GFHC: From the Extended Family Tree


As I’ve learned more about my ancestors I’ve also taken some time to follow the branches of the tree down, learning about their siblings’ descendants. I’ve come across some interesting stories; this is part of a recurring series of diaries about distant cousins I never knew.

114 years ago this week, on March 1, 1899, Annie O’Toole Powell died in Brooklyn, New York. She was 41 years old. Annie was the wife of my great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Powell’s brother Robert. Her death, and a few things that followed, would change Robert’s life, and Thomas’s life, significantly.

Thomas and Robert Powell were the sons of Henry Powell and his wife, Margaret Gray. Henry and Margaret were born near Belfast in 1817 and 1818. They married young and their first child, Thomas, was born in Ireland in April 1838. They also had two daughters, before leaving Ireland for America. The Powell family arrived in New York on the ship Stephen Whitney on August 2, 1844. Three years later the ship would sink after hitting the rocks off of County Cork.

Crossgar, County Down, Ireland, whence the Powells came to America
A growing family on Manhattan’s East Side, 1850 Census

Henry sold fruits and vegetables from a pushcart in Manhattan, and he and Margaret had three more children in New York. Margaret’s younger sister Abby arrived from Ireland to help with the children. Robert, the baby of the family, was born nearly 20 years after Thomas. Born in New York City, Little Robert grew up mostly upstate. Henry and Margaret had taken their younger children upstate to live on a farm for several years during the Civil War period. Robert was only five when his oldest brother Thomas married Catherine Ennis, a New York-born child of Irish immigrants. For four decades or so, the brothers would lead seemingly separate lives.

Thomas and Catherine, who were my ancestors, lived on East 36th Street in Manhattan, near the East River, for nearly 40 years. Thomas became a butcher. They had eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Catherine’s brother John lived with them for more than a decade, and her parents and older brother Joe lived nearby.

My 3x great-grandfather: Thomas Powell, butcher, in an 1879 Manhattan directory

Much later, in 1939, their block, including St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church where they married and all their children were baptized, was torn down to create an opening for the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Much later still, I lived at the other end of this same tunnel for three years and rode through it regularly. I also took the ferries, recently revived, that they must have taken many times in those days.

Robert Powell, who came back downstate at some point, settled in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The neighborhood, long an industrial center along Newtown and Bushwick Creeks, had a large Irish population then. Germans and Polish came later. In recent years Greenpoint has had a large Polish population south of Greenpoint Av., with many signs still in Polish, and a Central American and Mexican community north of Greenpoint Av., with some Italians living east of McGuinness Blvd. These days the whole thing is under siege as the Hipster settlement known as Williamsburg expands northward, like the first European colonists consuming more Native American land with each passing year.

Robert had an easy commute: he gained employment at the Brooklyn Water Works in Greenpoint when he was about 20. The City of Brooklyn had a huge water filtration plant on Newtown Creek, as the City of New York still does today. Robert took an apartment nearby with his new bride Annie and their baby son Henry, presumably named for Robert’s father. Twenty years later they still lived with blocks of the plant but, as I mentioned at the outset, Annie O’Toole Powell died on March 1, 1899. Only a few months later, in July, their only child Henry died at 21. On the eve of an exciting new century, Robert Powell was now alone.

Thomas and Catherine Ennis Powell, at that time, had just moved from their east side neighborhood in Manhattan to the central Bronx. Four of their five surviving children were married and had started the exodus to the “‘burbs.” One son lived in the Bronx, all three daughters lived in Brooklyn. Seeing it as a sort of frontier land with little established butcher competition, Thomas and Catherine moved their business to the Bronx and relocated there with their only unmarried child, Thomas Jr. Their other son Joseph, married with small children, lived a few blocks away. And there, for the time being, Thomas and his sons continued their butcher business, with Thomas Sr. slowly inching toward retirement.

At the end of 1903, however, everything changed because Thomas Powell Jr. died. From what I can surmise, Thomas Sr. and Catherine, in their sixties, could no longer afford their apartment. Their son Joseph, living in a small apartment with his wife, four children and father-in-law, had no room. Ditto the Powell daughters, married with young children. My great-great-grandmother at this time had five kids of her own in Brooklyn, plus her husband’s two teenaged sisters. Thus it was that Thomas and Catherine moved to Greenpoint, to live with his brother Robert. There they stayed for another ten years.

Thomas and Catherine Powell in Brooklyn in the 1910 Census. Thomas now lists himself as born in New York, though he emigrated from Ireland as a six year old.
The top of the next page lists Robert Powell as Thomas’s “son” but he was actually the youngest brother. They were 19 years apart.

In the years around World War I, however, things started to change. First Thomas’s wife, Catherine Ennis Powell, died. Then Thomas, now approaching his mid-seventies, started to become senile. It must have been a lot for Robert to handle, and by 1916 Thomas had moved out. He alternated between his son Joseph’s home in the Bronx and a nursing home run by the nuns on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Thomas died on July 3, 1922 at the age of 84.

Thomas’s departure from his apartment must have opened new horizons for Robert Powell. In 1918, just past 60 himself, he married Agnes Moore, who was 37 and never before married. Their daughter, Virginia, was born on July 15, 1920.
Robert’s second chance at a family, however, was not to last long. Robert Powell died on January 9, 1925. After his death, Agnes and Virginia went to live with Agnes’s widowed brother in Queens. Sadly, Virginia died there on August 18, 1932, just a few weeks after her twelfth birthday. With her death, the last of Robert Powell’s descendants was gone.

After Virginia’s death her mother Agnes and uncle moved to Brooklyn, where they lived at 85th Street and 19th Avenue in Bensonhurst. This was not that far from where my grandparents lived at the time, but I have no indication they were in contact with them or ever met. Agnes worked just around the corner from her home as a theatre matron at the locally-famous Loew’s Oriental Theatre, an old-fashioned movie house with politically incorrect faux-Asian architectural embellisments. It’s no longer a movie house, but my grandparents used to take me there sometimes as a kid. I’m pretty sure that’s where I first saw The Empire Strikes Back. The theatre was on 86th Street, right where the elevated subway turns from New Utrecht Avenue. It’s where John Travolta worked in the paint store in Saturday Night Fever.

Agnes had one more move left to make, though. After her brother died in 1944, she moved in with a married sister in the Bronx. There she continued to work as a theatre matron for Loew’s, until she died on November 9, 1946. She was ten days short of her 66th birthday and was buried with her husband and daughter in St. John’s Catholic Cemetery in Queens, the same cemetery in which several of my Powell descendants are at rest.

Robert Powell’s story I find sad. He had one child with each wife, and they both died young and without children of their own, meaning there are no descendants of Robert Powell alive today. I am grateful to him, though, for taking in his elderly brother and sister-in-law, my ancestors. I’m also glad that, after losing his first wife and son in the same year, Robert did not have to live through his daughter Virginia dying. That pain was left to his widow Agnes. At the time her only daughter died, of pneumonia and scarlet fever, Agnes was a 51-year-old widow. She must have known there would be no more children and I imagine her in her later years being rather lonely. How many lonely people with similar circumstances must have been living in that vast city, and cities and towns like it all over the world?

Sad as the story is, it makes me feel better to remember Robert, Annie, Henry, Agnes and Virginia, because I’m not sure anyone else is doing it. It’s why I’ve adopted so many of these cousins that otherwise might be lost to history, and it’s why I’ve decided to publish their stories. It’s nice to be remembered by someone and now I can pass on their memory on.

I also think it’s good to remember how much families then pulled together and took each other in. This has resonance for me. When I was a college student and young adult in New York City, my grandmother took me in. For more than a decade I alternated between various apartments and her house, the house in which my mother grew up. Living there with her and my uncle was not the typical experience many of my friends in New York were having. It was a LONG subway ride from Manhattan in a quiet neighborhood. But I became so much closer to them – and learned so much about my family – as a result. That experience, I imagine, played a major role in creating my passion for genealogy.

The first week in March is a big one in my family’s history. Yesterday, the 4th, was my dad’s birthday and his twin sister’s. On March 2, 1919, my great-great-grandfather James and my great-grandmother Nellie died in Brooklyn. On March 1, 1915, my great-grandfather Michael died as well, when his kids were under 10. At each of these deaths, extended families moved in together to help each other out. Now we’re making plans for my uncle, who is 60, to move in with us when my grandparents’ house in Brooklyn is sold later this year. Thinking of the Powells, it feels like we’re keeping that tradition alive.

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