Searching Our Roots and Connecting With Our Past

Sunday, April 25, 2021

 There are two things we should give our children - one is roots and the other is wings.

The older I get, the more in touch I become with the balance of my future, the ever growing sum of my past and the importance of the people who came before me in shaping the person I am today.  The older I get, the more I love old relics, symbols of the past, possessions of those whose life is now just a memory.  I find myself wanting to be surrounded by these relics, partly because these days I've learned to value their history and wish I could share a conversation with their owners.  Somehow, the older I get, the nearer I get to my own final chapter, the more I'm drawn to the loved ones whose demise make it impossible for me to make a tangible connection.  

My recent photo project reminded me of the importance of documenting history.  It reminded me of days gone by and people I loved.  It reminded me that everyday, every moment we live and breathe, we are creating history.  We often forget that as we rush through life, we forget the legacy we are creating, a legacy that may or may not be tangible or memorable to those we leave behind.  I was reminded that there were people before me...not just my parents and grandparents, but parents and grandparents before them, people who left a legacy and more importantly created family that resulted in my being here today.  Who were those people?  Who came before my immediate family and what was their story?  I needed to know.

These questions led me to reactivate my Ancestry membership, a membership that previously only resulted in determining my DNA and the start of a very limited family tree.  I've been fascinated with the tv shows about finding your roots where it seems everyone finds some deep, fascinating secret or some wildly interesting, sometimes dark family member in the past.  I didn't have any delusions that I'd find any such person in my research, but it didn't matter.  All I wanted was an idea of who came before the relatives I'm familiar with, where previous ancestors came from and perhaps open a window to my family history. Some of what I discovered researching my family was not all that enlightening - or exciting - but when I began researching John's family, the plot thickened and the adventure began.  It was the discovery of his 3rd great grandfather that things got exciting and his story will be the subject of my next blog post.  Trust me, you won't want to miss it.  Still, there was some pretty interesting stuff to be found, stuff I'm sharing here today.

As we followed the family tree further and further back, we realized we weren't familiar with the burial spots of relatives beyond our grand and great grandparents.  Even then, some we hadn't visited in years.  This started the next process in our ancestry quest....locating and visiting all the local graves we could find.  Luckily, helped us locate a bunch of family members, many of whom were in cemeteries we've already visited without realizing more family were buried there.  Others we visited for the first time.  This quest required a little detective work and a good deal of driving 'round and around the cemeteries trying to spot names on gravestones.  In all we visited five cemeteries including one out in Rensselaerville that turned out to have the wrong Fannie Bryant, not John's great grandmother, Fannie.  At each cemetery, I photographed the family gravestones and noted the location in the cemetery where we found them.  The oldest relative whose grave we found was John's third great grandfather who died in 1873 and his daughter who was buried near him in 1856.  They are laid to rest in St. Agnes cemetery in Menands - that cemetery is a story in itself and will also be featured here soon!  I've never been a fan of cemeteries or the idea of being in one, but I have to say visiting so many of our ancestors was a cathartic and grounding exercise.  It reminded me, though I never realized I needed reminding, that my story didn't begin a generation ago, or two generations ago.  It reminded me that there are stories and histories of those who came long before me and before the people I've met.

For instance, my grandmother spent her whole life living in Cohoes.  Her father came to the US from Canada in 1868 and her mom came from Scotland in 1869.  Her entire life was lived within a few blocks.  I knew the house she and my grandfather lived in until he died in 1963.  She then moved next door to an apartment and in the years prior to her death, she moved down the hill to 34 Hamilton Street.  It wasn't until I began collecting data from the 1900 census that I learned she was born and spent several years living in 36 Hamilton - the other side of the apartment building she lived in the last years of her life.  She began and ended her life in the same building!  How did I not know this??  

Johns great grandfather, Julius Welter, came to the U.S. from Germany in 1864.  According to the 1900 census, Julius was a plumber who lived at 6 Morton Avenue with his wife, Mary and six children, including John's grandfather Henry who at 15 was an apprentice nickle plater.  In 1913, he was admitted to the Albany County Almshouse at age 59 due to rheumatism. He died in 1920 and Mary, his wife, lived until 1922 with her daughter, son-in-law and their children.

Catherine O'Sullivan, daughter of Michael O'Sullivan, John's 3rd great grandfather, was among the first members of the Cathedral choir in Albany.  From a book published in 1899 by Myron Cooney "she was a general favorite and possessed a beautiful voice, and at her funeral, Bishop, afterwards Cardinal, McClosky preached, she being the only lay person for whom he did this service. The following inscription appears on her monument: "Memorial of the Cathedral Parish to Catherine O'Sullivan.  Died September 8th, 1956, aged 21 years.  Jesus be merciful."

Charles and Caroline Kraft, John's maternal great grandparents, immigrated from Germany in 1874.  On the 1920 census they were living on So. Pearl Street in Albany with 7 of their 9 children.  Notice if you can the age of the kids 47, 39, 37, 32, 29, 28, 22.  They worked in an ice house, a wholesale store, a shirt factory, a box factory, a knit mill, a bakery and a steam railroad.  Charles and Caroline were 72 and 66 and all of the kids are listed as single.  There has to be a story there......

My maternal great grandfather and grandmother, Michael and Mary, immigrated from Italy in 1883 and 1881.  In 1885 when Michael was 19, he was admitted to the Essex County Poorhouse.  The reason was sickness - dropsy (an old fashioned term for edema).  Later, Michael worked as a railroad section boss, and later as a laborer at a slate quarry in VT before going back to work for the railroad.  

They had 11 children. Their daughter, Lucy, died at 31 during childbirth.  Cause of death was listed as hemorrhage and Graves disease.  
Who would imagine these pieces of history could be found at the stroke of a keyboard, telling the history of your family members?  These stories, tragic but true, take me out of my every day existence and into the reality that people before me had dreams and jobs and sadness and struggles.  These stories put life to the photos that are left behind and put meaning into the freedom and conveniences we have today - even in things we take for granted like medical care.  This is just a tiny sampling of some of the things we learned from the records we found. We learned that back in the day, folks worked mostly in the local industries - the clothing factories and mills in Cohoes, the railroad in Mechanicville, wherever the work presented itself close to home.  Most of the women in my family spent their early years of employment in the Cohoes mills.  My great grandfather was a 'loom fixer'.   I learned that immigration isn't a thing just of the present - all of my great grandparents were immigrants...from Canada, Austria, Italy, and Scotland.  Almost all of John's are too, immigrating from Germany, Ireland and Luxemburg.   We are American, but inside we are a smorgasbord of nationalities, a melting pot of history and dreams.
We, in our world of convenience, a world of immediate gratification and living in the moment, need to take time to remember that life didn't begin with us.  It began a long time ago with people who struggled and worked and raised families - big ones - whose talents and dreams are in our genes.  They have stories, stories they aren't here to tell.  But thanks to modern technology, we can find their stories and relive their journeys through time.  We can get a glimpse of the family that made our lives possible.  It's in that not-so-secret past that we can meet those ancestors.  Then and only then can we retell their stories so that their legacy can live on in our children.  We can teach our children the importance of their history, their ancestors, the people who paved their way.  
I hope this inspires you to look into your past and find your roots.  It's addictive and fascinating and fun. In my next blog, I'll be sharing the story of Michael O'Sullivan - an Irish immigrant who came and left his mark and his legacy.  His story is incredible and impressive and one you won't want to miss.  
Thanks for stopping by!  Feel free to share your ancestry stories if you have them!

There's No Place More Beautiful in Spring Than the Schenectady Stockade

Sunday, April 18, 2021

 Rituals are formulas by which harmony is restored.

                                                                -Terry Tempest Williams

After the year we've all endured, who isn't seeking a little harmony? We all have our favorite rituals, and each spring one of our favorite rituals is a visit to the Schenectady Stockade. For a brief time, so brief in fact, that this year we almost missed it, the Stockade is a storybook image of beautiful architecture and flowering trees. It is in this ethereal haven that I find harmony and joy and I'm extending that joy today as I share it with you all. Come along on a stroll through the picturesque Schenectady Stockade.

Whether it's the trees in all their blooming glory or the welcoming, colorful entry doors, there's no  disputing that the Schenectady Stockade is always one of the most cheerful places to visit.  I'm always happy I did.  Thank you to all the property owners who take such pride in their homes and neighborhood making this one of our favorite destinations.  If you haven't taken a stroll or drive through the Stockade, you really must.  It sure is a heavenly haven on earth and I promise it'll restore a little harmony in your soul when you do! 
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