Tag Archives: genealogy

The Challenge of Researching Portuguese Ancestors

If you were to visit Lowell, Massachusetts before . . . say, 1890, you would not have met many men walking about the city named João or Manuel.  The Portuguese began arriving en masse in New England in the late 19th century and had established, by the first decades of the 20th century, sizable communities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  Most of these Portuguese hailed Madeira or the Azores, island possessions of mainland Portugal.  The three pages attached below are taken from the Lowell, Massachusetts City Directories for 1884, 1894, and 1910.  The surname Silva, one of the most common Portuguese surnames, does not appear at all in the 1884 directory.  Just ten years later, in 1894, ten Silva men are listed in the Directory.  And, by 1910, this number had grown to 42 individuals with the surname Silva.

1884 Lowell City Directory

1894 Lowell City Directory

1910 Lowell City Directory

If you’re among the roughly 1 in 20 Americans who today claim Portuguese ancestry, you’ve likely discovered that Portuguese genealogy presents some challenges.  Records are not as widely available as they are for other Western European countries, and often are not translated from Portuguese. Additionally, vital records (birth/baptism, marriage, death) are frequently church records whose form and content vary widely depending on the time and region of the record.  As an added challenge, many Portuguese arriving in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries changed their names either to appear more American or so others would be more able to pronounce their names. In my own research, I’ve found Machados who became Marshalls and Pereiras who became Perrys.   To add to the challenge, first names are often translated too. José becomes Joe and João becomes John.  There’s some evidence of this in the Lowell City Directory listings above, where many of the Silvas use Anglicized names like Joseph, Frank, John, and Louis.

It took me what felt like forever to find my grandmother’s Machado family in the 1920 U.S. census and with good reason.  When I finally found them, they were listed as an Irish family with the surname “Marsh”  (Below, see lines 54-57.)  Sometimes, the errors recorded in census records tell you more than the true information that was recorded.  From this record, I can get an idea of how my great-grandfather’s pronunciation of “Machado” sounded to a native English speaker from Massachusetts.  How she ever ended up listing them as English speakers from Ireland though, I’ll never know.  They were light-skinned Portuguese folks with light eyes, but likely spoke broken English at the time.

Admittedly, the challenges of Portuguese genealogy are many, but the Portuguese people have a rich history. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about one’s ties to a culture that gave us some of the world’s great explorers, e.g., Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, as well as fellow present-day descendants like Tom Hanks and Meredith Vieira? The Portuguese even had their own crazy set of royals (which they overthrew during the Revolution of 1910).  And Portuguese history is full of interesting stories that are not well-known in the English-speaking world.  Perhaps one of the most curious tales to have occurred during the nearly eight-century history of the Portuguese monarchy is that of the legend of Pedro I.  The legends goes that Pedro I was so distraught that his wife, Inês de Castro, had died before he became King that, when he eventually ascended the throne in 1357, he exhumed her body, put her upon the throne, bejeweled and dressed in a rich gown, and then required each of his new vassals to kiss her hand as a show of fealty to their new queen.

By Litografia Epaminondas Gouveia. Rua do Rangel, 16. C. Frese [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cigar wrapper depicting Ines de Castro upon her throne

When I first started researching my grandfather’s family, I vaguely knew that he had come from Madeira, a Portuguese island about 600 miles from mainland Portugal and 400 miles from Morocco that had first been settled by the Portuguese about a decade after Henry the Navigator had sponsored a voyage there in 1419. When I later read his obituary, it rekindled a memory that he had been born in its capital city of Funchal.  I also knew his parents names had been John and Frances.  With his birthdate, it was a good start.

While genealogy records seem to abound for ancestors from the British Isles, Portugal’s ancestral records are relatively unexplored. Even a few years later I started researching, online resources were still fairly limited. There were a few people in Portugal willing to help out through the internet, but with the foreign currency issue (how to pay them), and the vague unease associated with internet transactions, it seemed more trouble than it was worth.  I tabled further research for a while, content to know that my ancestors came from Madeira, from its capital city Funchal – until I was fortunate enough to land a temporary work assignment in Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon. In April 2004, I arrived in Lisbon to work the assignment, and to perfect the Portuguese I had been learning in Brazil.

