The Big Brown Envelope of New York Vitals from Albany lingered in the pile of post-vacation mail for about a second. That’s because getting vitals from New York State is about as carefree a process as snagging a breakfast reservation to Cinderella’s Royal Table at Disney World.
Just kidding! It is not THAT bad! Still, in the interest of full disclosure: The last time an envelope from Albany arrived, I was high as a kite on painkillers following elbow surgery, but I came roaring back to alertness at the sight of a return address that read “Department of Health.” Mr. Archaeologist had no idea a zombie could open an envelope that fast.
This time was no different. Shoving silly nothings such as credit-card bills and municipal tax reminders aside, I tore into the envelope, to be rewarded with a treasure trove of data. In a lot of cases I was getting confirmation, not discovery. Overall, though, it was a satisfying haul.
There was only one dud, but it was a tough one. The certificate I thought might be for my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connors turned out to be for an 18-year-old; clearly not my Patrick, who should have been at least in his fifties.
“So you guessed wrong,” said Mr. Archaeologist helpfully.
“I do NOT guess,” I said coldly.
“Excuse me. I meant your hypothesis turned out to be incorrect.”
Well, it was true about my guess … I mean, my hypothesis … oh, let’s just come clean; this was a great example of wishful thinking. In my defense, when I ordered up the certificate, I didn’t know everything I know now. But still: I’d had a burial card for Patrick from St. Agnes Cemetery, Menands, that read 10 March 1882. When I went to search the death index microfiches, all I could find for a Patrick Connors who died in West Troy was a death on 18 September 1883. Maybe the burial card was somehow in error. (Although these St. Agnes cards haven’t been wrong yet. See? Wishful thinking.) Or maybe the death was reported some time after the fact.
The day after sending in the request, I turned up an Albany County probate filing that stated my ancestor’s death was 10 March 1882, in other words, what the burial card said. If I’d had the probate filing 24 hours earlier, I’d have snapped out of it. Oh, well. The request was already on its way.
What now? Back to the index, I guess, and see what I can see again. Did I really, truly check all the name spelling variations? Did my eyes cross over one listing too many?
It is helpful to get a reminder from time to time about how important it is to keep your cool and not let the desire for a quick solution override common sense. This is, of course, a great life lesson in general, but in genealogy, it is particularly pertinent.
I’ve joined an upcoming study group focused on Thomas W. Jones’ instant classic Mastering Genealogical Proof, a book that I sincerely urge you to read, and I am not even Dr. Jones’ agent.
I had the good fortune to take in Dr. Jones’ teaching skills as an online student of the Boston University Genealogical Certification course a couple of years ago. I can tell you he was (is) very big on timelines. (In fact, I might have scribbled in my notes: “What is it with this guy and timelines?”)
But truly, if I had to pick a Top Three of things I learned at BU that really charged up my research skills, timelines would be right there. Despite editing many a timeline chart during my newspaper years, I never really used them in my genealogy the way Dr. Jones said they could be used.
And boy, was I missing out.
Here are three vital things timelines can do:
1. They highlight significant details you might have missed the first time you read critical information.
I’ve been tracing the life events of a great-great-uncle, Timothy Connors of West Troy, N.Y. He dropped off the radar screen after the 1880 federal census. A man by that name appeared in the burial index for St. Agnes Cemetery in nearby Menands, date of burial October 1884. The burial card, when it arrived, didn’t conclusively connect this Timothy to the family I was studying. It told me that this Timothy was buried on 8 October 1884 in a plot belonging to a “W. Cuthbert.” It didn’t add anything else.
Except that it did. Once I started putting the timeline together, I looked at the card again, and I noticed that Timothy’s last address was “Albany Street.” And in 1880, my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connors lived with his family, including son Timothy, at 337 Albany Street in the Port Schuyler area of West Troy.
Just like that, the Timothy Connors on the burial card turned from Theoretical Timothy to Really Good Possibility Timothy. Thanks, timeline!
2. They point you quickly to the parts of the chronology needing further investigation.
Armed with a stronger confidence that the man on the burial card was the Timothy I sought, I searched the wonderful Old N.Y. Newspapers database using the keywords “Connors” and “October 1884″. Very quickly I found what I sought in the Albany Evening Journal edition of Tuesday, 7 October 1884:
Timothy Connors, who was thrown from a waggon [sic] on the Troy road Saturday, died at his home in Port Schuyler from concussion of the brain. He was 25 years old and was married last July [emphasis mine]. Liquor caused the accident.
