A Tale of Two Brayton Descents

Home of John Summerfield Brayton, built ca. 1870, once stood at 369 Highland Avenue, Fall River, Massachusetts. Photo from author’s copy of “Fall River, 1911, A City of Opportunity.”

Anyone who lived in Fall River, Massachusetts more than fifty years ago would recognize the Brayton name as a power family from the city’s glory days. A block away from my childhood home, the boundary of the baronial John Summerfield Brayton estate was marked by a substantial granite wall with a pointed cap, stretching along Highland Avenue and bending the curve to New Boston Road. What a great place for kids to play, imagining we were behind a medieval fortification. Not even in my flights of fantasy would I have contemplated kinship with this wealthy family. Continue reading A Tale of Two Brayton Descents

Call for Stories: Family Ghosts

Photo from “Hours with the Ghosts or, Nineteenth Century Witchcraft” by Henry Ridgely Evans, 1891

Are there ghosts in your family’s stories? Do you have a relative who enjoys telling a tale of the unexplained, an ancestral home that seems to hold some trace of the past, or another family mystery that you just can’t seem to lay to rest? We want to hear your stories! Your submission may be featured on the blog in an upcoming post this October.

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Continue reading Call for Stories: Family Ghosts

Regnal names in the U.K.

Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, King Charles III (then Duke of Cornwall), and Princess Anne, October 1957. Source: Library and Archives Canada

Following the example of his mother Queen Elizabeth II, the new monarch of the United Kingdom has officially chosen his first given name as regnal name: King Charles III. I previously speculated that the new king might choose the names George VII , Philip, or, as a longshot, King Arthur . Historically, it’s popular for monarchs to choose their first names–since the creation of the United Kingdom, the only monarchs to break the pattern by reigning with a subsequent given name have been Victoria, Edward VII, and George VI.

Regnal names in the United Kingdom have a complex history, particularly those which were used for monarchs of England or Scotland prior to the unification of the two kingdoms. Until 1603, England and Scotland had separate monarchies, although royals of the two kingdoms frequently intermarried. (All English monarchs since Henry II were descendants of Malcolm III of Scotland, and all Scottish monarchs since James II of Scotland were descendants of Edward III of England; see this chart.) Queen Elizabeth I’s closest heir after her death was her first cousin twice removed (in two ways), King James VI of Scotland, who subsequently became known as King James I of England. Continue reading Regnal names in the U.K.

Discovering the first life of my second-great-grandfather

Jacob Spuhler, his second wife Johanna Weigert, and their five children

As family historians, we often feel inexplicably drawn to certain ancestors in our family trees. Sometimes it’s clear why we are drawn to a particular individual—other times, it’s harder to say. One such ancestor for me is my second-great-grandfather, Jacob Spuhler. While I thought I knew quite a bit about him at the start, as I researched the details of his life, I soon discovered a hidden piece of family history I had not expected.

Jacob Spuhler was an immigrant from Germany who arrived in New York City in October 1884. Lucky for me, the name of his hometown—Alsenz—was passed down to me through the generations. Already having a crucial piece of the puzzle did not deter me from delving deeper, and as I researched Jacob’s life, I found plenty more to learn. Continue reading Discovering the first life of my second-great-grandfather

Tracing a tall tale: was Elvis really in the building?

Photo of Elvis Presley in 1970
Blue moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own…

The myths and stories in any family history are tenuous things. Often self-serving, they mesmerize us—trapping us in visions of the past filtered through glossy hindsight and half-baked truths. The tales in my own family’s history are certainly no exception. However, even these spurious and specious tales may be lost and forgotten, ravaged by time, and become yet another casualty of Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, or memory loss. I believe that “true or not,” we as family historians are obligated to protect, explore, and secure these stories. It’s what makes our pursuit somehow different from more academic fields: the preservation of the personal.

My step-mother was the source of many family tales of dubious origin, particularly when she was suffering through the early pains of dementia. Her best story will always be the one about her evening with Elvis Presley, and how that famous crooner sang a song for her one night. In light of the cruelties of her dementia (and my skepticism of her other tall tales), I wondered—how I could ever possibly know if it was true? Was there any way to trace back her shadowy tale of Elvis to see if what she said might ever have happened? Continue reading Tracing a tall tale: was Elvis really in the building?

