Research, Records, and…Nova Scotia? A Census Glitch.

1905 New York State Census Yonkers, 2nd District, 6th Ward

I ran into some trouble trying to find my great-grandfather, James, in the 1905 New York State census.  He lived in Yonkers in 1900. He lived in Yonkers in 1910. Where did he go in between?

Admittedly, I searched online, the easy way with (Beta). I filled in the forms – name (James Lamb), birth year (1884), place of birth (New York), name of spouse (Rose Glennon Lamb). No go. I would have to try something new. Being partially employed and procrastinating grad school assignments and NaNoWriMo, I had plenty of time on my hands.  Finally, I went through the 1905 census page by page.

Not really. I knew James lived in Yonkers. I knew the approximate neighborhood because I could find his mother, Maria, brother-in-law Cornelius, and the nieces and nephew. So, to clarify, I went page by page in the 2nd District 6th Ward of Yonkers in 1905.

And there they were: James, Rose and their first daughter Gertrude, all listed as being from N..S? N…I? N…Y?  NY – the abbreviation for New York – would make the most sense. A transcriber somewhere along the way decided it was “Nova Scotia.”

Nova Scotia? My great-grandfather Jimmy Lamb was a proud member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, thank you very much, and a life-long New Yorker. Well, Yonkers-er.

Two issues holding up the research: The 1905 census taker didn’t write out the complete state or country name. A transcriber interpreted the unclear initials as Nova Scotia. Because of a clerical sleight of hand or two, James Lamb (and possibly many others in Yonkers 6th Ward), born in New York, won’t show up easily in the online search results.

In all likelihood, they are there…but you will have to look. Page by page.

Cemeteries Tell Stories. Listen.

Have you visited a cemetery lately? Cemeteries tell stories. They tell a story of a town, a church, a family. If you’re writing historical fiction, researching history through cemeteries is a great way to see life from another time.

Now, it sounds weird to talk about “life” and “cemeteries” at the same time. I get that. Put all the spooky, unfounded fears aside and look what kind of history can be found in a cemetery. Weave these details into your narrative.

photo credit: peter blyberg

My current work-in-progress,
Tanners and Quarrymen, is set in Eastchester, New York. 
This is my great-great -great grandparents headstone.

time period: the older, the better. Check out the dates – All of these details (and lets face it, it’s not always uplifting) gives the writer clues to the drama of real life, and death. Study the trends over time, styles of headstone, age of death, epidemic patterns, mortality rate.

(c)Sheila R. Lamb Bridget Lamb, Holy Mount Cemetery, Tuckahoe, NY

setting: pick a cemetery or two in an area where your story will take place.  Graveyards can tell you a lot about a town’s settlement, immigration patterns, and socioeconomic status of various citizens. Who has the fanciest headstone?
personal stories: a graveyard can give you what census records and death certificates cannot. A headstone may list other family members buried in or near the same plot. Others may say where the deceased was from, which seems to be the case for many Irish and other immigrant families. Is there a pattern of deaths during a certain time period? Does one family or another have a number of children who have passed?

Cemeteries tell stories. Stop in and listen.

SPEAK! #SpeakLoudly

A new banned book controversy has arisen over “Speak” by Laurie Halse. Read Laurie’s post on the situation: This guy thinks Speak is pornography.

More importantly, read the comments under Laurie’s post.  Read how so many teens were impacted by this book.

Ok. Did you read those comments? 


I can’t say it any better than Myra McEntire did on her blog.But I’m going to rant away…

Having been both a teacher and a school librarian, I do understand why a parent may not want their child reading things that are difficult topics. However…(excuse me, have to go get my soapbox)…that is between the parent and child. Not that individual and everyone else’s child. Because guess what a library has? Books. Lots of books. And you can choose different ones.

I worked in a library with  Harry Potter Paperback Box Set (Books 1-7) on the shelves (well, rarely. The series was almost always checked out). The kids who weren’t allowed to read it told me so. And they chose not check it out. Simple.

The mass banning movement tells me you don’t trust your kid to uphold what you’ve taught them.

And let’s say worse comes to worse…let’s say they sneak the book, read it when no one’s looking…*gasp*…Well. What?

And has anyone noticed banning books doesn’t really work? Take a look at the list from the top 100 challenges and challenges from 2000-2009.

Aren’t all these books…famous? Perhaps we should thank those that want to ban books for drawing more attention to them and making them bestsellers for years.

I also understand that part of the controversy is that some of these books have been required reading in English classes. I can’t speak for what’s going on in Missouri, or this particular case, but only in the districts where I have worked.

Required reading lists generally are approved by an entire department,school administration, and often, the school board. So a lot of respectable members of the community, well educated adults, check this stuff out.

What most teachers offer is an alternative reading list. If the student isn’t allowed to read the particular book, they may choose another. There was a bruhaha several years ago (the school and teacher shall remain nameless) over the book Druids by Morgan Llewelyn. It was on a list of, I believe, 20+ books the advanced placement high school student could have chosen to read for a humanities course.

The parent flipped out about Druids – not Christian, and there was one (brief) sex scene. Of course it wasn’t Christian. The book is about Julius Caesar taking over Celtic Gaul. How can it be Christian when the Gauls weren’t Christian…they were druids. That was their religion, their belief, their culture.
The crux of it all, is that the student HAD A CHOICE. There were many other books she could have read. I believe she could have suggested any other book as long as it corresponded with the curriculum. If choices and alternative assignments don’t work for you, then choose another method of schooling. Homeschool. Private school. I’m going to end my rant with a quote from Myra McEntire’s blog post:

These are secular books. Secular books are allowed in a public school system. If this is an issue for Mr. Scroggins, maybe he should consider a Christian education for his children. HIS children are his business. Other Christian parents can make their own call on whether or not they do the same. 

Because for Christians, there is one Boss. Mr. Scroggins might need to surrender his Junior God badge.

Saloons, Cockfighting, and Covering Your …Research.

Grandpa’s been at it again.

“A young man, of Irish descent, recently committed a piece of roguery near this place…for which he was summarily dealt with…he was lodged in jail.” (The Statesman, 2/2/1871)

The place he was near?

“Two doors north of the Catholic Church, as if to give dignity to the institution, a new liquor saloon has recently been opened…to which…is attached a cockpit, in which several fights have already taken place…” (The Statesman, January 6, 1870)

I can’t verify my Irish immigrant ancestors in Westchester County New York did these things, but I’m willing to bet he had a rooster or two in the cockfighting ring, that he tasted a whiskey or two. Or three. In any case, I will attribute many of these escapades to my great-great grandfather once the manuscript is underway. The joy of fiction!

I spent several hours researching primary source documents. The kind librarians at the local history library were able to do some inter-library loan work.

I scrolled through several years of the Statesman, which later became the Yonkers Statesman on microfilm (does anyone else get nauseous while using that machine?) I’m sorry to say that when I sat down to begin, I looked for a search button. I had to snap my mind back to the fact that microfilm machines do not have keyword search tools. They have a knob to turn the reel. And focus functions. And, nowadays, a print function.

Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M

Within history is a story. Within every day, every life, there is a story. Searching through news nearly 140 years old gave me the opportunity to see what life was like then. What did people do for entertainment? What was the social class structure like? What was life like for Irish Catholics during the various waves of immigration? How did cockfighting become a pastime?

I don’t think a novelist has to be a historian – but a writer does have to do research. A writer should be able to answer the questions in order to create a detailed world in which their characters will live. In the case of historical fiction, that world has to be accurate.

Tanners and Quarrymen: The Irish Immigrants of Westchester County

“Caught between long periods of unemployment, the natural ruggedness of the work, and the economic and social inequities of the time, the communities that sprang up around the quarries, particularly Waverly…became slums infested with crime and corruption…there was probably no place in the country that contained so many thieves as Waverly…” (Torres, 56).

Go great-great grandpa. This is the neighborhood where my family settled upon arriving in America from Ireland. Three generations of my family lived around these marble quarries, in the neighborhood of Waverly, in the town of Eastchester, New York. In the Westchester county of the late 1800’s, most of the Irish immigrants worked in the quarries. By the turn of the century, the demographics changed and the neighborhood filled with mostly Italian immigrants. It’s debatable whether Torres’s description is accurate.

There is a Waverly Street in Tuckahoe, a line of well-maintained suburban houses. There is also Waverly Square, a collection of shops in the Tuckahoe/Eastchester area. I wonder if my ancestors could have imagined their  now a well-to-do neighborhood in one of the wealthiest counties in the country.

Hugh Lamb would have attended school here. It closed in 1884.

John Lamb, an immigrant from Ireland – possibly county Westmeath – and his son, Hugh Lamb were tanners, specifically glove makers. It seems that they made the gloves for the quarrymen. I’m still researching this role in quarry neighborhoods. Since Masterton (one of the quarry owners) employed blacksmiths at various site to take care of the work horses, oxen and mules, I’m guessing that he would have had craftsmen to make work gloves for the men lifting and blasting marble.

James Joy, another Irish ancestor, was a stonecutter. Stonecutters were step up above the laboring quarryman, requiring skill and expertise to design a ton of marble into an evenly cut pillar. The quarryman was responsible for lifting the marble intact, and the stonecutter cut and dressed the marble.

I have to wonder if my folks were part of the “crime and corruption” crowd, as Torres describes. I can only imagine they stories they could tell about early life in Westchester or the conditions for Irish immigrants, leaving their homeland due to famine. So that is my task, my goal as a writer: to take the outline of history and then imagine their stories.

Source: Torres, Louis. Tuckahoe Marble: The Rise and Fall of an Industry.Purple Mountain Press, 1976.

Also take a look at:

%d bloggers like this: