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Archive for the ‘New York City’ Category

When I found the description of Mary’s house (see: Mary moves her house) I wanted to know more. Why was the house sold? Just who was William Austin? I always wondered how long the Colberts had lived on 121st Street and why they moved – to Bronxville in Westchester County.

Land records can be found at 66 John Street so I went there. I knew the block and lot number (1808 – 41) so I was able to find the old records pretty quickly. As I went through them, I found them confusing – referees and people selling and selling back to each other – what was going on?

There was a nice map in the beginning of the book and I could see that Mary’s lot straddled two old farms that had been overlaid with the new Manhattan Grid that had been established in 1811.

In the 1850s the properties were being “lotted” and partitioned and sold but there was plenty of open land.

Mary's lot was number 41. Lots 40, 41, 13, and 13 1/2 were under dispute. The names are of the owners of the farms that were there at the time the grid was created.

I decided to go to google books and check out some of the names I had found. Up popped Austin v Ahearne et al. As I read the case I saw the names of the “et al” – the tenants of Ahearne. They were : Spear, Wright, Hickman and COLBERT!

The case was full of legal terms, like “attornment” and “ejectment”. What had happened?  Was there more information?

Yes – in the New York County Clerk’s office, Old Records Division. They have the original case file, folded and wrapped in a ribbon, unopened for at least 100 years. Fragile pages crumbled as I opened them. I had to take digital pictures because the records were too fragile to photocopy.

Mary's lawyer wrote "exceptions" to the findings of the referee.

So what had happened? I’m still trying to sort it out, but basically – two women, Cornelia Austin and Margaret M. Ahearne (no relation to us) each owned 1/2 of an undivided interest in property that Margaret had leased to 4 tenants: Charles Spear, Amelia Wright, Nicholas Hickman and Mary Colbert. In 1869 Cornelia filed a lawsuit to eject the tenants. That seems to have been settled when they “attorned” – acknowledging her as their landlady. I still can’t figure out if they had to pay more rent. I do know she wanted to raise Mary’s rent to $100.00 a year, from $30.00 a year.

My great great grandmother resisted these efforts. I know this because the New York Tribune said so in an article called ” The Referee System Illustrated” on June 24, 1872:

…Margaret M. Ahearne executed leases of these lots to four tenants, and that she and her tenants refused to acknowledge any rights of the plaintiff, Austin in the premises. She accordingly began suits of ejectment against Mrs. Ahearne and the tenants, two of whom recognized her claim and became her tenants also, while a third, Mary Colbert, who had resisted her demand, was nevertheless allowed, from motives of humanity, to remain….

After the ejectment case was worked out, Cornelia filed another lawsuit to partition the property. The court seemed to say that it was too complicated to partition and that it should be sold.

I wonder what it was like for my great great grandmother – she could not read, although her daughters and her son-in-law could.  She had to hire an attorney to fight the ejectment and then the partition. In one document, her lawyer, Abram Wakeman, told the court that she was infirm and had no way to support herself without her house. It’s possible that Mary had hoped to buy the property when she’d saved enough money. If it went to auction she wouldn’t have a chance.

Mary's lawyer represented her in court.

The case eventually went to the New York State Court of Appeals. In the end, the lots, including the houses, sold at auction for $250.00 – the buyer? William Austin, a relative of Cornelia’s.

Newspaper ad for the sale of the properties. Note Mary Colbert is mentioned in the last sentence.

When Mary’s lease ended on April 1, 1880, she had to move – but why Bronxville?

Probably because her next door neighbor, Nicholas Hickman, also caught up in this lawsuit and whose lease ended a few months earlier, had moved there.

The Colberts didn’t stay long, but returned to New York, not far from East 121st Street, by the fall of 1880. But something had changed: From 1865 to 1880 city directories and the census show that Mary and later her sons and son-in-law were in the milk business. After they returned to New York there is no more mention of milk. Now my great grandfather and his brother are usually shown as drivers and their brother-in-law as a truckman, expressman, or stevedore.

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The Museum of the City of New York has a great exhibit called The Greatest Grid – The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011.

Map of Harlem - if you click on it you will be able to zoom in and see the old village of Harlem with housing lining the streets. Note the marshes and streams.

This describes the picture of the shanties at Fifth Avenue and 101st Street. The Colberts lived on 116th Street in the 1850s and 1860s. By 1865 they had moved their house to East 121st Street and had a respectable 15 year lease - $30.00 a year.

I went to see the exhibit on January 7th – so did a lot of other people and it was crowded. It was one of those strange spring like days we’ve had this year.

It was fascinating to see the old maps and pictures.

My favorite part was the original, hand-drawn map of the proposed streets – very long with lots of detail. There were also pictures of New York when it still had hills and pictures of shantytowns.

Fifth Avenue and 101st Street (in the 1890s)

Jacob Reis believed the shanties were healthier than the tenements.

Harlem - when New York had hills (taken in the late 1890s)

The exhibit closes April 15th – if you get a chance, it’s worth a trip to see it.

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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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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.

Click on the illustrations to view a larger version.

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