David B. Lee of Philadelphia: Inventor, Flight Pioneer, Dreamer, Attorney (1792-1836)

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Recently I decided to delve into the history of one of my mystery ancestors by the name of David B. (probably Bishop) Lee, an ancestor for whom I have had the BMD facts (birth, marriage, death) for quite awhile but whose life seemed to hold many mysteries.

David B. Lee’s family is rather well documented in various published genealogies  and journals. He belongs to the Guilford, CT, Lee family, a descendant of Edward Lee (d. 1727/8). However, these published sources merely illuminate the mystery of who David was and what his life consisted of. How did he end up in Philadelphia when none of his family seemed to have any connection to that city? How on earth did his daughter Orit ( a very unique name, the same as his sister) end up marrying someone in western New York with an equally unique name, Zina Henderson? So many things in David Lee’s story were highly unusual while at the same time being incontrovertible.

Here is what I knew about David: He was born 9 May, 1792 in Guilford, CT, a son of of Eber Lee (1760-1855), a Revolutionary War soldier, and his wife Huldah Bishop (1759-1836).  He lived in Philadelphia and married successively two daughters, Sarah and Rachael, of a Capt. James Cassell of either New York or Boston. He had daughters Orit Lee (b.c. 1825) who married Zina Henderson (my ancestors);  Sarah Lee (b. c. 1830) who married a Griffith; and Melvina T. Lee (b.c. 1833) who married Thomas Cheeseman. These daughters were born in Philadelphia, and David died in 1836, leaving a very young and presumably vulnerable family in Philadelphia with no other known family connections near them.

Additionally, a few years ago I spent half a year in Washington, DC, having been evacuated from Egypt during the Morsi revolution. At that time I discovered an obituary for Melvina Cheeseman of Camden, NJ, at the Library Of Congress which mentioned that her father was Judge David Lee of Philadelphia. This was quite an interesting piece of new information, as I had had no inkling of David Lee’s profession.

During the past year, I have traveled quite a lot in the US and three different times run up against evidence regarding David Lee that I couldn’t substantiate. First, at RootsTech 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah, I stopped at the booth of the Historical Society Of Pennsylvania and related that I had an ancestor from Philly that was purportedly a judge. Presumably he would have had to be a member of the Philadelphia Bar Association, so what were their suggestions regarding where I could look for further information? They mentioned several resources they had online, so I joined HSP and planned to examine their resources later. Unfortunately, HSP had technical problems all summer, and I was unable to examine their materials until recently.

Next, by happenstance in Albuquerque, my brother and I visited the Anderson-Abruzzo International Air Balloon Museum. There I saw an exhibit about a David Lee of Philadelphia having flown a balloon in a series of attempts in September of 1819. I recently learned that this balloon had been constructed by a partnership referred to as either Lee, Pomeroy & Co., or Lee, Bulkley and Pomeroy. One of these attempted flights, carried out across the river in Camden, NJ, caused a riot due to a launch delay of several hours combined with an ample supply of spirits. I inquired about this David Lee at the museum and was told that what is known about him has been gleaned from newspaper accounts about attempts to fly “The Camden Balloon,” as it was known, and little else. Knowing that my David Lee was in Philadelphia at this time seemed interesting, but frankly, I believed the likelihood of a connection to be remote. The fact that I had gleaned information linking David to the legal profession seemed to further discount the likelihood that my ancestor had also been engaged in flying hot air balloons in the early 1800s. It turned out that I was wrong.

My third run-in with unsubstantiated connections to David Lee was in Boston at the NEHGS Library, where I camped out for a couple weeks. In passing, I had mentioned Capt. James Cassell to some of the staff, and they were aware of a Capt. James Cassell who was buried in Boston Common Central Burying Ground. This James Cassell had emigrated from England before the Revolution and served as a mariner in the Continental Navy under John Paul Jones and John Barry.  During this service James Cassell was taken captive by the British at Barbados. James Cassell later married Abigail Dolbeare, a member of a very well-known Boston family engaged in the pewter trade and a direct descendant of one of the most interesting and influential of all New England pilgrims, William Pynchon. Again, this seemed interesting, but at the time, I hadn’t done enough research to substantiate this potential connection.

Having started to take a fresh look at David Lee in the last few weeks, I was astonished when these bits of information started to take on the air of credible, likely, even firm connections to my ancestor. At first, I could see there was a David Lee living in Spring Garden, Philadelphia County in the 1820s and 1830s. Spring Garden, which used to be a separately incorporated town, is the very heart of today’s Philadelphia. The David Lee here was at first listed as a scrivener (letter-writer or copyist) who seemed to be associated with the well-regarded book-binder/publisher R.W. Pomeroy of Philadelphia. This same David Lee generally distinguished himself as David B. Lee at the addresses 109 N. 4th, 105 N. 9th, and 23 Wood, Philadelphia. Then I found that David B. Lee was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar Association on 29 May, 1826, and thereafter listed his occupation in city directories as attorney.