Three things about Portugal: 1. the Portuguese of Lisbon is very distinct from the Portuguese of Brazil; it varies verbally and grammatically to a greater extent than American English differs from British English. 2. the Portuguese of Madeira sounds a lot different from the Portuguese of Lisbon. 3. Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal and is considered somewhat separate, both culturally and geographically, from mainland Portugal.

Even from Lisbon, Funchal is still a two-hour flight.  But, by 2004, Portugal had begun to put some of its genealogical information online. Already armed with my grandfather’s date of birth and his birth city, I requested his birth record from the government-run website. A few weeks later, the baptismal record arrived.  And, as I opened it, I thought ‘what luck!’ The certificate included not only details around his birth, but also details about his parents and even grandparents. And, it showed that my family had come from an even smaller village on Madeira a generation earlier, called Caniςo.

Topographic data from the NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM3 v.2) (public domain)

Topographic and administrative map in French of Madeira

Even in 2004, a few well-planned online searches for Caniςo popped up some very specific hits, including one to a distant cousin who had, several years earlier, researched the family back almost 500 years to the early 1500’s. A quick email, and a day later, he had sent me an Excel spreadsheet listing out every ancestor and cousin in the family, their baptisms, marriages, and even how they were all related to each other. I later found a book indexing all of the Madeira records and tied out all of the records and verified his accuracy.  These days, much more is available online for Madeira, and you don’t really need a book only available in Portugal.  You can research marriages, baptisms, passport applications, and more at the Madeira Archives website at:


At this point, the website and its indexes are only available in Portuguese, but with the knowledge of a few terms, you should be able to navigate the website quite easily.  From the homepage above, click on “bases de dados”.  For marriages, search “casamentos”.  Baptisms and Passports are the next two links in Portuguese words that will look familiar to English speakers.

I still stare sometimes at the earliest names on that list.  When I look at the earliest, a direct ancestor who was born in 1535, I  wonder what his life was like all those years ago on Madeira, and just how many descendants he has in New England, the United States, and in the many other regions of the world.  In years, 475 are a lot.  I don’t have his date of death (those seem to be less consistently recorded than dates of baptisms and marriages), but it’s probably a safe bet that he had long since passed away before the Pilgrims first stepped on Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Busting the Family Tree Brick Wall – Listen to those Rumors!

‘Herring choker.’  Today, it’s a somewhat pejorative term used in some circles to refer to Scandinavians or possibly folks from the Canadian province of New Brunswick.  In our family (which has neither of those connections), it’s remembered as the term my great-grandmother used when referring to my grandfather’s (her son-in-law’s) Owen family.

By the time I took up genealogy, both my great-grandmother and my Grandfather Owen were long dead.  The herring choker story remained, though, and older relatives speculated quietly that the term was meant to suggest that the background of my grandfather’s supposedly Irish-Catholic family wasn’t so Irish or so Catholic.  In my Depression-era Irish Catholic family, no assertion could be more disparaging.

When he was alive, my grandfather hadn’t spoken much about his family’s origins.  We always ‘knew’ the Owens had Irish roots, and overlooked the earlier (and unsubstantiated) doubts that his wasn’t the Irish Catholic background we always understood it to be.  He had been born around the last turn of the century in a small upstate New York town called Clayville, near Utica.  His parents had come from Canada – and their forebears had come from Ireland before that.  Of course.  Plain as that.  We might have even descended from St. Patrick himself, most surely.  And my first foray into genealogy showed that my grandfather had indeed been born, baptized, married, and buried through the Catholic church, as had his parents before him.

Still the ‘herring choker’ accusation nagged.  Where had it come from?  Surely, we couldn’t have Protestants in the family line.  Someone would have said something.  No one alive could, or did.  And so, for years, that branch on my family tree ended three generations up – with my great-grandparents William and Elizabeth Owen being born, Catholic, in what US records defined broadly as ‘Canada’.  I had met my first ‘brick wall’, a term used in genealogy to refer to a research dead-end.

