The joys of Ancestry.com – discovering my great grand uncle

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Francis McEnhill – a man rediscovered on Ancestry.com

In a pile of old photos from the Irish side of my family (Dad is from the Emerald Isle), there’s always been a couple of photos that confused us. A moustachioed gentleman in some kind of uniform in the early 20th century. Who was he? What was the uniform?

Well, the mystery has been solved thanks to doing some work on Ancestry.com – which I’ve become horribly addicted to. It has given us a very full picture of an interesting guy.

Some of my relatives talked about an Uncle Francis who emigrated to the United States from County Tyrone, in what’s now Northern Ireland. They speculated that he might have become a police officer in the NYPD because of the uniform in the photo.

If he had been aware of their musings, Francis might have been deeply offended.

Because Uncle Francis, it transpires, was in the US Cavalry! An immigrant to the US, he married the daughter of a senior New York military officer James Joseph Butler (1832-1910) who had fought alongside a future US president, Chester Arthur, in the American civil war – with the Union, not the Confederacy. This familial connection seems to have smoothed the path for Irish-born Francis to join the US cavalry.

And what a time to have joined! Lt Francis McEnhill (born 1872) was very soon in Cuba and then the Philippines fighting with American forces against Spain – the colonial ruler of these two countries. From 1898, President William McKinley used various pretexts and a fevered press campaign to justify attacking what was then Spanish colonial territory.

This heralded America’s arrival on the world stage. Spain was a declining imperial power and these countries were sad remnants of a once huge empire that covered all of central and Latin America. The war, begun by McKinley and continued by Teddy Roosevelt, led to the US annexation of Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.

Francis seems to have enjoyed the military life. But he seems to have picked up some bug in the Philippines that destroyed his health. Tropical disease was rife and did impact the cavalry. Whatever he contracted led to encephalitis. This was a death sentence back in those days.

Poor Francis ended up in a hospital in Philadelphia where he died in 1909. Thanks to Ancestry I’ve even found the bill sent to his widow for the coffin, transfer of the body back to New York state and things like the silk Stars and Stripes to be draped over his casket. Also through Ancestry, I now know that he’s buried at Sacket’s Harbour – which was once a major military base.

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His military trunk on Craigslist

It’s strange that from my Irish grandmother, as a kid in the 1970s, I got only sketchy details about a man who was her uncle but passed away the year she was born. In truth, I may have more information today about Uncle Francis through the power of digital than she did decades ago.

As a postscript, I discovered his military chest on Craigslist where a young man had bought it in a house sale. The name Francis McEnhill was on the side of the large wooden crate and documents relating to the widow’s pension were found inside with the gold cavalry insignia you can see on his uniform in the photo. I offered this young man a very generous price but he chose to give it to a local military museum. I guess it’s gone to a good enough home!

Lieutenant Francis McEnhill – Born 10 June, 1872 in County Tyrone, Ireland. Died 3 June, 1909 in Philadelphia, buried in Sacket’s Harbor.

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