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Posts Tagged ‘Irish in Harlem’

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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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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