2019: the year in review concluded

On Friday, I wrote about the first six months of 2019 as reflected through Vita Brevis posts. Herewith, the rest of 2019:

In July, Jan Doerr – whose family has long been settled in the area around Augusta, Maine – reflected on the uses of old business records:

I wanted to know how my late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century ancestors interacted with the people of the Fort Western Settlement every day, what they traded or bought from the Howard store, and why. I have no primary source material from those Fisher, Williams, or Read families, and only a few pieces from my side of the Coney family. Fortunately, other residents weren’t as reticent as my family (or as inclined to paste newspaper clippings over old account book pages!).

While working at NEHGS this summer as a Saltire Foundation intern, Georgiana Day visited the historic African Meeting House in Boston:

Nestled in a corner of Beacon Hill is an extraordinary center of history, influence, and revolution. The African Meeting House is known for being the oldest black church building in America, but I learned during a recent visit that it is also where the civil rights movement arguably began.

When the first federal census was done in 1790, Massachusetts was the only state in which no slaves were recorded. Boston had a growing community of free, literate African Americans and the meeting house was constructed in 1806 as the home of the first African Baptist Church. The building gave black Bostonians a place to worship without facing discrimination in mixed churches. The meeting house also served as a school until 1835, when the children were moved to Boston’s Abiel Smith School, the first public school for free African Americans in the U.S. In 1849, classes returned to the building when most black families withdrew their children from the Smith school as a protest against segregation.

In September, Michael Dwyer paid tribute to a cousin whose long life and memories provided an important bridge to previous generations:

The last of grandmother’s first cousins, Alma Rhodes of Westerly, Rhode Island, died on 4 August 2019 at the age of 96. She belonged to that increasingly rare group of individuals who lived in the house where she was born well into her nineties and worked for the same bank (albeit with multiple mergers) for 49 years.

She was a portal to the early world of my grandmother, née Lois Rhodes, and passed along family letters and stories to me, thereby giving me a perspective that never could have come from public records alone. Alma visited her grandfather, William Henry Rhodes (1854–1941), almost every day and listened to his reminiscences, preserving them for another generation.

During the next month, Pamela Athearn Filbert contemplated a kinsman’s eighteenth-century diary, one with echoes in her own life:

Having made many vestments for my husband, including those for his ordination, I confess to a thrill of excitement when reading Thomas Cary’s entry for 16 December 1764: “Mr. Rawson preach’d[;] first time of wearing my Rustle gown” (the silk gown worn in church by ministers of the time). Then there are the details of Thomas’s ordination. In addition to day-by-day accounts in the course of his 1768 diary — including on 10 May “My father & the company from Charlestown came into Town” — Thomas devoted a full extra page to recording the details of his call to serve the church in Newburyport.  

In November, Jeff Record began a three-part series on the life of his great-great-great-aunt. The facts for Leah’s long life are sparse, but the record of loss – husbands and children – is suggestive, and Jeff tells a tale that, if necessarily speculative, evokes his kinswoman’s life (and choices):

Oh, how proud she’d been that March day when they’d finally taken their vows. At the time, she couldn’t quite believe such happiness to be real. Even her mother, ever practical, had approved of their match, observing that the Stacks were certainly no layabouts. Yes, fine-figured and fine-featured John Stack had taken her hand in marriage. She admitted that she’d pined away for him a bit too long, and without his first noticing her. But in the end she’d succeeded in winning his heart, as she’d watched him walk past the Fishers’ road each day.

When they had finally become better acquainted, during those rainy days in ’57, John hadn’t seemed to mind her quiet Levin – or how she’d come by the boy – or even that she was Tom Fisher’s wife.

And, finally, in December, Amy Whorf McGuiggan told a familiar story, one where two people become friends and then discover themselves to be related. The wrinkle here is that the friendship developed, largely, around a shared interest in the Benjamin Lincoln house in Hingham, and Amy was only later able to trace her connection to the Lincoln family:

As Rosie and I became friends, I had the privilege one afternoon of being invited to her home for lunch and a tour. Because the house had never been altered or restored, and because so many of the furnishings had belonged to General Lincoln, his wife Mary Cushing, and their children, it was not difficult to imagine oneself having been invited by them to their home. Rosie took great pride in showing off her home and telling me all about her Revolutionary War ancestor, whose most significant role during a lifetime of service to town and country may have been the duty bestowed on him by General Washington, as Washington’s second-in-command, to accept the British surrender at Yorktown.

When I told Rosie that her presentation was captivating and that I could easily have mistaken her for a seasoned docent, she explained that she was becoming accustomed to giving the tour. It seems that the bronze marker on the outside of the house enticed passersby who, not realizing that it was a private residence, knocked on the door hoping for a peek. No one was ever turned away.

As ever, these twelve blog posts from the last twelve months only hint at the range of subjects offered at Vita Brevis! Indeed, with almost six years of content to browse – more than 1,400 blog posts to date – Vita Brevis is a library of content waiting to be explored.

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