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Genealogical book looks at the pioneering people who helped usher Albuquerque into the modern age

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A local genealogy buff has gathered years of research about Albuquerque’s modern-day pioneering families into a book.

French Mortuary at Fifth Street and Central Avenue in 1907. Chester T. French, the founder, is driving the carriage. (Courtesy of The Stewart Family)

The book, “Stories of Early Albuquerque” by Rosemary McNerney Winkler, shares the history of the families who helped usher the city into the modern age. McNerney Winkler is a member of the Albuquerque Genealogical Society, and has been writing about these families for the group’s publication the Quarterly since 2013. The book can be found at Page 1 Books, Treasure House Books in Old Town and Organic Books in Nob Hill.

“I was so in love with the stories,” she said. “They were so great.”

The arrival of soldiers to the area after the Mexican-American War in 1848; the advent of the railroad, which made its way to Albuquerque in 1880; and the influx of tuberculosis patients seeking a cure in the early 1900s brought people to New Mexico from around the country and the world, creating what is today a unique cultural history that “Stories of Early Albuquerque” explores.

“Stories of Early Albuquerque” was compiled and edited by Rosemary McNerney Winkler and published by Copper Ave. Press. It’s now available in local bookstores.

McNerney Winkler said the society asked her to put together a book in celebration of its 50th anniversary. Albuquerque’s genealogical group got started in 1972 and helps people research their family history.

Some of the families in the book have highly recognizable names, such as Girard, Lovelace and Montgomery, while others are not so well known. But all are historically significant.

Take for instance the Ong and Collins families.

The Ongs were one of the first Chinese American families to settle in Albuquerque. They were the founders of the well-loved New Chinatown Restaurant, which remained open until 2003. According to the book, Wing Ong followed his father to America in the early 1920s.

John Collins circa 1880. He was emancipated slave who served in the U.S. military and eventually settled in Albuquerque. (Courtesy of Brenda Dabney)

He returned to China to marry Won Lin, whom he selected from a group of photos. The two returned to America, via San Francisco in 1928 and a few months later made it to Albuquerque, which was a culture shock to Won Lin, who had never experienced climate like New Mexico’s. But they stayed and had eight children, three boys and five girls, which they raised here. They started a family grocery store and eventually went into the restaurant business.

Meanwhile, decades before the Ong family arrived, John Collins became one of the earliest African American businessman to settle in Albuquerque. Collins was born into slavery but emancipated at the age of nine. He served in the military and was stationed New Mexico. He decided to make it his home.

Collins and his wife Melissa started a touring company, Collins Freight Lines. He would take people up to the Sandia and Manzano mountains on camping excursions in a giant wagon. While there, he would sometimes dig up evergreen seedlings and, with permission, plant them on the University of New Mexico campus. The trees can still be seen today on the corner of University and Central.

The book also explores the history of Chester T. French, the patriarch of a family that has helped people say goodbye to loved ones for more than 100 years. French opened French Mortuary Inc. in Downtown Albuquerque in 1907. He made all the caskets himself and would go on to establish Sunset Memorial Park. He moved to New Mexico from Tennessee in 1904 with his brother, who had tuberculosis.

Gracing the cover of the book is the Edmund G. Ross family. Ross was governor of New Mexico when it was still a territory. Ross was opposed to slavery, and as a young man he wrote a paper speaking out against capital punishment, arguing it was often Blacks who fell victim to it. When asked by school officials to retract it, he refused and was denied graduation. Throughout his political career, he would find himself at odds with powerful men as he insisted on doing what he thought was morally right.

McNerney Winkler said she has focused her research on families who settled in Albuquerque after 1848, the year New Mexico became a territory, because the New Mexico Genealogical Society almost exclusively focuses on the old Spanish settler families who began arriving in the region centuries earlier.




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