A History of the Brennan Family as told by Cousin "Nick" (Honora Finn Millea)


The farm where we lived when we were growing up was the farm which had been homesteaded by our Leahy grandparents, Patrick and Cecilia Brennan Leahy. The farm is located about 7 miles northwest of Emmetsburg, Iowa, on what is now known as Iowa Highway 4. But when we lived there the highway was called "Old 17". I think the number designation was changed sometime during the 1950s or therabouts. The farm would also be about that same distance, seven miles, south of Graettinger, Iowa. But Emmetsburg was always our "home town".

Cecilia Brennan and Patrick Leahy were married November 27, 1886, at Emmetsburg.

Cecilia Brennan had been born in Canada (Stratford, Ontario, Canada), on Nov. 5, 1857. Her parents were James Brennan and Katherine Welsh Brennan. Katherine Welsh was born in County Kilkenny on Nov. 2, 1807. According to her obituary, "as a very young girl crossed the ocean and with her parents located in Canada." She was married at age 18 to James Brennan, in Stratford, Ontario, County Perth, Canada, in 1825.

All our lives we have always thought we were "potato famine Irish", that is descendants of those Irish who came to this country shortly after the tragic potato famine in Ireland, during the years 1845-1847. Apparently there were many Irish who came to this country at a much earlier time.

James Brennan (father of Cecilia Brennan Leahy) was born in St. John's Parish, County of Roscommon, Ireland. His obituary states that he "was in his eighty-ninth year" at the time of his death which was June 18, 1886. This means he was born in 1798 but the date of birth was not given. His obituary goes on in a very colorful manner:

"This week it becomes our painful duty to chronicle the death of Mr. James Brennan, which melancholy event occured at his home in Great Oak Township, on last Saturday evening. He was in his eighty-ninth year and leaves twelve sons and daughter, 78 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren to mourn the closing of his long and useful life."

It goes on in a later paragraph:

"About 128 teams followed his remains to the Catholic church, where Rev. Father Smith performed the last sad and solemn ceremonies."

(The measure of a person's standing in the community was often equated to his funeral cortege. Certainly the sight of 128 horse drawn wagons in a funeral procession, and/or parked around a church would bear out the prominence of James Brennan).

Of his coming to America the obituary says:

"Like millions of his fellow countrymen, he was compelled to wander o'er the lonely course of the "exile of Erin". He landed in New York in 1829, a period to be remembered by all Irishmen. Soon after he went to Philadelphia, thence to New Jersey, and in 1832, sought a home in the wilds of Upper Canada, where he experienced the many painful trials and difficulties of a frontier life."

(There is a big discrepancy in dates here since the obituary of James Brennan's wife, Katherine Welsh Brennan, says she was born in 1807 and was married at age 18 (or 1825), but the obituary of James Brennan says he did not reach Canada until 1832).

Obituaries of the day were very colorful and always complimentary toward the deceased. Of James Brennan, the newspaper wrote:

"In the death of Mr. Brennan, the community has lost an excellent citizen, a large and respectable family and aged and honored father, and time a long standing monument. Proud, indeed, must the members of that family be as they glance back over his unusually long and well-spent life and view the dark shades of the reverses of life that frequently hung o'er him on his long and painful journey from place to place--proud they must be as they now witness the closing of that cherished life.

He was kind, generous and honorable in his dealings with his neighbors and was a model of humility, for when he was about to sink into eternal sleep, he requested his son James to buy for him the plainest kind of coffin. He was an intensely patriotic Irishman and was not slow to censure a fellow-countryman who did not manifest a similar spirit of love of fatherland."

I have never read very much about the Irish first settling in Canada, but there must have been a large number who emigrated to Ontario in the earlier 1800s. James and Katherine Welsh Brennan had 15 children (some accounts said 16 but we can only account for 15). According to Katherine Brennan's obituary, 10 of these children came to America with their parents. They made a rather circuitous route to get to Palo Alto County and Emmetsburg. The obituary of M.F. Brennan, (a son) says the family first came to Pontiac, Ill., then on to Savannah, Ill., and then on to Boone, Iowa. A fire broke out on the railroad car carrying their possessions and they lost everything except one horse, according to one story. From Boone they moved on to Jefferson, Iowa, before coming to Palo Alto County in 1865.

