Mar 112012
Richard Burke

I was recently facing a painful deadline for a paper that I was writing. It was killing me, and in my desperation, I decided to distract myself (read: procrastinate) by trying to make some headway on one of my most difficult brickwalls: tracing the Burke family back to Ireland. My paternal grandmother was a Burke, and although she knew her ancestors were Protestant Irish (and Orangemen), she had little information about where the family had come from in Ireland. It had been easy to trace the family back to the Canadian patriarch: one David Burk (the ‘e’ in Burke got added in Canada) who had settled in Mariposa Township in Victoria County, Ontario about 1850. (The exact date of his settlement is difficult to determine and made harder by the fact that the 1852 census returns for this township have not survived.)

Finding David Burk also meant finding another branch of this family who had also done extensive research and had perserved some oral family history. These cousins added some important information to the search, information which they pulled together in this biography of David Burk. The key information in this piece was that David Burk had (at least) two brothers–Richard and Joseph–and that one of these brothers had married a Catholic woman, was estranged from the family and moved west; and the other had had lots of children and had moved to Australia. I thought that my best chance of finding out more about David Burk was to find his siblings.

The Burkes who moved west

Richard Burke

Richard Burke

First I had to do some grunt work. I wanted to make sure that I knew all I could about what happened to David Burk and Elizabeth Pogue’s children. I started tracing their lives through the Canadian censuses. In 1901, I found the three younger Burk siblings (Margaret, Cordelia and Joseph) all living close to each other in Carivale, Saskatchewan. They had clearly moved west when land on the Prairies became available. When I pulled up the original images of the census returns, I noticed something. Living close to David Burk’s children and their families were some other families named Burke, including one Richard Burke, born in 1836 in Ireland. Richard’s descendants had done a lot of work tracing their side of the familyand I very quickly learned that Richard and his family had also settled in Mariposa Township, Victoria County, Ontario before they moved west in 1885. Even though the details don’t quite match the oral family history in my side of the family, they are close enough. I was certain that this Richard Burke was David’s brother.

I was very quickly able to find descendants of Richard online (I love meeting new cousins), and I was very happy to hear that this branch of the family had been quite fastidious about keeping their family history. They knew, for instance, that Richard came from County Monaghan in Ireland. Richard’s grandson Delmer Smith Burke even wrote a lengthy year-by-year account of his life in Carievale. In this family history, he mentions that on the way west in 1881, his father Jacob George Burke stayed with his uncle David Graham and that David’s wife was his aunt, a sister to his father Richard Burke. This is music to a genealogist’s ear. Sure enough, I was able to find a marriage record for an Esther Burke and a David Graham. Esther was a resident of Mariposa Township when she married David Graham in Cobourg, Ontario in 1859. But the best news was that their marriage record named Esther’s parents: Benjamin and Jane Burk(e). I had not had these names before, but they do fit perfectly as both David and Richard had a son named Benjamin–not a common Irish name.

Evidence that this is the same family

Although I do not have birth records for David or Richard Burke, there is some powerful evidence that these families are related:

  1. Both families settled about the same time in Mariposa Township, Victoria County, Ontario. (In the absence of the 1852 census returns, I’ll have to check land records for the township, but I’m guessing that these families also lived close to each other in Mariposa).
  2. David’s descendants remembered a brother Richard and Richard’s descendants remembered a brother David.
  3. There were seven families living next to each other in Carievale in 1901: three children of David Burke, Richard Burke and four of his children. It is highly unlikely that this is a coincidence. (See the list below).
  4. The names Benjamin and Jane (the parents listed on Esther’s marriage certificate) are repeated in both families.

Burkes living in Carievale, Saskatchewan in 1901:

David Burk descendants

Richard Burke family and descendants
Richard Burke Family

Richard Burke Family

Remaining questions

There are still some things that I would like to figure out.

  • It seems likely that the Burke siblings came to Canada during the Irish potato famine between 1845 and 1852. About 100,000 immigrants came to Canada in 1847 alone; 60,000 of them were Irish.
  • Did the siblings come together or at different times?
  • Did the parents also perhaps come to Canada and die before 1867 when deaths were recorded regularly in Ontario?
  • There is a large age gap between David (b. 1824) and Richard (b. 1836) and Esther (b. 1839). This would suggest to me more than just one additional sibling. Did these siblings also come to Canada? Where are they? Were they also in Mariposa Township?
  • If Richard wasn’t the brother to move to Australia, was Joseph?

Tracing this family back to Ireland seems daunting, but I’d love to try….