The Lovely Daughters of Ithaca

A Note to My Readers: My great grandmother’s family bible is an amazing ‘go to’ source for me. She was meticulous…her reputation of propriety and a stickler for detail was borne out by her record-keeping. She died in 1940 at the age of 90 and by the time my mother passed it along to me, the ‘who was whom’ became ‘they are Grandma Smith’s family – the Williams and Van Dorns’. So it was up to me to begin the task of putting these folks -the lovely daughters, granddaughters and great granddaughters of Peter Van Dorn of Enfield – in their rightful place in the family pedigree.
Mary J Holmes Stamp Obituary Barely yellowed and still clear as a bell and neatly clipped as would be her style, Norma Stamp Griffith’s obituary was adhered to the pages of the family bible. And nearby was the obituary…likewise aged and with tidy corners…of Mary J. Stamp. A bit of researching using my great grandmother as a nexus…and I had my connection. Mary J. Stamp was Mary Julia Ette Holmes, my grandmother’s first cousin…and Norma Van Dorn Stamp Griffith was her daughter. Mary’s mother, Margaret Van Dorn, had married the handsome sheriff, Samuel Holmes from Enfield who later purchased the Tompkins House in Ithaca and with his son-in-law, Abial B. Stamp ran the hotel for a number of years.

Norma was the only child of Abial and Mary- the Stamps having lost a young son so she was the source of their love and devotion…educated and refined. The lovely Norma caught the eye of a successful young attorney, John Samuel Griffiths. He whisked Norma away to New York City where he had already established a successful practice. Once more…a lovely daughter was born in Ithaca, New York. Juliette Holmes Griffith, a debutante and gifted vocalist who was the darling of New York society. She was a sought after young lady for marriage…listed in the Blue Book, but she only had eyes for one Dr. Burr Burton Mosher, an accomplished (and very married) physician thirty years her senior. He had a fine education…he was born in Union Springs, Cayuga, New York and attended Oakwood Seminary before going on to his higher education.

In fact, Dr. Mosher had a glorious reputation as a pediatric surgeon and philanthropist, but his marriage woes were very Juliette Griffith Brooklyn Eagle engagement photopublic and decidedly fiery. Their rows were public record and subject of much gossip. Tiring of the embarrassment, he packed the first Mrs. Mosher off to Europe ‘for a vacation and rest’ and set the legalities in motion and secured his home against her return. They were divorced in 1915 and he married Juliette in 1918…his daughter Harriet attending her new stepmother. He was 55 and she was 25. Harriet was three years older than her father’s new wife. Burr and Juliette were to have only three years together. Dr. Mosher was seriously hurt in a trolley accident in 1920, but seemed to recover. Unfortunately his injuries and trauma were such that eventually, he collapsed and died in 1921.

And the lovely Juliette with the voice of angel? What of her? She was still a young woman and her voice was considered spectacular so she went off to Europe and trained her voice with the finest coaches eventually returning to her home in Brooklyn…visiting Ithaca. Eventually she met Dr. Harmon Hadley of Princeton, a widower and successful doctor. The pair married and raised Harmon’s two children.

Juliette Holmes Griffith Mosher Ashley is buried with her parents and brother in Ithaca City Cemetery.


Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved





A Saratoga Trunk with a Stranger’s Name

A Note To My Readers:  Family historians have a penchant for heirlooms and many of us are fortunate to be the keepers of family treasure.  Some of us haunt antique stores searching for a talisman of the past.  Perhaps great grandpa was a cobbler and and a vintage shoe last calls out to you from a shelf and you take it home to remind you of him.  Perhaps a Saratoga trunk with a stranger’s name.  Deborah Chase.

I always marvel at those folks who have seemingly endless family heirlooms still in their possession.  I have been reading old wills from the 1800’s which spell out the usual estate holdings followed by the distribution of goods and money.  In those formal documents the trail of an heirloom exists.  After all, these vintage things that we possess today were inherited down a line and have a history.  Practical, personal and human.

Elbert Purdy and Elizabeth A Williams Matrimonial BibleThe heirloom centerpiece of what I have belonged to my great grandmother, Elizabeth A. Williams Purdy Smith.  Her marriage bible…the family bible…from 1867 and its companion pieces tucked away in its pages.  Tintypes and cabinet cards, yellowing obituaries, handwritten birth, marriage and death notations.

And her rosewood parlor chair…delicate and Libbie Williams Purdy chair 2small with a horsehair filling.  It crunches when the seat is touched.  I have recovered it a couple of times.  It’s original ivory white silk cover was deteriorated and worn when I received it from my late Aunt Elizabeth’s belongings.  I wished I had kept a scrap of the silk, but I was young when I reupholstered it the first time and what did I know about such things.  I kept the horsehair fill though…it…spoke to me, I guess.