Now I had more details, plus the information that Timothy had been married at the time of his death. Could the “W. Cuthbert” who owned the burial plot be connected to Timothy by marriage? Why, yes, as a matter of fact, he probably was.
A whole new avenue of research opened up, simply because the timeline made me see what was always there in front of me.
3. They put family traditions under a brighter spotlight, pinpointing consistencies and inconsistencies.
In my husband’s Lynch family tree lurks a notorious person named James Madison Lynch (born Grayson County, Kentucky, 1 July 1862-died ?). Tradition has it that he killed a man in a brawl and fled town, rarely to be heard from again. His last reported contact with family came in 1911, when he was said to have visited a brother in Texas. Upon that occasion my husband’s great-grandfather sadly wrote: “Poor Jim, the world will never be better because of his life.”
But arranged on a timeline, Jim Madison’s life looks a little different than the family story. Here is a quick summary of a vital part of the timeline:
1880: Enumerated at age 17 with his parents in Grayson County, Ky.
Dates unknown: He was a schoolteacher and attorney as a young man, according to family tradition.
29 October 1886: Grayson County Gazette includes an advertisement for James M. Lynch, attorney at law, Leitchfield.
Late 1886-early 1887: James M. Lynch reportedly “cowhided” at Christmas by W. B. May, a Leitchfield distiller, and fled town, according to newspaper item published July 1887.
7 July 1887: News item headlined “A Coward’s Shot” details the murder of W.B. May and declares: “Subsequent investigation established that the murderer is James M. Lynch … “ [This item was picked up by newspapers all over the South.]
21 Sept. 1888: News item reports on Grayson County Teacher’s Institute held in Leitchfield from the 17th through the 21st of September. “Jas. M. Lynch” is included in a list of teachers attending, along with one of his brothers, A.T.K. Lynch.
You see what we did there? Simply by arranging the references on a timeline, we notice that a guy sharing the name of a notorious murder suspect turns up at a teacher’s institute a year after the reported crime.
What has happened here? Is this the same James Madison Lynch in 1887 and 1888? If so, why was he teaching school, for heaven’s sake?
I hate to let you all down, but I can’t yet say for sure. The original news item on the distiller’s murder does not actually mention an arrest, and I have not found an account of a trial (yet). But the important takeaway here is that the timeline instantly raised a red flag over the family tradition. There are many good questions to investigate, such as what was the ultimate resolution of the May case, and how/when/where James trained and worked as a teacher and an attorney.
Bottom line: If you haven’t been using timelines and you have an ancestor who puts the brick in the term “brick wall,” do yourself a favor and try it. It can be a marvelous way to take a fresh stroll down well-worn paths.
I just noticed something irritating in the 1855 New York State census entry for my Connor great-great-grandparents of Watervliet.
New York State’s 1855 census form is really detailed in contrast to the federal returns of this era. For instance, it specified the relationships of each person to the head of household – something the federal census would not do until 1880. It also directed enumerators to list the number of years each person had lived in that particular city or town, an obvious advantage to those of us trying to establish when a person might have emigrated to the U.S.
I returned to the 1855 census form in double-checking events on a timeline for my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connor (Conners/Conner/Connors). I had already noted that the enumerator had simply drawn a dash across the space asking how many years the family had lived in the town of Watervliet. It didn’t jump out that much, as I recall. Erratic compliance with the forms is pretty common.
But this time I looked harder at how the enumerator handled this question for the other families on the page. And, wow. In every other case he meticulously listed the number of years resident in the town, for every person. Not just every adult, every person. So a child of two was listed as having resided in the town for two years.
Some examples: Bridget Corbett, age 35, and her three children, all born in Ireland, had all lived in Watervliet four years. Lawrence Hart and his wife, Phoebe, born in Germany, had settled in Watervliet 14 years previously with their oldest child, Catharina. The couple’s four younger children were all born in Albany County, and had lived in the town for 14, 11, 9 and 5 years respectively, meaning that the Harts had a baby promptly after arriving in town.
