A Note to My Readers: Pretty much everyone should know by now that I am an old newspaper junkie. Anywhere that I can find them…I load the microfiche…log in to the digital files…whatever and wherever I can find them…I am like a pig in mud. In fact, there have been a number of times that I have been transfixed for so many hours that I find that I have forgotten to eat or drink. Getting up to stretch reminds me with every creak and ache that I need someone to babysit me lest I become frozen in my trance. I like to think that with this rather benign guilty vice that I am not in too much danger of the need for rehab. Maybe I might just need to get new glasses or apply a mist of Visine for my tired eyes…and perhaps I require a reminder to put a sandwich and glass of iced tea by my side before I begin to read. Or an alarm clock to break the spell and to remind me to move. Is there Pilates for Genealogists?
All of that aside, I do a great deal of research perusing military documents and land records…estate files…resplendent with legalese and their own special syntax. That takes surgical concentration. But not newspapers…there is a lyricism to the prose of yesteryear’s print media. A folksiness that draws me in and transports me back in time. Irresistible. Magical. And so close to sitting at an elder’s knee listening to stories of his youth…and the tales that were told about the canals…the trains…the crazy uncle…the year the crops failed…the time father came home with a new horse. Something about the tang of the language, too. It was sentimental and carefully constructed for polite society on one hand…and on the other…just as salacious and gossipy as today’s tabloids. Don’t get me started on the advertising. I love it all.
So when I am researching and finding the slimmest of proper documentation, I go straight to the old newspapers. Forensic scientist, Dr. Edmond Focard, once said, “Every contact leaves a trace.” It’s not such a far leap to think historians must be forensic scientists. I have found more forensic evidence in newspapers than any other source. And so it was researching my maternal great great grandfather, Henry Eugene Curtis.
It’s All Relative
Henry Eugene Curtis was born in 1825 in South Livonia, Livingston county, New York where his father, David, was superintendent of the County farm of Livingston. In 1832, by the time Henry was seven, David was dead and his mother, Sophia Greene Curtis, had possession of their farmlands in Genoa, Cayuga County. Sophia and her children, Levi, Edwin David, Henry Eugene and little Alexina put down roots in Cayuga County. After Sophia’s death in 1848, with the exception of Edwin her children left the farm to strike out on their own.
Edwin carried on with the family farm in Genoa and like his father, he only lived to his mid thirties. His first wife, Calysta Geer bore him two children, David Coleman Curtis and Calfernia “Callie” Curtis. David moved on to Minnesota where he and his wife, Fanny Conklin raised a large family. He left quite a footprint during his life and I was delighted to find living descendants to share the research on his family. Callie was twice married, but had no children of her own. She was a challenge…like many females of the past who bore no children. Her first name, Calfernia, should have been Forensic 101. Should have, but was definitely not. That was another ‘newspaper trace’ marathon following Callie from Genoa to Auburn, New York -all through family news in the social sections of the newspapers of the day. David’s second wife, Susan Bodine Vandermark, bore one child, George Edwin Curtis. George’s descendants live in the Genoa area to this day and once again…newspaper articles moved me from the mid 1800’s through to current day.
Brothers Levi and Henry followed the lure of making money along the Chemung Canal system. The brothers owned grocery stores in Havana and Watkins Glen that served the barges and steamboats as they made their way along the Chemung Canal system and the Seneca-Cayuga Canal system…all part of the complex waterways that fed into the Erie Canal itself. By 1860 Levi was running a hotel in Alleghany County and Henry was his own man in Watkins Glen. It wasn’t long before the Civil War swept up Levi and he enlisted in the 5th Calvary, Company F in New York State. Levi returned home to Caneadea in 1863 with the rank of Captain after being wounded in battle and as a result, discharged. He and his wife, Lurana Elsworth, followed their only child, Charlotte “Lottie” and her husband, Edwin Trump to Fenton, Michigan where Levi and Lurana lived out their days doting on their only grandchild, Minnie Lurana Trump. Levi left more than a trace. He was a hero of the Civil War and his history was celebrated in his adopted state of Michigan. I knew more about Levi than I did about my great great grandfather at one point.