Next I found David B. Lee, Esq., in church, civil and social announcements as being married to Sarah Cassell of Boston by Rev. Dr. Holcombe of First Baptist Church, Philadelphia on Christmas Day, 1823. This announcement was carried in several social magazines and newspapers, including the Boston newspaper, The Central Centinel(sic), where all the significant announcements for the family of Capt. James Cassell, Revolutionary Soldier who married Abigail Dolbeare, were also consistently published. Sarah/Sally Cassell’s christening was also dutifully recorded in the church records of Trinity Church, Boston, being 8 years old when christened with her brothers and sisters in 1799. Significantly, the David Lee family and descendants consistently affiliated with Methodist Episcopal Churches in their neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden shortly after the marriage of David Lee and Sarah Cassell in 1823.

At this point, having established a framework for David’s family, I started trying to establish what David’s professional affiliations were and what his law practice might have consisted of. I was astonished to then find a series of patents that David B. Lee had registered, starting as a young man still in Guilford, CT in 1816. David Lee registered a patent for a spinning wheel head, which is the business end of a spinning wheel. Many spinning wheel head designs, modifications, improvements and patents existed, and clearly David had a keen interest in technology an entrepreneurial endeavors.

Next on 9 June, 1824, David B. Lee and Stephen Stewart of Philadelphia registered a patent regarding a mode to generate steam power. Again in 1829 David registered a patent for a steam engine device which was apparently some sort of two chambered circular piston for a steam engine. Lastly, in 1834, he registered a patent for valves for steam boilers.

On top of all this, there were two other endeavors that David B. Lee was involved in as a principal character. First was the hot air balloon affair. I had really forgotten about my encounter with this in Albuquerque, thinking it entirely improbable  that my ancestor David Lee had anything to do with hot air balloons. This feeling was reinforced by recollections of my grandfather, Murl Lee Henderson, his middle name coming from this very source. I couldn’t imagine that my very head-decidedly-not-in-the-clouds grandfather had as his ancestor, of whom he was a namesake, a radical who was flying balloons around in 1820. Inconceivable!

My first recollection of the hot air balloon reference to David B. Lee was upon seeing umpteen references in the newspapers across the country in 1822 to David B.Lee. Here are a couple of examples:


(The Norwich Courier, Norwich, CT,  Wednesday, April 10, 1822)


DavidBLEE-Flying2 (the newspaper Watchman, Montpelier, VT, Tuesday, April 30, 1822)


As I mentioned, there are innumerable versions of this report in papers across the country during the next several weeks.The story was no less fascinating and absurd 194 years ago than it is today. Kudos to the Montpelier paper for keeping the correct original date of the petition, April 1, in the story. I don’t know the origins of April Fools Day, but….

Also showing that the story had staying power, here is a snippet from the actual National Archives website that is live today, clearly demonstrating that the National Archives preserves everything from the profound to the absurd (not necessarily in that order):


So the petition David B. Lee sent to the U.S. House OF Representatives is recorded in the official house Register. In addition to being a counterclaim to the usurper James Bennett, it directly petitions the government for exclusive rights to US atmospheric air space for balloons and flying machines for 50 years, or a period that Congress shall deem appropriate.

Clearly acutely stung by becoming a national joke due to his flying pursuits, our dear ancestor David B. Lee shares a single exchange in correspondence with the imminent and illustrious inventor and former President Of The United States (and my cousin in another line), Thomas Jefferson (lovingly preserved by the Library Of Congress and mostly transcribed by me):

The art of navigating the atmosphere has been my constant study with little exception from my earliest childhood – But being granted for a fool by every person to whom I revealed my subject; I kept it almost an entire secret till early in the year 1819-

I constructed a balloon with all the necessary apparatus for flying and fixed a day for my first aerial excursion, with the most sanguine expectations that I should soon soar in the uper regions of the atmosphere and show to the world that the Americans could do that which other nations had attempted without success-


But I was doomed to a more _____less fate- While inflating the balloon, an accident happened to the apparatus for preparing the gas which delayed the opperation for several hours and some of the people who were assembled to witness the experiment being ignorant of the subject and disappointed and dissatisfied with the delay rushed in upon the balloon in a mob and completely destroyed it-


This so discouraged my patron that notwithstanding he believed the thing practisable he would give me no more assistance-  Since that time I have mentioned my plans to different people but without success-

David appealed to Thomas Jefferson for support, but alas, in his reply (here’s my transcription),  Jefferson demurred:

However I can really give no opinion understandingly on the subject and with more good will than confidence wish you succeed.

Thomas Jefferson

Joy. I have a new favorite ancestor.

At this point, I’m planning to start a David B. Lee Descendants & Heirs Association in time to petition the Congress on April 1, 2022, the 200th anniversary of David’s petition, referring back to our illustrious ancestor’s original petition, giving an updated address to which to send the status of our petition and to ask what is taking so long.

To be fair, as indicated, David B. Lee’s balloon actually made several successful flights, and he is credited as a flight pioneer in the Who’s Who of Ballooning. Really, I’m totally in awe of this guy.

