Posted by: downtothesea | July 4, 2011

Independence Day and genealogy

It has been a disgracefully long time since I posted here. The usual excuses: life, life, life. I have made huge strides in genealogy since I last posted, and I’m eager to share!

Let’s get started on this Independence Day with my great-great-great grandfather Michael Gavin Sr.’s own ‘declaration of independence:’ his filed intent to become a naturalized citizen of the United States in May 1860.


There is so much to love about this document. It moves me to the point of tears to think of the implications of Michael’s decision to become American. He could never have even imagined me, but surely in the back of his mind was the idea that if he became a citizen of the United States, all of his progeny would also be citizens. I am an American today because of him. I am eternally grateful for his choice.

Also, this document bears a truly precious treasure: Michael’s careful signature. I hold out hope that I will some day find a photograph of him, but until then, this signature is the closest I have come to “seeing” my great-great-great grandfather. And it makes me smile to see how much Michael’s penmanship is echoed in his great-great grandson’s–my father’s–own hand.

Thank you for your courage, Michael Gavin.

I could not have found this precious document without the kind help of Mr. Craig Bacon from the Niagara County Historian’s Department.

Posted by: downtothesea | March 24, 2010

It’s not a popularity contest! Oh wait, it is.

I recently stumbled across a great newspaper article in the Niagara Falls Gazette from September 27, 1893 describing in fantastic detail the events of St. Mary’s (Our Lady of the Cataract) church fair.  This church is of particular interest to me because it was the parish of all of my Irish immigrant ancestors and their families in Niagara Falls, NY, right up to my grandmother.

The article, though interesting in its own right, provided this fantastic and unexpected genealogy gem:

That’s right:  my great-grandmother Nellie Gavin, who was just sweet sixteen years of age at the time, won St. Mary’s popularity contest!  I have so few young photos of my great-grandmother, and none of her as a teenager, so I’ll proudly repost the wonderful photo I have of her from 1911, with her beloved husband and son.

Congratulations, Great-Grandma Nell!

Posted by: downtothesea | March 7, 2010

Grandma Erikson’s Banana Bread

Today’s writing prompt for Woman’s History Month, geneablog-style, asks bloggers to share a favorite family recipe.

My Grammy Erikson, my mother’s mother, wasted absolutely NOTHING.  Her house was neat as a pin, mind you, but she never threw away something she could use again.  I can still remember the cache of wrapping paper she kept in the TV room closet, some of it no more than six inches wide.  Jelly jars did double-duty as drinking glasses.  She had even fashioned herself a whole set of “Tupperware” using a variety of plastic food tubs and jars.

As the third daughter of seven born to Swedish immigrants Karl and Anna Johnson, and the first of their children to be born in America, my grandmother learned practical frugality at an early age.  She made her own clothing, shopped sales in the department stores like a whiz, and learned to cook without ever, EVER wasting food.

This recipe reflects her domestic philosophy exactly;  it uses overripe bananas, the ones that are black and goopy on the inside and that no one in their right mind enjoys eating, and it features no other “fancy” ingredients.  I can just about guarantee you have the makings for this bread, perhaps save the bananas, in your cupboard and fridge right now.  This recipe can also be fancied up quite easily, with the addition of chocolate chips, dried cranberries, walnuts, what have you.  Just add the “goodies” right into the batter.  Enjoy!

Grammy Erikson’s Banana Bread

2-3 overripe bananas, mashed until liquid

2 eggs beaten light

2 cups flour

3/4 cup sugar

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda

optional:  2 tbs butter (melted)

OVEN:  350 degrees

1.  Blend dry ingredients

2.  Add wet ingredients

3.  Pour into buttered cake pan or loaf pan

4.  Bake 1 hour or until inserted toothpick comes out clean

My Grampa and Grammy Erikson and me, in their kitchen in Worcester, MA, circa 1979

Posted by: downtothesea | March 6, 2010

My Great-Grandmother’s Rosary

One of my most beloved possessions is my great-grandmother Nellie (Gavin) Miller’s rosary.

It has lovely purple glass beads that are worn smooth from years of prayer and a crucifix equally worn by her loving hands.  It has been mended in the past, as the first decade of beads has only 8 beads and the final decade has 12!  I find it hard to believe that such a devout Irish Catholic woman could have made such a mistake while fixing her rosary, and so I wonder if her husband, my great-grandfather William Miller mended it for her–he was of solid Scottish Presbyterian stock until he met Nell and converted to Catholicism to wed her in 1902.  They had such a tender relationship I doubt she would have pointed out the mistake to him.

Here are my great-grandparents Will and Nellie Miller, with their son William Timothy (Billy) in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1911:

I adore this photo of the family.  It is one of only two photographs I have of them together.  Will and Nell were 35 and 34 years old at this point, and beyond themselves with happiness over the birth of their long-awaited first child.  My grandmother, Jean Marie, wouldn’t be born for 11 more years, in 1922, when her parents were 46 and 45.

