The Washerwoman’s Genes

April 26, 2011

Remote Explorations

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:11 am

I recently explored—by satellite, street view, and maps—Brook Avenue, the Bronx. My mother’s aunt and her family lived in the Bronx from the mid-1890s onward, and in 1910 were ensconced in a rental on this street. Today their address would be across from where the embankment of the Major Degan cuts through, where Brook Ave, the Bronx, essentially begins:

Brook Avenue really made an impact on me, though, and became more than one of those random streets of past-lives prowling, when I got the 1892 death certificate for my GGF Dan—an ancestor from my father’s, not my mother’s, line.

Brook Avenue was reported as his street of residence at the time of his death. His association with the Bronx was almost a stunner—my direct-line ancestors typically found Brooklyn their sufficient world. His wife, my GGM, returned home shortly, appearing in the 1893 Brooklyn Lain directory as his widow.

I didn’t intend it as a pun, but the phrase I used above, “impact on me,” embodies the horror I felt and continue to feel regarding Dan’s death.

I’ve written of it before, but only obliquely.*

I have always been a train person–always have lived where trains run through. I like them: the smell, the clang, the lurch, the rattle, the chopchop of the tickets, the voices–the ancient call of “All Aboard” and the double-speed rundown of stations.

There is a moment on a train ride when an opposite-traveling train blasts by, when the load of air pressure generated by one train meets that of the other, and the invisible collision of wind explodes into your ear. The sudden whomp, unheralded, shocks your system. The other train pours past yours a few inches from your face, on the just-next track, in a racket of wheels and steel, two sets of motors powering out-of-sync. By then you’re back to your reading, acting cool, pretending that you’ve not just had the tiniest intimation of what it’s like to be be hit by a train.


The address of Dan’s accident was noted as “154 St. and 4- Av” on the roughly written original death certificate. In a one-sentence report under “City and Suburban News” in The New York Times of March 12, 1892, the location where the body was found was said to be “One Hundred and Fifty-Second Street.” The Times also puts the death as “yesterday,” making it March 11. The original death certificate would seem to be the better authority in this case, for the address as well as the date.

It’s not a problem to find the cross street, but when I searched for Fourth Avenue in the Bronx I drew a blank.

For some time I was baffled about the location of the event. Recently finding a postcard from 1910 showing the intersection of 149th and Third Avenue set me rummaging again for a better sense of the accident venue.

Even today, this intersection is heavily commercial:

But this is THIRD avenue, and almost two decades later.

In 1892, the “Suburban Rapid Transit” ran in this corridor. You can see it  on this bit of 1893 Bronx map.  And you can see it is quite close to Brook Avenue.

The proximity of this line to Daniel’s home is misleading, though. This could not the right place—unless the street location of the incident was completely misreported, and Third Avenue was meant.

There’s an additional detail about the accident in the Coroner’s Inquest of March 12, 1892. (The inquest is a routine report performed for deaths occurring outside of a physician’s care. )

According to this report, Daniel died under the wheels of a “New York New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company Railroad” train. (This report also cites the cross street as 152nd, as in the Times.)

The NY, NH, & H ran on different track from the “Rapid Transit System,” in a Right-of-Way still used by Amtrak today. The corridor cuts northward, with a wide street as its eastern edge. To the west, there is  railroad property, inaccessible to the public.

In this 1893 map, the “New York Central” rail yards cover a vast area to the west of the tracks.

The eastern border is called both “Railroad Avenue” and “Vanderbilt Avenue.”  This runs west of Third Avenue, in the place where you’d expect Fourth Avenue to be. Of course, there is no Fourth Avenue in Manhattan, either: it’s Park Avenue.

And nowadays, what was Railroad or Vanderbilt Ave. in 1893 is also called Park Avenue:

I’ve found three names for this street, but no evidence that it was ever called “Fourth Avenue.” Still, in common parlance, “Fourth Avenue” would efficiently specify a distinct location, despite the name’s unofficial status.

Today, on street view, you find that both 152nd and 154th stop well east of Park, at Courtland Avenue or just west.  To come up to the vicinity of Dan’s accident, you have to “walk” up from 151st or down from 156th.

Foliage obstructs the track from the 154th Street and Park Avenue vantage point:

But at about 152nd Street, you can look clear across the tracks.

The land across the tracks at this point seems to be privately developed now. Satellite views show that the rail yard comprises only a triangle of ground at the southern end of what in the 1890s was a several-block-wide domain of the NY Central.

Identifying where the accident occurred does more than add detail to the scant story I have. That Daniel died along the tracks on the edge of the rail yard, a company-owned “no man’s land,” means one thing to me:

He was an employee.

I think this is a fair conclusion. He had been a conductor in 1890 in Brooklyn, according to the Lain Directory. In fact, I have his “chopper,” passed down from my grandpa to my dad to me. The move to the Bronx, a location where I have not found either he or Mary to have any family connections, suggests he found better paying work. His new family included not only his infant son, my grandfather, but his wife’s children by her first husband, as well as her mother, who is always found in the censuses as part of Mary’s household.

The simplest answer to this question would be to check employee records for the rail line, but as I wrote in my first go-round with this ancestor’s deadly accident, those records were discarded back in the 1970s.

*“Trains Passing in the Night,” Oct. 16, 2009


March 24, 2010

The Doubts

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:24 am

My most recent immigrant ancestors came in the 1880s to New York. They have been harder to track back than any of my other lines, harder than my colonials in Kingston NY or even my 1850s English arrivals, the Davises and Parrys.

My most recent immigrants are Irish—not my only Irish—but folks who came off the boat in 1880-something while their early lives dissolved into mist.

These most recent immigrants are also the only part of my family for which I have substantial oral history.

