Category Archives: William O’Kelly

Born: about 1813 Antrim, Ireland
Died: November 22, 1871 Port Gibson, Mississippi

Son of unknown O’Kelly and Mary McAuley. Husband of Mary Hester Swan.

William O’Kelly was said to have been the son of a wealthy Belfast merchant and was the oldest of the three O’Kelly brothers who came to America in the late 1830’s. As told through the generations, taxation of the Catholic Irish by Great Britain was depleting the wealth of the O’Kelly’s and in order to preserve the family holdings, a decision was made by the family patriarch to leave his entire estate to the oldest son. The younger O’Kelly boys were left with the option to stay on at the family Mercantile business after their father’s death and work under their brother, or with financial start-up from their father, they could attempt to claim a piece of this world for their own in an idealistic young country that offered opportunities and freedoms that Ireland under the rule of Great Britain would not. They were men who had been driven out of their homeland and burdened with a profound hatred of the British whose oppression of the Catholic Irish had caused the boys to come of age in a world where everyday life was a losing battle for their basic rights. Amidst political turmoil, there is also a romantic side to the story. William was in love with a Presbyterian girl named Mary Hester Swan and America offered the young couple the opportunity to marry without threat of being sent to the British penal colony in Australia for the offense of their union.

With his new bride, William and his brothers Henry and John settled in Port Gibson, Mississippi soon after they arrived where they became well respected citizens. Like their father before them, the O’Kelly men were merchants. They dealt in commerce and it seems only practical that life-altering decisions would have been weighed with a reasonable amount of financial sensibility. I believe that ultimately the family moved to the American South due to the craze over the cash crop cotton. William and Henry flourished in their new surroundings and combining their holdings, set themselves up in business together as merchants, grocers, landlords, planters and cotton dealers of Claiborne county. At the height of their wealth, William and Esther owned a winter home in New Orleans and were fabled to have been able to afford all of the luxuries life had to offer. Before the Civil War, they even owned a modest number of house slaves and my grandmother would be mortified to know I shared this. Their idealic Southern lives would be short lived when disasters from which William would never recover began to strike.

His brother John was slain in a due at Natchez and in 1853, the year of the Great Yellow Fever epidemic, William lost three daughters, his beloved wife and a newborn son. The Confederate loss of the war bankrupted him and a great Mississippi River flood wiped out what little was left. William was depressed and completely broken when he died of a heart attack in 1871. He was buried in Port Gibson, but his brother Henry dug up his body and removed it to St. Matthew’s Cemetery at Monroe, Louisiana where he and William’s surviving children decided to settle after so much misfortune in Claiborne county.

1888 Have you heard of the burning of the John Hanna

Advertisement for the the Hohn H. Hanna Ouachita Telegraph February 12, 1887

Advertisement for the the John H. Hanna
Ouachita Telegraph February 12, 1887

William Abram O’Kelly to his wife Georgiana Van Emburgh O’Kelly

Monroe, Louisiana December 27th 1888 to Hotel Dieu, New Orleans, Louisiana

My Darling My Love

Your letter of Sunday received last night. We were all glad to hear from you and that you had been out for a ride. The package has not come yet but look for it to day. We sent you a little box yesterday by express and paid all the charges. Aunt Bet [Elizabeth Dull] and Fannie [Francis Beasley Parker] sent some fruit cake almond cake and white cake and some sausage. They were in one end of the box. We sent the things in the other end.

I wrote you yesterday, but there was no mail agent and I gave the letter to a man to mail in Vicksburg and he may never think of it again. We had a very good day of it Christmas and a splendid dinner. As we sat down to dine Uncle [Henry O’Kelly] remarked now if Georgie was here how happy we would all be and that was the thought of us all.

We had a grand midnight mass and the little church [St. Matthew’s] was pretty well crowded a good many went to communion. I went to and you know darling that you were the one I thought of and prayed to the Infant Jesus to have mercy on and that you might soon be restored to your family for his greater glory. There was nothing to mar the ceremony and I think Father [Ludovic] Enaut was very well pleased with every thing. The children were delighted with their little presents and in the evening we took a long walk. I hope you will take as much out door exercise as possible.

Uncle wants to know if you are gaining any flesh and how you are looking. He is terrible impatient if the mail fails and we do not get your letters in time.

I think the baby [William Abram O’Kelly Jr.] is going to cut another tooth. Charley Bell [Charles R. Bell] returned Saturday and is going to work on the [rail] road again. When you get well enough to go about you might go down to see Father Conway. I think he is at St. Joseph’s convent on St. Philip Street. The Sisters may be able to tell you.

