Character Studies

When you feel like you’ve run out of records and the trip to New York seems impossible to plan right now… what do you do? I tend to start researching the locations, ideally to unearth more records. For this particular branch of the tree that meant researching Jefferson and St. Lawrence Counties in New York.  By looking through the St. Lawrence County Historical Association’s website I discovered the NYS Historic Newspapers project—a fabulous resource for New York researchers! Again, newspapers are the perfect resource for finding out the dirt on our black sheep relatives—what sells in the news business has not really changed… scandal and crime being top of the list. And that’s how I learned another piece of Michael O’Shea’s story.

OSheaMWatertownReunion18860428I was aware of Michael’s existence. He was an Irish immigrant and tailor in Upstate New York. I believe he is a close relative of my 3rd Great Grandfather, Patrick Shea or O’Shea and I know the men married sisters, Amy and Theresa McCumber, and the two couples were listed consecutively in the 1850 United States Census in Philadelphia, Jefferson County, New York. I had already found evidence that Michael and his wife were buried at St Patrick’s Cemetery in Rossie, New York (as was Patrick). But that was pretty much the total of my information prior to finding the newspapers.

Upon searching the NYS Historic Newspapers, I learned that Michael stopped by the hotel of George McLear in Rossie for drinks twice on the 21st of April 1886 and then while walking home that night fell into the Indian River. He was first reported missing but his body washed ashore days later.

OSheaMHisdeathwasnolossIn response, his widow, Amy, filed a civil suit against the hotel owner for serving Michael. The story plays out in articles in a number of the region’s newspapers in two counties as the case was tried, overturned and pursued again later by Michael’s daughter Rosanna. Ultimately the O’Shea’s lost the case when the defense persuaded the jury that Michael wasn’t that drunk and it had been a very dark night to be out walking without a lantern and it was likely just an accident.

His history of drinking didn’t serve the family well either as the defendant in the first trial remarked, “his death was no loss to the plaintiff as he was a worthless fellow and did nothing to support his wife.”


Happy hunting,


So as I noted, I’ve been working on a presentation on black sheep ancestors—which I’ve found a fair number of hanging out on my family tree. Some I’ve found by accident, some I obviously went looking for—like good old H.R. I’m going to write about a few of the side characters in my presentation because of their interesting stories and the great resources I found to research them.

SmithAbner1902I was trying to be better about following out the siblings of my direct ancestors and researching the siblings of Hugh and Jane Alison Massy starting with Rowland Hill and Elizabeth Massy Alison (because siblings marrying siblings). I’d hoped the double family tie might lead me to more information on my Massy-Alison family. But while the Rowland Alison family did move briefly to Detroit and it appears Jane and family followed along right after Hugh’s death, Rowland and family quickly moved on to Chicago where they settled and the research hasn’t yet led me to further revelations on my direct line. But it did lead to a few interesting characters like Abner Smith.

Rowland had at least 5 children including Edith who married Charles Lee Caswell in 1870. The couple had two children including Charles Lee Junior who studied at Northwestern University Law School and was admitted to the Bar by the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois on 1896. He worked in practical law in Chicago until he made junior partner in the firm Smith & Caswell with Judge Abner Smith upon the Judge’s retirement from the Circuit Court Bench in 1903. Smith and Caswell can each be found among the turn of the century who’s who for Chicago prior to the fall of 1905 when Abner became the president of Bank of America and Caswell appears to have gone on to found Caswell & Healy.

DarrowonSmith19090602By April the following year Smith and several others were indicted for conspiracy leading to the wreck of the bank. Among those who lost the majority of their investments was Clarence Darrow who paid out of pocket to all small depositors and served with his partner Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology) as attorney for the receiver, Daniel Healy, at Abner’s hearings. There are great detailed write ups in the Chicago Tribune Archives—like this one, “Smith Plea Met by New Charges”.  Abner tried every appeal possible before turning himself in to the Cook County Jail for transport to the State Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois in May of 1909. And then the process was lengthened when the Sheriff actually refused to transport him.

SmithARasclChiTrib1909In the end he served a year and a month, and on parole in July of 1910 returned home to Chicago and practicing law. His wife Ada died in 1914, he was enumerated as a widowed lodger in 1920, and when the census came round again in 1930 he had married his former partner’s widowed mother, Mrs. Edith Alison Caswell—Rowland’s daughter and my 1st cousin 5 times removed. Abner died in 1932 at the age of 89 and Edith died a year later.