Alexina married Livonia resident John Landis Van Sickle and had three children: Sophia E., Ella Curtis and James Hixon Van Sickle. The Van Sickles were prominent citizens of Livonia and stayed close with the descendants of their ancestral grandmother, Sophia Greene Curtis. The newspapers are filled with interesting stories of their gatherings and reminiscences of the ‘old days’ of Livonia. My favorite is the derring-do of the winter sledding of the boys in Livonia. The descendants of James Hixon Van Sickle are celebrated for their accomplishments in publications and have a nice, neat trail to follow.
The Big Pink Granite Obelisk
One fine May day I stood before the monument rising high in Lakeview Cemetery situated above Cayuga Lake in the Village of Cayuga. The breeze from the lake was at my back and the sun struggled to find me through the high pines as I considered the inscriptions. It was the most concrete…or should I say marble…thing I knew about Henry Eugene Curtis at that time. Other than he was my great grandfather’s father. I set to conquering the basics…following the census material and found that was as good as it gets at that point. Meantime, I posted to my blog…pieces about my great grandfather- Henry’s son, George Downing Curtis. And another about one of George’s grandnieces and her runaway husband. I was leaving traces this time…in hopes that a descendant of Henry’s would find me and share the Sherlock Holmes effort with me. Forensic science is a two way street and I was in sore need of a Dr. Watson.
I kept digging…checking anything in Schuyler, Livingston and Cayuga counties…anything to tell me about Henry. I found bits and pieces of information and continued the process of building the profile…bland, but better than nothing. And then a couple of years ago I was contacted by another descendant of Henry and Susan Curtis and the game was afoot. Sort of. Marj had read my blog posts and had wonderful old portraits of Henry and Susannah Downing Curtis, but not much more in the way of information. That was my bailiwick. And my impetus to keep checking. New information is available all of the time and Henry Eugene Curtis’ great great granddaughter is no quitter!
Be Patient, Grasshopper
Finding new sources is a must…there are always new places to look and learn. That said, going back to old sources…rereading old material and discovering updated materials is simply oxygen. Besides…I love reading old newspapers, remember? Any new publications out there? Has Tom Tryniski at FultonHistory.com been busy again…finding publications from Schuyler county? How about genealogybank.com or newspaperarchives.com? Time to check back.
In just a short span of time…through the magic of newspapers (The Watkins Express on Fultonhistory.com)…I have learned so much about my great great grandfather, Henry Eugene Curtis. The first mention of him is as a grocer in 1853 in Watkins Glen. Henry was entrepreneurial and the canal systems offered a young man with ambition a plethora of opportunity. I know his hotel-The Curtis Hotel- stood on Franklin and Warren Streets in Watkins Glen with an attached ‘saloon’ where he served warm meals…including oysters…” in every form”…’at all hours’. He had a liquor license and was known by all as a “whole- souled man, big-hearted man” and most affable host. He was only 41 years old when he died and had suffered from an unnamed illness for quite a long time. During the last year or so of his life, he tried to sell the hotel, but finally ended up leasing it to a young man who had initiative of his own.
I learned that Henry was first buried in Watkins Glen in 1866 and 28 years later my great grandfather’s brother had Henry’s remains disinterred and brought to the lakeside cemetery in the little village of Cayuga where they had just buried their mother, Susannah. To the layman…this may seem a paltry bit of information, but to the historian it defines a life that had up until now had only been a smattering of dates, a census enumeration and an 1864 liquor license roll and the presence of a pink granite obelisk at the rise of a hill above the lake.
And now the road trip! After a brief phone call followed by a couple of emails to Andrew Tompkins of the Schuyler County Historical Society, I have a foundation of information to take with me to Montour Falls and perhaps to find more about the Curtis Hotel…or the Canal Grocery Store…and the life of Henry Eugene Curtis along the Chemung Canal. It is always encouraging to speak with someone who has innate enthusiasm for someone’s quest for local history and I certainly felt that with the brief conversation we had this afternoon. If nothing else, it will be a good day to explore Watkins Glen and learn the background history of the area. Perhaps there is a hotel where they serve warm meals…including oysters in every form.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher