Posts Tagged ‘John Colbert genealogy’

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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When I started researching the family history I sent
to Calvary Cemetery for a listing of interments in the Colbert family plot.

Were Mary E. and Ellen relatives?

Among the names were two babies:

Mary E. Curtin, age 1 year, buried August 11, 1865

Ellen Curtin, age 8 months, buried August 27, 1868

Who were they?

This week I learned they were the grandchildren of Mary Coleman, and the step grandchildren of John Colbert. (See Colbert page for the pedigree chart of Lawrence Colbert)

Mary Coleman had been married before she came to the U.S. Her husband’s name was Martin Smith and they had at least one child, Bridget, who was born in the late 1840s. She came to the U.S. when she was about 3 years old on the Montezuma, with her uncle Larry Coleman. I don’t know why her mother sent her on ahead. Maybe there were other children to care for. Maybe she thought Bridget stood a better chance of surviving the trip if she went with her uncle. It was a tough trip for women and children, especially when they were traveling alone.

In the 1855 and 1860 censuses Bridget is living with her mother and stepfather John Colbert.

Bridget is 14 years old in 1860.

Around 1862 she married David Curtin, an Irish immigrant.  They had 14 children, only 7 survived. David and Bridget lived on East 130th Street; according to city directories, David was a grocer. James Woods, a grocer, is a neighbor. He’s also the one who posted bond for Mary Coleman Colbert when she applied for Letters of Administration after her husband died.

1880 Census for Curtin - note James Woods

1880 Census - children of Bridget and David Curtin; note the gap between James and Martin

Around 1894 Bridget’s husband David died. She moved from East 130th Street to 2360 Broadway. Her half brother John, my great grandfather, lived there at the time. Her half sister, Mary Grossman, and her half brother, Garrett, lived nearby. A few years later Bridget married again.

I found a lot of information on the internet and I was pretty sure the Curtins were related to the Colberts but I needed to check the NYC Municipal Archives to find the solution to this mystery. I went last Thursday and found two records:

Bridget’s death certificate:  parents are John Smith and Mary Coleman.

Marriage to James Trainor: parents are Martin Smith and Mary Colbert.

Mary Coleman is Mary Colbert’s maiden name.

I also checked some of the birth records of Bridget’s children and found that she sometimes used Colbert and sometimes Smith as her maiden name.

Mystery solved

Now, can I find the record for Bridget’s baptism? the marriage record for Mary Coleman and Martin Smith? What happened to Martin? Does Bridget have any living descendants? And why did none of my Colbert relatives know about the Curtins? My grandfather certainly knew them – one of his godparents was an M. Curtin – could that be Bridget’s son Martin Curtin – he would have been about 19 years old at the time.

More mysteries to solve.

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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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