The Stories Your Street Could Tell …

I’m working on a history of my house, mostly for my own selfish pleasure but also to practice my skills in this particular research area. When I spot any vintage news items involving my street, I naturally go on alert. Not long ago I was searching local newspaper microfilms for an obituary when I stumbled upon a terribly sad story from 1938 that took place across the street from where I now live. (Preliminary poking around in censuses and directories indicates that some relatives of the people mentioned in the news item may still be living, hence the brackets.)

Child Found Drowned in Goldfish Pool Here / Mother Transfers From Ship and Returns to Montclair

An 18-month-old baby [...] was drowned on Saturday when she fell into a goldfish pool at the rear of [a] home on [...] Place. Deputy County Medical Examiner Olcott said the death was accidental and caused by drowning.

The article went on to say that the toddler was staying with her aunt at a house neighboring the yard with the goldfish pool. Sadly, the scenario in the story could still be written today: The child went out of sight only for a few minutes, but somehow managed to circumvent a high fence around the pool. The toddler’s mother was on a ship en route to South America, but was intercepted off Cape Hatteras and transferred to a liner headed back north, so that she arrived back in New Jersey the following day.

It was strange and sad to read about such a tragedy on a street I know so well — a street that continues to be a favorite of families with young children. I can tell you that there’s no trace remaining of the goldfish pond mentioned in the story, but it was still oddly disturbing to read about something like that happening on our pleasant little street, even though it was so long ago.

Now I’m wondering what news items might be out there about my own property. I suppose  that’s a hidden hazard of doing house history reports — not all the stories are going to be colorful and heartwarming.  And I guess I’ll be mentioning this possibility up front in doing this sort of research for someone else.


Good Reads: ‘William Cooper’s Town’

Mr. Archaeologist has long been urging me to read Alan Taylor’s majestic 1995 William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. He keeps saying it is especially interesting from a genealogical perspective.

Indeed yes. William Cooper’s Town is a biography of the man who fathered one of America’s first popular novelists, James Fenimore Cooper. It is also an eagle-eyed look at how America’s social order turned upside down in the years after the Revolutionary War.

Genealogists will find many moments of recognition  in the story of how Cooper, the son of a poor Quaker farmer, parlayed early connections among wealthy Friends in Philadelphia and New Jersey to become a land magnate in the early frontier of upstate New York. I’m sure many researchers will be familiar with the post-Revolution migration that Cooper helped foster. (Most of his pioneer tenants were displaced New Englanders hungry for plentiful, fertile land.) Students of Loyalist families will be interested to see how Cooper’s early successes were, in part, the product of Loyalist misfortunes and exiles.

All of that is quite awesome, but where Mr. Taylor earns the Wish I’d Thought of That Research Award™ is in his exploration of William Cooper’s early career among the Quakers of Burlington, New Jersey.

Investigating William’s attempts to better himself, Taylor turns to … the library. Not just any present-day library, but Cooper’s library: the records of the Library Company of Burlington, “the town’s preminent social club and cultural institution,” which still exists, as New Jersey’s oldest library.

Taylor mines the Library Company’s circulation records to show how young Cooper embarked upon an energetic course of self-improvement, checking out an average of 46 books a year between 1783-89. “He must have burned a lot of midnight oil,” Taylor comments. He also points out that as Cooper’s reading material grew increasingly ambitious, so did the frequency of joking comments like “Cooper the Learned” scribbled next to his name in the circulation records. It was an early sign of Cooper’s uneasy fit in the social circles to which he aspired.

It is also a textbook example of the rewards that await when research moves beyond the basics of censuses, vitals and church registers. Not all  research efforts will be rewarded with such meticulous and well-preserved records. But this little gem from Taylor’s book is a great example of how the imaginative use of a source can reclaim the lost details of a long-ago life.


Ephemera and Why They (It?) Are (Is?) Cool

Ephemera: Items designed to be useful or important for only a short time, especially pamphlets, notices, tickets, etc.

In the genealogy world “ephemera” can include everything from school attendance certificates to Edwardian hotel menus — anything at all, which I suppose is the point. Here is a nice essay about that, from the Independent Online Booksellers Association.

Recently, my cousin Carol Ann generously shared a nifty bit of ephemera — a book of addresses kept by our great-aunt Anna Haigney. Anna (1904-79) was my great-grandfather Joseph’s adopted daughter. A dedicated nurse, she  volunteered her skills to aid victims of the tragic 1944 circus fire in Hartford, Conn.

The book is not an actual address book with alphabetized sections, but a plain leatherette-bound notebook with lined pages, seven  inches long, four inches wide.  It doesn’t include great-grandpa Joseph, which might mean Anna began keeping it after he died in 1938. Or it might not. It doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive list of addresses. It looks more like a quick  reference book where Anna jotted down addresses she thought would come in handy.

Well, this unassuming little book is going to keep me busy for a while. It contains some promising entries that might untangle a lot of nagging questions. But for now let’s just take a look at an entry that fit so neatly into some previous detective work, I got a little misty-eyed, I really did.

See that first name, Cerelia? Very pretty, and unusual. It was also the name of the oldest daughter in the Brant family of Jersey City, with whom was boarding a man named “Joseph Hagney” listed in the 1900 census.

As I whined about wrote in a previous post, the 1900 census has long been the Mystery Zone as far as my Haigney great-grandparents are concerned. Documentation places them with boring regularity in Watervliet, N.Y. up to 1899, and with equally boring regularity in Brooklyn after 1901. But 1900 appears to have been The Year They Were Moving.

So far the one decent census possibility has been the entry in Jersey City for Joseph Hagney, a house painter (which happens to have been my great-grandfather’s occupation according to the Watervliet city directory the year before). A little bit of digging revealed that his landlords, the Brants, also had ties to the Watervliet area.  And I know from the death certificate of Joseph’s son, Leo, that by February 1901, the family had only been living in Brooklyn for five months.

All this added up to a reasonable hypothesis that Joseph was living apart from his family in June 1900, boarding with a family he knew from the Capital District. While it would have been nice to get another piece of information to prop this up, it seemed unlikely. Until Great-Aunt Anna’s notebook, that is.

Now, it’s possible that Anna just happened to know some random person named Cerelia. But Anna’s notebook also contains entries on adjacent pages for “Ursula Cameron,” also in Elizabeth, N.J.,  and “Rose Filoramo,” of Jersey City. And here are the six children of Edwin and Rose Brant, with whom Joseph Hagney stayed in 1900: Cerlia [sic], Harry, Rose, Urslia [sic], Edwin and Margaret.

The hunch seems a lot more solid now. This family is very likely to have hosted my great-grandfather for a while in 1900, and moreover, Anna was still in touch with them decades later.

This is why I wish we all had cousins like Carol Ann, Righteous Friend to Genealogy Wonks™,  who know how interested we are in family ephemera, however ephemeral. How many times does stuff like this get pitched, or put away in a drawer and forgotten? Yet viewed with the right context, ephemera can be a total gold mine.


Cemetery Database: Newark (NJ) Archdiocese

I don’t honestly know how long it’s been there, I saw a very nice thing the other day: a searchable database to several cemeteries overseen by the Archdiocese of Newark. Lots of thanks to the email listers from the Genealogical Society of New Jersey, who posted this great link.

Entries include name, burial date and detailed grave location information. Included are:

  • Gate of Heaven Cemetery and Mausoleum
  • Saint Gertrude Cemetery and Mausoleum
  • Holy Cross Cemetery and Mausoleum
  • Holy Sepulchre Cemetery
  • Mount Olivet Cemetery and Mausoleum
  • Christ the King Cemetery

I haven’t been able to track down any background on how complete this database is. Personally, I hit paydirt searching a surname of interest I have from Jersey City; it turned up several hits on burials from 1914 through 2009.

Poking around with a couple of searches on common surnames like King and Smith, I noticed that most of the hits seemed to be 20th-century, but there were certainly quite a few from the 1880s and 1890s, as well. The earliest entries I saw were from the 1860s, but this was just a quick exploration, so don’t assume that’s the extent of the range.

Hope this helps someone hunting for ancestors in northern New Jersey.


Announcement: Spring Genealogy Seminar (GSNJ)

Hurry, hurry; get to a meeting or a seminar before everybody closes up and goes fishing for the summer. If you’re in New Jersey, you’re in particular luck. Check out the Spring Genealogy Seminar 2011 hosted by the Genealogical Society of New Jersey. It’s another full day of presentations, this time at the College of New Jersey campus in Ewing. Here’s the rundown:

Morning Sessions:

• Megan Smolenyak, Trace Your Roots With DNA: Learn how Y-DNA and mt-DNA testing can shed light on your family tree, as well as what newer testing methods can tell you.

• Laura H. Congleton, Identifying and Researching Civil War Ancestors: How to best use federal, state and family records, and what common pitfalls to avoid.

Afternoon Sessions:

• Carol Sheaffer and Nancy Nelson, Don’t Forget the Ladies: Finding and Identifying the Women in Your Past: Enhance your understanding of family history by uncovering the female legacy in a variety of sources.

• Laura H. Congleton, Welcome to the Club: An Introduction to Lineage Societies: A primer on things society-related, from membership requirements to record repositories.

Genealogical Society of New Jersey, Spring Genealogy Seminar 2011. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, June 4, 2011, The College of New Jersey Science Complex, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing, NJ.  Register by May 28 to ensure lunch and sessions choices. For more information and to download a brochure, see the GSNJ website.


Got NJ Images? Get Digitized

Do you have old family photos that help tell stories of New Jersey days gone by?

Then check out MyJerseyRoots, a project being  launched by the Rutgers University Libraries as part of Rutgers Day — Saturday, April 30, when all sorts of events run campuswide from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

According to Stephanie Bartz of the Genealogical Society of New Jersey list (and Rutgers University’s Alexander Library), MyJerseyRoots offers New Jersey citizens the opportunity to “document the everyday life of our cities, small towns and rural communities from past to present,” an excellent idea. Today’s family keepsake can be tomorrow’s historical treasure! If you think you can drop by the main campus in New Brunswick with some interesting old photos, read on.

On Rutgers Day you can bring up to five images to the Alexander Library (169 College Ave., 4th floor), where Rutgers Library personnel will scan, digitize and record information that documents the photos. The library says the sorts of images they’re seeking include:

  • photos of people, families, and/or neighborhood groups
  • street scenes
  • pictures at street fairs, parades, and other events
  • pictures of houses/farms/office buildings/businesses
  • pictures in and of religious institutions
  • school photos – either of classes or activities
  • photos of clubs, organizations, and civic groups

An added bonus: The first 25 participants in the digitization program will receive a free USB flash drive. There will also be brochures prepared by library staff, containing basic tips for photo preservation.

For more information on MyJerseyRoots, take a trip on the New Jersey Digital Highway. Full press release on the photo-preservation event is here. And for other interesting programs at the Library on Rutgers Day, click here.


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