Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Alexander Fraser: Master Baker (52 Ancestors #29)

Born in Middle Mill, Markinch, Scotland, December 8th 1807 to tenant farmer/master miller William Fraser (1767-1838) and his wife Agnes Bane (1769-1835).

Alexander Fraser was the fifth son, and eighth child born into a family of ten children. Raised in a millhouse in the shadows of Balgonie Castle in Fife, Scotland.

Alexander's father William, himself a son of a miller, was born in Craighouse mill, as was his grandfather Duncan Fraser (1725-1795).

By the time Alexander came along his parents had already lost two children, a son and a daughter.

map of Balgonie Castle/Mill area
The mill that his father ran was situated along the River Leven that was lined with mills of various sorts stretching out like fingers from the Castle.

middle mill cottages
Life as a working class family may have been hard. Any type of labor and toil as a way of living is surely hard. Working for the Royal family and whatever Earl was in charge of the land at the time. Although there was the opportunity for school, with both parochial and parish schools situated in Markinch, the best one could hope for was to apprentice and become a mill overseer one day. Eventually retiring in a worker's cottage, always a tenant.

Alexander apprenticed under his father in the trade of miller and was, according to his great grandson, a baker in the town of Edinburgh. Whether this is true or not I have yet to discover.

On March 25, 1832 Alexander Fraser wed Elizabeth Chalmers in Edinburgh. The couple emigrated to New York City later that same year. The journey would have taken at least two weeks. Elizabeth may have been pregnant at the time.

I've often wondered why Alexander and Elizabeth came to America. I like to imagine it was because they were young and had grand plans of a bigger and better life than the generations that came before them. Staying in Scotland would most certainly have limited Alexander. Perhaps becoming the next tenant farmer/mill man at one of the many mills in the shadows of Balgonie Castle. (Note: all of Alexander's siblings stayed in Scotland and are buried in the same churchyard as their ancestors)

<strong>FALLING STARS:</strong> An engraving of the 1833 night that Adventist pioneer and eyewitness Joseph Harvey Waggoner commissioned for the 1889 "Bible Readings for the Home Circle."
 a 19th century woodcut with an impression of
the spectacular Nov 13, 1833 Leonid storm.
Courtesy Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
In January 1833, their first child, a daughter named Agnes, was born. Alexander was listed in the NY City directory as a baker living at 147 Orange (rear) in what is now Manhattan. Later that year the young family experienced one of the most curious and perhaps frightening natural occurrences; know as 'The Night The Stars Fell', the Leonid meteor shower occurred pre-dawn November 12th and could be seen across the globe.

"On the night of November 12-13, 1833, a tempest of falling stars broke over the Earth... The sky was scored in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs. At Boston, the frequency of meteors was estimated to be about half that of flakes of snow in an average snowstorm. Their numbers... were quite beyond counting; but as it waned, a reckoning was attempted, from which it was computed, on the basis of that much-diminished rate, that 240,000 must have been visible during the nine hours they continued to fall." - Agnes Clerkes, Victorian Astronomy Writer

On the evening of December 16, 1835 the Fraser family witnessed the first of what would be three Great Fires in their lifetime. Very near where Alexander had his bakery a massive fire broke out in a warehouse. It quickly spread, thanks to gale-force winds, and ultimately destoyed 13 acres in the downtown business district encompassing 17 city blocks. I do not know if Alexander was directly effected, but I'm certain the family had a front row seat to the frightening event.

As the city rebuilt another disaster was looming. And Alexander was at the epicenter. May 10th 1837, known now as the Panic of 1837, began with New York banking institutions and resulted in the shortage of  currency, sending the US into a depression that would last until the mid 1840's.

But life rolled on, Alexander continued to bake and in 1838 the family welcomed their second child, a daughter named Janet (named after Elizabeth's twin sister) to the family. William, third child and first son, was born in 1840, the newly planted American family was growing.

By the early 1840's Alexander had expanded his business. He was now the proprietor of a Fancy Goods shop on Pearl Street near Hanover Sq. Scottish tenacity, perhaps, that brought him through despite the apparent hardness of the times.

A third daughter, Elisabeth, arrived in 1844. Alexander and family were now residing on Varick Place, between Bleecker and West Houston.
Fraser's business (red star and black arrow)
to right of burned area

Summer of 1845. July 19. 2:30 am. Saturday. A small fire started on the third floor of a whale oil shop blocks from Fraser's Fancy Goods Shop. By 3 am the City Hall alarm bell was sounding, likely arousing Alexander from much needed sleep. Ten hours later the blaze had been doused, leaving behind death and destruction. Alexander narrowly escaped tragedy once again. 345 buildings were destroyed, 26 people lost their lives.

The family welcomed their final child, a son named James Chalmers, in 1849.

Alexander continued to run his shop, the children grew and prospered. On May 1st, 1855 Alexander and Elizabeth's first born, Agnes, was married to a young Scottish immigrant, James Irons. For reasons unknown James and Agnes Irons decided to remove to a frontier city called Chicago shortly after the wedding. For more reasons unknown, Alexander, Elizabeth and the rest of the family decided to go as well. (Perhaps the desire to escape such a flammable city?)

Alexander quickly established a new bakery in his new city. Partnering with Mark Forsyth, the Fraser and Forsyth Bakery operated at 87 Market St. The city directory of 1856 lists the business as being established one year. The family home was on Blue Island Avenue.

Alexander and family still had one more dance with fire on their card.

red dot = origin / darkened area = fire spread
October 8th, 1871. Mrs O'Leary's Cow. Well, not really, but that's how the story goes. And once again Alexander and family are scant blocks from the conflagration, and most probably the business, this time around, went up in flames.

Alexander was 63 at the time and did not rebuild. He is found in the City Directories through 1876 as residing on Blue Island Ave, no longer listed with an occupation.

By 1878 Alexander is living with his widowed daughter Agnes in her sizable family home on West Adams.

Alexander Fraser died May 2nd 1883 at the age of 75. His wife Elizabeth followed six years later. The couple is buried in the large Irons family plot in Graceland Cemetery, along with numerous descendants, my father being one.


From the pastoral landscape of Scotland, to the rough and tumble city of New York, and finally to Chicago, the city on the prairie; Alexander Fraser experienced a life none of his ancestors or siblings could imagine. He came to America with a dream in his heart and fulfilled it, the proud owner of his own business, working for himself, owning his own home, and firmly establishing his legacy on American soil.

©2017 Anne Faulkner -, All Rights Reserved

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