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This diary is much more personal and “straight” genealogy and family history, as compared to last week’s more political and sociological entry.

Growing up I often heard the story that my grandfather’s grandmother Eliza (on my mother’s side in Brooklyn, New York) was one of nine children from County Derry, Ireland. Her eldest brother came to New York in 1857, then moved to San Francisco in the early 1860s. In 1864 the three eldest sisters, one of whom was Eliza, came to New York and waited for word from him about whether to undertake the long journey to California.

By the time a letter arrived telling them of California’s wonders, my great-great-grandmother Eliza had fallen in love with Michael, a young man recently arrived from County Clare. She decided to marry him and stay in Brooklyn. Eliza’s sisters sailed to San Francisco, crossing Panama by land, and she never saw any of her siblings again although I've now learned they corresponded regularly. What should have been evident, though I never really made the realization, is that there is a large family in the San Francisco area. They all knew each other to some extent and, for them, we were the long-lost cousins.

After their wedding in 1865, my great-great-grandparents Eliza and Michael built a life for themselves on the East Coast. In late 1866 Michael became a U.S. citizen, and I have a copy of his citizenship certificate in my house. Although Eliza and Michael’s first three children died very young, they later had seven more children who lived to adulthood, and twelve grandchildren. They were both still alive for the births of nine of those twelve grandchildren, including my grandfather, Jim.

Old St. Peter's Church
The original St. Peter's Church in Jersey City, where my great-grandmother and four of her siblings were baptized.

Michael had been trained as a barrel-maker but soon put his childhood on a farm to good use, growing vegetables in a postage-stamp sized lot for sale from a pushcart. In the 1870s the family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, in the hopes of a larger plot to grow on. Like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Michael was misinformed. New Jersey may be the “Garden State,” but Jersey City’s as urban as Brooklyn.

Eventually, though, Michael bought a second cart, which his older sons took out for him, and secured a contract to sell to a Manhattan grocery chain, which required taking his produce on the ferry across the Hudson River several times a week.  When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, Michael saw a way to get to Manhattan without the expensive and erratic ferry. He moved the family back to Brooklyn, where I was born and many of his descendants still live today.

One of Michael and Eliza's homes in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. My grandfather was born in this house.
Eliza and Michael's 1900 census form.
In 1943, while my grandfather was serving in the U.S. Army in the Pacific, a young Jesuit priest named Father Bob knocked on my grandmother’s door. He, it turns out, was the grandson of Eliza’s sister Catherine, who had gone to California. That made him my grandfather’s second cousin. He was staying in New York for some time and made the rounds, introducing himself to all the family members he could find. Father Bob spent much of his career at the Vatican, but until his death in the late 1990s he stayed in regular touch with most of our family. His initial visit in 1943 was, for many of Michael and Eliza’s grandchildren, the first time they learned about their many, many relatives in California.
Patrick, Eliza's oldest brother, in later years.
In all, five of Eliza’s siblings ended up in the San Francisco area. In addition to Eliza’s eldest brother (who went their first) and the two sisters she traveled to America with, two younger brothers went there. Four of the five had children, and in some cases many children. Not so many generations later there were a lot of cousins living in the Bay Area. The only one any of us on the East Coast ever met was Father Bob.
Eliza's sister Catherine and her large family in California, ca. 1896.
The 1900 Census entry for Eliza's sister Catherine and her family.
Eliza's niece also had a large family in San Francisco.
The first thing I came across, when I started my family history quest last New Year’s Eve, was a website containing a family tree including my grandfather and members of his family, and the California branches. This website had all sorts of information, new to me, about my great-great-grandparents and their parents and grandparents, and also about my great-grandmother, her siblings and their children. But nothing more recent than 1920.
Henry, Eliza's youngest brother who never left Ireland.
The website had been put up by someone in Belfast I’d never heard of, but I quickly learned who he was. Although Eliza and five of her siblings had come to America, the youngest two siblings never left Ireland. After their parents died in the 1870s they settled in Belfast, and a large number of their descendants live there still. John, the fellow with the website, is the great-grandson of Eliza’s youngest brother.  I quickly dashed off a letter to John, which he promptly answered, and we’ve been in regular correspondence since.  

Internet searches in the days after I first found John’s website led me to several online genealogy fora, where I made my amusing discovery. Some members of several of the California branches of the tree had been doing family history for years. They’d all found John, who lived eight time zones away from them, back in the 1980s. For them, the missing link was us. The New York branch was the big mystery. None of them knew what became of any of us after 1920 and the California researchers – and John – had posted several online queries over the years trying to find my branch of the family. Not knowing Eliza and Michael had returned to Brooklyn from Jersey City, they were tracking down hints in New Jersey and running into a series of dead ends. It doesn't help that Michael's family had a very common last name.

Eliza's California sisters in later years, 1930s.
I was happy to get in touch with them. They shared info on their branches and I shared the long-desired info on mine. It’s been a lot of fun getting to know new cousins and also helping longtime researchers demolish a major brick wall. Over the months I’ve learned that, as early as 20 years ago, these folks already knew things (dates, burial place, etc.) about my grandfather’s father and little brother, who died as a baby, that we had always wanted to know. I’d just finished putting all this together through painstaking research and I could have just asked these new cousins.

We also found out, as we had a virtual toast for what would have been Father Bob’s 100th birthday this year, that he’d been in touch with every single one of us but did a very lousy job telling us about each other’s existence. It was a fun moment.

Like the song says, “I once was lost but now am found.”

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Fri Dec 14, 2012 at 11:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Shamrock American Kossacks.

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