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The Orphans - A Curtis & Orr Family Tragedy

Charles R. Curtis circa 1866

William ORR <*FAMILY TREE*> was born about 1793, probably of Scottish descent from the Orr's around Renfroshire, Scotland. Family lore says that he owned a fine home on Long Island, with the preserved memory of an elegant Rosewood piano. In 1822, as a maritime officer, his Safe Passage issued by the American Consulate in Nantes, France, described him as 5' 6" tall, average build, ruddy complexion, red hair with an oval face. It is possible that it was in France that he met and wed Mary Ann THEOTISTE, a surname almost non-existent in the United States.

For some reason, my minds eye pictures Mary as an petite, olive skinned beauty, with her long coal black hair pulled tightly behind her head in a bun. Although there were probably more children born, only two daughters survived infancy; being Mary Isabelle ORR (Isabelle), the eldest, and Margaret Ann ORR (Anna). Again, I envision Isabelle as taking features from her mother, but with Anna taking a lighter complexion and reddish blond hair from her father.

Possibly because of the strains his absence at sea placed upon an expanding family, by 1827, the family had migrated to St. Louis with William joining the booming riverboat trade. They purchased a brick home at 20 Washington Avenue, between Fourth and Fifth Streets, only a short distance from the river front docks. His career has not been assembled, but in 1828, a William Orr is listed as fourth in command under Captain Sellers on the Steamboat Jubilee; and there are also references in St. Louis to Wm. Orr's Registry Office. William Orr died on 27 Jun 1837, after a fairly protracted illness of a year and one-half. At the time of his death he owned a twelve-year-old slave named Mary. Mother Orr was left with overdue medical bills, two daughters in private school, and limited receivables from cargo shipments. Enter Harvey Ransom CURTIS (Harvey).

Harvey was born between 1810-1820, most probably the son of Ransom H. CURTIS (my namesake - coincidence?), who appears in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, in the 1820's; then completely disappears of record.  I do not know about Ransom H. Curtis' origin, but suspect a connection to the descendants of William CURTIS, only son of the union of William CURTIS and his first wife Sarah RANSOM, of Ashford, Windham Co., CT.  Ransom H. Curtis partially owned the construction firm of 'Curtis and Glascock', having remodeled the Cape Girardeau jail in 1823. I also located a newspaper article that revealed that he had a daughter Harriet CURTIS. The 18 Sep 1824 Jackson Independent Patriot read, "Died: on the 15th, in this town, after a painful illness of twenty days. Harriet, daughter of Mr. R. H. Curtis, aged four years nine months." Of interest, in 1826 he ran for the office of Representative from Cape Girardeau; receiving a whopping six (6) votes out of about 2500 total. All not being lost, he did better two (2) other candidates that received one (1) vote each. He's the only person in my line known to have run for political office, and now I know why!

Ransom's son Harvey was attracted to the glamorous steamships plying the river in front of Cape Girardeau, and joined the riverboat trade, eventually migrating to its hub of activity, St. Louis. It was here that Harvey met and courted William Orr's eldest daughter, Isabelle. With the introduction, courtship and betrothal time span existent at that time, and since the two were of the same trade; I feel that Harvey Curtis did meet William Orr professionally or personally before his death, leading to the proper introduction. William Orr was a man of above average means and probably demanded the proper courtship etiquette for that time and day.

Harvey R. CURTIS and Mary Isabelle ORR were married 26 Mar 1839, at the First Presbyterian Church in St. Louis by Rev. Artemas Bullard. The Church, situated on the corner of St. Charles and Fourth Streets, was only a short stroll or carriage ride from the Orr residence. Harvey and his bride then moved into mother Orr's residence, due to Harvey's frequent absences on the river. The St. Louis City Directory for 1842, shows him as a Steamboat Engineer. The young couple proceeded with building a family, with William Henry CURTIS (William) being born 17 May 1841, followed by Mary E. CURTIS on 07 Jun 1843, and last Charles Ransom CURTIS (Charles) on 30 Dec 1846.

With a growing family, by 1843, Harvey and Isabelle had purchased or built a house at 90 Washington Avenue on the same block as mother Orr's home. Then, younger sister Anna, married Robert Bruce SNOW, a druggist from New York, on 19 Dec 1844, setting up house in the same block at the corner of Fifth and Washington. His business was R. B. Snow & Company, Druggist, and was located at 194 N. First in 1845. Their child, Mary Louise SNOW was born about Nov 1847 and years later married Eugene Solignac ABADIE of St. Louis. Two daughters living nearby indicates a very close family. By 1845, Harvey entered into business for himself, buying a boat and ferrying supplies up the treacherous Missouri River to the trappers and traders in the great Northwest. The 1845 St. Louis City Directory states his occupation now changed to 'Riverman'. Until 1847, all must have been fairly ideal for mother Orr, her daughters and grandchildren living close at hand, and their husbands businesses prospering.

However, in the summer or fall 1847, the tragedy began. Family lore hands down that Harvey R. Curtis was killed by a member of the crew, his body being thrown overboard into the Mississippi River at a spot where the Eades Bridge in St. Louis now stands. His body was never recovered! After the traditional year of mourning, on 27 Sep 1848, Mary Isabelle Orr Curtis married a second time to Peter VANDERVOORT, showing in city directories as a Steamboat Engineer; probably a friend, associate or acquaintance of Harvey's. Then came the worst year my family as seen since - 1849!

In that year, cases of cholera swept up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, first appearing in St. Louis in February. It first ravaged the elderly and young. Mother Orr, whether an early cholera victim or of other causes, dies. A 19 Feb 1849 St. Louis newspaper announcement reads, "Mrs. Mary T. Orr, age 55, dec. 16 Feb. Funeral from the residence of son-in-law, R. B. Snow, corner Fifth and Washington". Then within a month and a half, cholera takes little Mary, age five, on 30 Mar 1849. And in May 1849, Isabelle succumbs; probably of cholera, which was of epidemic proportions by this time; but being barely eight months into her new marriage, complications with a pregnancy can not be ruled out.

So in May, 1849, Harvey and Isabelle's two remaining children, William, age 8, and Charles, age 3, are left in the hands of their new stepfather. Isabelle's sister Anna along with her daughter had already fled, along with 25,000 others, to New York City to escape the cholera. Apparently awaiting Anna's return to care for her nephews, Peter Vandervoort opens a Succession for Harvey R. Curtis, but does not file for Guardianship of both boys. With the help of their uncle, Robert B. Snow, the Curtis home was remodeled and replastered in July, then leased to John C. WILSON to provide income for the siblings.

I am not sure where Charles was during this summer of 1849. But, on 03 Jun, older brother William was sent just across the river to stay with C. E. BLOOD in Collinsville, Illinois, away from the epidemic. Also staying with C. E. Blood was Peter Vandervoort's son by a previous marriage, Edward VANDERVOORT, both being enrolled in the Collinsville Academy.  C. E. Blood was a congregational minister and a staunch abolitionist who was very active in the movement.

Finally, on 25 Aug and 10 Sep, St. Louis newspapers announce, "Anna M. Snow, wife R B Snow, d. New York City, NY, while visiting friends, in her 22nd year, funeral at St. Paul's Presbyterian Cemetary". How she died at such a tender age, is not known. It does reveal that the Orr family while in St. Louis, maintained strong ties to persons in New York. But, with Anna gone, the last known blood relative departs from the scene. On 14 Sept 1849, Peter Vandervoort proceeded to file for Guardianship in St. Louis.

In October, Charles was let out to William F. and Martha Story EDSON, probably friends of the family, since he is shown in the 1850 census as a "Pilot". The Edson's received money for board and keep from the estate, and raised Charles in St. Louis as their own until 01 Oct 1859. William F. Edson's health must have failed forcing a move to Milwaukee where he died on 26 Apr 1860. Martha Storey Edson lived on until 02 Jan 1912, joining her husband in Forest Home Cemetary in Milwaukee.  An 1875  <*LETTER*> that I possess from "Auntie Martha" revealed that she and Charles did remain in contact.

After the Edson's departure, Charles was sent in Dec 1859 to New Haven, MO, to be under the care
of Hiram R. BATES, a station agent for the Pacific Railroad who was from
Binghamton, Broome County, NY, and his wife, Martha F.EDGAR,from Williamsport, PA. William though, sadly, was moved from boarding school to boarding school, spending only summer vacations with the then remarried stepfather, and for which the estate was of course, charged the expense.

If there were any other existing Curtis or Orr relatives, they must have been distant, or satisfied that the boys were in the good hands of their stepfather and the Edson's. They did possibly have a living aunt, Emily M. CURTIS, born 11 Jul 1821 in Cape Girardeau, MO, who by 1856 was married to Henry B. MERSEREAU and having their first child in Richmond, Indiana. Of interest, Emily M. (Mary?) could be the reverse of the boys sisters name, Mary E. (Emily?). I have but one source to reveal that Emily even ever existed. One other mysterious lead is that in 1855 a H. CURTIS suddenly appears and received money for keeping William on his two month summer vacation.

I have been unable to locate any descendents of William; and my gg-grandfather, Charles, knew or passed down virtually nothing of his ancestry. When I started this quest, I had only fragments of information collected verbally by my father, and was unsure even of Charles' father's name; I just knew that it had an Orr and St. Louis connection. The time, travel, effort and money dispensed to assemble even this much of the story is not easily calculated, but well worth while and fulfilling. Tracing our ancestors can be frustrating, to say the least, and this may be a classic example of how genealogical "stonewall" is created. QUOTE:"You may not find all of which you seek; but at least you can assemble a very interesting story! Ransom H. Curtis (10 Apr 1999)"

PS: My research is still very active, and this story will some day hopefully be updated! There are still two many unanswered questions! But, I am just very thankful for how far I have progressed.
Should you have further interest in the above mentioned individuals, you may visit my <*NOTES*> page for some additional information and sources.

I have also uncovered several coincidences, or clues, to possible relatives of the orphans. You may visit my  <*COINCIDENCE*> page if you want to see why not to delve too far into  your research.


Please direct any questions to: .

Family Links:

Curtis-Curtiss Genealogy

Published 11 Apr 1999
Update 28 Dec 2002

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