Lost Lambs

It’s tough to explain the satisfactions of genealogy to nonparticipants. And I completely understand their bewilderment. Why does anyone want to traipse around cemeteries cooing over tombstones? What exactly is so much fun about libraries?

But there’s one thing that everybody seems to get, even the most bored and impatient of listeners:

It’s really, really nice to find the lost babies.

That’s what I call those children who lived and died between census years, the ones who exist perhaps as a question mark on an old family data sheet, or — in the case of my great-great aunt Rose (Connors) Brant — as a statistical squiggle on the census returns.

Rose (1860-1914) had six children, six living, when she and her family were counted in the U.S. federal census in Jersey City in 1900. When 1910 rolled around, she was the mother of eight children, seven living, her youngest child being born in about 1905. On my genealogy program, Rose’s tally was four pink circles for the girls, three for the boys, and one Unknown, which, in Reunion anyway, is a white space.

Those white Unknown spaces sadden me to no end, and the mysteries they contain can stay unresolved for years, sometimes for always. Happily, this particular mystery occurred when civil registration for vitals was well under way in New Jersey.

At the state archives in Trenton, births for earlier years are filed by certificate number.To find one, you need to examine an index reel that is arranged by year and parents’ surnames. Since Rose’s two youngest surviving children were born in 1900 and 1905, that meant she could have had a child in between — or she could have had a child after 1905, but before 1910. I decided to try that earlier time frame first, seeing as Rose was already nearing age 40 in 1900.

And very soon I found her missing child — a little boy, born just before Christmas 1902, and dead of meningitis by September 1903. I was saddened at how brief his life was. But it still felt good to type a name over that “Unknown,” and convert the white tag to blue. It’s strange to think how a life can be reduced to a set of numbers scrawled on a census tally sheet — and satisfying when you can be the person who puts a name where there was once just a statistic.


Hallowed Ground in Jersey City

I never pass a cemetery without a second look, or a third, or even pulling over to take a fourth.

So when a chance came to tour two landmark Catholic cemeteries in Jersey City, I put on my sturdiest, ugliest walking shoes and met up on a lovely June Saturday morning with other members of the Hudson County Genealogical and Historical Society. On the agenda: an in-depth look at St. Peter’s Cemetery, on Tonnelle Avenue, and sprawling, gorgeous Holy Name on West Side Avenue, final home to many prominent (and in some cases infamous) figures from Jersey City’s past.

We carpooled to St. Peter’s, a good thing because St. Peter’s has to be one of the trickiest cemeteries to access anywhere. This might sound cheeky to those who must hack their way to ancestors in overgrown rural burying grounds, but there are other hazards in life besides brambles, and Tonnelle Avenue (a k a U.S. Highways 1 and 9) is one of them.

Read the rest of this entry »


To my online tree viewers, once I go public

I’m one of those people who struggles with the decision to take an Ancestry tree public. I’ve been torn between the desire to connect and share, and the reluctance to become part of something that’s bothered me forever: the perpetuation of mistaken associations (or just plain mistakes) when family tree information is cut and pasted without sufficient thought.

These trees online? They are works in progress. I know so much more about my lines than I did two decades ago, when I started researching them. (And boy, am I glad you can’t see some of the early trees that were on my long-ago hard drives.) I expect, if I am lucky and keep working hard, that I will know much more five or ten years from now, and these trees will keep growing and changing.

So what am I getting at? Simply:

Go ahead, use what you can. If you credit me, that would be super (and, let’s face it, decent), but you know what’s more important?

Check behind me where you can. Take my online stuff as a starting point, not the family Bible (and we all know how dicey family Bibles can be). Also, keep checking back from time to time. See what’s up. Drop me a line, compare some DNA, don’t be shy.

Above all, if something in my online universe doesn’t match something in yours …

Check. It. Out.

Don’t assume I’m right … or that you’re right, for that matter. Maybe neither of us is right. Or even, in some weird, only-in-real-life way, we will discover that both of us are right. In a world full of guys who do stuff like marry three successive wives named, say, Susan, it happens.

I will now climb down from the soapbox before it is kicked out from under me. Whoever you are, if you’re reading this, I wish you all the joy of discovery and the fun of reconnecting with long-lost relatives. But I swear, if I catch you saying that Martin Haigney (born 1828) married somebody named Mary Carroll, BECAUSE HE DIDN’T HE DIDN’T I SPENT 15 YEARS AND BEAUCOUP BUCKS INVESTIGATING THIS, I will hunt you down and … Ahem. Sorry. Got a little upset there. Better now.

Happy hunting. Really.


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.


Timeline Traveling

Cleaning the face of Big Ben, 2007. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Cleaning the face of Big Ben, 2007. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve joined an upcoming study group focused on Thomas W. Jones’ instant classic Mastering Genealogical Proof, a book that I sincerely urge you to read, and I am not even Dr. Jones’ agent.

I had the good fortune to take in Dr. Jones’ teaching skills as an online student of the Boston University Genealogical Certification course a couple of years ago. I can tell you he was (is) very big on timelines.  (In fact, I might have scribbled in  my notes: “What is it with this guy and timelines?”)

