The Roark Family: From Ireland to Missouri

My grandmother, Lily Myrtle Kneisly Yarnell, was one of nine children born to George Blue Kneisly and Clemency Roark.

Prior to getting into genealogy, I knew nothing about the Roarks. The Roark line is quite interesting, running parallel with Irish and American histories.

Available records allow for tracing the family back to the 1500s and to County Leitrim, in the province of Connacht (or Connaught) in Ireland. Leitrim is in the North of the current Republic of Ireland, bordering on Northern Ireland. Leitrim is one of the smallest counties in Ireland, and is known for its “slow pace of life;” however, the county is growing rapidly in population and has a highly educated citizenry.

Leitrim has many nicknames, including “O’Rourke County.” The O’Rourkes are one of the prominent families in the area. Historically, O’Rourke has also been spelled “O’Roark” and Roark.

The first of our ancestors to come to America was Martin Timothy O’Rourke who was born in Leitrim in 1700. The date he arrived in the New World is uncertain, but records indicate he married Sarah Parker in Philadelphia, in 1738. He made his way down to Virginia, where he died in 1769.

Records are sketchy, but Martin and Sarah had a descendant, William Roark, born in 1757 in Orange County, North Carolina. William served in the Revolutionary War, with records indicating his official rank was “Musician,” in the 1st Regiment from North Carolina. William married Sarah Dorris in 1780. He also served in the War of 1812, as a Private, with the 11th Mounted Regiment of Kentucky Volunteers.

William Roark’s Revolutionary War Record

William was rewarded for his time in the Revolutionary War, being given a Bounty Land Grant of 1000 acres of land in Allen County, Kentucky. William became a Baptist minister.

William and Sarah had a son, Levi, born in Orange County, North Carolina, in 1788. Levi, also a Baptist minister, married Clemency Pipkin in Smith County Tennessee in 1809. They had children born in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri, as the family migrated westward.

Levi and Clemency made it to Miller County, Missouri. They brought their children, including Benjamin Downing Roark. Benjamin had been born in Kentucky. At the age of 18, Benjamin married Rachel Gilleland. The Gillelands had followed a similar migratory path to Missouri, where Rachel’s father was appointed Postmaster for the small town of Enon.

Benjamin Downing Roark (1835-1928) and Rachel Gilleland Roark (1835-1916).

Benjamin Downing Roark was born in 1835 and he died in 1928. Rachel Gilleland Roark was born in the same year as her husband, and she died in 1916. They were my grandmother, Lily Myrtle Kneisly Yarnell’s maternal grandparents. Benjamin and Rachel had many descendants, as shown below, in a family photograph of a gathering for their 50th wedding anniversary.

Benjamin and Rachel Roark’s 50th wedding anniversary, with names written by Lily Myrtle Kneisly Yarnell, 1903.

One of their offspring, Clemency (named after Clemency Pipkin), married George Blue Kneisly, and they had several children, including my grandmother, born in 1899.

The information above covers just one line of Roarks that came to America. There are others with amazing stories.

County Leitrim is on the borders on Northern Ireland (Ulster). The O’Rourkes were originally Catholic, but some of them converted to the Presbyterian religion, and were forced into hiding. That was a factor, for at least some of them, in leaving Ireland. Family lore describes some of the males coming to America as boys, stowing away on ships with extended family.

Nathan Roark, from Belfast, hid away on a ship at the age of nine. He spent several years on the ship, which never returned to Belfast, and ultimately disembarked at Baltimore and stayed in America. At the age of 15, he set out to make a home in this country.

It is believed that the Roarks, O’Rourkes, and O’Roarks in the United States all came from around Leitrim, and all share common ancestors.

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