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Family Directory



The Sweeney Family of Holy Cross

Compiled and contributed by Ron Seymour


James Sweeney and his family were from County Fermanagh west of the town of Clones, which is actually in County Monagnan. However, the parish of Clones includes parts of both counties. There are three churches in the parish. The town itself is very old, quaint and sits on a hilltop with a high cross, churches on hills, an ancient round tower, and an ancient priory in ruins. The old buildings were long one story, combination house and barn, many with thatched roofs.


Born in 1780 James Sweeney (originally spelled Sweeny) married sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Fox in 1811. In those days most girls were married by their sixteenth birthday and raised large families. The Sweeneys were no different. Their oldest son, Arthur was born in 1812 and by 1836 their family had grown to include eight sons and two daughters.


From 1800 to 1840 the population of Ireland doubled to 8 million. Land was scarce. If you owned two acres you were probably listed in the book of peers. Imagine trying to raise and feed a family of twelve on a small acreage. After the Black Hawk War, many magazines and papers were extolling the almost unlimited amount of land available in America.


Arthur, the oldest son, decided to set out for America in 1839. He reportedly bought a house near Holy Cross and began clearing and fencing some land for crops. His brother John along with several of his friends joined him the following year. They traveled around the area and journeyed to Wisconsin looking for the best land. They decided to settle north of Holy Cross.


John went back to Ireland and brought Great James and the rest of his family to New Orleans in late 1841. James was almost 60 years old and it must have been a difficult decision for he and his wife to set out with five children under the age of 10. However, the four older boys including John aged 25, James Jr.19, Thomas, 17 and Myles, 14 probably helped convince him to go.


The ocean voyage was two months long but sailing to New Orleans was the cheapest and most direct rout to Iowa. However, the Upper Mississippi was frozen when they arrived in Oct of 1841 so they waited until spring to set out for Dubuque. Transportation up the river was in a flat-bottomed steamboat called a raft. This journey took about three weeks and when they reached Dubuque, they purchased a team of oxen and set out for Holy Cross, arriving there on March 14, 1842. The land had not yet been surveyed and therefore was not for sale, so the Sweeney family randomly settled on almost 1000 acres between Holy Cross and N. Buena Vista. That first year, Bishop Loras offered Mass in the James Sweeney home. The settlers in the area erected a large wooden cross at the location of the present Holy Cross Cemetery and Bishop Loras blessed it. On Sunday morning people gathered around it to pray the rosary. Inclement weather often interfered with devotions so in 1845, the settlers erected a white oak log church and named it Holy Cross. The priests from the Cathedral came to the church at least once a month to offer Mass. Before the cross was erected, Bishop Loras was noted as saying Mass in the James Sweeney residence. Legend has it that in the early days Bishop Loras, coming from the north, stopped at the old Sweeney home one evening and made arrangements to offer Holy Mass at their house in the morning. The news was spread about and after the Bishop retired, the Sweeney daughter, thinking that the Bishop’s alb was soiled and should be laundered, undertook to do so. Anxious that it should dry by morning, she hung it over some bushes in the area of the cabin. During the night there was a disturbance in the yard and looking through the window she beheld in the moonlight, a calf that had come along grazing, getting its head tangled in the alb and going through the timber proudly, clothed in Episcopal robes.


There is considerable doubt about the acquisition of the 40 acres constituting the church property. Some traditions claim the land was donated by one of the original settlers, (Heiderscheit) and others maintaining that Bishop Loras purchased the land from the U.S. Government. The records in the Dubuque County Courthouse show that in the year 1849, Bishop Loras did secure title to the land. The deed was signed by President Zachary Taylor. According to records in the Sweeney family, Myles Sweeney and another man rode horseback to Dubuque to have the deed recorded and signed for the church property leading some to believe that the Sweeneys donated the 40 acres for the church property. Although the original wooden cross is now gone, the spot where is stood is marked by a granite memorial near the grave of Father Michael Lynch, the first resident pastor of Holy Cross Parish. On June 24, 1843 Great James became a citizen. This entitled his wife and minor children to be also considered citizens. There are no naturalization records for the eldest sons in Dubuque but they may have filed them in New Orleans while spending the winter there. Some of the land in the area that the Sweeney families had been farming became available in 1847 and over the next two years, Great James and his sons purchased over 560 acres through Land Warrants from Mexican War Veterans from Alabama. They also purchased another 200 acres directly from the government. However, only a small percentage of this land was tilled. For example: the 1856 Iowa Census showed that Arthur had 25 acres of improved land and 204 acres of unimproved land. Of the 25 acres, 6 produced 80 bushels of spring wheat; 3 acres of oats also produced 80 bushels; 8 acres of corn yielded 320 bushels and 1 acre produced 100# of potatoes. He also sold 10 hogs for $62 and churned 150# of butter. While the Sweeney families seemed to prosper tragedy and sorrow were always present. The day after Christmas, 1848 the Sweeney’s son Thomas died at age 25. And less than six months later on May 2, another son, James, Jr. died at 28. John Sweeney died on June 26, 1854 leaving a wife and four small children: Mary Ann 8, Ellen 7, James 4, and Theresa aged 2 who would become Mrs. Thomas Seymour. Two years later, on June 18th, Great James passed away at age 76. In his will he left his two prize horses “Blaze” and “Gin” to his beloved wife “Bessy” with the condition that they never be used on the threshing machine. In those days women could not own land, and his will does not specify what was to be the disposition of his farm. He left $100 to his then unmarried daughter, Mary, and a lot he owned in Buena Vista he willed to son John’s widow, Mary. Son Francis (age 21) got the Tan Mare, and sons Martin, Morris and Francis got equal shares in the household furniture. Great James’ widow lived on the farm with her son Francis and daughter Mary for another 15 years, dying on October 6, 1871, at age 76.

Children of James and Bessie Sweeney

Arthur b. 1812, d. July 24, 1881

1st wife: Alice Swift d. mid 1850’s children: Mary Ann, b.1849 m Hugh Riley; Susan, b.1850 m. Dan Cotter; Ellen, b. Sep. 9, 1852 m. Charles Huntimer Apr. 27, 1876 d. Sep. 22, 1928; Martin, b. 1853 d. 1874;

A few years after Alice died, Arthur returned to Ireland to marry Catherine who was his first wife’s sister.


2nd wife: Catherine Swift, b. 1817 children: Katie, b.1858 m. Frank Rooney; Lewis, b. 1860

His farm was in the N1/4 of NW1/4 of section 6 and it remained in the family for four generations until it was sold in the 1980’s. He was the first Sweeney to come to America (in 1839) and is the only one of the brothers who is not listed in the burial records at Holy Cross




John b. 1815, d. June 26,1854

wife Mary (Connolly) b. 1813, d. Apr. 13, 1879 m.1844 Children: Mary Ann, b. 1846; Elizabeth (Ellen) b. 1847, d. 1920; James, b. 1850, d. 1917; Theresa, b.1852, d. 1909 (She married Thomas Seymour on Oct. 12,1875)


John married Mary Connolly in 1844. John was 29 and Mary 31. In October of 1848, John purchased 160 acres from a Mexican War Veteran named John M. Bunn of Capt. Barr’s Company, 1st Battalion, Alabama Volunteers for $1.25 and acre. By the early 1850’s John had brought his land holdings to a little over 240 acres.


However only 10 years after their marriage, John died leaving Mary with 4 small children aged 8,7,4 and 2. John did not leave a will, suggesting his death was not expected. (It is not known how he died) Since all of John’s property went to his heirs, Mary filed for and received guardianship of the children. James Connolly (her brother?) helped post bond. However, Mary was illiterate and did not realize that she must file annual reports on the guardianship and she was issued a citation to appear in court in Dec. 1864.


Apparently she was also having financial difficulties. At her court hearing she stated that she owed $800 in taxes and other debts and wanted to sell some land to pay off these debts. Judge Stephen Hempstead agreed and appointed James Kelly, Timothy Murray and John Connolly to appraise the land. (Murray was her brother-in-law and Connolly was probably another brother) Finally, almost two years later on Nov. 6, 1866 Mary sold 80 acres in Clayton county to a John Drayhouse for $500.


With her family’s help and a hired hand, Jesse Sommers, Mary continued to operate the farm after her husband’s death until her own death in 1879. Her son Jim and daughters, Mary Ann and Ellen would also remain on the farm most of their lives.


