The Washerwoman’s Genes

January 29, 2006

Questions on the Line

Filed under: Clothesline — by WWG @ 1:30 pm

Why are there two Burger families with strings of similar names? In Ulster and Brooklyn: Alvah Clinton, Sr. and Jr., Norma, and Clinton? In Dutchess, in the town of Clinton, practically the same names: Alvah H., Norman, and Clinton. It seems that Alvah C., Sr., and Alvah H. are born about the same year (1872). I can’t find a connection between Elisha James, son of Cornelius and Jannette, who is father of Alvah C., and Frederick and Caroline of Dutchess, parents of Alvah H. In general, how are the Dutchess Co. Burgers related to the Esopus Burgers?

Jannette Quimby Burger, my g-g-grandmother, b. 1817, is mystery. So is John D. Quimby, b. 1825, who appears in the household of Elisha James Burger in two censuses. In 1870, the household in Brooklyn is John and Louisa Quimby, plus “James” Burger, Elsie, and son “Alva.” No family designations. In 1880, it’s John and Louisa, plus J. E. Burger and son A.C. Jr. Here, J.E. is “son-in-law” and A.C. is “grandson.” (Elsie is elsewhere: I found her in Fallsburgh.) What is the relation between John D. Quinby, Elisha James’s father-in-law, and his mother, Jannette Quimby? I had a first thought John D. was Jannette’s brother, and the 1880 family designations were not correct, that census family designations could not encompass nephew and grand-nephew. But I am coming to believe that, in fact, they are correct, that Elsie was a Quimby. Did Elisha James marry his cousin? If Jannette were adopted, that would make it more seemly. But really, there are so few Quimbys in the Esopus or Brooklyn censuses, it seems there must be some relation.

How did the Burger children get to Brooklyn? I’ve found Josiah, Elisha James, William R., and, of course, Josephine, in Brooklyn. Why? Who was first? Were there others? Some of them worked on boats, so perhaps they went back and forth all the time.


Two Josephines

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 1:02 pm

I began this exploration about six months ago. I’d been a subscriber to for a while, but every time they alerted me to a hit on a name, it was a false alarm. But in August, I followed the links to the federal census to a house in Brooklyn. At the turn of the century, Josephine Davis was a common name, as it is still; Ancestry had found her doppelgangers numerous times. This time, though, Josephine had a daughter, Josephine. Perhaps, I had found my grandmother, living with her widowed mother and a sister, named Rachel.

This girl of 12 would have been sixty-eight in 1956, the year, give or take one, that my grandmother Josephine died. ( I was small—time had few markers for me—but I do know she died near my half-brother’s senior year in high school.) This child Josephine, daughter of a same-named mother, was about the right age.

My father had a sibling he called “Baby Ray,” who died young. My brother had said Ray was a girl and shrugged when I insisted “Ray” was impossible and what could have been her real name? But now I could see it; Baby “Rae,” not Ray, had been named for her Aunt Rachel, grandma’s older sister.

It’s confusing, I know, all these name duplications. I get confused, too. But there are more of them, more and more of them, to come as I track this family. The echoing names are like fingerprints or bread crumbs dropped in the forest. They make trailing back into family history possible. I knew, when I recognized Rachel as Baby Rae’s aunt, that I had found my grandma as a girl.

There were other members of the household on Seventeenth Street: William Burger, age 44, and two children, William, Jr., and Catherine. William is listed as “Brother.” Suddenly I had my great-grandmother’s original name: Burger.

Who ever heard of Burger? It mystified me. But then, my grandmother’s mother’s name had been a blank. Why couldn’t it be Burger, or Biggedydool or McPloop. It could be anything. What kind of a name was Burger, anyway?

My own mom had dropped a few clues about my paternal grandma’s ancestry. The Davis part was Scottish or English. And the other part, well, supposedly there was some Dutch in there. So: Was Burger Dutch? I would find out.

And William? It wasn’t so surprising that great-grandma Josephine had a brother named William. After all, that was my Dad’s name. He had been named, it seemed, after his mother’s Uncle Willie. As I explored, there would be Williams galore. And more Josies, more Rachels, more names richocheting down the decades. It’s gotten so I can sniff out whether a family is tied to mine by the names. David? Naw, no Davids. Peter? Not likely. Susanna? Sophie? Julia? No, definitely no.

After that, I was on the track of finding the two Josephines. I soon learned the 1890 census was largely destroyed in a fire; the remnants are useless for New York research. Going forward, though, I lucked out. 1910: the same address, Josephine Sr., Josephine Jr., who is now married (so recently she is a “0” in the “years married” category), and Uncle Willie listed as Wm. R. Burger. [‘R”! My father’s middle initial was also “R.”] For some reason, my grandma’s new husband isn’t listed. And Rachel, William, Jr., and Catherine are out of the house. Added, though, is Marion H., age 66, a widowed “sister-in-law” to Josephine, Sr. Months later, I will scour the census and discover Marion is the widow of Josiah A. Burger, Josephine’s older brother. And Harold C. Rigby, age 3. I have no idea. Really.

The Josephines continue living together. In 1920, Josephine, Sr., heads the household on Seventeenth Street, with my grandma and grandpa and their kids, William R. and little Josephine. In 1930, they are living in Queens, in the “Richmond Hill” house I would hear about as a child. Now it’s my grandmother Josephine who is head of household. Grandpa isn’t there. Where is he? (Later I find him back in Brooklyn, not on Seventeenth Street, though, but on the other side of Prospect Park. Why? WHY? They were back together by the time I was born.) My dad is 17, his sister Josie is 12. And great-grandma Josie is 78.

The census after 1930 is not public. But through other research I discover that Josephine Burger Davis died in 1932. The era of the two Josephines was over.

January 27, 2006

The Hands of a Genealogist

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 6:45 pm

”Look at your long fingers! Such big hands! You must be a pianist!”

Over and over, I heard this comment when I was growing up. I didn’t know what to make of it; we didn’t have a piano! Nobody in the family even sang. But apparently I had the hands for piano, and I was told so by strangers and teachers and friends’ parents and who knows who else. My hands were BIG: attention-getting BIG.

So were my mom’s. And my dad’s. But they were grown-ups, and people talked to them about a lot more interesting things than their hands.

Time passed, and eventually I realized that big hands come in useful if it’s 1900 and you’re going to do the laundry. In fact, you might get assigned the laundry if you have hands like me, like my mom, or like my grandma Jenny Doud Slaven.

Jenny was an Irish immigrant; she met and married an Irishman and together they worked on an estate in the Five Towns area of Long Island. James was a gardener, and she a washerwoman. James died after four children were born, and she continued on, supporting her children with her hands. She retired and electric washers took over, and the era of the family laundress was ended.

I know a fair amount about Jenny Slaven; I knew her, in fact, when I was a young child. She lived across the yard, in an old stone cottage with a fireplace; she drank strong tea and left the spoon in cup as she drank. She had a brogue, which as I child I could imitate fairly well, though now the sound of her voice in my head has dimmed.

Sometime I plan to do more research into the Douds and Slavens, but my current ancestry studies are focusing on my other grandmother, my dad’s mom. Her family was in America the longest of any of my grandparents, and I’ve been following her line back from Brooklyn into the post-colonial past. To my surprise, census records showed that her mother had been born in Esopus, N.Y., near Kingston in the Hudson Valley. No one had ever told me that I had roots on the “mainland”; I and all my forebears, I had previously thought, were from Long Island.

Soon I identified my great-great grandparents in Esopus and were able to follow them in the censuses from 1840 onward. My grandmother’s grandmother, Jannette Quinby Burger, was a single mother after 1856 (when her last child was born): her husband Cornelius not listed in the 1860 census. In 1870, only two children are left at home, my great-grandmother Josephine and her younger brother Willie. In 1880, Josephine is gone. She is married and living in Brooklyn with her husband, Walter Scott Davis. Only Willie remains with his mom, although, oddly, he is also listed in Brooklyn, where he will live thereafter.

1880 is the first census to collect information on marital status and occupation. Jannette (who is listed as Janet Burgher) is not widowed, as I had thought, but ‘Div.” And her occupation? She is a washerwoman.

Musings on Ancestry

Filed under: Uncategorized — by WWG @ 5:54 pm

I’ll try not to be insufferable. Don’t glaze over yet!

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