Random Thoughts from a Night with the Dyer Family

by Juliana Smith

Did you ever have one of those nights of research where it just seemed like someone was reaching through time trying to tell you something? That happened to me last week. I don’t know what exactly they were getting at, but what I do know is that I am re-energized and ready to pursue what has been one of my more difficult family lines.

I set aside a night of research figuring it would provide me with a good topic for this week’s column. I was wrong. I actually ended up with several ideas. As I went through my typical methodologies, a few points came to mind that thought I’d share.

Long-Overlooked Families Can Be Promising
First a little background. Some of you may recall me mentioning my second great-grandfather, Captain Edwin Brough Dyer of the Brooklyn Police Department. (His photo was posted on the blog last month.) Because of his position on the police force, much of his life and career is well documented in newspapers. However, his origins are a bit less clear.

His mother’s name was Eliza Jane Nelson. According to an aunt, his father was a French seaman who was washed overboard and lost at sea. And indeed, his marriage dispensation lists him as Edwin Doyer Durain and his father’s name as James. His mother then married a man named James Dyer and she had three daughters with him. We have traced Eliza, Edwin and her daughters as far back as the 1850 census, but the trail went cold there. Since then, we’ve kind of gone into that gathering mode where we continue to collect any scrap of information we can find, but the line has not really been delved into for a while. This was to be their night.

Begin With Review
When you’re going to dive into a family that you haven’t worked with in a while, it’s best to review what you have and try to identify, what is stopping progress on the line. Look for gaps in your research. On this particular evening, I found several in mine. Some were understandable since I hadn’t really devoted a lot of time to the line in the past couple of years. Since then new records and indexes have become available online and using them I was able to fill in some gaps. Plus my mom had pulled quite a few city directory listings for the 1840s and 1850s that we needed to sort through. I began organizing the new information and reviewed what we had so that I would have a better feel for how to proceed.

Expand Your Searches
I found quite a few research gaps in searching for extended family. There were several other Dyer families in the area, including one that appears to have been very prominent in seafaring circles. Although the Dyers aren’t blood relations to our family, if I can find a connection, I may find clues to Edwin’s early days and origins.

Because we now have so much data available to us from home, it’s possible to pull census entries, directories, passenger arrivals, naturalization records, and more from the comfort of home. While some research will require travel, correspondence, or even hiring a researcher with access to distant repositories, online sources can represent a significant chunk of research. This frees us up on those rarer occasions when we can venture out to a library, archive, or some other repository of interest. It can also give us the information needed to write for church and other records.

A few weeks ago, George wrote an article called Timelining Your Ancestor, in which he discussed putting your ancestors in context with historical events that occurred in their lifetimes. These are wonderful tools, and I like to create chronologies that include not only historical events, but every single record I have found of them. Putting all the gathered bits and pieces of an ancestor’s life really puts things in perspective, and on this particular evening, the timeline I created brought some interesting things to the surface.

An 1844 Brooklyn directory listed a Jane Dyer living at 133 Nassau, with the occupation of seamstress. In 1846-47, Eliza Jane Dyer appears, listed as a widow, at Sands and Green, and in 1848, she is again listed as widow, this time at 94 Concord, where she would continue to appear for the next couple years until 1850 when she moved to 16 Harper Ct. where she would reside until around 1861.

As I compiled her directory entries chronologically, I could see that she remained within a small area of Brooklyn, not really moving more than a few blocks, so I’m fairly confident that all of the addresses belong to the same Eliza Jane Dyer. (She’s also one of the few Dyers in Brooklyn at that time.)

When I added in the entry in the 1850 U.S. census though, I found a little surprise. Her daughter Emaline was listed as two years old, yet Eliza had been listed as a widow since 1846-47. Either she had a really long pregnancy, or something was amiss here. There are several possible reasons for this, one of which is pretty obvious. If James Dyer was dead by the 1846-47 directory, Emaline and possibly her sister Mary/Mollie, born ca. 1846, were not really Dyers either.

It could also be that the Eliza Jane in the directory wasn’t the same woman as my Eliza Jane. That seems unlikely though, given that her 1850 census entry is in the 4th Ward, placing her in the same area as the directories indicated. I may never know the reasons behind it for sure, but my best bet will be to research Emaline and Mollie in other records.

