Andrew Sabol’s final chapter

Tracing the life story of my great-grandfather Andrej (Andrew) Sabol has been a painstaking effort. But now I can write the final chapter.

I first found Andrew (he used his English name after he emigrated) on ancestry.com, in U.S. census records for 1900, 1910 and 1920. According to those records, Andrew was a Slovak immigrant who worked as a railroad laborer or “trackman.” He lived in the town of Raritan, New Jersey with his wife Maria (Mary) Daniel and their children.

I then came across a marriage record in the New Jersey state archives. The marriage record noted that Andrew and Mary came from Hungary (as in the Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), but there was no home town given. But I learned that they were married in the First Slovak Evangelical Lutheran Church in Raritan, now St. Paul’s, which turned out to be a critical clue.

1896 marriage record for Andrew Sabol and Mary Daniel.

1896 marriage record for Andrew Sabol and Mary Daniel.

When I checked out the church’s website, I learned that the church’s founding members came from a cluster of villages in eastern Slovakia, including Kysak, Trebejov and Obisovce. A search of the Family History Library catalog revealed they had records from an Evangelical Lutheran church in Obisovce dating from 1787-1896. I searched those records and found the birth records for Andrej, Maria and their entire family trees.

So, with a fair amount of effort, I was finally able to write this brief biography of Andrew Sabol. He was born on May 5, 1872 in the small village of Trebejov, about 20 km north of Kosice, Slovakia. His parents were Jan Sabol and Elisa Filak. Andrew was the second of five children. He had an older brother Jan who died at five years old (the death record is missing), and three younger siblings: Alzbeta (born two days before Jan died), a second Jan and Michal.

Andrew’s parents owned a small plot of land, designated as Trebejov 11, which they farmed to survive. The Sabols lived with another family, the Czibuljaks, who were distant relations.

Andrew probably emigrated to America in 1891, when he was 19 years old. There is a record showing an “Andr. Sabol” from Saros, Hungary (the correct province) arriving in New York on the S.S. Normandie on September 21, 1891. The doesn’t provide much information. It just tells us Andrew was a worker, 17 years old and headed for New York.

Even if this is not the correct record, we can be sure Andrew arrived in Raritan in the early 1890s, where other friends and neighbors were recreating their village life on this side of the Atlantic.

On October 23, 1896, Andrew and Mary married at the First Slovak Evangelical Lutheran Church. Mary was from the village of Kysak, just down the road from Trebejov. Andrew was 24 years old. Mary was 16. The couple raised six children and tragically lost three. My grandmother Anna Sabol was second of the six surviving children.

The Sabol family only barely got by. They always rented their home, moving from place to place. For a time, Mary helped make ends meet by running a boarding house for factory workers. And I know my grandmother had to leave school after the sixth grade to work to support the family.

I have only a few clues about what Andrew was like as a person. My grandmother often told me that her father looked “just like General Pershing.” My aunt Nancy recalled my grandmother’s memory of her father coming home dirty and exhausted, falling dead asleep after the evening meal.

Photo of General John Pershing. My grandmother told me that her father Andrew Sabol looked "just like him."

Photo of General John Pershing. My grandmother told me that her father Andrew Sabol looked “just like him.”

For the longest time, that’s where the story ended. The trail ran cold after the 1930 census. Then, when the 1940 census was released two years ago, I learned that Mary was a widow, living with two of her children in a house next door to the rectory. I had the sense that they might be recipients of the church’s charity.

When I located Andrew and Mary’s grave, I finally learned that Andrew died in 1938. But how? There was no death record in the New Jersey state archives, so I was at another dead end.

My breakthrough came by accident. I was helping a friend find some New York City vital records through an index, searchable online thanks to the volunteer efforts of Italian and German genealogical societies. So I searched for Andrew Sabol and found a death record from 1938. The age seemed right so I went down to Chambers Street to take a look and… eureka!

Certificate of death for my great-grandfather Andrew Sabol, who died at Memorial Hospital in New York, September 4, 1938. Click to enlarge.

Certificate of death for my great-grandfather Andrew Sabol, who died at Memorial Hospital in New York, September 4, 1938. Click to enlarge.

Andrew Sabol died on Sunday, September 4, 1938 at Memorial Hospital in Manhattan. The hospital, now known as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, was located at 2 West 106th Street. It appears that Andrew was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus eight months earlier. On August 14, about three weeks before his death, he was admitted to the hospital. The next day, he had a feeding tube (gastrostomy) inserted.

There was probably nothing they could do during those final three weeks. The record reflects that the cause of death was “carcinoma of esophagus & metastasis” plus “generalized peritonitis” (inflammation of the abdominal wall).

Vintage postcard of the old Memorial Hospital on West 106th Street. My great-grandfather Andrew Sabol spent the last three weeks of his life there in 1938.

Vintage postcard of the old Memorial Hospital on West 106th Street. My great-grandfather Andrew Sabol spent the last three weeks of his life there in 1938.

I wonder how a family of such limited means was able to afford three weeks of hospital care. Did they have insurance? Was this charity? Andrew was the primary breadwinner for the family. Did he have a pension? Was he eligible for the federal railroad workers’ pension program established in the 1930s? I assume this was financially devastating for the family.

So now I have closure on Andrew Sabol. I’m sorry he met such a difficult end.

Posted in Family Line - Sabol, New Jersey, New York City | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

A visit to ancestral hometowns in Slovakia: Obišovce and Žehňa

In an earlier post, I wrote about my visit to a cluster of small villages in eastern Slovakia where my Slovak ancestors – the forebears of my maternal grandmother Anna Sabol – once lived.

On a beautiful fall day I set out from the eastern Slovak city of Košice for the villages of Trebejov and Kysak, where my great-grandparents Andrej Sabol (1872-1938) and Maria Daniel (1880-1968) were born. The two villages lay about 20 km north of the city, along a major train line. Through the use of cadastral maps dating back to 1868, I was able to see where Andrej Sabol and Maria Daniel lived with their families, before they emigrated to America in the 1890s. Again, see my earlier post for more on these first two stops on my trip.