While my Donegal grandfather, who died when my mother was a baby, is a mystery, my maternal grandmother lived a long life. We lived adjacent to her for my first five years, and I remember her pretty well. Through my mother, my uncle (later my guardian), and the cousin (daughter of an aunt) who was raised by my grandmother, quite a bit of detail passed down.

In my own research, I’ve been able to  outline the lives of my grandmother and her three siblings in the U.S., collecting them in the U.S. censuses from 1900 on and acquiring some vital certificates. But there have been gaps in my American research, despite New York’s pretty good records, and I’ve never made any headway locating a trace of the family in Ireland.

Oh, for sure, nineteenth-century Roscommon was full of Dowds, but Grandma Jennie’s people never showed up in my forays into or any online databases. At a conference once, I took the opportunity to give some names to an Irish genealogy company offering to do a bit of free instant-research in their proprietary database—and the pros also came up dry.

The Irish use a small range of first names, and to pick my grandmother and her siblings out of the crowds of Patricks and Michaels, Ellens and Janes, I depended on knowing their parents’ names.  The 1955 death certificate for my grandmother confirmed her actual name was Jane and her father was Mark, and Mary, nee Flaherty, her mother.

It was when I pulled brother Patrick out of the index for Manhattan deaths in 1905 that I reconfirmed all the details—except one. His father was listed as “John.” I thought—well, imagined—his grief-stricken young widow trying to remember her man’s family, left twenty-plus years before in Ireland, people she’d never met, people who themselves were decades deceased. “John” might be a guess or crossed-fingered hope for a shadowy father-in-law’s name. “John,” I was certain, was a mistake.

Undoubtedly you know where this is going: it took over a year for this detail to worm its way into my consideration. I began to wonder and then to suspect “Mark” of being an imposter. My research over the long term had found, indeed, quite a few “”Marks” of the right surname in Roscommon, but they were too old or too young and not married to the correct mother. Although I once had hoped the relatively rare name of Mark might ease my research, “Mark” had become my main stumbling block.

With these doubts, I redid the research in the online datebase at IFHF (which includes parish records as well as civil registration): Jane, born early 1870s; father John.

It didn’t take long: there she was in 1871, in Cummeen, Elphin, Roscommon, mother Mary Flaherty, and father John Dowd. Cummeen—who ever heard of it—is a townland right by Tansyfield. Then I tried Michael, then Patrick. The hits cascaded. Ellen was the hardest: her name is recorded as Eleanor.

There are little variances in each record—except Michael’s, which replicates my info exactly. Three are born in Cummeen, for example, except the Patrick; he’s born in Fairymount, across Co. Roscommon, but with birth date info that matches my NY research.

I’ve dug back into the FHL pilot site and found two jane Dowds born in Roscommon in 1871—exact dates are not provided. I ordered the two films; one, no doubt, will have an image of my grandmother’s birth registration.

October 16, 2009

Trains Passing in the Night

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 2:11 pm

In 1976 the records of defunct railroads—the Pennsylvania and the companies it had absorbed over the years—were held in a series of decrepit warehouses in West Philadelphia, on Merion Avenue, near what are now the Amtrak tracks.

I found this out in the course of a search for an archive that might hold the records of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. The University of Connecticut, logically enough, looked to be the site for research into that company, until I read further on a forum devoted to the New Haven line: “Everything the [New Haven Railroad] had and put on deposit at the University of Connecticut is available except the employee records. [They] did not get or want them. These were shipped to Philadelphia, and disappeared into the PC black hole.”

After that comment, I had to get a bit of an education in railroad history: PC meant the Penn Central line. It had absorbed the New York Central, which was itself a consolidation of NY railroads all the way up to Connecticut. My target company, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford, had disappeared into the NY Central. I was looking for a minnow in the belly of a cod that had been swallowed by a whale. A lot of digestion, I feared, had already gone on.

Learning that in the 1970s the stash of records filled warehouses—plural warehouses—located a mile or so from where I was living then, in my grad school days, in West Philadelphia, in the neighborhood, meant that these records and I had slipped past each other, in a darkness, where the strands of the small personal events that connected us were not apparent. I am still looking for those records, records that might add to what I have learned about my great-grandfather’s death under the wheels of a New York, New Haven, and Hartford train sometime in the night of March 10, 1892.

August 24, 2009

Crying Man

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:47 am

 The repository is a place of safeguarding, where the records of past events endure, and where the few–the introverts, the studious, the historically obsessed—unobtrusively hunt this and that detail of forgotten events. Such a place is quiet. File drawers may glide, pages may rustle, microfilm motors briefly snap and buzz, keyboards softly click, but overall an orderly dullness prevails.

Recently, I was shuffling a fiche back and forth in my machine, when a voice broke through my concentration. I tried not to listen. But the voice blared, undeniable, but also kindly.

“It’s okay,” this woman was saying, “It happens to me. It happens to all of us, sometimes. You can’t help it, it just happens.”

I refocused harder on my work.

“That’s all right, you don’t have to apologize,” she said. “You know, you can’t help it, nobody can.”

There came the man’s soft voice in response, hard to make out, gravelly, quiet. “I don’t mean to  . . .  I’m ashamed … ”

“Don’t worry about it.” The conversation became unavoidable. “Sometimes I cry,” she told him “Sometimes, for no reason. Something happens in your brain, and tears come out. Tears come out, no one knows why. It’s no matter.”

The exchange went on and on. I had to look. Over my shoulder, at the bank of computers along the wall, a woman, an archive volunteer, I presumed, sat with an elderly man, his cane leaning against the edge of the desk. Her questions focused on the details of his immigration.

“What year did you come?” she asked.


“And do you remember the ship’s name?” she asked. He did. He cried.

“You left from what port? Naopli? Naples, that’s Naples.” I could hear the computer keys under her fingers. “Have you been back?” she asked him.

Yes, he had. More than once.

It was not Italy that he was weeping for.

“Did you come with family?” She continued her questions. No, he came alone.

“Did you have family already in America? Did they meet you?”  No, he was the first. They came later.

He sobbed quietly, briefly, at each question. His helper persisted, gentle, but also adamant that they would find him, they would definitely find him, and his sisters and his brother, in the passenger manifests.

But I didn’t think he was crying because he was lost in the records.  Rather he was crying at suddenly finding himself, deep inside his memories. Just the thought—of standing at the bottom of the off-ramp, his possessions in a suitcase, the steel and stone of New York above him, the chaotic streets of midtown unfurling at his feet—just a cue to think of it and the tears flowed.

He was not crying for no reason.

“How old were you?” she continued.


“You were a boy!”

He was, he told her, tearful again.

“What was your name, then? . . . Not Joseph? it wasn’t Joseph then?”

“Giuseppe,” he said, “I was Giuseppe.”

At his arrival, almost certainly, I thought, Giuseppe did not weep. He was manly, and he went about the business of getting settled. He became Joseph. Had he ever before released this pain? It seemed unlikely, so embarrassed was he at the emotions pouring out of him.

Whether the quest for his immigration records was a success, I do not know; the pair moved off to another room, and then I finished my work and left. But that morning in the archive, Joseph met Giuseppe.

It was as if nearly sixty years of—almost certainly—a pretty good American life collapsed, evaporated, and there was just then / now, 1951 / 2009, side by side.

An historical record and its subject were about to be present together in the same space, with Joseph becoming the genealogist of his own life. Did he cry to realize his entry into the United States was now a notation in history, in history with a capital H?

Really, who is to say why Joseph cried, who can make sense of his tears? All this is speculation: filling out the recorded public event with a possible inner experience.

Every day genealogists record the turning points of lives long past, moments when surely tears were shed, grief and fear and hope bodily expressed—or not, from stoicism or shame.

I wonder if we immerse ourselves in the past to avoid the tears we could shed about these same moments in our own lives. Maybe we are fascinated by births and marriages and deaths and the escaped, lost meaning of the lives of ancestors because it brings us to the precipice of real feelings about today, now, this. But then we can hang back, get on with the research; it’s an archive, after all; we must be quiet here.

May 4, 2009

Just an Ancestry Thing

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:11 am

 A recent column in the Denver Post by Tina Griego has come to my attention. In “Family history is more than names,” this writer discusses the pull that family stories have on people and probes our seemingly universal need to follow the strands of our heritage back into the deepest recesses of time. As a journalist, Griego observes the large turnouts for various genealogical events held in Denver despite inclement weather and numerous religious holidays, concluding, “one should never underestimate the pull of the past.” She interviews the instructor for a genealogy class at the city library and quotes her comment that an interest in ancestors usually “starts with a family story.”

Griego then shifts to her own experiences regarding family history—knowing, she says, that her questions about the reasons so many pursue genealogical research are both professional and personal. She recalls a recent visit to her home state, New Mexico, and a trip to the Salinas Pueblo ruins, the ancestral home of her father’s family, to explore the meaning of family history for her, and for all of us. Her ruminations—evocative, verging on poetic, deeply personal—spin into a vortex of connections. Family history is context, self-definition, personal meaning, a sense of belonging, a narrative, a mystery, and, finally, a conversation with another searcher that reveals a bona fide blood connection. Her column ends with an image of “remembrance, . . . of centering, of communion.”

It’s a lovely piece. I clicked on the comments—perhaps out of a need to dwell a bit longer amid the echoes she had evoked. I suppose I expected appreciative kudos, enthusiasm from the like-minded, and maybe a personal story or two. I should say I don’t read the Denver Post regularly. I’m an east-coaster, never heard of Griego before, and come to her writing as a total stranger.

So I delved into the readers’ posts and realized—I’d forgotten: no ice water is as cold, no blizzard so howling, as the remarks of the bored who diddle their egos in the online comments of popular media sites. The pure hatred directed at Griego –yes, hatred—for discussing her roots, her Hispanic, native, humble, ancient roots on this continent, was devastating. What was to me genealogical lyricism was savaged as ethnic chauvinism. Greigo’s gentle introspection, her awe as she surveyed “the ruins and the wind,” was denounced as racist. The discrepancy between what I read in her essay and the tone of the comments was so great I had to check to make sure I was still on the same page, literally.

Now I realize illegal immigration and other social problems beset the southwest of our country, and other areas also. But family history and the personal meaning of genealogical discoveries aren’t part of politics. Frankly, to me it’s a waste of electrons, free and abundant as they are, to debate whether exploring one’s personal heritage is an inherent attack on all the other heritages out there. As an anonymous commenter recently put it at an unrelated blogsite, “not everyone has racist intentions when talking about ancestry. Sometimes it’s just an ancestry thing.”


In a later column, I am happy to report, Griego notes that she received “more than 100 beautiful, kind, heartbreaking letters, e-mails and phone calls” responding to her essay about  her heritage and her trip to her ancestral home.  As it should be.

February 23, 2009

Reports of Their Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 12:40 pm


They’re growing old, you realize, as you track their lives, census after census, and you know that at a certain point you won’t find them any longer. They will have become ancestors.

The way of all citizens is to pass out of the census and into the great beyond, right?

And then, you say your mental farewell, and make a note to search for them in a graveyard transcription. You put “after [census year] ” into the death date box in your software. Then,


They pop up again, not dead and gone after all. Alive and kicking, alive and, pretty often, making whoopee.

The first time this occurred involved my g-g-grandfather Cornelius.  He disappeared from the family after the New York census of 1855. It was only natural to assume he was dead when he was absent from the census in 1860. In fact, in 1870, his wife Jennette was listed as “Wd.” Why would I not think he was dead?  True, his name didn’t show in the rather thorough transcriptions done by Poucher and Terwilliger of the area graveyards, but death seemed so possible, so likely. He’d had near a dozen kids, slaved at a manual job, lived a hard-scrabble life, to all indications, and died. He felt dead.

I traced his wife through the ensuing censuses. In the 1880, I found myself staring and staring at the odd notation in the marital status column. By gum, if it didn’t say “Div.”

It was zombie time. Cornelius rose from the dead, and it was not a pretty sight. I scoured the 1860 again: New Paltz, NY, a total of ten miles south of where his “widow” was living, “Cornelus H. Burger,”  “laborer,” was indeed alive and living with Hannah J., age 19.  By the next census, there were four children, and Cornelius was listed as the stone mason I knew him to be.

His true death came in 1899, long after my poor, aggrieved g-g-grandmother, his first wife, had passed on, and long after the parameters of my initial search for his tomb. In any case, his final resting place, the New Paltz Rural Cemetery, was not transcribed by Poucher and Terwilliger, and I had to turn to a FHL film to finally find him dead. It was there that I discovered that he and Hannah had his-and-hers gravestones, labeled “Father” and “Mother,” presumably by the children of his second family.

In this same line, I recently encountered yet another case of mistaken morbidity.

I had followed the life of my g-g-aunt Rachel Burger (daughter of  Cornelius and Jennette) in some detail. She married her sister’s brother-in-law, the brother of my g-grandmother’s husband, and lived in Brooklyn. She popped up several times in the city directory both as a single and married woman with her own business as a “tailoress.” That she had a vocation appealed to me. And since her name was passed down to a niece and grand nieces in the next generations, I could feel the love.

After an 1884 mention in the estate administration papers of her mother Jennette, Rachel and her husband disappeared from all records. Her married surname of Davis didn’t make it easy to find a possible death date—and I never did, either in Brooklyn or in her hometown upstate.. I even tried to track whether they might have gone to England, where William Davis had been born.  But the silence around her swelled, and I accepted that my great-grandmother Josie had suffered the death of her closest sister Rachel sometime before 1900. 

But Rachel said Boo!

Searching Ulster County, NY, deeds, I was excited to discover a land index entry showing that a Rachel Barlow had sold land to the youngest son of Cornelius and Jennette. My hypothesis was that the Rachel Quimby who had married Thomas Barlow was my Jennette [Quimby] Burger’s sister. This land deal seemed likely proof. 

I got the deed. I read it. The Rachel Barlow who sold the land was not nee Quimby and she was not the wife of Thomas Barlow and not the sister of my Jennette. And, she was not selling land to her nephew –she was selling it to her brother!

This Rachel Barlow was nee Rachel Burger. She was the daughter of Cornelius and Jennette, the sister of my great grandmother Josephine [Burger] Davis.

She was my long-lost g-g-aunt Rachel, back from the dead. Boo!

She had remarried, and remarried not in Brooklyn, but upstate (defying the family tradition that you can’t go home again–you can’t go back to Ulster when you’ve seen the big Gowanus).

Rachel Burger Davis had married the son of Rachel Quimby and Thomas Barlow.

The next astounding thing was that while she was selling land in Ulster County, her birthplace, she was selling it from San Jose California.

Without much trouble, I was then able to piece together the rest of her life. Women could vote in CA after 1911, and she and George Q. appear on voter registration lists in the 1910s. I’ve found her in the 1920 census, a widow, but not in 1930 (she would have been eighty-something by then). Though I haven’t got her death certificate yet, I think, this time, she will stay dead.


The Causes of Premature Morbidity

Officially, a genealogist always keeps an open mind about open questions. A genealogist draws no conclusions without evidence. A lack of evidence – a void in the evidence — is proof of nothing, certainly not of nothingness, of death.

And, of course, a scrupulous genealogist doesn’t downplay findings because they don’t fit the evolving narrative. I confess: I had found “Cornelus,”a ‘laborer,” and Hannah in New Paltz in 1860. But the census of 1870 said Jennette was a widow. And inaccuracies in the entry and transcription for the 1860 Cornelius entry let me put the entry aside as pertaining to some other guy.

Premature death [death before death] in genealogy is thus caused by the genealogist. We think we know how life goes, especially after we follow a family for a while and get into their heads, especially since their inclinations sometimes feel so in sync with our own. After all, we are related. But people do have minds of their own, even the dead ones.

And, as often as you find your ancestor had a second life through malfeasance or dissipation, you find a resurrection. Here my poor great-great-aunt Rachel, who had birthed and lost two children, according to the 1900 census, as well as her husband, found herself a new guy and headed out to sunny San Jose, where he retired and they lived, one hopes, in decent comfort. You have to be happy for her, that she escaped the icy winds of Esopus and the sludge and grunge of Brooklyn, that she found a new companion for her life. 

September 20, 2007

Pension Paperwork

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:01 am

I Jonathan Sluyter of the
town of Esopus being duly sworn deposeth
and Saeth that the annexed leaf purporting
to be a record of the birth of the children
of Zachariah Burger and Elisabeth his
wife, was by this deposant cut out of
The new testament belonging to the
Said Zachariah Burger, and was the
family Record of said deceased—
Subscribed & Sworn this Jonathan Sluyter
13th day of October 1838
before me –
P Van Gaasbeck Jr.
Jus of the peace

So goes testimony before an Ulster Country judge in 1838—that the Burger family’s neighbor personally sliced out pages of the New Testament to submit as evidence to the court.

