My family history is Buffalo history. All eight of my great-grandparents lived in Buffalo, including my Great-Grandma Scurr, who is among the children in this Doyle family photo taken in Glasgow, Scotland.
Aside from Scotland, my great-grandparents came from Pennsylvania, Poland, and England. One branch of my family tree stretches back to Buffalo in the 1820s, and a seventh-great aunt was among the first babies baptized at St. Louis Roman Catholic church back in 1829, when the church was still a log cabin.
Scroll to read more or search for something specific…
My German ancestors arrived in Buffalo in 1827, and probably brought some version of this potato pancake recipe with them.
I know the recipe I use goes back at least to my German great-grandmother, Jeannette Greiner-Wargo.
Potato pancakes are a messy pain to make, but well worth it, especially when none of the local restaurants that make them don;t taste anything close to this.
GREAT GRANDMA WARGO’S POTATO PANCAKES
5 or 6 medium potatoes one medium onion one egg flour salt and pepper vegetable oil for cooking
Peel 5 or 6 medium potatoes, and peel and trim onion.
Using the larger of the two shred sizes of a hand grater, shred the potatoes and the onion in a big bowl.
Add the egg and salt & pepper and mix.
Add enough flour to soak up any liquid in the bowl, stir well. (You will likely have to do this again as more liquid shows up in the bowl while you’re frying.)
Heat a heavy frying pan (I use cast iron) to medium-high, and coat the bottom of the pan with oil.
When the oil is hot, make 3-4 inch pancakes. Let the edges brown, flip once.
Put pancakes on paper towel covered plate to allow grease to drain.
Coat bottom of pan with oil again, repeat. Add flour and mix well if there is liquid in the bowl.
Grandma Coyle always served them with homemade applesauce… which was deliciously easy— apples cut into inch cubes into a sauce pan, covered with sugar, and then covered with water, turned on low and let it simmer.
The Valley is a traditionally working class, industrial neighborhood between the First Ward and South Buffalo, bounded by the Buffalo River, Van Rensselaer Street, and the I-190.
My dad always referred to the neighborhood where he grew up as “The Valley,” always talking about having to cross a bridge to get in or out of The Valley. That was definitely true in the 60s, and is still pretty much true now—but the delineation was even greater before they ripped out all of the old steel truss bridges and eliminated the ones on Smith and Van Rensselaer in the early 1990s.
My guess, in talking with folks from the neighborhood, that the name “The Valley” was coined sometime in the 50s, that seems to be the generation that started referring to that name.
The city didn’t use the name in any of its planning or urban renewal programs in the 50s and 60s, and I haven’t been able to find a reference to the name in print in the Courier-Express or the Evening News until the time when the Community Association was organized in the late 60s.
One would have to assume, however, that the name was in some kind of familiar use leading up to naming a community association after it. My grandfather, who was born in what is now considered “The Valley” in 1926, and lived there for 40 years, didn’t refer to “The Valley,” but usually “the neighborhood.”
My great-grandparents came to Poland to “The Valley” in 1913.
After living on Elk, Fulton, and Perry, they bought 608 Fulton St. in 1922. My great grandfather worked at Schoellkopf Chemical/National Aniline for more than 40 years.
His son, my grandfather– who worked more than 40 years at National Aniline/Buffalo Color– lived in his parents’ house and then bought one across the street (from his brother-in-law’s family) at 617 Fulton, where my dad grew up.
My dad’s family moved to Seneca Street in 1966. Dad later owned the bar at Elk and Smith in the late 70s/early 80s.
Nurses and doctors talked to us, but no one said the words. Even euphemistically.
We were all confused, even when we were taken into the room where she was.
I couldn’t feel my legs as a priest anointed her body, but the palpable feeling of the pain that radiated from my wife and her dad and her brother is the worst sensation I have ever felt.
Five years ago today, my mother-in-law died in a routine surgery. The pain from her loss and the way she left us still radiates and is really a part of our existence now.
I’m just going to say it— Pam could be a real pain in the ass. No one who knew her or loved her could deny that.
In so many different ways, life had broken her spirit and her mind and her body.
From that brokenness, came someone who could be difficult. But also from that place came the purest, most complete love. From that same place came someone who cared deeply about those who either didn’t have anyone to care about them… or someone who needed a little extra. And trying to make people laugh… even at her own expense.
All her emotions and feelings were always 100%. If it was bitterness or anger, watch out— but it was worth hanging through that for the uncompromised love and support and goodness and LAUGHTER that so often poured from her unbridled.
It’s easy— comfortable, even— to dwell on that terrible day, and to feel anger and sadness over what happened and the way it was handled and the loss it created in our lives.
Instead, though, I want to remember the woman who spent the whole time I knew her, fighting through what life had dealt her and trying her best to create the world she wished she lived in for the people around her.
County Donegal, along Ireland’s northern coast, is the ancestral home of my branch of the Coyle Family.
Insulated from the rest of the country by mountains and bogs, the specific Tullaghobegley Parish area near Gweedore where the Coyles come from was the poorest and least fertile districts in all of Ireland.
The Coyles in Ireland
The Paddy Coyle who is the head of household on these 1821 and 1841 census abstracts is the father of the John and Patrick who are listed in the 1857 Griffiths Evaluation. He is also the grandfather of the three Coyles who left County Donegal for Pennsylvania coal country in the mid-1800s. Paddy Coyle and Sheelah McGee-Coyle are my fifth-great grandparents.
Patrick and John Coyle, sons of Paddy Coyle and Sheelah McGee-Coyle, and their cousins, Cormack and John McGee, shared plot 4A in the 1857 Griffiths Valuation in Lunniaghbeg, Parish of Tullaghobegly, in 1857.
This Patrick Coyle was married to Cecilia McGee-Coyle. They are my fourth-great grandparents, and the parents of John Coyle, who later left for America.
This map illustrates the Coyle and McGee plots as recorded in Griffith’s Evaluation, 1857.
Three children of the Patrick Coyle from the Griffith Evaluation left Lunniaghbeg, Tullaghobegley Parish, County Donegal through the mid-1800s, coming to America and winding up in Pennsylvania’s coal mines.
Coyles in America
Each of those three Coyles who emigrated to the US may have eventually married spouses with ties to the families left behind in Lunniagh.
Frances “Fanny” Coyle (c.1847-1916) did for sure. She married John Gallagher at St Mary’s in Tullaghobegly near Gweedore in 1870 before they moved to Jermyn, PA. They had two children, Charles and Margaret. John was crushed to death working as a laborer in the Delaware & Hudson mine. She died in Pennsylvania in 1916.
Bridget Coyle (c.1842-1907) was the second wife of John McGee. They married in Pennsylvania in 1866. There were at least six McGee children. It’s not clear whether McGee was a cousin from Lunniaghbeg, but he did come to Audenreid, PA in the 1850s from Ireland. He died in 1903 from “miner’s asthma.” Bridget died in the mine town of McAdoo, PA in 1907.
John Coyle (c.1849-1908) married Mary Dugan in Pennsylvania in 1865. It’s possible—but it’s unclear whether Mary’s mother, Rose Gallagher-Dugan, was related to the Gallaghers of Lunniaghbeg. John and Mary Coyle had eight children, including my great-great grandfather, Patrick Coyle, who was born in 1872. He moved his family from Scranton, PA to Buffalo, NY following the death of his mother in 1916.
Gweedore was one of the most infamous spots in Ireland in the mid-19th century, and was the next town over from the Coyle home of Lunniagh.
Most of the population there were ethnic Irish Catholics who were displaced from more fertile land that was resettled by British Protestants. The soil around Gweedore is rocky, unforgiving, and very difficult to make yield anything edible for people or livestock—except for the places where it is too soft and boggy.
“Although there are signs of human habitation in the Gweedore area, including the remains of a medieval church at Magheragallan, indicating that the area has long been inhabited, the population of this ‘remote and inhospitable area’ probably only began expanding ‘during the seventeenth century as a result of population displacements associated with the Ulster Plantation.’” -History of Gweedore, Tim O’Sullivan, 2002. (This history is posted on a great site about the history of this area, http://donegalgenealogy.com/chapter_one.htm)
A mountainous border surrounding the area and the elsewhere marshy earth made for few roads leading in or out. The Irish language was the only language spoken by many, and the land was occupied according to the medieval Rundale system as late as the mid-1800s. Clachan houses of individual families surrounded the larger rundale plots which they farmed together.
When tax collectors came to Gweedore in the 1830s, they were beaten, their arms confiscated, and they were turned back.
Not only did the people of Gweedore, Lunniagh and surrounding areas not want to pay taxes to the British crown or tithe to the Church of England—they didn’t have much to give.
Patrick McKye, teacher in the National School, wrote a letter to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1837 describing the horrific conditions in the parish that the Coyles called home.
“That the parishioners of this parish of Tullaghobegly… are in the most, needy, hungry, and naked condition of any people that ever came within the precincts of my knowledge, although I have travelled a part of nine counties in Ireland, also a part of England and Scotland, together with a part of British America. I have likewise perambulated 2,253 miles through some of the United States, and never witnessed the tenth part of such hunger, hardships, and nakedness.”
“None of their either married or unmarried women can afford more than one shirt, and the fewest number cannot afford any, and more than half of both men and women cannot afford shoes to their feet; nor can many of them afford a second bed, but whole families of sons and daughters of mature age indiscriminately lying together with their parents, and all in the bare buff.
“Their beds are straw, green and dried rushes, or mountain bent; their bed clothes are either coarse sheets or no sheets, and ragged, filthy blankets.
“And more than all that I have mentioned, there is a general prospect of starvation at the present prevailing among them, and that originating from various causes; but the principal cause is a rot or failure of seed in the last year’s crop, together with a scarcity of winter forage, in consequence of a long continuation of storms since October last in this part of the country.
“So that they, the people, were under the necessity of cutting down their potatoes, and give them to the cattle to keep them alive. All these circumstances connected together have brought hunger to reign among them, in that degree that the generality of the peasantry are on the small allowance of one meal a day, and many families cannot afford more than one meal in two days, and sometimes, one meal in three days. Their children crying and fainting with hunger, and their parents weeping, being full of grief, hunger, debility, and dejection, with glooming aspect looking at their children likely to expire in the pains of starvation.”
Lord George Hill was the British landowner who worked to improve the lives of the people in his care—but at the same time worked to undermine their identity and way of life. He wrote a pamphlet called “Facts from Gweedore,” which made both of those goals easily apparent. He called the people of the area “more deplorable than can well be conceived; famine was periodical, and fever its attendant; wretchedness pervaded the district.”
In the wake of a particularly striking famine in 1858, parish priests in the area wrote an appeal to Queen Victoria and to the people of the world begging for help.
“In the wilds of Donegal, down in the bogs and glens of Gweedore and Cloughaneely, thousands and thousands of human beings, made after the image and likeness of God, are perishing, or next to perishing, amid squalidness and misery, for want of food and clothing, far away from aid and pity. On behalf of these famishing victims of oppression and persecution, we appeal for substantial assistance to enable us to relieve their wretchedness, and rescue them from death and starvation.
“There are at the moment 800 families subsisting on seaweed, crabs, cockles, or any other edible matter they can pick up along the seashore or scrape off the rocks. There are about 600 adults of both sexes, who through sheer poverty are now going barefoot, amid the inclemency of the season, on this bleak northern coast. There are about 700 families that have neither bed nor bedclothes… Thousands of the male population have only one cotton shirt; while thousands have not even one. There are about 600 families who have neither cow, sheep, nor goat and who…hardly know the taste of milk or butter.
“This fine old Celtic race is about being crushed to make room for Scotch and English sheep.”
It was around this time that a teenaged John Coyle left for America to make a new life in coal mines.
Through the 1800s, Grandma Cichon’s father’s family were sailors and sail makers in North Shields and Tynemouth in Northeast England.
After brothers George Henry Scurr and William Gordon Scurr were killed at sea during the Great War, their mother Mary Alice would walk to the sea every day and just stare, awaiting a return that she knew would never come.
