All posts by Michael Dwyer

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

Booties from Chief BlackHawk

Photo of beaded bootiesI recently read New Yorker article about the complicated status of Black members of Native American nations, which stirred my memory and prompted me to research a Native American family I once knew.

Over fifty years ago on an autumn Sunday, I met formally with Chief BlackHawk of Tiverton, Rhode Island. My visit had been arranged through the chief’s sons, Algoma “Goma” Clarke (1926–1980) and Watacee “Tecee” Clarke (1934–1975), master carpenters who built my father’s office in 1964 and remained family friends. Tall and spare, with graying hair combed straight back and hazel eyes, Chief BlackHawk looked like he could have stepped out of an Edward Curtis photograph. He presented me with these booties, which I kept atop my bedroom dresser ever since, until they made their way into a display case with other cherished mementoes. Continue reading Booties from Chief BlackHawk

A Tale of Two Brayton Descents

Home of John Summerfield Brayton, built ca. 1870, once stood at 369 Highland Avenue, Fall River, Massachusetts. Photo from author’s copy of “Fall River, 1911, A City of Opportunity.”

Anyone who lived in Fall River, Massachusetts more than fifty years ago would recognize the Brayton name as a power family from the city’s glory days. A block away from my childhood home, the boundary of the baronial John Summerfield Brayton estate was marked by a substantial granite wall with a pointed cap, stretching along Highland Avenue and bending the curve to New Boston Road. What a great place for kids to play, imagining we were behind a medieval fortification. Not even in my flights of fantasy would I have contemplated kinship with this wealthy family. Continue reading A Tale of Two Brayton Descents

Inside the cap

The Dwyer family at Doctors’ Library, Rhode Island Hospital, fall 1963.

My father, Frank Dwyer, spent three happy years as a fellow in cardiology at the Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. It was a special treat when my mother brought me there for a visit. I remember being fascinated by the ashtray behind Dad—press a button and the cigarette butts disappeared! Continue reading Inside the cap

A serendipitous conversation

William Shangraw’s four-sided monument at Evergreen Cemetery in Pittsford, Vermont.

A few weeks ago, after presenting a talk (“Adventures in DNA”) at the Shrewsbury (Vermont) Community Meeting House for the Ann Story Chapter of the Vermont DAR, I stopped in the kitchen and asked longtime acquaintance and former regent Julanne Sharrow for a drink of water.

She asked, “Do you think DNA results can really knock down brick walls?”

I said yes and added, “Who are you looking for?”

“William Shangraw of Pittsford.”

The brick wall tumbled instantly because I knew this family through my research on French-Canadian immigration to Pittsford.[1]. Continue reading A serendipitous conversation

A fresh look at Linden Street

A view of Linden Street, in front of Sacred Heart Church, looking north; virtually all of the houses were multiple-family dwellings. 143 Linden Street is the second building past, and beside, the church.

The slides my father took on my First Communion Sunday, 15 May 1966, in Fall River, Massachusetts, serve as a colorful time capsule of a bygone era. Sacred Heart Church, now closed, once covered the largest geographical parish in the center of the city. On that morning, more than 60 children, girls in white and boys in black, having fasted for twelve hours in preparation for communion, processed into church with disciplined precision. We returned to church in the afternoon to receive scapulars, prayer books, and rosaries, and then processed out of the church east along Pine Street for the May crowning. Continue reading A fresh look at Linden Street

Old Style

Forty years ago, my grandfather’s first cousin “Burgess” Morse took pride in pointing out the gravestones of our ancestors, Simeon Morse and his wife Sylvia Fish, and the nearby grave of Levi Fish (1754–1837). Findagrave.com photo #118544184, at left, is much clearer than the one of Levi’s stone I took at that time (and shown below). When I asked Burgess if he thought Levi Fish was Sylvia’s father, he quipped, “Who else would he be?”

Old Style, the designation applied to dates before the calendar change in 1752, may also represent the way we conducted research before the advent of the internet, digitization of records, and DNA evidence. In the absence of definitive evidence, building circumstantial cases for identifying an ancestor evolved slowly. Take, for example, this story of a once-assumed but-now-proven great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Levi Fish. Continue reading Old Style

An alien and an alias

Mary Ellen Cassidy, a babe in her mother’s arms, at the family homestead, 13 Palmer Street, Fall River, Massachusetts, summer 1891. At left, Mary’s brother John P. Cassidy; her father, Patrick Cassidy (ca. 1862–1891); Mary’s aunt Ellen Flynn stands behind her mother. Original photo, on a piece of silk, underscores the paradox of Mary’s loss of citizenship, as she remained on the property through the entirety of her life.

At first glance, the terms alien and alias hardly seem applicable to my father’s beloved aunt, Mary Ellen (Cassidy) Clynes of Fall River (1890–1960). Her name, however, is listed among the National Archives Alien Case Files #10897934. This bewildering status only came to light in the spring of 1955, when Mary’s daughter Eleanor attempted to assist her mother in signing up to receive her first Social Security check. The city clerk said, “I am sorry, Mrs. Clynes, but you are not eligible for Social Security because you are not an American citizen.” What a puzzle for a woman born only a mile-or-so from the city center! It took months and a lawyer’s help to unravel the tangle. Continue reading An alien and an alias

The search for Mercy

This stereopticon view of the “natural bridge” in Bolton, Vermont, would have been familiar to Mercy Mercury in the two decades she lived in the town. Items of Bolton news published in Burlington’s Free Press became the key to identifying relatives who visited Mercy and her husband.

Rhetorical question for persistent (obsessive!) genealogists: how long do we persevere in attempting to solve a mystery? This case study illustrates the complexity of French-Canadian surname variants, the imprecision with which people reported their ages and birthplaces, as well the difficulty in tracking migrant farm families who moved frequently.

“Mercy Mercury” smoldered in my unfinished file for almost 20 years. Finding her parents did not seem imperative because she was the wife of my nephew-by-marriage’s great-great-uncle Alexander Mercure (1855–1936) — yet my inability to solve the puzzle nagged at me. Continue reading The search for Mercy

Spousal cousins

Scott Steward’s ICYMI post “Surrounded by family” inspired me to reflect on shared ancestors among my mother’s paternal grandparents, Millard E. Morse and Myrta E. Pierce, who married in Wareham, Massachusetts, on 13 October 1906. This photo, a family gem, captures the happiness of their wedding day.

Considering this couple came from long-established Plymouth County families, it came as no surprise to me that they would share 33 pairs of shared ancestors — starting six generations preceding them, well beyond any shared recollections. Continue reading Spousal cousins

A slave in Vermont

New England Congregational church minute books from the nineteenth century abound in routine facts: admissions, dismissals, committee reports and the like that do not make for compelling reading. Ivy Dixon, historian of the Pittsford Congregational Church, found this remarkable episode appearing intermittently from 1842 to 1850. Long forgotten, this story of one expatriate church member has undercurrents that still haunt us today.

Pittsford Congregational Church, founded in 1784. The present structure, overlooking the village green, dates from 1837.

Hannah Weed Hitchcock (1815–1898), daughter of John Hitchcock (1760–1836) and his second wife Lucy Ripley, later Manley (1789–1865), became a member of the church in 1834. Hannah’s father served as a soldier in the American Revolution. She was named for John Hitchcock’s first wife, Hannah, who died in 1814, having given birth to nine babies, all of whom died in infancy! Hitchcock’s second family had exceptional educations for the times: sons William graduated from Andover Theological Seminary, and John Hitchcock, dead at 25, attended Middlebury College but left for a stint in Alabama to improve his health. Continue reading A slave in Vermont