The Washerwoman’s Genes

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. 


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