My great-grandfather Jacob Sylvester Agin was born on December 19, 1868 in Hopewell, New Jersey. He was the oldest child of Samuel Davis Agin, a Civil War veteran who had recently returned home to start a family with his new bride, Rhoda Wyckoff Agin.
Jacob was raised in a family that included one younger brother and four younger sisters:
From the documentation I have located so far (census records and a few newspaper clips), I have been able to construct a narrative for Jacob’s life from 1868 to 1920. I don’t know what became of him after that – how long he lived or where he was buried. I hope to learn more when I visit the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton.
Jacob first appears in the 1870 census as a one-year old infant living with his parents in Hopewell. I had trouble finding him at first because the census taker recorded his name as Jacob S. Davis, living with his parents Samuel and Rhoda Davis. But piecing together the evidence, including the fact that the family was living in the same house with a Jacob Egan (along with wife Mary and sons Vandaven and Daniel), I was able to deduce (1) that Samuel Davis was actually Samuel Davis Agin (who went by Davis, not Samuel) and (2) that Jabob Egan was Davis’s older brother, Jacob Agin.
The two brothers served in the Civil War, returning home in 1865. Jacob was at least ten years older than Davis (it’s hard to get a reliable date of birth for him), and it appears that Jacob owned the house in Hopewell (valued at $500). I’m not sure how long Davis lived with his older brother. I wonder if he named my great-grandfather Jacob in his honor.
(There turns out to be a lot of variation in the spelling of the Agin family name before 1900. You find them listed as Hagen, Hagin, Hagan, Agen, Agins, Egan and so on. Of course, prior to 1900 few of them could read or write, so they probably relied on others to write the name for them, with varying results.)
In the 1880 census records, Jacob is 11 years old. His family still lives in Hopewell but now there are three younger siblings in the picture: Charles Augustus (8 years old), Charity Anna (5 years old) and Julia (11 months old). Jacob is not listed as attending school, nor are Charles and Charity. This appears unusual – almost every other child in the neighborhood, ages 6-14, was attending school. So why didn’t Jacob and his siblings go? Did they have to work in the fields with their father, who is employed as a laborer on a farm? Were they home schooled? The census records show that Jacob cannot write so we can assume he didn’t get much of an education.
The records of the 1890 census were destroyed in a fire so we next find Jacob, 26 years old, in the 1895 New Jersey census. He now lives in the town of Franklin in Somerset County, New Jersey. Jacob is now living with a wife named Tillie and an infant daughter Ada.
Jacob married Matilda (Tillie) Miller in 1893, give or take a year. Tillie was born in Germany, probably in November 1872. She came to this country with her mother, Mary Miller, in the early 1880s. I don’t know the name of Tillie’s father. It would appear that he died when Tillie was just a child, some time before Tillie and her mother emigrated to America.
Mary Miller went on to have a colorful life after her arrival in this country – but that’s a subject for a future post.
It gives me pleasure to know, as someone whose partner is also an immigrant, that I take after my great-grandfather in this respect. But I wonder how Jacob’s family would have viewed his marrying a foreigner. How typical was this back in the 1890s?
In future research, I hope to learn more about my German roots. (I had no idea, when I started this project, that I had any German ancestry.) What part of Germany did Tillie and her mother come from? How did they travel to America? And who was Tillie’s father?
Jacob and Tillie Agin went on to have eight children who lived long enough to be recorded in future censuses:
By 1900, the family had grown to five. After Ada (born August 1894) came Jacob Sylvester Jr. (born February 4, 1897) and my grandfather Harry Adolph (born December 13, 1900). The 1900 census also reveals that Jacob and Tillie had one other child who died some time between 1894 and 1900.
The family was now living in a rented home in South Brunswick, probably in the town of Kingston. Jacob worked as a day laborer who probably struggled to find steady employment – the census record shows that Jacob worked only ten months during the prior year.
Over the next decade, Jacob set his sights on finding a more permanent situation. A brief item in the Trenton Times, October 14, 1903, announced that Jacob was taking a position at the Princeton electric light works.
But not long after that, Jacob probably started working in a stone quarry. A 1908 article announced that Jacob had taken a position with James S. McCarthy, a stone contractor based in Princeton, and in the next two censuses is listed as a quarry worker.
It must have been a dangerous line of work. Another article in the Trenton Times, dated January 26, 1904, noted that Jacob was recovering from a gunpowder injury to the eyes.
Tillie stayed at home raising their children. Interestingly, the 1900 census confirmed that while Jacob could not read or write, Tillie – the immigrant from Germany – could read, write and speak English. Of course, Tillie came to this country as a child, somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12, so it may have been relatively easy for her to pick up a new language.
In 1910, the Agin family was living in a rented home on Turnpike Road in South Brunswick. Ada had moved out to live with her grandmother Mary, now married to a man named William Vannote who also worked in a stone quarry. Jacob Jr. (now 13) and Harry (now 10) were joined by two younger siblings, Mary (6 years old) and William (4 years old). All the children attended school except William, who was still too young.
By 1920, the family was living in a rented home on Morris Street in New Brunswick. There were now eleven people living under one roof. Ada (now 26) moved back in with her husband James Cronen of Manhattan. They were married the year before. Jacob Jr. (now 23), Mary (now 15) and William (now 13) still lived at home, joined by three young sisters, Mildred (8 years old), Lillian (6 years old) and Vivian (4 years old). Also living at the house was a 23 year old boarder named John Miller.
The only one missing was my grandfather, Harry (now 19 years old). I searched high and low for him before tracking him down under the name Harry Azen (yet another misspelling of the family name), living with his now widowed grandmother Mary Vannote.
The 1920 census form shows that Jacob was working as a drill hand in a quarry. Jacob Jr. worked as a bootmaker in a rubber shop (as did the boarder John Miller, probably a friend); Mary was a wrapper for a chemical manufacturer; and son-in-law James Cronen drove a truck. Mary, Mildred and Lillian were all still in school.
Tillie continued to stay at home, taking care of their growing family. But the 1920 census also lists Tillie for the first time as a naturalized citizen. I would love to find the paperwork for that!
I have not been able to find Jacob and Tillie Agin in the 1930 census. Were they still alive? Did they fail to be counted? Or are they in the records there somewhere under yet another garbled name? I’ll be looking for them in the 1940 census when it is released next year.
Two of their children, now married, do appear in the 1930 census:
- My grandfather Harry Agin (now 29 years old) lived in New Brunswick with my grandmother Anna Sabol Agin and their two daughters, my aunt Matilda and my mother Lillian. Harry had already started the plumbing business, which would be his lifelong occupation.
- Ada Agin Cronen (now 36) moved with her husband to Raritan where they also raised two daughters, Helen and May. James Cronen worked as a shipping clerk in a grocery store.
I wonder what became of the other six children of Jacob and Tillie Miller. This will be another research challenge in my family history project.