We have had splendid weather with the exception of a very hard rain on Christmas night about 8 o’clock. This morning is cold and bright.

I weighed Sonny [James George O’Kelly] this morning he weighed 40 pounds don’t you think that is doing well. Jennie [Jane Calderwood O’Kelly] is a terrible eater and looks as round as a ball. Boots [Mary Catherine O’Kelly] is doing well she cut her finger at breakfast this morning and then began to cry because the box with the shawls had not come. The baby is as saucy as he can be. Ma [Malinda Dull Van Emburgh] is enjoying our good health and Uncle [Henry O’Kelly] is about as well as usual.

I suppose you have heard of the burning of the John Hanna and the loss of Capt [James S.] Holmes and the clerk [Samuel Powell]. I thank God we made the trip safe. I was very watchful on the way down but the boat was not loaded very heavy at that time like she was when she burned.

Now darling I want you to take good care of your self take all the exercise possible and we will all pray God to help us. Darling I do not want you to have anymore of those crying spells. I want you to save all your strength. I think of you a great deal my love, of all the happy times we have had . Seven years is a long time but it seems so short when I look back over our married life. How happy we have been how God has blessed us how thankful we ought to be. Darling I would like to see you for a little while to kiss those pretty eyes. But it will not be long my precious praise God before we see each other again. What is a month or two, why some people have been years apart.

Now darling take good care of yourself. You are not forgotten by your little family for we pray for you morning and night. A  happy New Year for you is the wish of your loving and affectionate husband

William A. O’ Kelly


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Filed under Georgiana Dull Van Emburgh O'Kelly, Henry O'Kelly, James George O'Kelly, Jane Calderwood O'Kelly, Letters to Hotel Dieu, Malinda Teresa Dull Van Emburgh, Mary Catherine O'Kelly, William Abram O'Kelly Jr., William Abram O'Kelly Sr., William O'Kelly

1853 Yellow fever strikes the O’Kelly family

Guardian Angel


New Orleans, 1853-04-10, Pg. 4 col. 4 On Friday evening the 8th Inst. MARGARET HAGGERTY, daughter of William and Hester O’Kelly, formerly of Port Gibson, Miss. aged 2 years and 4 months.

New Orleans, 1853-08-19, Pg. 2 col. 6 On Saturday, of yellow fever, MARY O’KELLY. Eldest daughter of William and Hester O’Kelly, formerly of Port Gibson. [Age 12]

New Orleans, 1853-09-04, Pg. 2 col. 6 ANNA BELLE, of yellow fever, daughter of William and Hester O’Kelly, formerly of Port Gibson. [Age 10]

Mary, Anna Belle, and Margaret O’Kelly were excluded from our family history and I was surprised to have found their death notices in the Daily Picayune. It was an accident really. I had only gone to the downtown library to photocopy another O’Kelly ancestors obituary when a severe thunderstorm struck. Waiting for the weather to clear, I scrolled through all of the microfilmed O’Kelly obituaries and death notices. My Grandmother had trained me to memorize our family tree in great detail and so I did not expect to find previously unknown ancestors, my search was just a whim. I discovered Anna Belle first and was left bewildered by her death notice.

I questioned my grandmother and she recalled that our ancestors had lost young girls to scarlet fever, but that was all of the information that her aunt Jennie had given. The sad story was buried, shortened and abridged by Jennie O’Kelly who’s self assigned duty was to maintain the O’Kelly family’s social standing. Aunt Jennie took great pains to emphasize that our ancestors were wealthy upon arrival and were not the “shanty Irish” who had been forced out of Ireland by the great famine. Yellow fever was blamed on poor immigrants of German and Irish heritage who were considered the lowest of races. Mosquito’s had been discovered to be the true cause in 1900, but Jennie feared lingering prejudices and convinced herself that it was to the benefit of the family to emphasize what model citizens our immigrant ancestors were while omitting innocent unpleasantries such as yellow fever.

Aunt Jennie did mention the yellow fever in her writings, when she recorded that her grandmother Hester died in 1853, “but not of yellow fever.” Jennie claimed that Hester died in childbirth delivering a boy named Hugh. The baby died shortly after birth and was said to have been laid to rest with his mother,”at the old cemetery on Washington street”. There is no death announcement or record of when and where Hester and Hugh were buried. Margaret and Mary’s burial place is also unknown. The death toll was so overwhelming in the summer of 1853 that many dead were placed in cemeteries with no ceremony or written record. At the peak of the scourge, anonymous bodies were piled high at cemetery gates and on street corners.  Anna Belle is the only O’Kelly whose final resting place was properly documented. There is nothing etched in granite, no headstone or family vault, but on September 3rd Anna Belle was laid to rest at the old cemetery on Washington street, more commonly known as Lafayette Cemetery #1. Only four members of the family survived the year, William and his three remaining children Tom, Jane and William.


