The Havana Orphans, Yellow Journalism, and the Deadliest Catch!

Havana to New York

The SS Orizaba departed Havana on December 6, 1896 with our Havana orphans and arrived in New York on the morning of December 8, 1896. Here’s the passenger list details:

 And here’s a closeup of showing our relatives and their probable escort, Ms. Lucia G. de Villa:

You’ll notice that Manuel, the oldest orphan, is not on the passenger list and based on some other clues in my files, I believe Manuel never left Havana.  We’ll follow up on that in a later post.

Newspaper Coverage – Yellow Journalism

Reminder: all this took place in 1896 when Cuba was deep in its struggle for independence from Spain and the crisis was a daily topic in the news. This was a brutal struggle and the stories sold newspapers. Additionally, Cuban exiles supporting the insurgency in the cities and farms across the island set up office in New York and Miami to raise money and drive public opinion on the issue.

Additionally, it’s important to understand that for many generations following the formation of the United States, the subject of annexing Cuba came up time and again. In 1823, Thomas Jefferson wrote to President James Monroe from his home at Monticello, “I have ever looked upon Cuba as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States.”

By 1896 newspapers were lobbied by those who had financial and moral connections to the idea of the U.S. seizing Cuba from Spain, not that the Cubans actually desired to replace one foreign ruler with another, but the Cubans were looking for anyone to help their cause. Newspapers were used to shape public opinion and probably made a few dollars along the way.

Print news was king and many publishers desired to be on the throne.  The battle between Hearst in San Francisco and Pulitzer in New York helped create what emerged as yellow journalism 100 years before the CNN and Fox News battle we live in today.  Yellow journalism was 1896’s “fake news” and our Havana Orphans helped the big news propaganda machines serve up one of hundreds of stories designed to influence average Americans with stories of Spanish atrocities on the island.

Here’s what appeared in the NY Times the day after their arrival:

The stories from New York hit the wires and variations appeared in print all over the nation:

The stories, and I have dozens of samples, made all kinds of assertions. At one point in my research I started to keep track of the assertions in the many articles:

Facts asserted:
orphans named Veles (1)(3)(5)(6)(7)(9)(10) 
orphans named Velvas (2)(8)
6 orphans arrived (1) (2) (4)(8)
3 boys and 3 girls (2)(3)(4)(5)(6)(7)(8)(9)(10)
brothers and sisters (3)(4)
arrived from Havana (1) (2)
arrived from Cuba (4)(5)(6)(7)(9)
Steamer Orizaba (1)(2) (3) (4)(5)(6)(7)(9)(10)
ages 2 - 12 (1)
ages 2 - 10 (2)(8)
father Juarez Veles (1)
Father Spaniard (1)
Father was a planter near Nuentas (probably Nuevitas)(1)(2)(8)
Father owned 200 acre farm near Nuentas (3)(4)(5)(6)(7)(9)(10)
Father arrested (1) (2)
Arrested November 17th 1896 (2)(8)
Father executed (1)
Father tried and sentenced to death (2)
Ordered shot as spy (3)(4)(5)(6)(7)(8)(9)(10)
Wife to witness (2)(8)
Executed prior to arrival of wife (1) (2)(8)
Body was riddled with bullets (1)
Wife fell over dead body (2)(8)
Wife died near scene (2)(8)
Wife died of broken heart (3)(4)(5)(6)(7)(9)(10)
Wife Spaniard (3)(4)(5)(6)(7)(9)(10)
Neighbor Juan Gonzales sent them (1)
Aged Aunt and Uncle (1)(5)(6)(7)(9)(10)
Uncle (3)(4)
Aged Brooklyn couple (2)(8)
Sent by Cuban insurgency (2)(8)
Insurgents paid for passage (3)(4)(5)(6)(7)(9)(10)

(1) NY Times 9 Dec 1896
(2) Little Falls NY Evening Times 9 Dec 1896
(3) Philadelphia Inquirer 9 Dec 1896
(4) New Haven Evening Register 9 Dec 1896
(5) Oswego Daily Palladium 9 Dec 1896 
(6) The Auburn Bulletin 9 Dec 1896 
(7) Monroe County Mail 10 Dec 1896
(8) Gloversville Daily Leader 10 Dec 1896
(9) Fulton County Republican 9 Dec 1896
(10) Batavia Daily News 9 Dec 1896

And in the days that followed I see this one appearing:

But if you’re still not a believer, here’s a good one for you.  A few months earlier I found the following, look at the date:

 Fortunately for the reporters at the time, there was no Google and the recycling of old news stories with new or more interesting facts could go undetected pretty easily.

The Havana Orphans and the Deadliest Catch

The SS Orizaba (1889) (Official Number 155177) was launched for the Ward Line in November 1889 and was in service from 1890 to 1898 transporting mail and passengers between ports in the Caribbean and New York.

