Saturday, March 6, 2010



One of my western New York stops was in Lockport, where I spent time with my father's cousin, Rick Heenan (I think that makes him my first cousin, once removed, but keeping track of that stuff is like the subjunctive conjugation in Spanish, or trying to pound out a text message on a teeny cell phone keyboard: Frustrating, Difficult, and Not Worth It).

Rick is one of those guys you're glad to know.  He's a gifted singer-songwriter, who performs all over western New York.  He is deeply involved in his community, spending his summers as an Official Greeter at the Erie Canal Discovery Center, an interactive museum near the historic locks that give his hometown its name.  He's been in the military, and he's worked the line at Harrison Radiator, one of the plants that drove Niagara County's economy for most of the 20th century.  He runs the annual "Erie Canal Songwriting Contest", and lives in the house he grew up in: "I've been mowing the same lawn my whole life," is how Rick describes it.

The image above is a copy of a portrait that hangs in Rick's study.  He was kind enough to make a copy for me.  "This is your great-grandfather, James Ocean McMurray," Rick explained as he offered me the print.  "I've been told that he's in his British military uniform, but beyond that, I don't know much about the details."

There is something about seeing an ancestor that gets you fired up.  I left Rick's home and drove a couple of miles down the road, pulling into the parking lot of the Niagara County courthouse.  I took another look at the image, the young man with the solemn expression and all the gold braid, and decided that I would find out as much as I could.

I already knew a little bit about James Ocean.  A couple of years ago, I tracked down his birth certificate:

I knew from the 1871 English census that he had an older sister, Sarah, who was born about 1859.  His mother died sometime between 1862 and 1871; his father is listed as a widower on the census.  I knew that the family lived for at least a little while in Quebec.  The following comes from the Drouin Collection of Quebec Vital and Church Records:

"On the thirteenth of September one thousand eight hundred and sixty two James Ocean McMurray born the second day of September  one thousand eight hundred and sixty two son of James McMurray Lance Corporal Royal Canadian Rifles and Sarah Frances Fellows his wife was privately baptized in the presence of its father and mother by me, C. A. Wetherall, acting military chaplain, Lacolle, Quebec."  (The original document includes the witnessing signatures of both parents.)

I knew that he married Charlotte Hanson in March 1890, and that they immediately left England for Antwerp, Belgium.  From Antwerp, they sailed on the ship Noordland, bound for North America.  Charlotte was 18; James Ocean was 27.  They arrived at New York on 24 March 1890, but their final destination was Toronto.  In April 1891, the McMurrays -- James, Charlotte, and 2 month old Edward James -- were living in Toronto's St. George's Ward, its boundaries Dufferin Street on the west, King Street on the north, Younge Street on the east, and the waterfront on the south, then an neighborhood of wharves and railroad tracks, today the home of the CN Tower, Rogers Centre, and the Air Canada Arena.  By 1893, they had emigrated to the United States, living for a time at 362 Walnut Street in Buffalo (a house which still stands, of Google Earth is to be believed), before settling at 137 Stenzil Street in North Tonawanda.

Those are facts, data culled from census records and official certificates.  They offer hints, but they do not tell the whole story of the young man in the military tunic.

The morning after my meeting with Rick, I visited the Historical Society of the Tonawandas, and found in their painstakingly collected obituary catalog another piece of information.  James O. McMurray died 2 September 1919, on his 57th birthday.  That entry led me to the North Tonawanda Public Library's microfilm collection, which includes every edition of the Tonawanda News.

There I found his full obituary:

"James Ocean McMurray, 57 years old, died yesterday at his home at No. 137 Stenzil street after a long illness.  McMurray was born on the British troopship Himalaya, hence his unusual middle name.  He spent seven years in the East Indies and was awarded a medal by the British government for mastery of the Hinudstan language.  He served 12 years in the British army and was riding school instructor for the Royal Horse artillery.  Besides his wife, three sons, Edward J., Alfred H., and Richard U. McMurray; three daughters, Mrs. H.A. Gierke, Eleanor E. and Myrtle M. McMurray and three grandchildren, all of North Tonawanda survive.  The funeral will be held Wednesday afternoon from the late residence at 2:30 o'clock and burial will be made in Elmlawn."

The original document, 3 September 1919, Tonawanda News.  Click on the image to enlarge.

A little bit of research uncovered these images:


The uniforms perfectly match the one James Ocean wears in the portrait.  This is his regiment.  (The Royal Horse Artillery still exists, as an elite ceremonial unit of the British Army.  They still wear the same uniform, and are prominently featured at royal events.)

He was born on a troopship, sailing the North Atlantic.  He was a husband, and the father of six children.  He was a solider and a linguist and a horseman and a world traveler.  He died young.

Isn't this thrilling, to know this man, our ancestor?  Isn't it amazing to hear his voice, calling from the dust?

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