My mother told me of a stack of letters “from a loved one” that my great grandmother kept bundled in a blue silk ribbon and a marble topped table that sat in her parlor with the Brussels carpet.  Her grandmother would carefully untie the silk ribbon and read aloud the contents of  the letters while my mother sipped tea.  Ceremoniously the letters would be tucked back in the envelopes….the ribbon neatly tied and Grandma Smith would finally pour her own cup of tea.  My mother knew that parlor and could recall every detail of it right down to the marble top table and the lovely patterned carpet.  It was because of the recall of my mother that  the words from the 1887 will of my great great grandmother’s sister, Deborah Van Dorn Chase, leaped out at me when I read them.

“I give and bequeath to my grand neice (sic) Libbie Johnson the sum of four hundred dollars and the following named goods one Piano one parlor bedstead with high top one common bedstead one cane bottom rocking chair three can bottom chairs one marble top table eighteen yards brussells carpet and one Syrtoga (sic) trunk said property to be paid to her at the age of twenty-one years to have and to hold during her lifetime and in case she should die without child or children then the aforesaid money & goods or what shall be left of them shall go to my sister’s daughter, Elizabeth Purdy or her heirs.”

Deborah had been been married twice, but had no children of her own.  In her last will and testament she bequeathed money and goods to her sister, Mary Williams (my great great grandmother) and her daughter, Elizabeth Purdy (my great grandmother).  Deborah also left money and goods to her grand niece Libbie Johnson .  Libbie’s mother, Mary Lorinda Williams Johnson, would die one year after Deborah leaving the young girl without a mother.  Her father, Captain Albert Johnson, was a highly educated man, a Civil War Veteran and a career internal revenue man with the Federal government.  Albert left the little village of Enfield behind after his wife’s death, remarried and his career took him to New York City and Chicago.  Libbie found maternal love and support in her Williams and Van Dorn families and at age 20 married her second cousin, William Van Dorn who was almost twenty years her senior.  And she had a child.  Julia Burton Van Dorn.  Her heir.  Libbie and William eventually had separate households.   While William remained in Ithaca , Libbie and her daughter lived in Rochester where Libbie ran a boarding house and Julia worked at Kodak.  As a young woman Julia played the piano and spent many afternoons in my great grandmother’s Ithaca parlor serving tea.    A parlor with a marble top table and Brussels carpet.

It might be a leap to think my great grandmother’s table and carpet might be the ones mentioned in Deborah’s will…especially because they were willed to Libbie Johnson, but I do wonder.  And then there is the trunk.  My mother never mentioned a trunk and she had a memory for those details so it leaves me to think that Libbie passed the trunk on to her daughter, Julia.    Julia Burton Van Dorn became the wife of  John Fulmer Davis in 1925 in Trumansburg, a small town near Ithaca, New York.  Her father, William had died in 1922 and it is reasonable to think that she and her mother returned to settle William’s estate.    Libbie and  the newly weds moved to Binghamton, NY where Libbie’s father, Albert Johnson, had earlier retired and left a small estate upon his death in 1920.   Julia and John Davis had no children.   When Julia died in 1993, there was nowhere for the “Syratoga” trunk to go.  The close family connection was long gone.  My mother was the last of the Van Dorn Williams Purdy line to live in Ithaca and we had moved away in 1953.  Mom never mentioned Julia and if there had been a relationship, she most definitely would include her in our afternoon trips down memory lane.

Perhaps the trunk ended up in an antique store in Binghamton.  Perhaps a stranger treasures Deborah’s trunk.   I hope so.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2013.  All Rights Reserved


Politics and Passion…History in the Making

It’s election day…I voted….and like most of us, I eagerly await the results. The past few days I began to assemble some of the political references that appeared in my ancestors’ obituaries, biographies, newspaper items, etc. Found it interesting that many obituaries…after the usual history…end up stating something to the effect that he (it was always a male relative when it came to political reference) was a lifelong Republican or whatever. After a period of time in the last century that quaint custom fell out of favor unless someone held office.

The Life and Death of Nicholas Bogart

Several of my ancestors were tavern owners and all manner of meetings…political and otherwise…were held at their taverns. Loco Foco rabble rousers met at the tavern built and run by my great great great grandfather, Peter Van Dorn, in Enfield, New York and the newspaper accounts of resolutions and speeches were full of exciting rhetoric including the colorful term “barnburners…disgraceful and unprincipled” . One meeting in the little village of Cayuga along the lake of the same name…at the inn run by Major David Sands Titus…my great great great grandmother’s brother…fairly brought the house down with its intense nature.  Yet the attendees were of ‘gentlemenly character”.

William Seward was a lifelong friend of the Major and the politics of the nation at that time were full of the passion of abolition. The Major had traveled with his family from Dutchess County to Cayuga County in 1829 with their hired man, Nicholas Bogart,  who was a former slave and a valued member of the Titus household. He eventually became Seward’s hired man and traveled by his side wherever Seward went for his entire life. I learned so much about the politics and sentiments of these men just by studying their relationship. I wish everyone had the opportunity to understand the living history of our nation and why passionate men and women must step up for change and equality….we might be better citizens of today.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

As You Are, I Once Was…

Presbyterian Cemetery Pioneer Burials
Enfield, New York

I spent this morning in my ancestral grounds of Enfield, New York…just above Cayuga’s waters…traipsing about the two old cemeteries in Enfield Center.  They are still active…meaning they have open lots and current burials…handsome new stones that neither tilt nor mildew and glisten in the summer sun.  But for the pioneer areas…Mother Nature is relentess and the presence of man is only embodied in the old epitaphs.  In the four years since I began to visit these cemeteries, the odds against these old monuments being here for another generation continue to rise.  My great great grandparents and my great grandparents are buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery. And my great great great grandmother, Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll.   Samuel D. Purdy and his wife, Semantha Ingersoll rest at the very back of the cemetery down a forbidding slope, but their monuments still sit fairly upright…the eight foot obelisk is a mighty sight.  More modestly…but more level and pristine sits the headstone of Elizabeth Weyburn, wife of Samuel Ingersoll, Jr. and daughter of Ovid and Ulysses pioneers Samuel Weyburn and Jane Bratton.

When my son, Mike, came with me a couple of years ago…he bullied his way down the overgrown slope and beat back the brush so we could visit their graves and lay a pink rose at each monument.   Mother Nature has reclaimed this grandson’s rude path and the blackberries with their prickly sentinels once again guard the way.   So I can only stand there from the high ground and zoom in with my camera to reassure myself that they are there for one more year.

I made my way down the Enfield Main Road to the Christian cemetery and walked up to the Van Dorn and Williams graves.  They remain as always…darker with mildew and pollen…but still upright and facing East as the Christian burial tradition dictated, but I cannot say that others have fared so well.  I still peek into the heavy brush at the back, but dare not enter…take a photograph or

Pioneer wife Lydia Baker’s broken monument

two…and then head south to the old debris pile to make sure that Judah Baker’s Revolutionary War Medallion is still stuck amidst the brush…and his wife, Lydia’s broken stone still sits…slowly being covered by broken wood, leaves and dirt.

I wish I were twenty years younger with my strong body and hands and fearless heart.  But I am a (gulp) senior citizen now and clearing and hauling brush and mending stone is for the next generation.  If they will.

As I drove away…it occurred to me that these pioneers settled this land…made the first roads and maintained them…most new ones follow the old turnpikes….many bear their names…Applegate…Harvey…Van Dorn.  Judah and Lydia Baker have a NYS historical marker at the road by Christian Cemetery.  And yet we shrug sympathetically…”there is no money…I don’t have time….someone else will do it.  Oh well…that’s how it goes…”.   Townships are strapped and spread thin and have priorities…that’s a reality.  The same holds true with cemetery associations.  What to do to preserve our history and honor those that struggled so that we could be free and live in this most amazing country?

I had put off joining the DAR…the economy has a grip on my purse. I still have the original papers from 2008…dated the day before Leaman fell.   But I think for me this might be the place to start…an organization that has in the past tackled these cemeteries…raising funds…getting grants…moving mountains to make sure our pioneer cemeteries continue to exist and stand as a testament to those that came before us.

I have told this story before…but it bears repeating.  Years ago I found an old cemetery and began to push through the rusty gate when an old and faded sign caught my eye.  It had hung on the gate at one time and had been as white as the snow.  Its letters once coal black as a raven’s eye were weathered and worn and the words barely legible.

“As you are, I once was.  As I am, you will be.”

I thought how poetic…it was as if the old sign whispered to me…the words as gray as a ghost.  I never looked at a pioneer cemetery the same way again…or the history and lives these old cemeteries represent.

It may start with a five dollar donation and rustling up some high school kids and college kids who love and study history…but the journey has to begin somewhere and if I cannot heft a sickle….I will tug at someone’s conscience and grab a hold of their change purse.

It’s just one Starbuck’s coffee away from reality.  And heck…THEY would approve…Starbucks were pioneer whalers….

What will you do to preserve history?

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

Thank You, Libbie Van Dorn

A Note To My Readers:  While genealogists spend enormous amounts of time researching public records…court records, deeds and wills, birth, marriage and death certificates, state and federal censuses, military service and pension records and the thousands of archived newspapers that are available with announcements of births, marriages and deaths, it is the old pioneer story that captures the heart and imagination.