By noon I was on my way to Obišovce, two kilometers east of Kysak. I know from my research that Obišovce was home to many generations of the Daniel family. But Obišovce was also a key stop on my tour because it was home to the Evangelical Lutheran church where most of my Slovak ancestors worshipped.

Route map for my visit to my ancestral villages in Slovakia. I started my journey in Kosice (A), drove to to Trebejov (B) and then on to Kysak (C), Obisovce (D) and Zehna (E). Map created on Google Maps.

Route map for my visit to my ancestral villages in Slovakia. I started my journey in Kosice (A), drove to to Trebejov (B) and then on to Kysak (C), Obisovce (D) and Zehna (E). Map created on Google Maps.

NOTE: You can find a complete gallery of photos from this trip, uploaded as full resolution images, on my SmugMug gallery page.

Obišovce

Obišovce sits on a rising crest of land to the east of the Hornad River. Also called Abos by the Hungarians who once controlled Slovakia, the village can be found on maps going back to 1289. It has a population of nearly 400 people, far less than its 1870 population of 689 (see the Magyar Census of 1869).

The Evangelical Lutheran church, dating back to 1789, is the first thing you notice as you enter the town. Sitting atop small bluff, it looked particularly nice against the backdrop of fall colors. To reach the church, you need to navigate some fairly steep steps. It was amazing to think of my ancestors walking up this same staircase to attend family baptisms, weddings and funerals.

View of the Evangelical Lutheran church, Obisovce, Slovakia.

View of the Evangelical Lutheran church, Obisovce, Slovakia.

Front view of the Evangelical Lutheran church, Obisovce, Slovakia.

Front view of the Evangelical Lutheran church, Obisovce, Slovakia.

Before my trip, I corresponded with a man named Daniel who administers the church’s Facebook page. He said the church would probably not be open on a weekday but that I should not hesitate to knock on the door of the parsonage and ask for Pastor Petro. So I did.

Although I was barely able to communicate with my limited Slovak, Pastor Petro very kindly opened up the church and allowed me to look inside. The interior was fairly simple, as befits a Lutheran church. There were signs on the wall crediting benefactors of the church from the time of its construction in 1789.

Interior of Evangelical Lutheran church, Obisovce, Slovakia.

Interior of Evangelical Lutheran church, Obisovce, Slovakia. The language over the transept reads “How lovely is Thy Tabernacle, Lord of Hosts.”

The pastor then took me into the rectory where he showed me a beautiful folk art statue of King David that hung over the original altar. And then, remarkably, he pulled out a large metrical book – the church’s ledger of births, marriages and deaths – dating from 1896.

Prior to 1896, churches and synagogues throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire kept official vital records for all citizens in books just like this. But starting in 1896, the Hungarian government moved to a modern civil registration system, setting up a state records office in Kysak. The old metrical books became property of the state, but churches were free to continue to keep their own records.

So together we leafed through the metrical book where I quickly found entries for the deaths of three great-great-grandparents – church versions of the “official” records I had just located at the Košice state archives.

It was wonderful to handle the giant ledger with my own two hands. And it was interesting to see the moment in 1919, with the end of World War I and the collapse of Austria-Hungary, where the records were recorded for the first time in Slovak. While the overwhelming majority of the population in this region spoke only Slovak, the Hungarians never recognized it for official purposes (unlike the Austrians who were far more liberal on language policy).

I wish I had more time to leaf through but I didn’t want to impose when the pastor had been so generous with his time.

KIng David statue from original altar of the Evangelical Lutheran church in Obisovce, Slovakia.

KIng David statue from original altar of the Evangelical Lutheran church in Obisovce, Slovakia.

Entry from church metrical book recording the death of my great-great-grandfather Jan Sabol on Jan. 1, 1896.

Entry from church metrical book recording the death of my great-great-grandfather Jan Sabol on Jan. 1, 1896. The entry, recorded in the official language of Hungarian, indicates that Jan, a railroad worker, died of gelation (i.e., he froze to death).

So I said my goodbyes and set my course for the next and final stop on my tour: Žehňa. Around this time, I was beginning to regret that I did not pack a lunch. In my visit to three villages, I had not seen a single shop or restaurant.

Žehňa

On the way to Žehňa, about 17 km to the northeast, I passed through the town of Drienov, seat of the local Roman Catholic parish. Drienov, which sits off the main highway heading north from Košice, looked relatively prosperous. But as I headed up into the hills toward Žehňa, that prosperity faded away.

I wanted to visit Žehňa because my great-great-grandfather Andrej Daniel (Maria’s father) was born there in May 1834. Andrej’s father, also named Andrej, was born in Obišovce. For reasons unknown, he relocated to Žehňa which was home to another Evangelical Lutheran church. There, he married Alžbeta Fagulya, a local girl from the nearby town of Mirkovce, in January 1831. Alžbeta’s first husband Andrej Kacmarovszecz had died a month earlier and she was pregnant with Andrej’s posthumous daughter Barbara.

Alžbeta’s second marriage didn’t last long either. By February 1839, Andrej Daniel Sr. was also dead. Alžbeta moved to Obišovce with her young son (not sure what happened to Barbara) and the two of them lived with the Daniel family until Alžbeta’s death in 1854.

As I neared Žehňa, I saw a sign for Mirkovce. So I took a small detour to check out Alžbeta’s hometown. I found myself on a narrow, rutted road descending into a small valley. As I approached the village, a cluster of two dozen houses along that single road, the streets were clogged with Roma children who gawked as I drove by. Finding myself at a dead end, I did a U-turn and parted the crowd of children yet again.

Back on the main road, I soon reached Žehňa. There too I found Roma children wandering about. Two of them followed me from a discreet distance whispering to themselves.

Village green in Zehna, Slovakia.

Village green in Zehna, Slovakia.

But while I didn’t always feel comfortable there, Žehňa had a certain charm. It’s almost as old as Obišovce, dating back to 1330. The Hungarians called it Zsegnye. The town sits the near the top of the hill, which is dominated by the Evangelical Lutheran church. The church, with its small chapel, sits on a town green, surrounded by small, old houses. I haven’t been able to figure out how old the church is. Its folk architectural style suggests it may be even older than the church in Obišovce.

