Not My Ancestor, Maybe Yours? William Cairns of Lanarkshire, Kentucky and Illinois

Awareness of William Cairns (1815-1898, or so) started with John Kelly. William was Scotland-born and had emigrated to the US. The much younger Mr. Kelly, on the other hand, was born in the US around 1859, but left some few of his own particulars on a Lanarkshire census sheet in 1881. It counted him a ploughman on a Holytown farm.

Well, who was John Kelly and what had prompted him to Scotland? (See note A). Might Mr. Cairns have known? It mattered after John acknowledged a son with farm-mate Janet Cairns in 1882, yet did not wed. That was in Cambusnethan and that was the end of John’s knowns.

John’s background would have best included a Scot, or someone with history in the country, for any decent chance to identify him. He was a British Subject, so, at least one of his parents had to have been born under the Crown. However, at that time, most Kelly families in the US originated entirely in Ireland. The search mostly ignored them, for lack of provable path forward, except for situations as unique as this.

It presented itself in the US 1860 Federal Census for Ashland, Boyd County, Kentucky.1 A Scot, William Cairns – with perfect surname – lived right next door to the Irish family of an infant John Kelly – of almost perfect age, being specified as 3/12 of 1860. Could this John be that John?

Had Mr. Cairns any relationship with the recently impoverished family of Janet Cairns? William was a manufacturer. Perhaps he had means through which to find this babe, John Kelly, some farm work in Scotland, two decades hence.

Now, Janet’s home was Chapel Cottages in Cambusnethan Parish, to the southeast of Glasgow, and the farm of her service, not far off, in the Holytown District of Bothwell Parish.

If William had once belonged in Janet’s Lanarkshire “Cairns World”, he could have been a player in this scenario.  Janet actually hailed from two unrelated Cairns lines. Her father was John Cairns; his family had been settled in the greater Cambusnethan area for a few generations. Her mother was Janet Cairns; hers had recently scattered to Lanarkshire from Crieff and Abercorn.

WILLIAM CAIRNS: OPTIONS (1815-1898) and (1818-1898)

Like American John Kelly in Scotland, the US told only that William Cairns was from Scotland. Three US censuses proved to be his and they said he was born 1817, 1818 and 1820. His tombstone reads 1815 -1898.2 Scotland’s Old Parish Records capture a fraction of BMD records for its past population, leaving many options as to whom this William Cairns might have been.

Jane Cairns, born about 1777, was in William’s 1860 Kentucky home, as was George Cairns, 1844 and Lillias Phillips, 1831, all from Scotland, as well as Catharine Phillips, 1856, of Kentucky. No relationships were given, but it seemed likely that Jane was his mother, and George, his son.

Catharine Phillips gave away that the household had been in the US by the mid-1850s. This timing fit a Naturalization document for a William Cairns, who arrived in New York in 1852, but it was housed in Illinois records and that person’s address was Milwaukee, with birth year of 1818.3 A hint on the sidebar at points to an Old Parish Record in Scotland, for a William Cairns, who was born 1818 in Ancrum, Roxburgh, to a father named James. Some associate it with this William Cairns, in Kentucky.

However, we believe the association wrong, and the tombstone birth year of 1815, correct. It shall be shown that Lillias Phillips likely provided the 1815 date, but her recall was questionable in that she seemed unable to give her immigration year to the census. The acceptance of 1815 came through research on Jane Cairns.

JANE CAIRNS (ca 1779- ca 1860) and LILLIAS PHILLIPS (1833-1917)

Neither William nor George Cairns revealed themselves in early Scotland censuses, while Jane screamed “look here” in 1851.4 “Here” was 99 Cumberland Street in Glasgow’s Gorbals District. She was a landed proprietor, born 1779 in Row, Dunbartonshire. Such the convenient find! Her only housemate was Lillias Phillips, who was her general servant.

Lillias was with her own family in that same neighborhood, in 1841, her parents being Christina and John Philips, a victualler. Her heritage was now sorted out, but the three Cairns who were later off to Kentucky, remained stubbornly hidden that year.

Finding Jane and Lillias together obviously tied the Kentucky home to Lanarkshire. The principals appeared to be in Glasgow, albeit not quite where they were needed to be, decades ahead of the event of interest. Worthy of further study. 


Research stalled out in Scotland. Further intelligence would need to come from the States, along with new keywords that might budge the systems. William Cairns had relocated his family to Centralia, Marion County, Illinois by the late 60s. The manufacturer was now a day laborer.

With William now a resident of Illinois, that 1867 Naturalization document was more likely to be his, yet it supported the 1818 Roxburgh birth scenario. Pesky, those ancestral dates though. One did not wander about in those days with a wallet sized birth certificate to flash; rather, adults were, as they are still, typically loose in their answer to “how old are you?”

Increasingly, a hunch said that the 1818 birth was wrong.  It was driven by George.

Jane and George Cairns went missing from the 1870 US Census; they were lost to follow-up and presumed to have passed. One could wonder if the Civil War took George and/or had influence on William’s move or job change. Scotland had been no help and now there would be no US record to confirm our notion that George was William’s son. What happened next was interesting.

Lillias Phillips and William Cairns were wed by Illinois. Her daughter, Catharine, assumed the Cairns surname. Another daughter, Lillias, would come later, but topical now, was their son who was born in Illinois, about 1869. They named him George. It is notable that Scots often reused forenames of deceased children.


Convention of the early 1800s had most Scottish families name their first son after his paternal grandfather. We could not assert on George, born about 1844, but, as it was certain that William and Lillias named their first son George, we might expect George to be the name of William’s father. There is no database to search for such a pattern, but sometimes luck helps.


Jane was household head in 1851 and likely a widow. She was solidly Glaswegian by then, so we wondered if she might have been in the area, around the time William was born. Age-wise she could have been either his grandmother, or mother. We would start by looking for a Jane person who married a George Cairns. We came close.

A George Cairns wed Jean McNaught at Barony (Glasgow) in 1799. They had ten children between 1800 and 1822. In a stroke of luck, the records of all ten had been preserved and the order of their arrival had been meticulously recorded, at the time of birth. Their William arrived in 1815. Was he this William?

First born sons of male children from this couple would be named George for their grandfather, by convention, including William. An outstanding question remained on Jane.


We needed to see who Jane Cairns looked like in 1841, but could not locate her. Jean Cairns, known previously as McNaught was also not found. Perhaps the new keyword, George, would work some magic, along with the list of ten children which included John, b. 1810.

Well! Mrs. G Cairns said our hunch would have to do, since she was not about to spill whether she be Jane, Jean or some other.

The 1841 left, was for a John Cairns, born 1810 Lanarkshire, to a George father. The men were grain merchants. Might not that have been favorable, if Mrs. G were Jane, for her landed proprietor status, in 1851?

They were in Barony, where all Jean McNaught’s children were born. If Mrs. G were Jean, then John appropriately answered “Yes” to Lanarkshire birth. On the other hand, Mrs. G said she was born elsewhere, in Scotland. That worked for Jane who claimed birth in Dunbartonshire, but we have no read on Jean’s birth place.

That was the best we could do to retain the notion that Jean and Jane were one and it seemed a tad circular.


Two names chosen for Jean’s children were reused; only eight could have gone forward. Two decades had passed between the arrival of her last child and the 1841 Census where we could nail only John.

We needed to see those Barony Cairns move to parishes a little to the southeast, and be influential where the action was, in the early 1880s. The inability to realize William or his siblings in Scotland (should he have been from Jean McNaught), beyond the 1841 suggested they were either hidden well or emigrated elsewhere. While not precluding such, they gave no hint of an alliance between their family and that of Janet Cairns.


William incurred yet another lifestyle change in Illinois and became a bookkeeper. Occupational changes aside, the notion that he had become a mentor to his one-time next door neighbor, John Kelly of Kentucky, began to be felt as unprovable. It was not that his move across States might have precluded it, for in those days letter writing was art, entertainment and networking, especially for those with established keen friendships. It was the absence of any observable nudge to rekindle the notion of a Cairns alliance.  

William died at 83. As to Lillias, she lived out her life in Centralia. The couple’s son, George, a locomotive engineer, lived there, at least until 1940. He had two daughters with his wife, Lillian Hester.

The case could not be made for William Cairns in this story, leaving John Kelly of Ashland with no standing. Yet he stood in the candidate box for the position of John Kelly of Holytown, making him deserving of recognition.


The next-door immigrant neighbors, Cairns and Kelly, had much in common on which to build an American understanding and abiding friendship. They had converged in the northeastern Kentucky town on the Ohio River, that was freshly named Ashland. It was an exciting place for new beginnings; including that the town’s Kentucky Iron, Coal and Manufacturing Company was just gaining its charter.

The Kelly parents, Michael and Margaret, were from Ireland, with Michael a laborer. They fulfilled their lives in town, with seven children. Their John, born in April of 1860, would become a manufacturer and contractor too; of brick. In just the next generation, his son, Edward, did four years of college.


John was easily found as Kelly or Kelley through US Census 1880. Then, in a curious turn of events, his family started to identify as “O’Kelly”, and variations, thereof. His family experience is posted next.

Note: Along with this family’s surname evolution, there was another Kelly family right nearby, with similar demographics. This has resulted in much sidebar confusion on heritage sites. Subject John’s mother’s maiden name was not determined. The mother of this family was Margaret Griffen. Note B, under Notes and Sources below, is offered to help sort things out.

This John Kelly/O’Kelly lived, prospered and died in the Ashland area. We cannot say he did not, but there was no evidence he left the United States. He was quite unlikely, our ancestor.

Feel free to comment, question or correct in the Reply Box below Notes and Sources.

John Kelly, US-born ca 1859, made Scotland Census 1881: Legbrannock area of Holytown District, Bothwell Parish. Who Was He?  No other Scotland count listed him, nor anyone similar, for decades around. This British Subject and ploughman did not wed his partner, but recognized their son’s birth in 1882, then disappeared from ledgers. Their son may have been adopted and become our history. We sought John Kelly in Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness. CLICK for stories in our continuing search.

Notes and Sources

Note A: John Kelly, born about 1859 US is drawn from the book “Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness by Marilee Wein © 2018 Published by Booklocker .com Information on Janet Cairns is also drawn from the book.

Note B: Sidebar confusion on two Ashland, Boyd, KY families starting in 1860 – each essentially Michael and Margaret Kelley of Ireland: 1) MD and Magy Kelley were on page 143 of Census 1860 for Ashland, Boyd, KY. They are the family graphed above//Page 144 had M. Kelley (b. 1815) and Margaret. This Michael Kelly had wed Margaret Griffen in Lawrence, OH in 1859.  At 1860, they had one child: Catherine, marked on the sheet as 3/12. She may have died, or acquired the name Margaret, by 1870.  By then, their son John was also listed, with birth year, 1863. Margaret became Mrs. John Howell.  Her shows 1860-1930. John was listed as brother-in-law in the Howell home in 1900. John’s Kentucky Death Data shows him 1861-1917 with F=Michael and M=Maggie Griffen. He had been a stone mason, and ended in farm labor. He died of Bright’s Disease or chronic nephritis.

1 US Censuses 1840-1940 were consulted with credit to NARA via and More specific locators are given within the graphic displays.

2 was consulted for William Cairns 1815-1898: Elmwood Cemetery, Centralia, Marion, IL and Lillias Phillips Cairns 1833-1917.

3 Illinois, U. S., Federal Naturalization Records, 1856-1991. District and Circuit Courts, Northern District, Illinois, Index to Naturalization Petitions via

4 Birth(B), Marriage (M) and Death(D) data were found in Old Parish Records (OPR) and Statutory Registers (SR) at ScotlandsPeople also Scotland Censuses (C) 1841 – 1911 and are © Crown Copyright National Records of Scotland. This includes but is not limited to: Scotland Censuses: 1851 for Jane Cairns 644/2 ED 33 HS 8 Cumberland Street. Lillias Phillips early life is probably described at Scotland Census 1841: RD 644/2 on Portland Street. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s