Family Undertakers and the Wild West

SquareEastWeek two of our crazy June turned out just as we thought it would: Exhausting!

Friday we were in a mad rush to get some things done around the house and to pack because early Saturday morning we were heading out of town for the weekend.  We had a family reunion on my wife’s side on Saturday, followed by an early Father’s Day celebration with her family since we won’t see them next weekend.  The reunion was a lot of fun!  It’s held at a park every year, where the siblings of my wife’s grandfather get together with all their descendants.  Unfortunately several of them have passed away, including my wife’s grandfather, but it’s neat that the whole family continues to get together, and it’s fun to talk with the great aunts and uncles.  Saturday night I enjoyed watching the Chicago Blackhawks win an exciting game to move on to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in four years!  The only downside was that the game went into double overtime, which meant I had to stay up later than planned.  Why is this a problem you ask? Well that’s because my wife and I had to wake up at 4:00am to head out for her first triathlon!  I was a little tired, but once we got there and the race started, I was filled with excitement for her.  She did great and plans to make it an annual event.

Not to worry, I still managed to insert a little research between our activities.  In the process of going through my records to record key details & activities into my Blake family history book, I came across an article.  It was from an 1886 story in the Detroit Free Press about when Patrick Blake moved his family and his undertaking business from Lafayette Boulevard, where they had been for the last 18 years, to Abbott Street.  He had been planning the construction of the new building for years, and it would serve as both the family home and place of business for his growing undertaking empire.

In May of 1886, he had several prominent friends over to inspect the new building.  One guest, General George Harrington, was reported as saying that he visited many undertaking establishments across the country, and that this was the best he had seen.  The article went on to describe each room in the building, which helped me to visualize what the place looked like.  The best part of the article was the description of a room that had family photos.  On one wall of this room was a portrait of Patrick and his wife, Eliza, on their wedding day, as well as a portrait of them many years later.  Surrounding those two portraits were pictures of each of their children.  Being a bit of a “glass half full” guy, I immediately started to think that these pictures are probably still out there today in the possession of a descendant of one of Patrick’s children!

That thought links with my other current focus of trying to find living relatives and map out the full family tree for all of Patrick’s children.  I’m more motivated than ever to do this as soon as I can.  Of his 10 children, I’ve found that four didn’t have kids of their own.  Of the remaining six, one is my great-great-grandfather, and I’ve made contact with relatives from two of the other branches.  This leaves three to go!  It sounds a bit odd, even to me, but I can’t help but shake a feeling that I’m supposed to keep researching the Blake family because there is something important for me to find.  Whether this is the long sought-after answer to the mystery of Nelson’s true birth parents, or some family heirlooms/pictures, I’m not sure, but I know I’m excited about it.

A quick side note: I was watching a history show on Billy the Kid recently, and it got me thinking about my family.  In my mind, the “Wild West” always seemed like it was way before any of my ancestors, and a world away from them.  When I saw the year Billy was killed, 1881, I realized this was during my ancestors’ lifetimes.  Patrick Blake was continuing to build his undertaking business, along with raising 10 children.  Rocco Parotto Sr. was roughly 20 years old, and was preparing to move to the US to start a new life of better opportunities.

I wonder what they thought when they read stories in the news about these gunslingers and cowboys in the Southwest? I was surprised to learn that at the time, most media outlets did not see Billy the Kid as the folk hero most see him as today.  Using GenealogyBank and several other sites, I saw that people seemed to be happy and relieved when Pat Garrett shot and killed him.  Pat was hailed as a hero, while Billy was labeled a murderer and an outlaw.  In the minds of most hard-working, law-abiding immigrants, the outlaws of the Wild West probably seemed like troublemakers and hooligans.  Interesting!  I try to keep an ever-expanding list of key historical events to weave throughout my family histories, because I think it’s neat to learn about the events that occurred in the time of my ancestors, and how these things may have affected them.

Well once again I’ve surpassed the word limit guidelines so I’ll cut it for now.  Have a great week everyone!


Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Brian Parotto of Hampshire, Ill.


Brian is attending Genealogy Summer School to enhance his family research, where select classes are on major discount. Learn more here: Genealogy Summer School Sale.

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