This statement is but one page of the forty-eight in Zachariah Burger’s pension file, which recently became available online. The file is in no order chronologically, so when I first encountered the miniature pages covered with scrawl, I didn’t realize what I was looking at. The two pages recorded some births in the family, and also one death: “Zachariah Burger died . . .”

When, a few pages on, I came across Sluyter’s deposition and learned that these little scraps were pages cut from the family Bible, I screamed out loud: a book defaced, a delicate remnant of my ancestor’s lives, plundered. And then, the recognition—these are the only two pages of that Bible that have survived in any form. Or forms: pixels on a screen, electrons coded on a whirling disk, photographic emulsion on celluloid reels . . . all versions of these leaves of wood pulp with their sometimes crude scrawl, these orphaned shards of paper, lying in an archival box somewhere in storage in the National Archives.

Such is the fate of the material culture of our past. Objects endure—only sometimes—and when they do, their ownership, purpose, use, their very identity, mutate. These slips of paper—endpapers or blank pages of a folio—became a place for Elizabeth in her uneven make-do hand to write the dates her babies came, the date her husband passed on—in no particular order, with misspellings, and skipped words.

Until: a time came when these end-pages became more important than the sacred book itself. They became official record, evidence set before the judge, sworn to and validated. They stood on their own, separated from context, from the hearth and fire of the family, to enter the courtroom and become witness for their author.

A hundred years passed, or more, generation after generation was plowed under, accompanied by the relentless branching of the family and the dispersion of the meager possessions of elders no one alive knew.

The New Testament of Zachariah Burger: who buried it, burned it, or simply discarded that old plain thing, falling apart and stained?

It comes to be that the quotidian of family life fades to a mist of imagined recollection, all except for this: the paperwork. The record of the pension issued in 1838 lies archived in the Capitol; preservationists with cameras open the boxes in the twentieth century and shoot the pages one by one, making each a particle of history. The end pages of a Bible are preserved and then put out of mind, forgotten as now beyond concern, saved and made national heritage with a capital H.

Then one more transformation occurs: a technological upgrade. In a matter of months or even weeks I find the digital images of my personal piece of the Revolution in cyberspace: heritage, small h: huge to me.


You don’t want to romanticize the scraps of bygone days. You try to be analytical, evaluative:


You can see here she tried for some elegance of script. As a whole, though, the letters are uneven and words bump over others and smash in the margin.

I say “she.” I imagine Elizabeth is the author of this page, for it records Zachariah’s death, and although Sluyter calls the book “the new testament of Zacariah Burger,” this writing cannot be Zachariah’s.

Elizabeth seems to have tried for the right solemn rhetorical register, but struggled to get the phrasing right:

John E hardenBurg
Burger the Was born
The 5 november 5
In the 1802

November the 15
In the 1805 then
William Clark Bur
Ger the Was Born

Does she mean “the son of“? “in the year 1802″?

More of this hand:


On this page, the information ranges from 1802 to 1814, with Zach’s 1822 death added in between birth entries.

The second sheet, apparently the other side (the ripped edges match pretty well) contains family data from the 1790s and is written in a prettier and more educated script. But this writer at one point adds a syllable to the family name: “Burriger.”


Is this the writing of a much younger Elizabeth? It is not likely Zachariah’s—for he signs his own pension deposition, made in 1832, with a mark. In fact, so does Elizabeth sign with a mark in 1838.

The circumstances that would lead a somewhat literate person to use a mark and not a signature are not obvious. Was she infirm or ill? Was she not possessed of a sufficiently literate or decorative signature for use on a legal document?

(The perplexity of a Bible record kept in the household of people who used marks to sign is never addressed by the court. Perhaps semi-literacy was usual; or perhaps it was common that a family’s record might be dictated from memory and inscribed by a family friend or even a child with some schooling. Something to look into.)

The information on these two pages is fragmentary— not all children are recorded and the order is random. Zachariah’s death notation in the Bible must date from shortly before Elizabeth’s widow’s pension application, and you wonder if some entries were written from memory later, that is, not contemporaneously, with the events they record.

The larger pension file contains lists of the children’s birthdates, suggesting that perhaps there were other pages of proof that are no longer in the file; perhaps a second tiny page of family notations was lost. There is a mention of “pages not properly annexed” in another place in the file.

Analysis is necessary, but I still retain the awe at discovering the images of these papers from a book once kept in a safe place, a special nook, in the house of Zachariah. Perhaps they vaguely realized, putting down their family ties on the endpages of the testament to life everlasting, the evanescence of their lives. Now, these scrawled birth notes of each long-dead person is the rough draft of a tomb.


At first I was confused about the time delay in awarding the Revolutionary War Pensions—decades had gone by and surely many who fought had already died by the time my Zachariah applied for his at age seventy-three. The history of the Revolutionary War pensions, however, shows the evolution of the country’s mindset about its responsibility for those who served. Early on, before the adoption of the constitution, only the disabled and officers could collect; their widows and orphans were taken care of after 1780, and numerous bills extended the benefits.

At the time of the Constitution’s adoption in 1787, it appears that the time frames for all of the pensions previously granted had expired, except that awarding life-time pensions to the disabled. The new government extended invalid pensions and soon allowed additional disabled veterans to apply. Not until 1806 was the issue of veterans again taken up, in an act extending the federal pension program to state troops and militias.

It took until 1818 for the government to provide pensions for enlisted men, those who had served for nine months or until the end of the war could be granted lifetime pensions if they were in need.

Within two years the swell of applications caused the passage of a law requiring firmer proof of need and giving the Secretary of War the right to reject claims. But then, an act in 1823 awarded pensions to those who had proven need in the interval. After five more years, the Congress gave the officers and disabled soldiers covered in the 1778 act a full-pay lifetime pension.

