Yesterday, we took a look around Deveaux Woods State Park. There are plenty of peculiar scenes in Niagara’s oldest woods, but one spot off of a clearing in the southwest section of the park caught my eye during my visit.
A lone gravestone.
The aged stone provided very little detail, although I could make out “Born April 18xx” and “Eliza”.
This immediately piqued my interest. Who was Eliza? Why was her lone grave sitting inside Deveaux Woods?
Searching the Internet
When I got home, I did a quick search for “Deveaux Woods Eliza”. This led me to Find a Grave (which has been incredibly useful to me before with other historic people of Niagara).
Find a Grave was very useful in providing details. Eliza’s full name was Eliza A. Keig. She was born on April 18, 1843, and died at the age of 22 on December 7, 1865.
The only information widely available to the public is also on Find a Grave in the form of a May 6, 1927 Niagara Falls Gazette article.
According to the article, the grave was unknown by this point, and the gravestone lay broken. The Gazette was unable to find a Keig family residing in the area, and suggested that Eliza was part of a farming or homestead family. The Gazette also suggested that Eliza died of a contagious disease, and was buried near her old home.
Find a Grave also provided two additional pieces of incredibly useful information. First, 1860 US census records show a Sarah Keig, 19 years old, working as a servant in Deveaux College. Sarah was born on Isle of Man, and therefore it can be assumed that Eliza was also from the Isle of Man. Find a Grave suggests Sarah either is Eliza, or a relative. Based on Sarah’s age (Eliza would have been 17 during the census, so I would lean toward relative).
Piecing together the life of Eliza Keig is difficult, as large portions of her history have been lost to time. Luckily, Manx geneologist Chris Keig had built a family tree for Eliza’s family based on census data.
Of course, data is only a framework. Solving the mystery is a lot like quilting: take different pieces from all around and put them together. While we cannot with 100% certainty determine Eliza’s story, we can make educated guesses to fill in the gaps.
Using what we know about the regions and time period she lived in, let’s take a look at the life of Eliza Keig.
A Child on the Isle of Man
Our story begins on January 3, 1841 in the Lezayre parish on the Isle of Man. On this day, Thomas Keig, an agricultural laborer, married Mary Taylor of England. Later that year, Mary gave birth to Eliza’s older sister Sarah.
On April 18, 1843, Eliza was born. She would be baptized on on April 23 in one of the Anglican (or possibly Methodist) churches in the parish.
Eliza’s childhood would have been that of any other farm child in the 1840s. The most popular crop of the region was potatoes, which were both a primary source of food, but also an incredible cash crop for trade. Unfortunately, potato blight eventually found its way to the Isle in the mid 1840s, which swiftly destroyed the crop.
Around 1850, Eliza’s younger sister Anna was born. By then, it appears that Eliza’s family had decided that their situation in the Isle of Man was not going to get better. Like many other families, the Keigs set sail for America.
A Whole New World
The journey to America would not have been an easy one. While the wealthy could enjoy newer steam-powered ships at this time, most immigrants crossed from Liverpool to New York on cramped traditional sailing ships.
It’s quite possible that seven-year-old Eliza and her family sailed on a packet ship: small mail and cargo ships that held up to 20 passengers in steerage.
These ships were far from luxury. Cramped quarters and limited, low quality food plagued these ships. Disease was rampant, with everything from cholera to typhus taking hold during the journey. It was a common occurrence for immigrants to die aboard these ships, or arrive in New York carrying disease.
Luckily, Eliza and her family survived the nearly two-week voyage. By September of 1850, the Keigs were living in Rochester’s Sixth Ward. Thomas found work as a laborer to support his family.
By 1855, Eliza’s family moved to the town of Avon. Thomas returned to being a farmer at this time, although his crop or livestock is unknown (top contenders are wheat, corn, fruit or dairy cows).
The farm life was reasonable this time for the Keigs. By 1860, Thomas had a personal estate value of $500 (about $13,900 in today’s money). 17-year-old Eliza and her 19-year-old sister Sarah both did housework, but things were starting to change.
While Sarah was listed in the 1860 census as living in Avon with her family, she also appears in Niagara as a servant in the same census. The most likely reason for this is that Sarah had either recently moved, or was in the process of moving, and was double-dipped in the census.
Either way, we know that Sarah began working at the Deveaux College for Orphans and Destitute Children in 1860. It is most likely that Eliza later followed her sister’s footsteps to find work in Niagara. The sisters would have worked at the college as servants under Mansell Van Rensselaer, probably in the hall named after him. This would have been standard servant work to keep up the day-to-day operations of the Deveaux College.
Niagara at this time would also have been rapidly changing. The recently-completed Suspension Bridge increased trade and travel in the region, and the Mill District was rapidly expanding. Industrial progress in Niagara was dramatic. Eliza would have experienced life in the Village of Suspension Bridge amongst these changes.
Into the Gray
Unfortunately, the 1860 census appears to be the last conclusive available data. Ancestry data suggests that Both Thomas and Mary died around 1861, but there are no records to prove this.
The 1865 New York State Census provides additional insight into the mystery of Eliza, but also creates a far larger one.
At Deveaux College, both Eliza and her younger sister Anna appear in the census. However, Their ages are grossly incorrect. Eliza is listed as being 27, with Anna being 24. Every previous census had their ages listed correctly, so this error forces us to question if these are the Eliza and Anna we know. Further confusing matters, their country of origin is listed as England. Sarah is nowhere to be found within this census.
It is incredibly odd that Sarah has disappeared, while Anna has appeared. It is also peculiar that Anna is listed as being the age Sarah should have been, with Eliza now being older than any of her siblings should be. The age gap between the 1865 Census Eliza and Anna is also too small, and is actually closer to the gap between Sarah and Eliza.
While this census certainly breaks much of our timeline, it does show that there was an Eliza at Deveaux College in the summer of 1865: the final months of her life.
An Untimely End, A Hidden Legacy
Eliza Keig passed away on December 7, 1865 in or near Deveaux College. She was buried just south of the campus. The cause of her death is unknown, as no archival records seem to exist.
Her grave, occupying a 64-square-foot spot in the Deveaux Woods, was brought into the spotlight in 1927 by the Niagara Falls Gazette. At this time, the area was enclosed by a wooden fence. Her headstone was broken, but reporters could discern it read “Eliza A. Keig, Born Apl. 18, 1843, Died Dec. 7, 1865. In perfect peace.”
The headstone seen today in Deveaux Woods reads different. Whether this is the result of liberty from the reporters or a replacement for the “broken” stone has yet to be determined.
The area around the grave has been cleared recently, with four white limestone markers and dark, new mulch covering the top. I have not been able to discover why or when this was done, but if any of you have any information, please let me know.
Honestly, I never expected to be researching the Isle of Man, potato famines, mid 19th-century travel, and genealogical archives due to Deveaux Woods. I truly hope that I was able to do Eliza justice, and by no means do I think this is the end of the story. I’ll be continuing to do research in the future, as I encourage all of you to. This goes to show that there are hidden stories all over Niagara, and I hope you enjoyed this one.