I joined a new book club this week. A group of seven met for a three hour discussion of the types of books that hold our interest. About 50, most historical fiction, were named. Everyone in the room had read 95%. Everyone but me. I was a bit intimidated and embarrassed. I have always been an avid reader. What am I reading now? Books related to my genealogy, or so I thought.
Many of my friends and family members don’t understand my obsession with genealogy. Most think I spend my days collecting birth, marriage and death dates. Then I read the following on About.com:
Ahhhh…. I am not a genealogist!! I am reading books related to family history to help my “genealogy come alive”!
I was thinking of my mother’s grandmother Salomėja Markevičiūtė when I selected the title, White Field, Black Sheep.
The story depicts a girl, born and raised in Chicago in the 1960/70’s, in a household where Lithuanian was the first language. A home where her parents didn’t quite understand the ways of America – a country with Barbie Dolls, Hostess Cupcakes and Captain Kangaroo. While my great-grandmother’s story began much earlier, I suspect Salomėja struggled similarly with her “Americanized” children and new homeland.
Salomėja Markevičiūtė (Morris) was born in in Stanioniai, Lithuania, on 26 Sept 1870, to Baltramiejus Markevičius and Viktorija Bukaitė. Her known siblings included: Jurgis (1853), Elžbieta (1854), Georgijus (1861), Antanas (1867), Kazimieras (1868) and Rapolas (1873).
Salomėja (and her husband) were of peasants, who most likely had a Polish master, whom they paid either with harvest or money. Essentially they were slaves; not entirely like American slaves, but slaves nonetheless. Although slavery in Lithuania was abolished in 1861 it likely went on a bit longer.
From 1864-1904, under the Russian Tsar, as part of a “Russification plan”, it was illegal to print, import, distribute, or possess any publications in the Latin alphabet. Peasants who were literate hid books in walls of their wooden houses and woods and taught children in the evenings to read and write in Lithuanian, Polish and/or Russian. Lithuanian books were printed in Prussia (where the Kaliningrad region of Russia lies now) and smuggled to Lithuania by the Knygnešiai, who were considered criminals in Russia but patriots and heros in Lithuania.
Under the ban, parish schools were closed. In the state schools (a system of searches, inspections, and spying) students were not allowed to speak Lithuanian. Many parents pulled their children and schooled them at home, in small secret groups or not at all, likely contributing to the high illiteracy rate. The Lithuanian census in 1897 showed that only 54.68% of persons aged 10 to 19 had some level of formal education. Salomėja (and her husband) could neither read nor write according to immigration paperwork [although this conflicts with the 1910-30 US census enumerators, who reported Salomėja could speak English, read and write].
Salomėja married on 18 February 1897, Juozas Baltrūnas, in nearby Pumpėnai, Pasvalys, Lithuania. He was born 15 December 1872 [3 April 1898 on the Julian calendar], in Preibiai village, son of Antanas Baltrūnas and Anelė Orinskaitė/Arlauskaitė.
In 2001, there were 11 people living in Preibiai and 40 people living in Stanioniai. Alternate spellings would be Preibių kaimas and Stanionių kaimas which mean village of Stanioniai and Preibiai. The closest church until 1910 was in Pumpenai so they all were baptized/married there even though it is a bit far. In 1910 there was a church built in Paistrys town, which is across the road from Stanioniai. Stanioniai and Preibiai are today in Paistrys parish and Paistrys county.
The migration by 1900 was substantial. The majority of Lithuanians who departed were young bachelors or married men searching for work. They made a living through menial labor; 48% were illiterate. At least two of Salomėja’s brothers had immegrated previously. They likely wrote home describing the opportunities of America, sent tickets and money and invited friends and relatives to join them. They were likely the sponsors of the new immigrants, and provided them with lodgings. This practice of chain migration helped to establish close Lithuanian communities in the New World.
In the 19th century railroads and ocean-going steamships made it easier to leave their agricultural hinterland for the industrial and educational wonders elsewhere. Steamship and railroad companies distributed brochures and posters, heavily marketing America as a country of opportunity, employment, and a better quality of life, in an effort to drum up business.
Since emigration from Lithuania (then under Russian rule) was illegal, most crossed the border illegally. The crossing was relatively easy due to the corruption of Russian border officials and through the aid of emigration agents. The penalties for those caught, were mild.
The practice of one member of a family going to America first and then saving to bring the others over was common. In early 1900, our family patriarch, Juozas, perhaps departed from the nearby Panevezys train station (opened in 1873). A train with black engines and wooden carriages. He seemed to be travelling alone on the 1,100+ mile journey to his steamship.
Travelers might have to wait days to months at the port, either for completion of paperwork or awaiting their ship’s arrival, as train and steamship schedules were not coordinated. Steamship companies were required to put up waiting customers in boardinghouses.
Juozas purchased a ticket for about $30 and departed from Antwerp, Belgium on 7 April 1900 aboard the Kensington, part of the Red Star Line. The manifest lists him as “Jozef Baltrunas, married, age 25”: http://tinyurl.com/yf8lxbp (Ancestry) or http://tinyurl.com/yl3yw3k (Ellis Island) line number 16.
Juozas was in the bottom of the boat, crammed with 1,500 to 2,000 other immigrants, in steerage, which was lined with bunks, one on top of the other. He likely hit many bad storms at sea. It would rain hard, and he was often wet and shivering. After eleven long, miserable days of human stench, the smell of unattended vomit and substandard food, he arrived at New York on 18 April 1900. By the time the tiring trip approached its long-awaited end, he was likely a state of shock physically and emotionally; yet he was up on deck in his best clothes, cheering alongside fellow passengers at the sight of the breathtaking and magnificent Statue of Liberty.
According to the New York Tribune, the weather was “showery” – temperatures ranged from 52 to 63 degrees the day he arrived. The boat anchored at mid-bay and perhaps after a day or two on ship and several hours of confinement on an overcrowded tender without food, water or adequate restrooms, he arrived at Ellis Island. The Ellis Island immigration depot was a processing center for third-class ship passengers (first and second class passengers where usually processed on the ship). Passengers were tagged with their name and a number that corresponded to the ship manifest.
Juozas was hailed by officials with pointing fingers, and commands in an unrecognizable language, to join a long line stretching from the dock to the second floor floor of main building where a team of doctors and inspectors checked passengers for sixty symptoms ranging from anemia to varicose veins. Of primary concern were cholera, favus (scalp and nail fungus), insanity, and mental impairments. Anyone afflicted, was marked with a chalked code and detained for further examination. About 2% were deemed incurable, insane or criminal and would be returned to their departure port at the expense of the Red Star Line.
Juozas passed inspection, his mental and physical condition was good and he was not deformed or cripple. He was waved toward the main part of the registry room, a room 200 feet long and 100 feet wide, where there was further interrogation, with the assistance of an interpreter, in an attempt to determine his entrance eligibility based on social, economic, and moral fitness. Officials asked him many questions like what he did for a living back in Lithuania and what his plans were in America. They confirmed that he had never been in prison, was not a polygamist or under contract to labor in the US. Luckily, literacy was not an entry requirement until 1917, because he couldn’t read or write.
About 5,000 people were likely processed in the registration room that day. On average, it took three to five hours to get through the process. Once approved, Juozas collected his baggage and made arrangements to have it sent to Boston, exchanged the $3 in his pocket for US Currency (about $83 in 2014 buying power), perhaps showered, ate a box lunch and boarded the ferry to Manhattan to begin the final leg of his journey.
Juozas’s final destination was the home of his brother-in-law, Kazimieras “Kaz” Markevičius (who paid his passage), in Boston, Massachusetts.
