Vitals: Gems, A Dud, And Wishful Thinking

The Big Brown Envelope of New York Vitals from Albany lingered in the pile of post-vacation mail for about a second. That’s because getting vitals from New York State is about as carefree a process as snagging a breakfast reservation to Cinderella’s Royal Table at Disney World.

Just kidding! It is not THAT bad! Still, in the interest of full disclosure: The last time an envelope from Albany arrived, I was high as a kite on painkillers following elbow surgery, but I came roaring back to alertness at the sight of a return address that read “Department of Health.” Mr. Archaeologist had no idea a zombie could open an envelope that fast.

This time was no different. Shoving silly nothings such as credit-card bills and municipal tax reminders aside, I tore into the envelope, to be rewarded with a treasure trove of data. In a lot of cases I was getting confirmation, not discovery. Overall, though, it was a satisfying haul.

There was only one dud, but it was a tough one. The certificate I thought might be for my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connors turned out to be for an 18-year-old; clearly not my Patrick, who should have been at least in his fifties.

“So you guessed wrong,” said Mr. Archaeologist helpfully.

“I do NOT guess,” I said coldly.

“Excuse me. I meant your hypothesis turned out to be incorrect.”

That’s better.

Well, it was true about my guess … I mean, my hypothesis … oh, let’s just come clean; this was a great example of wishful thinking. In my defense, when I ordered up the certificate, I didn’t know everything I know now. But still: I’d had a burial card for Patrick from St. Agnes Cemetery, Menands, that read 10 March 1882. When I went to search the death index microfiches, all I could find for a Patrick Connors who died in West Troy was a death on 18 September 1883. Maybe the burial card was somehow in error. (Although these St. Agnes cards haven’t been wrong yet. See? Wishful thinking.) Or maybe the death was reported some time after the fact.

The day after sending in the request, I turned up an Albany County probate filing that stated my ancestor’s death was 10 March 1882, in other words, what the burial card said. If I’d had the probate filing 24 hours earlier, I’d have snapped out of it. Oh, well. The request was already on its way.

What now? Back to the index, I guess, and see what I can see again. Did I really, truly check all the name spelling variations? Did my eyes cross over one listing too many?

It is helpful to get a reminder from time to time about how important it is to keep your cool and not let the desire for a quick solution override common sense. This is, of course, a great life lesson in general, but in genealogy, it is particularly pertinent.


Seen: Cemeteries, Mysteries and Storms

I did promise I’d be back, so here I am. I have been working hard in the meantime.

Really! Vacation’s been over for something like a week-and-a-half. And the genealogy’s been humming. In addition to the Big Breakthrough I stumbled upon just before I left, there was a Big Brown Envelope awaiting me in the pile of while-you-were-away mail, courtesy of “New York State Department of Health — GENEALOGY.” And we all know what that means. Busy, busy, busy. Citations, citations, citations. More on that anon.

Also, for some reason the news has had stuff in it. That wacky news. For instance:

• A man abandoned as a baby in a New Jersey store in 1964 still doesn’t know who he is, but recent DNA testing results might help.

This slide show is a beautifully photographed, and extremely depressing, view of how neglect and overgrowth have completely overrun historic Woodland Cemetery in Newark, N.J. (By the way, if you think you have ancestors there and are seeking burial location information, two wonderful people named Mary Lish and John Sass might be able to help.)

• But here is some lovely news: Intense genealogical sleuthing makes possible a surprising reunion of extended family seven decades after the Holocaust.

Special Superstorm Sandy Edition: The Archaeologist has spent some quality time in recent weeks on the beautiful beaches of Belmar, N.J., where the boardwalk is back (although pavilions and other touches must await the summer of 2014). It’s been wonderful to float in the waves and contemplate the concept of human resilience. But as this story from Union Beach, N.J. indicates, the road back from Superstorm Sandy continues to be a long one. This event is remaking the face of the coastline, for better or worse.

So it’s good to see that people are chronicling this long and epic road. Check out the oral-history projects below; maybe you can share a Superstorm Sandy story of your own.

New Jersey:

Heroes of Superstorm Sandy, a project sponsored by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

New York City:

Stories of Super Storm Sandy, sponsored by the Brooklyn Historical Society and the New York City chapter of the Association of Personal Historians.

Long Island:

A Hofstra University professor, Mary Anne Trasciatti, is collecting stories from residents of Long Beach and surrounding communities, according to a Wall Street Journal article.

If you know of other Superstorm Sandy oral-history initiatives, please drop a note in the comments.


Blog Note: Going Coastal

The Archaeologist recently experienced one of those painful paradoxes.

This is the one where a person is about to depart for a seashore holiday, surrounded by boxes of Indispensable Seashore Stuff like sunscreen, bug spray, beach towels and the seventeen boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese that the offspring are not using as their main nutritional foundation, they’re just emergency rations, honestly …

Ahem. To resume: What would be A Very Frustrating Thing in such circumstances?

A breakthrough on a genealogical brick wall, that’s what. Of all the things to happen when one is about to depart from one’s hometown library haunts and Internet connections!

Alas, we cannot pick and choose the timing of these matters. So a  full account of the excitement must wait until I return.

Meanwhile, I have had to content myself with other people’s ancestors. On Block Island, I took the three-mile (round-trip) walk from the ferry slip to the island’s hilltop cemetery — very much worth it for the exercise, the peaceful atmosphere, and the lovely view:

Cemetery atop the hill, Block Island.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, there have been nice sunsets.

photo (7)

And sea breezes.

photo (8)

But as nice as it is to get away, it will also be very nice to get back home. And get digging.

