In Search & Remembrance
Ernest J. Pelton
Oct. 15, 1951

By Russ Pelton

In 1996 my father Ron Pelton began his interest in the genealogy of his family. While researching his fatherís side of the family, he hit a roadblock when he couldnít find much information on his grandfather.

Nancy and Ron Pelton on board ferry to Hart Island. Above is much reduced version of the 2nd of 44 views of the closure visit. For virtual tour's larger version, click image.

Growing up Ron had been told that his grandfather, Ernest J. Pelton, had abandoned his son, Hosmer Frederick Pelton, when Hosmer was 5 years old.

The only information my father had on Ernest was from Ernestís son Hosmerís birth certificate, which noted that Ernest was born in Portland, CT.

My father went to the clerkís office in Portland and located Ernestís name in a record stating he lived in Portland with his mother and father. Upon more research, he found that Ernest, his father and brother moved to Middletown, CT in 1898. A Middletown city directory for 1906 stated that Ernest ďremoved to Phil., PA.Ē

My father then picked up Ernest's trail through a New Britain city directory of 1908 where he found that Ernest had resided and worked at a machine shop. He found Ernest again in the 1910 New Britain city directory still working at the same shop.

Viewing Hart Island ferry slip approach through skipper's window. Above is much reduced version of the 8th of 44 views of the closure visit. For virtual tour's larger version, click image.
Through a Hartford city directory of 1911 he found that Ernest had moved to Hartford and then again was named in the 1912 and 13 directories as working at Colt Mfg.

During my fatherís searches he found that Ernestís wife Louise (Ron's grandmother) died in Bridgeport, CT in 1916 and that Ernest had provided the information recording the death. This was the last date of any record that my father had of Ernest Pelton's whereabouts.

My father began looking through the Connecticut State Library records for any information and in 1997 sent requests into the Connecticut state vital records department for marriage records of Ernest and Louise but that agency reported having no record. In 2002 Ron sent requests to the City of Bridgeport for marriage information on Ernest and Louise but drew the same response.

During this time he sent a request to the State of Pennsylvania for marriage information since the Middletown city directory of 1906 had said that Ernest "removed to Phil., PA " but again came up with no record.

Fr. Augustus Onwubiko signs visitors log. The Hart Island DOC captain and NYCHS escort watch. Above is much reduced version of the 13th of 44 views of the closure visit. For virtual tour's larger version, click image.
I also looked in the clerkís office in Springfield, MA hoping that maybe they crossed the state line to get married but found nothing. In addition, on my way home from vacation at the Outer Banks, I looked in at the Elkton, MD town clerk's office because my father was told that Elkton had fewer restrictions on marriage certificates than other states and that many couples would travel there to get married. But I did not find any records.

In October of 2004 my father and I went to the Connecticut State Library to do some genealogy research on my mother's side of the family. Since the library had free access to Ancestry.Com, we decided to put Ernest Pelton's name in to see if we could get any hits. While checking the records, we came across a record of an Ernest Pelton on the 1930 census who resided in Manhattan.

This record indicated that he was from Connecticut and was the appropriate age to have been my dadís grandfather. To confirm our belief that this was my fatherís grandfather we decided that we would search for his death certificate. We then researched how to obtain a death certificate in New York City. Since we believed he died before 1949 we were directed to the Municipal Archives.

The former residence of Hart Island staffer and his family in past era. Above is much reduced version of the 19th of 44 views of the closure visit. For virtual tour's larger version, click image.
In November of 2004 we took a trip to the NYC Municipal Archives to see if we could locate a death certificate. After looking through countless microfiche, we did not locate the record of death.

We had a few hours left before we had to return home. So we went to the Dept. of Health to research its records of deaths after 1949. In the second book of records that we looked at, which was 1951, we found the record of Ernestís death.

You would have thought we won the lottery! We shouted for joy; we were "high 5-ing" each other and beaming from ear to ear. Staff people in the vital records office said they had never had anyone find a record that quickly. Little did they know how long my father had been researching his grandfather's whereabouts.

Upon receiving the copy of the death certificate in the mail with the detailed information. we confirmed that this was my fatherís grandfather. Shortly after receiving the death certificate, my father asked, as any good genealogist would have, ďI wonder where heís buried?Ē

Blessed Mother statue, left by a visitor, decorated with rosary left by another visitor. Above is much reduced version of the 23rd of 44 views of the closure visit. For virtual tour's larger version, click image.
That was the beginning of our tale of Hart Island.

The death certificate had a section for the name of funeral director but it only had something illegible written in that area.

After calling the Department of Health, they informed us that the word written in was ďCityĒ which meant it was a "City Burial" and that he was probably buried at Potter's Field on Hart Island.

They explained that Potter's Field was officially called City Cemetery, the burial place for deceased persons whose bodies are not claimed by relatives. We were also informed that the New York City Department of Correction (NYC DOC) had charge of Hart Island, conducted the burials, maintained the grounds, attended to security and made records concerning interments and disinterments.

We were given a telephone number of the NYC DOC office on Hart Island to see if it had a record of the burial. But we learned that since the burial had been in 1951, the records were no longer available with NYC DOC but had been turned over to Municipal Archives where we would have to go to continue our research.

Fr. Onwubiko at cross monument given in early 1900s by Episcopal bishop wife. Above is much reduced version of the 25th of 44 views of the closure visit. For virtual tour's larger version, click image.
During this time I was researching Hart Island on the Internet and came across the web site of the New York Correction History Society (NYCHS). This web site has a great section on the history of Potterís Field on Hart Island. It was very informative.

I decided to e-mail the webmaster to see if he could help us with our research. The webmaster turned out also to be the NYCHS general secretary. He sent back a great explanation of the burial procedures and plot marking system along with the instructions on how to apply to NYC DOC for a family closure visit to Hart Island.

A closure visit for family members is conducted in the main or central section of the island near the work crew compound. The family is advised ahead of time that this is to be a visit to the cemetery only, not to the burial plot. We were told that many families take comfort from the fact they are able to visit the cemetery to meditate, pray, commune.

Enclosed former Civil War graveyard. Island served as Union military camp. Above is much reduced version of the 29th of 44 views of the closure visit. For virtual tour's larger version, click image.
The NYCHS webmaster also stated that, on occasions when invited by NYC DOC to do so, he has had the honor to serve as escort on several closure visits and he would be willing act in that capacity if we chose to set up such a visit agreeable with NYC DOC. He informed us that we needed to contact the NYC DOC Deputy Commissioner of Public Information office to request the family closure visit.

After contacting the NYC DOC Public Information Office and providing the necessary information and documentation, we were granted permission to visit Hart Island on Wednesday Oct. 19, 2005. We were told that we could arrange to bring a member of the clergy to offer formal prayer. We contacted St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church on City Island to request a priest to attend with us.

So on Wednesday morning Oct. 19 we all met at the Fordham St. ferry slip on City Island to make the trip to Hart Island.

More plot markers in field near where Peltons placed flowers. Above is much reduced version of the 34th of 44 views of the closure visit. For virtual tour's larger version, click image.
In attendance were my parents, Ron and Nancy Pelton, myself, Father Augustus Onwubiko from St. Mary Star of the Sea and the NYCHS webmaster serving as escort.

On arrival at Hart we were greeted by Captain Martin Thompson from NYC DOC who supervised our visit on the NYC DOC island.

As we walked to the burial ground area Captain Thompson and our NYCHS escort explained about the various remains of buildings from when Hart Island served as a working jail complex.

When we arrived at the burial ground area, there were chairs and a table set up in front of a large memorial cross for Father Onwubiko to perform the prayer service in memory of Ernest Pelton.

The prayer service was a very emotional experience for my father, mother and me. But it also brought us a great sense of peace knowing that we now had closure concerning Ernestís death and final resting place on Hart Island.

While awaiting ferry for return trip to City Island, the Hart Island DOC captain and NYCHS escort discuss with Peltons and Fr. Onwubiko the completed Hart Island closure visit. Above is much reduced version of the 40th of 44 views of the closure visit. For virtual tour's larger version, click image.
After the prayer service we were allowed to walk around the burial ground. We chose one of the markers to lay down flowers and Father Onwubiko blessed the sacred ground with holy water while we prayed for all the people buried on Hart Island especially for those whom their families have yet to or cannot locate Hart Place as their burial place.

We were then escorted back to the ferry slip and proceeded on towards City Island for the end of our visit. Although the journey to find Ernest Pelton was long and sometimes very frustrating, it turned out -- with the completion of our closure visit -- to be very satisfying.

We would like to thank everyone who made this visit possible, including the NYC Municipal Archives, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the NYC DOC Deputy Commissioner of Public Information and his staff, Father Onwubiko and the staff at St. Mary Star of the Sea, Capt. Martin Thompson of the NYC DOC, and especially NYCHS for being so very helpful and comforting through it all.


-- Russ Pelton

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Top center and top right images (Peltons and Fr. Onwubiko) are by NYCHS that reserves and retains all rights. ©
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