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.


News You Can Use

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.


Wrong Source Or Wrong Turn? (Part 2)

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:

  1. Joseph, 29 January 1859.
  2. Mary, 31 March 1861.
  3. Joanna, 26 July 1863.
  4. Ellen, 10 September 1865.
  5. William, 10 November 1867.
  6. Margaret, 16 January 1870.
  7. Mary Ann, 25 August 1872.
  8. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Mary Haigney, 30, female, wife. Born in Ireland. Parent of 3 children. Married once. Status: Married.  Citizenship status: Alien.
  3. Joseph Haigney, 6, male, son. Born in Albany [County].
  4. Mary Haigney, [age mark illegible; might be a 4, judging from other 4s on the page].  Female, daughter.  Born in Albany [County].
  5. 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.


Wrong Source or Wrong Turn? (Part 1)

“Sometimes … the actual source is just fine: it’s our perception of that old document that may need a bit of work.”

“Yesss!” said I when this quote popped up as I was Google-Reader-ing the other day.

It comes from AGS fellow and author Henry Z. Jones, who gives a talk called “When the Sources are Wrong” that I’d dearly love to hear someday. [Note: If you're going to the Chula Vista (CA) Genealogical Society meeting tomorrow, you can!]

Mr. Jones’ wise words remind us how easy it can be to take a wrong turn to Genealogy Nowheresville. I’ve flirted with disaster a few times (cough), but never more temptingly than when I was trying to unravel the mystery of an Irish great-great-grandmother’s maiden name.

I’ve written before about the search for Mary Haigney’s birth name. I started with death certificates for the two eldest of Mary and her husband Martin Haigney’s surviving children: my great-grandfather Joseph (1859-1938) and his brother William (1867-1930). They differed on the mother’s maiden name. Joseph’s said it was Mary Mahon; William’s said Mary Carroll.

That earlier post focused on analyzing evidence that was very specific and personal to my family: death certificates, an obituary, a handwritten genealogy and, ultimately, my great-great-grandfather’s Civil War pension file. But there was another, less personal source to consider: census data. And here’s where perception could easily have led me astray from reality.

Conflicting death certificates in hand, I revisited the census data I had on this family, which at the time was limited to the federal censuses of 1860, 1870 and 1880.

1860: Martin, age 28, laborer, born in Ireland, listed at two addresses: by himself in a barracks at the Watervliet Arsenal, and at a dwelling in West Troy (later renamed Watervliet) with his wife, Mary, age 26, born in Ireland, and their son, Joseph, four months, born in New York state.

1870: Martin, age 40, laborer, living in West Troy with wife Mary, age 37, and children Joseph, 11; William, 2; and Margaret, 6 months.

1880: Martin Haigney, age 53, laborer, living in Watervliet with wife Mary, age 50, and four children, William, 12; Margaret, 10; Mary, 8;and Martin, 6.  Joseph F. Haigney, age 21, was living in a boardinghouse across the Hudson River in the city of Troy.

Can you see the tempting wrong turn in this data? I thought the changes in Martin’s household between 1860 and 1870 were a potential red flag. There he was in 1860 with a wife named Mary and a baby son. There he was in 1870 with Mary and what amounts to two sets of children — an 11 year old and two little ones, separated from the first birth by 8 years.

And there I was with two Marys on two death certificates — a Mahon and a Carroll. Could the first Mary (Joseph’s mother) have died, and a second Mary (William’s and Margaret’s mother) have replaced her? A lot can happen in ten years!

Well, a lot did happen — just not that. In my defense, my original theory wouldn’t have been unheard of at the time. But the real story was also sadly common. There was only one Mary, as it turned out, and her name was Mahon. The reason for the big gap between Joseph and William was that Martin and Mary had three little girls after Joseph, none of whom lived to be counted in the 1870 census.

The “two Marys” theory officially died when I obtained a copy of a handwritten family genealogy compiled by one of my aunts. It listed two of the  children who died young, bringing the total of Martin and Mary’s offspring to seven. Then I found a 1958 newspaper story about their daughter Margaret, which asserted that she was one of eight children. Finally, on a trip to Watervliet last fall, I was able to gather the baptismal dates of all of Martin and Mary’s children — and there were indeed eight. The three daughters missing from the 1870 census were born in 1861, 1863 and 1865.

When exactly they died, I don’t yet know.

But I do know that for a time there, I had some perfectly good census data in hand — and was tempted to imagine my way into a perfectly wrongheaded conclusion.

(Coming up in Part 2: Another naming mystery!)


Remembering Triangle, A Century On

The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire passed today, marked by ceremonies in front of the building where 146 workers died. And for the first time all the names of the victims were read. The final few unidentified dead have now been accounted for, thanks to the work of a dogged researcher who dug into genealogical sources and previously untapped accounts in the the immigrant press. For most of the dead were young immigrant women in their teens and early 20s, although strollerderby’s Sunny Chanel notes that the youngest worker killed was only 11 — reflecting the fact that tough laws against child labor would not be enacted until 1916. [Edited to note: Most historical accounts I have seen list the youngest victims as 14,  a bit older, but the point still stands.]

The fire was a landmark not only in New York City history, but in the fight for workers’ rights in general. Sadly, the lure of cheap clothes continues to fuel new Triangle-style garment factories across the globe, as Kevin Clarke reports in in America magazine. And a survivor’s granddaughter writes about the legacy of outrage and activism the fire cast over her own family, as well as the progress yet to be made.

Seems like a good time for a listen to a quintessential anthem for women workers:


Reclaiming the Lost, 100 Years Later

You can never say never, even with the most stubborn mysteries. A case in point: a recent New York Times report that 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan burned, taking the lives of 146 workers with it, a comprehensive list of the dead has finally been compiled.

It’s a bit surprising that such a list didn’t exist before, given how much this fire has been covered in books, articles, documentaries and even a dramatized TV film. The story of “amateur genealogist and historian” Michael Hirsch (as the Times describes him) and what he did to fill in the blanks is inspiring and instructive.

The family historian struggling with their own research dead ends will be interested to learn the ways Hirsch thought outside the box to uncover the names of victims previously lost to historians. Hirsch, who became obsessed with the Triangle story after he learned that a resident of his block had died in the fire, hit paydirt by probing overlooked sources, notably contemporary accounts in Yiddish- and Italian-language daily newspapers. Seeking the grave monument of a young Italian worker, Hirsch found her tombstone, with an inscription in Italian referring to “due sorelle” [two sisters] who died in the fire, which led to another previously hidden name.

It’s an absorbing account — and thought-provoking, too. Interesting to think that vital sources can be hidden in plain sight, just waiting for the right person to think of them. Read the whole thing, (by Times reporter Joseph Berger).


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