ICYMI: A Victorian genealogist

[Author's note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 26 May 2015.]

Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
One of the mysteries of the Regina Shober Gray diary is why it came to be part of the NEHGS collection. It is an account of daily (or weekly) life, written between January 1860 and December 1884, and for many of the volumes Mrs. Gray is observant about the relationships of her friends and acquaintances, but far less interested, evidently, in the genealogy of the Shober, Gray, and Clay families.

That all changes, however, in March 1874, at tea with one of her nieces: “[Isa Gray] tells me [her sister Ellen] copied Aunt Eliza [Clay]’s[1] genealogical tree of the Clay family – and will lend it to me to have copied, at which I am most pleased. [Her husband’s cousin] Elizabeth Gray lends me a few records of the Grays to copy… I care a great deal for such things – and feel it right to collect for my children and their descendants all the family records & traditions I can obtain.”[2]

In April 1874, she is hard at work on her research, which consists largely of correspondence with her relatives and those of her husband – or those lone genealogists working on one family or another in Mrs. Gray’s extensive cousinage: “Yesterday I wrote [her brother-in-law] Wm. Lewis, worked up some of my family ‘Records,’ [and] went to see Uncle John C.G.[3] and talked over the ‘Records’ with him…”[4]

Monday, 4 May 1874: I wrote to Mr. William Gray Brooks about family records – rec’d a most cordial response accompanied by some helpful papers & data; I have written, too, to old Mrs. T. W. Ward,[5] she was daughter to Samuel Gray of Medford, [her husband’s grandfather] William Gray’s younger brother, & I hoped the old lady might throw some light on dark points. But if I do nothing more I am thankful I entered on the business and have unearthed so much forgotten lore of the kind, as I have succeeded in doing.

Monday, 12 October 1874: Wrote to day to Mrs. Dr. Swett, to Harriet Gray,[6] Elizabeth Gray, and to Susan Carey[7] about genealogies &c. Also answered Rev. R. M. Chipman’s[8] answer to mine of Aug 19th. He refers me to “Bradford’s Hist[ory] of Plymouth Colony” (lost for ¾ of a century, recovered in M.S. some 25 years ago, and printed in Boston) for facts connected with John Howland’s wife.

Mrs. Gray kept at her genealogical research in 1874 and 1875, but in 1876 her husband fell ill: her only genealogical reference for that year occurs in April 1876, a few days after Dr. Gray’s first operation, and while she notes sporadic efforts in 1877, it is not until November 1880 – nine months after her husband’s death – that she returned to the subject:

Wednesday, 3 November 1880: Last week, Miss Noble Jones[9] of Florida called to see us; and in order to verify some statement made to her I took out, the next day, and looked over all my genealogical notes, still unarranged – they had been put away years ago, with the expectation of prompt attention – but my precious husband’s long illness and all the sad changes, sorrow, and “retrieveless loss” that followed, have prevented my ever returning to the task. Now I have done it. It seemed folly to put them back in their unordered condition – there were items, dates, facts, I wanted to secure in my “Record of the Clay–Savage connexions,” [and] no one else would ever take the pains to sort and arrange them. [They] were in parts of letters, and on loose scraps of paper &c. &c.

Instead of being a two day job as I thought, it has occupied 10 days! but I am very glad it is done.

Instead of being a two day job as I thought, it has occupied 10 days! but I am very glad it is done. Now, unless Aunt Eliza, when she comes on this winter, has new matter for my Records, all is done that I can do; and enough to give my children a general idea at least of the directions in wh[ich] they claim kinship – enough to shew them that an honorable ancestry preceded them in all the branches of their kindred blood – enough to remind them that “Noblesse Oblige” and they must do no discredit to the upright, worthy, honorable men and women whose blood meets in their veins. Thank God that I have no reason to fear for any of them! I can go no further, either on their father’s side or my own, without great expense & trouble, which I am not able to meet, in searching Records & Registers, and corresponding with numberless far away cousins &c.

How like the genealogists of today, both in the scope of the ambition and in the occasional difficulty in bringing a project to a close! For of course Mrs. Gray kept working on her genealogical project:

Friday, 20 January 1882: Rev. Horatio Gray[10] kindly lent me an “Ancestral Tablet” book, which has interested me much; it was drawn up for him by Mr. Harrison Ellery,[11] an accomplished genealogist. I bought two of the books and copied his “Gray” tables – and put in, of course, on the maternal side the very incomplete data I have of the “Clays” in Georgia – my Mother Gray’s family. The tablets only take in down to my husband’s generation, the 8th in this country; but I shall continue them, to [her grandson] little Ralph’s,[12] taking in my family, and when [her daughter-in-law] Carrie[13] can give it to me, hers, as compiled by her cousin Mr. Wm. G. Weld.


All in all, with this particular theme in the diary, there could be no place more appropriate for all 26 volumes to come to roost than in NEHGS's R. Stanton Avery Special Collections!


[1] Dr. Gray’s maternal aunt.

[2] 29 March 1874. All date references to the Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections; the year 1878 takes two volumes to record the Grays' European sojourn.

[3] Dr. Gray’s uncle John Chipman Gray (1793–1881).

[4] 17 April 1874.

[5] Lydia Gray (1788–1874) was married to Thomas Wren Ward 1810–58. See Edward Gray, “William Gray of Lynn, Massachusetts, and Some of His Descendants,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 52 [1916]: 113–40 at 121–22.

[6] Two more of Dr. Gray’s first cousins.

[7] Mrs. Gray’s first cousin Susanna Budd Kimber (1822–1913) was married to James Carey 1850–94. See Sidney A. Kimber, comp., The Descendants of Richard Kimber… (1894), p. 41, and her entry at Findagrave.

[8] The Rev. Richard Manning Chipman, author of The Chipman Lineage… (1872).

[9] A cousin of Mrs. Gray’s.

[10] Dr. Gray’s first cousin.

[11] Author of Pedigree of Ellery…, published in 1881.

[12] Ralph Weld Gray (1880–1944); his sister Hope Gray donated their grandmother’s diary to NEHGS in 1971. See Nicholas Benton, comp., The Seven Weld Brothers 1800 to 2000… (2004), p. 11.

[13] Caroline Balch Weld (1846–1912) was married to Mrs. Gray’s son Samuel Shober Gray 1879–1904. Ibid.

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