Sunday, November 15, 2020

Before the Singularity

 We saw earlier that by the 1920s, people in the Cities of the West were familiar with automobiles, telephones, electricity, aeroplanes, radio, and a host of other contrivances that surround us still today. (Radios would later acquire picture tubes, to become TVs. Aeroplanes would lose their propellers and become jets. And so on.) But the change from something to something more is merely quantitative while the change from nothing at all to something is qualitative. There is a greater gulf between a horse-and-buggy and a Model T than there is between the Model T and a Maserati. While urban life in 1970 would have been familiar (if amazing and hectic) to someone suddenly transported then from 1920, urban life in 1920 would have been gob-smackingly incomprehensible to someone from 1870.

This vast 1870-1920 upheaval (or singularity) in urban lives barely touched the rural areas. John B Hammontree farmed in 1920 little differently than his grandfather John H Hammontree had farmed in 1870. John Deere had begun selling the motorized tractors only in 1918.

The World of 1870

In 1870, the Civil War has been over for barely five years, and GAR veterans are everywhere. Feelings still run high, and Reconstruction holds sway in the South. The last of the soi-disant Confederate States will be readmitted this year: VA, MS, and TX. Even if some are still Territories, all the present-day States have their current boundaries, except for the Dakotas, which are still undivided. Alaska had been purchased three years ago. The Kingdom of Hawaii is still independent. The Indian Territory is 'unorganized': or as we say now, "off the grid." The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee Nations, collectively called "The Nations" in what is now south/eastern Oklahoma were quasi-independent mini-states more self-governing than the Reservations. The First Great Depression is still six years in the future. Senators are still appointed by their State legislatures. Women cannot vote. In 1870, John D. Rockefeller will form Standard Oil, the XV Amendment grants African Americans the right to vote, and over in Europe, the Franco-Prussian War breaks out, leading to the formation of the Second Reich from a passel of Germanies. Standard Oil made its bones cracking the vast lake of oil underneath Ohio into valuable kerosene. The lake of oil under Texas has not yet been discovered, let alone its aptness for making gasoline. It is still "a world lit only by fire." Edison's incandescent light bulb will not be patented for nine years.

Things we take for granted today were not yet on the radar screen. Indeed, the metaphor 'on the radar screen' would have made no sense in 1870. Hershey's milk chocolate had not yet been formulated. H.J. Heinz had not yet invented ketchup. Kellogg's corn flake is 24 years yet to come. Marconi has not been born, so radio is not even a dream. Only by the end of the '70s, will Karl Benz have invented the internal combustion engine. It has been only sixteen years since the Philadelphia half of Pennsylvania has been connected to the Pittsburgh half by the completion of Horseshoe Curve. Railroads, steamships, still photography [30 years old], and wired telegraphy [40 years old] exist, but Jacquard looms running in France off punched cards are not yet applied to tabulation, let alone computing. Almost nothing existed that we associate with modern life.

Let's take a cross-section of Flynncestry as we did for 1920. Again, they fall into two groups: blue collar workers and skilled craftsmen along the Delaware River in the East and farmers spread out across the South and West.

John Flynn and Elizabeth Lynch, ca. 1870
John Thomas Flynn (25) had emigrated to the US five years ago and married US-born Ann Elizabeth Lynch (22) that same year at Hampton Junction, Warren Co, NJ. He is a RR Laborer working in the .L.&W. Yards at Port Washington, NJ, and is living in the railroad company shanties alongside the tracks with his wife, two kids (Honora (3), Martin (1)), hia older brother Patrick (35), and two other US-born Irish RR laborers, who are presumably boarders. John can neither read nor write, but Ann can. The couple follow the Irish custom of naming: first son and first daughter after the father's parents; second son and second daughter after the mother's. Next year, his son Daniel will be born, during the course of whose life, the modern world will be born. 

While trains certainly existed in 1870, they were more primitive than those of 1920. Wikipedia tells us that the cars were joined by link-and-pin couplers, "which consisted of a tube-like body that received an oblong link. During coupling, a rail worker had to stand between the cars as they came together and guide the link into the coupler pocket. Once the cars were joined, the employee inserted a pin into a hole a few inches from the end of the tube to hold the link in place. This procedure was exceptionally dangerous and many brakemen lost fingers or entire hands when they did not get them out of the way of the coupler pockets in time. Many more were killed as a result of being crushed between cars or dragged under cars that were coupled too quickly." In another 11 years, John will suffer this fate, being crushed between two coal cars in the RR Yards at Washington.
DL&W Rail Yards, Washington, NJ, 1870

Also living in the shanty town (a/k/a "Dublin") is Daniel Lynch (54), also illiterate, a RR Laborer, but possessed of $200 real estate and $100 personal estate. Born in Stradbally, Co Waterford, Ire., he and his wife had fled from the Famine in 1847 and passed through Canada to Burlinton, VT, where his daughter, Ann Elizabeth, was born, "six days after" her parents had stepped foot in America. Today, we would call her an 'anchor baby,' but there were no immigration laws back then, and Irish and Germna Catholics were flooding into the country. He had worked his way south through CT to NJ and is now living among the other Irish RR workers in Washington, NJ, along with his wife Bridget Barry (54) and their children John (21) and Daniel (17), both RR Laborers, Bridget (15). James (12), Mary (10), and Kate (7). Notice that teenagers were expected to have jobs.

Sixteen miles to the west, in South Easton, PA, Mary Ochenfuss (28) is living with her parents John Ockofuse [sic] (74) and Mary Schmitt? (69), who had arrived from Baden in 1836. The three children in the Census list are presumably Mary's: Anthony (10), Catherine (5), and William (1). Daughter Matilda will be born next year. John (Johann) works at the Lehigh Valley Railroad yard. Daughter Mary recently married John Hetzler of Ackermanville, on February 18, 1869, but Hetzler does not appear in the Census. In 1880, she will be listed in the Census as Mary Hetsler, widow. Later, she and her children use the Ochenfuss name.

Nockamixon, 1876

Sixteen miles south of South Easton in Nockamixon township, Bucks Co., PA, lives a community of German immigrants, largely from the villages of Oberhausen and Niederhausen in the Grand Principality of Baden. They live around the chapel of Marienstein, an outpost of St. John the Baptist church of Haycock Run. Anthony Singley (40) [listed as Sengla by the Census-taker] in one of them. He is from Oberhausen, and has been in this country since at least 1850. He works as a canal boatman on the Delaware Canal and holds real estate worth $1600 and personal estate of $875. His wife Margaret Weaver (36) was born in PA, as were the five children: John (16), William (15), Mary (14), Margaret (10), and Anthony (4). Nearby is an F. Singly, presumable a brother. Anthony's mother, Elizabeth Maier, is still alive and living in Nockamixon.

Frank Metzger (39) is another Badner Canal boatman living not far from Singley with his wife Lavina Steidinger (36) and a passel of children, including Sarah (1) who will later marry young Anthony Singley.

A Lehigh 'chunker' entering the headlocks of the Delaware Canal.

Theresa Kresch & Joseph Schwar
Nearby is young Joseph Sebastian Schwar (24), a stone mason from Niederhausen and his wife Theresa Kresch (23). She was born also in Niederhausen, but emigrated separately and the two were married in Nockamixon. During their courtship, reminiscing about the Old Country, they discovered that they were 1st cousins (her mother was his father's sister) and they had to obtain a dispensation to marry. They are living with his parents Sebastian Schwar (49) also a stone mason from Niederhausen, and Theresa Phillips (47), who was born in the Alsace. There are five other children of Sebastian: William (17) and Henry (15) who are boating on the canal, and Wilhelmina (!3), Jacob (10), Lewis (8), and Theresa (4). Which in case you're keeping score, that's three Theresas Schwer in the same household. Confusin' ain't it? By 1876, J.Schware [sic] will have his own house.

Francis Joseph Schwar, 1870
Francis Joseph Schwar, son of Joseph and Theresa, will be born in December of this year (1870).

The parents of Theresa Phillips had also emigrated. Christian Phillips (also a boatman) is dead at this point, but the mother, Anna Marie Montigny (70), who had been born in Paris, still lives in Nockamixon.

A final canal boatman, in neighboring Bridgeton, Bucks Co., PA, is Conrad Hungrege (46) and his wife Magdalena Riess (33). Magdalena is from Niederhausen, but Conrad is from Westphalia in the Rhine province of Prussia. He had been a steamboat captain on the Rhine. His son, Charles (12), is also boating on the canal, presumably as his father's mule skinner.

Conrad Hungrege and Magdalena Riess in later years

Three thousand miles to the east, in Europe:

Abbey Cemetary, Loughrea
Martin Flynn (64) and his wife Honora Mahoney (67), parents of John, are living back in Loughrea, Co Galway, Ireland, with the youngest son, Martin (17) and presumably, two daughters, Mary (20) and Bridget (14). In three years, Martin Sr and Jr will join Patrick and John. (And a family legend holds that "a brother and two sisters went to CA to look for gold.") Martin and Nora had lived through the Famine, and appear to have lost two children to it. Several other Flynn are living in and around Loughrea, as farmers, wool card cutters, schoolteachers, et al.

Mary McGovern (13) is living in Co Cavan, Ire. with her parents Matthew McGovern and Mary Dolan. The Glan was a remote valley in Cavan accessible at the time only by a rough footpath over the mountain. Lewis' A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland states "...the area was approximately 16 miles in length by 7 in breadth, and was densely inhabited by a 'primitive race' known as Mac Gaurans and Dolans, who (it was reported) intermarried and observed some peculiar customs; electing their own king and queen from the ancient race of the Mac Gaurans, to whom they paid implicit obedience." I have a feeling it wasn't all that different in 1870. If this sounds like hillbilly moonshiners back in the hills and hollows, it probably should. For 1857, Mary's birth year, Griffith's Valuation of Ireland lists a Matthew McGovern Sr. and Jr. in the townland of Tonlegee, Templeport Parish, Tullyhaw Barony, County Cavan, Matthew Jr. may or may not be Mary's father.

Across the English Channel, young Fernand Cantrel (9) is living with his parents Louis Philippe Cantrel (37) and Phillipine Julie Elise Toulouse (37). The village of Quœux-Haut-Maînil is a small village located in the north of France in the township of Auxi-le-Château, part of the district of Arras, now in the department of Pas-de-Calais. Nothing further is known about their circumstances.

Meanwhile, two thousand miles southwest of Bucks Co...

John Ransom White (63) is living in Bonham Precinct 2, Fannin Co., in the recently re-admitted State of Texas. He had been born in North Carolina ca. 1806, making him a contemporary of Martin Flynn back in Ireland. He had moved to Texas around 1846 or '47. He is a farmer with real estate woth $2000 and personal estate $600. He is living with his second wife, Candace Albright (58) from TN., and three daughters. He can neither read nor write.

George Washington White
His grown son, George Washington White (31) by his first wife, the late Patsy Stanly of NC, had been born at the stage stop called Sweetwater, TN, as the family emigrated west, he is now farming in Fannin Co. with his wife, Cynthia Ann Marlow (27), whom he had married eight years before. She cannot read or write, but he can. Their real estate is worth $1200 and personal estate $1000. It is through the Marlows that George's descendants will one day claim Choctaw ancestry.
Android Photo
Cynthia Ann Marlow

 John H. Hammontree (28) a Union veteran from East Tennessee, is farming in Sugarloaf, Sebastian Co., Arkansas, 204 miles northeast of Fannin Co. TX. His real estate, west and south of Chocoville, is valued at $800 and his personal estate at $105. He cannot read or write. He is married to Rosa Gaston, who can. They have a child, Harrison (3). John had served in the 5th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry and was wounded in the right leg five years ago at the Battle of Resaca during Sherman's drive on Atlanta. This wound has given him great pain all his life. When he dies, his widow will marry their neighbor, I. Pipkin.

Meanwhile, Ephraim Jones (24) from North Carolina is also farming in Sugarloaf, with real estate worth $400 and personal estate worth $290. He can neither read nor write. His wife is given as Ellen (30) from Alabama, with three children, all born in Ark. One of them, Cordula (Cordelia) (1) will one day marry Harrison Hammontree.

Meanwhile, 740 miles northeast of Sebastian Co., in Cass Co, IN,   Joshua Tam (58) is farming, having made his way thither from Delaware decades before. His real estate is worth $1200. His second wife is Hannah W Rea (44) There are six children, including Charlie M. Tam (12), his son by late first wife Margaret Pankey. (Charlie will one day name his daughter Maggie after her and the Incomparable Marge will in turn be named after Maggie.) There are also three unrelated teenagers, who are apparently wards.

Three hundred and forty miles south of Cass County, James Columbus Eads (43) is farming in Pulaski Co, KY with his wife Louisa and five children, including Louisa Synesker Eads (12), who will one day marry Charlie Tam. He had moved there from Iredell Co., NC after 1860. A James C Eads served in the 1st KY Cavalry, USA, for which he will receive an invalid's pension in 1880.

Greenberry Harris (60), originally from Kentucky, is farming in Cold Spring, Phelps Co., MO., 514 miles west of Pulaski County. His real estate is worth $600 and personal estate $720. His wife Mary A. (48) is also from KY. Their three kids were born in Indiana. One is Joel M. Harris (15), who will someday be the father of Charles Harding Harris. Their fanily had been neighbors of Abraham Lincoln's family in Hardin Co. and moved with them to Spencer Co., IN. The Lincolns then moved to Illinois while the Harrises went on to Missouri. Green had apparently been a private in the 8th Missouri Infantry in the CSA.

James A. and wife
Miriam and James Holland

 James A Holland (43), from Mississippi, has moved to Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, 432 miles south of Cold Springs, where he married Miriam Frances DeLoach. He is a farmer.

Anna Eliza Helms
(7) is a child in the household of Gatsy Helms (45) in Miller Co., GA. Her husband, Henry Helms, like Gatsey from North Carolina, died six years ago in the Civil War, while serving in the Columbia Battery of Confederate artillery. Her real estate is worth $125 and personal estate is $183. The two boys, John (12) and Moses (10), are farm laborers. Miller County is 579 miles east of Claiborne Parish, where Anna Eliza's future husband, Henry Thomas is living.


While The Incomparable Marge's ancestors are spread out from Fannin Co, TX to Miller Co, GA to Cass Co., IN, TOF's ancestors are nestled in a small triangle Washington, NJ -- South Easton, PA -- Nockamixon, PA -- save for those still in Ireland, France, and Baden. The latter are railroad workers, canal boatmen, and stone masons. The former are entirely farmers, reflecting the essentially rural and agricultural nature of the country in 1870. They also include a large proportion of immigrants, reflecting the attraction of the North for newcomers over the poor, war-torn South. The highest tech any of them deal with is railroad trains and canal boats.


  1. Wonderful! It made me think of my Grandma Smith, born in 1883 Indiana, died in 1978 Maryland, who went from horse and buggy and telegraph to men walking on the moon. Change like that can give you whiplash!

    1. Reminds me of my cousin Manley Ruttan. He was born in 1882 in Ontario, and as a small child he was actually one of the last people to travel west to Manitoba by covered wagon before the railway was finished. He later homesteaded outside Calgary, Alberta, on land that is now fully-developed suburbia. I first met him at the celebration of his 60th wedding anniversary, when he was 92 or 93, and he died in Calgary in 1987, at the age of 105.

      Fair to say the man saw a bit in his time. Singularity is right.

  2. I can't find an email address for you, so I'm putting up this note. It looks as if "In the Country of the Blind" was not just fiction:

  3. Love these tech history bits.

    On a related note, Brian Niemeier noted that since about 1980, there have been no world-changing consumer products either. All the modern gadgets - cell phones, PCs, MP3 players, etc. - all developments on stuff we already had, nothing new.

    Areas where real basic science and tech have advanced meaningfully in that time might include material science, genetics, and - ? CERN is trying to fill in the blanks on theories approaching 100 years old. It's unclear how or if new tech is going to fundamentally change day to day life, rather than moving in the direction of the ancient Egyptian afterlife: what we've got now, just better.

    Also, tangentially, just met a man here in San Francisco, an 87 year old Irish gentleman named John Jones, who, it is said, has the largest Irish language library outside Ireland itself. He's a huge patron of all things Irish, and quite the amateur scholar.

    He was disappointed I didn't know if the Moores I come from were of the large and important central Irish clan of Moore - sadly, my dad never was much for anything genealogical, so I don't know. I got lots of information from my mom's side, and pop genetic testing confirms Czech & Slavic for 1/2 of my origins. Dad's half is a UN subcommittee meeting, non-Asian division. Could be Irish. Perhaps more modern or expensive tests would reveal it. I tried to buy him off by pointing out I'd married a 3/4 Irish lass.

    1. When my mother pointed out to my father that her 100% German ancestry )=(almost entirely Badner) plus his Ochenfuss ancestry (also Badner) meant that I was over 50% German, while the Irish comprised only 25%, he replied that one Irish bloodline cancels out all the rest.

  4. I've been catching up on your site and find your family history fascinating. This part about the cluster of Germans in Bucks Co. makes me wonder if the Steinrucks were also from those villages. In the 1920 census there were several households of them in Bucks, except for John, who'd moved to Bloomsburg and married a Patterson. My mother's research stopped there, and I haven't picked it up yet. I really need to.

    Apparently the Pattersons, and possibly the Watts that John's daughter married into, thought they were Scotch-Irish. My mother said my great-grandfather insisted that the Scotch-Irish were actually Germans who'd bounced around from place to place, and that they were therefore all German. It didn't work; your father was right.


In The Belly of the Whale: Publisher's Weekly Review & Pre-Order Links

 Hello Fans of Michael Flynn. I am pleased to let you know that Dad's novel In the Belly of the Whale will be released by CAEZIK on July...