What do you know?

Margaret Steward (1888-1975) in Tours during the First World War.

In a recent meeting here at NEHGS, the conversation turned to the ease with which visitors to our Newbury Street building could fill out a three-, four-, or five-generation family chart, listing themselves, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents. I suspect that for many members of the NEHGS staff, such a chart would be easy to create – the vital record sources for that chart, of course, would take longer to fill in, and it’s unlikely that any one of us could make up that list from memory.

I thought it would be interesting to see if my siblings could do it: Could they go beyond our grandparents, three of whom they might have known, to list great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents?

The answer, based on a response rate of 75%, is … No.

My siblings responded, flatteringly, with variations of the comment “I know you know the answers, Scott, so I rely on you to keep track.”

I had ... numbers of Ayer cousins (and cousins with other surnames) whose exact relationship to us my parents, with a weary sigh, generally declined to explain.

I suspect that many Vita Brevis readers are the record-keepers in their immediate family, and perhaps that responsibility extends further, to cousins of whatever degree. I’ve written about my Great-Aunt Margaret, who undertook much research on the Stewards and Beeckmans. In the case of my paternal grandmother’s family, there were several people who took on this role – funnily enough, one of the most ambitious was the second husband of an Ayer-by-marriage, so I am quite grateful to “Cousin” Dick. On the Bell and Glidden sides, it was my maternal grandfather and his wife's sister who knew what tantalizingly little there was to know about their respective families.

What did I know, starting out as an adolescent?

My paternal grandfather came from New York. After graduating from Harvard, he stayed here in Boston. When I first knew him, he had one surviving sister (Aunt Margaret), but we weren’t close to his nieces and nephew, and I could not have named them. Who the Stewards were, before my grandfather … I wasn’t too sure, although the portrait of a namesake ancestor of my father's hung in our front hall. (No one could explain him, of course!)

My paternal grandmother with her mother and older sister.

There was a painting over the fireplace in my Steward grandfather’s library of a young Titian-haired woman circa 1810. She was, I now know, my grandmother’s namesake, Anne Beekman Finlay. My grandmother’s family was local: I had a great-great-uncle who lived nearby and numbers of Ayer cousins (and cousins with other surnames) whose exact relationship to us my parents, with a weary sigh, generally declined to explain. My paternal grandmother’s sister lived in Virginia and, again, we rarely saw her children, so it was those inexplicable local cousins who constituted our “family.”

On my mother’s side, there was my glamorous grandfather, a genuine war hero in the process of becoming an Episcopal minister. When asked, he produced a family tree naming his parents and grandparents, with some interesting (and to me, remote) cousins with fascinating (first) names like Miles and Turpin. On inquiry, though, it was clear he knew the most about his paternal grandmother, the alliterative Belle Phillips Bell, and almost nothing about his grandfather John Francis Bell, while his mother’s family – the Jacksons – were a complete mystery.

My maternal grandmother's father.

My maternal grandmother, whom I just remember, had an old New England surname (Glidden) but seems to have gotten a lot of her drive from her mother’s family, the Bouchers – descendants of the painter François, I was informed, incorrectly.

As I think of it, though, it was my Grandmother Bell who had the most developed sense of family, since she told my mother about several Glidden cousins she might encounter, now that my mother had left Baltimore on her marriage to a Bostonian. My mother absorbed all this information and, what’s more, she passed it along to me intact.

In those days, now almost 40 years ago, there was no World Wide Web in which to look things up, but when the time came for me to work on my Glidden kinships, there they were: the Dixons, the Perrins, the Lawrences, and the Woods. These third cousins of my grandmother’s appeared on the Glidden family tree, and just where she had said they would be; needless to say, while I could do it, I might have to scramble to name some of my third cousins today!


For the record, here are my great-great-grandparents (the + marks individuals for whom I have more ancestral information):

  • John Steward +
  • Catharine Elizabeth White +
  • Gilbert Livingston Beeckman +
  • Margaret Atherton Foster +
  • Frederick Ayer +
  • Cornelia Wheaton +
  • Francis Grenville Ilsley +
  • Emily Anne Finlay +[1]
  • John Francis Bell
  • Isabella J. Phillips +
  • Oliver Dodridge Jackson +[1]
  • Rebecca Jane Eggleston +[1]
  • William Pierce Harrington Glidden +
  • Jane Letitia Hughes +[1]
  • William Boucher Jr. +[1]
  • Mary Frances Giles +[1]


[1] Almost everything I know about his/her family comes from original research; when I started out, no one in my family circle seemed to have any information on this subject.

Scott C. Steward

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward