Posts Tagged ‘Harlem’

The Museum of the City of New York has a wonderful collection of photographs, maps and prints many of which are now available online.

I thought I would see if there were any pictures which showed what Harlem might have been like when our Colbert family lived there.

John Colbert arrived in the U.S in 1843 and was in Harlem by 1850 – he lived on East 119th Street, near Avenue A (now Pleasant Avenue). After his marriage he lived on 116th Street and Avenue A.

He died in 1865 and his widow, Mary Coleman Colbert, leased a lot on East 121st Street, between Avenue A and 1st Avenue. She had a one story framed house with a store, possibly the same house John had built on 116th Street. The Colberts had a horse and wagon and possibly a cow and other animals. They were milk dealers.

Did John Colbert’s horse and wagon look something like this?

This picture is in the Museum of the City of New York, but not online. I took it in 2008 at the exhibit on the 200th Anniversary of the Archdiocese of New York.

This picture is in the Museum of the City of New York, but not online. I took it in 2008 at the exhibit on the 200th Anniversary of the Archdiocese of New York.

Here are some pictures I found online – you can see the animals wandering around.

Harlem squatter settlements in 1858.

The Colberts lived on 116th Street at this time. Is this what their area looked like? There were so many hogs in  Harlem that the area around 125th Street was called “Pig’s Alley”

Squatter Settlement in Harlem

116th Street and 4th Avenue

This is the south east corner of 116th Street and 4th Avenue in 1889. Our family lived at 116th Street and Avenue A (Pleasant Avenue), about 4 blocks east of here from about 1855 to 1865.
[South east corner of 116th Street and 4th Avenue.]
This is the south west corner of 116th Street and 4th Avenue in 1895.
[South west corner of 116th and 4th Avenue.]

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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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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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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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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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