‘A kid from Tennessee’ discovers family roots in Seattle

Clockwise from top left: Catherine Lillian Poole, circa 1935; Josephine "Jo" Reilly Sartain and her son Robert Charles; Josephine Reilly Sartain with her surviving sons, Luther Benton Jr., Joseph Martin "Pete" and James Denis; Luther, Pete and Denis Sartain; Pete Sartain, circa 1926. Photos: Courtesy Archbishop J. Peter Sartain Clockwise from top left: Catherine Lillian Poole, circa 1935; Josephine "Jo" Reilly Sartain and her son Robert Charles; Josephine Reilly Sartain with her surviving sons, Luther Benton Jr., Joseph Martin "Pete" and James Denis; Luther, Pete and Denis Sartain; Pete Sartain, circa 1926. Photos: Courtesy Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

I was born December 31, 1912 and weighed twelve pounds. I can remember a story that was told me when I was small about how my most interesting ancestors were Daniel Boone and Chief Sitting Bull. It might be that both are mythical but still after I was twelve years old we received a letter telling of how my first ancestor in this country came over on the Mayflower and crossed the mountains later with D Boone.

Of course I don’t deny but that this too may be mythical but this letter was written by a relative named Sals Sartin who had taken the “a” out of the name. This man had inquired into our ancestry and found out a few interesting points which he thought we would like to know and we were glad to know them.

So wrote my father, Joseph Martin “Pete” Sartain, as a high school student in 1926. His teacher at South Pittsburg (Tennessee) High School had issued an assignment to write an autobiography, each chapter of which was to address a specific question. Last summer, one of my sisters discovered the long-lost manuscript in a box of family memorabilia. Each of its 20 chapters is headed with Roman numerals, with the title page appearing last: “Pete Sartain – Written in 1926 a.d. – Autobiography – Finished November the second nineteen and twenty six a.d. – Handed in January 4th 1927.”

The autobiography remains in its original tablet, though its pages are brown and crumbling. There’s no record of the grade my dad received for his work, but despite his spelling and grammar mistakes (and not knowing his correct birthdate; he was actually born Dec. 30, 1911), I give him an A+.

Out of four brothers I now have only two, two of which died at an early age one was Charles, the other William.

Robert Charles Sartain had died in 1908 just shy of his second birthday, and William Reilly Sartain died in 1911 at 9 months of age, only six months before my father was born.

I have two brothers living now one of them Benton the other Denis. … Of course there are petty quarles between us for all brothers quarl but we still would do anything out of the way to make the other ones happy. All three of us are proud of one thing, there is not a girl in the Sartain Family today or never has been any to my recollection.

In one of life’s ironies — or perhaps God’s sense of humor — my uncles had only daughters, and my parents had four daughters before I was born.

We knew little of our father’s ancestry past two generations, though family lore and letters speculated on possibilities. His mother, Josephine “Jo” Reilly Sartain, died in 1914 at the age of 34 (our dad was not yet 3), and his father, Luther, remarried several years later. Thus our knowledge of the Reilly family has always been sparse.

That changed two years ago, however, because of a call I received from some Mormon friends in Seattle, who offered to have professional genealogists research my family history. Needless to say, I accepted.

I had always thought of myself as just a kid from Tennessee; but through the professionals’ research and what I have discovered following their leads, I have learned that my ancestry is much more geographically diverse than I had dreamed.

Seattle roots

I now have copies of original records of births and deaths; military service (at least two great-grandfathers fought in the Civil War, one for the Union and one for the Confederacy); century-old newspaper articles about the family drugstore; photographs of previously unknown ancestors; DNA proof that I am 64 percent Irish, 17 percent Scandinavian, and 19 percent “other regions”; French and English family records dating back four centuries before my mom’s family immigrated to New Orleans; Irish family records from the early 19th century; and good indications that what our dad had been told about his Native American ancestry might well be true. Nothing, unfortunately, about Daniel Boone.

But the discovery that has astounded me most — and made me happiest — is that I have roots in Seattle.

Last year, quite by accident, I found online a 1903 Seattle City Directory listing “Margaretta A. Reilly” at a certain address. That was my great-grandmother’s name, but assuming the listing could not be hers, I printed the file and put it aside. Months later I decided to give it a second look. This time I noticed a parenthetical notation: “Widow, Joseph M.” Since that was my great-grandfather’s name, I began to wonder if this were a lead to an unknown fact of family history.

I asked a distant cousin in California if it could be possible that Margaretta ever lived here. Though he wasn’t sure where, he knew that one of her daughters had moved to Washington from Nashville with her husband, whose name was Leahy, in the early 20th century.

Returning to the online City Directory, I searched for “Leahy.” Much to my amazement, William G. and Bertha Leahy were listed at the same address as Margaretta Reilly. Since Bertha was my great-aunt’s name, I confirmed that my great-grandmother had indeed once lived in Seattle.

After my great-grandfather died in 1899, Margaretta, Bertha, William and the Leahy’s newborn son had moved from Nashville to Seattle. William opened a grocery store with his brother downtown.

Again, quite by accident while doing a simple internet search early one morning, I discovered several advertisements and an article in our own diocesan newspaper of the time, The Catholic Progress, for Leahy Bros. Grocery on Second Avenue. A March 6, 1903, article titled “Leahy Bros.” promotes the new establishment:

Among the new firms that began business in this city during the past year none have struck popular favor so certainly as Leahy Brothers, at 1411 Second avenue. … Being Catholic gentlemen, they have supplied themselves with an immense stock of wholesome foods suited to the restricted season of Lent. … Coming from sunny Tennessee they appreciate the value of southern fruits and have a large stock constantly on hand. … No better recommendation can be offered than to say that they have drawn patronage from every quarter of the city and are doing very much to make it profitable for every housewife to come down town to select her groceries. … In quality and price they fear no competition, and for courtesy they have no superiors.

From what I can tell, the Leahy stores (later there were two locations) failed within a few years, and by 1910 the Leahys and Margaretta had moved to Los Angeles, where they settled for good. Great-grandmother Margaretta died there in 1931.

Four of the six Leahy children were born in Seattle and baptized at Immaculate Conception Church on 18th Avenue. Though I have been to Immaculate many times in the past seven years, never will I enter that beautiful church again without thinking of my great-grandmother, my great-aunt and -uncle, and my Seattle cousins.

Tragically, one of the Leahy children, Elsie Marie, died in 1908 after only two days of life. Her death certificate states that she died of “purpura hemorrhagica.” Our own archdiocesan archives document that their pastor, Jesuit Father J. Smith, came to the Leahy home on East Spruce Street to baptize my little cousin, who was then buried in Calvary Cemetery. Though the family did not place a grave marker there, our records indicate precisely where Elsie was buried. This past January I arranged for a proper marker to be placed on her grave and went there with several staff members to bless it.

I’ve been to Calvary Cemetery many times, but never will I go there again without visiting Elsie’s grave and saying a prayer for her and our family.

Elise Leahy
Archbishop J. Peter Sartain blesses the grave of Elsie Marie Leahy, his infant cousin who died in 1908. After discovering the family connection, the archbishop arranged for a marker to be placed on her grave in early 2017.

Lessons to be learned

Now I see traces of my family all over central Seattle. Having discovered that another of my great-aunts married a Portlander and settled there, that a great-uncle settled in California, and still another great-aunt in Alabama, I have even more family roots to explore. And this is only my father’s side of the family! Not bad for a kid from Tennessee.

As I made these discoveries in the past two years, many thoughts have passed through my mind, and I have learned many lessons. No doubt even more lessons will emerge.

Just as in our day, my ancestors were “people on the move,” trying to make a better life for themselves. Mine came from Ireland and England and Scotland and Scandinavia and France and Spain (and perhaps from among America’s own native peoples). Once they arrived in America, however, their sojourn had only begun. Though my journey with them is still relatively new, I see hints of economic struggle and insecurity, joy and heartache, illness and vigor, sadness and success.

And I see clearly that their immigrant struggles have been repeated in every family, and in every generation, including our own. There are still lessons to be learned. “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

Learning of the deaths of my infant uncles and cousins makes me even more steadfast in the conviction that life is sacred from the moment of conception and that every life deserves protection. How sad my great-grandmother and great-aunt and -uncle must have been when little Elsie died after only two days of life — in a home that still stands 1.5 miles from where I now live. How sad my grandparents, Luther and Jo Reilly Sartain, must have been when their two infant sons died. The tender photos of Jo and the babies she would soon lose stop me in my tracks whenever I look at them.

Those little ones, and Jo herself, might have survived had medical science enjoyed today’s advances. What a tragedy now that even with such advances, society does not protect those most vulnerable among us.

In this month of the Holy Souls, we can all remember our beloved family members who have gone to the Lord. No genealogical research required — just the knowledge that we are one with them in Jesus Christ, that we share an eternal destiny with them, and that someday we will meet them face-to-face.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen. 

Northwest Catholic - November 2017

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.

Website: www.seattlearchdiocese.org