Prompt for 2019, week 1 — “First”.
My great-grandfather, William Cornelius (aka Willie) Colbert, was the eldest of 13 children. He was baptized on 31 January 1877, in Moanlena, Mahoonagh Parish, Co. Limerick, Ireland, to Michael Colbert and Hanora Josephine McDermott.
William had 7 sisters, and 5 brothers, one of whom was Con Colbert, who was executed on 8 May 1916, after the Easter Uprising.
Sometime in 1890 or early 1891, the family moved from Moanlena to Athea, as William’s youngest two siblings, Dan and Bridget, were baptized at Templetathea West, Athea parish, Co. Limerick. Williams’ mother Hanora died in childbirth with the last child born, Bridget, on 17 Sep 1892.
As a young adult, Willie became attracted to a young dairy maid named Eileen Houlihan, daughter of Charles Houlihan and Anna Carmody, also of Athea, Co. Limerick. The story goes that William’s father Michael wanted no part of William being involved with Eileen, so Michael paid the passage for Eileen to go to San Francisco, where her older sister Margaret had immigrated to in 1897.
As one might suspect, that got Michael nowhere, as Willie soon headed to San Francisco himself. I found a passenger record for a William Colbert from Athea, who traveled to New York from Queenstown on the SS Etruria in July 1899, at the age of 22. That fits with what I know of my great-grandfather. It also fits with the stated immigration date given on the 1910 Federal Census.
Here is a zoomed-in look at the same record:
However, what doesn’t fit William is his stated final destination: the home of his sister Maggie Collins, at 513 Hicks Street, Brooklyn, New York. While William did have a sister Margaret, she was only 15 and living in Ireland in 1899. And given that Eileen’s sister Margaret was already in San Francisco for roughly 2 years when Eileen traveled to the U.S., Eileen had no reason to stop in Brooklyn either. In other words, Margaret Houlihan was not Maggie Collins/Cullins. Finally, William was aiming to meet up with Eileen, so why delay in Brooklyn? Long story short, this may or may not be “my” William Colbert. Some facts fit, some do not.
In any case, Willie is not found on the 1901 Irish census, and by November 1901 he had met up with Eileen in San Francisco, as the filing of their marriage license on 7 November 1901 was recorded in the newspaper.
William and Eileen lived fairly close to each other, as the image below indicates. It was a half-mile walk from one house to the other. (The addresses are based on the newspaper article above.)
William Colbert and Eileen (Houlihan) Colbert, my great-grandparents, ca. 1901
Their first child was Marie Honora, born 27 May 1902. She was followed by Anita in 1903, my grandmother Margaret in 1908 (click here for the profile on her), and William in 1910.
In May 1905, two of William’s siblings, John Michael and Johanna (aka Nan), sailed together on the SS Campania from Queenstown, Co. Cork, Ireland to New York, and then traveled to San Francisco. John and Nan are listed on rows 2 and 3 of the passenger manifest below, and state their brother William paid their passage, and their ultimate destination was his place in San Francisco. They, like William, would live the rest of their lives there.
William was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in June 1905; the records were destroyed in the Earthquake of 1906. In May 1929, he apparently submitted the necessary paperwork for his naturalization to be restored.[8a]
Eileen died in December 1911. William remarried sometime after the 1920 census, in which he is enumerated as a widower, and before 30 August 1923, when his daughter Cornelia (aka Connie) was born. His wife’s true name was Harriet H. (Maley) Buchan, a native of England, but the name given on the birth certificate for Cornelia was Dorothy O’Maley, a native of Scotland.
William with his youngest child, Connie, circa 1930
My grandmother and her brother William (aka Babe) knew the woman as Mrs. Buchan. Mrs. Buchan had a daughter Dora, roughly my grandmother’s age, and by tracing Dora’s passenger records, I was able to find a link to my great-grandfather’s San Francisco address, helping to tie the two families together even when personal information (names, birthdates) varied.
The family is intact at the time of the 1930 census enumeration. William is living with “Dorothy” (aka Harriet), and four of his 5 children: Marie, my grandmother Margaret, William, and Cornelia. Only Anita was not enumerated with the family.
William with unknown woman, possibly 2nd wife
William Colbert (in hat)
By October 1931, however, my great-grandfather was dead, his body found in the San Francisco Bay. When I was first finding out more about my great-grandfather’s life, I asked my dad about William’s death. William died 18 months before my grandmother married, so Dad never him. He said that accounts varied.
I may have it wrong as to who said what, but my grandmother said it was suicide, one of her siblings said it was murder, and another sibling said it was an accident. (Or vice versa – maybe my grandmother was the one who said it was an accident.)
The idea that it might be suicide came from the fact that “Dorothy” (aka Harriet) had reportedly taken off to Shanghai, China, with little Connie, and Willie was going to go after her.
The idea that it might be murder came from the fact that my great-grandfather reportedly had a stash of cash with him (perhaps $5,000?) and that money was nowhere to be found when his body was retrieved.
Finally, the idea that it might just have been an accident was due to the likelihood that he had been drinking.
Potrero Point is close to the foot of 20th Street and the Bay.
At the time I first heard this story, roughly 25 years ago, I decided to just order his death certificate from Sacramento. And so I did. But the certificate is equally vague on the reasons leading up to Willie’s death by drowning, stating “whether accident-suicide or murder, jury unable to determine”.
A few years ago, I found the coroner’s report online at FamilySearch.org. It’s not significantly different from the death certificate. Willie’s brother John was an informant in both cases. Willie’s car was missing, and while members of the family thought he might have driven overboard into the Bay, the car was later found to be at the intersection of Mason and O’Farrell Streets.
William was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, in Colma, California. I cited the Find A Grave memorial, but I’m the one who created and maintains that memorial, so I am citing myself! The photo of the grave is one I took; what I have mislaid is the location of his grave. The cemetery office will have that information.
Cite/link to this post: Cathy M. Dempsey, “William Colbert, First of 13,” Genes and Roots, posted 12 Feb 2019 (https://genesandroots.com : accessed (date)).
 Diocese of Limerick, Parish of Mahoonagh, 31 January 1877, baptism of William Cornelius, son of Michael Colbert and Honora McDermott.
 For a brief overview, see such sites as: https://ireland-calling.com/con-colbert-easter-rising-1916/, https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/easter-rising-hero-con-colbert, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Con_Colbert, and https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/4272.
 The story has come down to me through my father via his cousins, children of the late Anita (Colbert) Foley. The reasons for Michael’s resistance to Eileen Houlihan are unknown.
 Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1597, microfilm publication T715, 8892 rolls (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 5, 4 September 1897, SS Etruria, List B, page 54 (stamped), line 15, Margaret Houlihan; digital images, “New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=7488 : viewed 21 October 2018), image 94. As noted on the manifest, Margaret’s ultimate destination being San Francisco, where her cousin Ellen Walsh lived.
 Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1597, microfilm publication T715, 8892 rolls (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 76, 30 Jul 1899, SS Etruria, List A, page 177, line 16, William Colbert; digital images, “New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=7488 : viewed 30 January 2019), image 252.
 “Marriage Licenses,” San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California), 8 November 1901, page 13, column 3; digital images, California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, (http://cdnc.ucr.edu : accessed 30 October 2018).
 For additional sources on the children of William and Eileen, see Cathy Dempsey (cathymd) “Dempsey Family Tree” tree, Ancestry.com.
 Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1597, microfilm publication T715, 8892 rolls (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 567, 1 May 1905, SS Campania, List L, page 114, line 2, John Colbert; digital images, “New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957,” Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=7488 : viewed 30 January 2019), image 464.
[8a] Restoration of Naturalization Record, Judgement Book A-No. 2, William Colbert, 29 May 1929 referencing 27 Jun 1905,
Instrument in Writing, County Clerk, San Francisco; digital images,
FamilySearch (https://https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSM1-ZJTX?i=602&cat=612802 : accessed 18 Jun 2018)> img 603 of 883; citing San Francisco City Archives, San Francisco History Center, Public Library, San Francisco.
 California Department of Health Services, death certificate state file no. 11-034498, Ellien [Eileen or Helen] Colbert (1911); Center for Health Statistics and Informatics, Sacramento.
 1920 U.S. census, San Francisco County, California, population schedule, Enumeration District 120, San Francisco Assembly District 23, page 2A, dwelling 25, family 25, William Colebert household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=6061 : accessed 29 October 2018); citing National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm publication T625, roll 135.
 City and County of San Francisco, California, birth certificate local registered No. 6057, dist. No. 3801, Cornelia Colbert (1923); City and County of San Francisco, Office of the County Clerk.
 For additional sources on William Colbert’s daughter Cornelia and her mother’s relatives, see Cathy Dempsey (cathymd) “Dempsey Family Tree” tree, Ancestry.com.
 1930 U.S. census, San Francisco County, California, population schedule, Enumeration District 43, San Francisco city, page 16B, dwelling 355, family 365, William Colbert household; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=6224 : accessed 29 October 2018); citing National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm publication T626, roll 195.
 California Department of Health Services, death certificate state file no. 31-061761, William C. Colbert (1931); Center for Health Statistics and Informatics, Sacramento.
 “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-G5FQ-9Z96?i=340&cc=1402856 : accessed 13 May 2015), Coroner’s Records > Coroner’s register, Oct, 1931 > image 341 of 428; San Francisco Public Library, California.
 Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 31 January 2019), memorial page for William Cornelius Colbert (31 Jan 1877–21 Oct 1931), Find A Grave Memorial no. 10411679; citing Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, Colma, San Mateo County, California, USA; Maintained by cmdempsey (contributor 46568461).