Imaginative Ancestry: “War is coming to Europe”


Fred was sitting on his back porch, beer in hand watching the sun go down. It was mid summer of 1938 and he was in a contemplative frame of mind thinking about England and his native Cornwall, not something he’d done for a while but the setting sun made him think of the absolute certainty of war in Europe. A Germany humiliated by the oppressive conditions forced upon them following the First World War followed by the rise of a totalitarian dictator made it a certainty. A cowardly appeasing British government made matters worse.

His thoughts turned to his late mother, Jane, a hard working woman who had been a Bal Maiden at 11 working at the tin mines of St Blazey, Cornwall, his dad Richard who had gone to Chile as a miner for almost 10 years, something Fred still didn’t understand. In fact it was his dad’s continued absence in 1891 that led him to emigrate to USA with his wife and two young sons, certain that as a skilled carpenter and wheelwright he would easily find work. He was right! And here he was now with his own house, 144 Chestnut St, Oneonta, NY, fully owned with no mortgage, three fine sons, and a good retirement pension from the Delaware & Hudson Railroad Company after a long service as a Mill Foreman in Carbondale.

His youngest son, Harry, still worked there as a machinist at the Roundhouse. He had a lot to be thankful for, but he missed his dear wife who had died three years ago and who had been his soulmate for almost 50 years. He didn’t know how much longer he could endure without her and often thought about the momentous decision that brought them here in 1891 on the Steamship Umbria.


Fred “endured” for just a further 12 months, passing away in December 1939 at the age of 71 and 30 years after he became a naturalised American citizen. He was my 1st cousin 2x removed, and the son of my great great aunt Jane Waters who had been a Bal Maiden working at the mines of St Blazey, Cornwall.

With wife Elizabeth and sons Frederick (3yrs) and Reginald (4mo) they left England and set sail from Liverpool on 20th May, 1891, on RMS Umbria and arrived at New York on June 1st.

Fred seemed to have found work immediately with the Delaware and Hudson Railway Company, initially as a wheelwright and rising to be foreman of a railcar repair mill. They seemed to moved around the state a little, living mostly in Carbondale and Oneonta and at two specific addresses which are listed for them in the US City Directories. Both houses survive to this day and were declared as being each worth $4000 in 1935 and about $130,000 today.


I probably shouldn’t generalise, or guess, about the context of cousin Fred’s life and any measures of success, because compared with England, I know very little about the social history of America at this time. But to leave home as they did and sail across the ocean to make a new life must have been both exciting and terrifying. Imagine the voyage with a 4 month old baby, the landing and immigration chaos, seeking immediate lodging and work. Fred and Elizabeth must have been very tough, their characters and constitutions almost chiselled from the rock of a Cornish mine, and Fred’s trade and experience as a carpenter and wheelwright will have been in high demand. The need for skilled workers such as Fred was undoubtedly “fuelled” by a series of events based on coal, canals and railroads connecting Carbondale and New York. Here’s my timeline from some simple research, if any of my American friends can add to this or correct something please comment:

  • 1790s Josiah White experiments with anthracite, rock coal, and successfully finds how to use it as a substitute for charcoal in metal smelting.
  • 1820s William Wurts, a Philadelphia merchant, discovers deposits of anthracite on a “nature walk” in Northeastern Philadelphia
  • 1823 Wurts persuades his brothers to join him in building a canal to transport the anthracite to the fuel hungry city of New York and they found the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company
  • 1826 A gravity railroad is built to move the excavated coal from the mines to the canal with the first locomotive involved being The Stourbridge Lion built in England by the engineer John Urpeth Rastrick.

  • 1828 The canal is completed and transportation of coal to New York begins
  • 1840s The railroad is extended as more mines are opened, transporting coal to the canal.
  • 1860 A railroad passenger service begins west of Carbondale
  • {1891 Frederick Cundy and family arrive in US and begin working for D&H}
  • 1898 The canal carries its last load of coal, the railroad is now “king”
  • 1899 The company changes its name to The Delaware & Hudson Company (Railroad Corporation)

So, adding these historical facts together then overlaying them on Fred’s experience of being a wheelwright around Cornish tin mines with ore being transported by canal and railroad…… bingo ….. we have a match!


Overall, Fred’s story has a successful feel to it, certainly compared to some of my relatives from that era who ended their days in a Workhouse! As I researched his life and read up a little history of the Carbondale railroad I remembered a TV series we watched a year ago, Hell On Wheels starring Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon, a former confederate soldier. It was a completely absorbing tale of the building of the Union Pacific Railroad and really worth checking out! Click the picture for more.


7 thoughts on “Imaginative Ancestry: “War is coming to Europe”

  1. People seemed a lot tougher in those days and really they had to be, don’t you think? Those who emigrated were thrusting themselves into a completely different world and usually had to adapt to something of which they’d had no previous experience. Not to lessen your own family’s story and stories (whether coming from your own imagination or fact) but I wonder if there are many people now whose families didn’t have one or more ancestors who embarked on these sorts of journeys to escape poverty or other problems.

    Mine came over from eastern europe at the turn or early years of the 20th century, some came to the UK, some went to South America. One branch, family legend has it, thought they were headed for America and landed instead in Wales! I presume (all assuming it’s actually true) that it was because they didn’t speak the language and simply couldn’t properly understand what was happening.

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    1. There were tens of thousands who migrated from Britain, some forcibly so to penal colonies! But many were experts in high demand, miners, carpenters, wheelwrights, engineers, blacksmiths ….. But all hard working and willing to labour for a new life.

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  2. Hi again, and thank you again. Waitrose shopping finished so time to write. The “imaginative” approach came to me a while ago, a mixture of my life experience and education I suppose. Originally a PhD in chemistry taught me research, fact seeking, verification etc etc. Then a further degree in Psychology plus Philosophy opened my approach to more ethereal things. Marrying a Buddhist and becoming one added to the funny mix. But, for years my writing and work was more factual and systematic, until I wrote a few posts as conversations with Buddha on topics related to politics, wine, race, democracy etc. I found it quite stimulating so doing something similar with family history went the same way. Mostly I try to imagine my ancestors lives, working as miners, ironworkers, navvies, agricultural workers, how they were affected by the politics, economists and other such factors of the day. It has me buried in a mountain of books …… industrial archaeology, Corbett, Pepys Diaries, The industrial Revolution etc. I suppose a lot of it came from a particular type of question one is occasionally asked “if you could have a conversation with anyone from the past who would it be” and my answers are always the same; Isaac Newton, Ernest Shackleton, and Buddha! Anyway, enough blathering, I hope you enjoy reading my stuff and I look forward to some engaging conversations. 🙏👍🍷

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  3. I’ve only just now read a couple of things on your blog, but I’m commenting already to say I *love* the way your brain works with all of this and adore this idea of Imaginative Ancestry. This is just such an exciting approach to me.

    I’m really interested myself in not just recording family facts but in *telling family stories,* understanding social and historical contexts and things that can characterize families over generations – filling in gaps and thinking micro-historically. Even when it is possible, it’s complex and time-consuming work that I don’t often manage to do well. But it’s a goal 🙂 And so I’m intrigued by the possibilities with your approach here, and I’m wondering why I didn’t ever think of it 🙂 Why didn’t it occur to me you can use imagination and maybe even intuition in this endeavor (without distorting actual facts or losing sight of “the record”) simply by *calling it something,* identifying it as its own kind of inquiry or exploration or lens?Explicitly acknowledging that it isn’t going to follow the same “rules” as the “book report method” nor is it going to be a novelization driven by principles of narrative and characterization, though it might involve some elements of those? It’s a complementary method or approach with its own value. And it just didn’t even occur to me until I saw you were working on something here called Imaginative Ancestry. Wow.

    Then I saw you had Seale and Waters names listed, and then I saw you had a post on Chaucer, so I’m fascinated before I’ve even read much. Well, I’m rambling and probably making an idiot out of myself so I’ll stop, but I’m glad I wandered over here and look forward to reading more 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Gerry, I wondered where you’d gone😂. I suppose I’m a bit idiosyncratic regarding my ancestry, not to everyone’s taste in my posts but it’s always the contexts that interest me. A couple of different ones next …. one of our conversations with Buddha and another on our planned extension of a Tour of England! Gives me breathing space for ancestor scrutiny 👍

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