The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 2, 2006

A Life in Stone/ A Life in Paper

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 2:14 pm

After reading “A life in Stone,” (April 5, 2006), a reader questioned how I knew that the Jane and Jennie I found in the 1880 New Paltz census were my Hannah J. and Emma J. It’s a valid question, of course. Since I am writing about the process and about the existential issues piqued by my research, I don’t always explain all of the reasoning behind my conclusions. In the case of Hannah and Emma, I believe the evidence is pretty solid (see my comment (#3) after “A Life in Stone” for the details). In general, I work the evidence pretty hard before connecting the dots.

Yet often, evidence is barebones, and possibilities lure me along.

I recently acquired a big piece of solid evidence: the marriage certificate of my father’s paternal grandparents. I had discovered Walter Scott Davis in the online “Groom’s Index” for Kings County, 1876. This certificate is one of my earliest family documents, and I am so pleased to have it.

Although I have quite a bit of information about great-grandma Josephine, the family of Walter Scott Davis has been a blank up to now.

From this document I learn that Walter, 23, was born in Brooklyn to William Davis and Kesiah Perry. Now, that his father was “William” Davis is not a surprise; “William” is a frequent name among descendents, and in fact Josie and Walter named one son William (of course Josie had a brother William as well). But “Kesiah Perry”? That caught me off-guard.

So I started hunting. And when you hunt, you find, though what you find may not be yours. And with what I found, I made up a story of their lives.

The 23-year-old bridegroom, Walter, was about 7 at the time of the 1860 census. He turns up, though listed as age 6, along with four older brothers, John, William, Samuel, and George, ranging from 17 to 8, in the household of an Irishman, William Perkins, and his English-born wife, “Keziah” Perkins. There are also two Perkins children, the same age as Walter and his next-older brother George. William and Keziah are both on their second marriages, and Keziah brought five sons with her to the new family. Her first husband—surely it’s my great-great-grandfather William—died sometime after Walter’s birth about 1853-54 and long enough before the 1860 census for Keziah and William Perkins to marry. Keziah and William’s first three sons were born in England, letting me know the family emigrated between the birth years of the third and fourth boys, 1846 and 1852.

By 1870, the Perkins family seems to have dissolved. Three of the Davis boys—Walter, George, and the second oldest, William—are living together in Brooklyn with a 67-year-old English woman named Sarah Davis. Perhaps she is their grandmother. Since William is 25, this could just barely be true. Or perhaps she is an aunt, an older sister of their father’s. Did she come to America after their parents died, to take over—this would be perhaps after Kesiah died, sometime in the 1860s. Or had she been in America the whole time, living somewhere else? I have more searching to do to keep this story going.

There are other details that convince me that these Davis fellows are the family I seek. In 1870, the young Walter reports he is an engraver on steel. On his marriage certificate six years later, he lists engraver as his occupation. Later he will be a “foreman in mill,” perhaps the mill where he had formerly been an engraver. By the time he dies, though, he has become a policeman (I have a death notice from a Brooklyn paper that aligns with the cemetery receipt for his interment that I found among my own personal papers). He dies of lung disease. I wonder if his early occupation caused his later susceptibility to chest ailments.

I acquired yet one more piece of paper, and through it I met my great-great-grandma, Kesiah, and quickly invented a narrative of her life. Is Kesiah Perry Davis real, or is she a character of fiction. Is there really any sense to such a question?

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