All posts by Ann Lawthers

Ann Lawthers

About Ann Lawthers

Ann G. Lawthers assists our library patrons in enhancing their research skills and in bringing alive their family histories. She is a graduate of Wellesley College, the Harvard School of Public Health and has completed the Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research program. She has conducted genealogical projects as an independent researcher. Ann is familiar with resources for Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey; and has research experience with Quebec and the Canadian Atlantic Provinces, Ireland and Germany.

The census taker missed

How many times have we pored over a census sheet desperately seeking our ancestors only to reluctantly conclude that the census enumerator must have missed a house? Or how often have we tried variant spellings, first name searches, and wild cards with a search engine attempting to wring a census record out of cyberspace? Well, sometimes the census enumerator really did miss dwellings and occasionally a whole block of dwellings. Continue reading The census taker missed

Finding your ancestor’s occupation

Courtesy of

Why should you pay attention to your ancestor’s occupation? Are you merely filling in the details of a life or looking for an essential clue to break down a brick wall? Each of our ancestors is unique – however, figuring out what makes them unique can be challenging. Finding your ancestor’s occupation may help distinguish your Ebenezer Smith from other Ebenezer Smiths, particularly if your ancestor’s occupation was something other than farmer or laborer. Continue reading Finding your ancestor’s occupation

Online mug books for Canada

While preparing for a consultation this week, I stumbled across a marvelous online site for digitized local history books: ( The site is maintained by the University of Calgary and seeks to “preserve Canada’s unique identity for future generations through the use of digital technology.”

I was looking for information about the early settlers of the tiny community of Biddulph in Huron County, Ontario. Continue reading Online mug books for Canada

The trouble-maker

Courtesy of

By several accounts, John Oldham was a trouble-maker. He was argumentative, hot-tempered, and known to quickly fly into rages. However, his adventurous spirit led him to be take risks, including becoming the first European to travel what would later be called the Boston Post Road. Continue reading The trouble-maker

Death by lightning

union-congregational-church-1910I recently re-read “Deaths by Lightning in Early New England,” an article written by former NEHGS staff member Julie Helen Otto for New England Ancestors, the predecessor publication to American Ancestors. My interest was spurred by my great-grandmother’s “Genealogical Journal.” In it was a tragic story of death by lightning of one of her ancestors.

My great-grandmother, Maude Bell Plowman, was an inveterate diarist and journal-keeper. Her diaries cover everyday life, while her journal captures material she copied from family bibles, county histories, or that she learned from corresponding with relatives. Unfortunately, almost none of her copious materials include citations or indication of provenance. Continue reading Death by lightning

Road trips

PA 1984 mapIt is summer time and the siren call of the road echoes through my mind: “Come explore! Leave your desk and your clutter. Forget the phone, pack your car and come explore!” When we were children, summer meant road trips to far off and “exotic” places such as Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec. One memorable summer we took a four-week camping trip across the country from Washington, D.C., to the Colorado Rockies to explore the old Moffat Railroad over the Continental Divide. Four squirming children and two adults crammed into a Dodge Sedan towing a trailer with the tent and other camping gear (no pop-up camper for our family). Continue reading Road trips

Medical genealogy

Ann L 1
Figure One: Sample genogram, courtesy of National Society of Genetic Counselors,, accessed 30 May 2016.

Twenty-first century genealogists enthusiastically debate the relative merits of different types of DNA testing: autosomal (atDNA), Y chromosome (Y-DNA) and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). But how often do you hear discussions about a medical family history or medical pedigrees? And yet knowing one’s medical family history may the best predictor of your risk or a relative’s risk of developing specific but also preventable or treatable diseases. Continue reading Medical genealogy

Death by hiccups

Fred and Jenny Homer
Back row, left to right: Eva Homer Keck, Bert Keck, Jennie Stinson Homer, Fred Lincoln Homer. Front row, left to right: Edna Stephenson Fields, Frank Fields, ???, Sarah Stephenson Ely.

When beginning genealogical research, we learn about the types of records that are likely to contain the information we seek and where those records might be located, i.e. in what repository. What we sometimes fail to appreciate, however, is the value of a stash of family materials – letters, diaries, newspaper clippings – that can hold the answer to our questions. Case in point: my great-grandfather’s cause of death.

As an inquisitive 12-year-old, I once asked my grandmother if she knew how her father had died, since he had passed away four months before she was born. “Oh, he died from the hiccups,” she replied.  Continue reading Death by hiccups

The name DID change

Richelieu River watershed
Figure 1: Richelieu River watershed.

You’ve probably heard the story: “My ancestor’s name was changed at Ellis Island!” But you also probably know that this is a myth; immigration officials at Ellis Island did not randomly alter incoming passengers’ names. However, the surnames and given names of one group of immigrants, French-Canadians, frequently did change when our ancestors crossed the border.

Throughout the centuries, migration from Quebec was driven by poor agricultural conditions, overpopulation, and inadequate employment opportunities. Continue reading The name DID change