Scottish immigrants Donald and Elizabeth Kay and their seven children had arrived in Watervliet en masse ten months before the enumeration date. And the enumerator wrote down “10/12” for every single one in the space asking for length of residency.
Not for the Connors family. For the question of how long they were residents of Watervliet, they got dashes. Zip. For every one of them.
So, Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence Jr., Census Marshal: What gives, buddy?
I want to be noble and assume he encountered an unavoidable enumeration difficulty. They weren’t home. Or maybe no one in the household could remember how long they had lived in Watervliet, despite Mr. Edward Lawrence Jr.’s valiant attempts to jog their memories, and he sadly drew a line across the space, pained at abandoning his usual detailed standards with this poor, benighted family.
No, forget it.
I do not feel charitable toward Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence, Jr. I think he had it in for my ancestors.
I think maybe Patrick told a joke Mr. Edward Lawrence, Jr. didn’t like, or one of the kids accidentally spilled something on his best enumeration suit. And I think Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence Jr. spitefully decided to leave out how long this Connors family lived in the town of Watervliet. Just to show them.
Mr. Enumerator: You, sir, are a scoundrel.
My butt-factory mystery is solved. (“Yay!” cry the readers. “We can all relax now!”)
After posting a cri de coeur about my ancestors in the 1870 census for West Troy, N.Y., I thought some more about their mysterious occupation: “butt factory.”
This called for serious scholarship. Somebody with a solid handle on 19th-century industry in the Albany area. Somebody (hopefully) snicker-proof.
Luckily, there is a terrific organization to contact: The Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway. Since 1972, the Gateway has been dedicated to preserving and teaching about the Capital District’s industrial legacy. Anybody with working-class ancestry in the Albany-Troy area probably knows what a powerhouse it was back in the day. The first iron mill started cranking in 1807; the United States Arsenal in Watervliet was built in 1812. The Erie and Champlain canals added fuel to the engine. The textile mills, the early ironworks like Burden, the pioneering union activists like Kate Mullany – it’s all pivotal (if underappreciated) history.
Still — what might it have to do with a butt factory? There was only one way to find out. This was not how I pictured introducing myself to the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, but what can you do. I sent the email.
In short order came a response from the Gateway’s executive director, P. Thomas Carroll, PhD: “Sure, I think we can help you.” Just like that. Professionalism personified.
Tom explained that the term “butt” has two potential meanings in this context:
(1) a cask, i.e., barrel, with a capacity of about 120 U.S. gallons.
(2) the sort of hinge that looks like this:
Tom wrote: “It’s called [a butt hinge] because, when you mortise the two plates of the hinge into recesses in the door edge and in the door jamb, the door and the jamb can then butt right up against each other when the door is closed, which is of course what you want to properly seal up the door opening.” It’s a basic, basic hinge. You might be looking at one in your house right now.
[The blog will pause for five minutes while everyone goes to inspect the nearest butt-hinge. Reports are due next Wednesday.]
Tom believed my ancestors were working in a place that made hinges, not casks. Why? He enclosed this page from the 1863 city directory for Troy and West Troy. It includes two butt-hinge factories. One was across the river in Troy, but the other, Roy & Co., was right in West Troy:
It was quite likely that my ancestors, 16-year-old James and 10-year-old Timothy Connors, worked at Roy & Co. in 1870.
In a subsequent email, Tom sent an image from the 1899 city directory that included a Watervliet entry for “Connors, James, buttmaker, house 437 Broadway.” Guess what? 437 Broadway is where my James lived at the time of the 1900 census. Apparently the hinge business agreed with him.
Sometimes we have to move beyond the usual genealogical sources to color in the outlines of our ancestors’ lives. Fortunately, there are dedicated and knowledgeable individuals who can give us that lost background. Like Mr. Carroll, who saved my poor eyeballs another Googling for “butt factory.” You have no idea how grateful I am for that.
Note: In addition to operating the Burden Ironworks Museum, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway hosts terrific activities. Some past examples: tours of historic factory buildings, architectural walking tours and the “Troy’s Tiffany Treasures” tour celebrating the city’s extensive legacy of Tiffany artistry. The 2013 brochure is due next month. Watch this link for more information.
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.
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.