Commodore Simonson, Reveal Thyself

I’m on a quest to sort out all of my ancestors named Abraham Simonson (there are ten). Once I figure out Abraham, I’ll work on the Isaacs (11) Elizabeths (15) and Johns (22). It would help if they were in different lines of work, but no. Mariners all, it seems – or mostly.

Our current person of interest is Commodore Abraham Simonson, king of shad fishing. The goal is to figure out who his parents were, or his wife, or his children, so I can see where he fits.

Commodore Simonson

New York American, Saturday March 24, 1838

The old Commodore was in the newspapers all the time for his legendary shad fishing expertise, but none of the articles are helpful in pinning him down. Here’s a few more:

Kate's Lighthouse, Robins Reef

Kate’s Lighthouse, Robins Reef (Photo credit:

“Commodore Abraham Simonson a citizen of Middletown caught four fine shad on Saturday evening at Robins Reef being the first taken in our bay this season” – Richmond County Gazette, Wednesday, March 26th 1862

“The first shad of the season was caught by Messrs Simonson & Co in their nets at Robins Reef on the 27th of March” – Richmond County Gazette, April 1st 1868

You know he was something of a celebrity, because he was even the subject of some snark:

“We came …to Springfield [Connecticut] where we supped and found a cleanly and sumptuous entertainment for the night. Here we feasted on Connecticut River shad just out of the pot, of super excellent flavor and fatness far superior to the first trophies of the season caught by Commodore Simonson yearly in New York bay and served up on an Astor House platter.  – F.W.S., The Knickerbocker; Or, New-York Monthly Magazine, Volume 45

Sounds like someone was jealous she didn’t get invited to Astor House.

Finally, there was this:

“Commodore Abram SIMONSON, an old and respected inhabitant of Richmond county, died at his home in Van Duzer street, Stapleton, on Monday evening, in the seventy-eighth year of his age. He had been for nearly sixty years engaged in the Staten Island shad fisheries and was the head of the well known firm of SIMONSON & Co., fishermen”. – Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, January 5 1877

That’s Rochester, as in New York, so either he was a shad fish god or it was an extremely slow news day.

After he passed on, his firm kept going, though apparently not quite so successfully:

Smack and VanDuzer

New York Times, April 12, 1880

Our phone lines are open and we are desperate to know:

Parents, siblings, children’s names?

And while we’re at it: what is a gilt-net? And are shad really better in Connecticut?

A Private Investigator’s Guide to Dutch Reformed Churches

When you do genealogy, you quickly discover that you have to become an expert on churches. Where were they located, where are they now, what happened to the buildings, who’s got the records? When it comes to Staten Island, which celebrated its 350th year in 2011, that’s a whole lotta church history to absorb.

Luckily, we have in our possession a handy-dandy guide to all of the churches that existed in Staten Island as of 1942. Now, this doesn’t give you all the churches that ever were, but having an inventory of extant churches at a specific point in time is a great reference. And it is a l-o-n-g list, which you will love if you are a genea-geek.

Anyway – the existence of this list is interesting, in and of itself.  It’s from the Guide to Vital Statistics in the City of New York, created by the Works Progress Administration for the City of New York.  It lists all the churches by borough, and describes the type of vital statistics each church held in its archives at that time – baptisms, marriages, etc.  In 1942, America was at war, and it seems they needed to run some background checks on people, but the Internet was down.

The volumes are primarily designed as an aid to governmental agencies or private individuals interesting in locating corroborative proofs of the facts of birth or marital status as required for military service or engagement in war industry.

How cool is that? Helping to blow the cover of enemy spies who were bent on infiltrating our armed forces based on a fake Staten Island baptismal certificate.

I think I was born too late. I hope I worked for the WPA in a previous life.

In any case, today is the beginning of a series in which I am going to list the churches from that document for you. (In the future, I’ll feature some individual churches in separate posts, with more detail).

Continue reading

The Republic of Staten Ireland

Irish Fair June 8-9, 2013 to benefit St.Columcille Irish Cultural Center

Irish Fair June 8-9, 2013 to benefit St.Columcille Irish Cultural Center

Special dispensation – nay, a societal obligation — to consume large quantities of green beer every March 17 comes to everyone with Irish heritage.

Thanks to my third great-grandfather Michael Wheeler (1808 – 1899), who immigrated to Staten Island and peddled dry goods, I gleefully escape the more sober obligations of my mostly Dutch family tree. One does what one can to preserve history.

I like to believe that Michael tipped a pint or two with this chum, who would have been his contemporary, and maybe a friend:


New York Tribune, Apr 16, 1900

“Richard Monahan, of Oak Street, Rosebank, Staten Island, who celebrated his one hundredth birthday anniversary on St. Patrick’s Day, died on Saturday night at his home.  Monahan was born in County Cork, Ireland, and came
to America when a boy. He was married in New York on St. Patrick’s Day, seventy-five years ago, and shortly after moved to Staten Island with his bride. He occupied the house where he died during all those years…In his earlier days, Mr. Monahan joined the army, and was with General Jackson in the Indian War in Florida. He was an inveterate smoker, and insisted upon having a new clay pipe every day. He was an ardent Democrat. He often expressed a desire to live until Ireland should be free. Monahan had two daughters, eleven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Imagine: a childhood transatlantic crossing to a foreign land was not enough excitement; so he went off to fight the Indians.

