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Narratives and Biographies:

James & Mary Mulfahy Cahalan


Note: All quoted source material is reproduced as faithfully as possible, including original textual errors.


James Cahalan (1808 - 1883) and his wife, Mary Mulfahy Cahalan (1819 - 1902), are the immigrant ancestors from whom the Cahalan family of Wyandotte, Michigan descends. Though some sources list their origin as the city of Nenagh, Tipperary, Ireland, family tradition and other, perhaps more creditable, sources name the nearby village of Borisokane--a discrepancy which might be resolved by recalling the general tendency to name the nearest, largest city (“Detroit” for instance, instead of “Wyandotte”) when speaking to those at a distance. This seems likely if we recall that all current accounts of James and Mary originate in America, where the local landmarks of their Irish home would be unfamiliar to many hearers.


Information obtained from the genealogy website lists Patrick Cahalan and Julia Heahan as James’ parents, and Richard Mulfahey and Catherine McDonald as Mary’s. James had two brothers: Dennis (1822 - 1906) and John (1829 - 1895; though the dates of their births might seem to make this record somewhat suspect, given the 21-year disparity in birth dates, it will be seen below and in a separate entry that it is not only accurate, but lends an interesting additional chapter to our family history. (The gap may also be explained by the supposition of other births and a high rate of infant mortality.) No documentation of earlier ancestors is currently available, though others active on the Ancestry site seem to be working on genealogies which include Patrick Cahalan and Julia Heahan.*


Comparatively little documentation exists of James and Mary. The most complete account of their lives comes down to us in a letter dated 6 March 1963, from Marion Cahalan, their granddaughter, to John McInerney. Marion seems to have been asked by John (James and Mary’s great-grandson, and Marion’s cousin), to provide information about the family tree.**


As recorded in Marion’s letter (with dates from a family tree chart produced by Joseph Cahalan in 1986), the children of James and Mary were John (born circa 1838 and died before 1857, as can be inferred from Marion’s letter and a correction to it described below; though no other record of his birth or death is currently known), Catherine (1841); Bridget, (1845); Anna (1846 - 1916); James, (1850 - 1903); Richard, (1852) - 1909); and John Charles (1859 - 1939). Neither Bridget nor Anna are buried in Mt. Carmel Cemetery; their birth dates were found in census records located through   


We do not know the date of James and Mary’s wedding, but we do know that, unlike his younger brothers, James and Mary had married and begun their family prior to their emigration. No births are recorded between circa 1838 and 1841, though Mary may well have suffered miscarriages or the couple may have lost children in infancy (which could have been a powerful inducement to start over in a new country). A similar gap of seven years between the births of Richard and John Charles can be explained by noting that these were most likely the years in which the family was separated by James’ emigration.  

We do not know how Mary and the family fared in James’ absence, though it is likely that the presence of close relatives provided support. Among several photographs which may record a visit to Ireland by John C. Cahalan Sr. in 1925, two show a ruined cottage, which we might assume was once the family home (why else photograph it?), but the life of the family before emigration is undocumented.

Marion recounts that "Grandfather Cahalan and his eldest son John came to America in 1849 to get work & earn enough money to bring the rest of the family to America. They worked around Lima N.Y. where John died probably in his teens & was buried in Lima." (John, born in 1838, was ten years old at the time of his and James' emigration, and was dead before his mother's arrival nine years later.)***

We have no account of James and Mary's reunion; we cannot even be sure where it occurred: it is not recorded whether James had settled in Wyandotte before he sent for his family, and while Mary’s obituary states that “[s]he came to America in 1858, settling in Wyandotte with her husband,” the date of her immigration is given as 1857 in the 1890 US Federal Census. (Since the census was presumably conducted in person, this renders moot Joseph’s correction about the date; Marion presumably knew this from personal experience, while Joseph seems to have confused the date of James’ emigration with Mary’s.)

Marion’s letter implies that Mary and her children first came to New York, where they were reunited as a family before moving on to Wyandotte.  (As discussed in a subsequent narrative, this might have been a common pattern for immigrants.) We do not know when Mary was first informed of her son John’s death; no personal effects seem to have survived from before the family’s crossing, and so no letters are extant--though we know from later census data that James was literate--and, depending on the circumstances, it could have been as late as her arrival in New York. In any case, Mary was pregnant again almost immediately with the child she would name for her lost son. Given the birth of John Charles in July of 1859, it is possible that she undertook the journey to Michigan while pregnant.


James was 50 when he first took up residence in Wyandotte. Employment was his motivation for moving west, and my grandfather, Joseph Cahalan, mentioned once in passing that James had heard of work in the Detroit area, perhaps from a labor scout or advertisement. Once in arrived, James found work as a night watchman in the E.B. Ward Rolling Mill, and became known colloquially, according to family tradition, as Jimmy the Watchman. Landmarks of Wayne County and Detroit remembers him as the father of James Cahalan, MD, stating that he, “for upwards of twenty years watchman at the rolling mills, is well and favorably remembered,” so it is clear that he occupied the position for some time. By the 1880 census, the first official reference to James and Mary that has come to light, he is described at the age of 72 as a “Retired Watchman.”

The US Federal Census of 1880 locates the family on Orange Street in Wyandotte, with James and Mary, and their three adult sons (James, 29; Richard, 27; and John Charles, 21) living with them. (The house at 100 Orange Street was apparently not yet built, but the Cahill family, from whom the land for the house would be bought, are listed directly above them in the register; perhaps they lived next door.) The father and oldest son are also employed “[i]n Iron Mill.”  Occupations are listed for all members of the household: Mary, at 61, is employed in“Keeping House;” James junior is a “Physician;” Richard, in what may well be a reference to the nascent Cahalan Drug Store, is a “Grocery Merchant;” John is, properly, a “Druggist.” The other children are not mentioned. Bridget was 35 in 1880 and living in Hubbardston, Michigan, and Anna was 37; both had been married for at least a decade. It is therefore conceivable that the sons were as yet unmarried and possibly supporting their parents. (Marion’s letter mentions that “Richard was not [ever] married.”)


No obituary of James, who died in 1883, has come down to us, and there is no known account of his death or funeral (a circumstance which can be explained in part by the fact that our richest trove of family information, the scrapbooks kept by John C. Cahalan, Sr., seem not to have been begun until after his father’s death), but the last record we currently have of James is an unusually interesting one. A formal portrait of James (right, likely executed soon after his

death), is extant and once was hung in the front parlor at 100 Orange Street. While it appears to have been based on a photograph, it is a rendered portrait, perhaps in charcoal, on heavy paper. While no similar photograph is known to exist, this is the one likeness of James the attribution of which indisputable, and it has all the markings of a valedictory ‘ancestral’ portrait. He is shown in dignity--though dressed no more formally than a late nineteenth-century working man would have been--and the cloudlike forms and encircling ‘halo’ behind him are not uncommon in memorial portraits of the time. His eyes and mouth, particularly, bear an unmistakable family resemblance to portraits of his descendants at a similar age.  This image formed part of a pair with a later, photographic portrait of Mary, below, which appears to have been taken shortly before her death, sixteen years after his.

Mary is again mentioned, for the last time before her obituaries, in the US Federal Census of 1890, under somewhat different familial circumstances. The house at 100 Orange Street has been built, and she is now living in widowhood with her son John Charles Sr. and his extended family. She is listed as the mother of two 

children (probably a reference to John C. and his brother James, who is also living 

in the house, with his son James Emmett; her other children, with the exception of the elder John, were all still alive at this time). Also in residence is the younger John’s wife Anna Hogan Cahalan and their children John C. Jr., Richard, Leo, and ‘Maryen.’ The boys are noted to be “At School” (Marion was only eight years old at the time and Catherine had not yet been born), and Katy Petrick, 17 and born in “Poland (Ger.),” is listed as a servant. A portrait taken a few years earlier (below) shows the family on the porch of the recently-completed house. (From left, they are an unidentified woman, Richard, Mary, James Emmett with rocking horse, his father Dr. James, John C. Cahalan Sr., Anna Hogan Cahalan, and a well-dressed young woman whom my grandfather, Joseph Cahalan, described to me as “a servant girl,” perhaps Katy Petrick.)

Mary died in 1902 in the house on Orange Street. The picture accompanying one of her obituaries (at right), from which a formal portrait was made to accompany James’ in the parlor, appears to have been one of the last pictures taken of her, though other images exist from the last years of her life. This picture appears cropped from another (perhaps a group portrait of the family, though that source is not known), and is a direct photographic reproduction, without the rendering to which James’ formal portrait was treated.

In one of her obituaries, we learn that Mary was “a remarkably bright woman [who] retained full possession of her mental and physical faculties until a week before her death. She had a very large circle of friends, who highly esteemed her for her kind, amiable and loving disposition. A second obituary, also praises Mary warmly for “her uniform good nature and cheery, sunshiny ways” which “will be one of her characteristics most remembered” and “a source of congratulation to those left to mourn her.” Citing her “record of her good deeds and loving kindness” it is reported that “[h]er grandson [very likely John C. Jr., who was 17 at the time] says that during

a residence of twenty years in the same house with his grandmother, he never heard her utter a cross or unkind word.”  


Clearly, even given the tendency to hyperbole in Victorian reportage, Mary was a particularly well-loved woman, active in the community and regarded with affection by many. The account of her funeral mentions that “the Rev. James A. Hally spoke feelingly of the many good qualities of the deceased and of her strong faith in the Church. Deceased was surrounded at the time of her death by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and all being of the one faith. The altars were beautifully decorated with palms and ferns, and the chancel of the church with flowers from sorrowing friends.”


The spelling of Mulfahey seems to have changed after James and Mary’s emigration from Ireland; the same online source also gives Mary’s birthdate as 7 May 1820, but lists the date of her death, erroneously, as 28 April 1905, which may be a transcription mistake. All other sources, including her tombstone, give Mary’s birth year as 1819. Her obituary gives her age in 1902 as 82 years, which would indicate, because of her birth date, that the earlier year is correct.

** This letter exists in three xeroxed copies, one reproduced here (the number of copies, and the title “The Family Tree” added later at its head attests to its importance; perhaps it was the first written account of the family ancestry, or was esteemed an authoritative statement). In addition, two typed transcripts also survive, one by Joseph Cahalan, James and Mary’s great-grandson and my grandfather, who added the following introduction:


This is a partial history of the Wyandotte Cahalans prepared by Marion Cahalan in 1963 at the request of John McInerney. Some of her dates are wrong--she states that the family came to Wyandotte in 1857.  Actually it was 1853. [This is contradicted by census information noted below.] Also she states that her father John C. [Cahalan Sr.] was born in 1858.  Actually it was 1859.


The letter, with corrections as noted, reads in part:


James & Mary Mulfahy Cahalan of Nenagh, Tipperary Ireland had seven children: John, Catherine, Anna, Bridget, James M.D., Richard and John C.


Grandfather Cahalan and his eldest son John came to America in 1849 to get work & earn enough money to bring the rest of the family to America.  They worked around Lima N.Y. where John died probably in his teens & was buried in Lima. Finally Grandfather had enough money and sent for his family & they arrived and settled in Wyandotte in 1858.  Father (John C. [Sr.]) was born here in 1858 or 59 & named after his eldest brother because of the custom of that period and grandmother’s grief.


The letter (reproduced in full in a subsequent entry) then goes on to describe James and Mary’s children, including their daughter Anna’s marriage to Patrick McInerney, John’s grandparents. 

Marion’s letter and the available census sources, taken together, present us with some difficulties. Though his tombstone records his birth in 1850, James and Mary’s son James’ birth date is given by census information on (not always a reliable source) as 1852. Richard’s birth date is also variously given there as 1851, and the same source lists his birthplace (like his brother James’) as County Tipperary. There is certainly an error in the record, here. Given the fact that Marion states that James emigrated in 1849, then one son or the other would have to have been born while his father was overseas. (The dates given by Joseph’s family tree accord with--and are most likely taken from--inscriptions in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, Wyandotte, which should be authoritative since they were produced at the direction of surviving family members.) 


What is much more likely, however, is that Marion is in error in giving 1849 as the date of James’ emigration, and that Joseph is thinking of this event--rather than the date of the family’s migration to Wyandotte--when he states 1853. This speculation has the advantage of explaining the break in the pattern of births between 1852 and 1859.


Another source supports this thesis, a book indexed on and titled About Historic Michigan, Land of the Great Lakes: its Life, Resources, Industries, People, Politics, Wars, Governments, Institutions, ... contains a profile of James and Mary’s last child, John C. Cahalan Sr., which states that James and Mary “came to the United States in the early fifties.” Since the source for this information was likely John C. himself, we may take it as sound.  Additionally, Landmarks of Wayne County and Detroit, by George B. Catlin and Robert B. Ross (1898), in reference to James and Mary’s son James Cahalan, MD, cites 1857 as the date of Mary’s migration. James Cahalan, MD, was most likely the source of this citation, also, so it is likely that the immediate family of James and Mary knew the date of Mary’s journey--and their own--as 1857.

***Something appears amiss in the chronology here, but the note above offers a resolution.


First published 28 November 2009; last revised 4 March 2019.

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