambria Counties. 

We were surprised by the number of Keelans in Johnstown during the middle of the last century. The 1860 census showed 10 adults and 12 children; the 1870 census showed 13 adults and 17 children. These numbers do not include other Keelans in the various townships surrounding Johnstown. There were several Keelans in Cambria County whom we were unable to identify, including Owen, Lawrence, George, Casper and Henry, although all of them were probably related in some way. In fact, we found a Patrick Keelan in Westmoreland County, born in Ireland in 1792, who immigrated in the early 1830s, about 15 or 20 years before my more direct forebears. 

As we analyzed the early Johnstown area Keelans, we were somewhat surprised to discover that most of them were members of two closely related families from the same place in Ireland. 

Two hundred years ago, a sizable clan of Keelans lived in and near the town of Carrickmacross, southeastern County Monaghan, only a few miles from the border of County Louth. Based on our experience with Irish family research and on events of the first half of the 19th century, we estimate that this clan consisted of 20 to 30 families, comprising 150 to 250 individuals. Like many related Irish groups, they had favorite personal names which were repeated generation after generation, including Patrick, Peter, Catherine, Mary, John, Bernard, Elizabeth, Ellen, Michael, Thomas, Anna and Bridget. Occasionally, they bore less common names. 

Of this County Monaghan Keelan clan, we shall concern ourselves primarily with descendants of two brothers, Patrick and Peter, born about 1790 and 1795 respectively. These two brothers are real, but we cannot document their names. Instead, we have derived their names from careful analysis of their descendants in the United States. In any case, we know that eleven sons and at least four daughters of the two brothers emigrated to the United States, and that more than half of them settled in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. 

More than a million people emigrated from Ireland because of the Great Famine in the late 1840s. They went to England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, Australia and the United States. Tens of thousands of Irish arrived in this country during the decade following the famine. Many of them settled in east coast cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The more adventurous moved to western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. 

The first white settlers reached the Johnstown area about 1771. Joseph Schantz (Johns), an Amish farmer from Switzerland, arrived in 1794 and laid out a village called Conemaugh. The community became known as Johnstown. in the early 1830s. Cambria County itself was established in 1804. By 1840, the total population of settlements in the valley formed by the Conemaugh and Stonycreek Rivers was probably about 3,000. Real growth started in the 1850s when the Pennsylvania Railroad and Cambria Iron Company came to town. By 1880, the population of the Johnstown area was 15,000. This number doubled by the time of the Great Flood in 1889. 

The first settlers of the Johnstown area were German, Welsh and Scots-Irish. Although a few Catholic Irish were there earlier, their real influx accompanied the entry of the railroad and the expansion of iron making in the 1850s. These developments just happened to coincide with heavy Irish immigration because of the famine. Irish immigrants chose Their American destinations in several ways. Some depended on advice from relatives or friends who had arrived earlier; others carefully investigated employment opportunities and were sometimes steered by recruiters at ports of entry; the enterprising simply took off and kept going until good fortune smiled on them. 

The first Keelans we found in the Johnstown area were part of the family of Patrick, who was born in Ireland about 1790 and probably died there in the 1840s, perhaps a victim of the Great Irish Famine (1845-1848)- In 1850, Patrick’s widow, Nancy, and three of their sons resided together in Conemaugh Township, near Johnstown. Nancy, born in 1790, was 60 years old. Her sons were Patrick, age 27; Michael, age 26; and Thomas, age 23. A few years later, two other sons of Nancy made their appearances in Johnstown: Peter, born in 1821; and John, possibly her youngest son, born in 1829. 

Nancy's son Peter, a widower, brought three children with him from Ireland: Bernard, Catherine and Peter. When his children matured and drifted away from the Johnstown area, Peter boarded with other families. Later he lived with his son, Bernard, in Pittsburgh where he died. 

I don't believe that Nancy's sons, Patrick and Michael, ever married. Her son, John, married a woman named Ellen from Westmoreland County. He had three children: Patrick, Alice and Michael. These three sons of Nancy all seem to have left the Johnstown area, because we lose track of them after the Civil War. 

Sometime in the 1870s, Nancy's son, Thomas, moved to the South Fork area of Cambria County, where he was employed as a miner. There he and his wife, Catherine, raised four daughters: Jane, Catherine, Mary and Anna. As far as I can learn, Thomas and his family were the first Keelans in the South Fork area. South Fork was a mining community, about 10 miles from Johnstown, which was the site of the ill-fated dam whose break caused the great flood in May 1889. Other Keelans, all closely related to Thomas, also settled in South Fork later. 

Nancy Keelan left at least one son in Ireland when she emigrated to the United States. We have reason to believe that his name was probably James, born about 1826. James married in Ireland and had a family there, including a son, Patrick J. Keelan, born in May 1854. In 1881, Patrick married Bridget Ward in Ireland and, as a honeymoon, emigrated to the United States. The young couple planned to settle in St. Louis but stopped en route to visit their Keelan relatives in Cambria County. Eventually, Patrick reached South Fork where his uncle Thomas and a contingent of cousins resided. He and Bridget were persuaded to stay in South Fork. Patrick became a coal miner, probably with the help of Thomas. Patrick and Bridget spent the rest of their lives in South Fork. They had eleven children, but only five of them, one son and four daughters, survived to adulthood. 

Patrick had a younger brother, Thomas, who immigrated to the United states in 1883. The two brothers became citizens at the same time in 1892, but I know nothing else about Thomas. 

My own family has a rather interesting connection to the South Fork Keelans. Patrick J. Keelan's eldest daughter, Catherine, married Thomas Hughes in South Fork. Thomas and Catherine had six daughters, including Kathleen Hughes. Since Patrick J. Keelan and my grandfather, John H. Keelan, were second cousins, Kathleen Hughes and I were fourth cousins. The interesting point is that Kathleen married James McGeever, who was the uncle of my husband, Robert. This means that Kathleen's children and mine are related through both the McGeever and Keelan lines. 

We also uncovered another coincidence involving the Johnstown and South Fork Keelans. Bridget Ward, the wife of Patrick J. Keelan, had a sister, Catherine, who stayed in Ireland. Catherine married a McAneny in Carrickmacross and eventually two daughters of the couple, Elsie and Mary McAneny, emigrated to the United States and settled in the Philadelphia area. As we shall see later, Elizabeth Keelan, first cousin of my grandfather, married a McAneny in Johnstown around the turn of the century. 

So far, I have been discussing Keelan immigrants who were descendants of Patrick and Nancy. At about the same time that Nancy and her sons made their appearances in Cambria County, ten children of Patrick's brother, Peter, were also emigrating to the United States. 

My great-great-grandparents, Peter and Mary Keelan (both personal names derived), died within a week of each other in Ireland in 1845, very possibly the victims of the Great Irish Famine. Since their ten children, ranging in age from about 8 to 23 years survived, it does not appear that Peter and Mary died of starvation, as so many Irish did. If their deaths were famine related, typhus or some other disease was the likely culprit. 

After the deaths of Peter and Mary, all ten of their children, six sons and four daughters, emigrated to the United States. I believe they arrived in groups of two or three, probably between 1845 and 1855. Apparently Anna, the eldest daughter, left Ireland first. She settled in Baltimore and married a man named Hall. Anna sent money to her brothers and sisters to help them emigrate. Two other sisters, Bridget and Susan, settled in Philadelphia. The fourth sister, Catherine, settled in Johnstown and married Patrick Ford. 

Four of the six sons of Peter and Mary Keelan settled in the Johnstown area of Cambria County. They were Barney, born in 1830; Peter, born in 1833; John, born in 1834; and Bernard,born in 1837. John was my great-grandfather. These four Keelan brothers were first cousins of the five sons of Nancy, who also lived in Cambria County. During the last half of the 19th century, the two groups of Keelan men appear to have maintained a close relationship. They continued giving their children the old, familiar personal names. Keelan brothers and cousins routinely served as witnesses at weddings, god-parents at baptisms, and administrators of estates. We found brothers as well as cousins working at the same jobs and living in the same communities. 

The two eldest sons of Peter and Mary, who I believe were named Patrick and Thomas, apparently settled outside of Cambria County, perhaps even in other states. Accordingly, I know almost nothing about them. I have encountered some evidence, however, which leads me to believe that Patrick and Thomas maintained contact with their brothers in Cambria County. 

Barney Keelan, the eldest of the four Johnstown sons of Peter and Mary, was born in 1830 and was probably about 20 years old when he arrived in the United States. About 1858, he married Catherine, whose surname I do not know. Barney and Catherine had seven daughters and three sons. At first they lived in the Cambria City part of Johnstown, and Barney worked in the rolling mill of the Cambria Iron Company. In the early 1890s, Barney moved to South Fork where he joined his cousins, Thomas and Patrick J. Keelan. I believe that Barney died not long after moving to South Fork, when he was somewhat less than 65 years of age. 

I don't know much about Barney's descendants. Some of his children may have died young. At least two of his daughters never married. In the early 1900s, three of his daughters, Mary, Catherine and Bertha, operated a millinery shop in South Fork. His daughter, Catherine, married Jacob Waterson and had seven children, including twins, Margaret and Kathleen. Catherine Waterson's two eldest daughters, Anna and Catherine, married brothers, James and Wilfred Brett. The Bretts were well known in the Johnstown area for many years. 

Barney's wife, Catherine, died in 1922 at age 84. By then her sons, Patrick and Thomas were dead, and son Barney Jr. had disappeared. Rumor says that he went west somewhere. Several years earlier Catherine had named Barney's cousin, Patrick J. Keelan, as her executor but, unfortunately, Patrick preceded her in death. The court allowed Patrick's son, James Michael Keelan, to substitute as executor. 

Bernard Keelan, born in 1837, was the youngest of the four Johnstown brothers, and he was probably in his early teens when he reached the United States. Bernard's story is a tragic one. In 1859, he married Catherine McAvoy in St. John Gaulbert Church in Johnstown. However, Bernard died in 1876 at age 39, leaving Catherine with five daughters ranging in age from one to sixteen. 

After Bernard's death, Catherine operated a rooming house to support her family and, at one time, she had seven boarders, all Irishmen. She must have been successful because she kept her family together, and her eldest daughter, Ellen, became a teacher. Sadly, Catherine and four of her daughters died in the Johnstown Flood in May 1889. Only Rose, age 16, survived. At least ten Keelans lost their lives in the great flood. 

The third brother, Peter, was born in 1833. He was the most long-lived of the six Keelan sons of Peter and Mary, dying in 1898 at age 65. However, all four of his sisters were still alive when he died. Peter had a varied career and was well known in the Johnstown area. At one time or another, he was a coal miner, steel worker, mail carrier, bridge toll collector and night watchman. In 1857, Peter married Anna Markey, and they had two sons and five daughters. Only one of their sons, Thomas, married, and some of his descendants still live in the Johnstown area. 

One of Peter Keelan's daughters, Elizabeth, married James McAneny, a grocery store owner in Johnstown. In the first two decades of the 1900s, they had five sons and three daughters, who showed remarkable achievement for the time. Of the eight children, three were teachers, one was a physician and surgeon, two were dentists, one was a businessman, and one was a career army man. The physician, James McAneny, was the family doctor for both my family and Robert's family for many years. Peter's descendants, male and female, have had a substantial influence on the Johnstown area. 


The fourth of the Johnstown sons of Peter and Mary Keelan, John, was my great-grandfather. Born in Ireland in 1834, John was younger than his brothers, Barney and Peter, but older than Bernard. In fact, I believe that John was the eighth of ten children born to Peter and Mary Keelan in Ireland between about 1822 and 1837. Remarkably, I have seen no evidence that my great-great-grandparents, Peter and Mary, lost any children, a very unusual experience for the time and circumstances. 

I believe that John Keelan was about 15 or 16 years of age when he left Ireland, no doubt accompanied by at least one older brother or sister. Since I did not find him in the 1860 census for Cambria county suspect that he may have lived elsewhere for ten years or so after arriving in the United States. Perhaps he settled initially in Philadelphia where he had two sisters and possibly an older brother or two. John probably arrived in Johnstown in late 1860 or early 1861, by then in his mid-twenties. 

In August 1862, at the age of 28, great-grandfather John joined Company B, 133rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry. He enlisted in Johnstown for a period of nine months, a not unusual term during the second year of the civil war. The regiment was organized in Philadelphia and later sent to Washington, D.C., where I believe it became part of the Army of the Potomac. The first two years of the war were confused ones for the federal government, and the major effort of the Union Army was devoted to the defense of Washington. John was discharged from the army at the end of his enlistment in May 1863, before his regiment was ever fully equipped and committed to action. Such was the ineffectiveness of the Army of the Potomac early in the war. 

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