Tag Archives: genealogy

Looking for my Anatevka*

The Marketplace

The Marketplace, Vitebsk, 1917 by Marc Chagall
Click through for source

Many Jews emigrated from the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to escape persecution from the Russian government. The parents of both of my grandfathers (all Jews) came from the same town: Vitebsk in Belarus. My four great-grandparents left about the same time as one of the most famous artists in the world, Marc Chagall.


Over Vitebsk, 1913 by Marc Chagall
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Chagall painted many scenes inspired by his home town. He wrote an autobiography titled My Life filled with his fond memories of Vitabsk. I could get a feel for what life was like for my great-grandparents looking through Chagall’s eyes.

I wanted to get a historical perspective of the region, so I consulted one of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s social science databases: World History in Context. There were quite a lot of results to read. The town was decimated in WWII. The Jewish population was wiped out in 1941 by the occupying Nazis in a way typical of that time. Modern day Vitebsk calls itself “The City of Chagall” and is a tourist destination with art and music festivals.

I was then drawn into CLP’s genealogy databases, where I spent hours and hours looking up my ancestors. One of the more interesting and surprising things I learned is that I have an ancestral connection to Pittsburgh that predates my move here from New York to attend college. My great-grandfather was an iron worker who lived in Homestead in 1916, where his youngest child was born. His family, which included my grandfather, moved back to New York City by the 1920 census.

I can trace my roots from Vitabsk to New York City to Pittsburgh, then back to New York City, then back to Pittsburgh!

Find out details of your personal history with the aid of the databases from the Carnegie Library. Most of the databases have remote access, so you can view them at home with a valid library card.


*Fiddler on the Roof – Anatevka 


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Going Backstage with Our American Cousin

I select all of my husband’s reading material.

He’s perfectly capable of choosing a book by himself, of course. It’s just that I happen to work at the Library. And after being together for 25 years, I’ve gotten incredibly good at knowing what his preferences are … um … between the covers.

In the bookish sense, that is.


Backstage at the Lincoln AssassinationOne of the books that I brought home recently for the husband’s consideration was Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre, by Thomas A. Bogar.  Which prompted my beloved to ask me – in the course of his reading and during what passes for two-plus-decades old marital conversation fodder these days  – about some ancestors who are buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, a well-known Philadelphia resting place steeped in history.

“Your Hess relatives are there,” I answered, mentally dusting off some genealogical research I’d conducted years ago.

“Huh. Well. You won’t believe this and I’m not 100% sure, but I think two of them might have been at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot.”

“Please don’t tell me we’re related to John Wilkes Booth, for God’s sake,” I said. “We have enough problems.”

Now, everyone knows all about the main characters who had a starring role in the first-ever presidential assassination, which occurred exactly 150 years ago. We know about the President and Mary Todd Lincoln and the infamous John Wilkes Booth. We’ve heard of Ford’s Theatre, and some of us might even know that the play being performed that fateful night was Our American Cousin.

But there haven’t been many accolades for the people who were actually onstage and those assisting with the production itself.

Until now.

In Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, theater historian and author Thomas A. Bogar tells his reader about the 46 actors, managers and stagehands who found themselves in the spotlight during one of history’s defining moments.

And among them? Courtland V. Hess, a 25-year-old singer and actor from Philadelphia who was not feeling well on that ill-fated evening and who was scheduled to play the role of Lieutenant Vernon in Our American Cousin.  Also at the play was William Heiss, who was at the performance to see his brother Courtland (who had, apparently, thought it prudent to drop the pesky family “i” on his quest for fame and glory). William Heiss was somewhat of a Big Deal with the telegraph service; it seems that he was involved with the decision to shut down the commercial telegraphs immediately following Lincoln being shot.

(My husband, who earned a masters degree in American history, is physically cringing that I am writing this post from his memory and without double-checking the actual source for myself. I get that, but … well, I’m on deadline for this column and Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination is, as of this writing, currently checked out. To keep a modicum of nerdy peace in the family, my husband is making me promise you, dear Eleventh Stack reader, and especially Mr. Bogar, that I’ll go back and make sure I know what the hell I’m talking about.)

Regardless, this intriguing tidbit of information – along with my putzing around on the Internet and my previous findings while climbing our family tree – is more than enough to pique my curiosity about our family’s potential connection to the Lincoln assassination.

And what do you know?  Fortunately, there happens to be a place where I can find out whether Courtland Hess and William Heiss are, in fact, our very own American cousins 150 years removed.

Are you curious to learn if one of your relatives had a front-row seat to history? If so, the Pennsylvania Department of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh offers a wealth of genealogical materials, databases and classes for beginner and advanced researchers alike. Contact or visit the Pennsylvania Department at the Main Library of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to find out more.

~ Melissa F.


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Solomon Northup: Keeping the Legacy Alive

Last year, a patron named Clayton Adams showed me an amazing story that taught me a lot about injustice, resiliency, and hope. It began with trust, followed by deception and injustice, and ends with justice and reunion. And the fact that this story happened at all and that we can go out and read or watch it (I encourage you to do both) is what ultimately gives me hope that we will progress. This story is called Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup.

Northup, a black man born free, was kidnapped from his family in 1841 and sold into slavery in the Deep South. He is threatened into silence by his abductors, being told to never reveal his true identity. For twelve years, Solomon Northup is a Georgia-runaway slave named “Platt” who works for many different owners at different plantations. In 1852, Northup and a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass managed to send a letter to Northup’s friends & family in his home state of New York, leading to his freedom on January 3rd, 1853.

Solomon Northup, after regaining his freedom, wasted no time. He wrote and published a memoir called Twelve Years a Slave (1853) detailing his experience. The memoir contains settings and characters also featured in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was released the previous year. At first, his story took off after 30,000 copies were sold. He went around the North, from city to city, to talk about his experience as a slave. But then in 1857, Solomon disappeared. The location and nature of his death are still unknown. The book also went into obscurity and was not published again until 1968 when Sue Eakin (Louisiana State University at Alexandria) and Joseph Logsdon (University of New Orleans) republished an annotated version.

In 1998, a group of students from Union College set out to learn more about Solomon Northup by tracing his descendants. Based on what they had to go on, tracking any living descendants was next to impossible… until the family of Clayton Adams reached out to Union College and explained their heritage.

Clayton Adams is the great-great-great grandson of Solomon Northup on his mother’s side. He’s also a patron at CLP- West End who first told me about this story. His mother, Carla Adams-Sally, first told him about his family history when he was a junior in high school. At the time, “it just kind of went in one ear and out the other”, Clayton said. It wasn’t until he went to college and took a black literature class that Clayton began to wonder more about Solomon and his story.

His mother had once owned an original copy of Twelve Years a Slave, given to her by her mother (Clayton’s grandmother), Victoria, along with her other siblings. Victoria’s grandfather was Alonzo Northup, son of Solomon Northup. In 1990, while he was at college, Clayton enrolled in a black literature course. Hearing mention of Solomon’s name and who he was started to pique his interest. He went to his mother with a newfound curiosity and became familiar with a trilogy of slave narratives called Puttin’ on Ole’ Massa featuring stories by Henry Bibbs, William Henry Brown, and Solomon Northup. He then read Twelve Years a Slave.

Photo from the Twelve Years a Slave companion website blog - click through to read a post by Clayton Adams

Photo from the Twelve Years a Slave companion website blog – click through to read a post by Clayton Adams

The film by Steve McQueen (which is available for check-out or request at the Library) is an excellent reenactment of the story. There were “important aspects from the book in the movie that wasn’t held back”, says Clayton. Every scene is faithfully executed with a kind of no-holds-barred approach. “[Steve McQueen] is not trying to sugar coat it, and that’s the thing I like.” What makes the story the most interesting is the situation itself: a black man who was born free gets kidnapped from his family, sold into slavery, and owned by slave owners for twelve years before he proves his freedom. Between these points in the story is a brutally honest portrayal of what life as a slave was like. Clayton thinks “it’s about time that it’s been boldly put into the forefront.”

To this day, Clayton is committed to preserving the story and legacy of his great-great-great grandfather. “We’re still learning”, he says. The whereabouts of Solomon are still unknown and the events leading to and trailing his disappearance are still murky. But so much has already been accomplished in piecing together the life of Solomon Northup. His story almost vanished completely and had been rediscovered and preserved by people who see values and lessons-to-be-learned from these kinds of stories. But why are these stories precious? What do we take away from them? I think Clayton’s mom says it best:

“His courage and perseverance should be an inspiration to all humans who face life’s obstacles and tragedies. We are all proud of him and Anne and hope that others will benefit from knowing his story.”
                             -Carol Adams-Sally

If you want to know more about Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, and more, check out the book companion website, where you’ll find a blog featuring a post by Clayton Adams, reviews from 1853 of the book including reviews by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglas, and so much more!


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Who Are You?

bookcoverThis March, CLP – Woods Run is running a month-long Saturday Series Genealogy Program focused on helping patrons interested in beginning their family tree, preserving their history and conducting research.

Climbing Your Family Tree: Beginning Genealogy  March 1 from 2 to 3 pm: Marilyn Cocchiola Holt, MLS and Department head of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Department offers an introduction to the process involved in searching for family roots: how to find the who, when, and where of your family.

Preservation: Archives and Artifacts in Your Home March 8, 1 to 2 pm:  Mrs. Terri Blanchette, Historian and owner of TimeSorters, will discuss museum and archival best practices for artifacts and archives as she teaches you how to preserve your family treasures for generations to come.

Hard To Do Genealogy March 22, 2 to 3 pm: Join us as we welcome Ms. Marlene Bransom, former Vice-President of the Afro-American Genealogical Society of Pittsburgh. Ms. Bransom is a genealogist who has experience navigating the often hard to document journeys that brought people to America. She will discuss how to do genealogy when you have issues like slavery standing in your path.

Registration is required for all of these free events. You can register by calling CLP – Woods Run, 412. 761.3730, or by visiting our location website!

– Natalie


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It All Comes Out in the Wash

My maternal great-grandmother, Mary, never learned to read, write, or speak English. According to U.S. census records (which I looked at using the library’s subscription to Ancestry), she did laundry for a living after coming to America from Serbia; I’m guessing her teenage son, my great-uncle Steven (whose English was just fine), helped her out a great deal. Great-grandma passed away when I was nine or ten, and my grandmother has since passed on, too, so hopefully my mom will be able to help me fill in some of my knowledge gaps on this point.

Over on my father’s side of the family, my great-grandfather William’s household included a servant (again, according to the census), a seventeen-year-old girl named Ellen*. Given that William’s occupation was listed as “farmer” in the 1880 census, I was a little surprised to find that, by 1900, he’d moved into the city and acquired household help. What was up with that, I wonder? A mystery to solve! And another great reason to call home and talk to dad.

I have Marilyn Cocchiola Holt to thank for starting me down the genealogy road. I haven’t made much more progress with my family tree, though, because after learning about my relatives’ personal history with service and servants, I’m kind of fixated on the topic, which has influenced my reading choices lately. Two of the books I checked out recently made for an interesting fact/fiction pairing.

servantsLucy Lethbridge  delivers an extensive look at the people most of us think of when the topic of service comes up: the British. Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times delivers just that: a meticulous look at what life was really like for the men and women who washed, cooked, scrubbed, and served the landed gentry and, later, their less formal descendants. Quoting extensively from former servants and documents written by those in service, she paints a picture of a highly contradictory life. While going into service could save you from abject poverty in a large family, it also meant giving up a lot of your personal freedom, with no guarantee that you’d be taken care of when you were sick or old, as the respect and benefits employers showed their staff varied widely from household to household.

The effects of two world wars, labor-saving technologies, and the availability of other work took their toll on service as a profession, and Lethbridge’s detailed description of how those social factors played out makes for fascinating reading. Every few paragraphs or so I would make some kind of surprised noise, because there were just so much going on that we Americans just didn’t know about… though many servants were happy to work for American employers post-WWII (apparently we paid better) in spite of our horrid manners. And Lethbridge probably could have written two separate books on the influx of Jewish refugees pre-WWII, on domestic labor visas, or the increased use of foreign household laborers.

While I was reading Servants, Jo Baker’s novel,  Longbourn, popped up on my pick-up shelf. I put everything else aside and dived longbournright in, based solely on the premise: while the Bennett sisters of Pride and Prejudice were upstairs trying to get married, the staff of their father’s estate had problems and concerns of their own. From the perspective of Sarah, the housemaid, Baker spins a tale of hard knocks and straight-jacketed circumstances, to say nothing of backbreaking work. Laundry, in particular, is Sarah’s bugbear, as it leads to cracked hands and resentment.  The story touches lightly on the main plot points of Austen’s original novel–Jane’s love for Bingley, Lydia’s flight with Wickham, etc.–while illuminating Sarah’s longing for a better life than she has, and the love triangle options that may–or may not–allow that to happen. Baker also takes some liberties with Austen’s established characters to make commentary on some of the nineteenth-century’s more unsavory characteristics (the horrors of war, to name just one). On the whole,  Longbourn does for Austen what Wide Sargasso Sea did for Bronte: highlights the unpleasant truth that upper-class women’s narratives are frequently supported by silent, invisible narratives of women with few resources, and virtually no voice.

Other books from our collection that explore the lives–fictional and factual–of servants include:

Serving Women: Household Servants in Nineteenth Century America

Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off: A Domestic Rap

The Remains of the Day

The Book of Salt

A Life Less Ordinary

Life Below Stairs: Domestic Servants in England From Victorian Times

From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature

I’ll never look at Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey quite the same way ever again**, that’s for sure. Are you an amateur, armchair, or hard-core genealogist? Have you learned anything interesting in your research that sent you off onto another topic entirely?