See you soon.


Resource Spotlight: NYC Newspapers

Although I studied this stuff in my journalism classes, I admit that every so often I look up and say to myself, “Geez, New York City had a lot of newspapers.”

I mean lots. Some had short runs, some went on for decades. Besides the usual general-interest, all-the-news-that’s-fit-to-print publications, there are dozens targeted to specific populations, whether by ethnicity or simply interests. Ergo:

New York City Newspapers (New York Public Library)

This is a .pdf format list of what the NYPL has available on microfilm. It is a nice thing to consult before a trip to the NYPL’s microform research room. The NYPL is a lot like the FHL in Salt Lake City that way. You don’t want to waste precious time there figuring out where to look — you really, really should do that beforehand and hit the ground running.

Anyway — for newspapers, check out this list. And note the large numbers of publications in languages other than English. These can contain hidden gems, as this story of research into victims of the Triangle Fire indicates. So if you have even a little reading ability in the language of interest, they are worth checking out. Happy hunting, etc.

Resource Spotlight provides a look at handy toolbox items I’ve bookmarked over the years.


Resource Spotlight: Money Matters

This sort of thing is always fun:

Inflation Calculator: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Inflation Calculator: 1774-present

Great stuff for writing about U.S. pocket change!

The first one only goes back to 1913, which is the first year the bureau began keeping this sort of statistic. But it is the BLS, so I like to use it whenever I’ve got more recent frames of reference.

The second tool, a feature of business news/economics website DaveManuel.com, uses data from Oregon State University. I’m sure there are lots of these if you need earlier dates, although the earlier you go, the harder it can be to arrive at true equivalencies.

Still, both of these calculators are nice to have around if you’re writing about money and your ancestors. For example, in 1877 a Patrick Connors (who I think was my great-great-grandfather Patrick) took the New York State canal commissioners to task over damages to his property from Erie Canal flooding. The initial claim was for $900, or about $19,000 today. The case dragged on for several years. In 1884, Patrick’s widow Bridget Connors accepted an award of $75, or about $1,785 in current cash.

If you’re going to write about what your ancestors were paid/were fined/inherited, your first priority is to be as accurate as possible about the actual, historical amount. But giving a present-day equivalent can certainly heighten your readers’ understanding of the lives your ancestors lived.

Resource Spotlight provides a look at handy toolbox items I’ve bookmarked over the years.


My Show: How Do You Think You Spell That?

I married into one of the easy names. Once in a blue moon, someone tries to spell it  “Linch,” the way my husband’s ancestors did in 18th-century Virginia, but basically, it’s easy. (To spell, not to research, which I realize is a whole other story.)

In contrast, my birth name is made for alternate spellings. I use what my great-great-grandfather settled upon in the 1870s. More likely, someone settled upon it for him, since the evidence is abundant that my immigrant ancestor was illiterate, signing his mark for important papers well into his old age. Starting in the 1872 West Troy directory, my branch spelled their surname “Haigney” and Haigneys they remained, thank God.

But research still must account for the alternate spellings random officials bestowed upon us. And with the spellings other Haigney families liked better.

Searching for possible extended family of my immigrant ancestor, I recently concluded an in-depth Troy city-directory search for the Haigney surname. I limited myself to reasonable variations, based on what I’ve encountered in 15+ years of research: Hagney, Heagney, Heaganey, Heagany, Hageny, Hagany, Haigney/Heigney/Haigeney/Heigeney and Hegney/Higney. Again, reasonable:  For sanity’s sake, I did not attempt to mind-meld with the sort of thinking that led a 1900 census enumerator to call my great-great-grandfather “Haggemy.” (Although if I saw one of these in the directory, of course I’d look hard at it.)

Two funny things about this name: On the one hand, it’s really very rare, however you spell it. For instance, when I searched for my great-great-grandfather in the Irish Family History Foundation’s baptisms database, I found only 10 Martin Haigneys (this includes variants) for all of Ireland in 1793-1911. It’s easy to get spoiled with searches like that.

On the other hand, the abundant spelling variations, and the freedom with which 19th-century Haigneys employed them, are a challenge to the confident pronouncement of my elders: “If they’re a Haigney, we must be related.”

Who is everyone, anyway? And what is our name? Sometimes after an intensive search, seeing all the variations play out, a surname starts looking like a funhouse mirror. How much of it belongs to me, and how much of it belongs to some 19th-century courthouse clerk’s imagination of how those Gaelic noises were supposed to look?

When I was a child, it seemed that my father and his siblings were the only Haigneys in the whole world. Then the Internet showed us that there were others, not as abundant as Smiths, certainly, but we no longer existed in a vacuum.

And then the genealogical databases expanded to give panoramic views of how fluid spelling was of this surname, how it varied not just from family to family, but changed within individual lifetimes. It was also apparent that not all Haigney families were created equal. Some U.S. groups, like mine, were poor immigrants who found opportunities through army service and industrial jobs. Others gravitated quickly toward white-collar employment like clerking and teaching.

What do these educational and economic differences mean? How do they play out with Haigneys in other parts of the world – the ones who stayed in Ireland, the ones who migrated to England and Australia? Why did my immigrant ancestor grow up in County Tipperary, when many accounts state with confidence that the Haigney surname is welded to County Tyrone? Are those Hagneys and Heaganys in the Troy directories closely connected to my West Troy Haigneys?

What, in short, is really in a name? It’s one of the background questions that keep my fascination with genealogy humming along.


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