I shall have to rethink my slothful ways, and my loathing of I-95, I suppose.

The first Irishman to make his mark on Staten Island was probably Thomas Dongan. He was made the first governor of the province of New York under the English (about whom I shall complain loudly, but that’s another post). Dongan was born in 1634 in Castletown Kildrought, County Kildare, Ireland. He received a land patent on Staten Island, where his estate became known as Manor of Cassiltowne – which became the Town of Castleton.

The greatest number of Irish immigrants came to the Island during the Great Famine of 1845 – 1852. There was no Ellis Island, no Castle Garden then. Ships arriving at the port of New York were inspected by medical officers from the Marine Hospital on Staten Island, and passengers who were unwell were detained in quarantine on Staten Island.  Many of them died there and were buried in unmarked graves.

Having lost so many of its own during The Great Hunger,  the government of Ireland is now reaching out to those of Irish descent and recognizing the Irish diaspora (I had to look up that word). This year, Ireland is making a special family history effort with  The Gathering – Ireland 2013.

The Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage. – Constitution of Ireland, Article 2

So once you solve your ancestral mysteries, be sure to apply to the Ireland Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive your official, totally sanctioned and completely legitimate Certificate of Irish Heritage. They are 20% off until March 24.

Excuse me please. Off to buy green food coloring.

In Over Her Head

Bicycle Skirt image

Clarissa Dockham’s Patented Bicycle Skirt

Since March is Women’s History Month, let’s take a spin backwards in time to see what Staten Island women were up to in, say, 1895.

One industrious Staten Island woman seems to have been very taken with the latest craze: bicycles. Before the 1890’s, bicycle technology wasn’t very advanced, so they were sort of a novelty item. But then vast improvements in design made them sufficiently comfortable and safe for everyone to ride them – particularly and importantly, women. Before this, bicycles had belonged to that class of things that were reserved for men, like football, and cigars, and balancing the checking account.

Then instantly, bicycles became widely, hugely, insanely popular in America, like no-doc mortgages in the 2000s, but with a happier ending. Excitement was palpable. Vast sums were spent. In Dayton, Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright were churning them out endlessly. Bicycle societies sprang up everywhere. There was fevered speculation that one day, children would even ride bicycles to school.

The first bicycles on Staten Island were sold from Nicholas Bennett’s general store near Fort Wadsworth in 1896, and today, Bennett’s Bicycles is still in business on Jewett Avenue, where the fifth generation of Bennetts still run the oldest bike shop in New York City.

But back to our industrious woman. In a time when women did not have the right to vote, the suddenly accessible bicycle was a revelation, and an amazingly important factor in the nascent women’s suffrage movement. Bicycles got women out of the house and gave them a sense of mobility and autonomy they’d never known. No less a personage than Susan B. Anthony herself said,

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.

Yeah, that was awesome. Except for the part with the billowing skirts and corsets. Here enters our heroine, Mrs. Clarissa Ellen Dockham, of Tompkinsville, Staten Island, who on Jul 23, 1895 applied for U.S. Patent #556881 for the Bicycle Skirt. “My invention…has for its object to produce a combination garment which may be adjusted for convenient use when bicycling or which may be worn for ordinary street use.” Clarissa had figured out how a woman could, at will, transform her floor-length skirt into “bicycle-bloomers” and then back again, by means of a “forked or bifurcated skirt-lifter.”

No, don’t go there… Clarissa was spot on with the Rational Dress Society, which objected to:

fashion…that either deforms the figure, impedes the movement of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly fitted corsets, of high-heeled or narrow toed boots and shoes; of heavily weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible.

Yes. Now if we could just do something about Spanx. But I digress.

You would not think it so, but the increased mobility and the freedom and the bloomers turned out be positively scandalous and caused a whole heap of trouble in some quarters. There was great consternation that upon a bicycle, a woman could injure certain fair body parts, to her ultimate ruin. It was felt that the Orderly Domesticity of The Home would be greatly insulted if women could roam the streets at will, and that without a watchful husband nearby, females might fall prey to a lessening of their morals, thus bringing about the fall of civilization.

They did not yet have cable.

Perhaps Mr. Dockham was embarrassed and put his foot down, or maybe Clarissa was just too out there even for other women. Because the following year she filed another patent application. This one was a riff on the previous design, and it did away with the “skirt-lifters,” combining a skirt with built-in “drawers” in one adjustable garment.

“It will be evident,” Clarissa wrote, “that the skirt may be put on over the head and the drawers afterward buttoned, and it being remembered that women are averse to garments which do not go on over the head, the advantage of a trousers garment which can be put on over the head becomes at once apparent.”

The government of the United States agreed, and granted her Patent #568339.

I’ll just let that sink in for a minute.

Sad to say that’s all I know, except that the New York Daily Tribune reported on February 19, 1907, that “a dwelling house, No. 34 Central in Tompkinsville, formerly the property of the late Mrs.Clarissa Dockham, has been sold under foreclosure proceedings.” It had been a boarding house for some time, and was purchased by Otto W. Thomen of Grymes Hill for $16,500.

Let’s hope Clarissa had a great ride.