Posted by: downtothesea | April 18, 2009

Is that a fir tree in your lung or are you just pining for me?

There are times when I adore the internet.  One good click leads to another and I find a gem of a blog via a gem of a blog.  This morning was one of those occasions.

Tim Abbot (or Greenman Tim), on his truly unique and ridiculously readable blog Walking The Berkshires, recently posted that the “Cabinet of Curiosities” carnival he hosts will postponed indefinitely due to a concerning bout with serious illness.  May he get well soon!  As a gift to his readers he offered a link to another “cabinet of curiosities,” the blog Morbid Anatomy (a word of warning, though, before you click:  Morbid Anatomy contains graphic medical images of the human body).  The tagline of Morbid Anatomy is “surveying the interstices of art and medicine, death and culture.”  The medical historian in me practically did cartwheels.

Now granted, some, or perhaps most of you do not get as thrilled as I do about 19th-century wax antatomical figures with severe physical malformations (I’m willing to bet I’m pretty much alone in this), but this site may also be helpful to the genealogist and family historian hoping to learn about the types of diseases our ancestors suffered and the variety of medical treatments available to them.  There is much to learn about death on this blog as well.

It’s so worth a click, but leave any squeamishness at the door.

Thank you, Tim!

Posted by: downtothesea | April 17, 2009

Please help me with a “helper”…

Larry Lehmer over at the excellent blog Passing It On, offered the following family history blogging prompt on 15 April:

Writing prompt of the day: Make a list of ambiguous or unusual words you’ve found in your family history research and verify that you’ve interpreted them properly.”

While I haven’t made a list of all the wacky things I’ve read in my research (or all the wacky things I myself have written during the course of my research), I do have one particular word that’s been bugging me for a while.

The word is “helper,” and it refers to the profession of my great-great-grandfather’s eldest brother.

Not much to go on, is it?

Here it is in an original context, from Waite’s Directory of Niagara Falls, 1889:


So the first Michael is my ggg-grandfather.  He was a day laborer who owned a house on Falls Street in Niagara Falls, N. Y., near the Erie Railroad tracks which ran through town from north to south.

The second Michael is his son, my great-great grandfather.  He is also listed as a laborer, but by this point was also serving on the Niagara Falls police department as a patrolman.  The directory tells us he owned a house on Third Street, near Niagara Street.

Patrick Gavin is Michael Sr.’s eldest son.  The directory tells us he’s living with his father in his father’s house.  And here his profession is listed as “helper.”  What is he helping with and who is he helping?

By 1892 the directory provides specific addresses for the men, but Patrick’s occupation is no less baffling:


Patrick’s obituary gives a wee bit more information about what he did for work:


Niagara Falls Gazette

Saturday Evening, 22 July 1893




Patrick Gavin.


Patarick [sic] Gavin, aged 48 years, died this morning about 10:30 o’clock at his home on Falls street near the Erie railroad tracks.  The deceased came here in 1850 and has worked on the New York Central.  He was born in County Clair [sic], Ireland, and leaves a mother, four sisters and one brother as follows […]


So we know he worked for the railroad–the New York Central–for enough time to have it mentioned in his obit.  But what exactly does a “helper” do in the context of a railroad?  I’m stumped.  One gets the feeling that it was a common enough occupation that it needed no further explanation to someone leafing through the Niagara Falls directory in the early 1890s.

Is anyone out there enough of a railroad buff to shed some light on this mysterious profession of railroad “helper?”  I’d love a hint!

Posted by: downtothesea | April 16, 2009

Obituaries: a pleasant way to spend the evening.

Now that I’m done with my program at the university for the forseeable future, I finally have a real, live chunk of free time in which to update my poor neglected blog!

My latest genealogical obsession is obituaries.  If I had only had an inkling of how amazingly helpful they are to the family historian, I would have gotten acquainted with them way back in the beginning.  I guess I was uneager to dig into them because I expected that all obits read like the rather dry memorials we see in the papers today.  True, even the dry ones can provide enough new information to keep the genealogist busy for a good long time, but the old obituaries…ho ho!  They were a different breed all together!  Talk about dramatic!

Here’s an amazing example I’ve found.  This Niagara Falls obituary was for Bridget (Gavin) O’Hara, eldest sister of my great-great grandfather, Michael Gavin.  It is my own transcription of a badly-photographed microfilm item in possession of the wonderful Niagara Falls Public Library.  All mistakes herein are therefore my own: 


16 November, 1897

Niagara Falls Gazette




Mrs. Bridget O’Hara Expired at 8:30 O’Clock While Looking For Her Son




Deceased Attended Two Funerals During the Day and the Strain Was Too Great—Coroner Slocum Was Summoned But Will Not Hold an Inquest



      Mrs. Bridget O’Hara, widow of the late Patrick O’Hara, died very suddenly last night at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Cook at the corner of Niagara and Fifth Streets.  Mrs. O’Hara resided at 354 Fifth Street, which is only a short distance from the Cook home and she walked the distance apparently in good health a few moments before she died.  Yesterday Mrs. O’Hara attended two funerals and the effect brought on nervousness and excitement.  At 8:30 o’clock she left her home and went to the Cook home to look for her son.  He was not there and she grew worried.  As she entered the house she complained of feeling weak and faint.  She sat down in a chair and called for a glass of water.  The water was brought and Mrs. O’Hara drank it.  Some stimulants were then brought, but she could not take them and blood began to flow from her mouth.  She became unconscious and a few minutes later she was dead.


      Coroner Slocum was called for, but it was an hour before he could be found.  When he arrived he ordered the remains to be removed to the family home.


      The news of the sudden death of Mrs. O’Hara circulated with great rapidity and sorrow was everywhere expressed, for the deceased was well known and esteemed.


      She leaves to mourn her loss two sons, James and Patrick, a daughter Annie, two sisters, Mrs. Margaret McMahon and Mrs. John Callihan [sic], a mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Gavin, and a brother, Michael Gavin, all of this city, and a sister, Mrs. Michael Ryan of Buffalo.


      Coroner Slocum will not hold an inquest in the case.  The cause of death is given as internal hemorrhage.


      Mrs. O’Hara was born in County Clare, Ireland.  Upon coming to this country she settled in Albany and later moved to this city where she has resided from the past 25 years.  She had a wide circle of friends and was respected and esteemed by all who knew her.


      The funeral will be held Thursday morning from St. Mary’s Church.


Wow!  If ever the word “thrilling” could be applied to an obituary, this would be the one!  Poor Bridget…I wonder what could have happened to her?  Several other women in the Gavin line seem prone to “brain trouble,” as they put it in those days, which has reached me via my grandmother in the form of debilitating migraines.  Perhaps Bridget’s death was neurological in nature?  Medicine of the 19th century was more apt to describe medical symptoms than to “name” afflictions as we do today, so it’s quite hard to discern exactly what caused Bridget’s hemorrhage.  I’ll probably never know, but it sure makes me want to listen extra attentively next time I visit my neurologist.  And note to self:  attending two funerals in one day is probably not the best idea.

Poor Bridget.  Requiescat in pace.

Niagara Falls, N. Y., 1882: H. Wellge

Niagara Falls, N. Y., 1882: H. Wellge

My final nerdy note:  St. Mary of the Cataract Catholic Church, where Bridget had her funeral, can be seen in the above map from the 1880s.  The church is a white building about halfway up the image, just to the right of the railroad tracks that run through the center of town.  Trying to pick it out is a bit like playing a 19th-century version of “Where’s Waldo?”, but it’s there.  St. Mary’s is still standing today, and still serving her vibrant faith community in downtown Niagara Falls.

Map courtesy of the Library of Congress’ amazing map site.  My own paltry post on this great site can be found here.

Posted by: downtothesea | March 27, 2009


With the arrival of Patrick Gavin’s will from Sampubco about a month ago, shortly following my triumphant discovery of the Gavins’ graves in Niagara Falls, N. Y., my understanding of that family has been blown wide open.  It’s amazing how knowledge of one family line can remain in stasis for so long and then–WHAM!–one little nugget of information opens up a zillion new lines of inquiry.

I realize now that I could spend my entire life doing genealogy and never progress past, say, my great-great grandparents because of all the exciting stuff there is to learn about each family member.  When I began this genealogy quest in earnest a few years ago I rushed headlong into tracing lines back as far as they could go.  The internet is so helpful with this sort of linear research.  I’ll freely admit that I was nervous about branching out into new media for research.  It took me months to work up enough guts to learn how to use a microfilm machine (again).  But once I did explore new avenues of study, my family opened up before my eyes like a flower.  Now I’m all about breadth in family research…forget about how far back I can trace my lineage (at least for now).  I feel like I’m really getting to know these folks and it has made my genealogical work SO much more fulfilling.

