Thursday, March 31, 2016

Genealogical Journey: Cousin Bill

The voice on the other end of the line had a heavy New York accent.  He said he was my cousin from New Jersey.  Bill became my genealogy partner in crime readily sharing photos, notes and eagerly listening to my findings.  ( Our first phone call lasted over an hour.)  He was so pumped up that he traveled to Ireland to try to find ancestors beyond our second great-grandparents.  That was another reason why I must pursue the O'Sullivan lore; I could not find ancestors beyond my second great-grandparents.  If I could find out how and if we were related to Timothy O'Sullivan, I might be able to use that information to bread through my brick wall. 

We discussed the possibility of our relationship to Timothy O'Sullivan.  He said he had heard that we were related to him but didn't know how.  Not the answer I was hoping for, but at least another branch of the family had heard that story too.  No O'Sullivan photos were found among Bill's family's things.  He said that our surname was originally O'Sullivan.  The "O" was dropped somewhere along the line and the past three generations go by Sullivan.  My dad and aunt told me this as well.  This was the beginning of hearing the same story from different family members who had never met.  I got a good feeling about that.  Bill told me many stories that provided me with research leads to both the dead and the living.  I never would have been able to find what I found about him.  I am eternally grateful. 

For starters, he told me where our great-grandparents are buried in St. Peter's Cemetery on Staten Island.  I had called the cemetery prior, but they could not tell me where the plot was located.  It turned out to be a family plot containing our great-grandparents, Bill's parents, his aunt, cousin and our Great-aunt Margaret, Great-uncle Jim's and my grandmother's younger sister.  Bill's dad used some of Great-aunt Margaret's willed money to redo the headstone and put the plot in perpetual care when she died in 1979.  Other family members used the money for more important long-gone things such as furniture, riding lawn mowers and motorcycles.  I was glad Bill's dad wasn't interested in those things. 

Bill's dad was named James after his dad, my Great-uncle, the newspaper photographer.  He was the second oldest of my great-uncle's five children.  He worked as a pipe fitter, joined the Navy and retired as a mailman.  Again, only men worked those jobs back then.  He lived well into his late eighties probably because he walked delivering mail on Staten Island for decades.  I believed that Bill's dad instilled in him the interest in family history.  He left Bill some family history notes that Bill tried to read to me over the phone.  Thought we weren't able to get any further up the family tree, we filled in a lot of branches of current generations using those notes.  Those cryptic notes still let me know if I am on the right track when researching.  They were also the gateway leading me to more living relatives on other branches of the family tree. 

Bill was named after his Uncle Bill, his father's brother.  Bill has a brother named James who has a daughter named Michele, my name spelled the same way with one "L".  Bill and my dad share the same first name.  They both married women of Italian descent.  They both have sons named Tim.  Hmm...there was a clue.  Tim.  My brother was named Tim after a great-grand-uncle, according to my dad.  Why did Bill name his son Tim?  He and his wife simply liked the name.  The Tim count is at three so far:  Great-grand-uncle, brother, and second cousin's son.  Were we mixing up Timothy O'Sullivan with the confirmed Great-grand-uncle Timothy Sullivan on the family tree?  At this point, it would seem so. 

Surprised that I had never been to Staten Island, Bill encouraged me to visit.  He offered to show me around where my grandmother grew up.  She died three weeks before I was born.  Having had a close, loving relationship with my maternal grandmother, I felt gypped by her death.  That was another reason why I wanted to learn more about her side of the family.  My Grandmother Mary Sullivan married my Grandfather William Lagoy in Lake Placid, New York where they met.  In the summer, she took the train upstate where she found work as a stenographer for artists and writers.  The story goes, while walking down the street in Lake Placid, she broke the heel on her shoe and my grandfather fixed it.  They were married shortly thereafter.  When a couple hails from opposite ends of New York State, they settle mid-state in Montgomery County.  At least my paternal grandparents did.  New York State is big.  The Staten Island Ferry docks in Manhattan, not Montgomery County where I grew up.  As a result, I had never been to Staten Island.  The stories kept pouring out of my second cousin.  I'll bet not many people say this about visiting New York City, but I could not wait to go to Staten Island. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Genealogical Journey: Contacting Living Relatives

Aunt Peggy provided me with a name and an address of a relative now residing in New Jersey.  Staten Island is geographically closer to New Jersey than New York.  Legend has it that the governors of New York and New Jersey had a foot race to determine who would get the island.  The governor of New York lost.  I write my second cousin Dorothy a letter, including a copy of great-grandma's photograph.  After all, it is her great-grandmother too.  Her grandfather took the photo.  Perhaps she would be willing to talk to me about our family history if she sees this.  That was not the case.  She called months later when I was out of town.  We became friends on facebook.  She never responded to my invitations to meet when I am on the East Coast. I spoke with her briefly when she was at another cousin's house and the phone was handed to her.  To this day, I still have not spoken directly to her about our link to Timothy O'Sullivan.  It turned out that she held the answer to the question of whether we were related to him or not. 

I continued my research on with my free, two week subscription.  Those weeks passed quickly and I still hadn't found a record directly linking us to O'Sullivan.  My budget for genealogy resembled the shape of a donut, but I was hooked and needed to find a way to continue researching.  An online search led me to the Family History Library where I discovered free access to premium data bases, classes, books and like-minded people researching their families.  I became a regular patron on Thursday evenings.  One of the many things I learned was to contact living relatives when you are stuck or "at a brick wall" in genealogical terms.  Luckily, my Great-uncle Jim had five children.  I only needed one of his descendants to be willing to talk to me.  Time to try again. 

I did not want to cold call Sullivan's listed in the phone book on Staten Island.  My questions were about the past, but we live in the present post-nine-eleven world.  My cousins worked as New York City firefighters.  Baby Charles in the photograph was a fireman (only men held that job in those days) and so was his son and nephew.  But were they still working in 2001?  After twenty years, one retired from the FDNY.  A quick calculation determined that they would have been retired by 2001.  But even if they didn't work on September 11th, no doubt that they knew people who did, and I had to be sensitive about this. 

Meanwhile, I get an email from as a result of a family tree I had posted there.  Short and to the point, it read:  "Contact UR cousin William Charles Sullivan age 65-email address."  I some how doubted a sixty-five year old man spelled "your" as "U-R".  I emailed him back asking him the O'Sullivan question.  He called me.  Bill is a retired New York City firefighter. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Genealogical Journey: The Back Story

The Back Story
It is often said that a journey begins with a single step.  My genealogical journey began with a single photograph.  An old photograph.  A very old photograph.  Photography has been a part of my family's lore since it was invented.  But is it only lore or was there truth in those stories of being related to a famous Civil War photographer named Timothy O'Sullivan?  Maybe this old photograph can help. 

The photograph was found in a roasting pan stored in the basement of our family's upstate New York home.  Perhaps this only happens in my family, but you know how one side of the family's things are proudly displayed in the main area of the house and the other's "junk" is strewn about the basement?  So it was with that old photo passed around the Thanksgiving dinner table one year.  I was a teenager at the time but I remember having a visceral reaction to seeing that photograph.  It seemed to call to me. "We are your relatives.  This was a moment in our lives.  Get to know us.  Don't forget us."  It made my ancestors more real to me. 

This photograph was not taken in a traditional photography studio where subjects wore their Sunday best standing in front of an artificial background with somber looks on their faces.  This picture was taken in the living room of a Staten Island, New York home in 1913 by the baby's dad, Jim Sullivan.  The baby is serious, the cat is curious and great-grandma, not furious but thoroughly amused. 

My Aunt Peggy, full of family history knowledge, quickly identified the woman as her namesake Margaret Holmes Sullivan.  My great-grandmother is holding her first grandson Charles Sullivan, my dad's first cousin.  The cat vying for the coveted position on her lap was named Bootsie.  The white on his paws made it look like he was wearing boots.  Aren't we clever when it comes to naming our pets? 

Great-uncle Jim was a newspaper photographer for many New York City papers at the turn of the twentieth century.  But was he the only photographer in the family?  Were the stories about being related to Timothy O'Sullivan getting mixed up with him?  Tim and Jim are similar, photography is the same and the time period is only a few decades apart.  But why would we say that?  Most people with the surname Sullivan try to relate themselves to the famous Boston boxer, the great John L. Sullivan.  Not us.  We'll stick with being related to Timothy O'Sullivan.  But how? 

Time to ask Dad.  His answer is to ask Aunt Peggy.  Her response is to ask him.  Let's see what genealogy records say.  Census schedules show Timothy's parents lived near my ancestors on Staten Island.  They indicated the relationship of the people in the household, but not the neighbors.  Great-great-grandpa's naturalization document listed Timothy's father as a witness to his naturalization but didn't spell out their relationship.  Time to reach out to never before met living relatives to see what they know. 

Little did I know that the journey to seek information about the dead would lead me on a fabulous journey of meeting the living.  Please join me for the story about how a man who had no living descendants united hundreds of living relatives. 

Great-grandma Margaret Holmes Sullivan with her first grandson, Charles. 1913 Staten Island New York