James Jr. b. 1821 d. May 2, 1849


Thomas b. 1823 d. Dec. 26, 1848


Ellen (Elinor) b. mid 1820’s d. 1899-1909 probably at Kingsley, IA.

Married Timothy Murray on Aug. 18, 1845 with Myles Sweeney as a witness Her husband was 13-14 years older than her.


Children are believed to be: Johanna b. 1859; Elizabeth b. 1861; Mary b. 1853; Thomas b. 1855; James b. 1856; Catherine b. 1858; Timothy b. 1860; Daniel b. 1869


Myles b. 1826 d. May 10, 1898 wife Mary (Wernert) b. May 15, 1854 d. March 30,1954 m. 1876

children: Mame, b. 1877; Thomas J. b. 1879; Frances C. b. 1880; Grace b. 1881 Caroline (who died as an infant)

Myles was 50 years old when he married Mary. She was born in Alsace-Lorraine, the daughter of an officer in the French army of Louis Napoleon. She came to this country as an 11 month old child in a sailing ship that took 72 days to cross the ocean. She was only 6 weeks away from her 100th birthday when she died.


It is reported that Myles made three trips to California during the gold rush. Apparently he did not find gold. One member of another party from the area was killed by Indians on the trip. He did purchase an additional 120 acres of land in late 1852 to go with the 200 acres he originally bought in 1848. By 1889 he owned 550 acres. He was a member of the Board of Supervisors in 1862 &1863.


Thomas Seymour worked for Myles for several years in the 60’s and 70’s, until his marriage to Myles’ niece, Theresa Sweeney in 1875. (Just a few months before Myles’ own marriage)  Myles’ daughter, Mame married Peter Freyman and they lived on the farm and helped his widow operate it for many years.


Martin b. 1830 d. Sep. 7,1899 wife Catherine (Donovan) b. June 15,1836 d. Feb. 9, 1867 m. Jan. 1,1856

children: Thomas, b 1857; J. J. b. 1859; David, b. Jan. 20, 1860 & d. Oct. 21,1860 Martin II, b. Jan. 27,1862 & d. Aug. 26,1867; Mary ? (Mrs. Francis Rooney?) also b. 1862 ? ; Michael, b May 23, 1863 (He was Milton’s father) Elizabeth, b. 1865.


Martin owned 160 acres in Section 6 (NE ¼). The first school house was built near his house. The settlers hired a teacher and assessed the students to make up his salary. Later, the school affairs were managed by a board of three directors. Martin was elected, at age 18, president of the board. In the 1864 he was elected a township supervisor, a position he held for fifteen years.


Maurice b. 1832 d. Feb. 7,1909 wife, Mary (Sommerfield) b. 1837 in NY, m. Feb. 7,1860, d. June 17,1915

children: John, b. 1869, d. May 23, 1876; Josephine V. b. 1874, d. Jan. 18,1902; James, b. 1875 (died 12 days) Richard, ??; Mrs. P. J. Schroeder, ??; there were also four daughters who took vows and became Sisters of Charity: Sisters Ramona, Evarard, Rodriguez, and Anacaria.


Maurice farmed 150 acres in Section 7 and his son Richard took over the operation of the farm after Maurice’s death, until he sold out and moved to Dubuque.


Mary b. 1834 m. June 5, 1867, d. June 29,1917 husband, Hugh Sweeney (no relation) b. ?? d. May 24, 1879

After the early death of Hugh, Mary sold the farm and she and her young daughter moved to Dubuque. Her daughter also joined the Sisters of Charity and took the name Sister Mary Evarista.


Frank b. May 4, 1835 d. Jan. 12, 1909 wife Ellen (Fahey) b. Nov. 11,1843 d. Feb. 1,1932

children: James; Leo; Frank; Mary Ellen, b. Jan. 6,1879 d. June 22, 1890; Martin (grandfather of Gerald) Joseph; Mathias; Vincent.


Ellen was the daughter of Mathew and Mary (Malone) Fahey of County Galway, Ireland, who brought her to America as a very young child. She had two sisters, Tessie (Mrs. F. M. McCullough) and Sister Mary Zita, BVM, and two brothers, John and Michael.


Frank owned 247 acres in Sections 7, 8 & 22.





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