Thanks to Patrick Gavin’s will, I now know the married names of my great-great-grandfather’s Michael Gavin’s sisters!  I also have a little more insight into family relations.  Patrick ended up leaving almost the entirety of his (signifcant) real estate holdings to his sister Margaret Gavin McMahon and her husband Patrick McMahon upon the occasion of their mother’s death…four properties in total.  Two more properties went to his sister Annie Gavin Ryan.  In comparison he left his brother Michael $50.  FIFTY DOLLARS.  Now, granted, that wasn’t an amount to sneeze at in 1893, but Patrick also made sure $500 dollars was set aside for his funeral and a new family gravestone, and he gave $100 to St. Mary’s Church.  I wonder if Michael viewed this as a slap in the face?  It would have given me pause, but then again I have a real problem when things don’t turn out fairly in my life (I know, I know…it’s my unrealistic cross to bear).

Further papers reveal that Michael and the other sisters indeed hired their own lawyer to file objections to the lopsided will.  Interestingly, a few months into the process, Michael and his other sisters rescinded their objections and the will went through unamended.  I wonder what happened?  I wonder if their aging mother pleaded that harmony be restored to the grieving family?  I can’t know for sure, though speculating sure is fun. 

At any rate, it shows that the Gavins were real people, not tidy names ticked off in my genealogy files.  They disagreed, they may have outright fought, but in other instances it becomes clear how deeply they cared for one another.  One look at the magnificent black marble obelisk of a tombstone Patrick Gavin’s $500 bought reveals a tender decision the family made.  On one side of the marker is the inscription:

John Gavin. Died February 15, 1863.  Aged 2 Years 10 Months.

By the time the gravestone was erected, the toddler had been dead for more than 30 years.  But his memory was carefully preserved there on the family marker just the same.  I find that terribly, terribly touching.  So much for the historians who argue that in the past, when child mortality was alarmingly high, the deaths of young children were barely mourned by their families.  The Gavins clearly still felt the loss of poor little John, despite the length of time he had been gone. 

All of these details add to the fascinating picture I am gradually forming of the Gavin family.  I am hooked on the details now, and my new love in genealogical resources is the newpaper obituary!   My next post will sing the praises of the noble obit., which I think is a crucial source for every family historian to explore as fully as possible.

Posted by: downtothesea | March 4, 2009

Pulling up roots and what lies beyond.

Things around here have been insane lately. 

I have made the tremendously difficult decision to leave my PhD program for the time being–for a million reasons, but cost and practicality being two of the foremost.  It’s broken my heart.  I’ve defined myself by my desire to be a professor for so long that I’m not entirely sure who I am anymore.  I feel like I’m letting down so many people, and I’m terrified to reveal my decision to my wonderful history professor at University College Cork who originally encouraged me down this path a bazillion years ago when I was a weepy, aimless college student in Ireland.

I’m in the midst of grinding out job applications and finding a new place for us to live.  My husband has sunk into a deep depression about moving out of Canada, so I’m working out all the details of our move alone.  The days are hard and the nights are so long.

But inevitably, my mind turns to all my immigrant ancestors, who left behind everything they had, everything they were, all of their dreams, their friends, and their homes, and came (blindly, in some cases) to America.  Maybe they were like me, afraid to allow myself to think too far into the future for fear of disappointing myself down the road.  Or worse: disappointing my husband.  We’re not being chased by the spectre of famine or abject poverty, but being uprooted is being uprooted.  It hurts, and when it stops hurting, there is regret.  Regret can eat a person alive.

Jobs are so scarce in the States now.  I am applying for teaching jobs, hoping I have a chance to find employment at least close to my field, but I know the first priority is to find ANY work, for the sake of the family.  I am not too proud to pour people cups of coffee if it keeps us solvent for now. 

I wonder what my great-great-great grandfathers Owen McCabe and Michael Gavin were good at?  Did they have special talents?  Were they singers or storytellers or magnificent stick-in-the-dust artists?  What did they LOVE to do?  Did they dream of being explorers or locomotive engineers or musicians?  I may never know.  And that makes me a bit wistful.  The only activity I know occupied most of their waking hours was their work as day laborers. 



They could have been composing gorgeous, lush stories in their minds to tell their children before bed while they slung their heavy picks and shovels, digging, digging, all day long.  As they laid down mile after mile of railroad track in the blistering summer sun and the painful winter cold, they could have been dreaming up melodies so beautiful their wives would cry upon hearing them.  I don’t know.  Maybe they were strong enough to keep close who they really were as people despite the thankless work they did.  I hope so.

I hope so, because that means I have a chance, too.  Maybe I can still remain true to the essence of me, even as I ask you whether or not you want whipped cream on your white chocolate mocha.

Posted by: downtothesea | February 25, 2009

Missing person!

It just occurred to me that on the McCabes’ headstone I found recently, my great-great grandmother is missing.

There are epitaphs on the stone for my ggg-grandparents, Thomas (d. 1880) and Helen McCabe (d. 1884) of Co. Sligo, Ireland.

There is also an epitaph for my gg-grandfather, Owen McCabe, their son, also from Sligo (d. 1886).

But Owen’s wife Helen (Kelly) McCabe, who outlived him by as much as 20 years, is absent from the stone.

Owen and Helen’s children are also absent.  Because they were all girls, this leads me to believe that they all married and were buried with their husbands.

Did my missing gg-grandmother remarry as well?  The last I hear of her is in the 1900 census, where she is living alone, still as Helen McCabe, and she is about 73 years of age.  How realistic was it for a woman in her 70s to remarry at this time?

I guess I’ve got to go digging for a death certificate…

Poor Helen.  Where are you?

Posted by: downtothesea | February 19, 2009

Another joyful family reunion, cemetery-style.

On Sunday last, on my way home to visit my folks in Massachusetts, I drove through Niagara Falls again.  Of course, I had to stop and poke around St. Mary’s/ Sacred Heart Cemetery again to see if I could reproduce the fantastic luck I’d had a few days before finding the grave of my great-great-great grandparents, Michael and Elizabeth Gavin!

It was a lovely sunny but chilly day, just a smidge below freezing–perfect, really, for a nice walk through a graveyard.  Though the mud from the thaw had almost frozen entirely, I played it safe and parked my car faaaaaaaaar away from the muddy carriage tracks in the center of the cemetery that almost trapped me on Thursday.

I hiked all the way down the northern side of the graveyard, with no success locating any more Gavins or a single McCabe.  So I switched to the southern side and began trudging back up to my car.  One quarter of the way back I found my great-great grandparents, Michael Gavin Jr. and his wife Ellen, along with assorted children and Michael’s second wife, Annie.




“Great!”  I said to myself, “Now all I have to do is find the McCabes!”

And not 300 feet later, I did.


I had indeed found my other set of Irish great-great-great grandparents Thomas and Ellen McCabe and my great-great grandfather Owen McCabe, but I discovered to my horror that I could just barely make out their epitaphs!  The gravestone was sandstone and 120 years of Western New York winters had taken a hard toll on the inscriptions.


It was only by tracing my finger along the shallow letters that I was able to “read” the inscriptions and learn that the McCabes were natives of County Sligo, Ireland.  I am so intensely grateful that I happened upon the stone now and not twenty years from now–the sandstone epitaphs will not last much longer, I’m sure.

And that’s what I’d call a fine week’s work in genealogy.  Not only have I discovered the counties of origin of the Gavins (Clare) and the McCabes (Sligo), I’ve also found their graves.

I feel a great sense of peace having found them.  I know that even if I never uncover another piece of genealogical information about them, I always know where they are and where to visit them, and this is, in a way, the ultimate goal for me.  I can stand in the graveyard grass beside my ancestors and be together with them at long last.

Such a hopeless romantic, me!

Today I thought I’d make the not-so-long drive (2 hours, plus border crossing) down to Niagara Falls, NY and  hit the City Hall for some records and the Public Library to search for some Gavin family obits.  It’s been a trying week for me, as I’ve made some pretty big life decisions in the past few days and I’m feeling a bit wobbly coming to terms with them.  And genealogy always cheers me up, so off I went.

Disappointment #1:  the Public Library was closed because of (according to the sign on the door) Lincoln’s birthday.  Now, maybe I’ve lived in Canada too long, but are public buildings usually shut for Lincoln’s birthday?  I can’t remember.  Anyway, feeling a sense of dread, I headed off to Niagara Falls City Hall…which leads to:

Disappointment #2:  City Hall was also closed, presumably for the same reason the library was closed.  Rats.

It was raining and blowing a gale by this point, but like a trooper I thought I’d head over to the place I’d heard the old Roman Catholic cemetery for the St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart parishes was and have a drive through to see if I could spot any Gavins or McCabes.  I knew it was kind of a pointless exercise, what with the rain lashing down and the sky darkening, coupled with the fact that I had no idea whether any of my ancestors were there at all.  I knew they attended St. Mary’s, but I hadn’t yet figured out where they were buried.

I literally wasn’t in there ten minutes when I’d spotted a dark granite tombstone that read “Gavin.”

I hopped out of the car and sloshed through a sea of mud up to the stone, fully expecting to read unfamiliar names carved there.  But no, there they were:  my great-great-great grandfather Michael, his wife Elizabeth, and three of their eight children.  In the middle of the rain, the wind, and the mud, I flung my arms around the headstone and had a nice long cry with my family.

When I regained a modicum of sense, I pulled out my “on the road” genealogy notebook to record the inscriptions on the stone and was shocked to discover, carved there before my eyes, the very piece of information I had been hoping to find at the City Hall and the Public Library:  the Gavins’ native county in Ireland.

County Clare.

I am so, so beyond happy about this.  I am particularly excited because when I lived in Ireland a million years ago, my very favorite place I visited the whole time I lived there was a little town by the sea called Doolin…in Co. Clare.

So, I missed out on the library, I missed out on the City Hall, but the Gavins themselves showed me exactly what I had been searching for.

My family is great.  Even the ones I never knew.

There were a few tense moments getting out of the graveyard, as my car had sunk into the mud of the old carriage tracks and I had to rock the vehicle back and forth for a good twenty minutes before I could shoulder my way out.  My clutch hates me now, but at least I’m not waiting for a tow truck in Niagara Falls instead of sitting at my desk warm and dry in Toronto.

What a nice afternoon spent with the family!


Posted by: downtothesea | February 10, 2009 and database weirdness.

Sometimes I get very frustrated with, despite all the wonderful information I have gleaned from them this past year.  This post as a bit of an airing of two main complaints;  I shall try to be kind.

First:  either my computer is infected by a huge virus (unlikely) or the site is ridiculously slow and has been for months.  When I have to wait 1-2 minutes for every single page to load (largely because of the adverts?  I don’t know…I’m no expert), it seriously decreases the fun factor and I’ve been logging off the site in frustration more times than I care to count over the last few weeks.  I have a limited amount of time during the day in which I can work on genealogy, and it’s frustrating to spend a large part of it waiting for a website (whose subscription I pay) to load. 

Second:  I can find my great-grandfather Gustav Hjalmar Eriksson’s immigration record on the Ellis Island website, but when I enter the exact same information into the immigration database on, I get nothing.  Even if I search by year, month, and day tells me the ship, the SS Drottningholm wasn’t even there (though the manifest from Ellis Island clearly shows it was)!  I may be forced to order a copy of the records from Ellis Island which charges $40 for a 11″ by 14″ copy of the ship’s manifest.  Argh!

On the upside, I did discover my great-grandfather’s place of birth is Grythyttan, Hallefors, Sweden.  Now, if I could only save a copy of the record…

The church at Grythyttan, Hallefors, Sweden.

The church at Grythyttan, Hallefors, Sweden.

Photo by Kjell Eson.

Posted by: downtothesea | February 3, 2009

The joy of microfilm.

As of this afternoon this blogling is no longer a FHL microfilm virgin!

I feel like I have accomplished something huge by finally branching out into different record types.  I tend to be very set and comfortable in my ways, so this is a very big deal for little old me.

I did just fine with the microfilm reader, too, though I haven’t used one since about 1986.  I even had a nice young man come over to me as I was using it and ask what I was doing–he had seen people at the machine before but didn’t know exactly what it did.  I felt like a proper researcher as I explained how microfilm worked!

Then I dug in…first to a collection of two film reels of “vital records” which was nothing more than the Niagara Falls Public Library’s card catalogue of names cited in local historical newspapers.  It was a fair-to-middling index, and I did find some Gavins and Millers floating around whose newspaper citations I can chase up later on, but I shudder at the thought of anyone presuming to use the card catalog as “vital records.”  Eek!

The next film was a real gem, however:  the 1865 New York State census.  It wasn’t indexed, which meant I had to go through the census page by page, but I did indeed find the McCabes and the Gavins after two hours of searching. 

I learned some amazing information, too.  The Gavins’ family home is listed as a “shanty” worth $50, while the McCabes were somewhat better off, owning a “frame” house worth $300.  I learned that while the male heads of the houses were both naturalized by 1865, their wives are still listed as aliens.  I also discovered to my surprise that Michael Gavin, owner of the “shanty,” was also listed as a land owner!  I suppose if I was to live in a shanty, I’d feel a lot better about it if I owned the land it was built upon…  Knowing that Michael may indeed have owned land opens up a whole new set of records I can paw my way around in!  Hurray!

All in all, it was a terribly productive day for me, both in my genealogical research and my “real” research for my graduate degree at university.  I deserve a gorgeous, gooey, warm, chocolate chip cookie!

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