Monumental Monday: Freedom’s Fortess National Park

Fort Monroe, Hampton, VA (photo from the National Parks Service)

Two weeks ago on November 1st, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. a National monument. Fort Monroe is the site where slavery had it’s beginning and ending here in the U.S.

I learned about this historic event a week after it happened.   Thanks to an October snowstorm, I had no electricity, phone, Internet or cable service for eight days. I got a real taste of what it must have been like for our pre-19th century ancestors – reading by candlelight, keeping logs on the fire, and our entire family of four sleeping in the same bed to stay warm! But news of our newest national monument made my time in the dark seem like a blip on the radar. It took 150 years to bring this historic Fort to national attention so I guess I”m keeping in step by acknowledging the occasion two weeks after it happened. Better late than never.

As important a piece of our American History Fort Monroe is, I’d never heard of it until earlier this year when I read an excerpt of Adam Goodheart’s book, “1861″ in the New York Times magazine.  Goodheart wrote in detail of three slaves who came to the Fort seeking  freedom during the Civil War and Union General Benjamin Butler’s decision to keep them there by distinguishing them as contraband of war, instead of returning them to their owners as the Fugitive Slave Act required.  This opened the floodgates and thousands of slaves followed suit.  Butler would later  take over command of New Orleans.    My second great-grandfather, Col. W.R. Stuart fought for the Confederates to  protect New Orleans unsuccessfully.  I wonder if he had a chance to see Butler?

As I read Goodheart’s  account, I immediately started planning my pilgrimage to the Fort appropriately called Freedom’s Fortress.  Even though I have yet to discover when my enslaved African ancestors arrived on American soil, or  which port they passed through, Fort Monroe symbolizes their arrival here and their place in American history.  It’s like Ellis Island and Plymouth Rock – a touchstone for my history.

As coincidence would have it, Goodheart heads the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, MD. My Scottish American third great-grandfather,  William R. Stuart  graduated from there and went on to be a Maryland state senator. Some of his papers that describe his life as a merchant selling everything from wheat to slaves are archived at the college’s library. Tomorrow, I will speak to the college about my family’s history, from the senators to the slaves.

When Goodheart invited me, I googled the distance between Chestertown, Maryland (the site of Washington College) and Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.  I wanted to see if I’d have enough time to fit in my pilgrimage to Fort Monroe after I spoke at Washington College.  But it’s too far.  But someday, I do hope to visit both back to back, both monuments to two facets of my history.

Follow Friday: An Ancestral Journey From Roscommon to Rockaway Beach

The Manifest of Alien Passengers where my husband's grandmother, Lucille Mulcahy is listed arriving at Ellis Island. She's the last entry on both pages.

A few months back, I posted about a trip to Ellis Island with my daughter’s fifth grade class and how it got me thinking about my husband’s family, some of whom probably came to America through that historic portal.  The post prompted our genealogy genie, Shannon to do a little more digging on my husband’s people and she found the above documents among others.  Here’s what my husband had to say about the find:

I always thought that phrase about how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us to reach new heights was a great movie line, but didn’t apply to me. Then my wife, through her friend Shannon put a new perspective into who I am and who will fly here because of me in the future. It was pretty spine tingling when I saw what they had found:  documents of my family’s life in Ireland and subsequent arrival in America. Through the census forms, baptismal records and passenger manifests Shannon forwarded to us, my paternal grandmother, Lucille Mulcahy Kurtti, came back into my life in a way more fully than I’d experienced her as a boy visiting her home in the Bronx and her summer rental in Rockaway Beach, a vacation enclave for the Irish-American community.

Nanny Lucille tended not to talk about her history.  Not much info came directly from her, but was filtered through my sisters. So, I was excited to learn where she was from,  Castleraegh, Roscommon in Ireland and that she had three siblings. Now I see where my confirmation name, Jeremiah, came from. It was passed down from my great-grandfather, to my father and then to me. My brother Gordon’s  talents as a painter flowed from that same  great-grandfather, Jeremiah listed as a coach painter on his 1911 resident housing form.   My sister’s proclivity for fashion and a career in that industry was also inherited  from our  great-grandmother, Ellen Mulcahy, listed as a milliner on that same housing form.

Now I also see where Nanny’s fiercely independent streak came from.  According to her Alien Passenger Manifest, she left her homeland from Dublin and arrived in New York City in 1926.  She was 19 years-old,  traveled alone and planned to make a living as a domestic worker.  She had $50 in her possession when she arrived at Ellis Island.  Ironically, when she died, she had accumulated almost $250,000 in savings.  I think that original $50 was part of the pile of money. (Besides the summer rental in Rockaway Beach, I never saw Nanny spend money). Her description on the manifest as fair-skinned, auburn-haired and blue-eyed describes me as well and makes me wonder if looking at me was a joyful reminder of what she was passing on or a sadness for what she had left behind?  I do know it instills in me a new sense of gratitute for all she was willing to do. Nanny Lucille finally revealed some of her past to me.  I thank Shannon and Dionne for giving me a path to my history that I never knew could be so profound and deeply felt.

Follow Friday: Government Shutdown & Genealogy

The Great Hall at Ellis Island, where immigrants waited to be inspected before entering the USA. (photo courtesy of Desiree Kurtti)

Among the hundreds of thousands of federal employees who would be affected if the government shuts down tonight for failure to pass a national budget are those that work at National Parks.

I didn’t realize that Ellis Island is operated by our National Park Service until I visited there in February as a chaperone for my daughter’s fifth grade class.  Growing up in New Jersey and living in New York as an adult, I couldn’t believe that February was my first trip to this historic site.  As a school kid, we took frequent field trips to the Statue of Liberty.  Ellis Island was only open on a limited basis from the mid 70s to 80s and after that, closed for a massive renovation- that’s when I would have taken a school trip there.  It reopened in the early 90s when I was living in New York City, but it just didn’t have much appeal to me probably because none of my ancestors entered the country through this famous portal.  My European ancestors have been in the US at least since the early 1700s.  My African ancestors were brought here in chains. But, I imagined my daughter might feel a personal connection to this historic site since her paternal ancestors immigrated here from Ireland and England, two countries that imported many of their citizens through Ellis Island.

Her paternal great, great-grandfather, Martin Quinn was born in England around 1869.  According to census reports, he immigrated to the US around 1886.  Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892. Before then, individual states, not the Federal government, regulated immigration into the US. So, Martin Quinn probably came through Castle Garden in the Battery, New York State’s immigration station from 1855 to 1890.  My daughter’s great-grandmother, Lucille Kurtti (nee Mulchay) was born in  Ireland around 1907.  She immigrated in 1926. It’s possible that her name was misspelled and we’ll have to check the passenger lists for variations.  But with or without a personal connection to the place, it was a stirring experience to walk through the Ellis Island Museum.

In the Great Hall, our class was given pretend physicals like the newly arrived of yore.  My daughter got through with no problem so she would have waited only three to five hours before being allowed onto American soil.  I didn’t fair as well.  I had some kind of terrible eye disease. Inspectors would have detected it when they flipped my eyelid over with a with a metal loop.  (Yikes!)  Highly contagious and untreatable (anyone with this disease went blind), I would have been sent right back to wherever I came from!

16,000 people a day visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island this time of year.  Even if the government does shut down, genealogists and history lovers can virtually visit by going to www.ellisisland.org.

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