She was later chartered to the U.S. Army as a transport ship for the  Spanish-American War from April until September in 1898 and returned to service along the route shown in the Ward Line advertisement above until 1906.


SS Orizaba was sold to Northwestern Steamship Company in 1906, moving mail along the west coast of the United States, and renamed the SS Northwestern. She later sailed for Alaska Line and, after surviving numerous strandings, was sold in 1940 when she served as an accomodations ship permanently moored at Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Apparently, in addition to housing military and civilian personnel in the harbor, her onboard generators supplied electricity to the port.


In 1942 while moored at Dutch Harbor, the SS Northwestern was bombed by the Japanese (yes, go brush up on your World War II history).  At the time she was bombed, she was a 52 year-old ship still serving her country.

Records about the ship were muddled for a while but in the 1980’s the US Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that although some records showed SS Northwestern was towed to Seattle for scrap, she in fact broke loose of her tow and ended up sinking in nearby Captains Bay where she sits today.

You might have seen an episode of Deadliest Catch a couple of years ago where the Discovery Channel program featured a special broadcast commemorating the history of SS Northwestern and the bombing of Dutch Harbor.   The hull is located at the southern end of Captains Bay and it can be seen as you drive toward the end of Captains Bay Road.

The Northwestern propeller was recovered and it sits in a memorial park in the harbor.  Take Bayview Avenue toward Summer Bay Road. Turn right at Memorial Drive and then walk around Unalaska Memorial Park and Cemetery. Take your picture near the this piece of history that’s seen the waters of New York, Cuba, Panama, around Cape Horn and up to the Aleutians. 

So if you visit Dutch Harbor and see Sig Hansen, let him know you’re connected to the family!

The Havana Orphans

In 1896 tuberculosis (TB) left seven of our ancestors orphaned in Havana. Like many parts of the world at the time, late nineteenth-century Havana was no stranger to the ravages of TB.

From The Return of the White Plague: Global Poverty and the ‘new’ Tuberculosis by Gandy and Zumla: “In the five years that preceded the outbreak of war (1890-94), TB accounted for a full 20% of certified deaths in the city. With the extreme deprivation, starvation, and crowding that accompanied the onset of war, however, TB assumed new, epidemic proportions.”

In 1892, TB took Manuel Velez from his family. Four years later in November of 1896, TB would take Regla as well, leaving seven children to fend for themselves.

Fortunately the Velez children were surrounded by family and they were quickly shepherded off the chaotic island to Brooklyn.

Here’s what we know about the orphans:

Manuel is a mystery. He was the oldest male so, following traditional Spanish custom, he would have been the one to take responsibility for the family, even at 14 years of age. I’ve never located Manuel but I strongly suspect he remained in Havana and that his descendants are still there today. Finding Manolo, as he was called, is in my Todo List.

Amelia (12 years old) grew up with relatives in Brooklyn, as you can see in the census records. She later married Eduardo Moreno and ultimately lived out her adult years in Costa Rica. Our cousin Roberto MOreno, who some of you know, is her grandson and he lives in Panama City, Panama.

María de Jesús (11 years old) went back to Havana in 1905 where she died of TB on 10 May  and was buried.

Silvio (9 years old) lived in Brooklyn but he disappears from records until I find ads in the paper indicating he is a delivery man for a Brooklyn bakery in 1905. He married Elizabeth Cooper and had many children, including Sylvia (Dolly), Silvio (Sully), Elizabeth (Betty), and Madeline. Born Silvio, he lived as Sylvester and, more often, Lester.  Lester Velez was known to use the name Lester Palmer (I haven’t figured out where Palmer comes from) and he was a taxi driver in Freeport, New York when he was killed in 1930, which will be covered in another article.

Federico Alberto (6 years old) grew up as Albert or Al. Al and his brother Michael both appear in a Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn a few blocks from their sisters shortly after their arrival from Havana and they seemed to be close to each other their entire lives. Like Silvio, Al was also a driver, listed as a chauffeur in census records.  Oral history tells us “Uncle Al” left Long Island and moved to Los Angeles near the Guesnos after some sort of automobile accident. He also changed his name to Al Palmer and died there in 1959. He and his wife, Cecilia, never had children.

María de la Concepción (7 years old) (Concha or Marie) married Joseph Guesno while Joe was in the Army, had 9 children, and died of TB in 1925 in a sanitorium on Long Island where she had given birth to her youngest, Frances. Most of the Guesno family left Long Island for Los Angeles in the early 1940’s, I believe.

Miguel (4 years old) joined the Army and was affectionately known as Uncle Mike to his Guesno nieces and nephews. He retired from the Army and died at the Soldiers home in DC where he is buried. He never married and had no children.

The trip from Havana to New York was covered by the newspapers and was caught up in the yellow journalism that was gripping newspapers around the country in 1896. I will cover the journey in another article.

So you’re probably reading this as a relative of the Moreno, Velez, or Guesno families. Now you know how you’re connected to your cousins!