Juozas is not found in the 1900 census in Boston or elsewhere. Census day was 1 June 1900, six weeks after his arrival. We don’t know if he had an accurate address for Kaz, enough cash to get him to Boston or who actually reported the census data (perhaps he was there, and a neighbor who wasn’t aware of Juozas arrival, spoke to the enumerator).
Salomėja ‘s brother, Kazimieras (a machinist),who had arrived in 1895 claiming his final destination as “Freeland”, was enumerated under the name Charles Morris. He was living on West 8th Street, South Boston, with his brother Rafael Morris (a clothing baster), sister-in-law Anastasia and their son, two year old, Peter all whom had arrived in 1898.
Juozas surfaces in 1902, as Joseph Billie, a molder working for E.D. Jones and Sons (where he worked until 1907). He boarded at 107 Wahconah, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a beautiful town nestled in the Berkshire Hills.
E.D. Jones and Sons, on Depot St., were machinery and equipment manufacturers, whose primarily customers were paper mills. Their niche was stock preparation equipment particularly beaters and jordans. They made dusters, for a variety of uses; stuff chests, rag washers, water turbines, pumps, elevators, mill line shafting and many other special items http://paperindustryweb.com/jones/jonesstorychapter5.htm.
That same year, Salomėja and her young son, Antanas, age 2 (the ship manifest lists him as age 3 years, 6 months), made the journey to America on the Red Star Line’s Zeeland – http://tinyurl.com/ksp495h [see line 25 & 26]. Their passage was paid by Juozas. They have tickets to their final destination of 200 Wachonah Street in Pittsfield and $12 cash (about $332 in 2014 buying power).
The pair followed the same path and departed from Antwerp on 12 April 1902 , arriving in New York on Tuesday, 22 April. The NY Tribune reports the weather on that date as warm and fair with unseasonably high temperatures ranging from 64 to 85 degrees. It must have been stifling inside the crowded registry room.
Children were asked their name to make sure they weren’t deaf or dumb, and those that looked over two-years-old were taken from their mothers’ arms and made to walk. Likely Salomėja was frightened by the clinical routine. Examination by a male doctor was traumatic for a woman who had never been touched by a man, other than her husband.
Unescorted women and children were usually detained until their safety was assured through the arrival of a telegram, letter, or a prepaid ticket from a waiting relative. Since they had a prepaid ticket, is not likely that anyone would greet the pair at the port of New York. Mother and infant son were to travel alone to Massachusetts. Imagine the anticipation – a young woman, alone in a strange country with a strange language, protector of her infant son.
Life in America
By 1903, the family had relocated to 13 Leidhold Place where they were boarders along with Samuel Billie/Billings of Lithuania, son of Frank Billings (possibly related to Juozas). Samuel lived with the family in Pittsfield from 1903 to 1911 with the exception of 1906 when he resided on 29 Alder Street. He worked at ED Jones as a foundry worker, attended St Joseph’s church and was divorced with two children. He died 18 February 1922, age 44, after 13 months at the tuberculosis camp.
Their landlord was Louis Leidhold, a contractor involved with real estate, who lived at number 12 Leidhold. Interestingly, Louis’s dad Erdman Leidhold was a well known citizen who had immigrated from Germany about 1863 having made considerable money owning a successful beer garden. For the 35 years preceding his death in 1913, he slept in a tent from May to October, in his front yard in Pittsfield, to reap the health benefits of the Berkshires’ fresh air.
Likely the Baltrūnas/Billings family rented one room from Leidhold, in a wooden double tenement house, he had built in 1895.
Similiar tenement on nearby Seymour
Soon Salomėja’s niece and nephew (her sister Elžbieta’s children) Raphael Vyšniauskas (Wishnewski) and Ona (Anna) Vyšniauskas (Wishnewski) arrived and moved in with the family. Sometime before July 1906, the group relocated a few blocks away, to 87 Madison Avenue/Tierney Place.