So I mentioned another endeavor in which David B. Lee was involved. In 1833 and 1834, David B. Lee and William Beach submitted a proposal to light the city of Philadelphia using 300-foot towers which would burn coal and tar on high and use a system of mirrors and reflectors to distribute light throughout the city. They estimated this system would save 90% of current costs for night lighting. Unfortunately, the City Of Philadelphia instead sent an expert to Europe to research how European cities were providing lighting at night and apparently went another direction. Yeah, so no pending checks from the City Of Philadelphia. Bummer.

So back to the more traditional concerns of genealogy: David’s family and progeny. As mentioned, David married Sarah Cassell December 25, 1823 in Philadelphia. In about 1825, the couple had a daughter, my ancestor Orit/Oretta Lee, who is named after David’s sister Orit Lee (who married Elah Camp). My Orit Lee married Zina Henderson in about 1842, presumably somewhere in western New York state or possibly in eastern Michigan. The couple migrated to Fayette County, IL, where they had some children including my next ancestor, Edmond David Henderson (born in 1849). Significantly, Sarah Cassell’s oldest brother, the patriarch of the Cassell family after Capt. James Cassell’s death, was named Edmund Cassell. More on this later.

David’s wife Sarah Cassell Lee presumably died some time between the birth of Orit in about 1825 and about 1832, possibly earlier. Next, David has a daughter named Sarah L. (probably Lavina) Lee in December of 1830. Who was her mother? Was it Sarah Cassell Lee or someone else? It might Sarah’s younger sister Rachael Cassell Lee, or it might be another woman. However, Sarah L. Lee in fact married a man named John GRIFFEE not Griffith. More on them later as well.

David B. Lee had a third daughter named Melvina T. Lee, who was born in December, 1833, in Philadelphia. Melvina’s mother was Rachael Cassell Lee, the sister of David’s first wife, Sarah Cassell. Then David B. Lee dies on September 9, 1836 in Philadelphia. Then his son William Lee is born on May 20, 1837. So David dies leaving a pregnant wife and three little daughters and, exasperatingly, he leaves no will. What kind of lawyer dies with no will???? I guess one whose real passion is inventions and flying.

Yes, so at the best part of the story, David dies, probably very suddenly. While there is mention of his death in the paper, and members of the bar association of Philadelphia are entreated to pay their respects, there is no report of his falling from a hot air balloon or anything. He probably died of something much more mundane, like a heart attack or something. Who knows? All that is known is that his family took a decidedly downward trajectory in the society of Philadelphia and later across the river in Camden, NJ.

In the next few years, after occupying the heart of the city in the most desirous and genteel areas, widow Rachael Lee starts inhabiting the outer reaches of the city in working-class tenements and working as a tailoress or seamstress. She seems to continue association with others in the bookbinding profession that her husband was associated with at first, but later she moves across the river to the east into Camden, NJ, about 1844. I find no record of her past then, and by 1846 she seems to have died.

It is unclear when David’s first daughter Orit Lee separates from his other family, but she is clearly not with Rachael and the other children by 1840. She may have gone with other relatives much earlier, even before David died. At this point I hypothesize that she was in some way assisted by her dead mother’s brother, Edmund Cassell, since she named one of her children Edmond David Henderson.


As for the others, the widow Rachael Cassell Lee seems to have kept the children Sarah, Melvina and William Lee together. First they were together in Philadelphia, then in the 1840s they stuck together in Camden, NJ. After Rachael apparently dies, Sarah and Melvina are seen in church records attending class in a couple different Methodist Episcopal churches together. Melvina T. Lee marries Thomas G. Cheeseman at the Third Methodist Episcopal Church, Camden, NJ, on 26 September, 1848, being only 14 years old. Her sister marries John Griffee at the First M. E. Church in Camden, NJ, on 19 Feb., 1849. In the 1850 census, their little brother William Lee is in the household of John Griffee and his wife Sarah (Lee) Griffee in the Middle Ward of Camden. Thomas and Melvina (Lee) Cheeseman can be found in the South Ward of Camden in 1850.

William Lee works as a coal dealer and marries Mary Ann Griffee, probably a sister to his sister Sarah’s husband, on 23 Dec., 1856 at the First M.E. Church, Camden. William Lee has fewer children but is still in Stockton Twp., Camden, NJ in 1880. His children include son William (b.c. 1858), James (b. 1865), and Emma (b.c. 1873).

Both Sarah Lee Griffee and her sister Melvina Lee Cheeseman have large families of children in Camden and die there, Sarah in 1907 and Melvina in 1917.

I haven’t run across any reference to David Lee being any kind of judge anywhere. He could have been some sort of municipal judge or justice of the peace or something, which would have justified the title of judge. It could have been an honorific, or just an exaggeration. I don’t know whether he attended any college or institute or simply received tutoring or served in an apprenticeship to pass the bar (although the latter seems unlikely given the spare time David clearly had to pursue his own interests).

