A small transcription error sent me on a wild goose chase for 30 years.
My father knew little about his father’s family. His grandparents had died before he was born and there were few stories. I did a little research and found his great grandfather’s death certificate.
It said John Colbert, age 65, born in Ireland, died of injuries on March 22, 1865. His address was 116 Avenue A.
- A small mistake in this record caused a lot of confusion.
Or was it?
I had no luck finding records at the nearby churches, but I kept looking. A few years ago, I decided to visit the area – the subway is not that close and it was a long walk. I saw 112 Avenue A and then I crossed the street to Tompkins Square Park.
There was no 116 Avenue A and it’s unlikely that there ever was – the park opened in 1834. Had there been squatters in the park? The Parks Department said no.
Why does the death certificate say 116 Avenue A?
I knew John’s widow, Mary, moved to East 121st Street by 1870. The NYPL Maps Division has old maps of New York City, so that was my next stop.
While the librarian checked on 116 Avenue A for me, I looked at an 1867 map for East 121st Street.
Then I saw – Avenue A
1867 Map shows Avenue A in Harlem.
It turns out that until the later 1800s Avenue A went the length of Manhattan. Of course, it disappeared and reappeared as it encountered the river, making its final reappearance at 111th Street and disappearing for good at 123rd Street. In 1879, the section in East Harlem became Pleasant Avenue.
Dripps 1851 New York City Map shows the area as it was when John Colbert first arrived in New York.
Back to the Municipal Archives to check the original record.
Sure enough, the clerk who transcribed the record missed an important detail – the & sign.
Note the actual address is 116th & Av A
Moral of the story – always check original records when you can.
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