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


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