One Bite at a Time
To try to get a better feel for the Dyer families in the area, I turned to the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle” online through the Brooklyn Public Library. Typically I searched only for Edwin, but since I was looking for any information on Dyer families in Brooklyn, I left out the given name. This resulted in more than 3,600 hits. To narrow it down, I also chose a date range from 1841 to 1850. Since this is the decade for which I have the least information, it seemed a good starting place.

I started a log of my searches in the BDE database, and plan to periodically go through all of the entries, a decade or so at a time. The log is in the front of my notebook and I have also noted any interesting articles I found.

Sometimes Its Just a Coincidence
One article that caught my eye was a recount of a shipwreck in which one of the few survivors, a James S. Dyer recounted his harrowing experience to the captain of the ship that rescued him. The date of the newspaper, 10 October 1846, doesn’t quite fit with Eliza’s first directory listing as a widow. Because the account said that “The poor fellows were mere skeletons. . .” and they had been at sea surviving on barely any supplies for ten days, it’s possible he eventually succumbed, but the directory information was likely gathered earlier in 1846, and unless she had a premonition of his upcoming demise we’ll have to look at this as a coincidental entry.

Another coincidence was found in an entry for “Maritime Intelligence” which listed ships recently arrived at the Port of New York. Among the ships listed for 20 January 1844, was this one:
          Brig Eliza & Susan, Dyer, 16 days from Mobile

Coincidentally this was the year Suzanne Dyer, James and Eliza’s oldest known daughter was born. So was James Dyer the captain, and he named the ship for his wife and new baby daughter? Not likely. A quick search for the ship name “Eliza and Susan” turned up a reference to an arrival on a ship bearing that name in 1838.

Still, the fact that Eliza’s first husband was a sailor, and the fact that one of the few other Dyers in Brooklyn during that period was a shipmaster (Elisha Dyer), makes me think that James may indeed have had a connection to the sea. And all these coincidences? Maybe someone’s trying to tell me something?

Or maybe I worked just a little too late last night. Only more research will tell.

Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

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6 thoughts on “Random Thoughts from a Night with the Dyer Family

  1. Something that crossed my mind, along the same lines as your own experience, is whether some of those long dead relatives are aware of our searches for them and their lives. I have had more than a few dreams which I rarely remember enough of, from which I only sense some individual trying to get my attention, calling to me, showing me something. Left over garbage items from too many searches, too late into the night or is someone trying to help me find her!
    However I have had one ‘communication’ that I am convinced was from someone, I don’t know who for certain from one of my lines. A distant cousin, met via my online searches, wrote me asking about the spelling of the family name – Millar. Was it Miller or Millar? He included a census record spelled ‘er’ plus an obituary which included Miller and Millar foar for family members. Which, he asked, was correct? The tree handed down to me spells it MillAr, and that is what I wrote back to him. Then later, as my mind was unwinding from a long day, I ‘heard’ a sentence in my head. “Er is English, Ar is Irish”. This particular family, sure enough, hails from Ireland. Now, I have no idea if this is correct or not. I’m not sure how to find out! Perhaps someone can tell me if its true or not. Has anyone else also been given tidbits of info, thoughts literally ‘found’ in your head, not of your creation? And occuring when your thoughts were no where near the piece of information received?
    Lesley Cluff

  2. I have had many experiences of getting information intuitively rather than from direct linear research. Some of the stories are incredible and involve dreams, too. Each experience has led me indirectly to find more information and to have some confirmation that I’m on the right track.

    As an artist and creative thinker, I believe more of us should learn to use this brain power that we all have. My research has been made richer, truer, deeper by following up on these nudges from the past.

  3. Thanks, Juliana, for the information on the Brooklyn Public Library. I went there and found a Death Notice for a Grgrgrandmother. Up to this time I had her funeral date for her death and cause of death. Plus the home address of my Grgrandparents was included. It took a little time to get use to bringing up the Brooklyn Eagle but now I’m going to spend more time reading the current news of the 1880’s!

  4. Any Librarian who knows his or her own salt would be pleased to impart search information to their users in public, and/or private libraries. Anything less would be considered a threat to the good standards of international Library Services. Whoops! Its Library week in Jamaica from Sunday October 30th to Saturday November 6th. It’s a good opportunity to place those Librarians under the microscope.

    Elaine Foster

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