But truly, if I had to pick a Top Three of things I learned at BU that really charged up my research skills, timelines would be right there. Despite editing many a timeline chart during my newspaper years, I never really used them in my genealogy the way Dr. Jones said they could be used.

And boy, was I missing out.

Here are three vital things timelines can do:

1. They highlight significant details you might have missed the first time you read critical information.

I’ve been tracing the life events of a great-great-uncle, Timothy Connors of West Troy, N.Y. He dropped off the radar screen after the 1880 federal census. A man by that name appeared in the burial index for St. Agnes Cemetery in nearby Menands, date of burial October 1884. The burial card, when it arrived, didn’t conclusively connect this Timothy to the family I was studying. It told me that this Timothy was buried on 8 October 1884 in a plot belonging to a “W. Cuthbert.” It didn’t add anything else.

Except that it did. Once I started putting the timeline together, I looked at the card again, and I noticed that Timothy’s last address was “Albany Street.” And in 1880, my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connors lived with his family, including son Timothy, at 337 Albany Street in the Port Schuyler area of West Troy.

Just like that, the Timothy Connors on the burial card turned from Theoretical Timothy to Really Good Possibility Timothy. Thanks, timeline!

2. They point you quickly to the parts of the chronology needing further investigation.

Armed with a stronger confidence that the man on the burial card was the Timothy I sought, I searched the wonderful Old N.Y. Newspapers database using the keywords “Connors” and “October 1884″. Very quickly I found what I sought in the Albany Evening Journal  edition of  Tuesday,  7 October 1884:

Timothy Connors, who was thrown from a waggon [sic] on the Troy road Saturday, died at his home in Port Schuyler from concussion of the brain. He was 25 years old and was married last July  [emphasis mine]. Liquor caused the accident.

Now I had more details, plus the information that Timothy had been married at the time of his death. Could the “W. Cuthbert” who owned the burial plot be connected to Timothy by marriage? Why, yes, as a matter of fact, he probably was.

A whole new avenue of research opened up, simply because the timeline made me see what was always there in front of me.

3. They put family traditions under a brighter spotlight, pinpointing consistencies and inconsistencies.

In my husband’s Lynch family tree lurks a notorious person named James Madison Lynch (born Grayson County, Kentucky, 1 July 1862-died ?). Tradition has it that he killed a man in a brawl and fled town, rarely to be heard from again. His last reported contact with family came in 1911, when he was said to have visited a brother in Texas. Upon that occasion my husband’s great-grandfather sadly wrote: “Poor Jim, the world will never be better because of his life.”

But arranged on a timeline, Jim Madison’s life looks a little different than the family story. Here is a quick summary of a vital part of the timeline:

1880: Enumerated at age 17 with his parents in Grayson County, Ky.

Dates unknown: He was a schoolteacher and attorney as a young man, according to family tradition.

29 October 1886: Grayson County Gazette includes an advertisement for James M. Lynch, attorney at law, Leitchfield.

Late 1886-early 1887: James M. Lynch reportedly “cowhided” at Christmas by W. B. May, a Leitchfield distiller, and fled town, according to newspaper item published July 1887.

7 July 1887: News item headlined “A Coward’s Shot” details the murder of W.B. May and declares: “Subsequent investigation established that the murderer is James M. Lynch … “ [This item was picked up by newspapers all over the South.]

21 Sept. 1888: News item reports on Grayson County Teacher’s Institute held in Leitchfield from the 17th through the 21st of September. “Jas. M. Lynch” is included in a list of teachers attending, along with one of his brothers, A.T.K. Lynch.

You see what we did there? Simply by arranging the references on a timeline, we notice that a guy sharing the name of a notorious murder suspect turns up at a teacher’s institute a year after the reported crime.

What has happened here? Is this the same James Madison Lynch in 1887 and 1888? If so, why was he teaching school, for heaven’s sake?

I hate to let you all down, but I can’t yet say for sure. The original news item on the distiller’s murder does not actually mention an arrest, and I have not found an account of a trial (yet). But the important takeaway here is that the timeline instantly raised a red flag over the family tradition. There are many good questions to investigate, such as what was the ultimate resolution of the May case, and how/when/where James trained and worked as a teacher and an attorney.

Bottom line: If you haven’t been using timelines and you have an ancestor who puts the brick in the term “brick wall,” do yourself a favor and try it. It can be a marvelous way to take a fresh stroll down well-worn paths.


Census Sour Grapes, 1855 Edition

I just noticed something irritating in the 1855 New York State census entry for my Connor great-great-grandparents of Watervliet.

New York State’s 1855 census form is really detailed in contrast to the federal returns of this era. For instance, it specified the relationships of each person to the head of household – something the federal census would not do until 1880. It also directed enumerators to list the number of years each person had lived in that particular city or town, an obvious advantage to those of us trying to establish when a person might have emigrated to the U.S.

I returned to the 1855 census form in double-checking events on a timeline for my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connor (Conners/Conner/Connors). I had already noted that the enumerator had simply drawn a dash across the space asking how many years the family had lived in the town of Watervliet. It didn’t jump out that much, as I recall. Erratic compliance with the forms is pretty common.

But this time I looked harder at how the enumerator handled this question for the other families on the page. And, wow. In every other case he meticulously listed the number of years resident in the town, for every person. Not just every adult, every person. So a child of two was listed as having resided in the town for two years.

Some examples: Bridget Corbett, age 35, and her three children, all born in Ireland, had all lived in Watervliet four years. Lawrence Hart and his wife, Phoebe, born in Germany, had settled in Watervliet 14 years previously with their oldest child, Catharina. The couple’s four younger children were all born in Albany County, and had lived in the town for 14, 11, 9 and 5 years respectively, meaning that the Harts had a baby promptly after arriving in town.

Scottish immigrants Donald and Elizabeth Kay and their seven children had arrived in Watervliet en masse ten months before the enumeration date. And the enumerator wrote down “10/12” for every single one in the space asking for length of residency.

Not for the Connors family. For the question of how long they were residents of Watervliet, they got dashes. Zip. For every one of them.

So, Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence Jr., Census Marshal: What gives, buddy?

I want to be noble and assume he encountered an unavoidable enumeration difficulty. They weren’t home. Or maybe no one in the household could remember how long they had lived in Watervliet, despite Mr. Edward Lawrence Jr.’s valiant attempts to jog their memories, and he sadly drew a line across the space, pained at abandoning his usual detailed standards with this poor, benighted family.

No, forget it.

I do not feel charitable toward Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence, Jr. I think he had it in for my ancestors.

I think maybe Patrick told a joke Mr. Edward Lawrence, Jr. didn’t like, or one of the kids accidentally spilled something on his best enumeration suit. And I think Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence Jr. spitefully decided to leave out how long this Connors family lived in the town of Watervliet. Just to show them.

Mr. Enumerator: You, sir, are a scoundrel.


Mystery Monday: The Butt-Factory Update

My butt-factory mystery is solved. (“Yay!” cry the readers. “We can all relax now!”)

After posting a cri de coeur about my ancestors in the 1870 census for West Troy, N.Y., I thought some more about their mysterious occupation: “butt factory.”

This called for serious scholarship. Somebody with a solid handle on 19th-century industry in the Albany area. Somebody (hopefully) snicker-proof.

Luckily, there is a terrific organization to contact: The Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway. Since 1972, the Gateway has been dedicated to preserving and teaching about the Capital District’s industrial legacy. Anybody with working-class ancestry in the Albany-Troy area probably knows what a powerhouse it was back in the day. The first iron mill started cranking in 1807; the United States Arsenal in Watervliet was built in 1812. The Erie and Champlain canals added fuel to the engine.  The textile mills, the early ironworks like Burden, the pioneering union activists like Kate Mullany – it’s all pivotal (if underappreciated) history.

Still — what might it have to do with a butt factory? There was only one way to find out. This was not how I pictured introducing myself to the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, but what can you do. I sent the email.

In short order came a response from the Gateway’s executive director, P. Thomas Carroll, PhD: “Sure, I think we can help you.”  Just like that. Professionalism personified.

Tom explained that the term “butt” has two potential meanings in this context:

(1) a cask, i.e., barrel, with a capacity of about 120 U.S. gallons.

(2) the sort of hinge that looks like this:

Image from "The Encyclopedia of Hardware"; Hardwaresource.com

Image from “The Encyclopedia of Hardware”; Hardwaresource.com

Tom wrote: “It’s called [a butt hinge] because, when you mortise the two plates of the hinge into recesses in the door edge and in the door jamb, the door and the jamb can then butt right up against each other when the door is closed, which is of course what you want to properly seal up the door opening.” It’s a basic, basic hinge. You might be looking at one in your house right now.

[The blog will pause for five minutes while everyone goes to inspect the nearest butt-hinge. Reports are due next Wednesday.]

Tom believed my ancestors were working in a place that made hinges, not casks. Why? He enclosed this page from the 1863 city directory for Troy and West Troy. It includes two butt-hinge factories. One was across the river in Troy, but the other, Roy & Co., was right in West Troy:

Photo courtesy of Tom Carroll, Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway

Photo courtesy of Tom Carroll, Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway

It was quite likely that my ancestors, 16-year-old James and 10-year-old Timothy Connors, worked at Roy & Co. in 1870.

In a subsequent email, Tom sent an image from the 1899 city directory that included a Watervliet entry for “Connors, James, buttmaker, house 437 Broadway.” Guess what? 437 Broadway is where my James lived at the time of the 1900 census. Apparently the hinge business agreed with him.

Sometimes we have to move beyond the usual genealogical sources to color in the outlines of our ancestors’ lives. Fortunately, there are dedicated and knowledgeable individuals who can give us that lost background. Like Mr. Carroll, who saved my poor eyeballs another Googling for “butt factory.” You have no idea how grateful I am for that.

Note: In addition to operating the Burden Ironworks Museum, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway hosts terrific activities. Some past examples: tours of historic factory buildings, architectural walking tours and the “Troy’s Tiffany Treasures” tour celebrating the city’s extensive legacy of Tiffany artistry. The 2013 brochure is due next month. Watch this link for more information.


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