Face it, not everything can be found in The New York Times.
Actually, some people (um, my dad — cough-cough) have contended that nothing worthwhile could be found in The New York Times, especially if you actually cared about New York City news. As for news north of Westchester? Good luck. So went my father’s opinions about print journalism, as aired on outings to buy the Sunday newspapers at the candy store.
Too bad my Dad didn’t live to see the era of Internet newspaper databases.
Recently I came upon a lovely one for the Altamont Enterprise and the Knowersville Enterprise, two Albany County newspapers. The Guilderland (N.Y.) Public Library coordinated the creation of this database, whose earliest issues date from 1884. Searching it, I was rewarded by a list of public salaries paid by all the towns in the county. My great-grandfather Joseph F. Haigney appeared in it twice, once as a polling place inspector in Watervliet, and another time on a two-day temporary job as a clerk assisting the Canvassing Board. Scraps like this are not big revelations, but I love them. Gather enough of them and your ancestor’s life and times slowly begin to come into focus.
Another amazing resource for useful scraps is the FultonHistory.com New York newspaper database. It encompasses over 12 million pages from a broad variety of newspapers, including the late, lamented Brooklyn Eagle. It’s been pure gold for me, turning up death notices and obituaries for my grandparents, great-grandparents and other kin, plus a news article about one of my great-aunts that’s a whole ‘nother blog post, it’s just that cool. Tom Tryniski, administrator of this resource, deserves a lot of kudos from those who benefit from it — and if you can swing it, some more tangible thank yous (if you’re so inclined, click here).
Well, now: A copy of a 1780s population count has turned up at Kean University in Union, N.J., just down the road from me.
Note how I’m applying my terminology, however. I’m staying away from calling it a “census” because, while accurate in the strict sense, this document isn’t the sort of thing we family researchers can spend hours obsessing over on Ancestry.com. Naturally the word “census” may sneak into some headlines, getting people all hot and bothered.
Easy, tiger. Although very interesting, this doesn’t appear to contain information on specific names and their domiciles. It’s a tally of U.S. populations, state by state, drawn from state enumerations taken between 1781 and 1786. For some states, the tallies are broken down by age and race, but other states simply provided a total tally.
The information was found among papers belonging to John Kean, a member of a family still very much active in New Jersey politics today — former governor and 9/11 Commission member Thomas Kean is one example. (In New Jersey, Keans and Livingstons and Frelinghuysens are like the Appalachian Mountains of public life: they’ve just always been there.)
Descendants of the Kean and Livingston families donated a trove of papers to Kean University (no relation? What do you think?). And Kean University archivists have been slowly combing through what they describe as 200 years of American history, which is probably a good thing — researchers say all sorts of goodies keep turning up in odd places.
The population count, for example, was scribbled in a ledger that John Kean originally used for keeping accounts. Being a thrifty sort, he turned it over and used the reverse pages for taking notes when he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1785.
The count said that 2.2 million whites and Indians were living in the U.S.A., along with 567,000 blacks. Virginia had the biggest population, with 530,000 residents, more than half of them black. (New Jersey, by contrast, had about 159,000 residents.)
While it probably won’t set off any lightning bolts for individual genealogy research, the discovery does provide a nice snapshot of the United States at the dawn of its existence.
I have a large, untidy pile of intriguing genealogy research questions I mean to figure out someday. One involves whether my mother’s uncle Georg Rudroff copyrighted a play in 1909.
My mother always said her Uncle George was a character. He was my grandfather’s older brother, the one who left home first. He emigrated to New York City from Kottweinsdorf, Germany in 1896, 30 years before Grandpa did. My mother described him as a tavern keeper, the occupation listed on his 1940 death certificate. At other times he was a drug company clerk and a Brooklyn Rapid Transit motorman.
He also was a bit stage-struck, according to Mom. She was a little vague on this point, although she once mentioned that he wrote songs and tried to shop one of them to Kate Smith, who was not interested.
A few months ago when I was supposed to be working (shhh!), I got bored and plugged my mother’s maiden name into this search engine at the Library of Congress. Four results popped up, one citing an unpublished play in German by Georg Rudroff. (Two of the others involve genealogical works in German by Arno Rudroff, an expert on all things Rudroff.)
I emailed the Library of Congress to ask how I might go about reading this play. It’s in manuscript form and I’d have to go to Washington to take a look at it. So for now, I don’t know whether my Georg is the author, if it’s possible to be certain of that.
What is certain is that in 1909, someone named Georg Rudroff copyrighted a play called Schwer Erkämpft (militärisches Volksstück in 4 akten). That roughly translates to Terrible Struggle (a military play in four acts).
Using “play” for “Volksstück” isn’t very helpful, because the Volksstück is a theatrical form with no real equivalent in today’s American theater. It was a populist work in which dialect was used to score dramatic and satiric points. A Volksstück might use a country-bumpkin character to poke fun at hoity-toity types, or trendy fashions. I can only imagine how a “military Volksstück” might look. Maybe Georg’s play was a forerunner of Catch-22?
Until we go on our oft-discussed trip to D.C., I’ll just have to keep wondering.
In the meantime, all I can say is: Try a surname search in the Library of Congress catalog. You never know.
It’s a riveting series of articles by Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mozingo about what happened when, after a lifetime of being asked about his surname, he decided to research it. The more he found out, the more he realized that a crucial aspect of his family’s past had been hidden for generations.
This audio-enhanced slide show is an excellent starting point, but the articles themselves are beautifully done, and well worth taking the time to read.
While I’m not so crazy about its historical interpretations, I love the ending of Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York, in which two young survivors of 19th-century gang wars and riots stand in a Brooklyn cemetery overlooking lower Manhattan. The narrator muses that as New York rebuilds, he and his friends and their world will be lost in the process, “like no one even knew we was ever here.” Then a montage sweeps by with bridges arching and skyscrapers climbing skyward, as the cemetery fades into oblivion.
Kevin Walsh also feels this pain, and Forgotten New York is a welcome antidote. Walsh is a master at sleuthing out remnants of New York’s past that have miraculously escaped gentrification and modernization. Recently the site spotlighted a gorgeous bishop’s crook lamppost. Now, New York City has been installing bishop’s crook restorations since the 1980s, but this here’s the real deal: an original and functioning post that’s maybe 115 years old. “Catch this crook before the DOT does,” as Walsh says. There are other vintage remnants like bumpy cobbled streets, exposed trolley tracks — and one of my favorites, the fading but still legible ads painted on the sides of many a brick building, hawking products that vanished decades ago.
For the family historian interested in pinpointing street locations, Forgotten New York’s street necrology is well worth a visit. Using his collection of old New York City street guides and maps, Walsh documents streets that have disappeared (or in some cases, still exist as odd little dead-ends or alleyways).
It’s like a virtual walking tour of vintage New York, and if you can’t make it to NYC to catch one of Walsh’s tours in person, you can’t beat a visit to Forgotten New York.
“Some persons may hold the view that the public library is a sort of luxury to be indulged in when money is easy, but to be put aside when the economic shoe pinches. The period of depression has proven quite the contrary. People have flocked to the libraries in greatly increased numbers, finding there recreation of the highest type at a minimum of cost, and also means of study in preparation for the old job which will surely some day again need its faithful servant, or for the new job which will give the individual a better opportunity to earn a living and to enjoy life.”
— Judge Edwin L. Garvin, President of the Brooklyn Library Board of Trustees, 1932.
h/t to Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Central Library chief, at Brooklynology, the Brooklyn Public Library blog.