John & Margaret Hollearn in America

In a worn vital statistics book in Kentucky, you find a daughter born to John Hollearn and his bride, Margaret Barry, in January 1856. It is the first written trace that the Irish couple arrived in America. How this couple arrived in Kentucky and when is a mystery. Through other records, we learn they were born in Ireland. We don’t know where or to whom. We don’t even know if they arrived in the US together, met on the trip, or met after arriving here. While their journey to America is a mystery, their lives here are known.

Leaving the Irish Home Land

Somewhere in Ireland in 1828, John Hollearn’s parents welcomed him into the world. His wife-to-be, Margaret, was born in the early 1830s.

The couple likely married around 1852, a year prior to their first child’s birth. Both would have been in their early 20s. To place their marriage date, we use the children as a guide. With a child born nearly every other year, the couple found it easy to get pregnant.

They were not alone on their journey. Nearly two million Irish citizens migrated to the United States from 1845 to 1860. The British hadn’t made their lives easy. They forbid the Irish from owning land and livestock; even their rights to worship were limited. As the Irish starved, the English would send crops raised in Ireland to Great Britain.

Anyone migrating to the United States had to take the chance on a better life in there, even if it meant a grueling four-week transatlantic cruise.

It had to be scary leaving Ireland. Even if a famine was sweeping Ireland, they knew the culture, the rules, and they had their social network. In the new world, there was an opportunity for land ownership and prosperity along with uncertainty and isolation.

Finding a Place to Settle

In May 1853, John and Margaret’s first-born child, John (Jack), was born in Virginia. Their second child, Francis Cornelius (Frank), was born a year later in Ohio. After they settled in Kentucky in 1856, their first daughter, Elizabeth (Bettie), arrived.

Their path through several states suggests they were trying to find the most welcoming location. If Frank was born near an Ohio River port city, it would have been a brief journey to central Kentucky, where they could settle in Mt. Sterling.

Map of Kentucky from 1856 Source: Public Domain

In the late 1850s, Mt. Sterling was a becoming a thriving commercial center. It was ideally between Central Kentucky and the Appalachian Mountains. Many thought of the area as an extension of Northern Kentucky. It was a good place to raise livestock and hemp in other areas of the country. In 1853, they were building the railroad from Mt. Sterling to Lexington to support additional commerce. It wouldn’t be complete until the 1870s.

Without many resources, the young couple needed a stable place to raise a family where they could find work. Many of the Irish, like John, did not have a trade. Instead they were common laborers. Luckily, in the US, someone willing to dig a ditch, lay railroad ties, or complete other back-breaking work was welcomed. In fact, the Irish did work that others considered lowly or menial.

Prosperity Awaits the Hollearns

Before 1860, the couple added two more children, Patrick and Margaret, to the family. These births are also listed in the Powell County vital records.

We can find the family in the 1860 US Census. Their surname is Holland, but the family names and ages match other records. Perhaps John had a strong Irish brogue that was mis-heard. The family is living in Mt. Sterling. While the image is faint, the family contains John, Margaret, John, Francis, Elisabeth, Pat, and baby Mary. John is a laborer, while the two oldest boys attend school.

Very faint image of the 1860 Census of Kentucky for Montgomery County, KY. You can barely make out John’s name. (Source: Author’s Collection)

The census takers were instructed to only consider personal wealth if it was over $100. The couple didn’t own any property and the personal property field is empty. They had a simple lifestyle.

Civil War Rages in Mt. Sterling

For decades, the battle over state’s rights and slavery brewed in the United States. Finally, in 1861, it came to a head. The Civil War began. Mt. Sterling was a battleground. They fought many battles in and near the city during a three-year period. In 1863, the Confederate Army captured the city taking over 400 prisoners and many supplies.

Union Troops Have Tents around the Montgomery County Courthouse (Public Domain)

The federal government wanted to protect the area. Kentucky was a border state with divided loyalties between the Confederacy and the Union. There were many battles in and around the area. Between 1863-64, the Union occupied the area and used the courthouse as headquarters.

For a family with young children, it would have been scary. Cannon fire and other sounds of war would have been nearby. If you were living close to Mt. Sterling, how could you have avoided not being aware of the battles and possibly finding dead soldiers around you? The soldiers would occupy homes and even take supplies. If your family was of a little means, a hungry, violent soldier might not be welcome no matter whose side they were on.

Life Returns to Normal

It was a struggle for all the Montgomery County residents. The war ended in 1865 and peace returned. In the late 186os, the couple added Margaret, a set of twins, James, and Nancy Ann to their family.

The twins had a brief existence, the first one, Cornie, only survived a day. The other, Daniel, survived a few short months. It is not known how they died or where they are buried.

The family moved around, probably because they were renting and seeking better opportunities. In 1866, a post office was established to the southeast of Mt. Sterling called Jeffersonville. The area became known for cattle trading.

