Sweeney
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A HISTORY OF THE ELLEN SWEENEY FAMILY

By W. T. Block

The history of Ellen Sweeney and her children reveals a family who came to Nederland for the most unique of reasons. Not unlike the Dutch, good cotton land was growing scarce in the part of Louisiana where they lived, so acquiring land and economic opportunity as an alternate reason cannot be denied. Not unlike Nederland's Capt. John Kaper, Capt. W. P. Allen, and Andrew Johnson families, who came from Sabine Pass, the Sweeneys had been buffeted by hurricanes along Louisiana's south coast, so chalk up "hurricanes" as another alternate reason. The poor schools where they lived would for most persons qualify as an alternate reason for leaving, except that the Sweeney children were already grown. Several Sweeney families had lived at Grand Chenier, in east Cameron Parish about fifty miles east of Port Arthur, for 75 years, and even the meaning of the name indicates another alternate reason for leaving. In the Acadian 'patois' of Louisiana, Grand Chenier is roughly translated as "big oak-studded island in the marsh," with all communication with the outside world cut off except by water prior to 1931, the year the first road to that region was completed. Only one thing could have driven people to settle in such an isolated locality -- the constant march for better cotton lands. And that was the Sweeney family's livelihood, for they produced 25 to 30 bales of that staple every year. None of these, however, was the ultimate reason which drove Ellen Sweeney to Nederland. In 1906, the family, comprised of four sons and three daughters, were first cousins to all of the young people on the "island," and the children were already scattered out in age from twenty to thirty-three. In that age, the concept of "incest" was interpreted all the way to fourth cousin, making any marriage with the "island's" population unthinkable. Hence, Ellen Sweeney brought her family here in quest of potentially eligible marriage partners. The only alternative in Grand Chenier was either remain single or violate the state's incest laws.

In January, 1906, the Sweeneys sold their home and fifty acres of land, loaded their meager possessions on a wagon, and with a couple milk cows in tow, they started down the beach road toward Johnson's Bayou, across the lake from Port Arthur, and crossed the Mermentau and Calcasieu River ferries while en route. At Johnson's Bayou, they hired a sail boat to bring them across the lake to Texas.

It is unclear why Ellen Sweeney chose Nederland since she had two brothers and three sisters-in-law living in Port Arthur and a sister at Sour Lake, but she had a niece, Mrs. Martin Block, living in Nederland. The Sweeney history is labeled under the mother's name because the father of the family, James Hill Sweeney (b. Sept. 25, 1849-d. Oct. 7, 1891) died at Grand Chenier before the Sweeneys came to Texas. The Sweeneys were of Scots-Irish descent, dating their ancestry from Edward and Martha Sweeney who emigrated from Ulster, North Ireland, to Elizabeth County, Virginia, in 1655. James Hill Sweeney was the son of John William Sweeney, Sr. (b. Ca. 1807-d. Aug. 17, 1886) and Sarah Jane Hickok (b. May 14, 1814-d. June 30, 1893), who arrived in Grand Chenier in 1839 from Virginia. Lou Ellen Sweeney (b. Jan. 10, 1847-d. Nederland, June 12, 1923), born at Brandon, Mississippi, was the daughter of Duncan Smith (b. North Carolina,1810-d. San Marcus, Tx., 1887) and Margaret "Peggy" Russell (b. May 9, 1817-d. Nov. 5, 1891) of Cameron, Louisiana. Margaret Smith was the daughter of Rev. Jeremiah Russell, Jr. (b. April 14, 1788-d. Feb., 1863), a War of 1812 veteran and the first Methodist missionary to the Choctaw tribe in 1826. His father, Jeremiah Russell, Sr. fought three years in the South Carolina militia, Gen. Greene's command, of the Continental Army. John W. Sweeney's grandfather, Edward Sweeney of Frederick, Maryland, settled on land patents of Lord Baltimore on the Monocacy River in about 1750, and he was a major (on "muster rolls of the Georgetown Hundred, Frederick County Militia"), who fought with the Maryland militia of Gen. Washington's Continental soldiers.

In 1891, the Sweeney family suffered a double tragedy when the father, James H. Sweeney, and the oldest daughter, Virginia (Jennie) Sweeney, died only four months apart.

Upon arriving in Nederland in 1906, Ellen Sweeney purchased $500 worth of lumber in Beaumont, and she hired her nephew, Virgil Smith of Port Arthur, to build her new six-room house at 149 Nederland Avenue for $40, or a total of $540. That home, now 85 years old, has been only slightly remodeled and removed to 207 Boston. One of the Sweeneys' first activities in Nederland was to meet the Dr. J. H. Haizlip family at the depot upon their arrival from Arkansas and carry them and their belongings to their first home here, a rice farm near the end of Nederland Avenue (now the Mobil tank farm). The Sweeneys bought a 10-acre tract of land at 149 Nederland Avenue, but for thirty years or more, they also leased the adjacent 10-acre tract on their east side from George Vanderweg and the 80-acre tract on their west side from George D. Anderson for grazing their dairy cattle. Today that land is the Anderson Estates additions to Nederland, Texas, South First Street through South Fifth Street.

When Ellen Sweeney moved to Nederland, her children included Mildred Sweeney, age 33 (b. Jan. 3, 1873-d. Jan. 19, 1969); Austin Sweeney, age 31 (b. 1874-d. 1963); Andrew Sweeney, age 28 (b. Jan. 20, 1878-d. July 25, 1960); Ella Sweeney, age 26 (b. March 13, 1880-d. Dec. 17, 1965); Lawrence Sweeney, age 24 (b. Aug. 6, 1882-d. Dec. 29, 1935); Sarah Jane Sweeney, age 22 (b. Aug. 4, 1884-d. June 12, 1983); and Hugh William "Bump" Sweeney, age 20 (Oct. 29, 1886-d. Jan. 23, 1972). Ellen Sweeney was only partially successful in her quest to acquire marriage partners for her children. Two sons and a daughter married after reaching Texas, but four of her children remained single for life.

During their first year in Nederland, three Sweeney sons worked for Dr. Haizlip on his rice farm. The following two years, they raised rice for themselves on land owned by Sun Oil Company. About 1910, Lawrence, Andrew, and H. W. Sweeney began working in the Texaco asphalt roofing plant in Port Neches. Lawrence Sweeney worked there for the remainder of his life, but H. W. and Andrew Sweeney left Texaco in 1918 and entered the dairy business for themselves on Nederland Avenue. The Sweeney dairy remained there until about 1947 when the Sweeney family retired from dairying.

Austin Sweeney married Victoria Miller of Grand Chenier and moved to a farm at El Vista, near Port Acres. Later he raised watermelons at Sabine Pass for about thirty years. During the flood water of the 1915 storm, a floating, 55,000-barrel Gulf refinery tank threatened to demolish their farm house at El Vista, but a farm wagon deflected its path enough to miss the house by a few inches. Austin and Victoria Sweeney were the parents of one daughter, Rosabelle, who married Floyd Wiess, a Magpetco (Mobil, Port Neches) tank farm employee from Sabine Pass. They were the parents of one son, Richard Wiess, who lived all of his working life in Nederland. Floyd and Belle Wiess built their home at 1003 South Twelfth Street in Nederland, and about 1930, Austin Sweeney bought the old Gordon Wilson home at 903 South Twelfth so they could be near their daughter. They were members of First United Methodist Church of Nederland. Victoria Sweeney died in 1955, followed by Austin Sweeney in 1963, and later Floyd and Belle Wiess died during the 1970s, all of them in Nederland. Richard and Doris Wiess, after their retirement, moved to Hemphill, Texas, where they still reside. For about thirty years, Austin Sweeney supervised the Broussard and Hebert ranch lands and cattle at Sabine Pass.