Mr. John Griffin and the Boston Common Treasure

Detail of 1814 map of Boston Common by John Groves Haley.

As anyone who as ever spent time doing genealogical research can tell you, searching through historical records can oftentimes feel like a little bit of a treasure hunt. When I noticed an unusual headline printed in The Boston Statesman on October 4th, 1852, I found myself immersed in a real-life treasure hunt.1 The article read:

Treasure Buried on Boston Common- A Mr. John Griffin petitioned the city government yesterday for permission to dig a hole on Boston Common six feet in diameter for the purpose of obtaining $1000 which he asserts his father, John Griffin, who served in the war of the Revolution, secreted during the “Troubled Times” preceding the war. Griffin says he is poor and wants the money bad. The petition was referred to the Committee on the Common.

Continue reading Mr. John Griffin and the Boston Common Treasure

Let it snow!

Painting of Pilgrims walking through snow to attend church by George Henry BoughtonAn occasional project I have worked on is compiling a list of “near- Mayflower” families. These are families who were not on the 1620 voyage themselves, but most or all of whose present-day descendants share Mayflower ancestry. There are easy cases at the first or second generation like Robert Cushman (whose only surviving child Thomas married passenger Mary Allerton), Thomas Little (who married Ann Warren, daughter of passenger Richard Warren), and my ancestor Christian Penn (spouse of passengers Francis Eaton and Francis Billington). Others are more complicated. Continue reading Let it snow!

Finding the family historian in my own family history

Interviewing my grandfather about his life

Even before I earned my master’s degree in public history, I liked to fancy myself a bit of a family historian. I am lucky enough to still have three living grandparents: ages 86, 89, and 94. I have taken up the task of recording conversations with them about their early lives and families, so that their stories can be preserved for future generations.

I’ve gone through photo albums with my grandparents and seen some of the family heirlooms that have been passed down for generations. As a former journalist, I was interested in documenting stories, and that was my focus for years. I recently went back to school and received a master’s in public history. So last Christmas, when I was visiting my paternal grandparents down in Florida, I decided to use my new training as a historian to ask my grandmother more questions and document what I might have missed over the years. Continue reading Finding the family historian in my own family history

Uncovering Thomas Dalton’s Tragedy

Gravestone reading: In Memory of Thomas Dalton, MUS, U.S. Army, Civil War, May 31 1850, Jun 30 1864The story of Thomas Dalton is a tragic one, and one that had been forgotten for many years, until a DNA match brought the truth of his brief life to light. I stumbled across the Dalton family years ago when investigating the origins of my own 2nd great-grandmother Mary Ann Dalton, who was born in 1828 in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. I’d been having a difficult time finding Mary’s parents when I discovered a handful of DNA matches for descendants of two Dalton brothers, sons of Irish immigrants Peter Dalton and Ann McDonnell, who had also been born in Nova Scotia but moved away young: James Dalton, born 1826, who moved to Lowell, Massachusetts before 1849, and John Thomas Dalton, born 1830, who moved to Ballarat, Australia around 1852.

These Dalton descendants shared the right amount of DNA with my grandfather to indicate that my ancestor Mary Ann Dalton was a close relative of John Thomas and James (likely their sister or cousin). The subject of my story today, Thomas Dalton, was the first son of James and his wife Eliza McNally, born 31 May 1849 in Lowell. Continue reading Uncovering Thomas Dalton’s Tragedy

Locating Family Bible Records

Page from an original family bible, with vital records for the family of John Dunlap (1775-1848) and his wife, Betsey Lester (1778-1850).

Discovering the existence of a family bible can be one of the most thrilling revelations in family history research. Original Bibles possess what archivists refer to as artifactual value: intrinsic worth as objects apart from their content. We often revel in family heirlooms because their very survival is a matter of chance. At least one representative from each succeeding generation must cherish the item, or serendipitously leave it forgotten in a secure location for it to be recovered decades later.

For genealogists, family Bibles can also convey unique information. Heirloom Bibles often contain records of birth, marriage, and death dates—usually scrawled on the Bible’s inside flyleaf—and can serve as proof of parentage in the absence of a vital or church record. Continue reading Locating Family Bible Records