Yes.  Yes.  I know.  We all know that these stories are a blend of fact and fiction.  And just because an oral tradition is in black and white print doesn’t make it so.  None the less when a biography is published, we read it not only for corroborating proof of pedigree, but for a sense of history and personal character as well.  It is as close to a personal interview as we are going to get and how many of us wish that some generation before us had the interest and wherewithal to sit down with grandpa or grandma to ask them about their memories.  About family lore.  And write it down.

I suspect it is a bit like the young folks in my life.  “Oh, Lord.  She is rolling out the old family stuff again!”  They can’t say they hear their mother calling…because I AM their mother.  So they are stuck with my golden years, early bird special, sentimental journeys with long dead people.  Stuck.  Just like I was with my mother.

The difference now is that unlike my mother who threatened to write, I am chronicling what I know and how I know it.  The usual tree building data…the central information of our lineage… is populated in Family Tree and on  But there was always so much more to it than that for me.  The fact is now I wished that I taken the time for an honest to goodness formal interview session with my mother.

Lucky for me I grew up in central New York in the 1950’s and 60’s and we had time for one another.  Winters were long and more often than not, it snowed.  Buckets!  After clearing the porch and front walk and perhaps after a brief snowball fight, it was good to sit in our little living room and sip hot cocoa and listen to my mother’s stories.  Summer nights were laden with energy leaching humidity.  We were smack in the middle of the Finger Lakes.  Perched on the front porch with a cold glass of lemonade and a bowl of fresh strawberries, we sat so very still to preserve the chill in our hands and wait for my mother’s murmuring journeys into her past.

The stories were familiar ones.  I suspect the ones we heard most often were more about her reliving pleasurable childhood moments and comforting herself…perhaps with a tinge of hope that her children would gain some understanding of her as a human being.  But I was young and lacked the maturity to understand how important those moments were..not just to her, but to me.

With this blog I not only share a bit of scholarship and retrospection with my fellow historians, but I like to think I take my place with other ancestors who liked to tell the tale of family on a Sunday afternoon to anyone who would listen.  My front porch, if you will.

And Libbie Johnson Van Dorn’s.


My grandfather’s mother was ELIZABETH A. WILLIAMS PURDY SMITH .  I have written several times about her as her presence loomed large in my mother’s trips down memory lane.  In her youth Elizabeth was just plain Libbie.  A personal fact that my research revealed as my mother and her siblings referred to her simply as Grandma Smith and she was formally known as Mrs. E. A. Smith in Ithaca society.  She was the daughter of Colonel OLIVER S. WILLIAMS and MARY VAN DORN of Enfield, Tompkins County, New York  and one of two children that survived to adulthood.  Her younger sisters, Henrietta and Emiline,  died within a few months of one another in 1853 leaving Libbie and her older sister, MARY LORINDA WILLIAMS to carry on the next generation.

Mary Lorinda wed “Captain” ALBERT JOHNSON when she was nearly thirty years old.  Her sister had married at nineteen to Elbert Purdy in 1867 and already had one son, Wilmot, when Mary gave birth to her only child, ELIZABETH MARY “LIBBIE” JOHNSON.  Though her birth year on her monument states 1874, little Elizabeth Mary is not enumerated in the New York State 1875 census so the exact birth year is in question.

On November 15, 1875 my grandfather, BURT SAMUEL PURDY, was born in Enfield and the two sisters raised their children in Enfield under the guiding hand of the family matriarch, sixty year old MARY VAN DORN WILLIAMS.

It was a short walk between the PURDY, JOHNSON and WILLIAMS Enfield households.  In fact the Purdys and Johnsons lived virtually steps away from one another.  No doubt the children spent a good deal of time with their maternal grandmother and heard the VAN DORN family lore.  The Purdy boys…my grandfather and his brother… might have enjoyed a brief afternoon of Mary Van Dorn’s cookies and indulged her here and there, but it was little Libbie Johnson who fell under her grandmother’s spell and became her generation’s VAN DORN family historian.  And my kindred in flesh AND spirit.

The years of 1887 and 1888 would decimate a generation beginning with the death of OLIVER S. WILLIAMS, followed by his seven year old granddaughter, MARY SAMANTHA PURDY (Libbie Johnson’s only female cousin) in 1887.  The following year ELBERT PURDY would leave the mortal coil at the age of 43 and MARY LORINDA JOHNSON succumbed at the age of 45.   LIBBIE PURDY lost her father, daughter and husband and sister within one year’s time.  AND her namesake…her niece, LIBBIE JOHNSON was a motherless 14 year old girl.


