The Washerwoman’s Genes

March 7, 2006

Brooklyn Longhouse

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 5:24 pm

They lived communally, arranged in apartments within the larger structure, spread out in space, but still a family united under the female head. Over fifty years, they changed buildings, but the family collective continued. At first, the matriarch raised her young children in the house; then her brother and his children joined her. Her children grew up, as did his. Her namesake daughter remained, however, with her husband, and their new children. The elderly brother, a great-uncle to the younger generations, died. Other relatives came and went: the widowed wife of another brother of the matriarch, a nephew. Only when she grew elderly, near death, did her daughter’s husband become the new head. Decades passed, and the communal lifestyle disappeared; it became customary for each segment of the family to live alone in a single home, in separate towns, and to hardly know each other.

The reasons why are lost in time.

Iroquois family structure was matrilineal (as depicted by Daniel Richter in The Ordeal of the Longhouse), and remained so despite European influences. This meant that women headed the family, men moved in with their wives, though they were often away in hunting or fishing camps, and the dominant male presence in a family was the uncle or maternal brother. Women’s councils supplemented the men’s and often determined when a mourning-raid for captives was required. The face of diplomacy was male, as expected in European culture, but also because the men traveled and negotiated together in Iroquois culture as well.

Much less is known of women’s culture, of course; the records that men kept recorded the interactions of men.

The parallels with the line I am researching are eerie, and perhaps only coincidental. I first was able to recognize my ancestors in the census because of the Josephines, mother and daughter, and in doing so I identified a female core that endured for decades. Josephine, my great grandmother, was widowed in 1881; I believe she owned the Degraw Street house where she continued to raise her two daughters, one of them my grandmother. The census records that her houses, on Degraw Street and later on 17th Street, became family domiciles.

Over the decades from 1880 to 1930 (Josephine, Sr., died in 1932), the family house at 329 17th Street contained Josephine and her children, her brother William and his children, her widowed sister-in-law, her daughter Josephine and her husband and children. . . . In 1920, my grandfather is listed, finally, as head of household, although he is absent in 1930 (the family has moved to Richmond Hill), and my grandmother, the younger Josephine, is head. Included in 1920 are tenants or relations named Charles and Anna Stazel (?) and their children. Charles was a plumber, like grandpa; there’s another man in residence, also, who is a boilermaker in a shipyard: another kind of plumber, perhaps a colleague, or a relative.

At some point after 1930, and before the 1950s when I came on the scene, the family scattered to the suburbs, to single-family homes, “Cape Cod” shingle-covered boxes, on 50′ x 100′ lots, in towns here and there out on Long Island.


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: