52 Ancestors: Margaret ‘Maggie’ Mitchell (1889-1976)

Amy Johnson Crow of the No Story Too Small genealogy blog suggested a weekly blog theme of ’52 Ancestors’ in her blog post “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” I decided to take up the challenge of the 52 Ancestors blog theme as a means to prompt me into regularly sharing the stories of my ancestors. So over the course of 2014 I will highlight an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

Margaret ‘Maggie’ Mitchell was one of my paternal great grandmothers. She is high on my list of “If Only I Had Known Then What I Know Now” ancestors. As far as I know, I am the first of her great grandchildren and more importantly, she was the only one of my great grandparents living at the time I was born. Potentially, I could have had a chance to meet and get to know her a little. Sure, there were obstacles in the way of that meeting, like an ocean of distance separating us, but most significantly, I didn’t know she was still alive as I grew up likely because I never asked instead, I just assumed that she like all my other great grandparents had passed away years before I was born.

Maggie was born on 22 April 1889, the second child and daughter of William Mitchell and Agnes Sweeney, in the middle district of Greenock, Renfrew, Scotland. At the time of her birth, the Mitchell family was living at 3 West Quay Lane in Greenock. Her father, William, listed himself as a shipyard labourer in Greenock when he registered her birth on 24 April 1889.

Life in the working class of the late 19th century could be tough and that is how I imagine it likely was for Maggie and her family. At some point in the 1890’s, likely around 1895, William abandoned his family.  In an 1899 birth registration for her daughter Agnes, Agnes Mitchell listed herself as “wife of William Mitchell who, she declares is not the father of the child, and that she has had no personal communication with him for 4 years.” In the 1891 Census of Scotland, Agnes can be found living in Greenock and recorded as working as a shopkeeper. Also living in her household, was Joseph Branchfield who Agnes married in 1905 and with whom she had additional children. During this tumultuous time, Maggie and most of her siblings were sent off to live with their maternal grandmother, Helen (or sometimes seen as Ellen) Sweeney (alternate spelling is Sweenie).

In 1906, some calm seems to have been restored to Maggie’s life as she married James Little, an apprentice iron worker, on 22 March at 48 Kelly Street in Greenock. Maggie was only 16 years old when she married but James, her new husband, was a much older, mature 17 years of age. In spite of their youth, it appears that they achieved some stability as their family grew to include five known children: Edward Sweeney Little (born 1906), Agnes Little (my grandmother, born 1908), James Little (born 1910), John Little (born 1913), and one of my favourite grandaunts (Aunt Jennie) who I did have the great pleasure of meeting, Janet Triggs Little (born 1920).

It seems clear to me that Maggie and James honoured their ancestors in choosing names for their children. For example, Edward Sweeney Little named after Maggie’s maternal grandfather and Janet Triggs Little named after James’ aunt Janet (Little) Triggs.

In 1944, James Little passed away while Maggie lived until 1976 when she too passed way in her beloved Greenock.  

My Cousin Was A Hero!

Until this past week when I was contacted through a “new cousin connection” who had read about our family in this blog, I didn’t know that I had a cousin, a second cousin once removed to be exact, who had died a hero! In my last couple of posts, I have recounted the new ‘cousin’ connection. One of the many bits of new information passed on to me was about another cousin, Lt. Michael Warchola (pictured to the right) of the New York City Fire Department. Michael’s great grandmother was Agnes (nee Sweeney) Mitchell Branchfield, my second great grandmother.

Michael, or ‘Mike’ as he was known, was born, raised, and lived his life in New York City. Like his older brother, Dennis, Michael joined the NYFD. Just two shifts before his retirement, the paperwork completed, Michael died saving the lives of others on September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Centre.

The events of that horrific day are indelibly marked in my mind as is the case with most of us. Yet, from the relative safety of my office in Canada, it was too easy to feel somewhat distant and removed, after all, I really didn’t know anyone in New York City. Now, learning that a cousin, one of my cousins, was there and that he died saving the lives of others in his role as a ‘first responder’, a role he undoubtedly loved and worked hard at, makes the tragedy of the day hit ‘home’ that much harder.

I never met Michael but wish I had had the chance. I have learned from a number of tributes posted about Michael that he enjoyed history, especially stories of the strange and bizarre, a passion reputed to have developed from reading British tabloid newspapers at his grandmother’s house. Michael was a Golden Gloves boxing champion who went to university in Buffalo around the same time I was in university in Toronto, just a 90-minute drive away. Mike and I both graduated from university in 1976 and, in 1977, after years spent on the waiting list, Mike joined the New York Fire Department.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Lt. Michael Warchola led his crew from Ladder Company 5 into the ‘B’ stairwell of the North Tower at the World Trade Centre. On the 12th floor, he stopped to help a young woman who was experiencing chest pains. When the call went out to the emergency responders to evacuate the building, Michael was seen by other firefighters still tending to the woman, promising that he would soon also evacuate.

After the collapse of the building around him, Michael was heard over the radio, “Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Ladder Company 5, mayday. We’re in the B stairwell, 12th floor. I’m trapped, and I’m hurt bad.” Michael was able to call out two additional maydays but his would-be rescuers were unable to reach him due to impassable debris.

Michael’s body was recovered on Friday, September 14, 2001 and was carried out of the rubble by surviving members of Ladder Company 5. The world had lost a hero!

Dividing the Family Along Religious Lines

My family was easy for me to understand when I began researching it’s history. My mother’s family was Irish and Roman Catholic. My father’s family was Scottish and non-Catholic, aligned to no particular Protestant denomination. These distinct differences made it easy for me and helped point me to the correct research areas and repositories of information.

My father’s conversion to Catholicism prior to his marriage to my mother was not warmly received by his family. So you can imagine my astonishment while checking, re-checking really, facts about my Sweeney ancestors to input source information into my genealogy database. I am directly descended from the Sweeney family through my paternal grandmother, Agnes Little. While examining the 1871 marriage registration of Edward Sweeney to Helen Dickson, my third great grandparents, I found all the usual information I would expect to find: name of bride and groom, their parent’s names, the date and place of the marriage, their addresses at the time of the marriage, their occupations, names of the witnesses and the clergyman or official who performed the wedding ceremony. But there was another piece of information that I suppose I typically have glossed over – the notation of the banns.

In the case of Edward and Helen, their marriage registration clearly indicates their marriage took place “After Banns according to the Forms of the Roman Catholic Church.” So my paternal grandmother’s great grandfather, and grandmother for that matter, were Roman Catholic. A little more searching revealed not only the religious difference but that they were from Ireland!

Edward Sweeney’s parents, my fourth great grandparents, were George and Mary (nee McMurray) Sweeney. Edward, like his parents, was born in Ireland. The family first appears in Scotland in the 1851 Census. Edward was 2 years old meaning that sometime between his birth in 1849 and the March 30, 1851 Scottish Census, the Sweeney family immigrated to Kirkintilloch, Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Given the timeframe involved, it is easy to surmise it to be most likely that they were escaping from the Irish potato famine.

The tie to the Roman Catholic church in this family line appears to have been broken when Edward’s daughter Agnes, my second great grandmother, married William Mitchell in 1886 “according to the forms of the Scottish Episcopal church.”