A Duffy’s Cut Funeral

A while back I explored the story of Duffy’s Cut, site of a mass grave where dozens of Irish immigrant laborers died during an 1832 cholera epidemic while building a railroad not far from Philadelphia. The Duffy’s Cut Project, led by a trio of researchers from Chester County, Pa., has focused on excavating the site, learning more about the events of 1832, and very importantly, conveying dignity upon the dead.

Disturbingly, evidence has surfaced that not all the immigrants at the site died of cholera — some may actually have been murdered, probably in a savage attempt to contain the epidemic. Such appears to be the case with 29-year-old Catherine Burns of County Tyrone, whose remains were identified last December and will be brought back to Ireland this week for burial.

Burns, a widow, left Ireland with her father-in-law in the early summer of 1832 and soon vanished from the historical record. Examination of her skull indicated considerable “violence by means of a sharp implement,” according to researchers.

Read more at Irish Central. At least Burns is finally going home.


Resource Spotlight: Manifest Markings

Pssst! You over there!

Yes, you, the one peering at the Ellis Island passenger manifest on the high-resolution monitor. You need this:

A Guide To Interpreting Passenger List Annotations.

This comes courtesy of JewishGen. The chart focuses on U.S. passenger lists, and is an encyclopedic look at all the squiggles, cryptic initialings, stamped words and everything else that makes a manifest such a joy to interpret (cough).

As they always say, finding the document is the fun part. Reading it is another matter. And with passenger lists, the annotations can tell an important part of the story, so you really should know what it is you are looking at. Annotations are an education in themselves, and this guide is a great place to start.

Resource Spotlight provides a look at handy toolbox items I’ve bookmarked over the years.

In Better Late Than Never News …

… Scientists have apparently isolated the exact identity of the strain of pathogen that caused the devastating potato crop failures that triggered Ireland’s Great Hunger of 1848-1852.

The story makes interesting reading, make no mistake about it. But honestly? As one of the millions who can trace ancestry to famine-era emigrants, I find it somewhat sad and unsettling, as well. After so much time, to know so specifically the tiny biological entity that caused so much misery … I don’t know why, but it’s almost like stumbling over a grave one didn’t know was there.

But it’s good to have the mystery cleared up, even if it does send a shiver down the spine. And it’s also good to know that scientists think this discovery will help them to better understand the growth and development of new, emerging pathogens.

The 1940 Files: Immigrants in Greenpoint

Next up in my initial 1940 census snapshots are my maternal grandparents, who emigrated from Germany’s rural Upper Franconia district in the mid-1920s and settled in Greenpoint.

Names: John and Eva Rudroff

Relationship: Maternal grandparents

Background: After crossing  the Atlantic, John (1886-1969) and Eva (1895-1963) didn’t move around. They moved to 39 Sutton Street in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn shortly after they married in 1927, and that was it until Grandpa died in 1969. This was where they raised my mother and her twin brother. It was also the place from which Grandma Eva sent a care package after World War II to cousins in bombed-out Wurzburg, one of whom recited the exact address (with zip code) to me forty years later, by way of explaining just how memorable that package was to her as a little girl.


• Did the 1940 census taker get the surname spelled right? In 1930, the enumerator listed it as “Rutkoff.”

• How did Grandpa’s employment and wage information stack up? Mom always said they were very lucky that he held on to a good job at Standard Oil of New York all through the Depression years.


• Yay for the 1940 enumerator, who spelled the name the same way my grandparents spelled it. OK, so my grandma was listed as “Eve,” not “Eva,” but whaddya gonna do.  Also consistent with other family records, my grandfather was a naturalized citizen (he became one in 1933); my grandmother was not (and never did become one).

• Grandpa and Grandma Rudroff had both completed eight grades of school, according to this census. My mother and her brother, now 12-year-old twins, had completed six, and I assume that they were in the seventh grade at the time the census was taken.

• As I expected, Grandpa’s job was “fireman, oil co.,” meaning he tended boilers at the Standard Oil of New York plant not far from where the family lived. During the week of March 24-30, 1940, he’d put in 32 hours, which was on the low side compared to some other entries on the page. (Most were in the range of 40 to 45 hours, although one factory watchman listed a whopping 84 hours.)

• Grandpa’s  yearly salary was $1,150, or about $17,680 in today’s dollars. Not bad, but definitely below the yearly average for the mid-1930s in New York City ($1,745, or $27,425 today). This squares with my mother’s description of her childhood as being free from anxiety over where the next meal was coming from, but without a lot of spare change for anything besides the necessities.

Takeaway: At first glance, I don’t see a lot of surprises here, but then, this is a pretty familiar part of the family story. However, I am having a lot of fun comparing the information on this entry to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Report, 100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending, the source for the New York City average salary figure listed above. If you’re curious about how far your family’s income might have stretched, check it out (at the link, you can download a .pdf file).

Next time: The mysterious distant cousin.

Irish Family History: The Other ‘Hungers’

Last Saturday here in the Northeast was cold, rainy and windy; not charming. Fortunately I was warm, dry and inside, listening to a day of  lectures on Irish family history at Emigrants and Exiles: An Irish Family History Symposium at Drew University in Madison, NJ. Among them was Professor Christine Kinealy’s talk on why Irish people left Ireland and why, as she said, “the Famine is only part of the story.”