My grandmother Jean adored her older brother Billy and he doted on her.  Tragically, Billy’s life was cut short just offshore of Lake Ontario at Port Dalhousie during a church picnic in late June, 1926.  Unable to swim, he drowned when the row boat he was in with several other young people flipped, spilling all of them into the lake.  He was the only casualty of the group.  Here is an early postcard showing the boats for hire on the beach near where great-uncle Billy drowned at the age of only 15 years:

Despite the terrible loss of her only son and firstborn, Nellie’s faith never waivered.  She remained devout and trusting in the goodness of God, and passed that deep spirituality on to my grandmother.  I remember seeing Nell’s rosary in my grandmother’s room when I was young, and I knew that it was my grandmother’s favorite of the many rosaries she had.  It was only when the rosary came into my possession after my grandmother’s death in 2008 that I realized how very special it was.  The reverse of the crucifix reads:

Whenever I pray with this lovely old rosary, I feel so connected to my dear departed grandmother and to the great-grandmother I never knew.  All three sets of our fingers counted off these beads, all three pairs of our hands closed gently around this delicate crucifix.  All three of us prayed the same prayers.  It is my tangible connection to the sweet woman in the photo above, whom I never met, but who gazes directly back at me, smiling, with my own blue-grey eyes.

Posted by: downtothesea | February 14, 2010

A Non Sequitur for Valentine’s Day.

I know I should have posted some romantic-type goodie today for the feast of St. Valentine, but I find this much more interesting.

From the Niagara Falls Gazette, July 6, 1899:

STRUCK BY A TROLLEYMichael Gavin, a laborer of this city, met with a painful accident Monday afternoon.  He was struck by a car of the Buffalo & Niagara Falls Electric Railroad at the corner of Fifth Street and Erie Avenue and sustained several severe scalp wounds.  Dr. J. W. Hodge dressed his wounds.”

This poor unfortunate man, Michael Gavin, is my great-great grandfather.  My immediate thought is:  how fast did these trolleys go, exactly?  How preoccupied must he have been to step out in front of a moving trolley?  That is, assuming he hadn’t been indulging at a tavern beforehand…

I wonder if the Electric Railroad has records of accidents?  Gruesome, I know, but it’d be interesting to read the accident report.  Can I squeak in a few minutes of online research into the trolley company before my husband takes me out to a Valentine’s dinner?  You bet I can!

And no need to worry:  Michael recovered and lived on for another six years after his run-in with the trolley!

Another week, another post, blog, and resource to share.  Without further ado…


I have been loving Donna’s (What’s Past Is Prologue) five-part blog series “Cousins, Countries, and War: The Bavarian Military Rosters.”  Donna’s Bavarian ancestor Josef Bergmeister had always been a bit of a mystery to her until recently unveiled its new collection of Bavarian World War I military personnel rosters.  It’s been thrilling to read along as Donna uncovers the life and death of her “personal unknown soldier,” Josef.  I have looked forward eagerly to each new installment!


Stephen Mills (Stephen’s History and Genealogy blog) is the blogger behind the tremendously interesting A Land of Deepest Shade, a blog dedicated to “American funeralia, post-mortem photography, mourning customs, and cemeteries.”  His article on memorial cabinet cards is particularly fascinating.  Thanks to this blog, we genealogists and family historians are now able to gain greater insight into the diverse mourning customs of our relatives and ancestors.  A great read!


As readers may know, I have ancestors on both the American and Canadian side of the Niagara River–that is, in both the city of Niagara Falls, New York, and the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario.  The Niagara Falls Public Library in ONTARIO has a wonderful website that is chock full of great information and resources for anyone who has family in either city!  Check out their list of local history resources (though be warned:  the main menu of the site has been tending to do strange things with one’s cursor).  Also of great interest is their gigunda digital images archive, full of photos and fully searchable.  Another resource I discovered on the site last night is their digital newspaper index collection.  Would you believe with one search I located an obit I had been looking for since the summer?

Happy link-hopping!

Posted by: downtothesea | January 20, 2010

Treasure Chest Thursday: Aunt Kate (Kate Irene Miller)

This photograph was one of those rediscovered this past December in the long-missing Sibley’s box that belonged to my Gram.

This charming girl is Kate Irene Miller, who was born in Niagara Falls, NY, on September 25, 1887.  Kate was the youngest child of George and Elizabeth (Hislop) Miller, who emigrated from Scotland to Canada between 1873-1874.  She was the youngest sister of my great-grandfather, William H. Miller.

And Kate was my Gram’s favorite aunt.

I can still remember how Gram said Kate’s name, pronouncing “aunt” like “ant,” on account of her soft Western New York accent.  Kate was quite a beauty in her day, and independent to boot.  In the early decades of the 20th century, at a time when few women worked outside the home, Kate held a good job as a switchboard operator for Bell Telephone in Niagara Falls.  Gram revealed to my mother in hushed tones that Kate had even been married once, but that the union had ended quickly when Kate discovered her new husband already had a wife!

