Peter Doyle: The Irishman of Rockingham County, North Carolina

It's time for a much needed update on my work with Peter Doyle. I promise, I've been meaning to get around to it since March. It's only July now, which believe it or not is a pretty impressive average for me! Especially since I get to do some myth busting of more questionable material from obsolete places on the web, which is one of my absolute favorite things to do.

Today, we're going to be looking at family lore on USGenWeb as it surrounds Peter Doyle and Bryna Alexander of Rockingham County, North Carolina. You'll have to Ctrl + F for "Peter Doyle" to find the section of interest. And as we've done before, we're going to outline and prove (or disprove!) the "facts," as they've been stated.

  • Peter Doyle appears on the 1850 Census as being born in Ireland in 1788.
    • Confirmed. Peter appears with his new wife, Bryna, and three children: Rawley (7), Pinkey (5), and Mary (3). All of the children were born in North Carolina.
  • Family legend passed down the Doyle/McGrady line says Peter was a famine immigrant
    • Even though I cannot prove this definitively without knowing where and when Peter arrived in the United States, the records I've found as of right now don't rule out this family lore. However, because Rockingham County, North Carolina where we see him is inland, it's certain that this wouldn't be the place he entered the United States. He no doubt came through another port city, which I have not yet been able to identify. Without more information related to his arrival, we can't determine for certain whether he arrived before, during, or concurrent with the potato famine.
  • The author brings up the Chesapeake Canal. Whether this is to suggest that Peter worked on the Canal, perhaps linking it to his occupation as "ditcher," or whether the author was simply creating narrative about the poverty of Irish immigrants is unclear.
    • A ditcher was not a canal digger. Ditchers and tile ditchers would dig drainage ditches to remove excess water from the soil. It was important to prevent excess root rot, runoff, erosion, and soil compaction. This may partially explain why Peter lost his farm, because he spent probably a good portion of his time working on other farms. His own crop likely would have suffered, and if he wasn't paid for his work then his debts would have skyrocketed.
    • The Chesapeake Canal was finished by 1829--not consistent with the lore that Peter was a potato famine immigrant, which didn't happen until 1845. In short, Peter could be a potato famine immigrant, or a canal digger for this particular canal. But not both. No amount of searching on my part found evidence that Peter was in the Maryland or Delaware region during the construction of the Chesapeake Canal.
    • I did a similar analysis for the Albermarle and Chesapeake Canal, where the time period, region, and timing of Peter's later disappearance would be consistent. Searching for Peter similarly gave no indication of his being a laborer there, but more extensive searching may not be possible. The only record I could locate that would indicate his employment for this canal would be the 1860 census, where I did not find him. But there is a potential gap between 1856 and 1859 where he could have worked on the canal, and not shown up on a any records. However, the income for Bryna and her children in 1860 (see below) is inconsistent with their having received any outside income from Peter.
  • The three children listed on the 1850 census are Peter's children from another marriage.
    • Consideration for any other possible birth situation or adoption is not given. If Rawley is Peter's biological son, his birth would challenge the idea of Peter being a potato famine immigrant. The famine began in 1845 and continued on through the 1850s. According to the 1850 census, Rawley was born in North Carolina earlier than the start of the famine. The likelihood that these children were either adopted, or were Bryna's from a previous relationship (a theory I have not been able to confirm) are possibilities we cannot rule out with the information available to us.
  • Bryna is mentioned as having another daughter, Louisa, born in about 1836, who married William Solomon. They are alleged to have moved to Carroll County, Virginia in the 1850s. 
    • I've not yet examined the veracity of this information. Paternity and any potential connection to the three other children (Rawley, Pinkney, and Mary) from the 1850 census is unknown, but is definitely worth examining.
  • They purchased a farm in October 1850, and lost it early in 1851. It went to auction and sold for a fraction of what they owed on it.
    • Together with Mary Wynn Haupt, we've located the deeds and land records for these transactions. The details are consistent with the account as they've been expressed here.
  • The family was skipped, or otherwise does not appear, on the 1860 census.
    • False. Bryna appears without Peter on the 1860 census in Rockingham County, North Carolina. The entry has not been easy to locate due to the faintness of the writing. But Bryna's name, alone with the names and ages of her children are all consistent.
  • Peter and Bryna had three children: James, Sarah and Obedience (twin daughters)
    • The 1860 census mentioned above gives the name of Mary (now 12), an additional daughter, Martha (9), followed by James (8), Catherine (6), and Sarah (6). A closer look at subsequent records for Obedience show that her middle name is Catherine, and she also went by "Biddie."
  • Only two members of the family reappear in 1870, Bryna and Sarah. This is the last record of these siblings that have been found. James is alleged to have moved away.
    • James marries Cora Lovelace (also spelled Loveless) and remains in Rockingham County. Sister "B Doyle" is living with them as a farm laborer.
  • Peter had already died by the 1870s, and no greater information is known to narrow down that time frame any closer.
    • Because their youngest daughters are born by 1857, and Peter is nowhere to be seen on the 1860 census, we can narrow his time of death, disappearance, or abandonment between 1856 and 1860.
  • Bryna died some time in the 1870s, at which point Sarah leaves Rockingham County
    • No exact death place or time has yet been determined. Searches through land records confirms that she left no will, likely because she owned no land.

I've been in contact with researchers in Rockingham County on Facebook, trying to tease out ANYTHING else I can find on Peter. I feel like all I need is one more solid clue about his life in North Carolina, and I'll be set to place him, if not in his place of entry to the United States, then to his origins in Ireland. I decided to focus on his marriage record, trying to apply the principles that make up FAN (Friends, Acquaintances, and Neighbors) research.

"North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011," database, ( accessed 14 July 2016), citing Rockingham County, North Carolina, marriage bond, (1850), Peter Doyle and Briney Alexander; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC.

The idea is that you research those who appear around and with your ancestors, and there's one name that appears on Peter's marriage bond, the deed for his land, and the land records that outline how Peter and Bryna lost their farm. James Lemmons appears to have been Peter's go-to guy every time he needed money. He was also the one who purchased their farm at a fraction of what they owed on it--meaning that they gave their original creditor everything they had when they lost their farm.

If any additional records exist, I hope they would somehow survive in the hands of the Lemmons family. My next step may be to find Lemmons/Leamons descendants from Rockingham County, if I can. Who knows what clues they might have about the exact circumstances of what transpired between 1850 and 1851.

All I need is a single clue, and Peter's story may burst wide open.