Fathers, Don’t Lie to Your Children

If you can’t believe your father, who can you believe?

Bessie Estelle (my grandmother) and her younger sister Lily were orphans from the poverty-plagued east end of London. Their mother died when Bessie was eight, their father abandoned them when she was ten. The sisters were left adrift in a world where even their identities were illusionary, as it turned out. As a result, probing Bessie’s history was a challenge.

I had a note from my father showing that Bessie’s mother was Sarah Billingshurst, who’d had children by her first husband Mr. Hutchins as well as with her second, William Estelle. The Billingshurst name was confirmed by Lily’s marriage license which showed her mother’s maiden name.

A note on Bessie Estelle’s mother and family written by my father

I found Bessie and Lily’s arrival cards to the U.S., dated 1911, in which Bessie and Lily identified the orphanage they came from in Canada. That too was useful information. The cards also identified their “race” as French. I remembered that Bessie, many years later, told me that her family was from France.

So that was a start:

✔ Merry orphanage in Canada

✔ Father an Estelle

✔ Mother a Billingshurst

✔ Family from France.

However, like a driver in winter, I couldn’t find traction with the information and was spinning my wheels trying to research the family on line. Finally, out of desperation I wrote the Barnardo’s organization, who’d inherited the Merry orphanage records, to ask if they had any information on Bessie Estelle. Their answer was yes, they have a record of Bessie Estall. And that was when the wheels finally hit pavement.

Apparently some time after arriving in Canada, Bessie’s surname evolved from Estall to Estelle. That’s not unusual, as many European names were changed when they landed on North American ears. Estall (‘es-til) and Estelle (es-‘tell) are quite similar.

But I was still stuck on the Billingshurst and the French heritage angles until my sister found an Estall family tree on line and suggested I look into it. That proved to be a turning point, thanks to the amazing work of Mark and Kim Baldacchino.

So where did Bessie’s mistaken ideas about her origins come from? The only way I can account for them is that Bessie’s father likely lied to her.

Kim Baldacchino told me she thinks Bessie’s mother was a prostitute. Given that Bessie’s mom had three children out of wedlock before marrying William Estall and that she frequently changed residences around the east end of London — making stops in the poor house to have her children — is pretty convincing evidence for the argument. Bessie’s mother turned out to be Sarah Hutchings, and she had her first three children under her maiden name, which was Hutchings, not Billingshurst.

I can only guess Bessie’s dad suggested the Billingshurst maiden name to the kids to hide the fact that Bessie’s half-siblings were illegitimate. Or maybe he said it jokingly, giving his down-on-her-luck wife a name that had a ring of class to it. Whatever the reason, the naïve children took it as truth and believed throughout their lives that their mother was a Billingshurst.

And the idea that the family was French? Well, there’s a story that may or may not explain the notion.

Before William Estall married Sarah Hutchings he lived with a married woman named Sarah (nee Whitmarsh) French. French had two young children by her husband, to which William Estall added a pair for good measure. William, however, didn’t stay around, leaving his two children for Sarah French to raise when she reunited with her husband.

William Estall and Sarah Hutchings had eight children to raise and were eking out a living in the slums of the East End until Sarah was killed by meningitis at age 39, and William turned to the poor house for help. When he and the children got out a couple of years later, it appears William took his kids to live with their half-siblings in the Sarah French household. I can almost hear him now, “C’mon, kids, I’m takin’ ya to live with yer French family.” How was a ten-year-old Bessie to know that this referred to their name and not their nationality? But that wasn’t the worst part. William apparently abandoned the children there as they ended up at the neighborhood poor house. Bessie lived eight of her formative years in London workhouse schools and infirmaries.

The moral of this story is that fathers harm their children when they lie to them, whether intentionally or out of sarcastic humor. When parents lie they steal their children’s innocence, and in this case, their identities as well.

Generational History

A few years ago I ran across an idea espoused by William Strauss and Neil Howe that history repeatedly runs in a four-season pattern spanning about eighty years. Every winter of that cycle is marked by a crisis. Recent winters have included the American Revolution (1770s-80s), the Civil War (1860s), and the Great Depression/WWII (1930s-40s), all about eighty years apart.