–Leigh Anne

who definitely counts her washer and dryer amongst her blessings

*Possibly “Ella.” Whoever scanned in the record gave both options, as the handwriting was somewhat unclear. Her birth date was given as 1882, but she was listed in the 1900 census as being 47 years old, which is impossible, unless her birth year was recorded incorrectly as well. I’m researching both options.

**Obviously England and America’s experiences of servitude were very different, and the unpleasant question of slavery makes for a whole separate post. Still, representation-wise, the most visible face of the servant is still white and British, which in and of itself begs for more reading and research as to why.


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Obstacles to Genealogy Research

A genealogical friend from Eastern Pennsylvania asked me recently what I might consider to be obstacles to research in Western Pennsylvania. I think that the number of minor civil divisions, neighborhood names, unincorporated villages, and railroad names that researchers encounter in Pittsburgh and Western PA is the biggest headache that many of my patrons deal with.

Unlike Philadelphia, Allegheny County still has 130 active minor civil divisions (cities, boroughs, townships). The City of Pittsburgh itself grew by annexation, so researchers are always finding references to long-gone places like Birmingham, East Birmingham, Temperanceville, McClure Township, Ormsby, Monongahela Borough, South Pittsburgh, West Pittsburgh, Allegheny City, etc. in their research. There were even two locations called Duquesne!

Pittsburgh in 1902, from the Library of Congress American Memory Collection.

The Pittsburgh city wards were re-numbered several times, most notably when Pittsburgh absorbed Allegheny City in 1907, which resulted in a major shift between the 1900 and 1910 census enumerations. Many duplicating street names in the two cities were changed at that time as well. Also, Pittsburgh has 89 (more or less!) neighborhood names still used within the city. Then we have the old unincorporated places in Pittsburgh such as Bayardstown, Cowansville, Minersville, Riceville, Sidneyville, Sligo, etc.

There are many similar place names in Allegheny County as well: post office names, railroad station names, clusters of houses with names which pop up on documents to confuse the researcher, such as Bakerstown, Barking, Ferguson, Library, Linhart, Option, Semple, Wildwood, and many, many more. The best thing researchers can do for themselves is make friends with maps – both current maps and maps of the time periods they are researching! Then, if they have a question, they should just call us; we can usually steer them in the right direction, right away.

Sometimes it’s as simple as interpreting old handwriting. I had a patron looking for “Millersville Cemetery” the other day, but I knew that wasn’t right. I looked at the document in his hand and saw that it was “Minersville Cemetery” instead. So just ask us – it saves wear and tear on everyone! Our sister organization, the Western PA Genealogical Society, also has several publications which can help: their reprint of the 1911 street atlas (which shows the street names and ward changes) and the Allegheny County Cemetery Directory, which they compiled.

There are very few older Pittsburgh records online as of yet; however, WPGS coordinated a project with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka, the Mormons) to index the Pittsburgh City death records for 1870 to 1905, and they are online via FamilySearch. The Allegheny County Courthouse only has indexes for marriages after 1995 online on their website thus far. The Carnegie Library’s Pennsylvania Department now has the vital records which the county used to have – they passed them on to us in 2006. We also do research in our collection for patrons for a fee–click here for details.

Perhaps the best advice I can give is to e-mail us at padept@carnegielibrary.org, or call us at 412-622-3154.



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I Search: Dvořák and Dvorsky

Right now, the Pittsburgh Symphony is hosting an institute for teachers called Dvořák in America, developed by scholar Joseph Horowitz.  It’s a clever idea to use the visit of the Czech composer in the 1890s as a way to study American history at the turn of the twentieth century.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

I have done some of my own research about Dvořák, though it was far less enlightening.

In 4th or 5th grade, we were assigned to write a paper called an “I Search.”  I was a classical music fan and claimed Dvořák was my favorite composer.   I also knew that I had a great-grandfather with the last name Dvorsky.  My young, naïve brain put the two together and I thought maybe we’re related!  So that became my research topic.  For the sake of my present-day pride, I hope that back then I quickly learned:

1) The Czech village of Nelahozeves (near Prague) where Dvořák was born is approximately 800 miles from Vilnius, Lithuania, where my great-grandfather originated.

2) My great-grandfather’s real last name was Dvarackas and was simply changed upon immigrating to the U.S.

3) Most importantly, lots and lots of people from Eastern Europe have similar names to Dvořák.  I grew up in WASPy suburban Denver where the phone book didn’t have the dozens and dozens of Dvoraks, Dvorchaks, Dvorchiks, Dvorskys, etc. that we have here in Pittsburgh.

Oh well.  I’m glad to see that Dvořák is still inspiring research.  Come to the Music Department to do your own Dvořák research, reading and listening, and visit the Pennsylvania Department to research your family history.

— Tim


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