One of my biggest finds from this side trip is that the Tribune archives are fabulous for researching the notable and infamous—especially if you have Chicago roots. And as cases get messy enough you may be able to continue your research in legal reviews or biographies of notable lawyers.

For example, Reports of Cases at Common Law and in Chancery Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois Vol 239 (available in Google Books) has a detailed and verbose review of the case which charged that the defendants wrongfully, wickedly, fraudulently, feloniously and unlawfully conspired, combined, and confederated… to cheat and defraud and injure the public…” and that’s leaving out a ton.

Happy hunting,


Needless to say I’ve gotten behind in my blogging—my move, projects, work and such have derailed me a bit. I had fully intended to mark the 176th anniversary of the birth (and 95th anniversary of the death) of my 4th great grandmother, Mary Byrne Cunningham a couple of weeks ago. Better late than never…

Mary was born 21 July 1838 in North Burgess Township, Lanark County, Ontario, Canada to Owen and Ellen (Dowdall) Byrne. She married James Cunningham (formerly of County Armagh, Ireland) on 07 Jan 1863 in Perth, Lanark County, Ontario, Canada. The couple started their family immediately welcoming my 3rd great grandmother Ellen Cunningham in late October 1863. They relocated to homestead in Platte Township in Benzie County, Michigan in 1865—leaving Ellen with her Byrne grandparents. The rest of Mary’s children: Michael, John, George, James, Mary, Sarah, and Anna Clara, were born there. By 1884 Ellen had joined the family in Michigan and then married Cornelius Shea a year later in neighboring Manistee County.

Ellen Cunningham Baptism, 1863

As early as 1895 the Cunningham family had moved on to Antigo, Langlade County, Wisconsin—again with the exception of Ellen. The remaining children largely settled in Wisconsin. Mary was widowed in 25 January 1906. She then settled in with her youngest daughter, Annie (Cunningham) Nixon in Antigo, Wisconsin. Mary died 25 July 1919 in Langlade County, Wisconsin.

Happy hunting,


Still… chugging (or maybe puttering) along at my 52 Ancestors… I haven’t totally given up. We’ll see how far I get by the end of the year.

Mom, Carol and I in Detroit, 1985It seems like many people (especially as viewing the world through children’s eyes or memories) have a family member around that they are sure their related too—they’re at all the family gatherings, everyone knows them, etc.—but you don’t quite know how they’re related. Now, yes, not all of them really are related but mostly in my family they have been.

For my Trotter side of the family that was Cousin Carol pictured to the left with my mother and I. This is a detail from a larger group shot I’ve shared before here. She was a regular face at my grandparents’ house. I remember her at Thanksgiving (our big annual Detroit gathering) and at all the in-between visits. But for the life of me I didn’t know how she fit into the family—especially after I started researching them. I didn’t even know her last name. Come to find out she’d been in my database all along but she (like many people in my family) didn’t use the name given in “official” sources within the family.

Cousin Carol was in fact my Grandfather Levi’s older first cousin through Great Grandfather Harrison’s sister, Pearl Trotter. Pearl married George Washington Webb on Christmas of 1905 and had a passel of children in Bradley County, Arkansas. Carol, born Calidona Webb, was the sixth child and second daughter, born in 1913. She married Robert Nickolson in 1935 (recorded as Nixon—though he clearly signed Nickolson) in Bradley County, Arkansas. After that it’s a bit of a blank for me.  She may have had a child named Charles? As I mentioned, she was family. I saw her often in Detroit. But I never really knew how she fit.

Nickolson-Webb Mg 1935Aunties, if you’re reading this I have more questions!

Happy hunting,


CoryEdwardGettysburg1863My interest in visiting Gettysburg was peaked when I learned about my 4th Great Uncle Edward M. Cory. He was born around 1826 in Ontario County, New York one of the younger children of Gideon and Ruth Cory and the younger brother of my 4the Great grandfather John B. Cory (father of Augusta Cory). The family appears to have moved to Michigan sometime between the 1830 and 1840 Census settling in Wayne County. I know nothing of his early life but on 21 Dec 1848 Edward married Clarissa A. Gates in Plymouth, Wayne County, Michigan. Within a year the first of two daughters was born—Miss Mary Ann Cory. Two years later she was joined by Josephine A. Cory. In the 1850 Census Edward was listed as a Farmer but come the time of his enlistment in August of 1862 he was occupied as a carpenter.

Edward mustered in15 Aug 1862 as a Private in Company C of the 24th Infantry. As mentioned in yesterday’s post he was mortally wounded in on 1 Jul in the opening salvos of Gettysburg. He was wounded “through the thigh by a ‘Minnie ball’ and died 14 Jun 1863 of gangrene per his company Chaplain’s testimony in Clarissa’s widow’s pension file. The Champlain states that he was buried at the old burying ground at Gettysburg but there is also at least a stone at Riverside Cemetery in Plymouth, Michigan.

Clarissa was granted a widow’s pension including some funds to aid in raising Josephine as a minor (under the age of 16). I haven’t been able to trace what happened to Mary Ann, but Josephine married Albert M. Button 25 Dec 1868. The couple had one child, Edward, born 22 Jan 1870. At the time of the Census they lived in Plymouth and Clarissa was part of their household. Josephine and Albert appear to have divorced sometime between then and 1880 when she and Edward resided with Clarissa in Plymouth. At the age of 18 Edward married Minnie E. Pulcifer in my hometown of Lansing, Michigan. From what I’ve found so far they had no children—creating yet another dead end in my Cory family.

Happy hunting,


I’m well off pace but I still hope to complete the challenge! These next few ancestor profiles will hook into my recent roadtrip.
I’m 99% certain that Philip Helsel is my 6th Great Grandfather and the father of John Helsel who brought his family to Michigan in in the 1840s. I believe—but have been unable to conclusively prove—that he is the son of Johan Tobias and Engela (Mohr) Heltzel. I do not know the name of his wife (some researchers have suggested Catherine) but their children included John (above), Jacob and Catherine (who married William McFall)—who brought their families to Michigan around the same time; Peter whose family thrived in Mahoning County, Ohio; and then I believe there were at least two other sons: Philip Jr. and Joseph. Philip was born in Pennsylvania in 1769 in York County, Pennsylvania. He is the Philip who lived in Fallowfield Township, Washington County in 1810. In 1820 and 1830 he is enumerated in Boardman Township, Mahoning County, Ohio. I believe that he died  before 1840.1830 Census HelselWhile I am fairly confident that my gut feeling that the connection between Philip and Johan Tobias is correct, I wasn’t able to make any progress in proving the connection on this trip. I found a tremendous amount of material on the Helsel/Heltzel/Hoetzel families including a fair amount of supporting material on collateral lines—particularly in Bedford and York Counties—but nothing concrete came to light. I’m hoping that backtracking and doing more research in Ohio will get me farther.

Happy hunting,


Here’s one of those family finds that brings a painful truth of history to life…  Not everyone made it across the pond.

Rosetta Suffling was the younger sister of my 4th Great Grandmother and the second known child of William and Elizabeth (Pegg) Suffling. She was born 8 Apr 1805 in Lessingham, Norfolk, England. She married Samuel Gibbs at St. Mary the Virgin Church, Hemsby Parish, Norfolk, England on 25 December 1829. The couple appears to have settled in Hemsby where Samuel worked as farm labor. They had nine children: Samuel Jr, William Suffling, Isaac, Elizabeth, Edmund, Mary Ann, Alfred, James, and Matthew.

GibbsPassengerList1849On 1 May 1849 the family started their journey to the United States boarding the Bark Gov. Hinckley or George Hinckley under the command of Captain William Loring at London. Unfortunately around the middle of May (165 years ago this month) there was an outbreak of cholera aboard ship and by the time the ship arrived in New York on the 12 Jun 1849 10 individuals had died including Rosetta and daughter Mary Ann (both died 21 May), and her sons Edmund and Matthew (both died 23 May).


Samuel Gibbs and their remaining children made it to New York and Samuel married Lovina Huff to help raise them. Samuel and Lovina ended up in Barry County, Michigan in the vicinity of their Johnson cousins, my 3rd Great Uncles Matthew (who married his cousin, Elizabeth Gibbs) and John.

Happy hunting,


For more information on the 19th century sailing lines between America and the world see: Cutler Carl C. Queens of the Western Ocean: The Story of America’s Mail and Passenger Sailing Lines. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1961.

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