It’s an interesting interpretation of events that believes that the cycling of four generational types (heroes, artists, prophets, and nomads) through their stages of life (childhood, early adulthood, maturity, elder years) creates a recurring pattern of crises and awakenings in history. In effect, the theory says that history isn’t linear, like we may have been taught. It’s cyclical, moving forward in time like the turning of a screw.

According to the theory, the 20-year generational seasons show a pattern of growing trust in collective governmental institutions (such as we saw in the last crisis of the Depression and World War II),  followed by conformity to the institutions (as exemplified by the Organization Man of the late 1940’s-early 60’s), then a rebellion against institutions (seen in the cultural upheaval of the 1960’s-80’s), and eventually distrust and unraveling of institutions (as seen in the individualism, bitter partisanship, and distrust of government of recent years). Stauss and Howe point out in their book The Fourth Turning, that we have gone through the first three seasons and are now poised to head into the next major crisis.

They argue the case pretty convincingly, citing instances of this recurring pattern in America since it’s inception, and in the West since the Renaissance. The idea has a certain innate attraction in that it mirrors the natural order of seasons and the cyclical nature of economics and politics we observe throughout life.

If their theory is correct, the recent political partisanship and dysfunctional government was inevitable. We needn’t wonder about the widespread distrust and disdain of our institutions, they are all symptoms of an inexorable season of unraveling. Unfortunately, what we have to look forward to is even worse:  an economic, environmental, political, and/or military crisis that will result in a rebirth or in destruction. We’ve been fortunate in previous crises to have wise and temperate leadership. I’m not  sure we’re as well positioned for the next.

Do I buy into this concept of generational history? Some of it makes sense. One only has to look at our inability to learn from the past and our tendency to repeat its mistakes to see that history isn’t linear. Time is not a long march of progress, but a meandering journey through wars, renaissance, repression, and rebirth. Whether this is a random walk or the cyclical path proposed by Strauss and Howe is hard to say. History, unlike physics or chemistry, doesn’t appear to be a science governed by immutable laws.

And yet, this is great food for thought. The study of history is man’s attempt to make sense of man: figure out how we got here, what we’re doing now, and where we’re headed. I recommend a reading of the book or a perusal of articles on the theory.

The concept of generational history could also open an avenue of exploration into family history that looks at our ancestors through the lens of generational types (heroes, artists, etc.) to see if our forefathers and mothers really do display the predicted generational traits. That analysis is for another time, though.

More information on the concept of generational history can be found on Wikipedia, the book’s website, or a recent Forbes magazine article, among other sources.

Closure: Sometimes a Brick Wall Really IS a Brick Wall

Brick walls are a genealogical challenge. They’re places you seemingly can’t get past, the end of the line for a branch of the family tree. With diligence sometimes you can break through and step back another generation or two in time. But sometimes you’ve gotta acknowledge that banging your head continuously against a brick wall is only going to result in brain trauma. That’s when closure is a good thing.

After years of sifting through myriad sources, structuring queries in every conceivable permutation, revisiting sites for newly posted information, and contacting other family historians to no avail, it’s time to throw in the towel on the last of the Mystery Ladies of our family.

The Mystery Lady is Jane Hannah, wife of Barney Anthony, my mom’s great-grandmother. Family notes said Jane was born in Ireland in 1819, had two or three brothers, and that her mother, who’s maiden name was Shepard, died on the voyage to North America and was buried at sea.

Note on Jane Hannah found in Margaret (nee McCrie) Mead’s papers

I wanted to find exactly where Jane was born in Ireland, her father’s name and fate, her mother’s given name, when Jane sailed to the west, where she landed, how she met Barney, and when and where they were married. If that would help me go farther back into the Irish family, so much the better.

But it didn’t happen.

The realization that this really was a brick wall hit me after reading an email from a librarian in Jefferson County, New York. He couldn’t find anything on Jane either, and he went on to explain:

This is in reply to your email seeking any marriage record for Barney & Jane; and any record of her birthplace in Ireland, parents and emigration.