It seems as time went on and the number of surviving veterans dwindled, Americans became more aware and grateful for their service, and benefit regulations were loosened.

Under none of these acts would Zachariah have been eligible: he was an enlisted man and he wasn’t disabled, and apparently he had not served up to the end of the war. But in 1832 the last veterans’ pension-granting act gave full life-time pensions to all officers and enlisted men in any Revolutionary service who had served two years or more. Those who had served more than six months but less than two years were eligible for pensions of less than full pay. No longer was there a requirement to demonstrate need. And the pension to the date of death could be collected by a widow or surviving children if the pensioner had died previous the to act. This was the law under which the seventy year-old Zachariah applied.


The documents in Zachariah’s pension file segment into three groups, once they are arranged in chronological order: Zachariah’s application, soon after the Pension Act of 1832 which gave pensions more broadly to all who had served in any military capacity for at least six months.

The second batch support Elizabeth Burger’s application for a widow’s pension in 1838, two years after Z’S death and quite soon after the July 7 act of that year awarding pensions to wives married to soldiers before 1794.

The third collection of papers pertains to the application of the surviving children of Elizabeth and Zachariah, after their mother’s death in 1847. The pension act of 1832 permitted surviving children to receive any unissued pension payments.

Much of the weight of the file is the direct result of Zachariah’s not appearing on any of the Revolutionary War rolls of soldiers. He had to prove his eligibility through the testimony of witnesses, all of which appears in the file. Each time someone was deposed, affidavits had to be prepared in which someone attested to the person’s identity and credibility and the clerk of the court attested to the identity of the judge. So, mixed in with the informative depositions are boilerplate legal forms.

I hope to add more as I dig into the file.

September 5, 2007

Port Ewen in the News: The Brooklyn Perspective

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:48 am

References to Port Ewen show up in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from time to time. I checked them in case, admittedly unlikely, a family name might crop up. Fortunately, none does, for the articles about Port Ewen tend to the scandalous or the truly bizarre:

In 1892, a column of newsworthy oddities includes this item: “One of the feet of Mrs. Mary Munnelly, of Port Ewen, . . . which was amputated, has been buried in St. Mary’s cemetery . . . beside the body of the woman’s husband.” Now that is news you need to know.

Because of its location on the “corner” of Rondout and Hudson, many of the Eagle’s references to Port Ewen have to do with boating. One early article from 1860, “Marine Disaster—Loss of Life,” describes the sinking of the schooner A.L. Packer near Providence after a trip from Port Ewen. “During a heavy northerly blow and high cross sea off Timble Island . . . all hands, five in number, perished.”

Some years later, a lengthy feature article, “River Boats: An Interesting Sketch of Steamers Whose Names Are Familiar,” briefly describes Port Ewen’s status in the shipping world of 1885: “Many of the steamers of the [early] period have long since passed out of existence, while some of them are still in service as tow boats, and others are rotting away at Port Ewen, on the Hudson. This place is called the cemetery for old steamboats, scores of them having been brought there, their engines taken out and placed in other boats, and their hulls broken up.” The heyday of the Rondout and Port Ewen had been long before, during the canal age of the early nineteenth century. The coming of the railroad had ruined the economy of this boat-building river port while larger, oceanside cities—Brooklyn foremost among them—continued to prosper.

Along with the decline came hard living, and the paper’s other mentions of Port Ewen document this.

In February 1860, a page-one article is titled “Bloody Affray on the Ice at Port Ewen—Two Men Killed—One Fatally Wounded and Another Badly Hurt.” It describes the “excitement” that “has prevailed . . . in and around Port Ewen” because of a fight that occurred “on the ice near that village.” Some young men, early twenties-ish, traveled on the Hudson in an ice boat from Esopus (which now encompasses Port Ewen), tied up their boat at PE about 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon, and “went into a tavern to drink.” Three Irishmen saw the craft and decided to take it for a spin. Seeing them, one of the boatsmen went out on the ice and challenged the thieves, only to be immediately stabbed. His companions, one of them his brother, then rushed out on the ice and found him “insensible,” i.e., dead. A brawl ensued. “One of the Irishmen seized the tiller and struck the friend of the brother a terrible blow upon the head. . . . He was alive at last accounts, but his recovery was despaired of.”

The remaining fellow got himself a pistol from the tavern and ”went back to the boat and shot one of the Irishmen, instantly killing him.” He returned to Rondout (on the opposite, Kingston, side of the creek) with the Irishmen “in hot pursuit” and surrendered to the police.

The tale would make a scene from an action B-film, or maybe, better, a Keystone Cops short. Yet it also evokes the times: the river frozen in deep winter yet still offering those with an iceboat a way to get around; young men, one only twenty, restless, needing respite, “going for a ride” and ending up drinking of a Saturday afternoon. A band of “Irishmen” at such loose ends they pinch the iceboat for a bit of recreation. It all signals, a world of few diversions and rare inspiration. A world of petty crimes, of pranks, really, met with petty indignation, and, quite likely, ethnic prejudice and class arrogance: what would have been a laughable stunt if committed by Thompson, Dubois, and TenEyck was a heinous violation by a couple of Micks. And finally, the story tells the easy availability of a gun, passed from hand to hand and out the door to the native-born kid having a fit over the grubby Irish mitts on his tiller.

Another tale of murder in Port Ewen—more complex and premeditated—a case for CSI—is related in April of 1875. A fellow named Hiram Sluyter, already under suspicion for a previous murder, poisoned a woman who could bear witness against him. According to the Eagle, “Sluyter, a dweller in Esopus, appears to have been a basket maker, a perpetual whiskey drinker, a shiftless fellow who was not proud but moved humbly about at night among his neighbor’s hen roosts.” When his neighbor let out the dogs, Sluyter shot him, but escaped and remained “at large” because of weak evidence. But the recently killed Mrs. Ann Davis could have “sworn to facts that would have hanged him,” and he was captured and held in the Kingston Jail to await a Grand Jury verdict.

