John Richard Wolfe was born in Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland, the son of Richard James Wolfe, a Catholic farmer, and Johanna Relihan Wolfe. The birthdate given on his gravestone is November 15, 1809. He was baptized on July 3, 1813, in the Diocese of Kerry, Parish of Lixnaw. His sponsors were Michael and Bridget Brown. Wolfe’s son later published his birth year as 1824.
Wolfe had at least nine siblings: James Richard (b. 1800), Maurice Richard (b. 1802), Ellen (b. ca. 1810), Thomas Richard (b. 1811), Johanna (b. 1812), Richard (b. 1815), Margaret Ellen (b. 1818), Edward (b. 1821), and Patrick (b. 1822).
He married Honora “Nora” Buckley in Listowel on February 25, 1843. The witnesses were Martin Heagarty and Maurice Wolfe, the latter presumably being his brother. The couple had eight children survive to maturity: James Buckley (b. 1843), Patrick Bernard (b. 1848), Johanna (b. 1849), John Buckley (b. 1851), Maurice Buckley (b. 1855), Margaret I. (b. 1857), Catherine “Kate” (b. 1860), and Richard B. (b. 1862). Two daughters, Margaret and Catherine, died in infancy.
In Wolfe’s History of Clinton County (1911), Wolfe’s son Patrick wrote that John R. Wolfe “received an excellent education. During his young manhood he helped to organize the ‘Young Ireland’ party,” a nationalist group that staged a failed rebellion in 1848, at the height of the Potato Famine. John R. Wolfe’s great grandson, Thomas Wolfe, later wrote that claims of his involvement with Young Ireland are “probably … incorrect although he may have had something to do with a local branch of it. Had he really been a founder, the chances are good that he would have either been arrested or run out of the country, and there is no evidence of either of those happening.”
Whatever the case, Wolfe emigrated from Ireland in 1847 in the company of his wife, his son James, and other relatives, including his first cousin Maurice and his wife Ellen, and several of their children. (John Wolfe and Maurice Wolfe shared a grandfather, James M. “The Barrister” Wolfe.) John Wolfe’s brother Thomas emigrated in 1848 and his brothers Maurice and Richard in 1849. His cousin Maurice’s brother, Richard, came from Ireland in 1848.
Records suggest that Wolfe and his family arrived in New York from Liverpool on August 23, 1847, aboard the Cornelia, a relatively large ship (1,040 tons) built by Brown and Bell of New York and part of the Black Star Line. Owned by Samuel Thompson, Black Star ran eighteen ships between Liverpool and New York in 1847, sailing every six days. John F. French was the ship’s master.
Wolfe traveled from New York to Chicago, where he stayed about seven weeks before moving to Ottawa, LaSalle County, Illinois. By 1856, he was in Clinton County, Iowa. There he quickly purchased eighty acres of government land. He eventually became the largest landholder in Liberty Township, with 1,100 acres. By 1879, when the History of Clinton County, Iowa was published, Wolfe owned 840 acres and Maurice Wolfe (presumably his son) 640 acres. According to the Portrait and Biographical Album of Clinton County, Iowa (1886), he held 640 acres at the time of his death.
Wolfe became a naturalized United States citizen on May 6, 1857.
In 1870, Wolfe and his family were among the first members of the Saint James Catholic Parish, founded in Toronto by Father James Scallon. A church was erected in 1883 and the first mass celebrated in December 1885. He did not live to participate.
Wolfe died on August 19, 1883, in Clinton County. His wife died four years later. They are both buried at Saint James Cemetery in Toronto.
image: Gravestone of John R. Wolfe at Saint James Cemetery, Toronto, Iowa (Christine Masterson / Find a Grave); detail of ship’s manifest for Cornelia, arriving New York, August 23, 1848, showing John R. Wolfe and family (National Archives); naturalization record (National Archives)