The saga of a family Bible

John George Lea with his wife Harriet Ann (Wilkinson) Lea and their children Mary Olive (Lea) Rogers and John Samuel Lea, ca. 1906.

Since 1993, I have read countless family records within the pages of old family Bibles for colleagues and patrons at NEHGS. I have been fortunate to share in many moments of discovery. The moment when patrons discover we have their family Bible is priceless 

However, until recently I had never experienced this same moment of discovery for myself. Of course, I always hoped that one day I would walk into an archive, historical society, or a relative’s home and miraculously discover an old family Bible relating to my branch of the family. Most of the time this was simply a lovely ending to a genealogical day dream. 

A few years ago, I was reviewing copies of letters between my great-aunt Mary Olive (Lea) Rogers (1899–1995) and her cousin Florence Newton written during the 1960s. In one of those letters her cousin asked: “Do you still have that large family bible that sat on the little table in Toronto your dad owned?” I paused and considered that a family Bible for my great-grandfather John George Lea (1876–1953) might actually exist. Then I realized this is the same man who received a trunk of family papers and photos from his late brother in England, decided they smelt funny, and tossed in a match! And, so, up in smoke went any hope that my family history had survived. I tried not to think of what might have been in the trunk, let alone what became of this old Bible. 

Then I realized this is the same man who received a trunk of family papers and photos from his late brother in England, decided they smelt funny, and tossed in a match! 

While in Salt Lake City a couple of years ago I met with my second cousin Wendy (Rogers) Butterfield for dinner. In passing I mentioned this old family Bible and inquired whether she remembered her grandmother Mary Olive having it. Wendy did not recall it; however, she did make an inquiry of her aunt – the last living cousin of my mother. Cousin Doreen lived in Alberta, Canada. (This is the Canadian province my great-Aunt Mary Olive had lived in since the early 1920s, when the family moved from Toronto.) Was the Bible in Alberta? Did my great-aunt have it? I don’t remember her mentioning it in all the times we chatted about family history before she died. Then one evening this past summer a Facebook messenger opened – it was Cousin Wendy. She said that she had located the bible! 

Holding the Bible after it arrived at NEHGS in 2019.

The Bible was now in the possession of my great-aunt Mary Olive’s granddaughter Marilea McCaw in Alberta. Quickly I got on the phone and reached out to her because there was one other part of the news – she wanted to find a new home for the Bible. After a couple of phone calls, she shipped the Bible to NEHGS in Boston. The day it arrived was like Genealogical Christmas for me. My colleague Melanie McComb at NEHGS videoed the moment for me with my iPhone when I opened this family treasure. Holding back tears I carefully unwrapped this bible that had had a long voyage since its purchase in 1874. 

Written on the flyleaf was “Martha Percival June 6, 1874.” Martha was the younger sister of my great-great-great-grandfather George Wilkinson (1814–1877) of Wistaston, Cheshire. Martha Wilkinson married Peter Percival at Wistaston 17 December 1867; they had no children. On 10 May 1900, this Bible was presented to my great-grandfather John George Lea by his great-aunt Martha as revealed from the inscription inside the bible. 

In 1910, John and his family left for Toronto aboard the Empress of Britain. The Bible made the voyage across the Atlantic in a steamer trunk. From 1910 to 1953, the Bible remained in Toronto. It is unclear whether the Bible was sent to my great-aunt Mary Olive in Alberta or remained with my other great-aunt Phyllis (Lea) Hawkins until her death in 1984. The Bible then passed to Mary Olive’s daughter Marjorie, then to Marjorie’s niece Marilea. And the final leg of the voyage thus far has seen the Bible come to America, where it resides with my family.   

What is in this family Bible for genealogical information, you might ask? Not very much that I didn’t already know. My great-grandfather or great-grandmother Harriet Ann (Wilkinson) Lea (1877–1920) inscribed the birthdates of their children Mary Olive (b. 1899), John Samuel (my grandfather, b. 1901), and Phyllis (b. 1916). Then the penmanship changes to a familiar script I remembered from holiday cards and letters from long ago – my great-aunt Mary Olive inscribed the children and grandchildren from her marriage to Clarence Rogers. There is room for more to be written – more generations to be remembered. For a genealogist the chance to hold something that belonged to an ancestor is very powerful – the chance to be the new caretaker for the next chapter of its history is an honor. 

David Allen Lambert

About David Allen Lambert

David Lambert has been on the staff of NEHGS since 1993 and is the organization’s Chief Genealogist. David is an internationally recognized speaker on the topics of genealogy and history. His genealogical expertise includes New England and Atlantic Canadian records of the 17th through 21st century; military records; DNA research; and Native American and African American genealogical research in New England. Lambert has published many articles in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the New Hampshire Genealogical Record, Rhode Island Roots, The Mayflower Descendant, and American Ancestors magazine. He has also published A Guide to Massachusetts Cemeteries (NEHGS, 2009). David is an elected Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass., and a life member of the New Hampshire Society of the Cincinnati. He is also the tribal genealogist for the Massachuset-Punkapoag Indians of Massachusetts.

14 thoughts on “The saga of a family Bible

  1. wow – so happy for you! So never give up on asking people about genealogy…Glad the bible found a great home.

  2. That’s beautiful, Mr. Lambert. I have my grandmother’s Bible, in which she tried to write down as much as she could remember. Like yours, this Bible doesn’t have much I didn’t know, but the effort required is admirable. The most treasurable thing is not the accuracy, but the attempt to communicate the family happenings to future generations — just what I’m trying to do now.

  3. This is the kind of find we all dream about. But I have to ask, do you plan to keep it in the family, or will you donate it to a genealogical library where other more distant relatives might find it? We all face this question.

    It would be great for someone to write a post from the NEHGS or archive perspective: What criteria to such repositories use to judge whether an heirloom such as this is something they want to acquire?

    1. Excellent suggestion, Ed. I’ve debated for years whether to approach the Society with a mind to donating assorted family records that date back over 250 years, but have never read the criteria the Society uses for receiving donations, as well as the criteria used to make sure that the information is accessible online, at least to subscribers. There is a whole world of “untapped” genealogical information, sometimes of central importance, that is simply inaccessible by contemporary standards (quality images, accurate transcriptions and full indexing). Why is this not a central priority of institutional repositories such as NEHGS?

  4. Our family has a Bible of the same vintage. Births and deaths have been entered down to the current generation. We are running out of room but maybe inside the back cover next.

  5. Your story brings to mind the discovery of a Bible that my family sold in Georgia before they moved to Texas before 1860. In the 1990s, I connected with a researcher in a small town in Georgia and we shared some research she had done on my line although she and I were not related. When I visited her home, she asked if I wanted to see “the” Bible. I didn’t know what she was talking about. Come to find out, her family had purchased my family’s Bible at the time my family was moving to Texas. The first entries in the Bible were my 3rd great grandparents’ marriage in 1852 and the birth of their first child, by 2nd great grandfather, in 1853. The other entries were for her family.

  6. I was fortunate to receive the family Bible that had once belonged to Allen Smith, my Union Soldier ancestor who came to Winston Co AL from Pitt Co NC. An older sister from my father’s first marriage had the Bible prior to her death. Then, her son and I were talking on the telephone and he offered to send me the Bible. What a delight the day that the package arrived. I treasure the Bible and its contents. In a couple of weeks, I will attend the church that one son of the original owner helped establish in Nauvoo, Walker Co, Alabama as the church celebrates its 125 Anniversary. I am honored and amazed that three of the cousins will participate in this function. Old Bibles are a blessing! Thanks for sharing. Azalia Moore, Tupelo, MS

  7. Do you have a website where we can post images from our family bible? I have a bible that basically list a couple of generations from my great grandparents’ in the mid 19th century. Our family is small and it might be helpful to others. I used this bible as partial verification of birth and death dates of some of the members when applying to the Mayflower Society. I would love to share this information.

    In addition, is there some sort of clearinghouse where we could post scans of all those photographs of family members and a list of potential family names? I have albums of civil war era pictures of ancestors but I have no idea who they are. I know there are DNA family members out there who may be direct descendants of these people in my photos.

    I think this would be a tremendous service to many families. Thanks for your help!

  8. Wow! David what a great story and a wonderful find! What I would not give to find ours that was listed in an old Boston inquiry in the early 1900’s under then name of the New England Storer family! I will keep “wishing and hoping” and looking , of course! Your tale has “enlightened me”! J Storer

  9. David – This is a wonderful story! I can only imagine how thrilled you must be. The miracle is that it is in the hands of a current-day descendant who really knows how to appreciate its value. The only family bible I am aware of for my family was lost in a house fire many years ago. Fortunately, one of my cousins had transcribed much of the information during her high-school genealogy assignment! Your story gives me hope that I may find another family bible on another family line.

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