The Curious Case of John Dunn

Stone monument reading: In Memory of John DunnWhen I began researching my family history, I initially focused very little time on the Dunn family. The Dunn line had already been almost completely traced back to Ireland by cousins of my grandmother, and I had been given numerous notes and write-ups from over the years. The family was descended from Thomas Dunn and Mary Eagan, who lived in John’s Well and Kilderry in Kilkenny County. Thomas and Mary had the following children:

  1. James Dunn (1817-1873), my 3rd great grandfather
  2. Michael John Dunn (1820-1901)
  3. Patrick Dunn (1823-1869)
  4. Thomas Dunn (1826-1918)
  5. John Dunn (1829-1864)
  6. Mary Ella Dunn (1832-1906)
  7. Catherine Dunn (1835-1911)
  8. Richard Dunn (1838-?)
  9. Lawrence Henry Dunn (1840-1888)

Most of the research on the early generations of the Dunn Family (Thomas, Mary, and their children) came from the Dunn Family Bible, which had been owned by James Dunn and contained numerous notes on the family’s arrival in America and whereabouts thereafter. Curiously missing from the bible was Richard—it was assumed he died young in Ireland. This story centers on this entry written by James Dunn about John Dunn (1829-1864):This is a Record of John Dunn's Death [1864] Who was killed in the Third Vermont Regiment Com. B on the 5 Thursday [or on] friday or Saturday. He was killed

A search of John Dunn in Vermont Civil War records confirms that he died on 5th May 1864 at Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. The family ordered a stone to be placed for John Dunn in 1999, and he was memorialized in an onsite ceremony during a family reunion that year. I was told this heartwarming story frequently when I began researching my family history.

Fast forward to 2017, when my grandmother took a DNA test. She was matched with a cousin who also shared connections to numerous descendants of Thomas Dunn and Mary Eagan. This cousin had an ancestor named John Dunn, born in Ireland around 1838, who claimed to have first lived in Vermont and Canada before moving west to Missouri and later Kansas in the 1870s. Was this evidence that our John Dunn actually survived the Civil War?

I dug back into local records (land deeds, court records, etc.) in Orleans County, Vermont where the Dunn family settled. That was when I made an interesting discovery: a court case from 1866, concerning John Dunn of Newport, VT and a man named John Gates. Apparently, in the spring of 1864, John Dunn left for New Hampshire, where he was to spend the summer season working. He contracted John Gates to cut hay on his large farm in Newport, leaving the price up to his brother James Dunn. Instead, James hired somebody else. Gates, citing the contract, brought John Dunn to court. Was this case brought against our John Dunn, who was apparently dead by May 1864 according to both the family bible and the military records, or were there two John Dunns?

Then, an 1873 land deed was discovered which showed John Dunn and his wife Emma, of Dodge City, Kansas selling his land in Newport, VT to Thomas Dunn (the same Thomas Dunn born c. 1826). This was proof that the John Dunn of Kansas, who was an ancestor to the DNA match, originally lived in Newport and was a close relative to the Dunn brothers. A chart was drawn up comparing John in Kansas to the John who died in the Civil War:

John Dunn of Newport, VT and later Kansas John Dunn who died in Civil War
  • Born: 1837-1839 in Ireland
  • Moved from Vermont/Canada to Missouri to Kansas (this is according to state census records in Kansas)
  • Owned land in Newport, VT which he bought in 1861 from E.H. Bartlett, sold part to Lawrence Dunn (born c. 1840) in 1861 and sold the remaining in 1873 to Thomas Dunn (born c. 1826).
  • Married Emma Koopman before Oct 1873 and had seven children.
  • Died after Jan 1900 likely in Kansas.
  • He is referred to as John R Dunn by his son Thomas Jonah Dunn.
  • Born: c. 1825 in Ireland (his baptism states 1829)
  • Enlisted on 10 August 1863 at Burlington, VT as a substitute for Edward S Atherton.
  • Killed 5th May 1864 at Battle of the Wilderness
  • Local paper states the deceased was of Newport, VT and he appears in the James Dunn Bible arriving in America and a note is included about his death.
  • There is a John Dunn buying land in Newport from James Dunn beginning 1855 but he disappears by 1861. This is likely this John Dunn

When I reviewed this chart, a shocking realization dawned on me. Could John Dunn of Kansas be Richard Dunn, the missing child of Thomas Dunn and Mary Eagan? The age matched up, and while we had no mention of Richard in the bible, a Richard Dunn did appear on Civil War enlistment records from Woodstock, VT, and was wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness on the same day John Dunn (born c. 1829) died. He later deserted after leaving the military hospital.

I believe that this theory is the most likely scenario. More research needs to be done before we can conclusively say John R. Dunn (born c. 1838) is the same man as Richard Dunn (born c. 1838).

About Aidan Walsh

Aidan earned a B.S. in Genetics in 2022 from the University of New Hampshire. Prior to working at NEHGS, he worked at the Newmarket Public Library as a Staff Genealogist where he designed and taught genealogy programs. He has been tracing his family history since 2010. Areas of expertise: DNA, New England, Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and Italy.

13 thoughts on “The Curious Case of John Dunn

  1. Fascinating! If Richard deserted and his brother died about the same time, it would make sense for him to take on his brother’s identity and move away.

  2. My great grandfather took the name of his older deceased brother Walter H Hammett then emigrated at age 16 from Blandford Forum England to NYC in 1881.

  3. The title of your post caught my attention since I have tried to find the birth and marriage records in Ireland for my John Dunn and birth of his son, Richard. John was born roughly ca.1815 and married Ellen Conway. They immigrated to Canada probably between 1839-1841 and crossed the border to Ogdensburg, NY before 1860 where John died in Nov, 1879. Some of their children were Richard, Joanna, Ellen, and Margaret.
    I would love to hear from you if you think there is any connection to your Dunn family, and I would be happy to share what I have. Thank you, Lorna B. Dorr

  4. I agree a strong possibility especially as he deserted and did not want to be found. The family probably knew and that is why the Bible record is altered. Also suspicious is the use of a middle initial John R……

    1. My thinking also. He would have known his brother died and by taking his name when he deserted he would avoid being caught.

  5. I am related to John Dunn (1718-1782). He was my 5th great grandfather. I also have several John, James & Thomas who are cousins.

  6. John Dunn (1718-1782) was my 5th great grandfather. I also know of several Johns, James, & Thomas who are cousins.

  7. My husband’s family contains a similar story of a man who deserted his family and took on a different name but retained his birthdate, birthplace, etc. He died and was buried in a military cemetery under the “new” name, yet his actual widow was able to claim minor pensions for his children with the original surname. Such stories give all of us some new ideas about how to track down our missing family members!

  8. I’m trying To Follow John Dunn in one of my line’s born in 6 Dec 1801 Peter sham, Mass Married Martha Kendall Lamb. Where does this family fall in your research

  9. I also have a John Dunn born in Ireland in 1855, lived in Missouri, married to Elizabeth Eagan, born 1862. Children: Michael, Patrick, John, Mary, Catherine.

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