In October 1906, niece Ona (Anna) Vyšniauskas (Wishnewski) married Antanas (Anthony) Gasiunas (Gasson/Gaston), of Gelaziai, Pasvalys, Lithuania and settled in Pittsfield. Perhaps Salomėja and Juozas introduced the pair as their addresses on the marriage record were listed as 87 Madison Avenue and 29 Alder Street, now Danforth Street (residence of Samuel Billings that year).
Anthony and Anna had 3 children who in 1971 were all living in Pittsfield – Daisy/Blanche (1909-1990), Bronislaw/Bernard/Brone (1907-1982) and Coziemaria/ Charlotte (1912-1995).
Anna & Anthony Gasson with their children (left to right) Daisy, Bernard and Charlotte
Meanwhile Salomėja and Juozas had four additional children:
(1) Baby Biller, stillborn female born to Joseph Biller and Selomie (Morris) of 10 Leidhold Place, born 18 May 1903, burial at St. Joseph.
(2) Charles Anthony Billei (who took the surname Billings). a male born to Joseph and Solomei (Morris) of 13 Leidhold Place, 27 June 1904.
(3) Ralph Alphonse Billie (who took the surname Billie and was listed in some records as Roland, Rafeal, Raphael), a male, born to Joseph and Salomi (Morris) of 87 Madison Avenue, 16 July 1906
(4) Celina Connie Billie (who took the name Connie Barton and was listed in some records as Celina, Domicela, Demencella, Domind), a female born to Joseph and Salome Morris of 87 Madison Avenue, 15 June 1908. Connie’s niece recalls her saying that she used the surname Barton because the schools did not understand her mother and wrote the name Barton in the records.
By 1908 Juozas was employed at “The GE” Company, in 1909 he was working for the SGI Company and in 1910 he reports being a molder at the electrical works (likely GE). Salomėja was a self employed laundress. In 1910, their census address is 87 Tierney [likely 87 Madison Avenue which was on the corner of Tierney and Madison]. Living with the family are lodgers John Kidz, Jacob Gessing and Michael Jorg, all single and Russian-Polish. Nephew Raphael is no longer with the family, his whereabouts are unknown.
This was a difficult time for the family. Juozas was physically abusive and an alcoholic. A courageous Salomėja left him in 1911, taking the four children (ages 13, 7, 6 and 3) and relocating to Athol, Massachusetts near her brother Kazimieras/Charles. She had to rely on the city for assistance as Juozas did not feel obligated to pay child support. Juozas remained on 87 Madison Avenue (when he wasn’t in jail) until 1916, when he disappears. He may have died, left the area or changed his name to avoid paying child support.
The following notices appeared in local newspapers:
4 May 1910 – Springfield Republican
- Superior Court : Joseph Billie was charged with assault and battery on his wife and drunkenness. He pleaded not guilty to both charges and the cases were continued to this morning. His wife was the complainant in both cases.
24 July 1911 – Springfield Republican
- Joseph Billie who was recently before the district court on a charge of nonsupport and was released on his own recognizance, was surrendered by probation officer Evans yesterday for nonpayment of the amount he agreed to give to the support of his wife.
30 August 1911 – Springfield Republican
- BerkshireCounty News: Joseph Billie was sentenced to the house of corrections for 30 days on a charge of drunkenness.
2 April 1914 – Springfield Republican
- District Court Cases: Joseph Billie was arrested in Athol and brought to Pittsfield was charged with nonsupport in the district court yesterday. He pleaded not guilty, but was found guilty and sentenced to three months in the house of correction, 50 cents a day to be paid his wife during that time for the labor of Billie at the jail. Mrs Billie said that Mr Billie had given her but $30 in the past 2 ½ years and the city had been assisting her considerably during that time. Formerly, when Billie was ordered to turn his wages over to his wife, he took a position under another name, and it was a month before this was found out. He then went to Athol. A West Pittsfieldite arrested for drunkenness said $10 had been stolen from him. He had $108 on his person when he was arrested. After ordering the defendant to put his money in the bank the court told him to go forth and do better.