Lawrence Sweeney married Nancy Williams, a daughter of Melvin and Minnie Williams, who came to Nederland in 1907 from Galloway, Missouri. They built their home at 619 Tenth Street, and for thirty years, Lawrence Sweeney rode his bicycle to and from the asphalt roofing plant daily. They were the parents of two sons, Leslie L. Sweeney and Elton N. Sweeney, and a daughter Juanita (deceased). Lawrence Sweeney died on Dec. 29, 1935, followed by his wife Nancy on April 10, 1942, and they are buried in Oak Bluff Cemetery in Port Neches. Leslie Sweeney served in the Air Force and Elton Sweeney in the Navy during World War II.

In 1908, Sarah Jane Sweeney married (1) Robert L. Staffen, (1882-1917), a grandson of Johan Mikiel Staffen, who settled at Smith's Bluff near Nederland in 1851. For nine years, they lived at the Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company pumping plant at Smith's Bluff on the Neches River, where Robert Staffen was a steam engineer, and where a son, Everett Albert Staffen (b. Dec. 20, 1909-d. Nederland, Sept. 11, 1989) was born. After Robert Staffen's death in 1917, Jane Staffen worked for two years in the Texaco roofing plant, filling the round boxes of nails that go into the rolls of roofing. In June, 1919, she married (2) Will Block, Sr., whose farm and sugar mill were located at 100 Block Street (Oak Bluff Cemetery) in Port Neches. Block's first wife, Dora Koelemay, one of Nederland's original Dutch settlers, also died in 1917. In 1902-1905, Block owned a half-interest in King Mercantile Company in Nederland, and also lost heavily in it when the business went broke. In 1903, he was a member of the Nederland school board of trustees (see "Nederland Diamond Jubilee"). And as late as 1917, Will Block still received all his mail in Nederland (his son still having an original envelope addressed "W. T. Block, Nederland, Texas," and postmarked 1917). Hence, Will Block seems to have been as much a part of Nederland's history as he was of Port Neches.

After Will Block died in 1933, Jane Block wasted no time in buying a home at 836 Detroit in Nederland, and she soon returned to the town that she always considered to be her home. She survived for another fifty years, dying there at age 99, on the sixtieth anniversary of her mother's death, on June 12, 1983. Jane and Will Block were the parents of two sons, W. T. Block of Nederland and L. Otis Block of Buna, and a daugther, Alta, who married Charles R. Fletcher of Nederland. Alta Fletcher was Nederland's city secretary-tax assessor collector for thirty-three years. W. T. Block was Nederland's (now retired) assistant postmaster (and for fourteen months, acting postmaster) for 25 years and is the co-editor and principal writer for "The Chronicles of The Early Families of Nederland, Texas." He is also the author of two published books, A History of Jefferson County, Texas From Wilderness to Reconstrution and Sapphire City of the Neches: A History of Port Neches, Texas. Everett Staffen served in the U. S. Air Force, was shot down over Italy during January, 1944, and remained a German prisoner fore sixteen months. W. T.Block served in the 78th Infantry Division, with five months of combat service in Belgium and Germany, and L. Otis Block served in the Navy during World War II.

Ellen Sweeney died in Nederland on June 12, 1923. Four of her children lived out their lives, unmarried and without issue, on the Sweeney Dairy at 149 Nederland Avenue. The Sweeney siblings lived to remarkably old ages and also remained quite free of most of the diseases that torment the aged, namely, cancer, strokes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Jane Block died of cardiac arrest, following colon removal caused by a bleeding polyp, at age 99. Mildred Sweeney died also of cardiac arrest at age 96. Austin Sweeney died of blocked kidneys at age 89. Ella Sweeney, only four feet, seven inches tall and 65 pounds in weight, died of blocked bowels at age 86. H. W. Sweeney died of cardiac arrest at age 85. Andrew Sweeney died of hardening of the arteries at age 82. Only one of them ever saw the inside of a nursing home, and that for only a few months; and Jane Block could still dress and bathe herself until one week before her death at age 99. None of them died a lingering, or excruciatingly painful death, and those facts must approach a record for longevity among the early Nederland families.

Copyright 1998-2016 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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