Albert Johnson…the Captain…was an ambitious man with a political aspiration beyond Enfield and he was ill-equipped to raise LIBBIE on his own.  He belonged in the world of men as it was back then and knew nothing of girlish needs.  And so he turned to his newly widowed mother-in-law and sister-in-law to fill the void that his wife had left and made his way to New York City to bigger things.

There was plenty of money and land wealth to support the household of three women and the Purdy boys, but the rural life of the little community of Enfield simply wouldn’t do.  So the women packed up their precious belongings, sold their properties and moved to Ithaca, New York where there were no cows to milk and chase when they escaped the fences that always seemed to need mending.  There were no fruit trees to tend and harvest.  Dust would not cling to their long skirts nor mud splash upon their button shoes.  Milk was delivered to the front porch as was ice and a neighborly visit wouldn’t entail an hour’s walk.   And there was Cornell and by 1892 the Conservatory of Music where LIBBIE JOHNSON learned to sing and become an accomplished pianist.  The Conservatory would become Ithaca College where Mary Van Dorn Williams’ great great grandson, CHRISTOPHER PURDY would be educated.  So the women found civilized life with trains and trolleys… sidewalks and ice cream parlors where the first documented ice cream sundae was served in 1892 at Platt and Colt Pharmacy.  And, there was the shopping in some of the lovely Ithaca stores where BURT PURDY would eventually meet his future father-in-law.

The move to Ithaca did not separate the women from their Van Dorn heritage, however.  Until her death at 85 years old in May of 1901 at her daughter’s home, Mary Williams remained the maternal heart of her family and granddaughter Libbie Johnson’s touchstone.


The PURDY WILLIAMS family bible has Mary Van Dorn’s Ithaca Journal obituary neatly pasted into it.  I have read and reread the obituary over my lifetime trying to find out who was this granddaughter Libbie Van Dorn of Ithaca?  How does MARY VAN DORN WILLIAMS have a granddaughter with the surname VAN DORN?  Once I traced my great grandmother’s sister’s history and found she had but one daughter named Libbie, that pretty much set the path.  So which VAN DORN did she marry?  I knew all of the Enfield VAN DORNS and all of the men were old..too old for young Libbie…and I also knew there were more distant cousins that settled along Cayuga Lake.  And then I found the breathtaking marriage announcement.

Ithaca Morning Herald, December 7th 1894

On November 30th, 1894, 20 year old  LIBBIE JOHNSON became Mrs. WILLIAM VAN DORN.  She had married her grandmother’s 43 year old nephew at the old VAN DORN home at VAN DORN Corners.   As if the actual 23 year age gap wasn’t bad enough, William was reported to be 50 and Libbie as 19. Clearly a bit of tsk tsk.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Mary Van Dorn felt her vitality slipping away and Libbie wasn’t getting any younger.  It was time.  And what better man would there be for her than a Van Dorn?  William was a successful builder in Ithaca and would be a good provider for Libbie.  In 1896 their only child, Julia Burton Van Dorn was born. By 1900 the Van Dorns had set up house next door to Libbie’s aunt, the newly married Mrs. Smith and grandmother, Mary Williams on Pleasant Street in Ithaca.  The silken thread was wound and the Van Dorn circle was pulled tight.

William and Libbie still shared a home as recorded in the New York State 1905 census.  I don’t find either of them in the 1910 Federal Census, but by the New York State 1915 census, Libbie is living alone with Julia in Rochester, New York where Julia is working as a clerk.

By 1920 Libbie…like her Aunt Libbie…had a boarding house.  She claimed to be a widow though William was alive in Ithaca and still building barns and homes in the city.  Julia was recorded as 23 years old and working at Kodak at that time and still single.

William Van Dorn had led a single man’s life for decades and died in 1922 in Ithaca.  He is buried in Hayt Cemetery with his parents and his brothers in the VAN DORN family plot.  Libbie’s father, ALBERT JOHNSON had died in Binghamton in 1920 and as his only child,  left her a tidy sum and his home.  By the year 1925 Libbie and Julia are back to the Ithaca area and living in Ulysses where Julia would marry John Fulmer Davis.  Upon Julia’s marriage, Libbie, Julia and John left Tompkins County and moved to Binghamton.  Julia and John had no children and this line of the Van Dorns came to an end.

Libbie and Julia visited Ithaca periodically during those decades as noted in the social items in the Ithaca Daily News

“with Mrs. E. A. Smith of Pleasant St.”


Mary Van Dorn Williams was always on her daughter and granddaughter’s mind.  In 1915,  fourteen years after Mary’s death, the two Libbie’s submitted a Van Dorn pioneer story to the Ithaca Daily News celebrating Mary’s 100th birthday.   Ninety six years later…just short of the 195th anniversary of her birth, I found this item lost to the descendants of Mary Van Dorn Williams.

I like to think it was her birthday present to me – her great great granddaughter and family historian.


