I wouldn’t have visited the museum at the Watervliet Arsenal if my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney hadn’t served there.
My interest in armaments and military history is mild, to put it mildly. And I wasn’t sure how useful the visit would be in giving me specific insights about my ancestor’s life there. Also, it was pouring chilly rain as I set out.
Fortunately, I didn’t talk myself into a detour to a nice warm Starbucks.
Housed in the historic Iron Building, the Watervliet Arsenal museum includes a wealth of artifacts, displayed in the context of the lives of Arsenal workers and residents. (Fun fact: The poet Stephen Vincent Benet was a third-generation resident. His grandfather and father were both commanders there, and the arsenal’s Benet Laboratory is named in their honor.)
Watervliet has operated since 1813, but since Martin’s Army service occurred between 1854 and 1867, I concentrated on the Civil War-era displays. Interestingly, Watervliet did not manufacture the actual cannon guns in that conflict. It made everything else, such as the carriages they sat upon, the shells they fired, and the ammunition cases that held the cannonballs.
Behind a metal door at one end of the exhibit hall is a huge, echoing room that feels off-limits to visitors, but is actually a particularly cool exhibit area. On one side is a wealth of rare antique cannons and weaponry. On the other is an array of metalworking machinery, arranged to give a sense of what an arsenal shop floor might have looked like back in Martin’s day.
At peak capacity during the Civil War, the arsenal had 2,000 employees, one-quarter of whom were children. At first only boys were hired, but when the arsenal began manufacturing cartridges for the Sharps carbine in 1864, it was discovered that the smaller hands of little girls were better suited to rolling the linen cylinders.
“I was nine years old,” recalled a child worker many years later. “All of us little girls sat on a long bench, our feet not quite touching the floor, and we filled cartridges all day long … I worked from seven in the morning until six at night.”
The curator, a helpful and erudite fellow called Scott, clarified the term “artificer,” an enigmatic job description in my ancestor’s Civil War pension file. It’s an elegant way of saying “machinist”; however, Martin’s particular machines and skills are lost in the mists of time.
Since my visit coincided with the last of the day’s visiting hours, Scott was able to show me the barracks where Martin would have lived as a soldier. (In the 1860 census, Martin has two addresses – one at the arsenal, and one at a house in the town of West Troy with his wife Mary and their oldest child Joseph, my great-grandfather.)
It was not a day (or a setting) for poring over records. But thanks to the museum and the kindness of its curator, I had a grand time walking in Martin’s footsteps for an afternoon.
Bill McGrath of the Troy Irish Genealogy Society (TIGS) recently announced another exciting indexing project: a compilation of death and marriage notices in a variety of area newspapers. The project volunteers will transcribe an extensive listing covering 1812-1885. This is a significant time frame in that it predates civil vital records registration in New York State.
If you have relatives you’re researching in the Capital District, this database will be worth exploring. The names in the records are not exclusively Troy residents; the newspapers covered surrounding towns, and there are mentions of people from counties throughout New York State, as well as Vermont and Massachusetts.
The original information was compiled in the 1930s by the Philip Schuyler Chapter of the DAR, with funding from the federal Works Progress Administration — a New Deal agency that enabled important public works projects nationwide.
The first records are already up at the TIGS site and consist of 608 death records and 1,152 marriage records published in The Troy Post from Sept. 1, 1812 through July 1, 1823.
Read on for the complete news release from TIGS:
In planning for a genealogy trip to New York State’s Capital District, I’m determined not to burn precious road-trip time on tasks I could accomplish closer to home.
Consider the New York vital records microfiche indexes, which list events, names, places, dates and certificate numbers (not the certificates themselves). They’re at the New York State Archives in Albany, but copies are also at several other locations across the state. For me the closest is the National Archives Northeast Region facility in New York City, a commuter’s ride away. Excellent!
The New York vitals parameters read like a particularly nasty pop quiz. Indexes begin in 1880 (for deaths) and 1881 (for births and marriages). They cover everyplace except for (a) Albany, Yonkers and Buffalo births and deaths before 1914, and marriages before 1908, and (b) the city of New York, but do include Staten Island, bits of western Queens and assorted townlands of Brooklyn and Westchester prior to annexation. Births are available after 75 years, deaths and marriages after 50 years.
Got that? Me neither. One can re-read the rules at the New York State Archives site. Do so, and carefully. Dick Hillenbrand’s Upstate New York Genealogy website has a guide to obtaining New York State vital records that is as user-friendly as things get in this cruel world.
The microfiches themselves are straightforward. The older ones run by year, alphabetized by last name. Some years (like the 1956 deaths I searched) are indexed by Soundex, however. (Never leave your Soundex cheat sheet at home, class.)
It was a good day overall. I found all the births where I had specific time frames, plus one birth listing that was a total shot in the dark (a “child died young” who was documented only on my Aunt Catherine’s handwritten Genealogy List). I also easily found death listings for both my Haigney great-great-grandparents, plus a great-great aunt. Marriages were a bust, despite diligent searching. Maybe my relatives didn’t register, or maybe my information isn’t 100 percent accurate. (I know; unthinkable.)
Confirming the existence, dates and numbers of vital records can speed retrieval (and save money) at the state Department of Health, which holds the certificates. Now I need to decide which certificates are most urgently worth ponying up for. At $22 per genealogy copy, this is a serious matter.
If you’re using the New York State vitals microfiches, I suggest these steps:
1. Make sure you really need them. For pre-1880 vitals, you need to dig elsewhere. For New York City, you need the New York City Municipal Archives. And don’t forget that Albany/Yonkers/Buffalo thing.
2. Save your sanity; narrow your date range. Use censuses, military records, family traditions, Bible notations, whatever you’ve got. Newspapers, too– stories like this one can be gold mines.
3. At the repository, tackle your “sure-thing,” specific searches first. Then do the fuzzier searches.
4. Carefully write everything down, especially if you’re sure it’s not important.
I sort of pay attention to news from St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, N.Y., mainly because it holds the records for another cemetery in Watervliet where a number of my kin are buried. Just now St. Agnes figures in this particularly haunting news story from the Albany Times-Union.
Even a century later, it has a heartbreaking immediacy: A group of kids having a blast on a late-summer outing one minute, fighting for their lives the next, while onlookers watch helplessly.
The girls were participating in a picnic on the grounds of a Victorian estate in what is now St. Agnes Cemetery, sponsored by the Catholic orphanage in which they lived. A bit of fun with a makeshift raft on a pond ended abruptly when the raft capsized, dumping its four passengers, all non-swimmers, into the water. One girl managed to cling to the raft and survived; her three companions drowned.
And being orphans with nobody to take responsibility for the arrangements, they were buried in an unmarked, pauper’s grave.
Times-Union reporter Paul Grondahl relates that St. Agnes historian Kelly Grimaldi has long been drawn to the tragedy of the orphans and did her homework uncovering many of the details. (She has also been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to locate kin of the drowning victims.)
It now appears that someone else is drawn to the long-ago tragedy — a nameless donor who has paid to have a granite marker placed upon the girls’ resting place.
It’s a terribly sad story, but at least one that ends with an unexpected gesture of caring.
… The Draft Riots were consuming New York City (from July 13 – 16, 1863).
It was an ugly chapter in New York City history. The spark was a strict new draft law empowering the President to draft all males between ages 18 and 35 for a three-year term of military service. It also established a loophole whereby a man who paid $300 (or paid a substitute to fight for him) could exempt himself from the service — a natural sore point for those lacking money to buy their way out.
It was a short step from resenting the draft to resenting the city’s African American population. Modern scholars see the riots as a boiling point for a big, noxious stew of tensions — white laborers resentful of black laborers’ competition in the marketplace; decades’ worth of sensational journalism decrying the supposed evils of interracial socializing and marriages. The mob also targeted so-called “amalgamationists,” which mostly meant white women married or cohabiting with black men.
When it was all over, at least 120 citizens were dead (some estimates put the toll much higher), and 50 buildings were destroyed, including, infamously, the Colored Orphan Asylum, whose children were moved to the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island for safety. African Americans bore the brunt of the mob’s fury: citizens were seized by the crowd to be stabbed, lynched, and beaten to death, and the homes of several prominent black citizens were burned.
The Draft Riots have retained a vivid life in the imaginations of novelists and filmmakers. A notable recent example is Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York, which draws heavily on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 account. (More recent scholarship has disagreed with aspects of Asbury’s study, including casualty figures.)
With the Civil War raging, the Draft Riots were a destructive and disturbing convulsion — “equivalent to a Confederate victory,” wrote scholar Samuel Eliot Morrison. Order was restored after three days of violence, but the scars remained in permanent rifts between the black and white working class, and a widespread exodus of black families from once-thriving African-American neighborhoods in Manhattan.
I hit a gold mine this morning in Ancestry.com’s newspaper image database for the Times-Record of Troy, N.Y. Out of the blue, too!
This database had disappointed me before. However, a chance tweak of the search form this morning turned up so much stuff, and so unexpectedly, that it’s worth another post or two about tweaking search forms and defying expectations. (You’ve been warned.)
For now, I’m having a blast working my way through the treasure trove of clippings. They feature my great-great aunts, Margaret [Haigney] Roache and Mary [Haigney] Walker, and my great-great uncle, Martin T. Haigney.
Many of the clips are from a local-news page that took the terms “local” and “news” to lengths that are unimaginable today. When I studied journalism, we would talk about empathizing with our readership (yes, it was a while ago). Even so, that didn’t mean covering stories like a college sophomore “spending the holiday vacation with his parents,” or Mrs. So-and-so’s hospitalization from a broken hip. The news business hasn’t been that personal for a long, long time.
But back in the 1950s and early 1960s, news was extremely personal in the Troy Times-Record, and what good luck for me. I’ve got a lot of new leads to pursue on those summertime genealogy day trips I was musing about a couple of days ago.
In the meantime, listen to this Very Important News Item from 1961 about my great-great aunt Margaret:
Mrs. Margaret Roach prepared a birthday party yesterday.
She baked a cake and set the table for the party which was for herself. It was her 91st birthday.
The wisp of a woman, who weighs less than 90 pounds, lives alone at 2509 2nd Ave. Many of the friends whom she has been associated with throughout the years were present. She was born in Watervliet … She now lives alone and cooks, sews, shops and does about everything else for herself. She voted at the polls last November because she felt it her duty. In her leisure time, she reads and is up to date on the various news happenings. She wears glasses because of a cataract operation performed one year ago, but her eyesight is still as keen as her hearing.
There is a TON of other terrific stuff in the story, including biographical details about Margaret, her late husband James, her father and her siblings. Above all, it has those wonderful personal details that form a perfect snapshot of Margaret, still truckin’ along and throwing herself birthday parties into her 90s.
The unnamed reporter who covered this nearly 50 years ago couldn’t have known what a big favor his little human-interest story would do for me and my genealogy research. But thanks anyway!