Sunday, May 9, 2010

Geneaology of your Old House,

In the last post, I used old maps to discover who some of the owners of the Urban Cottage were. Now I have the names, I'll use to learn about those people. does require a membership of about $20 per month but unless you're searching your family tree, you could easily get everything done in one month.

Barnes Putnam, the first owner of the house, has been a real challenge. I find a few listings for a Barnes Putnam in census data but prior to 1880, names of wives and children were not recorded so it's difficult to cross reference various sources to ensure it's my Barnes Putnam. I also found other residents of the Urban Cottage in census data and old City Directories on which proved my belief that the Watson family owned this house as an income property. We can talk about these people later and how I found them.

I was able to find out a lot more about Jennie T. Ray and she is a much more interesting person.

My first search for Jennie T. Ray found a 26-old-woman, married to a Sylvester Ray, living in Boston. Using her husband's name "Sylvester Ray" I search again to find him in Cambridge in 1900 married to "Janie T. Ray" at my address so this is the right person.

This is a good example of the problems I also found searching my family tree. Little attention was paid to correct spellings. My great, great, great grandfather Zelora was spelled Zelora, Zelara, and Gellora so I really needed the names of his children to keep track of him as he moved from New York to Michigan. You will sometimes need to cross reference your information to make sure you have the right person.

So back to Jennie.
Here is the 1880 U.S. census for Boston. Jennie is a white female, 26 years old, married to Sylvester, and her occupation is "keeping house." Sylvester is a black male, 38 years old, who is a hostler (one who works in a stable caring for horses). They have a daughter named Frances who is nine years old, listed as mulato, and she is "at school." They are living in the shadow of the Bunker Hill monument in the Charlestown section of Boston. Also living with them is Sylvester's brother Richard Ray who is a painter. They have all moved to Boston from New Jersey. Further research on Sylvester shows that he was enlisted as a "landsman" stationed in Trenton, NJ during the Civil War.

Is Richard with them to help with expenses or are they helping him out by allowing him to live with them? Perhaps we'll get clues later.

The 1890 census records were destroyed in a fire. It does exist for some states but I was not able to find anything for this couple in 1890. The census of 1900 is the first time we see Jennie in Cambridge. This aligns with the Harvard information as well as the 1903 map that shows Jennie T. Ray owned the house.

This is a little messy but we can see Sylvester and Jennie living at #8 (the Urban Cottage). Note that both names are spelled incorrectly: Slyvester and Janie. I'm not sure how makes this information searchable. Whether its done by humans or some kind of optical character recognition software, this messy writing can't help things.

Also note that living with them are her neice Eva Young and her nephew-in-law John H. Young. Are the Youngs helping Jennie and Sylvester pay the mortgage or have they invited them from New Jersey to help this young couple get a start?

Further out on those lines we see that Sylvester and Jennie (the red star is always next to Jennie) have been married for 30 years which takes us back to 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War. Highlighted in yellow we see that Jennie had two children and only one is living. Once daughters get married and change their names, it's extremely difficult to find them so we don't know if Jennie had another child that died before or after the 1880 census or whether Frances died and they had another child after the 1880 census.

We also see right below the record of Jennie's two children that her niece who has been married one year also had a child and zero children are now living. Perhaps Jennie invited her niece to live with them after she lost her child. Jennie was empathetic to the loss of a child and perhaps though she could help.

The 1910 census provided a shock and some clarity. Jennie is still living at #8 Urban Cottage but she is widowed. Remember the 1903 map showed Jennie owning the house. It did seem odd to me that the house was in Jennie's name rather than her husband's but now it makes sense. Searching through Cambridge Directories on, 1901 is last year there is a listing for Sylvester. As Jennie was helping her niece recover from the loss of a child, Jennie suffers the loss of her husband.

Just below Jennie in this census we also see other people living in the house. Clara Mayor, (it looks like Mazer to me but I confirmed Mayor in the city directory) who is also widowed, and her three children have moved into the house. I had been told that my house was a two-family house at one time. This makes me believe that Jennie was the one that converted the house. Without her husband's income, she needed help. And by renting the upstairs of the house, she was able to keep the house while satisfying her own need to help others. The Mayors are also listed as mulato.

It's also in 1902 we see Jennie listed in the Cambridge Directory. She's hung out her shingle as a music teacher.

In 1920, we see Jennie at 67 years old. The "O" and "M" after her name means she owns her home (rather than rents) and she still has a mortgage. City Directories show that she is still teaching music out of the Urban Cottage. She has one boarder named Catherine Webb, a 58-year-old widow.
Finally, in 1930 Jennie is living alone at #8. She is 77 years old and owns her home valued at $2200. Is she lonely or is she finally able to enjoy her little urban cottage to herself?

I can see Jennie listed in Cambridge City Directories until 1937.

Although the maps gave me the name Jennie T. Ray, delving into these records helps tell the story of her life. She is someone that we see throughout her life helping others. I now feel I know the woman that walked up and down my stairs, cooked Sunday suppers in my kitchen and perhaps planted flowers outside my back door.

And it feels good to know she was here.


  1. hi steve,

    what a wonderful, fascinating story this is. i'm so impressed by jenny. it really must make you feel good to know that someone like her was living in your home. the fact that she was married out of her race also indicates what a passionate person she must have been considering the times. wow, i'm so inspired to find out more about my home. i know one of the daughters that lived in our house still lives here in redlands. i'd love to meet her. this inspires me to move in that direction.
    do you have the info on the residents that occupied your place after jenny? keep us posted!


  2. This is like a wonderful novel that I can't put down! Thank you for spending some time this weekend working on it for us. It's so fascinating - Jennie sounds like she was an incredibly thoughtful and kind hearted woman. I love that she was open enough at that time to marry outside of her race and hope that her boarders brought her some joy from her losses.
    Can't you almost feel them - 30 years of marriage, the music, the children.... I wish you had a picture of the inside of your home when Jenny owned it.
    Again, you did an amazing job on this! I have REALLY enjoyed this story....any neighbors around that may have known her or perhaps their daughter is still in the area? I just don't want it to end. :)

  3. I thinkk it's pretty amazing that you've found so much personal history on your home. Life was much different then. I think having the courage to marry outside your race/social stature took great courage. Good for Jennie, although I think she had a rather uphill battle from day one. But the fact that she survived and owned her own home probably speaks volumes of her strength and perserverance. It couldn't have been easy. Good for her.

  4. That is an amazing story. It's wonderful you could find out so much of her history and like you say, it's nice to think of her cooking dinner, helping others there. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Fascinating. Great job on all the research and putting the pieces of the puzzle together It inspires me to do research on my place. Those aren't real photographs of them, are they? If you ever move, what a gift to give to the next owners and you can add your history to the story.

  6. how time consuming!
    it must've taken a lot of patience and determination.
    have you found where she is buried?
    presumably in cambridge i'd think;
    finding a grave site would end jennie's chapter nicely.

  7. I love this post! Researching the lineage of our house is something I've been dying to do. Once we finish the renovation! Thanks for the great ideas Steve. And good luck with the historical society. Best, ADD

  8. I recently found your blog and started from the beginning. It's so amazing that "Jennie Ray" a hundred years later ... a modest women is being honored in your post. What a wonderful story!

  9. What a wonderful idea to research those who have lived in your house before you!! I just got on myself and I love the handwriting of the census takers.
    Love your blog!!

  10. Fascinating and amazing!! I admire you for researching this and sharing this history of your great house!

  11. Loved reading about your research. I have a fractured history of the past inhabitants of my house, an 1852 Greek Revival in Alabama.I often wish I could be a fly on the wall at the dinner table150 years ago! Lives were hard back then. I have an early photograph of a child in a coffin in the front parlor. I always enjoy reading your blog and seeing your marvelous home. Thank you.