Filed under Claiborne County, Mississippi, Mary Hester Swan, New Orleans, William O'Kelly

Circa 1845 William & Esther O’Kelly

The story of the O’Kelly family in America begins with a romantic tale of a young couple whom bravely left their homes in Northern Ireland and sailed to America in search of the freedom to marry. As told through six generations, William O’Kelly and Mary Hester ‘Esther’ Swan left their homes in Ireland for love. He was said to have been the son of a wealthy Roman Catholic merchant in Belfast and she the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister. With anti-British sentiment, their grandchildren often repeated that, “their marriage would have been illegal in Ireland and the pair would have been shipped to the penal colony in Australia for the offense of their union.”
They married and settled in Port Gibson, Mississippi where the family multiplied and Williams’ business ventures prospered during the era of King Cotton. These hand painted photographs were taken during the height of their wealth and were a fashionable status symbol amongst the affluent. Their happy lives did not last long. Tragedies began to strike the family when three of their daughter’s died during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853. Esther would later die in childbirth along with the infant and Williams’ fortunes would be completely wiped out by the defeat of the Confederacy and natural disasters.

William O'Kelly

William O’Kelly

Mary Hester O'Kelly

Mary Hester O’Kelly

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Filed under Mary Hester Swan, Photographs, William O'Kelly

1864 Thomas Swan O’Kelly Runs Away to Join the Confederacy

Ten days after the start of the Civil War, William sent his son Thomas to the Jesuit College, Spring Hill, at Mobile Alabama where he studied compounding medicines. A father’s attempt to keep his son out of the war failed and on August 7th, 2864, Tom ran away from the school to join Tobin’s battery, latter serving in the Confederate Cavalry.

The following photocopies are courtesy of Richard Weaver, Spring Hill College, Access Services Librarian.

Thomas O'Kelly Register of Students 1859-1873 page 65

Thomas O’Kelly Register of Students Spring Hill College 1859-1873 page 65 

Vice President's Diary 1859-1883 Aug 1864 page 70

College at Spring Hill Vice President’s Diary 1859-1883 Aug 1864 page 70
August 6. The excitement of the students is greater to day. Many after the study of 2 o’clock ask in a body to go, the sameday, to Mobile to form their quarters but I President being about they consent to go to the first class. After the first class, they renew their petition and again we succeed to send them to class. A greater determination to leave the college was to be expected at bed time ans to prevent it the two principal leaders of the movement are sent away D. Harris and Barry
No bad spirit is remarked in that excitement so much so that all of them went to communion the same morning
August 7. J. Booth, T. O’Kelly go away to join the army. W. Miles and T. Miles go home

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Filed under Mary Hester Swan, Thomas Swan O'Kelly, William O'Kelly

November 1871 Death and Obituary of William O`Kelly

Following the loss of the Confederacy, William was left bankrupt and forced to take a job as a store- clerk in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Working for another man was a great trial for hot-tempered William and took a grave toll on his nerves. While in the store, a forgotten outrage occurred causing William to stomp his foot straight through the floor and tightened his heart so that he suffered an attack that would end his life a few hours later. My Mother and I always thought of Rumpelstiltskin, driving his foot so far into the ground that he created a chasm and fell into it, never to be seen again.

The Port Gibson Enterprise of the 29th of November 1871

Sudden Death of an Old Citizen It is with regret that we recall, and many will read that Mr. William O`Kelly so long and well known in this community departed this life. He suffered an attack while apparently in his usual health, on last Wednesday evening about one o`clock, he called for someone to call for him quick and about three hours later passed quietly away. Mr. O`Kelly was one of Port Gibson`s oldest citizens and at one time was the owner of a great deal of property and was one of the most popular merchant – planters of this place before the Civil War. He has in his later years been the victim of many financial disasters which resulted in his fortunes being completely broken. He had not recovered from the recent disaster at Grand Gulf where the Mississippi River wiped out  his  remaining fortune which left him much depressed at times. He leaves two sons Thomas Swan, William Abram, one daughter Jennie and a brother Henry to mourn his death.

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Filed under Claiborne County, Mississippi, Henry O'Kelly, Jane O'Kelly Calderwood, Thomas Swan O'Kelly, William Abram O'Kelly Sr., William O'Kelly