This small community is where we find the Hollearn family in 1870. The 1870 US Census lists John, Margaret, John “Jack”, Frank, Bettie, Patrick, Mary, Margaret, James, and newborn Nannie. Again, the family doesn’t own any real or personal property.

1870 Census for Jeffersonville, Montgomery County (Author’s Collection)

In the 1870s, a daughter, Ella would arrive and a son, Thomas. Only Ella would survive. In 1876, the second oldest daughter, Mary dies when she is only sixteen. Then two years later, the three-year-old, Thomas, would die. The cause of their deaths and their burial locations are not known.

Finding Work to Support the Family

John is a laborer, but Margaret is the toll gate operator. A local newspaper showed the family operated a toll-road house near the Hickston Bridge on the Mt. Sterling Pike for over fifteen years.

It seems strange in today’s world, but in the 1800s, many roads were privately owned and maintained. Travelers would pay a toll to use the roads. If you were a single rider on a horse, that was a lower fee than if you were in a stagecoach. If you had livestock, there were additional fees. The toll houses were five miles apart.

Toll Gate House in nearby Sharpsburg, Kentucky (c. 1887) [Source: Ky Historical Society]

The Kentucky General Assembly would set the rates. The family, who were caretakers, would be paid to live in the house and maintain the road. These jobs were often left for the Irish. The husband kept the road, while the wife collected the tolls.

Being a toll operator had its risk. People didn’t like the fees and sometimes would threaten violence against the toll operators. It was not a sustainable system. As a toll operator, Margaret would have been firm and not easily frightened. If someone was threatening violence, she would still need to collect the money or turn them away.

The following map, completed in 1879, shows a John Hollearn living in the Mt. Sterling. There were no other Hollearns living in the area according to the 1870 and 1880 census. Judging by the other surnames, it appears to be an Irish area.

1879 Map of Mount Sterling, KY (Source: Library of Congress 2012593097)

Family Grows and Spreads

In the 1880s, the older children would marry and start families of their own. John and Margaret had moved to nearby Owingsville in Bath County. Since they were renters, they could move about as they found better situations.

The census shows the family. The older boys have moved out. John is working, but Margaret is now a homemaker. The smaller family may be easier to manage financially or Patrick was assisting.

1880 Federal Census – Hollearn Family in Owingsville, KY (Author’s Collection)

The youngest son, James, attended the Owingsville Academy for a few semesters. It was a private school established. This would have been costly, so it’s not clear how the family afforded it. Perhaps there was a scholarship or a bartering relationship. It was an investment in his future.

Frank, the second oldest, lived in a Mt. Sterling boarding house and worked as a salesman. For the oldest son, there was a “John Holland” living with a similar description, working as a laborer in Mt. Sterling.

The Hollearns have yet to purchase any property. Maybe the daily struggle consumed the wages, or they just didn’t have that mindset. In Ireland, their families didn’t own property. Of the other Kentucky families I have researched in this same time frame, all of them had property and some personal money. Kentucky land was cheap at this point in history.

Until the End–Life Partners Part

Obituary from Mt. Sterling Advocate, Nov 1893

Around 1890, the family returned to Montgomery County to leave on Somerset Road, which was north of Mt. Sterling. Nancy and Margaret marry but remain in Montgomery County. In 1893, they found John in the field. He had a stroke and died. They buried John in the St. Thomas Cemetery.

In the following years, Margaret purchases two properties near downtown Mt. Sterling. One property on Winn St, she rents out. While the other, a duplex, she lives in and rents out the other side. As an older woman and widow, she needed to secure her future. This money would provide income and the house would be close to a more populated area.

Obituary from Mt. Sterling Advocate

In 1905, her youngest son, James is found dead of a heat stroke. Her grandson, Richard, comes to live with her daughter, Maggie. The other two children remain with their mother, Marie. Marie dies the following year but the girls remain in a orphanage.

In 1910, she lives with her oldest and youngest children. Jack is an ice company driver and Ella is a seamstress.

In the summer of 1909, her son, Patrick, dies suddenly while visiting her. If she and John had arrived with very little, they certainly used hard work and consistency to create a sustainable life.

In 1913, the 83-year-old Margaret passes away from pneumonia. She is buried in the St. Thomas Cemetery with most of her children. Her daughter, Maggie, manages her estate; she has the two properties sold at auction. Jack purchases the Winn Street property for his home.

Reference: John Hollearn Family Group Sheet


  • The birth years for Margaret and John were inconsistent on the census records.
  • In the 1910 Census, Margaret indicated she had given birth to 13 children, but only five had survived. Some of the children were noted by another family researcher on but a source was not listed. I added these children in case someone in the future finds them.

About the author

Tricia Aanderud has been researching her Kentucky family since 2008. While the genealogy is interesting, the stories are what makes their lives compelling.

Surnames include Watkins, Hudson, Mann, Payne, Abney, Hollearn, Martin, Salyer, Spencer, and Hadley.

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