Within a brief and thrilling few moments of discovering the birthday article, I was astonished to find that Libbie was still celebrating and sharing her Van Dorn heritage with a story of her great grandfather, PETER VAN DORNThe occasion was the razing of the old tavern at VAN DORN Corners in 1917.  A faded and askew New York State historic marker stands on the location today where the Dutchman from New Jersey established the inn where weary travelers and horses would find respite from their journey along the old Catskill Turnpike. It was the site of many rousing speeches at political meetings and where Peter conducted his role as postmaster and overseer of the poor.

It was where Colonel OLIVER S. WILLIAMS won the hand of PETER VAN DORN’s daughter, MARY and why I return to Enfield each year to honor the old Dutchman.

And now to say, “Thank You, Libbie Van Dorn.



Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

Good Pioneer Stock

A Note to My Readers:  At first I intended to write primarily to my fellow historians…to share my experiences researching my family and to share analyses and tips…to be scholarly with a personal perspective, if you will.  Over the past two years, it has occurred to me that I am channeling the matriarchs of my family and their love and pride in their family history.  I am fortunate that my mother saw fit to trust me with her childhood memories, the Williams-Purdy family bible, boxes of photos from the 1800’s,  the days of the Roaring Twenties when she was a young “flapper”, the “Depression”, World War II, the Fifties…my childhood days, and the Sixties, my teen years.  She kept my report cards…from kindergarten on up.  I thought she was “weird”.  Now I am so grateful.  I suppose at some point I told my growing children about me…and my mother…maybe threw in an ancestor story or two.  But then they grew up and there was so much to tell and they are off into the busy world and making their own history.

Enfield Days

Oliver S. Williams, son of Dr. Parvis A. Williams and Lorinda Smith, was born in 1816 at Applegate Corners…just a short walk down Mecklenburg Road from the home of his future bride, Mary Van Dorn.  Mary’s parents had migrated from Somerset County, New Jersey and built a tavern in 1820 on what was then (as it is still) called Van Dorn corners.  Oliver took Mary as his bride on July 3, 1842 and the pair set up house and a business on land given to the newly weds by Dr. Williams.

Map of Applegate Corners in Enfield New York 1853

In 1843 Oliver and Mary welcomed their daughter, Mary Lorinda to their Enfield farm, followed by Henrietta, Elizabeth and Emiline.  The joyful early years were followed by a series of heart and spirit breaking events.  Before 1850 Oliver’s home and business had burned to the ground and part of the farm was sold at a Sheriff’s Sale.  In 1853 Henrietta and Emiline died within a few months of one another.  Their grandfather was a well known doctor, not just in Enfield, but in New York state as one of the charter members of the New York Medical Society.  It must have been a terrible experience to tend to his granddaughters to no avail.

But…as my mother would always remind me…”we are from good pioneer stock” and so the Williams family persevered and indeed flourished.  Daughters Mary Lorinda and Elizabeth…Libbie to family and friends…knew a comfortable life, a good education and the love and support of the Williams, Smith and Van Dorn families.  And the confidence that comes from the knowledge that they were “from good pioneer stock”.

So much of the family lore was passed down to me by my mother…along with Libbie Williams’ family bible, a smattering of old photos and Libbie’s petite rosewood chair.  Mom spent a good deal of time with her grandmother in the three story home perched on the hill on 307 Eddy Street in Ithaca. Afternoons of tea in the formal parlor crowded with marble topped tables and delicate china were accompanied by the childhood stories of “Mrs. E. A. Smith”, as she loftily referred to herself.  Tales of Libbie’s grandfather, Peter Van Dorn, and the early days of the tavern were a favorite.   Libbie’s father was a bit of an enigma, however.  That they were considered “well-to-do” was a certainty and if one had any doubt, Libbie would straighten up her tiny frame, pat her perfectly coiffed white hair and with the air of a “lady born of the manor” voice,  soundly cast doubt from your mind.

“Farmer” has a connotation of a hic, a hayseed, a bumpkin, a rube…that can get in the way of historical knowledge of the folks in an agrarian culture of the 1800’s and the boon of opportunities that our young nation provided.  Though Oliver’s occupation was listed as “farmer” in each of the federal census records, I knew from my great grandmother’s musings to my mother that Oliver had been some kind of speculator and that he had an adventurer’s spirit.  I am not sure what my mother thought that meant…just that it was another impressive word her grandmother would roll around her tongue.  And one never interrupted Grandma Smith when she was favoring you with her childhood reminiscences.

Oliver’s obituary tells that he spent some time in California.  Was he prospecting for gold like his brother-in-law Norman Van Dorn?  Or part of the land speculators of the early 1840’s and 50’s?  Young men from that area bought land in the rich Sonoma and Napa valleys during that period.  Perhaps one.  Perhaps both.

If you Blink, You will Miss It.

While I found the Van Dorns and the Williams and the Purdys (Libbie’s future husband’s family) all in their Enfield homes and businesses in the New York state census of 1865, Oliver S. Williams and his family were nowhere to be found.

Was the census record incomplete?  Not unheard of.  Or…were they living somewhere else?  Why would a successful farmer and produce buyer leave his boyhood home? The New York state census of 1865 is not indexed so a researcher has to know precisely where an individual lives and winnow down to the location and read each enumerated page to find them.  As my mother would say, “Huh!”.

Being a genealogist…a family historian…requires a laser focus at times…and the agility to temper it with global perspective.  A chain of events will impact family members and provide all manner of clues.

Case In Point

Estate of Peter Van Dorn

In 1866 Mary Williams’ father, Peter Van Dorn died.  In his 1867 estate probate record, Mary’s residence is given as “Corning, Steuben County, New York”.  Had I only focused on Oliver as the pivotal figure, I would have created my own brick wall.  It was with this critical piece of information that I went to and delved into the 1865 New York state census in the city of Corning, Steuben county, New York.

And there they were…Oliver, Mary, Mary Lorinda and Libbie with their servant, Ralph Reynolds, on page thirty-one.  The family was living in their wood frame home valued at a $3000.00 which in today’s commodity value would be $41,000.00…and one of the most expensive homes in the Corning area.

Oliver S. Williams of Enfield, New York, had moved his family to live in Corning, New York and had become a petroleum agent in Oil City, Pennsylvania.  A speculator, if you will.

By 1870 the family was back in their Enfield home.  Mary Lorinda had married dashing Colonel Albert Johnson and Libbie was now Mrs. Elbert Purdy.

Ithaca Days

Oliver S. Williams died in his Enfield home in 1887 and daughter, Mary Lorinda, would die at the age of 45 the next year leaving behind her husband, Albert and twelve year old daughter, Libbie Mary Johnson.   That same year Libbie Williams lost her husband, Elbert Purdy.  So Mary Van Dorn Williams packed up her Enfield home as did her daughter, Libbie Purdy and moved to Ithaca where the two women oversaw the raising of my grandfather, Burt Purdy and his brother, Wilmot.

Mary Van Dorn Williams died in her daughter’s Ithaca home on Pleasant Street in 1901 at the age of eighty-five.  She had fallen and broken her hip the year before and never really recovered.  Libbie had remarried to widower Charles R. Smith.  Upon Charles’ death in 1913… from that day forward she became Mrs. E. A. Smith…each letter and word pronounced distinctly from the other.  I wonder if I was the first to reclaim her as “Libbie” in scores of years.  When Grandma Smith died, she was ninety-two years old.  She died in her bed, stubbornly propping her head up with her hand.  She hadn’t laid down and died in all the years of highs and lows and I guess she wasn’t about to give the Grim Reaper much due either.

My mother was born in was I…and the pull of that place seems to be stronger for me every day.  The Eddy Street home

Libbie Williams Purdy Smith with her son Burt S. Purdy of Ithaca New York

is long gone…razed by Cornell University to make room for one of its buildings, but my older cousins and brothers remember it…and Mrs. E. A. Smith well.  I was born seven years after her death so she is alive through my mother’s stories and those of “the boys”…my cousins and brothers.  These days we all share stories and memories of our parents and Ithaca and go back periodically to see one another from our scattered homes across the country.  I like to think that Libbie would approve.  Her grandchildren…”good pioneer stock”.

Authors Note:  Much of what I know about the illustrious Libbie Williams…daughter of Mary Van Dorn and Oliver S. Williams…wife of Elbert Purdy and with the self anointed title of  “Mrs. E. A. Smith”…comes from the precious moments my mother would share with me when I was young.  I dearly wished that I didn’t just listen with youth’s restless mind, but then the young girl that was to become my mother, no doubt, sipped her tea and dreamily watched the dust motes drift in the parlor while her grandmother gave up her most precious treasures to her granddaughter.  Her childhood memories.

And so I write.  For my children and my grandchildren.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

Passing the Torch

A Note to My Readers:  Being a good family historian…or if you prefer genealogist…is an evolving experience and certainly not one to accomplish alone.  We learn from books, librarians, local historians, certified genealogical instructors, educational programs at institutions like Boston University.  We are guided and nurtured by the experienced and educated individuals at the Salt Lake Library and NARA.  We benefit from the wisdom and knowledge of the folks at the DAR, NEHGS and NYGS and so many other amazing societies and organizations and archives. 

There are so MANY places and people to learn from and share with that we researchers are a virtual global family of our own making.  It is a different experience than when individuals like S. Fletcher Weyburn and Willard Irving Tyler Brigham undertook the task of compiling their family’s lineage one hundred years or more ago.  In those times it was a marathon of letter writing, organizing reunions, writing and reciting histories, gathering and organizing mountains of print correspondence without the benefit of modern day media and communications.  A determined few sailed to Europe in order to trod the homeland in an effort to piece together a long gone pedigree that was rarely written, but most likely was an oral tradition fraught with embellishments and the vagaries of fading memories. And they or their collaborators never stopped researching and writing.  They knew the work was never done.

With steamer trunks full of handwritten journals and correspondence and with weary and aching bodies from haunting dank and damp old archives, the authors of yesteryear began the business of writing.  Most of those intrepid souls humbly admitted that despite their best efforts, they knew their work was subject to faults and omissions. 

Passing the Torch

I write this piece in response to a comment that a reader made last week…not published because it was dripping with ill will and arrogance and frankly, not in the spirit of the research community that I am a part of.  In a past post, I mentioned an old work by Abraham Van Doren Honeyman and his suppositions of the Van Doorn lineage in his work “The Van Doorn Family in Holland and America” published in 1909. I am not sure why this reader was offended that I mentioned the old book or the author’s suppositions.  If the individual had read my comments carefully, he/she would have realized that it was not cited as concrete fact rather as a reference to my intent to explore my heritage further on my own and my own appreciation for such an effort.

Part of my research strategy is to include the old genealogy books in the process…not as matter of fact, but more a point of reference.  And to reach out and with good spirit take up the torch to improve the research.

I love learning from others and continue to find better ways to research and analyze because of the mentoring nature of our genealogy community.  I ran this situation past a group of researchers and was taken aback at the stories that ran from fuming resentment to downright mean spirited behavior.  Seems everyone ran across a fellow researcher whose passion had turned inward and had become territorial tunnel vision.

We are all part of something that is intricate and endless and always in transition as we correct and update our work.  ERRATA, if you will.  We are never finished.  Or perfect. The range of the levels of skill and experience is enormous.  Someone else always will have a piece to the puzzle that we have missed.  Their work may be more focused and detailed depending upon their passion and time spent.   It is folly to think we can be 100% complete as we work to fill in the blanks of personal history and we need patience and the will to continue the work with grace and positivity and the generosity to mentor and share.

Is my work flawed?  You bet.  And I know it.  Do I work to be better?  Absolutely.  Do I want criticism? Undoubtedly.  I welcome it, because I know that a research team of one is very weak indeed.

I write this blog to share my thoughts, experiences and facets of my family history research…and to invite others to share their knowledge…and correct me when I am wrong.  Because I know I will be and it is good to be humble and open to others.  And really fun to defend your work when you believe in it.  The key is to balance your pride and passion in your work with curiosity and an enthusiastic open mind.

Consider the words of A. Van Doren Honeyman in the preface of his book.

“The labor of the preparation of any historico-genealogical work, especially of a family so large as that treated in this volume, involves the most patient industry, careful study, and a wider correspondence than any other form of literary work.  Except for the interest of blood, the author would have paused in his investigations long ago from sheer weariness.  He did so, in fact, about twelve years since, and turned his manuscript over for completion to another gentleman.  That gentleman, however, being unable to complete the task so undertaken, the present author again took it in hand, and for the past three years has used every spare moment, night and day, to complete the record.  It is not yet completed, nor would it be if the labor were continued for another decade; the chief reason, however, being that hundreds of inquiries which have remained unanswered would still not be answered, owing to the indifference of various scatter members of the family, who have lost family interest and pride.  However, on the whole, I know of no old Dutch family whose love and pride of ancestry are greater than pertain to the descendants of the van Doorns.”

He concludes his preface with a challenge to future Van Doorn researchers and that I have taken to heart in all the work I undertake.

“Of course, there will be regret that the ancestors of the three American lines herein traced have not been connected through at least a few preceding generations in the Netherlands.  But the branches of the family in Holland are numerous and large, and to effectuate this desirable result and examination would need to be made of hundreds of church records and all city archives in the Netherlands.  The expense to be entailed would amount to several thousand dollars.  If some member of the American branches of the general family desires to do this in the future, the way is open.”


Plainfield, N. J, March 16, 1909.

So to my readers, family, and fellow researchers, reach out and connect with others in good spirit to collaborate and compare.  Our research will be better as a whole and our community of family historians will continue to grow and evolve in a healthy fashion.  Abraham V. D. Honeyman knew that in 1909.  Before you jump into the main body of any genealogical work, read the preface. The author might just humbly tell you of the fragility and complexity of the work, the love for it and the hope that you consider all of this, pick up the proffered torch and continue the work in that spirit.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved