209 – John and Ann Riley

William Joseph Riley was born September 9, 1863, on his parents’ farm in Pettis County, Missouri. The farm was just three miles north of Sedalia, Missouri, near the small settlement of Georgetown.

His parents were John Riley and Ann McMurrough Riley.

Map – Pettis County, Missouri – 1867

John Riley and Ann McMurrough

John Riley and Ann McMurrough were born in Ireland, John around 1825 and Ann about 1827. Like so many of our Irish ancestors, we haven’t yet been able to find their history in Ireland.

The first fact we know is that John and Ann’s first child Mary Ann was born in Pennsylvania in 1849. Often, we can find a marriage record a year or two earlier. Perhaps John and Ann married in Pennsylvania in 1848.

But we can guess that they immigrated to the United States shortly before 1849, probably between 1845 and 1848. That’s because there was very little Irish immigration before 1845, and then the numbers exploded. These are the years of the Great Famine in Ireland.

The Great Famine

A potato infected with late blight, showing typical rot symptoms

The Great Famine was a period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland from 1845 to 1852.

The main cause of the famine was potato blight.  Other causes include absentee landlordism and single-crop dependence.

During the Great Famine, about one million people died and more than a million fled the country.

That’s why there are so many Irish immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s.

An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store by Daniel MacDonald, c. 1847


We know that Mary Ann Riley was born in Pennsylvania in 1849. She would have been 1 year old in the 1850 US Census. We can’t be sure, but I think this census record shows John and Ann and Mary Ann Riley in Carbondale, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania in 1850.

There’s also a 10-year-old girl Catherine Haly living in the Riley household. Her age rules her out as being offspring from John or Ann because their ages are 25 and 23. Perhaps she’s a cousin or niece or orphan.

John and Ann Riley – US Census 1850

Like many Irish immigrants after 1845, their destination was the anthracite coal region of northeast Pennsylvania. The terrain is Appalachian mountain ridges and valleys.

Luzerne County is one of the six counties in northeast Pennsylvania that hold anthracite coal reserves. Anthracite coal mining was booming in the 1850s. Most of the laborers and many of the miners were Irish, recent immigrants because of the potato blight.

John Riley is listed as a laborer, probably a mine laborer. Every adult and most children on this census page were born in Ireland.

We’ll revisit anthracite coal and Luzerne County when we research our Gallagher and Large ancestors, as they immigrated to the same counties in Pennsylvania at the same time.

To Indiana, then Iowa

John and Ann Riley family – 1858

By 1852, John and Ann Riley had left Pennsylvania and coal. It was a nasty job, and dangerous. They headed west to Indiana. We don’t have any record of their whereabouts, but we know that their next two children were born in Indiana: Margaret in 1852 and Catherine “Kate” in 1856.

By 1858 the Rileys were in Iowa, where David Riley was born in 1858.

To Missouri

From obituary of Mary Ann Riley, eldest daughter of John and Ann Riley

The Rileys left Dubuque, Iowa in 1859, bound for Missouri. They traveled downriver on a Mississippi River steamboat to Hannibal, Missouri. From there, by wagon to central Missouri.

They settled near Georgetown and were among the earliest residents in that part of Pettis County.


The small village of Georgetown was founded in 1837 and was the county seat of Pettis County. It’s the oldest town in the county.

Georgetown remained the permanent seat of justice for Pettis County from 1837 to 1865, when by act of the State Legislature, it was removed to Sedalia, its present location.

Campbell’s Gazetteer of Mo., 1874

A 40-acre farm

The Rileys acquired a 40-acre farm. I don’t know whether it was a homestead land grant or if they purchased it from an earlier settler.

Map – Sedalia and Georgetown – 1869

The 1860 Census shows the Riley family near Georgetown.

1860 US Census

John Riley was age 35, a stonemason. Ann Riley was 34. Both were born in Ireland. Their children were:

  • Mary Ann 11 Pennsylvania
  • Mag 9 Indiana
  • Catherine 6 Indiana
  • David 2 Iowa

Mother and siblings and cousins

Obituary of Mary Hart – The Sedalia Democrat – January 10, 1930

We were also lucky to find a few of John Riley’s siblings and his mother.

Mary Hart was a cousin of Will Riley’s, a niece of John and Ann Riley. From her obituary, we found that she was born in Zanesville, Ohio in 1853. And from Mary Hart’s death certificate, we found that her parents were John Hart and Margaret Riley.

Researching Zanesville, we found Mary Hart and her mother Margaret living with Margaret’s brother Edward Riley. Also in the household was Margaret’s and Edward’s mother Mary Riley, age 82.

1870 US Census – Zanesville Ohio – Edward Riley and his mother Mary, sister Margaret Hart and her daughter Mary Hart

Here’s how it all fits, so far. I’m sure John and Ann had more siblings. Maybe we’ll find them someday.

Sedalia 1860

Sedalia was founded in October 1860. That was the same year the railroad western terminus reached Sedalia.

Sedalia c. 1860

Trail’s end

The railroad had just reached Sedalia when the Civil War began. Railroad construction stopped until the war was over. So, for several years, Sedalia was the end of the Texas cattle drives. A decade before Abilene and Dodge City, Sedalia was the rough-and-tumble cattle town.

The Sedalia Trail, or Shawnee Trail, was used until around 1866 when the railroad again started building westward.

That’s a big reason Sedalia grew in population so much in the first decade after its founding.

Turbulent Times

Missouri’s population had historically been southern. Early settlers had come up the Mississippi. But the demographics were changing in the decades before 1860.

By 1860, Missouri’s initial southern settlers had been supplanted with a more diversified non-slave-holding population, including former northerners, particularly German and Irish immigrants.

Wikipedia – Missouri in the American Civil War

John and Ann Riley and their family had settled in Missouri just in time to experience the turbulence of guerilla fighting and then Civil War.


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