A Second Chance at Happiness: A Generous Heart and New York City

Updated: Aug 17, 2019

A number of people have asked how I find the information I present in my family stories, so I decided to add italicized notes with tips on finding sources.


Johanna Schwickardi's early life had been difficult. In about 1900 she met John J Curry in New York City. They were two very different people from two very different backgrounds. It turns out their meeting offered both of them a second chance.


Here is John J's story.


John J. Curry was born to Patrick Curry and Mary Morgan Curry on July 31, 1863, in Albany, NY.  Both of his parents had come to the United States from Ireland. There was a large and growing Irish community in Albany during this time. John J. was baptized at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.


St. Joseph's Church, Albany, NY

The details about John J Curry’s birth came from a volunteer for the Catholic church in Albany, NY.


Tip: Check with local churches to see if they have historians, volunteers or records that may be helpful to you. These records may not be online.


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We know little about his early years, but we do know that his father Patrick died when John J. was not quite 12 years old. And John J. was the oldest of 6 children!  I cannot imagine the struggle of trying to raise 6 children ages 12 and under in 1875 in Albany, NY.  (The last child, Patrick, was born 5 months after his father died.)


The names of the siblings and the dates of baptisms – with sponsors – were obtained from the volunteer at the Catholic church in Albany.


TIP: The sponsors on baptisms or witnesses to marriages can be good clues as these people are often family members or close neighbors or friends.


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One grand niece of John J. said that her grandmother, Lizzie Curry Clifford, told stories about how John J. was really the man of the house. He took good care of his siblings, but was a strict disciplinarian.


Interviewing family members to get gather information and stories can be very important.


TIP: Record the interviews, if possible. Ask questions that are open ended, not yes-no questions.


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Albany, where the family lived, is located at the east end of the Erie Canal, and one of the most important industries in late 1800s Albany was lumber.  John J. worked as an inspector in the lumber district located along the Hudson River. His family lived close-by on North St in the North End. In fact Patrick and Mary Curry were some of the first people to live in the North End, moving there just a year or two before Patrick died.



Finding out about the history of a place can bring to life the context for your family. Using Google to find out about a town may be the first step.


TIP: See if there is a Facebook group focused on a place of interest to you. See if there is a historical society and contact them to see what their experts might suggest for your research. Check with local offices for land records and you may be able to trace land or home ownership.


Maps are a wonderful source of information and help you visualize the place where your ancestors lived. You can search Google for maps under images. Sanborn insurance maps are another great source.

TIP: Make note of the streets in the neighborhood. You may come across other family members who live on the next street or around the corner.


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John J. married Margaret Campbell in Albany in around 1890. Margaret came from an Irish Catholic family like his. Their son Joseph was born in 1891, and Samuel was born in 1893.  The family moved to New York City in late 1894 or early 1895 according to city directory information. Another son, John J., was born in February 1897.


If you cannot find the exact date of an event, you can estimate. Just make sure you note that you are not sure. I have not found the marriage record for John J. and Margaret yet.

TIP: Sometimes city directories will tell you more than where someone lives. They can also note occupations and even when someone moves. In this case, the 1895 Albany directory says John J. Curry, removed to New York City.


Albany City Directory, 1895, via Ancestry.com


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But tragedy struck the family in April 1899 when Margaret died at the age of 32. Her body was taken back to Albany, where she was buried. A newspaper article about her funeral describes “her body reposed in a lavender casket with silver trimmings.”



Albany Evening Journal, 27 April 1899, p. 8.

Newspapers can be great sources of information. For New York state (mostly but not exclusively), fultonhistory.com is a go-to source.


TIP: Use Boolean searches to narrow down your search. For example, on fultonhistory.com the search I used to find this obituary was: John J Curry and (filename contains (Albany)) and (filename contains (1860~~1900)). This narrows the search to newspapers with titles that contain Albany within the time frame from 1860 to 1900.


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On John J.’s return to New York City after the burial of his wife, he was met with another tragedy.  His youngest son, John J. Jr., became gravely ill with measles, and within days the baby was dead. John J. was left to mourn the loss of his wife and child and to raise his remaining sons Joseph and Samuel.


No one living in our family had heard of the baby John J Curry but then I found a story about him in a newspaper. I got his death certificate from New York City.


TIP: You can search indexes for birth, marriage and death records in New York City at German Geneology Group or Italiangen.org.



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Many of John J.’s immediate family moved to NYC to help him through this time. John J. and his boys lived with his mother Mary and brother Patrick. In the same building were John’s brother Dennis and Dennis’ wife Josephine, and his sister Lizzie with her husband John Clifford and children Mae and Margarette. John J. was now a grocer.


From the 1900 census.

I did not find John J. in the 1900 census in Albany, but I did find him in New York City. Looking at others on the page turned up three of his siblings as well as John J, his two remaining children and his mother.

TIP: Information in the census may be a bit off. For example, ages might not be quite right or someone may be listed as a naturalized citizen when they are not. In this census record, for example, John J is listed as born in 1868 but we know he was born in 1863.


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But then John met and married Johanna Schwickardi. We don’t know where or under what conditions they met. As I’ve said, they were very different people from different backgrounds and religions. Yet with this meeting and marriage, a new chapter in John J. Curry’s life began in 1901.  His mother, brother Dennis, and sister Lizzie (and family) all moved back to Albany.


It is good to keep a list of things you would like to know but do not know yet. I keep a list like that on Evernote. Every once in a while I look at that list and do some research to see if there are new sources out there that may help.

TIP: New sources are available all the time so don’t give up.


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Johanna and John went on to have eight children together. Johanna would also raise John’s two boys from his marriage to Margaret, and Margaret’s father Samuel Campbell lived with the family as well for a time in his last years. The story of Johanna taking on so much at such a young age fills me with awe. I remember as a girl being impressed by the stories my great aunts and uncles told about her.


I can ask my mom and other family members about Johanna & John! I’ve heard stories about John J getting his bucket of beer at the fire station to bring home. My mom remembers hearing about Pearl Harbor when she was at their house in Greenpoint in Brooklyn. Cousin David remembers traveling on a bus and subway to get their house from New Jersey. I’ve seen pictures of both of them.

TIP: Make sure you note names and dates on photographs with a photo-safe pen.



John J. Curry and Johanna Schwickardi Curry with son Woody - probably in the 1930s.

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Both John and Johanna had suffered serious losses as children. Life had been cruel. But New York City introduced them to each other and gave them another chance at creating a family. Perhaps that’s one reason why they never left the city. It was home.


You don’t have to write a whole life story. An overview or short snippets of an ancestor’s life is great. Just begin. And if you need help, ask in Facebook groups, genealogical societies, or us at the Family Narrative Project!

TIP: And if you don’t know where to start, you might think about the following:

* Who were the generous ones in your family?

* Who helped others?


And remember that:

* Life is full of both ups and downs – describe both.

* Individuals matter to be sure, but so does a person’s environment and context.

Time and place can have a significant impact on a person and a family.


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Let me know if you have additional tips or if you have questions about anything I've written.

~ Laura