A few years passed.  I researched other ancestral lines.  One day on a trip to the public library in Lawrence, Massachusetts, I came across an obituary for my great-grandfather, William George Owen, in his local paper, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune.  Neatly listed within the obituary, I found his place of birth:  Grey County, Ontario.  A new lead!  The brick wall wasn’t so foreboding.  In the days before Ancestry’s online census records, getting access to the Canadian National Census required some work – and I eventually found microfilmed copies at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston.  The 1871 Census for Ontario had a good index, and I was able to find my two-year-old great-grandfather, complete with his parents and siblings, in his native Grey County.  I could even now trace him to a particular plot of land in a specific township.  And – unlike their US counterparts, 19th century Canadian census records provide religious denomination.  The entire family was Catholic.  There were no herring chokers here – the Irish Catholic legacy stayed intact, safe.

Then, I looked at the neighbors – right below my toddler Catholic great-grandfather.  Another Owen family was listed – Protestants – Presbyterians even.  Maybe they weren’t related. . . . They lived on the same farm, shared similar names, had similar ages.  My genealogical intuition advised that I was looking at my 2nd great-grandfather’s brother and his family – cousins to my great-grandfather.  I printed the record, recorded the names, professions, and general ages that the census provides, and reopened the herring choker investigation.

The Page from the 1871 Census

The Page from the 1871 Census showing brothers George and William Owen living in Grey County, Ontario

Maybe Uncle George married a Presbyterian and converted?  Maybe the census enumerator made an error all those years ago.  All those things could happen.  I looked to the next census, unindexed at that point, for confirmation.  But, by 1881, both brothers had moved from Grey County and disappeared.  By the time my great-grandfather’s family resurfaced in New York in 1900, everyone else had vanished.

I was stuck.  I stayed stuck until several years later when the 1930 US census was released.  The 1930 US census was the first to be released after the creation of Northern Ireland, and the first to distinguish between the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, and the six that had separated off to create the North.  Shortly after its April 2002 release date, I looked up my great-grandfather in the record, and while he listed No. Ireland as the place of his father’s birth, another brother had listed only ‘Ireland’.  It was probably another lead:  my second-great grandfather may have been from Northern Ireland, which would narrow my search for his Irish geographical and religious origins to just six counties.

I researched the six counties of Northern Ireland, the Plantation of Ulster, how that had brought the Presbyterians to Ireland, and the effect all of this had on the earlier Catholic population.  I wasn’t really sure which side my family fell on.  I found lots of great general information that helped me understand the context of their times, and provided some color for the world of my ancestors’ ancestors, whose names have been lost to history.  I found some distant cousins on the Internet, and learned about stories that had been passed down their lines connecting our common ancestors to King Henry VIII.  Some research into obscure listservs from a decade ago pointed to a David Owen, a Welshman and a cousin of the monarch.  I had considered concluding there, fairly  certain that I had researched the family to the greatest extent I could, given the limited availability of records for so long ago.

Then came the Drouin records, a resource I had never heard of before it appeared on Ancestry a couple of years ago.  Those quickly yielded the marriage record of my second-great-grandparents, in French.  With my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, I was able to translate its faint, elaborate 19th century French handwriting.  I learned that my second-great-grandparents had been married at the (Catholic) Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal in August 1856.

Before Ontario, my family had lived in Montreal and were still Catholic.  No herring chokers here, no way.  Having the date and a new location was great, but . . .

I pondered the obscure, barely legible French text at the end of the record.  My 2nd great-grandfather received a special dispensation by the priest, because . . . he was not Catholic.  He had converted from Presbyterianism to marry my second great-grandmother.  My grandfather’s grandfather had been a Protestant.  I met some more internet cousins and learned that my line had been ‘excommunicated’ from the rest of the family over the marriage.  That explained why there were no Owen witnesses at the marriage, and the family’s flight to Ontario soon after.  They had been cut off.

A further search of the records found the rest of the family in Montreal – the rest of an ardently Presbyterian family.  I found a photograph of my 3rd great-grandfather’s grave on Ancestry.  His epithet, ‘Blessed are those who die in the Lord’, etched just five years after his son’s Catholic wedding seemed to seal off any doubts about how he felt about my branch of the family in his last days.

Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal, Quebec, Canada....

Notre-Dame Basilica, Image via Wikipedia

I wrote up what I thought would be the final version of the family history.  They had been Presbyterians, probably from No. Ireland – from a county unable to be determined.  It’s a common story in Irish genealogy.

And there it stayed.  Until earlier this year.  Like a lot of genealogists out there, I was excited to see Ancestry’s Who Do You Think You Are? appear in the TV listings.  I watched each Friday night episode religiously. I found the episodes interesting, but didn’t really learn any new techniques or resources.

Then came the Rosie O’Donnell episode.  Rosie had Irish roots, but didn’t know where in Ireland her family hailed from.  The show traced her ancestors to Montreal and then found vague references to Ireland.  My story exactly.  Then, the professional genealogists helped her came up with the obvious – newspaper obituaries.

For my local relatives in New England, I had extracted and scoured each word of each obituary years ago, with relative ease.  But, Montreal’s papers had never been accessible to me, and, in my experience, 19th century obituaries were never very informative – the best might include someone’s age or possibly last address.  Not so with Rosie’s ancestors.  Who Do You Think You Are? showed that the birthplace of her Irish ancestors had been recorded in the Montreal papers.  I figured I’d need a trip to Montreal to view the microfilmed newspapers, or at least hire a professional genealogist to do that for me.

Before going to bed that night, I looked to see which Canadian newspapers I could find online and quickly found the Montreal Daily Witness, available through the Google News Archive for free.  The search feature didn’t work so well, but the Drouin Records had already given me the exact dates of death.  All I had to do was browse the four- and five-page newspapers from those dates.

Minutes later, I found the obituaries of my family – and their birthplace – Co. Monaghan, Ireland.  I stared at the text, searched all of the other siblings and in-laws of that family.  They had all hailed from Co. Monaghan.  This made sense and explained why the 1930 census showed both Ireland and No. Ireland for my second great-grandfather’s birthplace.  Co. Monaghan is considered part of the Ulster region of Ireland, but wasn’t included in Northern Ireland when it was created in 1921.  And, at a present-day population of about 60,000 people, it’s one of the smaller Irish counties.  I joined the email listserv for Co. Monaghan, posted a message, and within a few hours, received an email from a local genealogist who had indexed the Presbyterian baptismal records for my family in Co. Monaghan.

Map of Northern Ireland.

Image via Wikipedia

With his help, I traced the birthplace of my ancestors to a 158-acre townland in Co. Monaghan and even identified their church: Ballyalbany Presbyterian Church, a church that was rather ardent in its interpretation of Presbyterianism.    I poured through its records, and found my own 3rd great-grandfather.    Several hours later, it became quite clear that he too had converted to marry.  He had left the Anglican church to marry my Presbyterian 3rd great-grandmother a generation before his son did something remarkably similar.

In genealogy, brick walls can be a source of significant frustration, but breaking through those walls can be quite rewarding.  Readers:  what was or is your toughest brick wall in your family tree?  Have you uncovered any surprises in past brick walls you’ve managed to break through?

Dating Old Photographs – The Price of Tea in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1917

Question: What was the price of a cup of chicken soup in 1915?

Answer: Ten cents a cup. Add some ham and eggs to that, and you should be prepared to part with the Barber quarter and Buffalo nickel burning a hole in your pocket.

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous or extravagant, you could always opt for, say, the cold tongue (for 15 cents) or the sirloin steak (for 35 cents). Even with a beverage, you should be able to escape with a bill totaling under one dollar.

As common wisdom informs us, a picture, in this case – the one below, is worth a thousand words.  Since I first came across this photograph several years ago, I’ve been fascinated by it.

Lowell, MA - Killpatrick Restaurant - ca. 1917

I first saw this photograph in 2004, when my Aunt Emily passed away. When her house was being cleaned out, the box containing this photograph, unopened for so many years, was almost discarded. Inside the box, for some long-lost coffee maker as I remember, the photographs were old, unlabeled, and almost exclusively represented her father’s family, the Foisys, who were no relation to us.

I quickly found this photograph among the pile of cabinet cards. At first glance, five men pose outside a restaurant – a long time ago – with their bill of fare, prices clearly shown. The name of the restaurant is probably obscured behind them, either on the windows, or more likely, on the board beneath the windows. The three men in the middle appear to be waiters – the jacketed men on each side might be managers, or owners. I remember assuming that the photograph was taken ‘someplace in New Hampshire’, since that’s where her paternal family was from.

