Being a person with heavily urban ancestry, I find this kind of story is always close to my heart. Here is an Albany Times-Union article (h/t Don Rittner via Facebook) about a documentary project that is using old photos to reconstruct the neighborhood that was razed in the 1960s to make way for the massive Empire State Plaza complex. Mary Paley’s team is raising money on Kickstarter for the project. Paley has amazing raw material left by her father, Bob, a former photographer for the (Albany, N.Y.) Knickerbocker News who bore witness to the disappearance of more than 100 acres of a thriving neighborhood:
Derided by some as the city’s “Garlic Core” for its concentration of Italian immigrants and compared by others to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the area bounded roughly by Lincoln Park and State, Eagle and Swan streets was a teeming melting pot of Jews, Germans, Irish, Armenians and French-Canadians.
I’ve thought a lot about what we used to call urban renewal and what a force it was when I was growing up. It put a big hole in the business district of Plainfield, N.J., next door to my hometown. And moving around for newspaper jobs, I heard stories about lost neighborhoods from Stamford, Conn., to Miami, to Chicago. (I also liked the term art critic Robert Hughes used for those massive mid-century plazas: “The International Power Style of the Fifties.”) I actually consider “urban renewal” a bit inadequate as an umbrella term, because it doesn’t cover all the development forces steamrolling the urban world as the 20th century wore on.
For example, the birth of the interstate highway was another knife across the cityscape. In Philip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain,” a character laments the evisceration of a beautiful East Orange, N.J. neighborhood, cut into quarters by the Garden State Parkway and Interstate 280. (See also: Miami’s Overtown, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, et cetera.)
I want to be clear that I don’t think dreaming big and planning big are bad things (see: Burnham, Olmstead, etc.) But dreaming and planning arrogantly … it left a lot of heartbreak behind, for those who still remember the lost zones.
Hold on to that thought.
I heard that phrase many a time in my grade-school days, when I could have been a prototype for Hermione Granger, Harry Potter’s perpetually hand-waving buddy.
Well, “hold on to that thought” is useful advice in genealogical research. It can apply to all those funny bits of data we stumble across from time to time, the ones whose significance remains stubbornly unclear.
I don’t have that name in my lines, we might think. Or: I don’t know of anyone who was from that place.
We conclude that these things are flukes – a brief acquaintanceship, perhaps, or just a whistle stop on one of our ancestors’ journeys. This potentially can be a mistake.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about finding a guy in the 1900 census who sure looked like he could be my great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney. His age, birthplace, marital status and occupation were all in line with how other sources described him during the 1890s. Sometime after 1899, Joseph moved from his lifelong home of Watervliet, N.Y. He eventually settled with his wife and children in Brooklyn, where he can be found with boring regularity from 1910 on.
But in 1900, he was quite elusive. And when I finally found a viable candidate, there were, in my mind, three very big snags:
- He was in Jersey City, not Brooklyn.
- His wife, Catherine (Connors) Haigney, was nowhere in sight, and neither were any of his children, including my grandfather Raymond.
- He was boarding in the household of an Edwin and Rose Brant. None of us had ever heard of anybody called Brant.
Assuming this was great-grandfather Joseph, what in the world was going on?
As I previously wrote, I established that Edwin and Rose, like Joseph, were recent arrivals from Watervliet. And about a year after the census find, I came into possession of an address book from the 1930s belonging to Joseph’s daughter, Anna, which strengthened the idea of a close association between the families. Thirty years after Joseph boarded with the Brants, Anna continued to keep track of three Brant daughters, now grown and married.
And that was it – an enigmatic census entry and an old address book, both pointing to a family named Brant in Jersey City. Based on what little I had, it seemed that this was a case of old acquaintances from the Capital District renewing their ties in Hudson County and Brooklyn. Interesting, but nothing to stop the presses about. I busied myself with other things.
Still, I held on to that thought.
And recently this paid off as I worked on the ancestry of great-grandmother Catherine (Connors) Haigney, Joseph’s wife. There are many more Connors families than Haigneys in Watervliet, and up to now it’s been hard to pick out which one might be Catherine’s – especially since I had no information about possible siblings.
Then one of my periodic rummagings through Tom Tryniski’s remarkable New York newspapers database turned up the piece of gold I had long sought: a Troy Times obituary for Catherine’s brother, James Connors, listing Catherine and another sister as survivors. This obituary led to a blizzard of other clippings, which helped crack the case of which Connors census entries were which, and before you could say “Get that in the database,” I had pieced together a preliminary picture of my great-grandmother’s parents, Patrick and Bridget, and their seven children.
Soon enough I had a decent basic idea of what became of five of these children, including my great-grandmother, of course. The two mysteries were a son named Timothy, who is difficult to trace after 1880, and a daughter variously recorded as Rose, Rosannah and Rosa.
It’s all so clear in retrospect, isn’t it?
Not in real time. I was sitting on a train the other day, thinking two things:
- I hate how the name Rosannah keeps putting that old Toto song into my brain.
- Have I ever seen a Rose anywhere in my travels?
Which was when I blurted out, “Rose BRANT!” thereby drawing some curious stares from across the aisle. (It could have been worse; I could have started singing “Rosanna.”)
The next logical stop was the Jersey City Free Public Library’s lovely New Jersey Room, where some lovely obituaries confirmed the hunch. Rose’s own death notice from 1914 referred to her only as the beloved wife of Edwin, but Edwin’s obituary from 1929 contained the wonderful words: “Edwin O. Brant, beloved husband of the late Rose Brant (nee Connors).”
This is the beginning rather than the end of the story. A lot of blanks still need to be filled in and connections confirmed in what is shaping up to be a typically sprawling Irish Catholic family. But it has been delightful to uncover a more detailed picture of my great-grandmother’s clan just in time for Women’s History Month, not to mention St. Patrick’s Day.
I’m so glad I held on to that thought.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.