A Note to My Readers: Genealogists call it a brick wall…that ancestor who seems to have disappeared into the ages. We all have a number of them tucked away for a fresh start at detective work -waiting for new sources to come available or playing on a new found research skill. There is no rhyme nor reason about why I choose which brick wall gets my attention. Sometimes it is could be a simple as re-reading an old document that I had worked with a year or more ago. A detail that has always been there failed to register as a clue and with a fresh and wiser mind, the detail becomes the clue that solves they mystery. And the brick wall falls.
Obadiah J. Downing, the Quaker Gentleman of Dutchess and Cayuga Counties
On a 2011 research trip to Cayuga County New York I found the probate records for the estate of my great great great grandfather, Obadiah J. Downing, at the Cayuga County Records Department. I had the framework details for his life from various historical resources including the Quaker records at Swarthmore Friends Historical Library in Pennsylvania. The probate records of the estate of Obadiah J. Downing filled in those framework details with a richness beyond my wildest expectations.
Obadiah was born in northern Dutchess County, New York, the son of Quaker parents, Coe Searing Downing and Susannah Wright. The Downings had migrated from Long Island and settled in Dutchess County where they were members of the Bulls Head – Oswego Meeting. On November 14, 1827 Obadiah was joined in marriage to Lydia H. Titus, daughter of Gilbert Titus and Ann Hoag at the Bulls Head Meeting House. Their marriage was recorded in the Bulls Head – Oswego Meeting Minutes.
Obadiah purchased land in Aurelius, Cayuga County in the mid 1820’s. On September 17, 1828, 18 year old Lydia Downing was granted a certificate to transfer her membership from Bulls Head to the Scipio Meeting located along the eastern shores of Cayuga Lake. In 1829 Obadiah and a very pregnant Lydia packed up their worldly goods traveled the newly built Erie Canal system to the village of Cayuga where they set up household at the foot of the lake. They were accompanied by his brother-in-law, David Sands Titus, David’s wife, Julia Ann Coapman, and two year old son, Hiram and their “slave”. Though the man who accompanied David was called a slave in a local historian’s account, subsequent information revealed that he was a free man named, Nicholas Bogart. Mr. Bogart eventually became the coachman for Auburnian and Secretary of State William H. Seward and lived to be 91 years old. His obituary recounted his relationship with David Sands Titus and his migration with the family in the 1820’s. David was an abolitionist and a lifelong friend of William H. Seward.
Shortly thereafter, the Downings were joined by Lydia’s parents, Gilbert and Ann and her older brother, Daniel D. Titus and sisters, Sarah and Phebe Howes Titus. Sarah would marry Francis Twining who operated one of the hotels and stores in the bustling community. Phebe married Alexander Crissey in 1839 and after his death, widower Norman Durkee. Phebe would outlive all of her siblings, dying at the age of 85 in Buffalo, New York.
Brotherhood, Politics and Entrepreneurship
Obadiah and David Sands Titus were fast friends and supported one another’s enterprises. Indeed, the two young men were like brothers. The village of Cayuga was alive and bustling with travelers and traders along the Erie Canal system during the early 1800’s. Merchants, tradesmen, entrepreneurs and inventors flourished. Politics, too, were a vibrant element in the community and David Sands Titus (now called the Major) owned one of the most prestigious and strategic hostelries along the lake. David and Obadiah held political meetings at the Titus House and in October of 1831 organized a committee to support the election of Andrew Jackson. When I read the list of committee members, the name of Alanson Tyler fairly jumped off the page. Like Obadiah, he, too, is my great great great grandfather. Obadiah’s grandson, George Downing Curtis, would marry Alanson Tyler’s granddaughter, Deborah Jane Tyler.
While her husband and brother were in the thick of business and politics, Lydia was occupied with her growing family, raising them in the Quaker tradition. She tended the sheep, carded and spun the wool to use in her household and to sell in the marketplace. The Downings were prosperous and held in high esteem by their fellow citizens.
The Great Montezuma Marsh
If life was full of opportunities in the late 1830’s, it was also full of challenges. In springtime, roads were packed dirt that ran to deep mud that would suck the boots off of a grown man’s feet and hold fast the hooves of horses and wagon wheels. Winters brought fierce winds that blew across the frozen lake and drove the snow into high drifts confounding horses and man alike and isolating all but the heartiest souls. Summer was relentlessly humid and hot at that end of the lake. The Great Montezuma Swamp, one of the largest wetland systems in the Northeast, sits at the foot of Cayuga Lake. Historians, travelers and adventurers alike wrote in their journals that the area was one of the most dangerous parts of the canal because of the mosquito-infested marsh. Native American folklore tell of mosquitoes the size of eagles. Close to 1000 Erie Canal workers died of malaria. Typhoid was an ongoing scourge as well.
A native American legend is recounted in Florence Pharis McIntosh’s 1927 publication, “History of Cayuga”.
Another Indian Legend concerns a huge mosquito which infested the Cayuga- Montezuma Marshes, and prevented the hunting of game. So one day Ha-wen-ne-yu, the famous warrior, came upon the beast, pursued it, and chased it all around the Great Lakes and surrounding country, until he at last slew it in the neighborhood of Seneca River. “The blood flowing from his lifeless body gave birth to innumerable swarms of small mosquitoes which still linger about the place of his death.”
While the location of the village was a strategic point of travel and commerce, it was a haven for mosquitoes and I believe that to be the cause for the premature death of 37 year old Obadiah J. Downing on October 24, 1839.
Probate Records Spanning Thirty Five Years
Obadiah was a man in his prime when he died and no doubt thought a will was for old men. Whatever took him must have been quick and unexpected as he and David were men of business, responsibility and influence and Obadiah would not have left his wife and children without the benefit of a well constructed document. Obadiah’s father, Coe, left a practical, handwritten will in 1830, filed in Poughkeepsie, New York. Surely, his son, who was a husband and father would have seen the value in that. But he was young and he had many years ahead to worry about that. Or so he thought.
It fell upon the shoulders of his brother-in-law, David Sands Titus, the responsibility of administering Obadiah’s estate and the guardianship duties for the three daughters and infant son of his newly widowed sister. After reading the practical and short wills of various ancestors over the years, the job of studying the 85 pages of probate papers that spanned the years of 1839 to 1874, the year of Lydia’s death, was to say the least, overwhelming. It was full of the most incredible information. The inventory list of household goods, the sheep, the wool, the bedding…solid silver spoons and plates…told me that the Downings were prosperous. Lydia was “given” a specific lot of goods as Obadiah’s wife. In early America, there were laws that prohibited married women from owning property. If a husband did not leave a will, probate court would more often than not, put the value of the estate in trust for the children as happened with the estate of Obadiah Downing. Lydia kept her bible and her household goods and her garments including a coat and a number of sheep, her inventory of wool and a loom.
My fellow researcher and third cousin, Marj Deline, who is also a direct descendant of Obadiah and Lydia, has the monogrammed silver spoons that served the Downing household. It means so much that the spoons listed as Lydia’s are still in the family and are treasured.
The Downing Children
Though she referred to herself as Susan M. Downing Curtis, my great great grandmother was Susannah in the probate records of her father’s estate. It seems likely that Obadiah and Lydia’s first born was named for Obadiah’s mother, Susannah Wright Downing. Like many children, she sought her own identity and so it was Susan throughout her life…even to the inscription on the pink granite monument that sits above Cayuga Lake. However, she was 10 year old Susannah in the probate papers of 1839. Susannah to her mother. And so she remains Susannah to me.
Susannah married Henry Eugene Curtis sometime around 1847. The Curtises settled down next to her mother Lydia in the village of Cayuga. Henry and his brother, Levi, owned stores and “saloons” and inns in Cayuga and Watkins Glenn. Four children were born to the Curtises; Hellen “Nellie”, Henry Eugene, George Downing and Jennie L. Curtis. Like her mother, Susannah was widowed in her thirties.
Mary Jane Downing Rogers was born in 1832 in the Village of Cayuga and though I found her name indexed online in “guardianship records” in Cayuga County, I had not yet gone to the Cayuga County Records department and found the 85 pages of her father’s estate papers. She had not been in her mother’s home in the 1850 Federal census. Mary Jane Downing was a brick wall until the spring of 2011. More on Mary Jane later….
Daughter Phebe A. Downing Buckhout was born circa 1846. She had married Edward Allen Buckhout and bore him two sons, Edward E. Buckhout and Herbert Obadiah Buckhout. In the New York State Census of 1855 Phebe and Edward are living in Aurelius with their young sons. In the 1860 Federal Census, I found Phebe and her sons living without Edward. In the 1865 New York Census, Edward is found living with his father, William and his sons, Edward and Herbert. I found no record of Phebe after 1860. Edward remarried, but his sons were separately sent west to live with Buckhout family members. Both grandsons are mentioned in Lydia’s probate papers. I have followed Herbert “Obie” Buckhout’s line to Minnesota and California. Edward was in Nunica, Michigan when his grandmother, Lydia died in 1874. I have not found him after that. And what happened to the daughter of Obadiah J. Downing? If she followed her mother’s Quaker faith, she might have been buried with Obadiah in the Old Friends Cemetery in Union Springs. I suspect her mother, Lydia was as well. Many of the tombstones that remain have worn inscriptions that are nearly impossible to read. For a good number of the Quaker burials there were either markers of wood and long gone…or in the tradition of modesty…none at all.
George Henry Downing was born in October of 1939 within days of his father’s untimely death. The fact that he was named George Henry strikes me as tribute to his father’s family as both names are first names of Obadiah’s brothers and a good number of forefathers as well. As George was the only Downing son, he took on the role of man of the family…under the watchful care of his uncle David. The Downing children were well provided for as the land holdings of Obadiah were of substantial value and their Uncle David was a man of means himself. At the end of his mother’s life, George Henry oversaw the goods and wealth of his father’s estate. The probate records of his mother’s estate and the guardianship records all clearly indicate that he was fulfilling his duty as Obadiah’s only son. George was briefly married in his twenties though her name is not mentioned. He married his second wife, Anna Mills circa 1870 and the couple had two daughters – Mary and Georgia Anna. George ran his farm in Venice and died in 1929. He and Anna and daughter Georgia Anna Hodge and her husband, Perry are buried in the East Venice Cemetery. Georgia and Perry had one son, Leon Curtis Hodge who ran the family farm until he collapsed and died at the age of 47, leaving behind a two year old, daughter Elaine Ann. Elaine Ann’s mother had died just months before and there is no record of Elaine after her father’s sudden death.
Which brings me back to Mary Jane Downing…..
In her mother’s probated estate papers, the reference to her was “Mary Jane (Rogers) from Rochester NY”. That’s it. Easy, huh? Nope. I found one Mary J. Rogers in the 1880 federal census in Rochester…wife of George G, a veterinary surgeon. Well, that should make it easy…that’s an impressive occupation in those days. Oh sure…lots of George material…directories, et al. The search into 1870, 1860 and 1850 in ancestry.com was an entire frustration…they were a no show despite all my Soundex search methodology. The search brought up every Rogers from everywhere BUT Rochester. On to www.fultonhistory.com…let’s read some Rochester newspapers. First result!…George’s obituary stated he came to Rochester from CAYUGA COUNTY in 1862. His burial was “at Cayuga”. OOO…a clue!
On to www.usgenweb.org to the Cayuga County site and to the burial records for the little lakeside cemetery in the village where Mary Jane’s sister (my gg grandmother, Susannah) is buried. Hello, George!…and there is Mary. Next to www.familysearch.org to check out the New York State censuses. The 1875 New York State census has a search option and there I found them in Rochester with both George and Mary J.’s birth county stated as CAYUGA. On to 1865 which requires you to know exactly what location in which to search…well Rochester, ok. YIKE…all those WARDS! In for a penny, page by page by page…ward by ward and hundreds of images later…there they were with their children! But he was Geo. G. Rogers which must have given the ancestry search option some kind of headache. At the end of all this that took me minutes to write…it took me hours of eyestrain and self sorting and reading to get this far. I forgot to eat…just one more search and I will get something……wait…one more… this time I really mean it….OMG when did it get dark outside?
With the discovery of the life of Mary Jane Downing Rogers, I began to learn about my great grandfather’s cousin, Edgar O. Rogers. Edgar was in show business…like his cousin and my great grandfather, George Downing Curtis. Failure didn’t seem to faze Edgar…he lost his “canvas show” in the mid 1880’s, but picked himself up, dusted himself off and opened another traveling show, booked himself as a lecturer and actor. He was a showman, an actor, a son and a husband…and a father. Edgar and his wife, Lillian toured New York State and Pennsylvania performing “Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin” and other classics of the time. Edgar purchased a large farm in Friendship, New York and populated it with exotic animals. He and Lillian summered there, performing the popular productions of the day.
I found adoption records in Rochester, New York for a little child, Sarah Richardson, age one, whom they renamed Edna Lillian. Edna would know the world of show business and have a prestigious education at Williamson School in Wayne County, New York. Her showy and flamboyant father will be in the headlines in 1898…not for his performance as an actor…but in the protection of his little daughter. “Cry Murder” caught my attention as Edgar had soundly beat a man who had attempted to “interfere” with little Edna and the frantic scene alarmed the neighborhood. The trial was swift. Edgar was exonerated as an “INDIGNANT FATHER.” When his dear wife, Lillie, died in 1903 after collapsing on stage during a performance at their summer theater in Friendship, NY, Edgar went on to raise Edna with the help of Lillie’s mother, Emma Hess. I found Edgar performing and lecturing in his elder years and promoting himself in the New York Mirror as ready and able to play old men with an ‘ample wardrobe’. Finally, Edgar faded away from the limelight and I found no more of him. I did find Edna had married post office clerk Charles M. Conroy and living in Manhattan with their daughter, Jean.
My great grandfather, George, also was a showman…owned restaurants and billiard parlors, ran vaudeville theaters and an early moving picture theater in Rochester, NY. He made and lost fortunes and found himself in the midst of an infamous, highly publicized trial in 1901.
Did the flamboyant grandsons of Obadiah and Lydia Downing from the little village of Cayuga know each other? I wonder.
A word from the Author: When I was first married, my husband and I with our infant son, Michael, moved to a historic home in the village of Cayuga that bore the name of “Tumble Inn” in 1971. I had no idea at the time that I had moved into the little village that had been settled by my ancestors and that another of Obadiah’s grandsons would take his first steps 145 years later in the little village on the lake.
I do remember the mosquitos…though modern efforts to diminish the biting beasties made a great difference in their population. And I do recall the size of the spiders that would build webs in the shutters of our home…and the audible “dunk” of their bodies clinging on the webs spun across against the window panes. Well fed by the throngs of mosquitos, no doubt.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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