Since this [marriage which occurred around 1839] is before the first period of NYS vital statistics, 1847-1849, there would be no official marriage record. They are also not listed in our Jefferson County church members index or in any of the surviving records of the Cape Vincent churches. I also checked our Marriage extracts from early Jefferson County newspapers and nothing there either.

He continued, “There is no record in our Jefferson Co. Naturalization file [from Jeff. Co. records] of either one [Jane or their first child, Sarah, who was born in Canada] being naturalized here. The only benefit it would have conferred on them would have been eligibility to vote but since that was not possible for women in this country until the 19th Amendment became part of the Constitution in 1920, many emigrant women did not seek to become citizens if it was during a period when marriage to a native-born male did not automatically confer it. The early 19th century did not have that provision.

Well, heck, not only did this gentleman comb every conceivable record in the county, he flipped a switch in my head that maybe I was trying to chase down information that simply isn’t there. New York State didn’t keep birth, marriage, or death records before 1847; Jane wouldn’t have sought naturalization (which paperwork sometimes provides clues to origin and immigration); Canada didn’t keep ship passenger records before 1865; and Ireland, which lost most of its census records before 1861 in a fire, didn’t institute vital records before 1864.

You can continue to fish all summer on a lake, but if it ain’t got any fish in it, you aren’t going to reel anything in.

All was not lost, however. Given that the family note said Jane Hannah had two or three brothers, I looked through Jefferson County, New York censuses, naturalization records, and land records to see what I could find on any Hannah men in the area. The 1855 census showed two Hannah brothers, William and James, on the same page as Barney and Jane. William was three years older than Jane, James was a year younger than her. Hmm, that looked pretty promising.

Furthermore, the county deed records revealed that Barney’s father and the Hannah brothers had adjoining farms. That, I’m speculating, would explain how Barney and Jane met. I’d be willing to wager that William and James were indeed Jane’s brothers.

William, being a male and eligible to vote upon naturalization, sought naturalization in 1847. In his application he stated that he came from Ireland and arrived in Jefferson County in 1835. That predates Jane’s marriage by about four years, so the timing is good. The librarian explained that “he is listed as emigrating from Belfast, Ireland to the Town of Hounsfield, possibly on a ship coming up the St. Lawrence river to Sackets Harbor which was the likely port for that Town. He was resident in the Town of Lyme when he was naturalized on 23 Sep 1847. The Town of Cape Vincent was part of the Town of Lyme until 1849 so he could have been in that portion of Lyme that was adjacent to the St. Lawrence River, and which became Cape Vincent.

That information was a three-fer:

(1)  the Hannah’s came from northern Ireland and arrived in 1835;
(2)  they likely arrived in Quebec and came down the St. Lawrence River;
(3)  the split off of Cape Vincent from Lyme township explains how Anna Anthony, my mom’s grandmother, was recorded as born in Lyme in 1847. The Anthony farm was indeed near the St. Lawrence River and the area would have only been called Cape Vincent from 1849 on.

A little more research into William Anthony revealed that he, like his sister Jane, named his first daughter Sarah and first son Robert. Not only does that seem beyond coincidence, I believe it probably honored the memory of their parents and reveals the first names of Jane’s parents, though there is no way to prove it.

And so we reached the brick wall. True, we were able to read some writing on it, but no, there was no breaking through. At least now we have a sense of closure.

Pets and Pens Can Become Family Members

Nope, I’m not a cat person, nor a dog person for that matter.

But give me a fountain pen and I’ll go as crazy as the neighborhood shut-in who has cats in every window and treats them better than family.

I peruse pen blogs much like some people watch cat videos. I find it curious that I’ve never found a blog in which pens have been named. We name pets, don’t we? We also name boats, and some people name their cars. But nobody seems to name their pens.

I’m out to rectify the matter.

The problem with fountain pens is that, like cats, they seem to multiply like crazy. Maybe that’s why people don’t name them, they couldn’t possibly remember all their names. Or maybe they know that once you name them you’ll never want to give them up, they become like family, and you don’t send family to the shelter (well, maybe some people do), and you don’t barter them away.

A warning: if you don’t want to become a pen collector, it’s best not to take one up and start writing with it. Once you do you’re hooked. A fountain pen feels great in the hand, and writing with one is as enjoyable and comforting as stroking the fur on your cat. Writing with a pencil isn’t bad, but it’s more like stroking a wire-haired dog. And writing with a ball point pen … that’s about as enjoyable as stroking your pet turtle.

So anyway, I’m going to name my pens, and I’m going to name them for people I admire: parents, grandparents, maybe a crazy uncle or great-aunt, and some people who are still around. When I use those pens, I’ll be reminded of the people who have given me great gifts: life, love, inspiration, lessons. And when the pens are ultimately passed down to the next generations, I hope the spirit of those named folk are rekindled every time the pens are used.

Stay tuned for future blogs in which we’ll write about both the pens and the people they’re named for. In the mean time, give kitty a rub for me.

The Anthonys: from Quacks to Quakers to Crackers

There’s nothing more exciting for a genealogist than to discover one’s family line extends back to the Mayflower landing of 1620. Sadly, ours doesn’t.

But I recently found it almost goes back that far–namely, to 1634.

My mother came from an Anthony family and there is a 1904 book by Charles Anthony, The Genealogy of the Anthony Family from 1495 to 1904, that traces Anthony family lines to the original Anthony colonist, and even farther back in England.

The challenge was to definitively link my mom’s line to a person found in the book. That was done through family records, the 1855 New York census, and an 1842 probate filing which linked her great-great grandfather Job to Paul and Elizabeth (nee Chase) Anthony from the book.

The title of this post arose from finding that one of the English ancestors was Francis Anthony, a noted London doctor of physick, who was the son of an eminent goldsmith, and who made a considerable fortune producing and selling a “medicine” drawn from gold called Aurum Potabile, which landed him in prison for a while. His son carried on in his father’s questionable footsteps. Together they are the Quacks of our story.

John Anthony, the colonist who landed at Rhode Island in 1634, had a couple of sons who married into a Quaker family, and this began a number of generations of Anthony’s who practiced their faith in Massachusetts and New York. The marriage of Paul and Elizabeth (see above) is recorded in the Swansea Monthly Meeting of Friends of 1778, in which Paul pledged “until Death it please the Lord by Death to Separate them or words to that Effect.” These generations are the Quakers of our story.

Paul and Elizabeth Anthony resettled in up-state New York, and there we find the first occurrence of what I call the Mad Anthony Syndrome. According to several witnesses at the verification of Paul’s estate in 1842, Paul was an eccentric man given to having divine revelations, a talent for creating mechanical devices that didn’t work (including a cultivator that hopelessly bogged down in the soil and a “perpetual motion” machine), and an unjustified belief in the value of his land, which he thought was worth a million dollars an acre “because of a mineral substance that was found in some particular Earth on that land which by going through with the process of leeching would make beer – and make all his relitives emensely rich.”

In fact the opposite happened. According to his son-in-law, Paul Anthony “has a son in the County Poor House in a state of derangement where he has been since the death of his mother. There was another one who put an end of his own life by hanging himself about two or three years ago last June & left his children three or four thousand dollars of property. There is another one who has had three turns of derangement and I have been told he now has a fourth; his circumstances are poor; he has only a little personal property and has five children.” This son-in-law concluded that “things gave me to understand that he [Paul Anthony] was a man particuly deranged.”

Apparently Paul passed his Mad Anthony genes on to his son Job. On a small stream Job built a saw mill which the History of Jefferson County relates “was, however, one of the kind known as “dry mills,” and was of short continuance. For some unknown cause this neighborhood has received the name of “Bedlam,” and is so most generally designated.” Oh, really? Job, by the way, ended up in the county poor house in his later years.

In turn, Job’s son Barney (my mom’s great-grandfather) made claims on his application for a Civil War pension that despite only spending 3-1/2 months in the Union Army–and never deploying–his “exposure to inclement weather and sleeping on the damp ground for many nights in succession, resulted in disease of the lungs, vertigo, and deafness from which I have not recovered.” So Barney nobly carried on the Crackers tradition of our story. He ended up in an old Soldiers’ Home.

Let’s hope those Mad Anthony genes are now recessive. Just to be sure, though, let me go ask my wife if that seems to be the case.