Kate, plucky and proud, kept the diamond.

Kate was a tiny wisp of a woman, not even five feet tall, and entirely proper and poised–that is, until someone told a joke.  And then oh, Gram said, oh how Katie could laugh!  That’s one of the reasons why I love this picture of Aunt Kate so much:  you can see laughter in her lovely dark eyes and just a hint of mischief in her Mona Lisa smile.

My father was lucky enough to grow up seeing Aunt Kate often.  She loved baseball and Dad remembers Kate attending one of his Little League games when he was 8 years old or so.  My father recalls that during the ballgame Kate had smoked her way through her pack of Camels (without inhaling–too much of a lady for that), and by the time the game was over she was brazenly bumming Chesterfields off my grandfather.

Aunt Kate passed away in February of 1974, two years before I was born.  Although I will always regret that I never knew her, I am so thankful that my father and mother remember her so well and delight in sharing Katie’s stories with me.

Posted by: downtothesea | January 18, 2010

Madness Monday: Remembering To Read What Isn’t There

I have been making myself crazy for a good six months now, trying to find my 3X great grandparents, Owen and Helen (Kelly) McCabe, in the 1851 Scotland census.

Helen (baptized “Lina” and known variously as “Helena,” “Lena,” and “Ellen”) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1827 to Hugh and Helen (also “Eleanor”) (Henderson) Kelly.  The Kellys were Catholic and I am trying to ascertain if Hugh and Helen emigrated from Ireland to Scotland.

Owen was born in 1827 in Co. Sligo (quite possibly the parish of Riverstown), and like many other Irish came to Scotland in search of work (and, in the late 1840s, to escape the horrors of the Famine).

Their firstborn, a daughter, and my great-great grandmother, yet another Helen, was born in Scotland in 1851.  Thanks to Scotland’s People, I was able to download a scan of her baptismal record (click on record to enlarge):

So we have Helen baptized on 4 June, 1851.

The census of Scotland in 1851 was taken in March of that year.  Helen (Kelly) McCabe would have been about 6 months pregnant with her daughter at the time.  So where were Owen and Helen (Kelly) McCabe in the census?

I tried every spelling of McCabe I could think of, every one I had seen:  McAbe, McCab, McCabbe, McKibb, Mc Cabe, as well as every spelling of Owen’s name I had seen:  Orsen, John, Eugene.  Nothing.  No Owen and Helen McCabe.  A couple of single Owens, recorded as lodgers–that was it.

Yesterday I was stuck at my parents’ house on an extended holiday on account of a snowstorm.  In between looking after my mother, who is currently ill with the flu and helping my father shovel, I logged on to Scotland’s People and reread all of the documents I had downloaded from the site.

I reread Helen’s 1851 baptismal record, wondering if I had missed some clue in the record that could lead me to her parents in the 1851 census.  And indeed, I saw what I had missed.

A blank space.

As it turns out, a biiiiiiiiiiig blank space.

There is a space directly to the right of my great-grandmother’s name in the baptismal record.  In the space the priest was to record whether a child was “lawful,” that is born to married parents.  Note that the child above Helen in the record has “lawful” penned into the right-hand space after his name.  Helen has no such note.

Could it be that her parents weren’t actually married at the time of her birth?  The record seems to suggest so.

In which case, perhaps I must go back to the 1851 census and focus my search not on a married couple, Owen and Helen McCabe, but on a single Owen McCabe and a single Helen KELLY.  Maybe that will bring me the results I seek.

And so another genealogical caveat from experience:  do remember to read between the lines, even if all you encounter is a blank space.

Posted by: downtothesea | January 15, 2010

All In the Details.

It’s truly amazing what you can learn from four lines of type.

Take this want ad from the Niagara Falls Gazette, August 30, 1912.  I found it while killing time on the internet this afternoon.

“Mrs. Gavin” was my great-great grandfather Michael Gavin’s second wife.  Michael had been deceased for seven years when his widow, Annie, placed this advert.  The address, 352 Third Street, Niagara Falls, NY, was one door up from Michael’s younger sister, Mary Gavin Callinan.

The item that is of particular interest to me is the directional instruction that refers to Annie Gavin’s living quarters:  “over Hannel’s.”  I am assuming that “Hannel’s” is some manner of fairly well-known business establishment in the area–certainly well-known enough to be used as a point of orientation for the average person.

This opens up the exciting possibility that there might be a photograph of “Hannel’s” somewhere out there, which would provide me a handy peek at the building in which the Gavins made their home.  Exciting!  Time to write another email to the Local History Department at the Niagara Falls Public Library…

And to think:  a brand new lead from four lines of type!

Posted by: downtothesea | January 13, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Postcard from Niagara Falls, NY

Falls Street, Niagara Falls, NY. Street on which Patrick Gavin (c. 1845-22 July 1893) owned several properties. His family would fight over the ownership of these properites for decades.

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