2020: the year in review

Plymouth Harbor. Photo courtesy of James Heffernan

As we reach the end of this extraordinary year – one marked by titanic public stresses and private losses – it is time to review a few of the blog posts that appeared in Vita Brevis in 2020. Most posts, of course, concerned genealogical pointers and results, but some addressed the current moment, when so much of our time was spent solitary and in front of a computer screen.

Of course, at the start of 2020 the blog – and NEHGS – focused on twin anniversaries: the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, in 1620, and the 175th birthday of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, in 1845. A series of posts appeared during 2020 to mark those milestones; one of the first was Helen Herzer’s reminiscences about Dr. Neil B. Todd’s efforts to preserve the Massachusetts vital records indices:

“Neil became aware of the deteriorating condition of Registry indices and thought photocopying could be the key to preserving them. With the help of (then) NEHGS Director Ralph Crandall, Neil successfully lobbied the Supervisor of Public Records to allow the duplication of the Massachusetts death indices. After a formal agreement was signed in May 1991, work began to produce two sets of indices: one for NEHGS library use and the other for the Registry of Vital Records.

“The project was lengthy and the work laborious. On Friday afternoon, a few index volumes would be picked up from the Registry and brought to the library. There, volunteers and staff would race to dis-bind and copy the pages before the books had to be returned, ideally by Monday morning. NEHGS Chief Genealogist David Allen Lambert recalls that ‘some of the metal bindings could only be removed by cutting through them with a reciprocating saw!’”

In February, Hallie Borstel offered guidance on Bohemian vital records at the Zamrsk Regional Archive in the Czech Republic:

“The Zamrsk Archive’s website can be confusing and overwhelming, though it does contain some instructions in English. Each church register book (Matriky) must be downloaded in its complete form as a zip file, which you then unzip and browse through until you find the record you’re after. Many of the church books are indexed, making locating records even easier. Unfortunately, as the inventory with associated links is in PDF form, each time it gets updated the URL to access the inventory file changes. So much for saving it as a bookmark! (I speak from experience…)

“Though the books are organized at the parish level, the inventory always lists which particular villages appear in each book if there are deviations from the parish boundaries. This makes it easy to search the PDF document to find your ancestral village, though diacritical marks can throw a wrench into this strategy.”

An early reference to the pandemic appears in Meaghan E. H. Siekman’s March 31 blog post, “Quarantined kids and family history,” where she offers some strategies:

  • Talk to your elders – Even though your kids may not be able to physically be with their grandparents right now, they can certainly call them on the phone or video chat and ask them about their lives. Instead of just the daily check-in, have your kids take some time to really get to know their elders. FamilySearch has a great outline of questions for kids to ask their grandparents or other members of the family.
  • Visit a cemetery – If you need to get outside but want to avoid parks and pathways getting a lot of traffic these days, visiting a cemetery is a great option. You can practice social distancing while getting outside. While there, you could make a scavenger hunt and have your kids looking for designs on old stones, or you could practice your photography skills and snap some gravestone photos. Sites like Findagrave.com and Billiongraves.com usually have requests for photos at almost every cemetery, so you can help someone with their genealogy in the process. Remember, in the old days people used to picnic in cemeteries, so this is not that weird!

An April post from Amy Whorf McGuiggan included unexpected references to her great-grandmother’s connections with NEHGS:

“I discovered that on at least two occasions Sadie[1] traveled to the New England Historic Genealogical Society (then in Ashburton Place) to speak to members. In May 1930, she presented a talk, Romance and Reality in Boston Harbor, during which she offered that the ‘first cultivated apples in New England were from an orchard on Governor’s Island [now part of Logan Airport], Boston Harbor, started by Gov. John Winthrop 298 years ago this year, and after the orchard had been inherited by his son Adam Winthrop, the products of the orchard were known as Adam’s apples.’

“In October 1936, Sadie made a return visit to NEHGS to deliver an illustrated lecture, Under the Blue Dome of Massachusetts Skies, that delighted the audience with scenes from throughout the state.”

In May, Stephanie Call of the Wyner Family Jewish History Center at NEHGS reported on the new realities facing libraries collecting archival materials in the uncertain environment of the pandemic:

“Two months ago, as the Jewish Heritage Center team confronted the new reality of working from home, we started to think about collecting people’s first-hand accounts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, we developed #ForTheFuture. We wanted to know how Jewish communities in New England were responding: How were families preparing for Passover? What were Jewish organizations doing to stay connected? How were families, jobs, and schools affected? What new daily rituals were created to find joy during this time? What do they think will be changed forever by COVID-19?

“By actively encouraging people to donate materials about this pandemic, we’re ensuring that there is a record of how our Jewish communities and families responded – how they held together, how they helped others, and how they pivoted to face the challenges of this new COVID-19 era. The team developed a series of prompts, available on our website, for people to use for journaling. We also opened the call for donations to include artwork, photography, video, and oral history interviews.”

To round out the first half of the year, in June Penny Stratton wrote about the experience of reading a Finnish cousin’s account of a 1960 visit to Penny’s family in Warren, Ohio:

“As I read the diary, I felt as if I was treading the landscape of my childhood once again: not only George and Mary [Isaacson]’s house, but downtown Warren, and Mosquito Lake Reservoir, and the country roads. In addition, I was seeing it—and America—through the puzzled eyes of a foreigner: Anni [Virta] marvels at all the traffic, and the speed with which Americans drive. She has never seen people eat so much, and in Finland you would never get such large ‘doses’ of ice cream. She has never seen a boat on wheels, hauled behind a car. She finds some English terms funny: What is a body shop? Does it have to do with corpses?

“Then, on August 12: ‘Grandma’s children,[2] all but one, were there with their families and then we ate in the garden and drank coffee.’ The occasion was my grandmother’s eighty-fourth birthday, and I am certain I was there!”

Concluded here.


[1] Sarah Edna Lee (1871-1962) was married to Harry Church Whorf 1896-1934.

[2] Penny’s grandmother Sandra Matalamäki, who married John Isaacson in 1902, had eight living children in 1960.

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