The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 29, 2006

Thoughts from July: State Census Revelations

Filed under: Washboard — by WWG @ 9:51 am

I have made so many assumptions–so many mistakes–about Jannette. Instead of identifying her, putting some flesh on her bones with all this research, it turns out I didn’t know her at all.

I have complained of my uncertainty about what she was called, but I have been certain of one thing: it began with a “J.”

I haven’t been able to identify her family of origin. I have searched throughout the records of Ulster for Quimbys who might be her relatives. The Burgers were rooted firmly in Ulster, until the grown children migrated to Brooklyn.

On Hurley Stone House Day (in July), I spent my first two hours in the Genealogical Society, where the historican handed me the extant New York State censuses for nineteenth-century Esopus: 1855, 1865, and 1875. They are hard to come by and haven’t been indexed, meaning one must page through any towns of interest. But Florence herself has transcribed and indexed Esopus, surely saving me tons of work.

The state censuses are terse, but the data is there. In 1855, everyone goes by initials; so the entry begins, “Burger, CH 42 mason.” His wife is initial “G” not “J.” Her birthplace is Sullivan County—not Ulster at all. In fact, the two older children—“B” (for Benjamin) and “J” (for Josiah) are born in Sullivan also. The third is born in Ulster. For each “alien,” a length of residency is given. There seems to be a mix-up, in that B. is said to have resided in Ulster the longest, longer than his mother. What makes sense is if she has resided in Ulster the 19 years attributed to him, and he sixteen, and J. fifteen. This would put the family relocating back to Ulster in about 1839, in time for George’s birth.

In 1865, the head of household is “Genetta.” Perhaps, she did spell her name with a G, and the ”Genet” on her tombstone is more correct than not. Again, it confirms: “bSull.” It says she’s “md”–since Cornelius has remarried, this may be disingenuous, in the least. But it does suggest that the notation “D” on the 1880 census is a red herring. Then, “11 ch.” I knew of ten: those that lived to show up in the censuses. But I did discover the infant twin brother of Josephine who is buried in Terpenning Ground.

In 1875, the family head is called “Jennet.” Here she is listed as “wid.” For the third time, it indicates she is “bSull.” Only “Wm” is at home; he’s a “boatmHdsR. Here we learn that the house they live in is “frame,” that is, a house framed with wood beams and covered by boards; the census reports that most others in the area are also frame, but there are also “brick,” “concrete,” or “stone” houses. Ironic—the stone mason’s family lived in a frame house. By examining the neighbors, I can see that the family did reside throughout the period in the same neighborhood and thus most likely the same house, going back to Cornelius’ time.

Sullivan County: I know there’s a Fallsburg connection. Cornelius is living there in 1880. Some of the adult children reside there briefly, in retirement. Is that the place where Genet was born?

Genet: she is buried with that name. Perhaps I should call her by it.*

*It’s now September and I know her will was filed, a few weeks after her death, with the name Jennet.


Overwhelming Numbers

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:32 am

When you go up and down the generations—mathematically—you realize that each of us has an impossible number of forebears, and that our furthest back ancestor likewise has an impossible plenitude of heirs. I’ve seen several charts and discussions of this recently.

Generations multiply geometrically: the progression starts out slow, but then escalates like a rocket. Any pair of parents in ancient times, even those having a modest family, should have a numerical set of descendents that out-sizes the actual number of people who have ever lived on the planet. And any person today regressing her ancestry backwards likewise discovers that, mathematically at least, she is descended from everyone who ever lived. As you regress back, you reach a point where the number of ancestors is greater than the cumulative population of humans over the ages. In fact, you learn that some of your ancestors must be repeaters, and that we are all “inbred.”

Another consequence is that everyone must have both royal and peasant blood, since we are all descended from everyone. This doesn’t make “common sense,” but mathematically it is valid.

I bring this up because I am learning so much about the phenomenon of ancestry—and having so many new considerations and insights and questions—that I can hardly keep up. The mere thought of working your way back to even a generation of 64 ancestors makes you want to lie down. Sometimes I can’t even begin to write, because my impressions are roaring around me like a crowd at Penn Station. And darn if strangers all over the waiting room aren’t trying to get my attention!

I recently attended workshops on British Isles and Irish genealogy, learning about whole new sets of records and archival parameters and a geography and history that I didn’t know beyond the barest outlines. The Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (GSP) put together an all-day workshop on the British Isles with another local society. Not only was it informative, there were door prizes, and I won a voucher for 50 units of time on a British online archive. That helped me break into British research, although I’m not sure I found anything significant. But the timing was right: I had just learned the names of my great-grandfather Walter’s British parents, William and Keshia.

Genealogy is arm-chair time travel, but it jaunts you around the globe as well.

September 28, 2006


Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:58 am

This postcard is what is known as a real-picture card, based not on a commercial photo but a “real picture.” I don’t know much more than that about how such cards were generated.


The house here seems to be set in an orchard. Its wood-frame structure is symmetrical and modestly classic, with a large side-porch. It’s well-kept, down to the flower boxes at the windows. The road runs right up to its door. There is no sign, but it seems the house has a name, “Seek-No-Further.” The postcard seems almost an invitation to respite.

Finding this card sent me into a spasm of research. Could I locate such a house or farm in Port Ewen? The town is now largely residential, although it’s conceivable there could still be a farm or two there—there are many in the larger township of Esopus. And what about the name? It seemed to be more appropriate for an inn or hotel than a farmhouse.

We all want to come to rest, we genealogists, at a place where we need “seek no further,” where all our quests are satisfied. Of course, that would be nirvana, and nirvana is not available at this time. And would we truly be happy there, without the suspense, the intensity of working over a new set of records, the discipline of studying old documents, the concentration we exert delving back in time?

My research eventually discovered that “seek-no-further” is an ancient American apple which was developed in Connecticut. It is often called the Westfield Seek-No-Further and dates back before 1800. The Backyard Orchardist (“Apple information to its core”) calls this heirloom fruit “an old favorite dessert apple and an excellent keeper.”* It is, or would be thought, the be-all and end-all of apples.

More seeking turned up the Biblical reference for “seek no further.” In his Homilies on Second Thessalonians, fourth-century bishop John Chrysostom speaks to the admonition by Paul in 2 Thessalonions (2:15) to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught . . .” Chrysostom re-enforces that “there is much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief.”

Believing the old tales about our forebears is exactly what genealogists try to avoid. Among genealogy hobbyists there’s a heck of a lot of adopting ancestors on the basis of a wish and a prayer. Genealogical societies emphasize establishing a chain of evidence and keeping strict records to prove true bloodlines.

Of course, the Bishop was not referring in this passage to tracing ancestors. His straightforward, eloquent evocation of the value of belief is compelling in its way. I must take exception. Believing what tradition tells you has its pitfalls, all across the board. Look at our world, with traditional beliefs distorting and even destroying lives. Look at the nonsense that is widely believed, look at the vapidity of the process behind “belief” –gut feelings as to what is true seems to account for half of the world’s philosophies and slavish adherence to beliefs learned as children the rest. How many people think—i.e., collect evidence and use analysis—for themselves? How many “seek further”?

*Stilphen, George A. “What varieties do I want?” published on the All About Apples website. variety1.htm

September 27, 2006

More News from The Brooklyn Eagle

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:36 am


December 7, 1884. The following business was transacted in the Surrogate’s Court, before Hon. Jacob I. Bergen, during the past week:

Letters of administration were granted on the estates of the following named deceased persons: . . . John Moloney, Caroline C. Sherwood, Hugh Allen, Jennet Burger . . . . all of the City of Brooklyn.

I haven’t been able to find a death certificate for Jennet in Esopus. She was living there in 1880, and she’s buried there. I even requested that the state of NY do a search, to no avail. Slowly, it dawned on me that there was one place I hadn’t looked: Brooklyn. The vital records of New York City are not copied to the state, unlike those of other local jurisdictions. Maybe the “kids” had brought Jennet down at the end. With this suspicion, in late August I sent away to NYC for a search.

So, finding that her estate was filed in Brooklyn is not a complete surprise. But still—plugging the many variations of her name into the Brooklyn Eagle and getting a hit was quite a moment. There is again hope that I might find a document conveying whatever her children knew of her origins.

And the will should indicate what happened to the property—to the house on the Turnpike that I found on the map from 1875. And any other property as well.

It might also include some information on her marital status. I am still not sure if the “Div.” on the census form of 1880 is accurate, or a euphemism for abandoned.

[Surrogate Court records for Brooklyn are kept in the Brooklyn Hall of Records. The public is able to research in a card index and request files be retrieved. They can be read and copied in a small room with a table and four chairs—the facility information online is quite specific. To obtain a copy of the file by mail is prohibitively expensive. The bonus of going there to research is that I might find other family wills in the card catalog file.]

Oldest Vital Record

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 7:55 am

Not long ago I sifted out of an on-line site that indexes marriages in New York City what seemed to be the name of my great-great grandmother—my first Josie. From the census, I knew that Josie and Walter’s first son was born about 1877, and so when I saw her listed as bride in Kings in 1876, I sent for the certificate. I believe it is my oldest vital record: December 12, 1876.

Much information was familiar: Josephine’s parents, with her mother’s name spelled “Jeannette.” The bride’s birthplace is given as “Rondout.” In all of the censuses, the family is recorded in Esopus. The town of Rondout is across the creek, and while it once was independent, it is now within the city of Kingston. In the 1870 census, Jeannette and family are recorded as living in Esopus with Rondout as the post office. So was Josie born across the creek in Rondout, perhaps at a hospital or other facility, or was she born at home, in what we now know as Port Ewen but which then was referred to as Rondout? Information makes questions.

At the time of her marriage,the document says, Josie lives on Huntington Street in Brooklyn. This address rang a bell: when I checked my records, I found the families of Josie’s brother E. James Burger and father-in-law John D. Quimby living on Huntington in 1878 (in the Lain Directory). The house numbers are different, but close, and it is possible that street renumbering accounts for that. The address is near the Gowanus canal, appropriate for two seamen.

Husband Walter’s address at this time is on Sackett Street—another name that ties into my family. Sackett is further north, and close to Degraw, which is where Josie and Walter will live after marriage. Also, in the 1897 Lain Directory, the youngest son of Josie’s brother E. James will live with his family on Sackett Street, not at the same address but nearby.

Walter puts down on the marriage certificate that he is an engraver. My other records indicate that early on he was a foreman in a mill—perhaps the mill had to do with metal work. (Later he becomes a policeman, but dies of lung disease—suggesting that perhaps the mill work was not the healthiest thing for him.)

The prize from this document is the names of Walter’s parents. Davis is such a common name, and I hadn’t been able to trace Walter’s origins. It turns out his father was William—not much help there. But his mother’s name! Kesiah Perry. I was so astounded to see this name. So completely unknown, so foreign, yet now mine. I am part Perry. And Kesiah—she is the equivalent to Jeannette, a great-great grandmother. My great-great-grandmother. One of the eight women in that generation whose genes mix in me.

September 26, 2006

Political Passions: Who Knew?

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:48 am

Maybe it’s been there the whole while, this year, while I’ve been researching away. But I just discovered the Brooklyn Eagle Online, a service of the Brooklyn Public Library. Maybe I assumed my humble ancestors would not show up in the grandest newspaper in Brooklyn. But I started plugging in names a week or so ago, using the keyword search.

The common names get too many hits, so whose name is different? I chose Josiah. And out of the twelve results, there he was, my great-great uncle, instigator of an ongoing stunt notorious enough for the Eagle to write it up: “Mr Josiah Burger, an engineer of the towboat Edward Annan, a consistent Republican, and a great admirer of his party’s candidate, made a bet . . . “

I knew Josiah was an “engineer” in the 1870s, on the basis of the Lain Directory for 1878 and the census of 1880—I just wasn’t sure what kind. This article recounts the history of a bet made each presidential election from 1876 forward to the fall of 1888, when “Who Will Paint the Flag Pole?” is published on page one.

Josiah, who I know is well into his forties by that time, has a running bet with another man, a “Captain” and ardent Democrat: whosever party loses the presidency must paint the flag pole at the top of the other man’s house. Twice, Josiah has won, and the other fellow had had to climb his own pole and paint it green on St. Patrick’s day: no mean feat, the pole being twenty-two feet high (another article reports it to be twenty-five!). Finally, the other fellow “had the pleasure” of watching Josiah, “in honor of Mr. Cleveland’s election and in the presence of a big crowd of political friends, climb the same flagpole and paint it red on Washington [sic] birthday, 1885.”

By 1888, the guys are getting older, and they swear it’s their last bet. If Cleveland wins relection, Josiah will have to hoist himself up again and paint the pole white; if he loses, the homeowner will paint it black. “They have also mutually agreed that if any party should fail to pay the bet as agreed upon (excepting in the case of death) the party so failing will pay to the other part a forfeit of $100.”

The joke aside, the articles about this bet—and I have located two more—are gold mines of data as well as providing me with some depth and personality for a man who had been just a name.

But I shouldn’t slight the data: New to me is that Josiah was an engineer on a tugboat, and of course, I had no inkling of his political affiliation, let alone his passion.

Finding an earlier write-up in 1880 gave me a few more details: There, Josiah is referred to as Captain. His address is given; it squares with the street I know he lived on from the census and the Lain.

Finally, there’s the recurring information about the colors of the paint. It would make sense if the loser paints the flagpole a color that represents the other man. At the end, Josiah will return the pole to an ordinary black color, if he has to paint it; the Democrat will paint it white if he loses, perhaps a sign of surrender. But in the earlier bets, a Democratic victory will ocasion red paint, “in token of the bloody shirt.” I’m doing some research on this phrase, which seems to have to do with the politics of Reconstruction. If the Republican wins, the pole gets painted green on St. Patrick’s Day, presumably to honor Josiah. More research due here.

Note: I found one short article that reports contemporaneously on the painting. In March of 1881, the paper reports that “yesterday morning” the election bet was paid, with the Democrat climbing the pole on his house in Columbia Street and “painting it a nice green color.” It continues, “The climber was cheered by the crowd on the sidewalk every time he ascended the pole, and finished his dangerous job in about an hour.” The symbology of the colors must have been either so obvious as to need no explanation or so trivial as to be beneath comment.

September 25, 2006

Da DAH-da-da, Dah-da da, DAH-da-da Dumb

Filed under: Archetypes — by WWG @ 9:41 am

Here’s an image of my ancestor I found on the web: the often republished music for the Irish Washerwoman fronted with this enticing depiction of herself.

You have to give the illustrator points for wit: the play with the clothespin silhouette, the contrast of the gigantic and the teensy, the irony of the gal’s heft and energy and what one might call her galumphing grace.


The unspoken question of why a rollicking reel got named after a menial house servant is answered by the stereotype:

She’s Irish! Hence, lunatic energy. Her dress is green (though a check not a plaid–a bit of artistic license there). She’s in bloomers and high button boots, befitting her birth in a deeply backward enclave. And, coup de grace, the gal hoists the shamrock, a pea-sized emblem of her essence, in a daft gesture of triumph.

Then, of course, she’s plain, begorrah, with a face like a potato and a squashed whorl of hair. And isn’t she the load of bricks to be leapin’ and stompin’ round the place? She’s set the ratty cur to yapping, thrown over the stool, and, sure’n, when you just look at her, you hear it: Da DAH-da-da, Dah-da da, DAH-da-da, Dah-da-da . . . .

Yeah, yeah, it’s only a cartoon from the ‘40s, I know. And, actually, by that time there weren’t any more “Irish washerwomen,” certainly not ones armed with a washboard and peggy. Your cleaning lady, if you hired one, put the laundry in the electric machine and wrung it out between the rollers. So at the time of the publication of this sheet music, the lady was an anachronism, as signaled by her bloomers.

And of course, the rationale for the title of the jig is lost in the mists of time.

But I would propose that the jig alludes not to Irish air-headedness (or to having a little nip after breakfast), but the reality of getting clothes laundered in bygone days. Confronted with a hundred sodden pounds of filthy clothes in a big tub, you got in there with your bare feet and slogged around. You surely didn’t put your arms in the stew of sweat and grime or break your back dragging wet woolens and every-day clothes up and down a washboard.

So is that clear, now?

Have I exonerated my granny yet?

September 12, 2006

Ancestors, Way Back

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 5:39 pm

We went to see Neolithic Ireland—not the Celtic Ireland, not the Catholic Ireland. The country itself is offering ancient Ireland to the world, an untrampled, igored, perhaps often despised pre-civilization culture that now appeals to modern minds, ready as we are to appreciate, even relish, the humanity of Bronze-age people. Finally, even Ireland is ready to set aside the prejudice that civilized means Christian: after all, for thousands of years humans on that little island made sense of the universe, sense enough to get through the day and to create a culture whose monuments are scattered in the hills and bogs.

Yet, surely the builders couldn’t have imagined that four and more thousand years into the future that people would be exploring their creations.

Our first site was an obscure one, a digression on the road from Limerick to the east coast. The guidebook said, “take the N81 south from Hollywood” and find the site “on your left after about three quarters of a mile.” We sped up and down road after unmarked road in search of the “Piper’s stones,” backtracking and lunging down sidetracks and finally had to ask at a shop. A man buying his child an ice cream offered to lead us there . . . it was really just up the road, but I don’t think we would have found it without him.

“Cross the field fence,” the book instructed, a shocking direction to an urban American wary of other people’s boundaries. Our guide pulled his SUV over, got out, and told us to shimmy through the gap in a loosely chained fence and head up a barely marked track. “You can’t miss it.” Our book indicated “the stones are on the crest of a rise about 200 yards from the road.” It was our first trek in Irish farmland, past fields of thistles and craggy shrubs and cows beyond wire fences, up a rounded hill that took us high above the surrounding terrain. And there on the summit we found the stones, Athgreany, the “Field of the Sun” Stone Circle, better known as the “Pipers Stones”: huge globular chunks of granite sited vaguely in a circle the size of a large room. You stand on the top of the local world, look around and find yourself in the sky, with the stones as your companions, giving a sense of place, maybe even shelter, to an otherwise ordinary hilltop.

Over and over, we would hear from guides and read in books that no one really knows what prehistoric peoples were thinking when they marshaled gangs of men to move rocks weighing tons up hillsides to loll at the intersection of earth and sky. We know some negatives: these places weren’t, at the time of construction, residences. Certain of them were tombs, and the stone circles may have been temples or civic gathering places. But “essential” they were not. They were the creations of a culture that had energy and time to spare, and the group synergy to build and engineer and assuage spiritual needs. But today we are baffled why such needs required moving giant megaliths into a circle on a hill.

The name Pipers Stones is folkloric, representing a fancy of later country folk that people were turned to stone for dancing on Sunday to the music of the piper, an outlier stone. The tale of explanation represents that time when it was easier to think of the stones as emanations of a fairy world than as the blood and sweat creations of humans thinking these mass activities would set their world more right.

And that is the recovery work of the 21st century—seeing the stones as a human work of meaning, even though we can’t know what that meaning was.


* * * * *

My daughter is studying art history this term, and she reported after she sat in the first day’s class that Newgrange was part of the next assignment. First, petrographs, then, the Irish mounds. She was so pleased she would be able to talk about them from first-hand knowledge.

While thronged, Newgrange and Knowth were still eminently worth visiting. The sites, as tourist spots, are well managed, and the trip to see them is long, but fascinating. When you realize they are older than the pyramids, you understand you have to see them.

And when you think, they are from this land, this island, they were built by the ancient Irish, never mind the sweeps of other peoples across the island over the centuries; those ancient builders are some part of the Irish today, and you think of the strands of Irish braided into your own heritage, and the mounds become, not theirs, the ancient peoples’, but yours.

International voices thrilled at the sights and the guides’ narratives—German, Dutch, Japanese—but you could tell the returning seeds of the diaspora had a certain proprietary awe.

From Knowth to Brooklyn, Now to Then

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 5:34 pm

The mounds of the Boyne Valley—Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth— were mistaken for a long time in the Christian era as the palaces of kings, and only recognized in modern times as tombs. But earlier, the distinction was less important; archeological research indicates the valley was the site of villages before the tombs were carved, and then again later, after they were disused.

“The dead have long seemed both distant and dangerous to the living, but it was not always so,” write the authors of my guidebook.* “Many ancient cultures have conceived the living and dead as if they were merely different generations, all sharing the same world, appropriately sub-divided, vertically or horizontally, into distinct and proximate zones. The mounds, then, at certain times in their history, were much like a Brooklyn townhouse, with one generation living above and another living below.”

Yet again, the Brooklyn townhouse seems an archetypal dwelling of disparate, even disturbing forces, a place of familial rest teeming with echoes of the past. The townhouse, itself a paradox of physical proximity and compartmentalization, represents both mundanity and connectedness arching to the spiritual.

I am constantly amazed that the literal place my forebears dwelled has become a metaphor of cosmic nexus.

Not literally a tomb of course, not like Newgrange or Knowth in that way, the townhouse raises up ghosts out of the census; the emanations waft through, not the corridors of shabby wallpaper but the concentration of the living. To think, any one of the current occupants of 324 Seventeenth Street could be sleeping where life passed into death, or, conversely, where a soul came into being, decades, or a century, ago.

*Meagher, Robert Emmet, and Elizabeth Parker Neave, Ancient Ireland: An Explorer’s Guide. Northampton MA: Interlink, 2004. 83.




Top: Woodhenge, (reconstruction); Above: Knowth curbstones and white Wicklow granite; Right: Knowth mounds

* * * * *

The drama of a visit to Newgrange is well depicted in Meagher and Neave: “The thirty-some steps you will take to its core could be among the most revealing of your life. Consider that you will be traveling at a rate of 150 years per step. Consider too that the builders of these tombs, regardless of personal status, chose to live out their lives in terribly modest dwellings, none of which has survived and, like the human body, none of which was meant to outlive its occupant. Then consider that . . . Newgrange [has] survived for 5.000 years . . . It is well worth trying to imagine—and imagine is all we can do—what the builders of Newgrange were thinking as they labored on a house that would endure as long as the sun but would only know its light and warmth for minutes out of every year” (84).

Today void of their contents, isolated and pastoral and manicured for display, the mounds are still about death—about some solution to or conception of the end of life, about a meaning lost to the ages but permanent to time, until mountains themselves are turned under by cataclysmic forces in a new geology.

Double Identity

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 3:44 pm

You can’t be in two places at the same time, goes the old saw. But sometimes you can, at least in the U.S. Census. The census was premised on recording each person once, and only once, at the residence he or she was at on the day the census taker came around. The problem is, the census wasn’t built in a day; rather, it took a month or so to collect the data, as the varying dates on the census page headings indicate.

I know, for example, that my great-uncle Willie was living in two places in 1880: with his ageing and possibly ill mother Jannette in Esopus, and with his sister and her family in Brooklyn. He was transitioning to Brooklyn; in fact, he marries in Brooklyn before his mother dies in 1884, suggesting he moved there early in the decade.

I have just found another example. My great-grandfather Walter (on my grandmother’s paternal side) lost his father at an early age, I gather from the census. Born in 1854, Walter seemingly has no father by 1860. He’s six, and the census catches him living in two places. At the start of June, he’s with a man I take to be his mother’s younger brother and his wife, in Brooklyn, Ward 10, District 1. Two weeks later, he’s in the same census district but in the household of his remarried mother Kesiah (here spelled Keziah). He has four siblings, all older, with his last name. The three eldest are born in England, indicating the parents married in England and emigrated between 1846 and 1852, that is, between their third and fourth children. And then, it seems, Walter’s father died after his birth but before the 1860 census—long enough before for his mother to meet and marry another man. Also in this household are two children the same ages as Walter and his next-oldest brother, children who must be the step-father’s by his first marriage.

We think of today’s families as less stable than those of yesteryear. But doing genealogy means studying family life, and the message is quite clear. Families shift and change constantly. Children commonly have only one parent, or live in blended families, or are bunked with other relatives. These cases of two homes are symptomatic, I think, not exceptional. In every branch of my ancestral families I explore, I find families in pieces. Early death seems a major cause, but there’s also abandonment and divorce and temporary separation and serious illness.

* * * *

And then, there’s researcher’s rage: why, why, if I can find some people twice in the same census, can’t I find other people once?

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