Anyway, that’s the tale so far of an utterly fascinating and unexpected ancestor of mine. And if anyone wants to know why I’ve been doing research on my family since I was 9 years old (nearly 37 years now), this is exactly why.

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Letter Transcription: Thomas Jefferson to David B. Lee

Source is here (Library Of Congress)

Monticello Apr 27. 22



Your letter of the 15th is received, but age has long since obliged me to withdraw my mind from speculations of the difficulty of those of your letter. That there are means of artificial buoyancy by which man may be supported in the air the balloon has proved, and that means of directing it may be discovered is against no law of nature also is therefore possible as in the case of birds. But to do this by mechanical means alone in a medium so rare and unresisting as air must have the aid of some principle not yet generally known. However I can really give no opinion understandingly on the subject and with more good will than confidence wish you succeed.


Thomas Jefferson


D.B. Lee

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Letter Transcription: David B. Lee To Thomas Jefferson

Source is here (Library Of Congress)




Were I not perfectly convinced of your entire devotion to the welfare and honor of your country, and the genuine patriotic zeal which you have _____ displayed in ___ the _____ _____ of America; I should not dare submit your patronage in the case which I am now going to lay before you –


But being ______ed with the most profound conviction of your truly philosophic mode of deciding on any new theory; and knowing that you are this great a philosopher to suffer your mind to be bound in the vulgar fetters of prejudice which limits our researches for knowledge within the failing created by our forefathers – I shall (although not favored with the honor of your personal acquaintance) submit to you the outlines of the plan of a machine which I have invented for navigating the atmosphere and respectfuly solicit your patronage –


The art of navigating the atmosphere has been my constant study with little exception from my earliest childhood – But being granted for a fool by every person to whom I revealed my subject; I kept it almost an entire secret till early in the year 1819-


I had previous to that devised a plan by which I believed , and still believe, that a balloon may be propelled and steered in any direction with considerable facility – And likewise another plan of far greater importance by which a man can traverse the air in any direction at will, by mechanical power above in perfect safety, regardless of threatening clouds or stormy winds-  But having spent so much time and money in forming my plans and trying experiments, and not being one of fortunes favorites – I had not the means of putting my plans in operation –  But being determined to complete the business – I therefore at the time before mentioned (1819) applyed to several institutions for assistance, most of whom were so prejudiced against the very idea of flying that they would not even give me a hearing – I however found one man who agreed to furnish money to construct a balloon with the necessary apparatus to propel and steer it-  I took him at his offer knowing that if I succeeded in that I could then without difficulty raise the trifling sum necessary to complete my favorite object? of constructing a machine to navigate the air on mechanical principles –


I constructed a balloon with all the necessary apparatus for flying and fixed a day for my first aerial excursion, with the most sanguine expectations that I should soon soar in the uper regions of the atmosphere and show to the world that the Americans could do that which other nations had attempted without success-


But I was doomed to a more _____less fate- While inflating the balloon, an accident happened to the apparatus for preparing the gas which delayed the opperation for several hours and some of the people who were assembled to witness the experiment being ignorant of the subject and disappointed and dissatisfied with the delay rushed in upon the balloon in a mob and completely destroyed it-


This so discouraged my patron that notwithstanding he believed the thing practisable he would give me no more assistance-  Since that time I have mentioned my plans to different people but without success-

—— end page 1———


I have been neither unguarded in speaking publicly of the certainty of sucess , not thinking that I had a rival in the business till quite recently, when James Benets memorial to congress appeared in the news papers-

I then (as you perhaps already know) sent a memorial to congress in opposition to Benet-

Benet informs me that he has studied on the business several years, but I believe that his plan was not matured untill he obtained information from me- But still from some circumstances I am inclined to believe that he is not master of my whole plan, and I am doubtful whether he has a sufficient idea of it, so that he can______ for _____ he do it; as he is rich it would not be delayed.

James Benet is an Irishman by birth, and has resided for many years in England- I would therefore call your particular attention to the honor of the invention which he says in his memorial “shall be conferred on the United States.” Pray sir, how can he confer this honor on the United States- Congress can pass an act granting the right to him and by that means confer the ______iary __________ment on him- But it is impossible for him to confer the honor on the United States, for should there be an act passed in his favor by which congress should declare to the world that he was the inventor – that country which gave birth to his _____ on that in which these interests were matured and brought to perfection will claim the honor of all inventions made by him-


Benet expects _____ to return to England, and what then let me ask will he be to this country- Is it possible that under such circumstances he can confer the honor of the invention on the United States- Born in the British dominions, and residing there to the age of thirty; then coming to this country and spending some years, then returning to England to spend the remainder of his days- What is he at last but an Englishman- England will claim, and on good ground, should an act be passed in Benets favor the sole honor of the invention-


It is believed that Franklin made many discoveries on electricity in Europe, but notwithstanding that America claims all inventions made by him- It will be the same in this case if congress pass an act in Benets favor the honor if there is any attached to it, is immediately conferred on England or Ireland-


But it is doubtful whether congress make any grant to either of us until the machine is in actual operation- Benet has a machine nearly finished, but as I have not seen it, I do not know whether it is on any plan that will succede-


Had I the money necessary to construct a machine, I could build one and appear before congress with it before their session closes- But for the want of three of four hundred dollars, I shall be under the necessity of delaying the business- And perhaps by that means loose my right to this machine which has already lost me several thousand dollars- And if Benet should take advantage of my poverty, and secure the right to himself, which I am confident he will, the United States will surely lose the honor of the invention-


I estimate the expense of these machines (of a size foe one man) at from one hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars- but, as the first of any machines whatever

—–end page 2——–


Always cost nearly double what they may be built for afterwards, I have estimated that it would require about three or four hundred dollars to build the first-


I have made experiments at different times on this machine and from the results of these experiments I have not a doubt but it will be opperate agreeable to my wishes-


I have given you this brief account of my progress in this business that you might have some knowledge of the nature of my claim to the invention-


I likewise referred to the pedigree of Benet, not through any ill will to him on account of his being a foreigner- but merely to apprise you of the danger there was of another nation claiming the honor of the invention.- And likewise to show you the trick which he intended to have played upon our government by making a pretense of conferring the honor of this invention on the United States, when he must have known that if his petition was granted the honor of the discovery would have reverted to his mother country-


I commenced this letter with an intention of giving you a succinct account of the form and opperation of this machine- But having already nearly filled my paper I shall be under the necessity of dismissing the subject with a few remarks only-

In the first place I consider it as one of the great laws of nature from which there is no deviation that all animal beings perform their visible functions on mechanical principles- The nicer points or what might be called invisible opperations, or first cases of visible actions, are not necessary to be discussed for the present purpose-

I presume, Sir, you will _______ with me when I say that all birds and insects fly on pure mechanical principles for it is found by a careful examination of the subject notwithstanding there appears to be a considerable difference in the opperation of different insects and birds, in flying that they all fly on the same principle, with some trifling difference in the mode of application-


Having ascertained the precise form of a bird and all its opperations in flying, in their _____ ______, we then have nothing more to do, to complete the art of flying than to copy this exactly by machinery- But as there are some parts which I found very difficult if not impossible to imitate – I have deviated in other points to endeavor to obviate the difficulties which at first appeared insurmountable- One great difficulty is a want of strength sufficient to correspond with the weight of the man and machine. But this difficulty I have in part obviated by a greater extension of surface to rest on the atmospherewhile the wings are ascending-


I have tried this machine in several different forms – I have three distinct plans either of which may answer – A superficial view of the one on which I rely with perfect confidence of success, would be as follows-

The body or gondola, bears some resemblance to the shape of a boat – the size about eight feet high, three feet broad, and at top from sixteen to twenty feet long- This is made of as light materials as possible- in the middle where the aeronaut stands, or sits, it is more sufficiently strong to support him and the machinery with which he ______s the wings- This is covered with silk except a window on each side near the middle- On the top of the gondola, laying nearly horizontal (but not perfectly, the front end being elevated, say five degrees) is placed an oval sheet of silk enclosing a verry light frame- This sheet or platform may be from ten to twelve feet broad and from twenty to twenty four feet long- across the center of this frame side to side , the frame is sufficiently strong to support the wings, which are attached to each extremity or side – This top part is braced down to the bottom of the gondola to keep it permanent together- The wings for want of room to a more perfect _____tion I will compare both in shape and motion, to the wings of an eagle – the comparison would however been more accurate to have said the wings of a raven, which they very nearly resemble, particularly in motion-

—-end page 3——-


There is a rudder like the _______ of a bird extending back from the top part or sheet, as I before called it, this is to steer it up or down- There is another rudder extending from the back part of the gondola, by which it is steered to the right or left.


The description I have given is very imperfect, but if from the above outlines of the plan, you think the thing practisable – or that the theory is sufficiently plausible to merit an experiment- you are respectfully requested to patronize it, in such manner as your wisdom shall dictate- All favors received will be duly appreciated- and (should I be enabled to complete the business) amply repaid-


If you condescend to answer this, please ______ to David B. Lee Philadelphia


I am, Sir, with ____ considerating respect,

Your Obedient Servant,

  1. B. Lee


Thomas Jefferson, Esq.




Thomas Jefferson

Late President of the United States



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Wordless Wednesday: Charles Peter Anderson and daughter Mary Louise Anderson, c. 1920

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Talented Tuesday: “Fiddler Charlie” Andrews

My family prides itself as being very musical. Nearly everyone plays at least one musical instrument, and most of us play more. This tradition goes back a long way, and I can tell you my 3rd Great Grandfather, Benjamin Elam, was known to be quite a flutist.

One relative who has a reputation for standing out in this regard is a cousin of my grandmother through both her father and her mother named Charles Sidney Andrews.

Fiddling Charlie, the fiddlin’ tornado. Won Fiddler’s contest in 44 states of the Union. Had a large family, 11 I think he told me at the 1930 Carroll Reunion. Charlie’s mother died when he was young and he was raised by his grandmother, Jane Andrews.

– Juno Evans Pierce, “The Carroll Family”

Charles Sidney Andrews was born 19 July, 1870 in Ozark, Arkansas to John Jernigan Andrews and Sarah Stubblefield. Charlie was a travelling musician who lived at various times in Fayette Co., IL, Arkansas, and Jasper, MO. Charlie was renowned in the family for his musical gifts. I don’t have independent confirmation of any of the family assertions about him, but he certainly inspired generations of his kin to be musicians nevertheless.

Here’s to you, Fiddler Charlie. You still are a family legend, inspiring generations never thought of in your time.

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Sorting Saturday: My Highly Organized Organization of Stuff

Today on this chilly Saturday morning I thought I would share how I organize my genealogical research in hopes of providing insight and ideas to anyone interested in the subject.

For my genealogical research, I have one main 4-drawer filing cabinet. This filing cabinet was one that my grandfather used and had in his office until he died in the early 90s. It’s no ordinary flimsy filing cabinet like the sorts they make today. This thing is built to last. It’s extremely tough, weighs more than a volkswagon, has the sorts of doors that automatically lock in a shut position, etc. Yes, it’s serious, just like Grandpa.

The top shelf has mostly office supplies in it. I’ll use this drawer to expand my holding of organized records. The second drawer has mainly what I consider personal important papers. These include things like my own birth certificate and other things of that nature that I have yet to put into any other organized form other than their prominent place in my filing cabinet. They’re stored sort of like what you might find in a vertical file, except, well, they’re horizontal. More of a pile, really, at the moment, but enclosed and contained nicely by the second drawer of the filing cabinet.

The third drawer contains all my oldest files and papers organized in file folders by surname. I have a very sophisticated method for storing information that pertains to more than one family: I put the information in a file folder for the surname to which it primarily pertains, then I use a complicated system of “remembering” which other families the information might pertain to. When I come to one of those families for which I have remembered information, I use my “remembering” system to guide me back to the information labeled under the primary surname of the information.

Within each surname I maintain a very flexible system for ordering my surname information. This system allows me to order my information in a number of ways depending on how the organization of my information can best facilitate my research on that surname at any given time. For example, if one file contains more currently applicable information, I might put it at the front of the files for that surname.  If I know the information I’m looking for is something I’ve had for a really long time, it might be more towards the back of the listing for that surname, unless I had recently added information for that surname and shuffled things around in the process, as often happens. Also, some information I have planned to include in this collection is in three other boxes in various states of readiness for inclusion, but drawer 3 of my filing cabinet is full, and I haven’t wanted to redesign the storage for the other things I have stored in this cabinet. Unfortunately, since these other three boxes are more or less, sort of ready to be included in my highly organized filing system, I sort of keep them in quarantine frmo my other boxes and piles and heaps of records, because I don’t want them to get any bad ideas and fall into any old, bad habits, so I mostly don’t get into them much. This can be a bit problematic, but I make it work. Where was I?

Oh, drawer 4 of my filing cabinet actually is busting full with, I know it sounds a little odd, old genealogical society issues from the Fayette County (Illinois) Genealogical Society. These issues of Fayette Facts weren’t bound too well, and they tend to be fragile as a result. These are really unbelievable gems, as this society has published about 100-120 pages of transcribed records, cemetery listings, local genealogies every single quarter for what will be 40 years next year. Amazing material, really. I even wrote some articles for them in the 1980s. This collection is very important to me, and while perhaps boxing them up might serve the same purpose, unfortunately I don’t have any boxes because most of my other records already are in boxes, and I don’t have any more.

My next category of recordkeeping probably houses the bulk of my records: Boxes. I have many, many stacks of boxed records. Some of the boxes are closed and some are open. The closed boxes usually represent something I feel is more for safe keeping more than immediate reference, although, as always, there is a lot of flexibility built into this system. The boxes that are open tend to have records sorted into what might be called “piles,” or “heaps” for the larger boxes, but these piles and heaps are nicely contained by the box itself, so they don’t mix or get confused with the other materials in my other boxes or the heaps or pile I have on any of the various workspaces I use, unless I actually take the records out of the boxes to look at them.

My last category of storage for records is a little unusual, as it was something I came up with after I ran out of boxes. This is my collection of records in plastic grocery sacks. The last 2 or 3 times I have moved or significantly shifted my records I had already run out of good boxes, as I mentioned above. In these cases, I decided to use plastic grocery sacks, because hey, who doesn’t have those?

My records in plastic grocery sacks are records I was working on or I had out on a workspace at my last two or three places of residence or rooms of the house I was using for genealogy at that time. These tend to be smaller collections of information, obviously, and since these storage methods are considered to be more temporary, I have only used them when I plan to only temporarily move the records then start right back up and work on those same areas, freeing the records from their temporary enclosures that have little other organization. The last couple of times I moved genealogy rooms I didn’t actually add to these collections, so I know anything in plastic paper sacks is probably from a move at least six years ago, probably. All I have to do is remember what I was working on 6 years ago to know what’s in these sacks.

Now we get into my organization system for the things I have on my various workspaces. You might call these piles or heaps. Before I recently moved my genealogy room, I had one group of records on a particularly big workspace that was (how shall I say) structurally unsound. It acted more like a glacier, or on bad days, a mudslide. This hampered my organizational methodologies from working optimally. However, I solved this problem during my last move of my genealogy by using one of the methods above: boxes.

Right now my workspace areas are mostly under control. My piles and heaps aren’t more than about 6 inches high, so I’m feeling pretty good about them. Should the Big Earthquake hit, I don’t feel I would be in personal danger from the piles. The boxes might get me, but boxes move with more predictability than do heaps, so I think I could make it.

One other critical aspect of my system is that of chronological stratification. I use this a lot, so it’s important to mention. This is so simple, it’s easy to miss its genius: The stuff I’ve placed on top is my newest stuff. (This also makes it easy to get to.) The farther you go down into my piles on my workspaces, the longer ago I was working on it! I know! Genius! So all I have to do to find something is go back to the area where I was working on it, then go down in my piles to the right level, and presto! There it is. Sometimes. Obviously, lots of times I walk around or work on things in different places or the phone rings or the dog wants out or someone has something they want em to help with that will only take a couple of minutes that takes all day, and, well, in those cases finding things I was working on can be a challenge.

Well, anyway, this is how I organize my genealogy. If any of these methods can help you, please feel free to use them. However, I cannot be held responsible for any injury, whether physical or mental, of the use of these methods. Please use them at your own risk.

Posted in Geneabloggers Themes, Libraries and Research, Tips & Tricks | Tagged | 5 Comments

To America! Santiago de Cuba Steamship from Copenhagen to New York arriving Aug. 1869

Steamship Santiago de Cuba

Thanks for the National Library of Sweden’s Online Digitized Swedish newspapers collection, which is fully text searchable, I found a newspaper advertisement of the exact voyage my ancestors took to America! This from the Gotlands tidning (Gotland Journal) published July 9, 1869, Visby, page 4:

Advertisement for the steamship Santiago de Cuba, departing 01 August, Copenhagen

Here’s the translation:

North American Lloyd


fast steamship between Copenhagen and New York with the high-speed American steamer Santiago de Cuba departing 1 August.

Price from Copenhagen 140 Riksdollars

Children under 12 years of age pay half price. With every ship is a Danish doctor and a Swedish interpreter, escorting the passengers to Chicago.

The ship will be provisioned in Copenhagen and enter no English or any other European port between.

Passengers should arrive in Copenhagen at least 3 days before ship departure.

You should report for the passage to NP Frederiksen, St. Anne Place 24, Copenhagen.

Main agent for southern Sweden, Alfred Malmström, 48 North Wall Street, Malmo.

For the Directorate: Duhrssen & Lubbers

I had previously blogged about my Swedish ancestors, Nils Peter Andersson and Maria Lotta Persdotter, making note of their gravesite. Also, I have an article about them on my main website detailing a little more of their actual immigration story and their lives in America.

The Santiago de Cuba was a very fast steamship that was built in the late 1850s that was commandeered by the army during the civil war. During the Civil War it served as a premier blockade enforcer. Here is a photo of the Santiago de Cuba during the civil war. Make note of the added gun turrets:

After the civil war, the ship returned to private passenger service and remained one of the fastest passenger ships at sea, as evidenced by this clip from the New York Times in 1866:

The Santiago de Cuba was not a ship with a regular passenger route between Copenhagen and New York. Its journey between these two ports was one of only a few it made in its approximately 30 years of serving as a passenger ship. The Santiago de Cuba much more commonly sailed to ports in central America. Apparently this lone trip it took during this time wasn’t particularly profitable, so this journey was not repeated right away.

I’m rushing this post due to other commitments, but isn’t this just plain neat!?

Posted in Anderson, Heirlooms, Historical Photography, History, Immigration, Primary Sources Online, Transcriptions | Tagged | 2 Comments

Sons Of The American Revolution’s New Genealogical Research Library Opens To The Public!

The much-anticipated public opening of the SAR Genealogical Research Library occurred Monday, 01 November. If you’re anywhere near Louisville, Kentucky, go over to the SAR website, get directions and check it out! How often does a library dedicated to genealogical research open, particularly in middle America!?

Posted in Libraries and Research | Leave a comment

Surname Saturday: Henderson of Massachusetts, possibly arrived 1718 with Boyd from N. Ireland

One of the great things about genealogy is that you can leave a part of your research alone for years then come back to it and start discovering new things as if it were completely new territory. A family that previously seemed devoid of further secrets to reveal can spring forth anew as if you’ve never even heard of them before.

Right now, the Henderson family is one such family that seems to be revealing new and exciting possibilities. For at least a decade I have known a rough sketch of the Hendersons that traces them back to about 1720-1740 in Massachusetts that can be verified and another 50 years back into Northern Ireland and Scotland that has been roughly related to me but that I haven’t been able to verify.

William Henderson was reputed to be born in County Down, Ireland, about 1718 to John Henderson. I can’t say I have complete confidence in this information, but it has been related to me. Nevertheless, William Henderson did marry Sarah Smith 13 Mar., 1740 in Woburn, MA. This couple them proceeded to move to Lunenburg, MA, and have a large family, all of whom are nicely recorded in the Worcester County, MA, records. The descendants of William include at least two Revolutionary War soldiers, a scoundrel, a rascal, several gunsmiths, and a plethora of extremely reputable and upright Hendersons (who tend to live to the age of Methuselah).

Being an amateur genealogist with neither the time nor the resources to travel to Massachusetts or Ireland or Scotland to explore the various rumors, possibilities, theories and anecdotes that have been passed down to me, I haven’t held out much hope of getting very much further with this line. However, in looking lately, I am starting to think a breakthrough is not only possible but likely.

It turns out that in 1890 a Reverend Perry, History Professor at Williams College of Williamstown, MA, lectured on the Scotch-Irish in New England, and he actually brought up the Hendersons in the exact town in the exact time that my Hendersons were there. He also indicated that they had come over in 1718 with Boyd, which again corresponds exactly to the year with unsubstantiated information I have received but have not been able to verify or find any basis for whatsoever.

Further investigation of this Scotch-Irish migration shows in fact only one Henderson family was recorded as signing the 1718 petition which Boyd carried with him in coming to Boston. This was James Henderson, however, not my John or John’s reputed father, also believed to be John.

Nevertheless, I’m excited.

Yes, it’s possible that someone in the past just latched on to this Scotch-Irish migration as the one with no basis in fact, and I have been the unfortunate recipient of bad information. However, my Hendersons have few (or no other) likely paths to migration to Massachusetts during this time. Besides, I have faith in my family as well, and I believe that the information passed to me through family is right whether I can point to records to prove it or not (but I’m still looking for those records!)

Anyway, like many of my family posts lately, this is more anecdotal than fact. This is what I’ve been up to in my limited time devoted to my own genealogy.  Wish me luck as I continue to explore this first of the Scotch-Irish mass migrations to Massachusetts for my Hendersons.

Posted in Geneabloggers Themes, Genealogy, Henderson, History, Surname | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Genealogical Nightmares: Common Names, Geographical Black Holes

In recognition of the upcoming Halloween celebrations, Geneabloggers has suggested writing about Genealogical Nightmares. What are my genealogical nightmares? Ancestors with common names and locations with a dearth available records.

Having started doing genealogical research when I was nine years old and currently sporting gray hair, I’ve been at this racket awhile. For the most part, the families that make up my heritage have names that are familiar enough to be spelled relatively few ways but uncommon enough to be easily distinguishable from their neighbors.

However, there are exceptions. Of course.

Isaiah Moore. Nancy Henderson. Daniel Harris. These are some of my ancestors who sit at dead ends on my family tree. These are the ones who make me wish to be related to the mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper.

What’s more, all three of these ancestors live in areas with large, large families of the same name. In one case I can’t prove it, but in the other two the families who are colocated are absolutely not closely related. This means that in searching for my family members, I have a steady, discouraging stream of people contacting me from that other family. I politely refer them to the other side of the message board, indicating, “There’s your party. Over there. That big, fun group. Cheers.” (Sigh.)

These ancestors have caused me fits, sleepless nights (for upwards of forty five minutes) and all sorts of other trouble. Imagine my embarrassment at genealogy get-togethers when I have to admit I have ancestral lines only traced back to the 1820s! (gasp!) (gulp!) … I know. Horrible.

My other research nemesis is the Location of Doooom. You know the ones: Those locations where they kept no records, used the records for kindling (ok, not aware of this actually happening, but I do have nightmares about it), were shortsighted enough to have had a war or flood or courthouse-swallowing earthquake.  Something like that.

My personal nightmare in this category is Rensselaer County, New York. (-shakes fist towards northeast-)

Rensselaer County, New York appears to be normal, but I know the truth. Obviously, they put in place a plan, long long ago, to stop researchers like me (or maybe just me) from figuring out anything about their families from this location. This has to be it. Nothing else explains it. I mean, just try to find out anything about someone there from, oh, I don’t know, 1840.

Good luck.

OK, so maybe there are wills, and newspaper records nearby, and ok, maybe there are people with local area expertise I just haven’t run into, or maybe I just haven’t become familiar enough with the location. Well, maybe you couldn’t cite your way out of an Elizabeth Shown Mills-made paper bag!

OK, sorry about that. I just get a little crazy (or crazier) when discussing these topics. They may seem benign enough to you, but believe me, once you spend years alone, locked up in a little room with them and piles of records and notes proving they’re not related to ANYONE but you, it gets a little… nightmarish.

For my part, I know what I’m going as this Halloween:

A ghost named Daniel Harris from Rensselaer County, New York!


Well, I’m scared.

Posted in Geneabloggers Themes, Roadblocks | Tagged | 3 Comments