The obituary of Bridget Brennan Joynt (a daughter and younger sister of Cecilia Brennan Leahy) says the family lived for a time in Fulton, Ill., then to Lyons, Iowa, and later to Marshalltown, Iowa. This story also says that it was between Lyons and Marshalltown that the freight car caught fire, destroying all their wordly goods, "with the exception of one horse". This story goes on to say that "they were practically penniless when they arrrived in Emmetsburg."

Another obituary, this one on Ann Brennan Mugan (another daughter) states:

"With her parents and 10 brothers and sisters she came to the United States and Iowa, the family crossing the Mississippi River at Lyons, Iowa, the morning the news came that President Lincoln was shot (April 1865). The animosities of the factions flamed forth and the Brennan family secured their first view of life in Iowa. A new found friend advised her father to have all the family keep their mouths shut. Assurance was promptly given that the advice would be followed.

The family took the train from Clinton for Nevada (Iowa), as far as the railroad ran, as their destination. Their two cars of emigrant goods were lost by fire set by the locomotive and they landed in Nevada with little but the ability to work. They pushed on to Boonsborough (Boone, Iowa?) where the boys of the family went to chopping ties for the railroad and for lumber. During 1865 the rest of the family moved on to Palo Alto County and settled there."

This obituary of Ann Brennan Mugan listed her as the oldest resident of Jefferson at the time of her death. She was also the only member of this emigrating Brennan family not to go on to Palo Alto County. Of this her obituary says:

"During 1865 the rest of the family moved on to Palo Alto County and settled there. Ann, however, declared that she had gone as far into the wilderness as she was going to go and stayed at Boonsborough and Moingona until June 1866."

She was 86 years old at the time of her death.

The next paragraph in the obituary is rather difficult to read but it indicates that she was brought to Jefferson, Iowa, by a George Cochran and apparently stayed at a "Half-Way House" run by a Mr. and Mrs. Horace Ship and worked there "for many of the returning soldiers from the Civil War and assisted in their care."

"In Jefferson she lived with the Cochran and Uncle William Anderson families until she married Thomas F. Mugan on December 30, 1867, after which her husband and herself continued in the restaurant business......"

The next paragraph is incomplete but it gives another little "history" lesson of early day Iowa. It says:

"What is probably the earliest Greene County Catholic history occurred while she was at the Cochran and Anderson Home and Hotel. Probably the first priest to read mass in Greene County rode from Fort Dodge where he and other missionaries made their headquarters. His mode of conveyance was a donkey, and by being assisted by a farmer he crossed Hardin Creek and came to Jefferson."

It is the next sentence which is unreadable but it would be assumed that he said mass at this hotel-restaurant.

We have established pretty reliably that James and Katherine Welsh Brennan came to Palo Alto County in 1865 and homesteaded in Walnut Township. At a later date they moved to Great Oak Township. They first settled in the Irish colony (I presume the original site of Emmetsburg at Riverdale, west of the present town but close to the west fork of the Des Moines River). Walnut Township is north of Emmetsburg and Great Oak is south and west of Emmetsburg. The Schany family now owns the property originally homesteaded by James and Katherine Brennan. I don't know which Schany family now lives on this farm, though. Margaret Brennan married Patrick Jackman, another early day pioneer family. In fact, I believe the Jackmans were some of the very earliest of the Irish to come to Palo Alto County. Ellen Jackman, a daughter of Margaret Brennan and Patrick Jackman, married Paul Schany and it is the descendents of this Schany family who own the original Brennan homestead. Another Brennan daughter, Catherine, married Isaac Stewart.

We were always told that the log cabin that is preserved in Harrison Park in Emmetsburg had family connections. But I believe it was the "Jackman" cabin and our only "claim" to it would be that my great aunt, Margaret Brennan, had married into this Jackman family.