Finding Margaret

The value of educating your daughters

I enjoy discovering family stories and diving down rabbit holes. Sometimes, I find rabbits, too!

With this week's discovery, it occurred to me (again) how much gratitude I owe  my great-great-great-grandmother for something that she did (she thought) for her own fulfillment – she insisted that her daughters learn to read and write.

1841 Census of England
"The 1841 Census of England shows the family of John and Sarah (Howell) Wright living at Cow Close in Brewood, Staffordshire. Their daughter Frances lives with them." -

Sarah Howell Wright, who lived in Staffordshire, England at the end of the 1700's and the first half of the 1800's, was the mother of at least six children, and four of them were daughters: Catherine, Ann, Frances, and Teresa. As young women, they worked in domestic service, which often meant living away from their home and doing the cooking, cleaning and child care for another family. Sarah insisted that her daughters learn to read and write because, as her daughter Teresa wrote, "if I went out to service a long way from home she hoped that I would rite to her teling them how I was geting along."

Teresa Rimmer's autobio
A page from Teresa Wright Rimmer's autobiography, written when she was an old woman.

So Teresa got an education, a rare thing for a woman in the working class at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

And it was a good thing that Teresa could read and write because after she married and had some children, her husband decided that they should move to America. She did not like the idea, as she wrote:  "my husband sister Persuaded him to come to Amacre [America] and so I went two the Priest to ask him if I had to go for I hated to leive home and Dear Mother Brothers Sisters and all. He said I must go with him to the end of the world if I did not want to offend God. So I had to come."

Teresa Rimmer's autobio
A page from Teresa writes that she did not want to leave England and had a difficult voyage to America because her husband was "so boy[ish] and careless" - he took a dare and jumped overboard. He was rescued, but it was an awful scare for his young wife, who would have been left with three small children had he not survived.

Teresa Wright Rimmer never saw her mother, brothers or sisters again.

Teresa Rimmer, around 1870
Teresa Rimmer, around 1870.

But they wrote letters. The first letter she received from England bore the awful news that her sister Catherine had died. She continued to write to her sisters Ann and Frances until her poor eyesight made it impossible. Teresa insisted that her daughters learn to read and write, and when she could no longer write to her sisters, her daughter Mary wrote.

Her sisters in England directed the letters to Mary, knowing that she would share them with her mother. We know this because Mary (and her daughters and their daughters) saved the letters. One of them from Teresa's sister Frances reads, "Give my love to all your Children and your Husband. Take a great deel for yourself. I can only Send this to Mary for I have not your adress but I always think they will come safe. So I am glad we have got Mary. Bless her & her husband all [and] all her family. Keep them good. I hope they will all prey for me."

Teresa Rimmer's autobio
Teresa's sister Frances (Franny) Wright wrote letters to America. Her letters helped her niece reunite with a cousin, Robert Lowe.

At age 18, Mary Rimmer married an Irishman named John Connell Swift. He could not read and write – only enough to sign his own name, but Mary helped him with those matters, including understanding what the deed said when he bought some land in Iowa, and they moved away from Mary's mother.

1865 deed
John and Mary Swift's signatures on an 1865 deed to land in Washington County, IA.

I know about Mary and John's journey to Iowa because she wrote a letter to her mother, Teresa, who was still living in Illinois. "Dear Mother, it was quite a sight for me to see the Mississippi river. It was dreadful hard traveling after we cross it for it was so sandy." And, "Dear Mother, we stayed with an old women the last night and she looked like you said you would when I came to see you."

Teresa Rimmer's autobio
Mary Rimmer Swift wrote to her mother in Illinois about the journey she made to Iowa with her husband, John Connell Swift.

Mary also helped preserve information about John's exact birthdate, a point which he and his brother Martin disagreed on. Martin insisted John was born in 1833 and John thought it was two years earlier. Not wishing to listen to the brothers argue endlessly about the matter, Mary wrote to the priest of Kiltartan parish, Gort, County Galway, and he replied with a statement in Latin and English regarding the date of John's baptism. Were it not for that piece of paper, our family would probably not know the year of his birth because it occurred before church and civil records (for Catholics) were kept.

A written record of baptism for John Connell Swift

Mary and her husband, John Connell Swift, had a large family – including nine daughters. And they insisted that they go to school and learn to read and write – still a very unusual idea at the end of the nineteenth century.

Mary Rimmer Swift, ca 1898
Mary Rimmer Swift, around 1898

So my grandmother, Martha, and her sisters were raised with this appreciation for written language. They kept notes, they wrote letters, they read the newspaper, they saved clippings, and – God bless them! – they wrote down what their parents told them about their ancestors and their lives in the old country.

My great aunts Martina and Kate especially started making notes about the family relations – their cousins' names and their children, their aunts' and uncles' names, their grandparents' names, and so on. Sometimes it was just the tiniest bit of information that their father might tell them about the family in Ireland – that he had an uncle named Patrick, one named James, a first cousin in this place, and so on.

Kate Swift's genealogy notes
Kate Swift's notes on family history.

Martina and Agnes Swift
Martina and Agnes Swift, daughters of John and Mary Swift - they both wrote letters and saved family stories.

Aunt Martina wrote it down, starting in 1909, when she was living at home with her parents in between teaching jobs. She described how she got started, "It was during this winter that Dad, Mother and I had long talks about their earlier years. It had been forty-four years since they first came to Iowa. Dad would explain the tree planting, the quarry he got the rock for the cellar and well, the trips to Perlee, and about his relatives. It was the same with Mother and it was only natural that it was then that I bought a five-cent note book and began my genealogy note taking. My, but it has been updated so many times. The family has long since outgrown the original nickle note book. Inflation has outgrown the nickle note book, too."

Years later, she gathered her notes and wrote her memoirs, now in a bound book that I consult on a regular basis.

Martina's sister, my great aunt Agnes, was another letter writer. She was prolific, particularly given that she had a busy life as a trained nurse. In 1911, she was invited to travel to Europe with a doctor, his wife, and another nurse. During that trip she took a day to visit the village of her father's birth.

Postcard from Gort, 1911
A postcard from Gort, County Galway, 1911. Agnes mailed this to her father.

And the end of that day, she sat down and wrote her father about it – how she met his first cousins: "A Sister [of the Sisters of Mercy convent] told me one Mrs. Michael Hynes, used to be Hanorah Swift, so I hurried up. Suppose she is a cousin of yours. Her father was Bartholomew Swift. He had brothers David, Thomas, Patrick and James, and he had two [other daughters] – Margart who married a Pilsworth went to the States and died in Boston a few years ago. Mary married a Boyd and lives in the States. Mrs. Hynes looks much like Aunt Bridget. She told me of a cousin of hers living at Kiltartan who was Mary Swift now McDonnell. I got a jaunting car and went looking to Kiltartan. The woman was glad to see me at least she had an awful frog in her throat when I left. She said James Swift was her father, and his brothers were David, Bartholomew, Patrick and Thomas. She remembered you and also John D. and Kate Tracy."

John Connell Swift, about 1891
John Connell Swift, around 1891

letter from Agnes, 1911
A 1911 letter from Agnes to her father, John Connell Swift, telling him about meeting family members in the village near his birthplace.
letter from Agnes, 1911

letter from Agnes, 1911

Bridget Swift Quinn, with grandson William Quinn, ca 1900
Bridget Swift Quinn with her grandson William Quinn, about 1900. In her 1911 letter to her father, Agnes Swift says that Honorah Hynes, a first cousin of her father's living in Kiltartan, resembled John's sister Bridget.

Which brings me back to the rabbit hole I dived into this week. I was looking for my great-grandfather's first cousin, "Margart Pilsworth" who died in Boston. I have looked for her before, but this week, I found her. Or, at least I found her death certificate and now know a little bit more about her.

Her death certificate states that she died in the hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 29, 1903 and includes the names of her parents: Bartholomew Swift and Sarah Fay. And her occupation: Storekeeper. And the cause of her death: breast cancer. She was only 47 years old. Widowed. Her husband's name was Edward Pillsworth. She appears in the 1880 US Census, living in a boarding house at 39 Everet Street, Boston, MA, a neighborhood in the shadow of Boston's Logan Airport today. She is described as married but is listed by herself (i.e., no husband, no children). Her name appears on a list of second-class passengers on board the ship New England, returning from Queenstown (Cobh), Ireland, and Liverpool, arriving in Boston in April 1900. Her nationality is noted as "American," indicating that this is not her first voyage to the U.S. since she would have applied to become a naturalized citizen after first emigrating from County Galway. I do not know when she first came to America, but it was before 1880 since she appears in the U.S. Census that year, living in Boston.

1903 death certificate for Margaret J. Swift Pillsworth
1903 death certificate for Margaret J. (Swift) Pillsworth

Margaret Pillsworth's name in 1880 Census
The US Census in 1880 shows Margaret Pillsworth living in Boston.

Margaret Pillsworth's name in 1880 Census
The US Census in 1880 shows Margaret Pillsworth living in Boston. She is married and 23 years old, but there is no record of her husband. Sometimes this means that they are separated (because of marriage discord, sickness, or travel - there is no way to know) and sometimes it is simply a census enumerator's error or a woman's choice not to disclose that she is widowed. Without more information about Edward, I don't know the whole story.

Her name appears in the newspaper in 1901 when she is moved by the death of a friend, Patrick Brodbine, a fellow Irishman and proprietor of the Hotel Garland, and she is listed among the mourners.

Apr 7, 1901 Boston Globe
From the Apr 7, 1901 Boston Globe newspaper

I also found her name in the 1902 city directory of Revere, Massachusetts, listed as a widow of Edward, and living at Hotel Garland. (Note: Cresent Beach is described as the "first public beach in the United States." First known as Chelsea Beach, its named was changed to Crescent Beach in 1881 and became Revere Beach when it opened in 1896. The Hotel Garland was located on Ocean Avenue, the beach-facing boulevard which was a popular gathering place at the turn of the century. After years of decline starting in the 1950's when the beach properties fell into decline, a reclamation process began to restore the beach for safe recreational use. See the website for today's Revere Beach at

Margaret Pillsworth's name in a city directory, Revere, MA
Margaret's name listed in a 1902 city directory for Revere, MA.

Her death record indicates that while she died in the Cambridge hospital, her usual residence was 24 Beaver Street, Revere, MA. A requiem high Mass was read for her at St. Mary's church on Warren Street in Charleston (Boston), MA, and she was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden, MA.

funeral notice from Nov 30, 1903 Boston Globe
Funeral notice for Margaret J. Pillsworth, in the Nov 30, 1903 Boston Globe.

St. Mary's Catholic Church, Warren Street, Boston
St. Mary's Catholic Church on Warren Street in Boston - the same church building where Margaret's requiem Mass was read.

interior St. Mary's Catholic Church, Warren Street, Boston
Interior view of St. Mary's Catholic Church on Warren Street in Boston.

An index of probate records for Middlesex County, MA, indicates that her will was filed in 1903, suggesting that she was a woman of means sufficient to leave something behind. I have written to court officials in Middlesex County for a copy of the will. I hope it will lead me to another rabbit, such as Margaret's sister Mary, who "married a Boyd" and "lived in the States."