Modern census database searching is great. Many mis-indexed ancestors have been found by the ability to throw wild card variables into a tricky surname or, when all else fails, to abandon names altogether and search for characteristics like age, occupation and nativity.
But remember: Each page in a search result is just one possible piece of a family mosaic. Case in point:
I was scouring the 1870 index for the family of my great-grandmother Catherine Connors Haigney in Watervliet, Albany County, N.Y. By this point in my search I knew that Catherine’s oldest sister, Mary Ann, was likely to be married to a man named Bernard Connell in 1870. And there they were:
Excellent! (A bonus: They married in the census year, so the enumerator noted the month of their wedding, January. You can’t see it in this crop, but it’s there.)
Now it was time to check on my great-great-grandparents, Patrick and Bridget Connors. There was only one family in Watervliet in 1870 that included a head of household named Patrick, a wife Bridget and siblings whose names matched the known siblings of Catherine and Mary Ann. Up they popped:
Wonderful! There they all are, Andrew, Mary Ann, James … Wait.
Mary Ann? Seriously? But how could she be both the eldest daughter in Patrick Connor’s household and the wife of Bernard Connell? One finding had to be the wrong Mary Ann. Right?
I spent the next few minutes whimpering softly about what a rotten, horrible, deceptive world this is, where census indexes make us think we have a handle on a family, only to cruelly snatch our triumph away with the very next hit.
But soon I saw something that I should have noticed right away. See Bernard Connell and Mary Ann up there? See how they’re at the top of their page?
And see how Patrick and Bridget and their gang are at the bottom of their page?
Could these people just possibly be on adjacent pages?
You bet, Sherlock. The Connors and the Connells are, in fact, in the same dwelling, No. 727, but are enumerated as two distinct families, No. 902 and No. 903.
The Connors/Connell family group was visited by a somewhat persnickety enumerator in 1870, a year in which individual names were recorded, but relationships to head of household were not. Faced with the presence of Patrick’s married oldest daughter, the enumerator parsed the situation as precisely as he could. He listed Mary Ann first among Patrick’s children, and a second time as Bernard Connell’s wife. Then the entry happened to break across Pages 110-111.
There are not two 18-year-old Mary Anns in Dwelling 727. They are the same person whose dual identity has been carefully, if confusingly, preserved, a conclusion supported by other sources, including the obituary of one of Mary Ann’s daughters many years later. And, of course, these two Mary Anns appear as two separate census search results on separate pages, each seemingly valid, but contradictory. Only when the pages are read in sequence do they make sense.
It’s an elegant example of some basic census-research advice: Never simply zero in on one key name on a census page. Read up, read down and read adjacent pages. It’s the only way you’re sure you’re getting the whole picture.
Read this item from the Upstate New York Genealogy Blog about interesting new advances in making New York State records available online. This is especially exciting for New York State residents, who will be able to access newly digitized records free under an arrangement between Ancestry.com and the New York State Archives.
Also of note from the article: It says the New York State Birth, Death and Marriage Index will soon be accessible through Archives.com. It is not clear at this point whether this will fall under the free-access arrangement for New York residents, or whether it will be subscription-only.
I never knew my paternal grandfather Raymond Haigney (1891-1940), as I mentioned recently when describing his final census appearance in 1940. But I knew that at the time he died, he worked for the New York City Department of Health as a food inspector. I’d always supposed that my knowledge of his work was destined to begin and end there.
But, thanks to the magic of indexed, digital newspaper archives, I have three news clips showing my grandpa on the milk-dealer beat, keeping an eye out for questionable practices and doing his bit to keep New York’s dairy supply pure. You go, Grandpa Haigney!
The newspaper is the long-ago Daily Star, published in the borough of Queens (my grandfather was detailed to the health department’s Queens bureau). Punctuation, grammar and capitalization are reproduced faithfully from the original, alas.
First, here are two fairly routine situations:
Daily Star, Queens Borough, N.Y. City, Tuesday January 17, 1928, page 1: Milk Dealer Fined Total of $250 On Two Counts in Ridgewood Court
A man described as Meyer Krout, a milk dealer, of Seventy-ninth street (Furman avenue), Middle Village, was fined $100 by Magistrate Benjamin Marvin yesterday on complaint of Health Inspector Raymond Haigney, who swore that the defendant had fifteen quarts of milk for sale which was unwholesome.
Daily Star, Queens Borough, N.Y. City, Thursday Evening, October 11, 1928, page 7: Milk Dealer Fined $25 For Unrecorded Sales
Morris Cohen, a milk dealer of Cooper avenue and Eighty-eighth street, Glendale, was fined $25 by Magistrate Peter M. Daly in Ridgewood Court yesterday on complaint of Inspector Raymond Haigney attached to the Queens office of the Department of Health, who alleged that Cohen failed to keep a record of milk sales as required by regulations of the Department of Health.
This last one contains a bit of drama.
Daily Star, Queens Borough, N.Y. City, Tuesday evening May 28, 1928, page 1: Milk Dealer Pays $50 Fine For Violation
Muzzio Saladino, a milk dealer, of 2243 Flushing avenue, Maspeth, charged with violating the Sanitary Code was found guilty in Ridgewood court yesterday and fined $50 by Magistrate Peter M. Daly.
The defendant was accused by Inspector Raymond Haigney, attached to the Queens bureau of the Department of Health, with having eighty quarts of mlk in unlabeled and untagged containers. Saladino told the court that he informed the inspector that the milk was to be used for making cheese and was not for sale.
Haigney read Saladino’s record, which purported to show that he has been fined on no less than ten occasions for various infractions of the Sanitary Code relating to milk. In answer to the plea of Francis D. Saitta, counsel for the defendant, Magistrate Daly said:
“This defendant seems to have no regard for the law. I am going to fine him $50, and I don’t want a repetition of the offense.”
Compiler note: I will admit to a sneaking bit of sympathy for Mr. Saladino. I mean, freshly made cheese – what’s not to like? But the law is the law.
Research note: I found these clips (along with many other valuable items) in Tom Tryniski’s amazing Old New York Newspapers database – well worth a look for those of us tracking Empire State ancestors.
It turned up last week on a census hunt related to my frustrating, elusive Connors line in Watervliet (maybe) N.Y. I kept squinting at the handwriting, but really all that a reasonable person could make out would be “corn labor”, with “coven labor” a distant second and honestly, I don’t really want to pursue a relationship with someone who does coven labor. Then I got distracted by some other Irish-in-New York stuff (the subject of another post in the works).
Well! In one of those cosmic convergences, a fellow member of the Troy (N.Y.) Irish Genealogy Society mailing list also had a corn laborer in his files, and being more sensible than me, posted a question about it. As is often the case on this great list, there were informative replies. It is possible, write listers Rebecca and Kathleen, that this labor was related to broom corn crops, which were harvested to provide materials for brush factories, some of which existed in the Capital District area.
To get an idea of broom corn and what’s involved (translation: very hard work), check out this broom corn blog post, complete with pictures. It is by Marieanne Coursen, intrepid staffer at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. She tells us that broom corn was an important mid-19th-century crop in New York State.
They raise their own crop of broom corn at the museum, and Ms. Coursen takes you through the whole process of growing, harvesting and processing it in an authentically 19th-century way. She even cut the brushes with a knife, as would have been done back then, keeping herself “very aware of the location of my body parts in relation to the swing of the knife.” (This is the sort of thing that dampens my enthusiasm for being a living history docent.)
Apparently there is a broom shop in the museum where you can see the product of these labors. Another fine reason to visit Cooperstown, even if you are not a baseball fan.
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.
My dad wouldn’t have been caught dead reading The New York Times. “The paper for eggheads,” is about as printable a comment as I can reproduce here. But there were culturally sound reasons behind his distaste.
The Times didn’t cover Dad’s New York. It’s famous for having a blind spot about working-class New Yorkers, really. I do think they’ve tried to rectify that in recent years. But to this day, it’s possible to read unintentionally amusing pieces wherein an earnest Times writer takes a trip to a place like Queens or Staten Island, and carries on as if they’ve just been to Mars.
My purpose is not solely to make fun of the Times (no! not solely!). The more important point is that I belong to a Daily News family as far as death notices go. In the more distant past, we were of course a Brooklyn Eagle family, but one branch seems to have been staunchly Brooklyn Standard Union.
We know from any basic research guide that newspapers are valuable sources for genealogists. Obituaries and birth announcements are only the most obvious benefit. Society meetings, town government, charity balls, who was visiting whom and who had just come home from the hospital — all this was fodder for news once upon a time, and a good thing, too.
But we must pay attention to who our ancestors were, to use newspapers effectively. Because once upon a time, the paper you read was a bit like where you worshiped. You just didn’t read some papers because they were edited by those [expletive] dirty [political/economic/religious enemies]. You would never, ever insert a notice about a loved one’s birth or death in that [expletive] paper. After all, you’d want your friends to read it, wouldn’t you?
And don’t think you’re off the hook in small towns. For an example, consider this episode in Terry Ryan’s affecting memoir, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. At one point young Terry and her mother make a nostalgic visit to Mom’s small Midwestern hometown. Here’s what newspaper consumerism was like there, circa 1915:
The seven papers Mom’s uncle Frank and aunt Clara read were mostly Republican-owned, but they subscribed to a few Democrat newspapers, too. “Not to mention,” Mom said, “a German-language paper for immigrants like my grandparents, and a Whig paper.”
“Wig?” I said …
“No, Whig with an h, like the political party of the same name,” she said. … “The party died out in the mid-1800s, but it still had its followers. According to Uncle Frank, people had to have a variety of news sources to be well-rounded … “
I grew up long past the time when it was possible to subscribe to seven newspapers! Consolidation and corporate ownership meant, even by the 1970s, that relatively few large towns in the U.S. had more than one daily. Today, there is much talk about the death of the printed newspaper, but re-reading this passage, it occurs that we’re experiencing not a death, but a restoration of diverse opinions and themes. If Uncle Frank were alive today, I’m convinced, his Google Reader would be working overtime.
As it is, it helps to be aware of this vanished and complex world of print news, when we’re using it to track our ancestors.
In Part One, I was tempted to visualize my way into a mistake by over-interpreting a perfectly innocent piece of census data: a prime example of the source being right and the perception going astray.
But investigating this family further has produced more confusion, as further investigation often will. Makes you want to retire your Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap for good.
By carefully looking at data on Martin and Mary Haigney and their family in the period of 1860-1870, it was possible to establish that the big gap in ages between their first and second sons resulted not from a second marriage and a second family, but because three daughters were born and died between censuses. Step by step, I re-traced my way through the evidence:
First steps: U.S. Censuses of 1860 and 1870 and an 1890 affidavit from Martin Haigney’s Civil War pension file, establishing that his first child, Joseph, was born in 1859, with the next two surviving children being William, born in 1867, and Margaret, born in 1870.
Second step: Re-checking my handwritten family genealogy gold mine, also known as The List. It listed seven children for Martin and Mary: Joseph F.; William; “Mary I and Margaret I — died in infancy”; Mary “II”, Margaret “II”, and Martin. It did not include birth dates.
Third step: Baptismal records for the Haigney children, transcribed from the register of St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church, Watervliet, now in the archives at Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church. St Bridget’s listed baptisms for eight children, not seven:
- Joseph, 29 January 1859.
- Mary, 31 March 1861.
- Joanna, 26 July 1863.
- Ellen, 10 September 1865.
- William, 10 November 1867.
- Margaret, 16 January 1870.
- Mary Ann, 25 August 1872.
- Martin, 11 November 1874.
I nodded tolerantly when I saw these entries. The List had been pretty accurate so far. In fact, darn near 100 percent accurate. But now it had missed a kid. And it had listed a “Margaret” as dying in infancy, when clearly that child had to be named either Ellen or Joanna.
Oh, well; even The List is entitled to an off day. And off I went to the …
Fourth step: Finding this family in the New York State census of June 1865. Obviously a very useful resource, since it provides a glimpse of the family midway between federal censuses. Here’s what it said:
- Martin Haigney, 35, male, head of household. Born in Ireland. Parent of 3 children. Married once. Occupation: Soldier. Place of Employment: U.S. Arsenal. Currently in Army.
- Mary Haigney, 30, female, wife. Born in Ireland. Parent of 3 children. Married once. Status: Married. Citizenship status: Alien.
- Joseph Haigney, 6, male, son. Born in Albany [County].
- Mary Haigney, [age mark illegible; might be a 4, judging from other 4s on the page]. Female, daughter. Born in Albany [County].
- Margaret Haigney, 2, female, daughter. Born in Albany [County].
Fifth step: Huh????????
Somewhere I just know that my Aunt Catherine, compiler of The List, is crowing and saying that’s what comes of thinking you know it all.
Why is the child whose age corresponds to the baptismal register’s “Joanna” called “Margaret” by the 1865 census taker, and by Aunt Catherine’s source for her List? Which piece of data is wrong?
I can tell you that the church archivist who is transcribing the St. Bridget’s registers mentioned that the recordkeeping can be sloppy. So maybe “Joanna” in the register is an error, plain and simple. Or maybe the little girl was called Joanna Margaret, and the family preferred to call her Margaret.
At the moment, I have compromised in my genealogy records by listing her as Joanna [Margaret]. Will I ever know her name for sure? Mysteries like this are infuriating, and addicting.