23 August 1915 – Springfield Republican
- Joseph Billie was arrested by Deputy Sherriff in Williamstown Saturday and brought to Pittsfield and this morning will be arraigned in district court on a charge of non support of his wife. It is an old case, as Billie was ordered on April 3rd last to pay his wife $5 a week and has failed to comply with the order.
On a lighter note, in 1912, Athol celebrated their 150th anniversary. Perhaps the family was in the crowd viewing the parade.
View of horses at the water trough looking down Main Street (now Uptown Common) in 1913 (about 1 mile from their home).
Before 1917 Salomėja’s son Antanas/Anthony had returned to Pittsfield and was residing with his Gasson cousins and working as a chair builder for Berkshire Wooden Company until 1923, when he left for Detroit, Michigan.
By 1920, Salomėja was working as a shoemaker, living at “57 rear off Pine” in Athol, about a block from her brother Charles (who resided on Freedom), with her four children. She reports that she is widowed (divorce/separation was a disgrace in those years, so we don’t know for sure).
Her brother Charles died in 1925. Salomėja and Connie lived together for several years in Athol, moving a few times.
By 1928 they resided on Cottage. In 1930 they lived at 387 South Street. Salomėja was working as a laborer at a comb factory. Sons Ralph and Charles had returned to Pittsfield to work, Charles was living with his Gasson cousins. By 1934 Salomėja moved to 56 Sanders with Peter and Nellie Balchuinas (relation if any, unknown – Connie remained at 387 South Street). By 1936 Connie had moved to Dover, New Hampshire for a year, returning to Athol shortly before her mother’s death.
On 5 March 1938 Athol death records report that Sally Baltrunas (Morris) wife of Joseph, female, white, widowed, 68 yrs, 5 mon old died of intestinal malignancy, without a physician in attendance, at her home. She was buried at Gethsemane Cemetery in Athol. Sadly we are left without many details of her life.
Salomėja’s children Ralph and Connie never married. Ralph worked on a ship and died in San Francisco in 1943. Connie for many years worked for the Starrett Company. She died in Athol in 1974 and was buried near her mother at Gethsemane Cemetery.
City directories indicate her son Anthony, “Tony” left for Detroit, Michigan in 1923. Not much is known of him. His two nieces (Charles’ daughters) recall that he arrived one Easter at their foster home in Malden, Massachusetts (early 1940’s) with gifts of solid chocolate bunnies. Details are fuzzy, but they recall his having one leg (or arm) missing and residing in New York.
A 1924 newspaper article mentions an Anthony Billings of Troy, New York being treated at the hospital for lacerations to his head, received while on a job site (Hotel Van Curler, Schenectady), working for Atlas Roofing of Newburgh as a sheet metal worker.
In in the 1930 Albany, New York census he was likely residing with 73-year-old John Bruce at 103 Broadway. Anthony was single. It appears that he never married. The census tells us that he never attended school but could read and write. He was a laborer working odd jobs.
His 1940 Alien Registration Papers report a residence of 530 East Washington Ave., Bridgeport, Connecticut on 23 Dec 1940. He “thinks” he entered the United States through New York in 1900 (exact date and ship name/unknown) under the name Anthony Baltrun. He uses the name Tony Billie. He is single with no wife or children; parents are deceased. He is 5’4″, 140 pounds with brown-gray hair and blue eyes. He has been in the United States for 40 years, having been born in or near Kovono (Kaunas), Lithuania (but does not know the Providence) has not registered for citizenship and plans to remain in the United States permanently. He is usually a laborer but at the time was unemployed. He has never been arrested or in the military and belongs to no clubs or other organizations. Included is a print of his right index finger.
He died 26 May 1955 and is buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, St John’s Catholic Church in Rensselaer, New York.
