Archive for January, 2012

Family History Writing Challenge

The other day I stumbled across The Family History Writing Challenge  and decided to sign up.

I’ve been writing “The Book” for 5 years now. I have a draft, but it needs revision. Lots of revision. I keep finding new information about the family that I need to incorporate into the book and wonder if there is anything more I can find. I hope the story that I tell will be interesting even to those family members who are not particularly interested in family history, but like a good story.

In other words:

research – fun

writing the blog – fun

writing “The Book” – not so much

This challenge comes at the perfect time. February is a good month to work on a book – not that much going on in winter, and I need to jump start this project. I want to complete my book by next year (I’ve said that before).

So every day for the whole month of February I will write – the book.

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Mary moved her one-story house, which included a store, to East 121st Street not long after John died.

East 121st Street between Pleasant Avenue and First Avenue did not have many houses at the time and most of them were like Mary’s – one or two story framed buildings. They don’t appear on the maps of the time. The lots to the west of Mary were empty. Mary was in the dairy business and may have kept cows, or goats, or geese, like many Irish in Harlem.

1867 Map - Mary's house was by the arrow - note the lines of the old farms. There were several other small houses on the block that are not on the map.

When I started researching the family history I didn’t even know the name of my great great grandmother. So how did I manage to find a description of her house?

It took 30 years and the internet, plus some good old-fashioned court house research.

At first it seemed that Mary and John left few records and even fewer family stories.

There was one story that was a little strange. The Colberts, it seems, had a farm in Harlem and it was taken from them by greedy people? the city? That wasn’t clear.  My grandmother, or maybe it was my great grandmother, was going to look into getting it back, but nothing ever came of it.

As I found more records, Mary and John and their children slowly came into focus. The Emigrant Savings Bank records revealed that Mary came from County Waterford. Cemetery records yielded clues about her husband and children (see Colbert Mystery Solved and Where’s John Colbert?). I learned that she had a brother named Lawrence Coleman who also lived on East 121st Street. The census records showed that the houses must have been small – only one or two families per house. I found that the family lived in Bronxville for a very short period in 1880.

Emigrant Savings Bank, April 7, 1865, Note she used her maiden name. Avenue A is now Pleasant Avenue.

Later I learned that the family moved to Manhattanville in 1890 when Mary’s daughter bought a house – more on that in a later post.

Could I find any else?

The New York Public Library has a great blog and their post on researching NYC Homes was the key to more information about Mary than I ever thought I would find. I decided to try the Real Estate Record first and found this description of Mary’s house.

422 East 121st Street - sold to William Austin

Who was William Austin and why did he buy Mary’s house? As it turned out, there was a lot more to this story.

Next post:

How Mary got caught up in the case of

Austin v Ahearne 61 N.Y. 6.

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No! I said Colbert!

I thought I had seen every variation of Colbert – Corbert, Calbert, Calvert, Caulbert, to name a few, but Holbrook?

I know I promised to tell the story of Mary Colbert in my next post, and I will, but first, I want to talk about one of the more challenging aspects of genealogy – mistakes in the old records. Just because a record is old, doesn’t mean it is correct.

At the time of the 1870 census, New York City was full of immigrants from all over. The census takers may have had a hard time understanding the immigrants or perhaps this particular census taker was hard of hearing.

Was Mary home when the census taker came to the door? Did her neighbor, Nicholas Hickman, who was born in Germany provide the information? Somehow, Colbert became Holbrook.

I had already found Mary in one version of the 1870 census years ago. BUT – New York City had 2 enumerations – that’s because the first one was on the wrong form – it didn’t have street addresses, just dwelling numbers. So they did it over – but the second time the census taker who came to Mary’s house didn’t complete all the columns – maybe he did better the first time?

I couldn’t find her in the first enumeration until I looked for her neighbor and saw the “Holbrook” family. Funny thing, I should have found them before – after all a few doors down was Mary’s brother Larry.

Here’s the comparison

Note that in the 1st Enumeration we see that John and Garrett are at school and the  Marys are both “at home”. The first census was taken in July, the second in December, so you might expect some people had birthdays, BUT –  Mary loses 3 years and is now 44. Her daughter Mary and son John gain a year. The youngest child, Garret, is now Garry and a year younger!!

First enumeration (click on the link to see Nicholas Hickman and Larry Coleman, Mary’s brother.)

1870 Census First Enumeration

1870 Census First enumeration

Second enumeration

1870 Census Second Enumeration

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It’s hard to believe it’s 2012 already and 2 months since I last posted to this blog.  Over the holidays we welcomed a new family member – Maeve Anne, born January 4th, daughter of my niece Kate and her husband Marce. She’s a beautiful baby.


Now that the holidays are over I need to get back to writing the family history book. I’ve made some some progress, although I keep getting diverted. I’ve been to the Municipal Archies, NYC Land Records, and NY County Clerk Old Records and have found new information about the Colberts. That’s for the next post. This post is about the Colbert’s in Harlem in the 1850s and 1860s.

In my post “Where’s John Colbert?” I found that he had settled in Harlem not long after he arrived in New York in the 1840s.

I don’t know why he went to Harlem, but there were plenty of Irish there, although there’s not much information on them. What I found in books and websites is a variation of the following quote from Encyclopedia.com:

By the 1840s and 1850s, as the land’s productivity declined, many estate owners sold off or abandoned their properties. Irish immigrants arrived in Harlem as squatters, establishing shantytowns as well as a territorial claim to street and neighborhood boundaries.

This is where the Colberts settled – but was the area where they lived really a shantytown? It’s hard to say.

The 1855 New York  State census shows the family living in a framed dwelling worth $200.00. This was probably the house on 116th Street and John Colbert may have built it himself. Some of the neighbors had houses worth between $1500 and $6500. One neighbor was named Randall – the family that at one time owned a very large farm in Harlem and gave it’s name to Randall’s Island. Other neighbors were like John, Irish emigrants.

The Colbert family in the 1855 census.

Now that I knew where the family lived I was able to get the  baptismal record of my great grandfather – John Colbert. There were a lot of  people named John and Mary in this family and it can be hard to keep track of them.

Baptism of John Colbert, April 1858

Old St. Paul's

St. Paul's Church today - built 1907.

The family were in the parish of St. Paul’s which was located on East 117th Street. The current church was built in 1907, so it’s not where the family went to church.

A few years ago my niece Kate and I visited the church. It’s beautiful and worth a trip to see. When we told one of the woman who was there that our family had once been in the parish she invited us to come back to the parish offices. The pastor let us check out the old records and I took a picture of my great grandfather’s baptismal record.


John Colbert died in an accident in 1865 – over the years I tried to find a newspaper report on the accident, but it’s very difficult to check those old newspapers, even when you do have an exact date. Digitized records have changed all that and a search of a  free website called Old Fulton Postcards found this article from the New York Evening Express.

New York Evening Express account of John Colbert's accident


What did Mary do after John died? She had three young children: Mary, age 11, John, almost 7, and Garrett, just 3. Her oldest daughter, Bridget, was married and lived on East 130th Street with her husband David and their 2 children, James, age 3 and newborn Mary.

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