Sunday, July 13, 2008

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

In 1860, on the eve of America's Civil War, a poor, single seamstress, Mary Hoffman, lived by herself in a boarding house in New York City's tenth ward. At 28, she was approaching the age of what that era designated "spinsterhood," and had little to recommend her, as she was powerless, unconnected, isolated, and alone, among the humblest and lowest rank of proletarian workers in the harsh, dirty, overcrowded city.

Mary found herself pregnant and unmarried, an unacceptable and socially ruinous circumstance in that time, even in the big city. In mid-19th-century America, no one but a prostitute, or "fallen woman," would dare give birth to an illegitimate child, then openly raise it.

She desperately looked for help, and either with the aid of a friend, or possibly because she was a distant blood relative, was able to prevail upon the family of William Andrus, who lived far away from New York City, in the town of Syracuse, near the northern margin of New York State.

Mary Hoffman gave birth to a baby girl in the Andrus home on Lodi Street in Syracuse sometime in 1861 or early 1862. William Andrus, a common laborer, and his wife already had three children, but they agreed to raise Mary's baby, now named May, as their own. Mary left the Andrus home shortly thereafter, and it is doubtful whether she ever saw her child again.

No one knows who May's father was, but I suspect it might have been one Henry Underhill, a 29-year-old single baker whom the 1860 census indicates was boarding in the same house as Mary at that time.

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May Andrus, for so she was called, grew up in Syracuse and followed her mother in eking out a living with her needle. She was working in a sewing sweatshop in Syracuse when, at age 18 or 19, she caught the eye of the shop foreman, a hot-tempered, domineering young man close to her own age, John Henry O'Connor, the son of Irish immigrants.

The two married and soon began a trek westward, stopping for a while in Lincoln, Nebraska, and then, with the covered wagon and brace of oxen of Hollywood movie fame, followed the Santa Fe Trail to the tiny settlement of Deertrail, in eastern Colorado, where John Henry attempted for the rest of his life, with varying degrees of success or failure, to become a prosperous rancher.

Mary Hoffman went on to marry a rich man, Culver by name, who either was or became a mining entrepreneur in Colorado. Near the turn of the century when she was close to 40, May Andrus O'Connor received a letter from Sallie Norton, a daughter of William Andrus and his second wife. Norton didn't divulge any information about May's mother's marriage, or about Culver, but did inform May that her mother had died, and that at the time of her death she was in possession of a million-dollar mine (which she had probably inherited from her husband). Mary Hoffman, Sallie Norton said, had wanted to cede partial possession of this property to her lost daughter, but the Andrus children -- May's adopted brothers and sisters -- had seized all of it.

As far as we know, May never followed up this information with any attempt to litigate for possession of money and property alleged to belong to her. She lived and died poor. She and John Henry left Colorado and relocated to the Puget Sound region at the ends of their lives, during the Great Depression, and are buried under paupers' gravestones in Hillcrest Cemetery in Kent, Washington.

The reason I know these things is because Mary Hoffman was my great-great grandmother; John Henry and May Andrus O'Connor my great-grandparents. My mother and my sister Christine spent several years digging this history from a fragmented and inchoate mass of letters, photographs, family Bible inscriptions, and census records, then put it together using intensively deductive logic.

2 comments:

Joe said...

I enjoyed the story even though it doesn't touch my life like yours.

The Indigo said...

Wow! Wow! A sordid past! I knew we got it from someplace...