Posted by: downtothesea | January 2, 2010

Historical Newspapers: an Addiction for the New Year!

There have been a handful of websites that absolutely blew my socks off in 2009, most by adding content to their already fantastic sites that I desperately needed to close holes in research.  Today I want to highlight a website whose potential I blithely and naively ignored for…I shudder to say it…years, until very, very recently.

Thanks to a great conversation on the  mailing list for Niagara Co, New York, NYNIAGAR-L, I was encouraged to take another look at a website I had visited before but whose interface confused me enough to dismiss it.

The website is called, curiously, Old Fulton New York Post Cards, and it is at its heart a search engine for a huge number of historical New York State newspapers.  The Genealogue makes mention of it in 2006 as a “Genealogy Site I Don’t Hate!” so I had to give it another try.  Once I looked past the (largely unused?) huge chat panel encompassing the right hand half of the page and learned to ignore the creepy “web crawler” (you’ll have to see for yourself) at the bottom of the page, I discovered what a true gem this site is. 

From this site I was able to access almost a hundred years worth of the Niagara Falls Gazette, a newspaper I had previously only been able to view on microfilm at the Niagara Falls Public Library (a hard enough drive when I lived in Toronto, but now that I’m in Maine, frequent trips there are entirely out of the question).  The newspaper pages on Old Fulton New York Postcards display as PDFs, making them blessedly easy to work with, and the name recognition component of the search engine works much better than expected.

To find a list of the newspapers indexed on the site, scroll down the left-hand search pane and watch for a link to a list of them among the announcements from the webmaster scrolling in a marquee across the page.  Confusing?  Yeah.  Here’s a link to the list instead.

The site is quirky and takes some patient getting used to, but once I began finding newspaper articles referencing the Gavins and the McCabes I was willing to put up with whatever odd interface the site threw my way.  A caveat, though:  if you, like me, have never before had the opportunity to read more than your ancestors’ obits in a historical newspaper, prepare yourself for the possibility that you might read something significantly less than flattering about a revered ancestor.  I am still coming to terms with my discoveries about the kind of man my great-great grandfather Michael Gavin seems to have been, at least according to the papers…remembering that  journalists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seemed to have had very few qualms about telling it “like it was.”

But that’s another story for another time.

Posted by: downtothesea | January 1, 2010

The Prodigal Daughter Returns (again)


I can’t believe how long I’ve let this poor blog be idle.  Is it too much of a cliche to delare its resurrection one of my New Year’s resolutions?  Believe it or not, I’ve made some pretty incredible genealogical discoveries since…erm…*whispers* August…and they deserve their moments in the sun.  Most have served in their own ways to remind me that my ancestors were real people, with real problems, real emotions, real desires.  This year I will work hard to keep from romanticizing my ancestors, as difficult as that may be.

I have also had a few instances play out in which following careless assumptions about a family member’s vital stats led me so far off the correct track I had to scrap several weeks of (bunk) research.  That’s a humbling experience, I can tell you.

But there were also triumphs.  I have gleefully connected with “long-lost” cousins in Australia, Scotland, and England.  It seems this lonely genealogist is alone no more!  Bless the internet in all of its social networking splendor.

The greatest triumph, however, came just this past Wednesday, when a box of old family photographs surfaced at my grandfather’s apartment during our Christmas visit to him…a box my late grandmother had been positive she’d lost in their move from their house to the assisted living community some four years ago.  Also discovered:  my great grandmother Nellie Gavin’s silk wedding blouse from her 1902 wedding to my great-grandfather, William Miller.  How amazing is that?  Oh yes, I am writing very calmly about it now, but I admit with more than a little blush to my cheek that there were indeed a few tears when this great discovery came to light.

And now off to catch up on all the genealogy RSS feeds I have been neglecting…

Posted by: downtothesea | August 10, 2009

History and the historical novel…with a dash of genealogy.

As the outreach coordinator for a museum, I spend a lot of my time thinking of ways to make our museum and the stories we tell accessible to our visitors.  The process by which a museum’s knowledge base is transmitted to the general public is called “interpretation.”  This can be accomplished in a visual, auditory, or tactile fashion, and the best museums employ all three to varying degrees.

When we work on genealogy, we are both museum and visitor.  We possess all this raw information and have to interpret it ourselves, FOR ourselves.  I try to use my own experiences to enhance my understanding of my ancestors, but I sometimes I need outside help.  Because I’m an unabashed bookworm, I often turn to historical fiction to help me fill in the gaps.

I have an uneasy relationsip with historical fiction.  As one who has received degrees in the study of history, I fully appreciate how difficult it is to understand a past event relying on the sources available.  Additionally, our own life experiences color our perception and comprehension of historical events.  The “TRUTH,” if there even is such a cut-and-dried concept, is desperately hard to pin down.  The harder we look at it, the blurrier it becomes.  Historical fiction takes history that extra step towards speculation as an author uses his or her own imagination to flesh out events, or characters’ mindsets.  But there’s a bravery there that appeals to me, a willingness to open one’s mind to the possibility of being completely and utterly wrong about history–or perhaps being more right than anyone could know.  Authors often take risks in interpretation that historians wouldn’t dare.  I admire that courage.

At the moment I am reading Kevin Baker’s historical novel Paradise Alley, set in New York City during the Civil War.  Most of the characters are Irish immigrants who came to America in the wake of the Famine.  As this was my family’s experience as well (though they didn’t end up in New York City), I have been reading Mr. Baker’s interpretation of souls damaged irreparably by the gross trauma of the Famine with morbid interest.  His description, flashback-style, of a family’s slow death by starvation and fever in a ruined cottage on the Burren is vivid to the point of gruesomeness and since I read it I have been haunted by it.  Was this what my family was fleeing from?  Was it like this, truly like this? 

In the end, I suppose it really doesn’t matter how pitch-perfect and accurate Mr. Baker’s descriptions are.  What matters to me is that his book is making my ancestors real to me in ways I might not have though of on my own.  He could be right or wrong, or perhaps somewhere in between, but his book is making me think.  It is making me think hard about history and how it was lived out by real people–real people who, though they didn’t know it then, were day by day, slowly creating me.

Posted by: downtothesea | July 11, 2009

Maine, rain, potato blight, and genealogical delight.

This has been two months of constant motion for us.  We are (mostly) moved in to our new country, new state, new city, new apartment, new places of employment.  Contributing to the surreal feeling of starting a new life has been the bizarre weather that has plagued New England this “summer.”  We had less than a week of sunshine in June, and many, many days when the temperature barely scrabbled out of the 50s.  I had the coldest birthday I have ever had in my 33 years:  on July 8th our high for the day was 58 degrees (a new record for our city). 

Driving home from work with the radio tuned in to Maine’s public radio station last week, I listened with equal parts of fascination and horror as the news report announced that the cold and wet weather, coupled with a batch of infected seedlings sold in local big-box stores has brought about a resurgance of the crop disease known as “late blight.”  This is the self same fungus that triggered the loss of the potato crop during the Famine in Ireland in the late 1840s.  Because my mind works in odd ways, it occurred to me that in a strange way I owed my very existence to late blight, as it brought my Irish ancestors to the States and into each others’ company. 

That was all the inspiration I needed.  That night I was back messing around on my favorite, long-neglected genealogy websites.  Isn’t it curious that we sometimes don’t realize how much we’ve missed something until we encounter it once again after a long hiatus?  And in my case, a great surprise was waiting in a source I felt I’d scoured months before.

I was watching the Red Sox on TV and enjoying the freedom of our fancy new wireless internet connection by paging lazily through the 1865 New York State Census on Family Search’s pilot site.  I became engaged in the game and failed to notice that I had advanced through to the end of all of the census pages available for the first election district of the town of Niagara, New York.  When I turned my eyes back to the computer, I was confounded.  The final page on the screen read that the census was of all inhabitants living in Niagara on the first on June, 1875.  Huh?  I jumped to the first page of the district and read 1865.  Perhaps the microfilmer had added a few pages from the next decade’s state census by mistake at the end of filming the 1865 census.  I paged through again, carefully, to check.  As it turned out, this was more than a few pages worth of snafu.  To my elation, I discovered the entirety of the 1875 state census for the first district appended to the end of the 1865 census!  This is mentioned nowhere in the description of the source on the site, which lists it only as the 1865 New York State Census.  And sure enough, the second district yielded the same results.  Abandoning the ballgame, I went on a hunt for the Gavins and McCabes in 1875, and found them all, waiting patiently for me to cop on to the extraordinary genealogical good fortune that had fallen into my lap(top).

The moral of the story?  We have heard so many times that reexamining an old source may open up new avenues of research.  In this case, that genealogical adage proved more true than I could ever have hoped.  You can be sure I will be reading my way through the entirety of my sources from now on.

Posted by: downtothesea | May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 2009


 In honor of Memorial Day, here’s a shot of my wonderful grandfather, Gus Erikson’s engineering group of the Army Air Corps 368th Fighter Group, 397th Fighter Squadron (Jabo Angels).  Grampa is in the middle row, second from the right.


Anders Gustaf Erikson 1916-2000

Miss you, Grampa.  Miss you every single day.

Posted by: downtothesea | May 19, 2009

Christmas in May.

The new LDS Family Search Pilot has just posted the 1865 New York Census in a “browse images only” format!  Wow!

And I haven’t fully recovered from the joy of discovering the 1892 NY Census there last week!

Posted by: downtothesea | May 19, 2009

My first official Tombstone Tuesday offering.


This is the gravestone of my great-great-great-great grandmother Helen (Ellen) McCabe.  The stone is in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Niagara Falls, New York.  She shares the stone with her husband, Thomas, and her son, Owen.

I was lucky to be at the cemetery on a day that favored reading her inscription, as the sandstone marker is quickly becoming illegible.  Here’s what it says:

“Helen McCabe

Native of Co. Sligo


Died June 27, 1884

Aged 76 Years”

After a long and involved trip back to New England to find an apartment and interview for a handful of jobs, I have finally returned to Canada to help my husband pack up our apartment.  I found a great little place in Maine for us, and there are some job prospects on the horizon, so things are sloooowly coming together.

I finally had a chance to sit down and do some genealogy work a few days ago, and discovered that the pilot site of the new LDS Family Records Search recently added the 1892 New York State Census in an “browse image only” format.  This is a dream come true

Within fifteen minutes of searching the second voting district of the town of Niagara, I found my great-great grandfather Michael Gavin Jr. and his family (with his second wife Annie):


And little fourteen year old Nellie Gavin is my great-grandmother.

In the fourth voting district I found my great-great-great grandparents, Michael Gavin Sr. and his wife Elizabeth.  Their adult son Patrick is there as well.  And a wonderful bonus:  a few entries beneath them I came upon my great-great-great grandmother, Ellen McCabe.


The interface of the image viewer is super easy to use and for the most part the images are fantastic quality.  I don’t mind not having an index, because I find the “browse only” format forces me to search more slowly and to observe the families living around my ancestors.  Some of these families are becoming familiar to me, and this summer I am planning to construct a “neighbor map” for my ancestors.  Who knows–it could lead to a few brick walls being busted down.

What a treat!

Posted by: downtothesea | April 21, 2009

The language of genealogy.

In Swedish, the words for one’s grandparents delineate which side of the family each grandparent comes from.  For example:

Your mother’s father:  morfar

Your mother’s mother:  mormor

Your father’s mother:  farmor

Your father’s father:  farfar

My mother is a first-generation Swedish American, so she always referred to her grandparents this way.  She still does.  It only recently occurred to me how incredibly useful this system is.  When she talks about “Mormor,” everyone always knows which grandparent she is speaking of:  her mother’s mother. 

When I speak of my grandparents, I have to use their last names to differentiate, and now because I’m deep into genealogy, confusion arises.  I was recently asking my mother a genealogical question about her mother, who was always “Grandma Erikson” to me.  But my mother inadvertently skipped back a generation in her mind and began telling me about her “Grandma Erikson,” her father’s mother.  We went back and forth for a while, each of us confusing the other more and more, until I realized the problem and said, “No, no–not your farmor, MY mormor.”  “Oh,” said my mother.  “Now I understand.”

Oh English.  Why can’t you be more like Swedish?

My morfar and mormor, Gus and Margaret Erikson, and me, 1979.

My morfar and mormor, Gus and Margaret Erikson, and me, 1979.

Posted by: downtothesea | April 21, 2009

The Unsinkable George Callinan, Part 1.


Somewhere in this photo of the Niagara Falls Police Department from 1910 is one of the more colorful characters in my family tree, Detective George H. Callinan.  He was my great-great grandfather Michael Gavin’s sister Mary (Gavin) Callinan’s son.*  I still don’t know what he looks like, though I know someday I will.  In the history of the city of Niagara Falls, he’s unavoidable.

Leaf through any Niagara Falls Gazette from the 1920s or 1930s and it’s nearly a certainty a mention of George Callinan will be there.  In a time of Prohibition and Depression, when desperate men turned away from the law, Callinan was Niagara Falls’ very own Dick Tracy: larger than life, ever ready with his revolver, always “getting his man.”  He was free and easy with the local media, perennially candid and a delight to interview: a reporter’s dream.  The story of his greatest case in 1921 deserves a post of its own, and that will come.

But even before he became a local celebrity, back around the time when the above photo was taken, Callinan still managed to make the papers in what would become a familiarly dramatic fashion in the decades to come.  Any introduction to this article from the New York Times on June 24, 1907 will only detract from its delightful bizarreness, and so for your perusal I simply present:



Subdues Policeman Who Would Have Jumped Into Niagara Rapids


NIAGARA FALLS, N. Y., June 23—Detective Callinan and Patrolman Roeder faced death for twenty minutes to-day 400 feet up in the air in the basket of a captive balloon.  The mechanism which brings the balloon to earth went wrong, and the gasbag shot skyward.

      A sudden gust of wind carried the balloon out over the rapids of the Niagara River just above the Falls, and the anchor went tearing through chimneys and roofs, which were considerably damaged.  Roeder, crazed with fear, wanted to jump, but Callinan drew his revolver and threatened to shoot him if he attempted to go over the side of the basket.

      As the last effort was being made to bring the wild bag down to earth, the basket ran against the high-power cables which carry electricity from the power-houses across the gorge, and the men narrowly escaped being shocked to death.

      The rope which held the balloon to earth threatened to burn against the cables, but by careful handling of those on the ground the bag was finally brought down and the two men were released.




(This ballooning image can be found in its original context on this webpage.  The text below the image is not my own.)


*His mother herself had begun life in a colorful fashion, as she was, according to her 1915 obituary, “born at sea, when within ten days of the shores of the U. S., on one of the old time sailing vessels.”

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