“His conviction seems probable,” the Eagle summed up, but then remarked about the crime venue in general: “The testimony of some of the witnesses indicates a very low state of society in Esopus.”

I’ll say.

August 28, 2007

A Drink of New York

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:31 am

Our annual visit to northern New York State always includes a stop in Saratoga, home of famous water: what used to be referred to as “Saratoga Vichy,” a sparkling mineral water that comes in sapphire blue bottles. I always buy some, as much for the containers, which I collect, as for the crisp water inside. And of course, if you go to the spring in town, there’s the stinky suphur water, supposedly good for your health.

This year, on our way back south, we detoured to Sullivan County. I’ve been researching Sullivan for two years—thinking about it, imagining it, conjuring it. More than a year ago I read in the New York State censuses that Jennette was born there. I am now pretty certain—although I can’t prove it—that she’s one of the Neversink Quimbys.


So it was time. We got off the interstate at Kingston and veered west, an hour’s drive to Neversink. We found ourselves in a hamlet stretched along the edge of Catskill Park, a place called Grahamsville in the town of Neversink. It had charm, yet seemed a bit forgotten and forlorn. It was Monday: we tried the door but the library-museum was closed. With family in tow, I hadn’t planned on any hard research, but I had hoped to scan the local-history shelf at least.

We continued west, in search of the “real” Neversink, a village beyond the reservoir. Of course, the town of Jennette’s time is under the water now. The Neversink River was dammed and the valley flooded in fourteen years of construction ending in 1955 to augment the water supply for New York City. (The Wikipedia entry for the reservoir refers to “the ironically named town of Neversink and the aptly named Bittersweet,” a second, nearby, also-submerged town.) Only the southern rim of the reservoir touches Route 55, and you can stand on the dam and gaze north at a truly beautiful ring of low mountains, misty over the icy water. The surrounding terrain is wooded and isolated, pristine, almost primeval—except of course, the landscape is man-made. It’s a sight Jennette would never have seen.


Recapturing the past is impossible, we all know. You go to a place and of course it is utterly changed since 1810, or 1880. It’s nearly impossible to pick out any one thing that might be “original.” But in general, there’s still the layout of the streets, the shape of the terrain, some alleys or odd corners vaguely ancient and decrepit.

Yet over and over I go to my ancestral places to find not even the “bare bones” on which my forebear’s life was lived, but instead encounter the complete excision of their life scene: Jennette’s house in Port Ewen, plowed under the Turnpike; my dad’s childhood home and neighborhood, demolished for the Prospect Park Expressway; and now, Jennette’s entire birthplace, drowned in a reservoir.

We turned south then, to visit Fallsburg, where Cornelius lived on the Depuy farm in 1880, where Captain Burger retired in 1907 and passed away, and where his wife Elsie lived until 1920. This area has seen, one could say, another kind of obliteration: becoming a thronged resort in the twentieth century and then an unlikely mixed-up rural-town-woodland settlement of migrant farm workers, Orthodox Jewish camps, suburban sprawl and shopping centers.

We didn’t stop or explore, so I am not the one to pronounce about Fallsburg. In fact, I still haven’t figured out where in the town my ancestors would have lived. We did follow signs to the Sullivan County Historical Society, and found, of course, that it was closed on Monday.

We headed to Monticello, then. I myself currently live on the outskirts of a county seat, so I had some expectations. Indeed, Monticello took me back, way back, to what my town might have looked like before I arrived, perhaps in the fifties: decidedly unimproved, for the most part, except for the actual governmental center. We did find a cute bakery-deli for lunch, and I found some odd art photos in a thrift shop, and we quickly headed out to our next goal, NYC.

In the summer, when New Yorkers play in the Hamptons, you can walk into the top restaurants and sit right down. We had a four-day personal foodie-fest, dropping in on a whim here and there for our meals in two of our favorite neighborhoods, Soho and Tribeca. Nowadays, the server’s first question is always, “Bottled or tap?” I always have tap, and this time I drank it with a few new layers of complexity. Neversink water races down from the Catskills, mixes with the Pepacton and Cannonsville reservoir supply in the Neversink Tunnel, ultimately “providing nearly half of the city’s daily consumption” [Wikipedia]. So I raise not my wine but my water glass.*

To the Quimbys.

*The Wikipedia entry on Toast [honor] reports that toasting with water is by some considered bad luck, in that it foreshadows a watery grave.

Blind as a Genealogist

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:11 am

Part I

Consider myopia: a handicap, to be sure, but really, as handicaps go, minor, almost, these days, not worth speaking of. And a good thing, too, since it is decidedly inheritable. But how would it have played in a pre-modern society, one without contacts or lasik surgery or even those coke-bottle-thick corrective lenses? Perhaps, before reading was the norm and education a necessity, weak eyesight wouldn’t have mattered that much.

If you’re nodding, it’s probably because you see 20/20. If you’ve been nearsighted since the beginning of time, you know better.

A kid who can’t see far wouldn’t do too well in hunter or warrior school. Likewise, the blurry-sighted one would make a mess around the cook-fire, or possibly get grilled by mistake. Collect firewood? Pick those little-itty-bitty berries? Carve a bowl? Make a spear? Know when the clouds say rain? Walk across an open field without tripping? Hmmm. Just how useless is this person?

How did such a klutz ever survive before the modern era—let alone find someone willing to get it on with him (or her)? I’m proof that some did.

Compensation must have been the name of the game, and nearsighted ancestors must have been masters of the work-around.

