The Perils of Genealogy: Part One

My sainted grandma was Irish…very Irish. She was born in Kerry Patch in St. Louis so technically she was born in the US but it might as well have been Dingle or Tralee where her mom was born. Her dad was so Irish that he managed to be scarce most of the time. Not all of the time, though, because there were about ten kids born in a few short years…but only five lived past the age of 15. Her mom died of TB at age 34 and dad went to New York City and a new relationship without the kids.

There were three boys and two girls. Grandma and her younger brother bounced around in orphanages and convents but the older boys would stage a “jail break” and liberate them so things were always in a state of disarray.

St. Louis was then the fourth largest city in the US and the site of the 1904 Worlds Fair. In “Meet Me In St. Louis” you don’t hear about Kerry Patch or the Irish gangs that ran much of the city in the early 1900s. Grandma’s older brothers were busy gang members but not all that successful at their work. They spent time in the city workhouse and managed to get caught when other gang members got way. Finally, they decided to go straight. One married and then died shortly afterward of the family illness…TB. The other became a constable to an Irish city magistrate….and then died not long afterward of, you guessed it, TB. Both of the older boys were dead by 1911. The girls fared better and both married and went on to happy family life. The youngest boy  married and escaped from St. Louis and lived a long and productive life.

Grandma managed on her own for a while. She became a domestic and worked in the homes of wealthy St. Louis families and later in some fancy hotels. She was also a cook and in later years she worked in a number of high-end restaurants. Around 1907, she married a shoe worker from upstate New York and they had four kids….three girls and one boy.  They moved out to the western edge of the city and bought a house and settled down. Grandpa’s family was not Irish or Catholic and were somewhat upset with his choice. Not only had he run off and left his widowed mom and his siblings but he married this Irish Catholic maid.

Grandpa’s family went way back in New York and New England. English ancestors arrived in Massachusetts in the mid 1600s. His NY Dutch connections went back even farther. Then there were the French Walloon Huguenots. All were solid protestants with nothing good to say about Catholics.  When you read some of the letters or cards that were sent from New York, the words are sweetly poisoned…nothing was ever said directly or outright but you can sense the attitude. “Come home where you belong” was the message at first then it became “it’s hard times here, send money”.

It’s ironic that folks who were descended from Walloon Huguenots, a terribly persecuted minority in France, would be so blatant in their dislike of the persecuted Irish minority…once again, religion rears it’s ugly head..

One of grandpa’s ancestral families was the Drake family. The story was that he was descended from Sir Francis Drake or maybe Sir Francis’s brother.  Grandma seemed to be interested in this connection but with a twist. In her most Irish voice she would recount the family connection to Sir Francis and then say that we should never, ever, ever tell anyone that we were related to him because he was a pirate and went around pillaging and stealing. I, of course, went out and told everyone who would listen. This was too cool to keep a secret..we had a pirate in the family.  ARRGH!

Things are never as they appear. Sometime in the 1800s a story circulated that Sir Francis Drake’s estate was unclaimed and rightful heirs should come forward to claim their share. Every family with Drake connections went into high gear and rewrote their family history or, in some cases, hired someone to research their connection to the old “pirate”. An industry grew up for a while as researchers cranked out all sorts of dubious family trees. It was a swindle and it is still circulating today. Sir Francis had no children. Heirs would be descended from his brother,  There are also more than one Captain Francis Drake so there is room for honest confusion.

It turns out that our Drakes were uppity cousins of the venerable pirate who were not impressed with his exploits or his claim to nobility. That family has a story in its own right but it doesn’t involve piracy.


I’ll cover more of the story in another post.



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