[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series of interviews with David Allen Lambert.]
Answer: When I first joined NEHGS in 1993 I had been a member for seven years. My first job was in Enquiries Services, which is now known as Research Services. When the circulating library had an opening on the fourth floor, I began working with our members who requested books to be sent to them as a loan. It was like Amazon.com for genealogists – pulling orders and shipping. The circulating library gave me a strong understanding of our collections.
In my early years at NEHGS, I worked with our IT department and learned how to repair computers and do tape backups. I was involved in the creation of the first NEHGS website. Over the next several years, I headed up the microtext and technology floor and became the Online Genealogist, answering quick genealogy or local history reference questions, providing guidance and suggestions about where to locate records, or what sources to try next.
Five years ago, I was honored to become the Chief Genealogist at NEHGS. Most days I perform the role of any of our expert genealogists, providing advice and guidance to advance family history research, answering genealogy or local history questions, or helping a member break down brick walls. Other days I might be working on a family history for the honoree of one of our Family History Dinners, providing a consultation to a donor, or conducting a webinar or an educational seminar at a research tour.
Q: What memorable connections have you had with family histories?
A: I have enjoyed the chance to work on the genealogies for the annual dinner and fall dinner recipients. I was able to present the late Mayor Tom Menino with 200 years of his family history; find the Turkish and Greek roots of former governor Michael Dukakis, and the Jewish and Irish roots of his wife, Kitty Dukakis; give documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who brought us The Civil War on PBS, a connection to an ancestor who was a brother to Abraham Lincoln’s ancestors; co-author the British ancestry for Dame Angela Lansbury; help find a Salem witchcraft trial related to Doris Kearns Goodwin; connect Nathaniel Philbrick to the early settlers of Nantucket, where he lives and had been perceived as an off-Islander – in reality, his ancestor Tristram Coffin was one of the first settlers; and, most recently, provide David McCullough with his own family history and detail how it was connected to U.S. history and the patriots of the Revolutionary War.
Q: Why did you become a specialist in New England and Atlantic Canada, military records, and Native American genealogical research?
A: The reason I specialize in Atlantic Canada and New England is due to my own heritage – my paternal side is Canadian, and half of my maternal side is from New England, dating back to 1629, when my earliest ancestors came to America. Military records research is a niche, something in which I had an interest and wanted to be an expert. I wanted to be able to stand out in the field of genealogy and tell military stories in the lives of our ancestors, from colonial times to the twenty-first century.
I have long felt the genealogist’s need to concentrate on things outside one’s own family tree. My connection with Native American research is based on trying to do research in my local community. I sought out the Massachuset-Punkapoag Indians to help them reconnect to their heritage. They gave me the honorary title of Past Finder because I help find the ancestors lost to them.
Q: What is one of the most interesting genealogical stories you have come across while at NEHGS?
A: Most days I help people find ancestors going back hundreds of years. Every so often I find one closer to home. We had a member who grew up in my hometown and she asked me if I could help find a bit of her own past. She was a foster child and wanted to learn more about her time in foster care. I tracked down the home she lived in long ago as a child and we drove by to see it. Better yet, at the end of the day, I had her talking to the daughter of her foster parents, who was almost 90. She was able to answer questions and tell stories from the member’s childhood. It’s not every day you are able to connect someone with their own past. It was thrilling to give her back a chapter of her own.
Q: Have you published any books recently?
A: I compiled and edited Vital Records of Stoughton, Massachusetts to the end of the year 1850 as part of the official Massachusetts vital records series. My favorite volume, just published in its third edition this autumn, is A Guide to Massachusetts Cemeteries. As a genealogist, being able to stand at the grave of your ancestors offers a completeness to your journey. Until this resource was available, there wasn’t one compiled that allowed a researcher to locate all the cemeteries in Massachusetts.
Q: Why is family history so important to you?
A: Family history is a part of human nature, a narrative about where we came from. Now we have the technology to look back even further than printed records with the use of DNA – it’s almost like opening Pandora’s box. Family history is a never-ending story. It’s like a mystery novel, without a beginning or end, and you are in the middle. By using the resources of NEHGS, you’ll be able to find information on your family history. My own family history will never be complete. For me, genealogy is family and it holds a place in my heart, like the ancestors I never knew.
Q: You mentioned DNA: what has DNA told you about your family history?
A: Science keeps moving and redefining itself. I now know that the Lambert family was in what is now Germany in ca. 300 A.D. That leads me to wonder how we ended up in Ireland in 1792. When you think of migration patterns, it makes sense that people went from Germany to England and onward to Ireland.
DNA has changed the face of genealogy from when I started. With DNA we can place ancestors in a location long before the paper trail starts. It’s fascinating; we’re at the tip of the iceberg with this technology and there are great discoveries still to come.