Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Importance of Addresses and Directory Records

There are many sources for finding an address. Census records from 1880 and later have house number and street name fields (though some enumerators were neglectful of recording them) and of course there are directory records. For men, the World Wars draft records list their home addresses. Also, sometimes things like death records can list the deceased's last residence.

But what can an address tell you about your ancestors? Aside from being able to pinpoint where they lived and, if the building is still standing, be able to see the actual home they lived in, what can it tell you?

I recently got the answer to this question with one of my 3rd great grandfathers, Robert Russell. I had found an 1881 death record of his infant daughter Rebecca and their residence was listed as 17 West Carson Street in Pittsburgh, Ward 33. From that, and with the help of Steve Morse's Enumeration District Finder, I found Robert on the 1880 US Census at the same address, which I previously hadn't been able to find because his age and place of birth were royally screwed up. So addresses are important to begin with because they can help you track down hard-to-find census records. But what about directory records?

I knew Robert lived at 17 West Carson Street during 1880 and 1881 and according to the census, he was a blacksmith. Armed with this knowledge, I set out to find out roughly how long he lived at this address by using the City Directories collection at I prefer to search this collection manually, since it has been transcribed by OCR (optical character recognition) which results in many mis-transcriptions and even leaves some entries completely un-transcribed. This means searching by name or address may not turn up all the results available. So I mess about with page numbers until I hone in on "Russell" for each directory year. To my dismay, I can not find a single entry for Robert Russell at 17 West Carson Street, even in the years 1880 and 1881 when I know he lived there. It's possible he was simply unlisted but what I do find is a lot of entries for a Robert Russell at 17 Sligo row, which is often followed by "Carson" or "W Carson" and/or "33d wd". There seems to be some connection here but what is this "Sligo row"?

Googling Sligo row doesn't give me any results but Sligo itself is the name of a town and county in Ireland (it's also a borough in Clarion County, Pennsylvania but that's irrelevant to my search). This suggests Sligo row was a section of the city heavily populated with Irish immigrants, which makes sense because Robert is an Irish immigrant himself. But how do I know 17 Sligo row is the same address as 17 West Carson Street and why are they being given different names?

First, I suspected that "33d wd" is short for "33rd Ward", which would match the Ward 33 mentioned in the death record detailed above. To confirm this, I go to the front of the directory where it lists common abbreviations used and sure enough, "wd" stands for "Ward". So I have a stronger connection between 17 Sligo row and 17 West Carson Street but what it is exactly? The directories also have street listings in the beginning, detailing where the street is located in reference to the surrounding area, however, Sligo row is not among them. How strange.

I eventually find it as "Sligo block" in an earlier directory record from 1875 and suddenly it clicks: Sligo row is a single, specific block of West Carson Street. I could have stopped here and assumed it was just a block nicknamed after an area of Ireland. But I'd never heard of this before (just one single block being named after a town/county) so I kept digging.

Another directory record from 1874 calls it "Sligo mills" so I decide to Google this and see what kind of results I get. Googling historic information is very hit and miss, sometimes you find exactly what you're looking for, other times you find nothing relevant at all. Fortunately, this time it was the former. "Sligo mills, Pittsburgh" turned up a result for a website about a historical Sligo Iron Works which states it was also known as Sligo Iron Mills. The website says it was located at 121 Water Street (not West Carson) but my intuition is telling me that there is a connection. After all, Robert was a blacksmith and this is an iron mill. There could have been a block on West Carson Street where a number of Sligo employees lived; maybe the company even owned the housing on that block and provided it for their employees. An 1872 historical map of this section of Pittsburgh suggests that at one point, Water Street actually dead ended before reaching Sligo Iron Works while Carson Street ran right through it. The map also shows that the company which owned Sligo Iron Works (Lyon, Shorb & Co.) also owned several, smaller properties on Carson Street that look like residential housing. Maybe these were the block known as Sligo row (sadly, they are not numbered on the map).

Certainly, they are all related somehow and in the middle of it is my ancestor Robert Russell, which gives me some insight into perhaps where he worked but certainly the area where he lived. And all this because I found a record saying his address was 17 West Carson Street. This may seem boring to some but I hope that my trail of research can inspire others to dig deeper and follow similar leads of their own. Don't just collect locations or addresses, explore the areas and find out more. Where will addresses you find lead you?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Forgotten Relatives

Everyone has them in their tree - those relatives, such as the sibling of one of our ancestors, whose descendancy has died out at some point, meaning they have no living descendants and therefore may not even be listed in anyone else's tree. Either they never had children themselves or maybe they only had one or two children who died young or never had children. Or maybe they died young themselves.

I always take an interest in these people, despite the fact that I am not descended from them, because I think it's a shame when they are forgotten and because they were a part of my ancestor's lives.

For me, one of these relatives is my 3rd great granduncle, Clinton Rorer. He was 63 when he died, not unattractive, and had been a wealthy and prominent man in the community; a farmer, a sheriff of Montgomery County, PA, a founder of the Chestnut Hill Casino Company, a Freemason, a congress nominee, and a share holder in the Blue Mountain Railroad Company. So he was certainly very far from an "invalid" whose prospects of marriage and children were nil. And it's not like he was the elephant man (see photo below), uglier men have married and had children. He seemingly chose not to marry and therefore never had any known children (he could have had illegitimate children but if that was the case, they have been lost to history as far as I know). Modern minds tends to assume he was homosexual but there are many other possibilities. With all his wealth, he may have felt that he could never be sure that any woman he married was not just after his money and social status. Maybe he was just a romantic who wanted to marry for love but never found it; or maybe he did find it but it was unrequited or maybe she died before they had a chance to marry. Another possibility, though perhaps far-fetched, is suggested in the fact that Clinton’s sister Mary also never married. Could it be there was a secret incestuous relationship between them?

It's certainly a mystery and one that I am forever on the search for more information and insight. Clinton finally succumbed to kidney disease and his wealth went to his two nieces, one of whom was my second great grandmother (who then proceeded to spend, spend, spend with her husband until nothing was left by the time of their deaths for their descendants to inherit - thanks for that!).

It's a shame that such an interesting man has no descendants to remember him and so I've taken special interest in his legacy so that he is not completely forgotten to history. I encourage everyone to do the same with their own "forgotten" relatives - don't overlook them just because they are not your own ancestor.

A part of me feels that if someone is remembered, it somehow makes their life more meaningful. It's sad to think that I myself might be forgotten in time when I either have no living descendants or none of them have taken up an interest in their family history. I suppose that is part of why I do this, because each person in my tree was a real, living person just like me and it saddens me to think that their legacy might be completely lost to time and history, as my own could be. It's frightening to think of how insignificant most of us are in the grand scheme of things that we could be so easily forgotten.

Clinton Rorer
December 31, 1835 - December 12, 1899