The town did not seem as prosperous as Trebejov, Kysak or Obišovce. But it also seemed less changed by modern life. Žehňa, I thought, probably looked a lot like this when my ancestors lived there in the mid-1800s.

Evangelical Lutheran church in Zehna, Slovakia.

Evangelical Lutheran church in Zehna, Slovakia.

Front entrance to the Evangelical Lutheran church in Zehna, Slovakia.

Front entrance to the Evangelical Lutheran church in Zehna, Slovakia.

View of Zehna from the Evangelical Lutheran church yard.

View of Zehna from the Evangelical Lutheran church yard.

I was not able to get inside the church, alas. I tried writing in advance but didn’t hear back. Maybe I should have been more persistent once I got there, but I was getting tired. It was probably too much to try to cram in four towns in a single day. It was still a day well spent. And now I have a reason to go back!

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The Kowal family moves to Staten Island

I recently came across a batch of old photos that provide a window into the year my grandparents moved from the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side to a remote, rural corner of Staten Island.

The photos belong to my cousin Nicole Andrews-Baratta. Technically, Nicole is my first cousin once removed – the daughter of my cousin Beverly Lembo who was the daughter of my aunt Mary Kowal Lembo. Aunt Mary was the second of seven children; my father Anton was the first.

My grandparents Alex Kowal and Katarzyna Bosakowska met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and were married there in October 1916. Alex was a Ukrainian immigrant from the small village of Kharucha Vel’ka in what was then the Russian Empire. Katarzyna was Polish, one of at least 20 cousins and siblings who emigrated from Zalozce, a town of 10,000 in the far northeast corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a borderland region where Poles and Ukrainians lived in close proximity.

I know from family stories that my grandparents did not like living among the Eastern European immigrants in Manhattan. They were not used to the hustle and bustle of city life. And even though they probably spoke little English themselves in those days, they wanted their children to assimilate as English-speaking Americans.

Alex Kowal Katarzyna Bosakowska Wedding Photo Closeup 1916

Close up detail of 1916 wedding photo of my grandparents Alex Kowal and Katarzyna Bosakowska.

Alex and Katarzyna lived in Manhattan for the first two years of their marriage. My father Anton was born there in September 1917. From his birth certificate, we know that the family lived in a tenement at 13 Essex Street, where some of my grandmother’s relatives also lived.

I don’t know exactly when the family made the big move. It was probably in early 1919, since we know Mary was born on Staten Island in August of that year. They decided to resettle in a remote corner of Staten Island once called Kreischerville, now known as Charleston. At the time, Staten Island had 117,000 residents, a quarter of its current population.

In earlier posts reconstructing my grandfather’s immigration story, I discovered that he set his sights on Kreischerville before he ever set foot in America. From the record of his March 1913 border crossing at Newport, Vermont – in the company of three friends named Lucas, Condrat and Wassily – we see that the four men were all planning to meet up with a man named “Nestor Greshevitz” in Kreischerville, N.Y. With some further sleuthing, I figured out that their friend Nestor (whose name was actually Grushewsky) emigrated six months ahead of the others. He found his way to Kreischerville, named for the Kreischer Brick Works where Nestor presumably found employment.

1906 Staten Island Map

Map of Staten Island from Hammond’s 1906 map “New York City and Vicinity.” Kreischerville is located in the southwest quadrant (8A).

In the 1920 census, we see that the Kowal family – Alex, Katarzyna, Anton and Mary – was renting a house at 4668 Arthur Kill Road, also known as Fresh Kill Road. (The house number was actually 4658.) Lucas lived in the house next door, 4664 Arthur Kill Road, with his wife Tekla (Tessie) Prehodka and their three year old son Henry. A man named Conrad Conlinsky lived in that house too. Conrad would later live as a boarder at my grandparents house at 29 Storer Avenue and I strongly suspect that it’s the same Conrad from the immigration record. Finally just down the road, at 75 Kreischer Street, lived Nestor with his wife Carrie and their children Alex (age 8) and Olga (5). (Fun fact: the house on Kreischer Street is now an official New York City landmark. It is one of a row of four workers’ houses built by the Kreischer Brick Works.)

Kowal Family 1920 Census Record

1920 census record for the families of Alex Kowal (misspelled Koyal), Lucas Orol (entered incorrectly as Louis Luckas) and their landlord Charles H. Beckman. Click to enlarge

When you look on Google Maps, the two houses on Arthur Kill Road are no longer there. They were located directly across the street from the entrance to the Tides at Charleston, a gated community for people 55 and older.

But a 1917 map of Staten Island I found online shows where the two houses once stood. They were located on the property of Charles H. Beckman, a German immigrant, who lived at the corner of Arthur Kill Road and Allentown Lane (now Veterans Road). You can see the two houses in the northwest corner of the property, on the east side of Fresh Kills (now Arthur Kill) road. The smaller structure with a square footprint was no. 4658. The larger rectangular structure, just to the south, was no. 4664.

4658 Arthur Kill 1917 Atlas of the City of NY

Detail of a 1917 map (Atlas of the City of New York) showing the location of Charles H. Beckman’s property in Kreischerville, Staten Island. The Kowal and Orol families rented the two houses on the west side of the property bordering Arthur Kill (also known as Fresh Kills Road). The Beckman family presumably lived in the larger house near the center of the property.

From an unlikely source, I was able to corroborate that Beckman was the owner of the two rented houses. Via Google, I found him in a bound volume of congressional documents, listed as one of the many claimants awarded damages for the “Gillespie Plant Explosion.”

Some further digging revealed how on October 4, 1918, in the last month of World War I, a catastrophic accident at the T.A. Gillespie munitions plant across the river in Sayreville, N. J. set off three terrifying days of explosions. The blasts were felt as far away as Manhattan, where the subways and bridges were closed as a precaution. Shells and rockets also flew out from the plant in all directions.

The New York Times described the scene on nearby Staten Island:

The shock and flash of light with each of the great explosions were distinct for many miles. From Tottenville, S.I., six miles from the explosion, the brightness equaled that of daylight. The ground shook so that it was felt in all parts of Staten Island.

The explosions blew out windows and caused structural damage for miles around. The federal government agreed to provide compensation and Charles Beckman filed claims for three houses on Arthur Kill Road (nos. 4658, 4664 and 4670). For his residence (no. 4670), he was awarded $53.37 to compensate for structural damage. For the two rental properties soon to be occupied by the Kowal and Orol families, he received another $51.07 to replace broken windows and carpentry.

Entry in congressional record of insurance claims paid for the Gillespie plant explosion of October 1918. Click to enlarge.

Entry in congressional record of insurance claims paid for the Gillespie plant explosion of October 1918. Click to enlarge.

My grandparents moved in a few months later. From a small handful of photos, we see several shots of two houses set close together. I’m pretty confident these are the two rented houses on Beckman’s property. I was able to put photos in a rough time sequence, thanks to markings on the backs of the photos placing them on distinct rolls of film and other clues (including the apparent ages of Anton and Mary). I can also make some educated guesses about the identities of some of the other people in the photos.

The photos are printed on flimsy paper, mostly with a matte finish. Some have faded, most have yellowed and many have tears and other signs of rough treatment. Through the scanning and image editing process, I was able to improve the contrast and bring out details.

The first group of four photos appear to have been taken in the spring or early summer of 1919. They all bear the marking C 13 on the back. The photos are were taken in front of two houses – almost certainly 4658 and 4664 Arthur Kill Road. The photos were probably taken in the back yard, which places the Kowals’ house to the right and the larger Orols’ house to the left.

The first image below shows Alex with my father, then about 18-20 months old, sitting unhappily on his knee. They are surrounded by four women and two children. In the image immediately below it, the same two children also appear again with my father. They appear to be a boy and a girl. I know from the census that the Grushewskys had a son Alex and daughter Olga who would have been 7 and 4 respectively. Is this them?

Photo taken at 4658-4664 Arthur Kill Road, spring of 1919. My grandfather Alex Kowal is in the front row with my father Anton on his knee. Click to enlarge.

Photo taken at 4658-4664 Arthur Kill Road, spring of 1919. My grandfather Alex Kowal is in the front row with my father Anton on his knee. Click to enlarge.

Photo taken at 4658-4664 Arthur Kill Road, probably in the spring of 1919. My father Anton Kowal stands at left. The other two children are possibly Alex and Olga Grushewsky. Click to enlarge.

Photo taken at 4658-4664 Arthur Kill Road, probably in the spring of 1919. My father Anton Kowal stands at left. The other two children are possibly Alex and Olga Grushewsky. Click to enlarge.

Another photo from the C 13 set is of two men and a woman. It’s not clear who they are. Could Lucas Orol or Conrad Condlinsky or Nestor Grushewsky be depicted? A fourth photo depicts an unknown, well dressed family of five.

Photo taken at 4658-4664 Arthur Kill Road, probably in the spring of 1919. Could any of the men depicted be the men who emigrated from Ukraine with my grandfather Alex Kowal? Click to enlarge.

Photo taken at 4658-4664 Arthur Kill Road, probably in the spring of 1919. Could any of the men depicted be the men who emigrated from Ukraine with my grandfather Alex Kowal? Click to enlarge.

Photo taken at 4658-4664 Arthur Kill Road, probably in the spring of 1919. I cannot identify the family in this photo. Click to enlarge.

Photo taken at 4658-4664 Arthur Kill Road, probably in the spring of 1919. I cannot identify the family in this photo. Click to enlarge.

Another photo, without markings on the back, also appears to be taken in the spring of 1919. It shows Alex standing in front of the house at 4658 Arthur Kill, holding my father. Alex is wearing a fancy shirt in the photo. Could this have been Easter?

Photo of my grandfather Alex Kowal holding my father Anton. Taken in front of their new home at 4658 Arthur Kill Road, probably in the spring of 1919. Click to enlarge.

Photo of my grandfather Alex Kowal holding my father Anton. Taken in front of their new home at 4658 Arthur Kill Road, probably in the spring of 1919. Click to enlarge.

A photo, marked A 8 on the back, must have been taken in the summer of 1919. It shows my pregnant grandmother Katarzyna standing in a field of flowers with Alex and my father (busy looking down at a flower). The two children who posed with my father in the photo above are here again in the same outfits, with a woman who is probably their mother. (She was one of the women in the group photo above.) Was this Nestor Grushewsky’s wife Veronica?

Photo taken in the summer of 1919 depicting my grandparents Katarzyna and Alex Kowal (left and center) with my father Anton (standing in front of Alex). The mother and two children are possibly Veronica Grushewsky and her children Alex and Olga. Click to enlarge.

Photo taken in the summer of 1919 depicting my grandparents Katarzyna and Alex Kowal (left and center) with my father Anton (standing in front of Alex). The mother and two children are possibly Veronica Grushewsky and her children Alex and Olga. Click to enlarge.

There is also a set of photos taken against a backdrop of snow. The photos are pretty faded but there appears to be a lot of snow. A bit of research revealed that a major blizzard hit New York in February 1920, bringing 17.5 inches of accumulation. So I’m pretty certain that’s when these photos were taken. The one below shows my grandmother standing in the back yard holding Mary (then five months old) with Anton (nearly two and half years old) standing beside. In the background is a wooden structure with clothes hanging. It corresponds to a structure visible on the map of the Beckman property, situated behind the house at no. 4658.

My grandmother Katarzyna Bosakowska Kowal with son Anton (standing at right) and daughter Mary. The photo was probably taken after the blizzard of February 1920 in the backyard of their home at 4658 Arthur Kill Road. Click to enlarge.

My grandmother Katarzyna Bosakowska Kowal with son Anton (standing at right) and daughter Mary. The photo was probably taken after the blizzard of February 1920 in the backyard of their home at 4658 Arthur Kill Road. Click to enlarge.

Finally, there are two photos of my father with another boy of similar age and the boy’s mother. The first is taken against a backdrop of snow, so it probably also dates to February 1920. The other photo shows two boys in matching sailor suits in front of a third house. It was probably taken in the spring of 1920. The number on the door clearly says 4670 – the Beckmans’ house. My father is standing to the left. Another boy is sitting in a chair. Standing behind, we see the same woman from the earlier photo.

Photo from Feburary 1920 showing my father Anton Kowal (at left) with a mother and son. Click to enlarge.

Photo from Feburary 1920 showing my father Anton Kowal (at left) with a mother and son. Click to enlarge.

Photo of my father Anton Kowal (standing at left) with another boy, taken in front of the house at 4670 Arthur Kill Road where the Kowal's family landlord Charles H. Beckman lived. Click to enlarge.

Photo of my father Anton Kowal (standing at left) with another boy, taken in front of the house at 4670 Arthur Kill Road where the Kowal’s family landlord Charles H. Beckman lived. Click to enlarge.

I have two theories about who the mother and son are. It could conceivably be Katarzyna’s younger sister Honorata, who married a man named Michael Romaniszyn (later changed to Romanish). Census records show that Honorata had a son named William who was born in 1917, the same year as my father. Or (even more likely) it could be next door neighbor Tekla (Tessie) Orol with her son Henry, who was born in 1916.

 

Posted in Family Line - Kowal, Staten Island | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

A visit to ancestral hometowns in Slovakia: Trebejov and Kysak

When I started researching my family history, I couldn’t tell you where any of my immigrant ancestors came from. Now, after a whole lot of sleuthing, I have many of my ancestral hometowns nailed down.

I know exactly where my Ukrainian, Polish and Slovak ancestors came from – all small villages and towns in the borderlands between the old Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. I know generally that my mother’s father’s family, the Agin family, came over from Ireland during colonial times. While no paper trail survives, we know through DNA testing that the Agins – part of Clan Egan – have their roots in County Offaly. Only my German origins remain a mystery. My great-great-grandmother Mary Miller and her daughter Tillie came over in the 1880s. The only record providing any clue at all is Mary’s 1924 death certificate, which indicates she came from “Collenz, Germany.” Could this be Coblenz (now Koblenz), near the French border?

For my first trip to visit an ancestral hometown, I decided to go to Slovakia. While I don’t feel particularly invested in a Slovak identity – I didn’t even know I was one-fourth Slovak until I started this research project – the trip had the virtue of being easy. Slovakia is part of the EU and, having spent a lot of time in the Czech Republic over the years, I thought it would feel familiar. By contrast, both Założce (now Zaliztsi), where my Bosakowski ancestors came from, and the Kowal family hometown of Kharucha Vel’ka are in Ukraine. A trip there will be a lot more challenging.

So last October, I traveled to Košice, Slovakia’s second largest city, to do some archival research. Then, I rented a car and headed north to the villages my Slovak ancestors called home.

Route map for my visit to my ancestral villages in Slovakia. I started my journey in Kosice (A), drove to to Trebejov (B) and then on to Kysak (C), Obisovce (D) and Zehna (E). Map created on Google Maps.

Route map for my visit to my ancestral villages in Slovakia. I started my journey in Košice (A), drove to to Trebejov (B) and then on to Kysak (C), Obišovce (D) and Žehňa (E). Map created on Google Maps.

NOTE: You can find a complete gallery of photos from this trip, uploaded as full resolution images, on my SmugMug gallery page.

Trebejov

My first stop was Trebejov, where my great-grandfather Andrej (Andrew) Sabol was born in May 1872. Trebejov sits in a narrow valley on the east side of the Hornad River, a mere 20 km north of Košice.

View of Trebejov, Slovakia as you enter the town from the south.

View of Trebejov, Slovakia as you enter the town from the south.

Arriving mid-morning on a beautiful fall day, I was struck by the absence of people. Just a few barking dogs, zealously guarding their property. I did see one woman leaving her house, who seemed alarmed when I called out to her in rudimentary Slovak. While she didn’t seem all that impressed to learn that my great-grandfather was born there, she was kind enough to point me in the direction of the family home at Trebejov 11. The house, while small, looked fairly new. It’s not clear whether it was the old Sabol house, renovated, or an entirely new structure.

The house at Trebejov 11, where my great-grandfather Andrej Sabol was born in May 1872.

The house at Trebejov 11, where my great-grandfather Andrej Sabol was born in May 1872.

Three houses down, sitting on a small ridge, I found Trebejov 14 where my great-great-grandfather Andrej Daniel lived for a time with the family of his first wife, the Filaks. Again, the house looked to be fairly modern.

The house standing at Trebejov 14, where my grandfather Andrej Daniel lived with his first wife Anna Filak.

The house standing at Trebejov 14, where my grandfather Andrej Daniel lived with his first wife Anna Filak.

From the 1869 Magyar Census and an 1868 cadastral map, I know that Trebejov had 24 households and a population of about 200 when my ancestors lived there. Trebejov today appears to have twice as many houses, while the population has dropped to 165. So while the average house had 8 inhabitants then, it’s more like 3 0r 4 now.

The town has changed in two major ways since the 1860s. First, the 24 original houses appear to have lost their farmland. That land is now occupied by other houses and a new road. Part of the Sabol family farm became the local obecný úrad (municipal office). Second, a major railway line runs right in front of the original houses, where the main road used to be, separating them from the river. In the brief time I was there, several trains roared on through. (Perhaps that explains the town’s surprising affluence. It may be a bedroom suburb for people working in Košice.)

Train station in Trebejov, Slovakia.

Train station in Trebejov, Slovakia.

Finally, on the outskirts of town, I noticed limestone quarries cut into the sides of mountains. They caught my eye because my grandmother used to say her family owned a limestone quarry. I assumed that was wrong. All the church records identify the Sabols as farmers. But maybe they also mined limestone on their land, which ran up toward the mountains.

Limestone quarry on the outskirts of Trebejov, Slovakia.

Limestone quarry on the outskirts of Trebejov, Slovakia.

Kysak

Another 3 km north, along a winding mountain road, I came to the larger town of Kysak, where my great=grandmother Maria (Mary) Daniel was born in June 1880. Kysak sits atop a small hill on the opposite bank of the Hornad River. Its population has more than doubled, from just under 500 in the 1869 census to over 1100 today.

The first thing you notice, as you approach Kysak, is the incredibly large train station, located on the river plain just east of the town. I counted seven train platforms. Kysak, it turns out, is an important railway junction for trains heading west toward the Czech Republic and north toward Poland. Amazingly, the town itself still manages to feel small and quaint, probably due to its location on a hilltop.

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View of Kysak, Slovakia on the approach from the neighboring village of Trebejov.

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The train station at Kysak, a major hub in the Slovak railway system. It dwarfs the town, located on a hill immediately to the east (see church steeple at far left).

My first stop in Kysak was the obecný úrad. Starting in 1896, Kysak started keeping civil records of births, marriages and deaths for the local area. I hoped that I could continue my review of records, which got as far as 1905. After navigating some language issues, I watched a woman pull a large volume of death records out of a vault. Together, we leafed through page after page of records looking for my great-great-grandmother Alžbeta (Elisa) Filak, whose death record did not turn up in other records I searched. We didn’t find it, alas.

As we pored through the records, the town’s mayor popped in to see what we were up to. He spoke a bit of English and seemed quite interested in my research. He gave me a recently published book on the town’s history (in Slovak but still great to have). He also pulled up on his computer the current cadastral survey, now using aerial photos, and showed me exactly where my great-grandmother was born (Kysak 4). He told me that the Hovan family, which owned the house back in the day (my great-great-grandmother Barbara Macka was married to Michal Hovan before her second marriage to Andrej Daniel) was still living there!

From there, it was a short walk up the hill to find the house. My map was not totally helpful, because it did not account for the sharp vertical climb on certain streets, but I eventually did find the right address. No one seemed to be home but I was happy to take my photo in front of the property.

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Street scene in the center of Kysak, Slovakia.

Self portrait standing in front of the house at Kysak 4 (the red-roofed building at left). My great-grandmother Maria (Mary) Daniel was born here in June 1880.

Self portrait standing in front of the house at Kysak 4 (the red-roofed building at left). My great-grandmother Maria (Mary) Daniel was born here in June 1880.

Kysak seemed a lot busier than Trebejov and the people, who certainly noticed me walking around with my camera, were a bit friendlier. Again, the properties were fairly nice and well manicured. I suspect the town owes its prosperity to its close proximity to Košice.

NEXT: An account of my visit to Obišovce and Žehňa, home to the two Evangelical Lutheran churches that preserved the records of my Slovak ancestors.

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My connection to the very first settlers of New Amsterdam

I have lived in Manhattan for most of my adult life. But I did not realize until very recently that I descend from the first European colonists to call this island home. My ancestors were part of an advance party of settlers, sent here by the Dutch West India Company 390 years ago to populate their New World colonies. They were, as one historian put it, one of four founding families of New Netherland colony.

My tenth great-grandfather Jean Montfort (1583-?), along with his wife Jacqueline Moreau (1578-?) and their young son Pierre (1616-1661) made that historic journey, embarking from Amsterdam in January 1624. They sailed on the Eendracht, the Dutch equivalent of the Mayflower, arriving two years before the founding of New Amsterdam (which became New York City after the English displaced the Dutch).

Of all the immigrants in my family tree, crossing the ocean over three centuries from 1624-1913, they were the first.

Family Origins

Jean and Jacqueline Montfort were born in Valenciennes, in what is now northern France. At the time, the city was part of the Spanish Netherlands where the Roman Catholic religion was strictly enforced. The Montforts were Walloons, French-speaking Protestants associated with what is now Belgium. To worship freely, they fled to Leiden (where the Pilgrims also sought refuge before coming to America) and then to Amsterdam.

We know from church records that Jean’s occupation was lace weaver. Specifically, he made passements, decorative lace trimmings highly prized by Amsterdam’s prosperous residents.

During their time in Amsterdam, the Montforts worshipped at the Walloon Church (Waalse Kerk). When the Dutch West India Company sought settlers for its new colony in what is now New York, they recruited their first passengers, including the Montforts, from the church’s refugee congregation.

Image of the Walloon Church (Waalse Kerk) in Amsterdam. From the Walloon Church website.

Image of the Walloon Church (Waalse Kerk) in Amsterdam. From the Walloon Church website.

Journey to the New World

The process of enlisting this first group of colonists is captured in Russell Shorto’s terrific book on the history of New Amsterdam, The Island at the Center of the World:

To get people to sign up for a passage to what was now being called New Netherland, they had to find those who were ignorant or desperate or poor enough to leave the deeply civilized bosom of Amsterdam – with its paved streets, its scrubbed floors, its wheels of cheese and tankards of excellent beer, its fluffy pillows and blue-and-white tiled hearths and cozy peat fires – and venture to the back of beyond, to an absolute and unforgiving wilderness.

But, as always, the country was loaded with refugees, and, by promising land in exchange for six years of service, the company managed to round up a handful of hale young Walloons – French-speaking exiles from what is today Belgium – made sure, like Noah, that they had a female for every male, and hustled them into the Amsterdam council chamber, where they swore an oath of allegiance to the company and the government.

The Montforts must have quickly put their affairs in order. There is a notation in the Walloon Church’s register, dated January 23, 1624, memorializing the departure of “Johan Montfort & Catherine [sic] Moreau sa femme pour le West Indes.”

Page from the church register of the Walloon Church, Amsterdam noting the departure of Jean Montfort and family "pour le West Indes." January 1624. Click to enlarge.

Page from the church register of the Walloon Church, Amsterdam noting the departure of Jean Montfort and family “pour les West Indes.” January 1624. Click to enlarge.

Two days later, on January 25, they boarded the Eendracht (the English translation is “Unity”) and began their journey. The passengers on that tiny ship included about a dozen  families, most if not all Walloons, and about 30 soldiers and seamen.

The arduous crossing would take three months. Shorto describes the journey in colorful fashion:

By tens and twenties they came in the years 1624 and 1625, pitching on the inhuman waves in yachts, galiots, ketches, pinks and pinnaces, well-crafted but still frightfully vulnerable wooden vessels, banging around in the narrow and rheumatic below-decks, with pigs rooting and sheep bleating hollowly at every slamming swell, with the animal reek and their own odors of sickness and sour filth, each clutching his or her satchel of elixirs to ward off the plague, the devil, shipwreck, and “the bloody flux.”

The Eendracht arrived in New York Harbor in April or May 1624. What the passengers found at the end of the journey was the virgin wilderness recreated by the Mannahatta Project, dotted with Native American settlements.

Artist's conception of what Manhattan looked like in 1609, courtesy of the Mannahatta Project.

Artist’s conception of what Manhattan looked like in 1609, courtesy of the Mannahatta Project.

A second Dutch ship – the Nieuw Nederland – made the crossing months later, bringing additional settlers. But only four of the families arriving that fateful year – the Rapeljes, du Trieux, Vignes and Montforts, all Walloons – successfully managed to put down roots. The other settlers either died or returned back to Europe.

The first six years

After their arrival, the passengers on the Eendracht split off in different directions. Two families and six men were sent to the mouth of the Connecticut River, another two families and eight men were sent to a island on the Delaware River, and eight men took possession of Nutten Island (now Governor’s Island). The remaining passengers – about eight families and ten men, including the Montforts – were sent 150 miles up the Hudson River where it meets the Mohawk River – what later became Albany.

Shorto imagines their arrival thus:

Here the newcomers disembarked and stood defenseless before the towering pines. For shelter initially they dug square pits in the ground, lined them with wood and covered them with bark roofs (a minister who arrived a few years later, when proper houses were being built, sneered at the “hovels and holes” in which the first arrivals “huddled rather than dwelt.” 

There, they were put to work building a fort – Fort Orange. But by 1626, the group’s leaders got entangled in disputes among the Native tribes. The settlers formed an alliance with the Mahicans, only to suffer an ambush by their enemies, the Mohawks. The fragile colony was in peril.

In the fall of 1626, after the third harvest was complete, the eight families living at Fort Orange were sent back down the Hudson River to a a new settlement on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. Earlier that year, Pieter Minuit purchased the island from the Lenape Indians for 60 guilders. They would be its first European residents.

In those early years, the Montforts probably lived  in a rough shelter along the East River, where they would be protected from the westerly winds. We don’t know the exact nature of the their work, but we can assume that the settlers were put to work to clear and cultivate land for farms and buildings. Sadly, many records from those New Amsterdam’s first years have been lost.

The earliest known image of New Amsterdam dating from 1626. The view, from the Brooklyn shore looking west, is reversed, probably due to the lithographic process. Click to enlarge.

The earliest known image of New Amsterdam dating from 1626. The view, from the Brooklyn shore looking west, is reversed, probably due to the lithographic process. Click to enlarge.

A brief return to Amsterdam

Sometime after 1630, when their six years of indentured servitude was completed, it appears that the Montforts went back to Amsterdam for a time. Perhaps there was family business to attend to. Or maybe they needed to find Pierre a bride. During their time back in Amsterdam, Jean and Pierre made a living as lace weavers.

On March 1, 1636, they registered their intention to marry at the Walloon Church.

Pierre Montfoor, from Valenchijn, age twenty, assisted by his father Jean Montfoor, lace weaver, living on the Engelspadt, to marry Saera de Plancke, from Amsterdam, age twenty-one, assisted by her mother Saera Fruckenier, living at above.

The couple was married on March 23, 1636.

Marriage record for Pierre Montfort and Sara du Plancque dated March 23, 1636 (see upper left corner).  Click to enlarge.

Marriage record for Pierre Montfort and Sara du Plancque dated March 23, 1636 (see upper left corner). Click to enlarge.

Back in the New World

Some time before 1639, the expanded family returned to New Netherland. There is not much information available about Jean and Jacqueline during the years after that, except that they remained in the colony until their deaths. But we do know a fair amount about Pierre and Sarah.

From various land records, we see that Pieter Monfoort (he began to spell his name in the Dutch fashion) and Sarah established themselves in the Wallabout area of Brooklyn, between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges where the Brooklyn Navy Yard is located today. The name is thought to be derived from the Dutch Waal bocht (Walloons’ bay), a reference to the original settlers.

In 1639, Pieter first purchased land in partnership with Cicero Alberti, said to be the first Italian resident of North America. Records show that the land measured “in breadth 300 paces, with the same breadth straight into the woods.” Under the partnership agreement, set for a term of four years, the plantation would grow tobacco, corn and other grains.

Alberti and his wife Judith Manje remained close friends with Pieter and Sarah until their death at the hand of Indians in 1655.

By 1641, Pieter expanded his holdings to include “a piece of land for a Tobacco plantation, lying on Long Island in the bend of Meyrechkawick, bounded by Jan Monfoort on the east, and Pieter Italiaen on the west, extending along the marsh into the woods 70 rods, and 220 rods along the land of Jan Monfoort, to the woods 70 rods, again to the marsh in a northerly course 227 rods along the land of Pieter Italiaen, amounting to 25 morgen and 8 rods [a little over 50 acres].” He acquired additional land in 1643, provided it did not interfere with any other claim.

Pieter Monfoort plantation map

Source: Fred Sisser III, The Monfoort Familly of New York and New Jersey (1969).

Pieter and Sarah were charter members of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, which was founded in 1660 and still stands. In his later years, Pieter was one of the colony’s most prosperous residents. In 1658, he was appointed magistrate for the town of Breuckelen.

Pieter died on January 4, 1661, three years before the English takeover. Sarah married Lambert Bosch two years later. It is not clear when she died. She is last named in records of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1664, when she was a witness to a baptism.

Pieter and Sarah had seven children. The sixth, my eighth great-grandmother Sara Pieterse Monfoort (1656-1704), married Nicolaus Claes Pieterse Wyckoff (1646-1714), the son of another prominent early settler of New Netherlands colony. More about them in another post.

Sources:

Harry Macy, Jr., “375th Anniversary of the Eendracht and Nieuw Nederland,” The New York Genealogical & Biographical Society Newsletter, Winter 1999.

George Olin Zabriskie, “The Founding Families of New Netherland,” De Halve Maen, Jan., Apr. and July 1972.

George Olin Zabriskie, “A Chronology of New Netherland,” De Halve Maen, July 1972.

Eric W. Sanderson, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2009).

Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World (Vintage Books, 2005).

The Montfort Family 1624: A Narrative

David Conover’s Famous Cousins blog

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Closure on my great-grandfather Jacob Sylvester Agin

In earlier posts, I have wrote about the challenge of learning much of anything about my great-grandparents Jacob Sylvester Agin and Mathilde (Tillie) Miller.

I know from census data that they married in 1892 or thereabouts – but I have not been able to locate a marriage record. I know that they raised a family in Kingston, N.J. and then later moved to the larger nearby city of New Brunswick, probably when the quarry where Jacob worked closed down.

The couple last appears in the 1920 census. Through a deductive process, that included a review of obituaries for Jacob’s siblings, I surmised that he died before 1930, when his younger brother Charles Augustus Agin died as a vagrant on the streets of Trenton. Jacob is not mentioned as a surviving family member in that obituary or in any of the others that followed.

At the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton, there was a missing reel of microfilm. It covered deaths in 1928 for people whose names started with “A.” So I had a hunch that his death record was on the missing reel.

My breakthrough came when I visited the main public library in New Brunswick. I went to look for some obituaries on microfilm. They have a complete collection of The Home News, the local paper of record.

From the library’s website, I learned the library also had an index card file to New Brunswick’s birth, marriage and death records, including deaths from 1924-1970. I wasn’t allowed to browse through the index cards themselves, which were located in the basement, but the librarian did a search for me and confirmed that a Jacob Sylvester Agin died on May 10, 1928.

I went straight to the microfilm and found my great-grandfather’s obituary, published in the May 11, 1928 edition of The Home News. The left margin is a bit obscured, probably because the newspapers were bound together when they were archived. But it’s not hard to make everything out.

Obituary for my great-grandfather Jacob Sylvester Agin, published in The Home News (New Brunswick, N.J.), May 11, 1928.

Obituary for my great-grandfather Jacob Sylvester Agin, published in The Home News (New Brunswick, N.J.), May 11, 1928.

I learned something from this obituary. The last records I had showed him living in New Brunswick, probably working as a security guard. But by 1928, the family appears to have moved across the river to Highland Park or neighboring Piscataway. Jacob never owned his own home or had a lot of money, so it’s not surprising that it was hard to put down roots.

There’s one big discrepancy, though: the article refers to Jacob’s wife Mary when I know it was Mathilde or Tillie. Perhaps this was just an error. Or perhaps Tillie, a German immigrant, went by different names at different times in her life. I know that she survived Jacob and lived well into the 1950s (although, again, I have not been able to learn precisely when she died).

It was interesting (and heartening) to learn from the obituary that Jacob was “well known” in Highland Park and New Brunswick. A related article, published a few days later after the funeral, paints a very positive image of the deceased.

In “Jacob Agin Buried,” published on May 15, 1928, we learn that “the church was filled by the many friends and relatives attesting to the high esteem in which the deceased was held, and the floral tributes were numerous and beautiful.” Was this just standard flowery language? Or was Jacob a popular guy?

Article covering the burial of my great-grandfather Jacob Sylvester Agin, published in The Home News (New Brunswick, N.J.), May 15, 1928.

Article covering the burial of my great-grandfather Jacob Sylvester Agin, published in The Home News (New Brunswick, N.J.), May 15, 1928.

I learned something surprising from this article as well. The funeral took place in a Roman Catholic church, St. Paul’s in Highland Park. Was Jacob a Catholic? I have seen no other evidence of that.

Jacob was only 60 when he died. It makes me sad to realized he died only five weeks after his latest granddaughter – my mother Lillian Agin – was born. But I’m thrilled to achieve some closure on the life of Jacob Sylvester Agin.

 

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My father’s childhood home in a 1940 tax photo

I remember visits, when I was a boy, to my grandparents’ little house in a remote corner of Staten Island. My grandfather bought the newly built house in the 1920s and sold it in the late 1960s after my grandmother died. There weren’t many good photos of the old place, which is why I was thrilled to locate a high quality, black and white tax photo of the property in the New York City archives.

Between 1939 and 1941, the city photographed every house and building in the five boroughs – over 700,000 unique images. It was a project of the Works Progress Administration, creating jobs for photographers and allowing the city to make better assessments for tax purposes. The city commissioned another set of color photos in the mid-1980s. And all these photos are available for a price.

I learned you could order the 1939-1941 photos online or in person at the Department of Records on Chambers Street. An 8″x10″ print costs $35. The only catch is you need to know the official block and lot number for the property. Since I didn’t have that information, I visited the office in person and asked for help.

Finding the image was a bit complicated. I always knew my grandparents’ address to be 29 Storer Avenue, in the Charleston section of Staten Island. As I recall, Storer Avenue was a dirt road that came up behind their property. The front of the house had a sidewalk and a curb but no street. This was Lundsten Avenue, a road that was never built (it would have served only two houses). There was no photo for 29 Storer Avenue but I eventually did find one for 29 Lundsten Avenue.

I got it in the mail the other day. Just as I remember, Lundsten Avenue is a lawn. The feeling in the photo is somewhat eerie. The house seems to be in the middle of nowhere. There is no other structure visible all the way to the horizon. And there is not a person in sight. Still, the lawn, sidewalks and hedges are all impeccably maintained.

New York City tax photo of the Kowal family house at 29 Lundsten Avenue, Staten Island. Taken some time between 1939 and 1941. Click to enlarge.

New York City tax photo of the Kowal family house at 29 Lundsten Avenue, Staten Island. Taken some time between 1939 and 1941. Click to enlarge.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the 1940 census return for the Kowal household – right about the time this photo was taken. There were 11 people then living in the two-bedroom house: my grandparents Alex and Katarzyna (Katherine) Kowal, my father Anton, his six siblings (Mary, Nellie, Helen, Joseph, Stella and Walter) and two boarders who worked at a nearby smelting plant.

My Uncle Walter told me that the boarders took one of the bedrooms (the family needed the income) while the male members of the family took the other. The women probably slept in the dining or living rooms, although my uncle (who was a young boy at the time) says he didn’t know for sure.

According to the 1940 census return, the house was valued at $5,000 (which comes to $82,000 today, adjusted for inflation). It wasn’t the most expensive house in the neighborhood but it wasn’t the cheapest either.

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