Her son Charles (my grandfather) married Yvonne Marie Roy daughter of Paul/Pius Roy and Laura Marie Melanson and had four children. They first resided in Gardner, then Lynn, Massachusetts. When the children were young Yvonne was admitted to the hospital with TB, Charles worked nights and left the children alone, but asked the woman upstairs to keep watch. Another neighbor reported the situation to the state; three children were placed in foster care and a fourth in an institution. The couple separated. He never saw his children again (Yvonne saw them a few times, she was a bartendar and heavy drinker). He died in 1959 in Danvers, Massachusetts and is buried at Forestdale Cemetery in Malden, Massachusetts.
Yvonne (Roy) and Charles Billings
Although supporting records have not been located, it is possible that Salomėja’s father Baltramiejus came to America. Her brother Charles/Kazimieras’ grandson wrote the following to his cousin:
July 29, 1987.
I hope you have the picture I sent you recently of our grandparents. I am a clot . I realize, now, that I could have sent you some added information. Again, maybe you know it. If not, here is some history for your family tree.
Your Grandmother, Maggie Bennett, whose formal maiden name was Magdelena Bendisnhas (Bendisnskas?) was born on July 22, 1886. My Mother, Nellie Morris, who became Nellie Vinnis was from Athol Mass on October 16, 1904. You an see by the dates that our Grandmother was only 18 when she had my mother,
Our Grandfather, Charles Morris, was born on March 4, 1874. His occupation was mechanic or as was listed on my mothers birth certificate. He worked in a shoe factory in Athol, had a house, farm, cow, chickens, dog, cat, etc.
Many men came to his farm to talk politics. Our grandmother did everything, including making butter and ice cream. Your mother and mine were required to go out to the woods to pick blueberries. They couldn’t come home until each filled a bucket. Our grandfather brought home to Athol his father from Lithuania. My mother said that he looked so distinguished, something like Mark Twain, with lots of white hair and a large white mustache. He didn’t have to work, so he walked all over town to talking to anyone and everyone. He was well known. They found him dead one day sitting by a tree looking at a stream.
Sorry I didn’t include some of this sooner. You may find it interesting. Again, best wishes for you and your family.
Salomėja’s brother Kazimieras legally changed his name to Charles Morris when he became an American citizen in 1908. He had 6 children with Maggie, who he married in Worcester, 30 August 1902: Mary Louise who died as an infant, Nellie (1904-1977), Anastasia Maggie (1905-1986), Paul Peter (1908-1950), Veto (1911-1959) and Edward (1918-1978). He resided in Athol until his death in 1924. That same year his daughter Nellie relocated to Detroit, Michigan (city directories indicate her cousin Anthony relocated there as well).
Charles and Maggie Morris
Salomėja’s daughter Connie writes in a letter dated 1971 to her niece: “…I have a cousin in Chicago [Charles daughter Nellie (Morris) Vinnis] and another in Conn. [Charles’ daughter Anastasia Maggie “Nat” (Morris) Stone] and three in Pittsfield [the Gasson’s]. When I’m in Pitts – I visit them all but I stay with one cousin closer to my age [Daisy Gasson]. We’ve been friendly since childhood. Last summer I was with her during my vacation. We rode by the place I was born, the house was torn down and in that area they built a housing development for the elderly.…”
Daisy’s son Mitt recalls sleeping on Connie’s floor in his childhood, in Athol, Massachusetts, when he and his mom traveled there to attend the “Lithuanian beer drinking parties”. Mitt could not recall the names of the other relatives who attended (he was born in 1935). When Connie passed away, a number of photos were found in her apartment: Click here to view photos
Salomėja’s brother Rapolas and his wife Anastazija Maikštėnaitė remained in South Boston. It is unknown if they stayed in touch. Rapolas’ first son Peter/Petras Markevičius was born in Stanioniai on 12 April 1898 and baptized in Pumpėnai 19 April, (the day before Salomėja’s son Anthony was born). Three more children were born in America: Katherine/Katie (1901), Ann/Annie (1902) and Alice (1909). Rapolas died in 1954.
Autosomal DNA testing has further strengthened the case!
My mom and two Lithuanian cousins all match on chromosome 5: