Monday, June 30, 2014

The Search for Minnie, part II

The mystery of who the adorable little girl with the blond curls in the picture was had been partially solved.  I finally knew her name was Minnie Wolfe, and she was a first cousin of my grandfather’s.  She was approximately the same age as my great aunt Florence, and passed away at the age of 14.  She was living with her great aunt and uncle, Lucina & Titus Decker, when she died. 
Last fall I reconnected with my second cousin, Leeann Coffin, after many years of little contact between our families.  She came to visit me and as, we were looking through old family photographs, we came across the ones of Minne, and she confessed to me that she was just as intrigued by Minnie’s story as I was.  We decided to put our mutual obsession to good use and try to find her final resting place, so we could go and remember her, so many years later. 
Armed with an Ipad and laptop, we set out to get some more facts about Minnie’s short life.  Going on the theory that Minnie was approximately the same age as her cousin Florence who was born in 1895, we checked the 1900 census. 
She was found already living with her great aunt and uncle at the age of 6 in Rensselaerville, Albany County, New York.  Her father disappeared sometime in the late 1890’s, and her mother was left with 3 children to support.  Emma (Jackson) Wolfe must have relied heavily on the kindness of her extended family, as the children, Edith, Adelbert and Minnie, lived with various relatives in the area over the years.  As a result, they grew very close to their grandparents, David and Mary Jackson.  Numerous pictures of the Jacksons with their grandchildren survive. 
The census states that Minnie was born in June 1894, making the year of her death at age 14 about 1908-1909.  A search of the 1905 New York State Census was made to determine her residence nearer to the time of her death.  She was again found in the home of Titus Decker in Rensselaerville, this time age 10 and described as a boarder.  It was surmised she may have died while living in Rensselaerville, and so might be buried somewhere out that way, perhaps in Livingstonville, Schoharie County, just over the border from Rensselaerville.
Next, a search was made of the Find-a-Grave website.  A useful tool for finding pictures of gravestones, it is a site that must be used with caution as not all entries are accurate.  For a visual reference, however, it is the best resource available on the web.  While there were several Minnie Wolfes (of varied spellings) in the database, ours was not among them.  Knowing that every grave is not recorded on Find-a-Grave, we still weren’t ready to give up.  Next, a search was made for Titus Decker.  This time, eureka!  An entry for his grave was found.  He was buried at the Town of Catskill Cemetery, Catskill in GREENE county, NY.  Odd.  The Find-a-Grave entry didn’t contain a picture of the gravestone, rather it had been entered from a source called “Gravestone Inscriptions of Catskill Village Cemeteries, Catskill, Greene County, New York” compiled and edited by Minnie Cohen. 1931.  Checking to see which other Deckers might be interred in the cemetery, a search was made of the Town of Catskill Cemetery for the surname Decker exclusively.  A surprise awaited us there, because there was a listing for the burial of a Minnie S. Decker, 1895-1909! 
So Minnie was buried with her great uncle Titus Decker, in Catskill, a place she likely never lived.  Titus in later life lived in the nearby village of Coxsackie, and Minnie’s mother was a resident of Catskill for many years, so perhaps it was thought to be a good place for her to be remembered.  Knowing the present condition of many of the cemeteries in rural Schoharie County, this was probably a good move. 
The next day, we had planned a trek to visit cemeteries of many of our mutual relatives, so we added a stop at the Town of Catskill Cemetery to attempt to find the Decker gravestone.  We weren’t prepared for how large the cemetery was, and, it being Saturday, there was no office open where we could ask for a plot map, nor was there one available online.  Nevertheless, we started walking it anyway.  Our first attempt on one side of the cemetery was fruitless.  Driving to the other side of the cemetery, which seemed to contain older graves, we split up and started more serious searching.  After about 20 minutes of walking, my husband yelled out that he had found it!  Very exciting to finally see where Minnie was buried!
The final resting place of Minnie Wolfe had been discovered.  Although buried under the surname Decker, she will not be forgotten by her family.  Genealogy is a lot like detective work, putting all the clues together to solve family mysteries is not so unlike the Nancy Drew Mysteries I used to read as a kid, although infinitely more rewarding!
In 2 weeks:  A couple more “Minnie” mysteries to solve!

Monday, June 16, 2014

The search for Minnie, part 1

I don’t know if other genealogists do this, but I have “favorites” in my family tree.  They tell you as a mother you should not have favorites among your children, but I definitely have them among the family members I research, and even among some clients’ ancestors.  They are those people to whom you feel an inexplicable connection that you can’t describe or understand.   They sometimes gently nudge you from the great beyond in the general direction of where to find information about them.  It’s as if they don’t want to be forgotten, and have chosen you to be the vehicle to convey that to the mortal world. 
One such person was Minnie, a little girl who was some relation to my great great grandfather, David Jackson.  A picture of her was among a large collection of artifacts that I inherited from my grandparents, David and Ruth Coffin.  The picture was simply labeled “Minnie”, written on the back.  Another picture showing 2 little toddler girls was labeled “Florence and Minnie”.  Florence, I knew, was one of my grandfather’s three sisters, but neither of the other 2 was named Minnie.  So from the pictures, I could surmise that Minnie and Florence were around the same age, and were probably some close relation.
Over the years I continued to wonder about Minnie.  I wrote to various distant family members who were in this same family, seeking out information on their relatives, thinking maybe someday Minnie might be mentioned.  In 1999, I received a letter from a second cousin of my mother’s, Burt Wolfe, in Edinburg, TX.  He enclosed what he knew about the family history, and that included a third photo of the mysterious Minnie- this one of her lying in a coffin.  He also enclosed what had been written on the back of the photo, which identified Minnie once and for all. 
Minnie’s last name was Wolfe, and she was the daughter of my great grandmother’s sister, Emma (Jackson) Wolfe.  Emma also had two other children with her first husband, Clarence Wolfe, named Edith and Adelbert.  Adelbert was the father of the second cousin from Edinburg, TX.  Adelbert had written on the back of the photo of Minnie in the coffin, describing what had happened to her.  Apparently, someone had put a snowball down her back on her way home from school one day.  She contracted pneumonia from this practical joke, and died at the age of 14.  Further information given stated that she was living with her uncle Titus Decker at the time this occurred. 
The Wolfe family was split apart before 1900, when Emma’s husband Clarence Wolfe kissed his son goodbye and disappeared.  Emma must have had to go to work to support herself and her family, so her children lived with various relatives in different towns in the area- Livingstonville, Preston Hollow, Catskill, etc.  Titus Decker was actually Minnie’s great uncle- the brother of her grandmother, Mary (Decker) Jackson.  He and his wife Lucina were childless. 
So the facts known about Minnie were that she was the daughter of Emma Jackson and Clarence Wolfe, she had two siblings Edith and Adelbert, she was approximately the same age as her cousin Florence Coffin (born in 1895), she lived with her great aunt and uncle Titus and Lucina Decker, and that she died at the age of 14.
Next week: using the known facts to find Minnie’s final resting place

Monday, June 9, 2014

Confusion to enlightenment

A few weeks ago I wrote about the confusion that can often arise from trying to decipher place names in Ireland.  The joy that accompanies a long-sought-after discovery of a hometown for our ancestor can sometimes be quickly replaced by frustration when that place can't be immediately found on a map.  At that point, it feels like being back at square one, with more research required to finally pin down that exact location, and hopefully utilize any records that exist to identify our family.  The luck of the Irish seems to be with us, thankfully, since more and more resources to help us identify place names are being made available.

A new resource, available on the website of the Irish Genealogical Research Society, can be a valuable tool in our quest to identify Irish places of origin.  The searchable database was compiled in 1904 using the returns of the 1901 Census of Ireland, the earliest complete census for the whole country available.  It contains the names of the more than 64,000 townlands known to exist in Ireland, and gives information about each one such as the area in acres, roods and perches, the county, barony and civil parish, plus notations from the census such as Superintendent Registrar's Districts (also known as Poor Law Unions), District Electoral Divisions, and DED numbers.  There are several ways to search which can help the user work around the misspellings they are likely to encounter.  You can type the beginning letters of a particular place, or any letters the name contains.  You can also do any exact search.

As an example, above is a tombstone from St. Mary's Cemetery in South Glens Falls, NY.  It lies right near my grandfather's stone, so I encounter it every year when I go to fill the planter there.  It often gives me a chuckle, knowing the obvious name mistake on it that jumps out at me.  But let's say that Ellen Brennan (Mrs. Thomas Brennan) was your ancestor and you had searched long and hard for evidence of where she came from in Ireland.  The stone reads "Ellen, wife of Thomas Brennan, died Jan. 9, 1864 at 72 years.  Native of Killbride, Co. Roscomore, Ireland"  So, you know there are 32 counties in Ireland.  This seems like a good place to start.  Consulting a map of Ireland, there is not one of them named "Roscomore".  The closest to that would be "Roscommon", and since there is nothing else anywhere near that spelling, let's assume that it's the correct county.

Next we turn to the 1901 Townland Database which can be searched at:  Index of townlands, 1901 Starting with a search on the name of the place exactly as it was spelled on the stone, choosing "exact" search and selecting Roscommon as the county, our search comes back with no results.  So, therefore "Killbride" is likely also misspelled.  Entering the first 3 letters of the townland (kil) and selecting "begins" with the County Roscommon yields a list of results of all the townlands in the county that begin with "Kil".  The sixth entry on the list is easily identified as the "Kilbride" likely referred to on the gravestone.  With the information provided in the results about the townland of Kilbride, we can then determine what records are available in that area for us to further research our ancestor Ellen Brennan.

Of course not all place name spellings (or misspellings) are as easily decipherable as this one.  Place names may have changed over time, may be known by a name only used by locals, spelled phonetically by whoever wrote them down, or badly anglicized from their original Irish spelling.  With new resources growing ever more sophisticated and at the same time more user-friendly, it's becoming much more possible to locate those elusive place of origin!