Co-sponsored by Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies and the Genealogical Society of New Jersey, this conference contained an ideal mix of individual case histories and broader historical perspectives. And the talk by Kinealy, who teaches at Drew, was a great example in the second category.

Kinealy is actually an expert on the Great Hunger of 1845-52, so the title of her talk was intriguing. A key point was that the Great Hunger, while certainly the biggest, was just one of many disasters to hit Ireland over the years. In the 18th century alone, for instance:

1717-18: Drought.

1725-29: Generalized economic downturn; “poverty, wretchedness, misery and want” force a wave of Scots-Irish emigration from Ulster.

1740-41: Famine (concurrent with a “Little Ice Age”).

1754: Another drought.

1771-75: More poverty and evictions, resulting in between 25,000-30,000 emigrations, mostly Presbyterians.

These dates are particularly important  for descendants of Irish families (like my husband’s) who emigrated prior to the 19th century. As a couple of the lecturers mentioned, if your Irish left Ireland in the 18th century, there’s a good bet they were Scots-Irish. Within a hundred years of the era in which the British established Protestant “plantations” in Ireland, economic and agricultural downturns forced many of these families’ descendants to emigrate, mainly to North America.

As researcher Clare Keenan Agthe noted, there’s a rule-of-thumb emigrant timeline drawn from patterns noted by Irish researchers, to wit:

1600s: Native Irish

1700s and early 1800s: Scots-Irish

Mid-1800s: Native Irish

It’s only a general guideline, of course. However, for those just starting out on their Irish adventures, these lesser-known timelines are worth keeping in mind. It’s easy to assume our people left in the Great Famine years because, so often, it’s true — how could it not be, with such a massive population shift? But it’s also possible that they left at other times, for other reasons.

Irish history is like that.

(I’ll be posting other tips from this conference as I go through my notes. There was so much great information and — by the way — Megan Smolyenak dropped by to show everybody how to give a great genealogy lecture and be funny while you’re at it!)

Good Reads: ‘American Passage’

Ellis Island occupies a hallowed place in imaginations — some might say, the Plymouth Rock for Americans who didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. This is a vast oversimplification (it leaves out a lot of Americans who didn’t land in either place). But it fueled enough fat family-saga novels to cement certain imagery firmly in place: the large, close-knit families struggling together across the gangplank into a new world; the arbitrary name changes by brusque inspectors; the triumphant journey from dirt-poor tenement to American-style riches in the suburbs.

Vincent J. Cannato’s American Passage is a history of Ellis Island that is well worth reading if your ancestors passed through it, or even if they didn’t. It  supplies a wealth of information about how the place began and, importantly, how it worked, starting with a detailed account of Ellis Island’s very different predecessor, Castle Garden.

Castle Garden was a state-run operation, originating in response to activism by immigrant-aid societies whose mission was to protect and aid immigrants — a mission that also propelled Castle Garden, at least in its early years. Ellis Island, by contrast, was a federal facility born in an age of increased resentment and apprehension at the surge of immigration at the end of the 19th century. Aiding and protecting took a back seat to quality control — the drive to ensure that only the fittest, strongest and most productive new arrivals made the cut.

Cannato writes supple, succinct prose, with an excellent eye for compelling historical examples — such as families separated, often forever, when one member was deemed too “feeble-minded” or physically infirm to be admitted. He illustrates with infuriating examples the lengths to which inspectors went to ensure that the immigrants’ characters were sufficiently elevated, a quest which predictably led to crass harassment: “Did he sleep with you on the boat?” asked one inspector who made “moral turpitude” his personal mission.

American Passage also dispels some cherished misconceptions about Ellis Island. Despite what hundreds of family stories say, Ellis Island inspectors did not change names to make them more “American-sounding”: “Name changes largely occurred either on the other side of the Atlantic, when steamship officials recorded names in their manifests, or after Ellis Island, when immigrants filled out naturalization papers or other official documents,” Cannato writes.

The narrative is full of similarly illuminating details, and ends with a meditation on Ellis Island’s slide into decay and neglect, followed by its return as a point of pilgrimage, a highly charged symbol of American aspirations. It’s a nice wrap-up to an excellent overview of the years in which the United States, and its immigration policy, reached a troubled maturity.

Good Reads: Memories of the Red Star Line

Author Mark Lamster interviews 97-year-old  Morris Moel, who might possibly be the oldest surviving immigrant to come to America on the Red Star Line, whose ships brought thousands and thousands of immigrants to the USA. (Although my Grandpa Rudroff was a Hamburg American Line guy himself.)

Moel’s memories of his 1922 odyssey make it clear that the immigrant’s journey could be not only uncomfortable, but downright hair-raising. He remembers reaching the Russian-Polish border:

“The Russian part of the border was all forest. And we were stopped. I heard rifles being cocked while we were walking. Russian soldiers. And the soldiers searched everyone and took everything that was valuable and said you’ve got to go back, and I guess they [the guides] knew another route so we got through. And the Polish border was absolutely free, but it was all snow. I was so little and my older brother dragged me across that border.”

And this was only the beginning! Read the whole thing, along with Lamster’s Wall Street Journal article on the formation of a Red Star Line museum in Antwerp.