With sadness, Mary Alice, along with George Henry Sr., and eventually sons John and James, moved to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and then Buffalo, New York, USA.
My grandmother was the daughter of James Scurr, and among her things was this photo… of a group of people on a beach.
For the 20 years or so I’ve had this photo, I’ve never known anything about it. Not who, not where, not anything. It was with photos that belonged to my great grandmother, so I assumed that this was her family—and through the years, to no avail, I’ve searched dozens of beach photos from Ireland and Scotland for any sign of these landmarks.
No avail— until today, when I was having a cup of tea with my Aunt Elaine, also daughter of James Scurr and Grandma’s youngest sister.
She was talking about visiting the Longsands and the beaches of Tynemouth, and her description made me think of this photo.
After an hour or so of searching for historic photos of Longsands, I knew I was in the right area, but I wanted to find another photo with the building or the walkway or the giant wheels to prove it conclusively.
A mile or so north of Longsands is Cullercoats, so I searched that, too. The first image I clicked on had the building, the walkway, and the giant wheels! What a great feeling after so many fruitless searches…
It’s wonderful to know that the photo was taken at the Cullercoats Life Saving Station, no more than two miles from where the Scurrs lived until the early 1920s.
Perhaps over the next 20 years, I’ll figure out which of these folks are my Scurrs- but knowing these are my relatives or people loved by my relatives, enjoying a day on their local beach is good enough for me.
I’m really obsessed that I can go there and take almost the same photo right now!
Julius Wargo was 26 years old when he arrived at the Port of Baltimore in 1904.
He was born Gyula Varga to Janos Varga and Agnes Molnar in Kisbodak, Hungary in 1878.
He married 17 year-old Erszebet Kotis in New York City in 1906. She was born to Istvan Kotis and Maria Revay in Ricsikatanya, Hungary in 1889.
The couple spent the next several years moving from mining job to mining job in Pennsylvania. Their only son, Stephen Julius Wargo, was born in Elizabethtown, PA in 1909.
The family moved to Abby Street in South Buffalo. It was right behind the Republic Steel plant where Julius worked until he died suddenly in 1919, leaving Elizabeth with six kids between the ages of 10 and four months.
Elizabeth worked as a servant and laundress to support her family. She died in 1962.
Stephen Wargo was 21 when he married 16 year old Jeannette Greiner in 1930.
Grandma Coyle’s mother, Jeannette Greiner-Wargo, belonged to a family which first arrived in Buffalo in 1827.
Casper Greiner was born in Vinningen, Rhineland in 1788. With his wife Maria Anna Goeller and their five children, they boarded the “Catherine” in Le Havre and landed in New York City in 1827.
In the year Buffalo became a city, 1832, the Greiners’ daughter Catherine was among the first children baptized at the original log-hewn St. Louis Church in Buffalo.
Casper settled in Bush, which is part of the Town of Tonawanda today. He died in 1830, and is buried in the cemetery on Englewood Drive behind St. John’s Church.
Casper’s son Peter was a justice of the peace and Supervisor of the Town of Wheatfield in the 1830s, before he too settled in Tonawanda and married Sophia Pirson in 1837.
Sophia Pirson-Greiner arrived from France with her parents Johannes and Marie in 1830.
The Pirsons were one of the major founding families of the Town of Tonawanda, helping to build the chapel that is now the Tonawanda Historical Society. Their graves are prominent just behind the small brick church on Knoche Road.
Peter Greiner briefly served as a Union officer in the Civil War, and then the family moved around— spending time in Ontario and Wisconsin.
Sophia Pirson-Greiner died in Wisconsin in 1879. Peter Greiner died in the Veterans Home in Bath, NY in 1884.
Peter and Sophia’s son Joseph Prentiss Greiner was a sailor and longshoreman, and after several years at sea, made Liverpool, England his home port.
There, he married Mary Atkinson and they had six children. In 1894, they moved from Liverpool to the city Joseph had known as a boy, winding up on Buffalo’s German a East Side in the area today known as the Medical Campus.
He was among Bufffalo’s first electricians— a job he learned at sea. He died in 1918, Mary died in 1919.
Joseph and Mary’s son, Fred W. Greiner, was born in Liverpool in 1882. He worked most of his life in Buffalo’s brewing industry as a bottler at Iroquois Brewery.
Fred married Jeanette Loewer in Buffalo in 1905.
The Loewers came to Buffalo from Hesse Cassel Germany in the late 1860s. Jeanette’s grandfather John and her father Conrad were tailors in Germany and then in Buffalo as well.
Jeanette Loewer was only 10 years old when her father died, and she and her siblings were raised first by their uncle— a Buffalo morning court judge, Henry Loewer, and then by their oldest sister, Kate Loewer Heid.
Fred Greiner and Jeanette Loewer Greiner has seven children, including Jeannette Sarah, in 1914.
Jeannette Sarah Greiner was 16 years old when she married Stephen Julius Wargo in 1930.
They had four children, three survived to adulthood. The only girl, my grandma June, was born in 1931.
My Grandpa Coyle’s grandparents were all born in North America— two in Pennsylvania, one in Ontario, and one in Buffalo’s First Ward.
All but one of his great-grandparents were born in Ireland, and that one was born to Irish immigrants.
John Coyle was born in utter poverty and landowner-induced famine in County Donegal near Gweedore around 1849.
He was around 12 years old when he left his parents Paddy Coyle and Cecilia McGee Coyle in Ireland to work in the coal mines of Eastern Pennsylvania.
In 1865, when he was 16, he married Mary Dugan. She was born in the mining camps of Beaver Meadows, PA to Martin Dugan and Rose Gallagher, both of whom came to Pennsylvania from Ireland.
John and Mary Coyle followed mining jobs around Pennsylvania from Janesville near Allentown to Jermyn and Mayfield near Scranton. They had eight children, including Patrick, the oldest.
Patrick was probably born around 1869, despite later documents which say 1872. That age change probably came as he left school to work in the mines at a very young age. He married Catherine Kilker at the Sacred Heart Church in Jermyn, PA in 1892.
Catherine was born in Pennsylvania to Patrick Kilker and Bridget Herrity-Kilker. They were both born in Belmullet, County Mayo, Ireland.
Patrick and Catherine had four children, including James J. Coyle, Sr., in 1897. They lived in the City of Scranton while Patrick was a fireman in the mines.
After the death of Patrick’s parents John Coyle in 1908 and Mary Dugan Coyle in 1916, Patrick’s whole family moved to from Scranton, PA to Wilson Street on Buffalo’s East Side.
Patrick went to work for the Lackawanna (later Bethlehem) Steel Company. The family would move to Lockwood Ave. in South Buffalo, and Patrick would go to work at Maritime Milling on Hopkins St. as a stationary engineer.
Catherine died in 1942, Patrick died in 1945.
James J. Coyle’s first job in Buffalo was lineman for the New York Central Railroad. Later, he was an electrician for the Bethlehem Steel plant.
He married Kathryn Slattery in 1927.
Some time before 1863, Thomas Slattery and his wife Honora Kelley Slattery made the transatlantic voyage from Ireland’s County Tipperary to Prescott, Ontario, along the St. Lawrence River, just south of Ottawa.
Their son Thomas was born in Prescott in 1864. He grew up to be a sailor and worked his way through the ranks to become a Great Lakes captain based in Buffalo.
He married Bridget Norton of Buffalo in 1894. She was the daughter of Miles Norton, a First Ward grain scooper, who emigrated to Buffalo with his wife Catherine Bowe Norton around 1868.
Bridget Norton Slattery died suddenly while her husband was on the lakes in 1915. Their daughter Kathryn was only 13 at the time.
Thomas Slattery died in 1926
Kathryn married James J. Coyle Sr. in 1927. The family moved around North Tonawanda, Seneca-Babcock, and South Buffalo frequently, mostly because of his alcoholism.
They had 5 children, including my grandfather, James J. Coyle, Jr., in 1929.
James Coyle Sr. died in 1957. Kathryn Slattery Coyle died in 1978.
Grandma Cichon’s parents and grandparents had a less-than-direct route to Buffalo.
The family of Grandma Cichon’s father, James Gibson Scurr, spent several generations making a living off the sea as sailors and sail makers in North Shields and Tynemouth in Northern England where the Tyne River empties into the North Sea in Northumberland.
James was born in 1906, and was only 11 years old when his older brother George H., a seaman on the SS Hazelwood, was killed when a German U-boat planted mines that destroyed the ship.
Only 13 weeks later, another brother, William Gordon, a Merchantile Marine- Second Engineer on the SS Trocas, was also killed by a German U-boat.
James was a 15 year-old clerk when he joined his aunt, Sarah Scurr Wilkinson, and her family in Hamilton, Ontario in 1922.
James’ parents, George Henry Scurr and Mary Alice Pilmer Scurr, followed him to Canada a year later. George got a job at Bethlehem Steel in 1924, and the family moved to 5th Avenue in Lackawanna.
George and Mary Alice eventually moved to Hamburg. She died in 1947, he died in 1952.
Marie Scurr Cichon’s mother, Margaret “Peggy” Doyle Scurr, was Irish, but she was born in Scotland.
Her parents, William Doyle and Mary Ann Vallely Doyle moved from what is today Northern Ireland to Coatbridge, just outside Glasgow in the 1880s.
It’s not entirely clear what precipitated the move, but being Catholic in Northern Ireland has been challenging for generations. William was born in 1860 in Bainbridge, County Down. Mary Ann was born in 1864 in nearby Armagh, County Armagh. The third youngest of their 11 children, Peggy Doyle was born in Coatbridge in 1902.
In 1923, Peggy Doyle, then a 20-year-old housekeeper, arrived at the port of Boston from Coatbridge, Scotland aboard the SS Megantic.
She had $25 with her when she travelled directly to Buffalo to live with her sister, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Doyle-Anderson (later Fox). She lived on the corner of Seneca and Geary Street, raising two boys on her own after her husband was killed in France World War I.
William Doyle died in 1920. Six years later, his widow Mary Ann and youngest daughter Agnes also came to Buffalo through St. John, New Brunswick aboard the SS Montcalm of the Canadian Pacific line. They moved in with another daughter, Mary Doyle Sands, who lived on Weyand Street off Seneca.
During the last year of Mary Ann Vallely Doyle’s life, four generations of her family lived on Seneca Street with the birth of my father’s older (half) brother, Michael Doyle (1945-2006.)
Jim Scurr and Peggy Doyle were married in 1927, and moved around the Seneca-Babcock neighborhood, on Orlando and Lester streets, Melvin Street, and then in an apartment above the storefronts at Seneca and Kingston for decades.
James G. Scurr died in 1980, Margaret A. Doyle Scurr died in 1987.
Despite it’s revered place at every major family dinner, there’s no real name for it except “the Jell-O.”
Just like her mother before her, my mother-in-law made this delicious side dish for each of the holy trinity of family “eating holidays”— Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Grandma Martyna probably found the recipe in the coupon section of the paper or on the back of a box of Jell-O some time in the 70s, and it’s been a beloved part of my wife’s family’s holidays ever since.
Since my mother-in-law passed away, I have made it for every holiday, and it warms my heart to see that pink blob on just about every plate.
It can probably be served as a dessert, but at any Martyna family dinner, it’s always served as a side dish as a part of the main course.
Cool Whip Jell-O
2 packages of Strawberry Jell-O
8oz Cool Whip
2 cups boiling water
1.5 cups cold water
In a large bowl, add boiling water to Jell-O packets, stir until Jell-O is dissolved. Add cold water.
Refrigerate until 80-90% jelled. (Completely jelled is ok, but slightly less firm makes for a more thorough mix in the next step.)
In the largest bowl you have, combine Jell-O and Cool Whip. Use hand mixer on low, then high, until thoroughly blended. Be ready for this step to make a spattering mess.
My mother-in-law had a box she’d place around the mixing bowl.
Pour combined mixture into a heavy Corningware or Pyrex serving dish, and refrigerate to reset the mixture. Keep refrigerated until serving.