But, with my genealogist’s/researcher’s mind, I wanted to know more. Who were they? Where were they? Was there a historical society, or a descendant of these men, who were seeking a photograph like this? No clues were included on the rear of the photo, and, by the time I got it, everyone had died. And my attempts at finding any related Foisy descendants for this, and the other Foisy photos, were unsuccessful.

For the next few years, I displayed the photo in my old photo collections, cognizant of the fact that I could not answer questions about its exact location or date, or even identify the men in the picture. (Well, I guess I knew at least one was probably a Foisy.) I eventually moved back to New England, and spent more time on my genealogy research; the long winters here are truly motivating for indoor hobbies. I soon focused on the art of dating photographs, and built some expertise in it. On one cold December day, I took a fresh look at the photograph.

Admittedly, one’s skill in dating photographs does not need to progress far before realizing that photos showing women’s fashions are much easier to date than those showing men’s. And there’s no exception in this photograph. The style of the photograph, the men’s hats, and the younger suited man’s tall collar all bespoke an early twentieth century timeframe to me, but without women in the photograph, this was a guess.

What really helped me was an inkling that one of the five men in the photograph was an uncle of my Aunt Emily and his name would have been Foisy. I knew her father to have been born in 1882; so, this too led me to an early twentieth century timeframe. But, how could I get his name?

I constructed a tree for the paternal Foisy side of her family, and through obituaries and census records soon found that she had several uncles. But the census records quickly showed that none of them were employed in the restaurant business in the Great War years. So, with that lead exhausted, I tabled the project for a while.

A few months later, I came back, and had the thought to check the WWI draft registration records, from 1917, and found Mitchell R. Foisy, who had been employed as a waiter for S. W. Killpatrick’s Restaurant at 30 Gorham Street in Lowell, Massachusetts. I now knew that one of the men in white was Uncle Mitchell. I also learned that Mitchell, who had been a boiler maker at the Boston & Maine Railroad car shop in 1920, was a waiter three years earlier, in 1917.  So, a career change was the culprit behind my earlier failure to find him.

Mitchell R. Foisy - WWI Draft Registration Card, 1917

With the restaurant’s name and address provided by the draft registration card, I checked the newspaper records and found that it had closed before the 1920 census.

Killpatrick Restaurant - 1920 Public Auction of Assets, Lowell Sun 4/9/1920

By the time this notice appeared in the Lowell Sun in April 1920, Killpatrick’s equipment was being auctioned off.  The closure of the restaurant was in good company too. Many restaurants, in Greater Lowell and beyond, closed as the effects of lost liquor licenses due to Prohibition began to be felt.  But, this is the topic of an earlier post on this blog, from October 15, 2011, link below.

The short of it is that this explained why Uncle Mitch had moved on by the 1920 census. I had found the restaurant, its location, its timeframe, and I knew that Mitchell had been born around 1888, meaning that I needed one of the men in white to be 30-year-old Mitchell Foisy.  A quick scan through Aunt Emily’s other Foisy photos quickly found a familiar face – the man in white, in the middle. None of the other men appeared in any of the other photos. I had found my man.

This past Sunday, I drove down into downtown Lowell, armed with my iPhone camera (4 not 4s), in search of the building where Killpatrick’s restaurant once stood. I knew from the advertisements that the restaurant once stood directly opposite the Lowell Post Office (now the School Department Building). And I also soon learned that Google Maps had not scanned the short stretch of road between Gorham’s intersections with Middlesex and Appleton streets. A quick look at the 1896 Lowell City Atlas did reveal the location of the restaurant, opposite what was then the City Post Office; below, I’ve marked the restaurant’s location with a blue dot.

The blue dot marks the spot of the Killpatrick Restaurant - From 1896 Lowell Atlas, Plate 5

At the site of Killpatrick’s restaurant; the building still stands. I snapped this photograph of the building as it appears today, more than 90 years after Killpatrick’s Restaurant closed its doors for the final time.

Site of Killpatrick's Restaurant, Photo Taken by Author - 10/23/11

With that, I was able to add a back story to my favorite Foisy family photograph, learn more local history relevant to Lowell, Massachusetts, and even get a reliable pricing guide showing what lunches cost at local restaurants in the years leading up to Prohibition. And that makes the photograph even more important to me.

Other People’s Ancestors – How House Histories Bring the Unrelated Together

When I started researching my family tree in 1988, the hobby was quite solitary.  I spent hours in the local history room of the Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, Massachusetts, threading microfilm reels of the local papers through the microfilm readers and leafing through dusty, yellowed City Directories.  I remember the excitement of the first time I found my great-grandparents listed as young parents in the 1910 US Census, then the most recent census available, and constructing my first family tree from there.  I traced them back through the earlier censuses and found their parents.  I located birth, marriage, and death records; before long, I had traced almost all of my branches back to my gateway, or immigrant ancestors.  You’ll notice that there is a lot of first-person narration here.  In those days, genealogy was about as social as reading a book.  At most, you might have found family members who shared various levels of interest in your discoveries.  Or, you might have come across a distant relation willing to share information or your interest through snailmail correspondence.

By Free Public Library Commission of Massachusetts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pollard Memorial Library - 1899, via Wikipedia Commons

Six years ago, my wife and I, both avid readers of publications like Old House Journal and This Old Housebought a century-old home ‘for the charm’ and, at least in my case, to capture a piece of the past.  We certainly accomplished this – and many fascinating, non-genealogy-related accounts narrating the joys and trials of owning older homes already abound in the blogosphere.  One day, while trying to escape one of our old home tasks – it may have been repointing the fieldstone foundation or insulating the crawl space under our enclosed porch; the fond memory escapes me – I got the idea that I would research the house’s history.  Within our closing documentation, I knew we had some death certificates of previous owners.  And, more importantly, the deed of the previous owners referenced, within its last lines, the prior deed that had conveyed ownership of the home to them some thirty-five years before.

Armed with these documents, I took a day off from work, and traveled down to the Registry of Deeds, and set to find the Book and Page referenced in the Deed.  And I did, and within the last lines of that deed, I found the book and page number of an earlier deed.  I spent a couple of hours, in the basement of the Courthouse, tracing one deed to the next, solitarily leafing through increasingly older deed books.  As the dates on the deeds grew earlier, typed text gave way to the elaborate handwriting of an earlier time.

And among the earlier owners of the house, I found a series of families who had lived in the house for a few years each.  And then, I came across a woman, Grace Petrie, who owned the house for thirty years, preceded by her parents who had owned the house for the previous twenty.  I diligently noted their names and the dates they lived in the house, and set to employ my genealogical sleuthing skills in combing through census records and newspaper archives.

Front Page Headline from The Lowell Sun, Feb. 23, 1944

Luckily, by the time we had bought the house, these records were online and I quickly found obituaries and marriage notices and other interesting facts about the previous owners of the house.  I learned that Grace had lost a twenty-five-year-old son, Chandler, in World War II when his plane crashed during a night combat training mission in Pueblo, Colorado.

And, while digging near the flagpole in the yard, a few years later, I came across “CHAN” and “1944” etched into the concrete at its base.  A search of earlier newspaper records revealed that Grace’s father, Harry Chandler, had been the station agent of the now-defunct South Lowell station.  Being quite comfortable with trains, Harry had one day alighted from the train, before it had completely stopped, and was struck by another oncoming train.  All of this happened in the woods, directly behind the house.

From The Lowell Sun, January 26, 1915, Pg. 4

While doing all of this research, I heavily relied on the newspaper records of newspaperarchive.com and on the census records and city directories scanned into the vast online resources of Ancestry.com.  I also created an online family tree for Grace, in an effort to find surviving family members, who might have had old photographs of the house or property that could provide insight into how the property appeared in earlier decades (which is something us old home enthusiasts salivate about).  I found no living relatives (or old home photos), but Ancestry’s “shaking leaves” soon revealed Grace’s passport applications from the 1920’s.  She had travelled annually to Cuba in the 1920’s to see her husband who had been working there as an expatriate accountant.  And with those records were photographs of Grace, and her children.

Grace Chandler with her Children, 1920, from her US Passport Application

Up to now, however, all of this research was still quite solitary . . . and solitary it stayed.  After all, while the art and science of genealogy and even house histories is frequently discussed – even quite animatedly – in groups, the fruits of those labors are often only interesting to those directly related or connected to the subjects.  One day, however, several years later, I was contacted through Ancestry by one of Grace’s distant relatives, the grandnephew of her second husband, Earle Petrie, who had lived in the house, first as a boarder, and then as her husband until his death around 1950.  Petrie’s grandnephew had found me through a “shaking leaf” in his tree.  I shared with him what I had on Earle, who had left New Brunswick as a young man, settled in Massachusetts, and had lost contact with his Canadian family.

On something of a lark, I searched old newspapers for further news of old Earle, who had worked as a car dealer in the area.  I found a few advertisements for the car dealership where he worked, as well as an article of two that listed him as a salesman there.  I forwarded these to his grandnephew, who was grateful to have them.

And then, I found the real gem of the research – Earle’s Uncle David, who frequently visited the home.  Uncle David, a police officer in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, was something of a celebrity in the local papers, and this quickly came up when I ran his name through the search engines at newspaperarchive.com.  In 1913, Officer Petrie had stopped a pair of wild horses charging through one of the Lowell’s busiest squares.

Front Page Headline, Lowell Sun, Jan. 22, 1913

Picture this:  On a Wednesday afternoon in late January 1913, two runaway horses came charging onto Merrimack Street, the main thoroughfare of Lowell, Massachusetts, then a city of 110,000 people.  The spooked horses pulled a heavy truck loaded with several tons of waste bales from the nearby Boott Mills.  The driver of the truck, Francis Kennedy, had been thrown from the vehicle on one of its wild turns, but still held onto the reins, loudly warning pedestrians, motorists, and other cart riders of the runaway cart while he was being half-dragged across the uneven cobblestones of Merrimack Street.  Officer Petrie turned at the commotion and took off on a run after the truck, while the horses plunged it and the flailing Mr. Kennedy toward a slower-moving electric car.  With a failing grip on the reins, Kennedy managed to steer the truck past the electric car, but lost half of the heavy bales onto the road.   Just beyond Merrimack’s intersection with Central Street, Officer Petrie waited and watched as the horses thundered closer, and into the path of Milo Hale, who sat in an automobile, unable to move from their path.  Amidst the cautions shouted from the crowd of onlookers, Petrie waited for his moment, and as they crossed Central Street, he jumped at one of the horses’ heads, grabbing onto it, and, with Kennedy’s assistance, was able to sway the horses to the left, missing Hale’s car by inches.  Kennedy and Petrie finally stopped the horses some 25 yards further down the road, avoiding any injury to pedestrians and other motorists and were considered to have saved many of them from certain tragedy.

Via Library of Congress - Merrimack Street Looking East from the Palmer Street Intersection, 1908

David Petrie, Front Page Photo, Lowell Sun, Jan. 22, 1913

Soon after I found the article, I sent it to the great-grandnephew of Officer Petrie, in Montreal.  He excitedly thanked me for my help with his family tree research and said he would share the story with his family. Although he had heard the stories of Uncle David, he and his family had not seen the newspaper articles from the Lowell Sun.  And, although I had no real connection to David Petrie (other than the fact that I live in his nephew’s former home), I felt an interest in this man, who long ago saved lives, my own ancestors’ likely among them, on Merrimack Street in crowded Downtown Lowell.  And, I realized that, with the advent of the internet and sites like ancestry.com, genealogy has expanded so far past those solitary days back in the 80’s when I strained my eyes under flickering fluorescent lights in the basement of the Pollard Memorial Library, on the same Merrimack Street where David Petrie performed his heroic act some 75 years earlier.

Readers, do you have any research stories to share?  Has your genealogy or house history research into the past made you any connections in the present (or resulted in any interesting tales)?  

The Value of Living Memories, Lowell, MA: Circa 1865

For those of us born into Generation X, the earliest living memory of a family member we’ve likely been exposed to might stretch as far back as Prohibition, or the Great War, or maybe, for the older members of our generation, childhood memories of the Spanish-American War.  I write a local history column for the Billerica Minuteman.  In my research, I came across some living memory cassette tape recordings at the Billerica Public Library that date from the 1970’s.  But even these memories, from Billerica’s oldest residents of the 1970’s, date to the late 1890’s at the earliest.

Seven-year-old newspaper boy in 1914

What is harder to uncover is the living memory of generations that we haven’t met.  When you uncover photographs of your grandfather as a child, what sorts of stories would he have heard from the oldest members of his family?  As a family historian, I’ve come across lots of stories and artifacts passed down various branches of my family tree.  I often examine and ponder the Victorian-style trunk that carried my great-grandmother’s belongings to Boston when she was a young woman arriving from the Azores in 1907.  And, I’m fascinated to flip through the pages of a yellowed diary that my 2nd-great-grandfather purchased in Manchester, England, before boarding a ship that took him to the United States in 1869.  Inside, the most prominent yellowed page records, in his eloquent 19th-century handwriting, the date of his arrival in Boston:  July 25, 1869.

In genealogy, the holy grail is anything that helps us lay flesh upon the bones of the names, dates, and dry, yellowed records of the ancestors we are researching.  Sometimes, this takes the form of a treasured possession, or a diary, or a set of letters.  But, when these haven’t survived, the next best thing is the living memories of our ancestor’s contemporaries.  The trick is to find an author who has a lot in common with your ancestor – one who lived in the same area or performed the same occupation.

The history of my family has deep roots in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Five consecutive generations of my family have been born there.  So, naturally, I voraciously seek out any living memories of Lowell that have been preserved and that offer a window into the world my ancestors saw, felt, and experienced as they walked the streets of that long-ago Lowell.  The other day, I came across a fascinating article in an 1893 edition of the Lowell Sun, recounting the memories of a coal yard employee who spoke with the reporter about his memories of the city in the pre-Civil War era.

The article celebrates Belvidere resident Michael Moran’s 50 years of service in the coal yards of William Kittredge.  Like my ancestors, Moran was a laborer who had come to Lowell from Ireland, in 1846.  For nearly half a century, Moran worked for Kittredge, supporting his coal and wood businesses. Moran’s memories did not pre-date the construction of the Boston & Lowell railroad, but he did recall working with men who told him stories of the first coal being brought up the Middlesex Canal.  Moran recalled the days in Lowell before residents understood coal’s ability to heat their homes.  After Kittredge proved its worth to one Central Street merchant in an exhibition in his office, the merchant bought it on trial, put it in his grate at his Central Street office, and watch, frustrated, as the fire went out.  Enraged, the merchant threw the coals onto his lawn, and then watched, dismayed, as his lawn caught fire and burnt out.

Central Street; Lowell, Massachusetts - ca. 1875

Moran went on to recall the Lowell of the his younger years, including a Central Street with no sidewalks and lacking the Mansur and Canal blocks.  In his earlier days, shanties stood on Central Street in their place, which housed a few “traders”.  He recalled a Palmer Street before the Central Fire Station was built, and a pond that once occupied its site.  He had, in fact, cut across the site on his way home from buying a suit one night and fell into that pond.  Moran remembered a Lowell whose biggest restaurant was owned by Captain Marston and located in the Wentworth Block at the corner of Merrimack & Shattuck Streets.  Marston’s restaurant was a draw for Lowell’s theatrical crowd, where the most fashionable actors and actresses of the age could be seen before and after they took the stage.  Moran’s memories also included a youthful General Benjamin Butler, who to men of his generation, was viewed as a good friend to Lowell’s Irishmen. He also recalled the construction of the Carpet, Prescott, and Massachusetts Mills.

Benjamin Franklin Butler

The ability to access living memories of those whose lives are long past allows us a glimpse into the lifetimes of our own ancestors.  Reading accounts such as Michael Moran’s helps us visualize the Lowell of the mid-19th century, a time long lost from the living memory of society.  From a historian’s perspective, it’s interesting and helps provide some context as to how contemporary citizens viewed the city and its development toward the end of the 19th century.  For genealogists, these accounts help enliven our own family history records and put some context to our view of our ancestors’ lives.  What did they see as they walked the streets of their cities?  How did they view historical figures such as Benjamin Butler?  For us Gen X’ers, living memories captured in old books and newspaper articles are a form, a fascinating one, of time travel.