Consider: maybe with good hearing and smell, fine-tuned sensory and somatic awareness, intelligence, and the certain personality, you could balance out the deficits of poor vision. With cooperativeness, diligence, and probably a strain of obedience, you could fit into the community. You’d handle domestic tasks, develop a craft perhaps (one that doesn’t involve fire or knives.) You’d stick close to home, to areas where you know the terrain and won’t be tripped up. You’d tend to be an outsider in groups, not easily able to socialize across a room or get a feel for a stranger whose face is a blur. Leadership would be out of the question. You would depend somewhat on the good will of others to leave you in peace and let you contribute what you can, or to help you in travel or crisis. Only your family and your close friends would get to know you—your face to the outside world would be cautious, retiring, reticent, even passive. There might be shame, too, in being a person strong of body and mind who nevertheless has to skulk around like a weakling, who has to live in a state of self-suppression.

On the other hand, a myopian who doesn’t lay low could be in for four ways of trouble. If your productivity is limited by your weak sight, and you are also obstreperous, belligerent, defiant, or uncooperative, you might draw some negative attitudes, to say the least. If you were a risk-lover, bold and brash and unrestrained, you might blunder over a cliff or quickly get clobbered in a fight.

The circumstances of living in a pre-modern society might quickly cull the loud, pushy, assertive nearsighted person, while the quiet, restrained, sensitive, and fast-thinking one would have the right survival skills to get by. And subsequent generations of near-sighted descendents would survive the same way, reinforcing a personality that wouldn’t normally smell like success.

It’s a stereotype: the quiet near-sighted kid hiding behind a book. Looked out from an evolutionary viewpoint, though, the pairing of nearsightedness with a docile, detail-oriented personality created a path for survival. The personality and the eyeballs run in my dad’s family. Is it too much to assume these genetic factors must have been in play in the lives of our forebears in that line? The personality, of course, could be considered anachronistic today when we see as well as anyone else. In my family, the current generation is breaking out of the ancient turtle shell: getting advanced degrees, working as professionals, taking on leadership.

I may never know, of course, which of my ancestors were near-sighted and down which exact line the trait and its associated quirks of personality passed. But pass it did.

Part II

In a recent essay published in The New Republic, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker pokes some serious holes in the biological basis for genealogical research. Although by my reading (and despite the article’s genealogy-bashing title), Pinker is mainly concerned with the way kinship longings are being manipulated by political and religious ideologies world-wide, along the way he hits the foundations of ancestor research pretty hard. He particularly debunks the value of using DNA to learn about forebears.

As has been noted in other sources recently, when we look backwards toward distant generations, the number of our ancestors increases exponentially—and, Pinker notes, the amount of genetic material we can say we have from any specific person decreases exponentially. While we have half our genes from our father and half from our mother, we can only say we have one-quarter of our genes from our grandparents, one-eighth from our great-grandparents, one-sixteenth from our great-great-grandparents, and so on. One sixteenth is about 6%; one thirty-second about 3%, one sixty-fourth is less than 1%. Pinker refers to this as “geometric decay of relatedness.”

Pinker’s conclusion is a rebuke to the genealogical obsession: “Outside a small family circle, the links of kinship are biologically trifling. . . .”

Barring intermarriage within the family, which ties generations more closely together, our relatedness to any one blood relative beyond those we can know personally is mostly fantasy. And our tracing of relationships through DNA gives us not just a severe minority report of our ancestry, but one that is arbitrary. Current methods of DNA analysis are constrained to two genetic lines; there’s currently no way to sift out the rest. Two lines out of four is not many, but as you go backward generationally, your mtDNA and Y-descent lines become two of four, of eight, of thirty-two, of two-hundred-fifty-six.

Will Pinker’s analysis cause genealogy to implode like the housing market, an overvalued commodity shrinking down to a junk investment?

Genealogists are, after all, a technically minded, even scientifically oriented breed. Despite the “batty little old lady” image, most are analytical and intellectual; among those I’ve met, many are retired or still-active scientists, teachers, librarians, and so on. If you read The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record or The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, you’ll see just how academic the field can be.

In other words, genealogists should by nature attend to what Pinker has to say: the very premises underlying your endeavors are scientifically faulty. Though you prize discovering the names and vital records of far-back generations, each time you do so, you halve the genetic influence the person has on you, to the point of triviality.

So, get a life, you genealogist, you.

In fact, if Pinker is correct, our ancestral connectedness is an intuition and not a reality, and our travails more like a spiritual quest. In that sense, it doesn’t matter, he suggests, whom we uncover as our ancestors: we’ll continue to feel, he says, as Oprah did after she learned her DNA analysis showed she was not Zulu but Kpelle, “empowered” by the news.

There actually are a few family researchers who think their ancestors speak to them or guide their labors, but most are far more literal-minded about the process and goals of their investigations. Yet, confronted with the mathematical facts of how minimally any one ancestor’s genes affect a living person, genealogists, I’m pretty sure, will keep on keeping on.

It’s not just stubbornness.

It’s just likely that there is more to genetic inheritance than has been yet discovered. Pinker himself invokes the unexpected developments that often come about after a technological breakthrough: would Faraday have ever anticipated the electric guitar? Likewise, I would add, sometimes progress reverses scientific dogma. Ulcers are not caused by stress, but by a bacterium. Heart disease has an inflammatory component. And this week there is a report undermining science’s understanding of obesity: a virus can cause the stem cells present everywhere in our bodies to create fat.

So, is genealogy is more like a religion than a science? Is it an unfounded system of belief? Pinker seemingly closes the book on that question, but by my thinking, the connection between our ancestors and our identity today deserves, and it will have, more exploration.

Pinker, Steven. “Strangled by Roots: The Genealogy Craze in America” The New Republic, 6 Aug 2007, 30 July 2007.

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