All posts by Michael Dwyer

Michael Dwyer

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he edits Vermont Genealogy. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, The American Genealogist, The Maine Genealogist, 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.

Cousin confusion

Agnes Horan Bento

My grandmother Anne (Cassidy) Dwyer never met her father, Patrick Cassidy, who was killed in a Fall River (Massachusetts) mill seven months before her birth, but from the Cassidy side of the family, she knew a dozen or more Irish-born first cousins. Six sisters from one family alone came to Fall River to escape the grinding poverty of rural Ireland. Agnes Horan, a favorite cousin, arrived at age 20 in 1908. Agnes’s elder sister, Annie Driscoll,[1] paid for her passage. Agnes, in turn, brought over the next sister. In 1919, after working ten years as a domestic servant, Agnes married Joseph Bento, son of Azorean immigrants. Agnes died in 1930, leaving her husband and four small children. For the rest of her life, Nana Dwyer nonetheless maintained contact with Agnes’s children. Long after my grandmother’s death, I renewed acquaintance with the Bento family, sharing genealogical information and photographs. Continue reading Cousin confusion

Genealogical instincts

Over time and practice a family historian develops an instinct for when a recorded fact does not make sense. The following examples may serve as illustrations of genealogy as more art than science.

Thirty-seven years ago, my uncle-by-marriage, Bill Shea, made an ancestral pilgrimage to Ireland in pursuit of his County Cork great-grandparents, Dennis Shea and Eva Bard. He did not find them. Later I commented to Bill that Eva Bard was not an Irish name and seemed an unlikely match with Dennis Shea in Catholic Ireland during the last third of the nineteenth century. “How do you know her name was Eva Bard?” He replied, “That’s the name of the mother on grandfather’s death certificate.” Continue reading Genealogical instincts

My genealogical “coming of age”

The Rhodes children, summer 1915. In front: Cousin Edna Sylvia, Marion, Jack, Lois [Nana], Harry, and Walter Rhodes. in back: Amos Chase [partially concealed], Aunt Belle (Sylvia) Chase, and Grandmother Mary (Paine) (Delano) Sylvia.
Long before the shock and bewilderment of DNA evidence, some of us can pinpoint moments when we found family secrets profoundly disturbing. In April 1980, at the wake of my Nana’s brother Harry Rhodes of Wareham, Massachusetts, I overheard this aside: “Harry’s mother died having a back-room abortion.” These words stunned me because I thought I knew all the elements of the turbulent childhood of Harry and his siblings: Following the death of their mother Marion (Sylvia) Rhodes from “influenza,” her oldest child, Walter, age 9, went to live with grandparents and the other four children were placed in a New Bedford orphanage. When their father remarried in 1917, his new wife Mae created a home for the Rhodes children, except for Walter who chose to remain with his grandparents. Mae also erased all ties to the Sylvia family. On the marriage records of her step-children, including Nana, they gave Mae’s name – not Marion’s – as their mother. Continue reading My genealogical “coming of age”

Block Island revisited

Nathaniel Briggs Paine, aged 87. Photo by Parlow Studio, New Bedford

Writers find inspiration in other writers. As Vita Brevis celebrates its fifth anniversary, I have been inspired by rereading the scope, depth, and variety of the blog’s posts. These essays have also nudged me out of my comfort zone – to share what I hope to accomplish in my leap into the unknown: in this instance, the mysteries of autosomal DNA.

Sometimes our most carefully reasoned genealogical constructions crumble like a house of cards. Few other ancestral haunts have gripped me like Block Island, Rhode Island. Of all places in the Ocean State, it is the most remote for on-site research. To give myself the maximum amount of time in the town vault, I would fly to Block Island from Westerly rather than take the ferry. I spent years combing through land evidence page by page to sort out confused family relationships. In the end, even after publishing two articles, I had to unlink every one of my eighteenth-century Block Island ancestors. Here’s why: Continue reading Block Island revisited

An ‘extinct’ family

The O’Dwyre monument, photographed in 1998, has not been included on findagrave.

In response to my query, an eminent genealogy colleague once advised me that there is little point in publishing information on families with no living descendants. My example here, I hope, counters that point. Tracing the provenance of an inherited mantle clock led me to the Philip O’Dwyre family of Willimantic, Connecticut.[1]

Born in Kilchrohane Parish, County Kerry, Ireland about two hundred years ago, Philip O’Dwyre, a true Famine refugee, fled his homeland in 1851. Leaving his infant son Philip and pregnant wife Julia in Ireland, he established a foothold in Willimantic before sending for his family. Philip kept a job working for the railroad and became, as Philip “Daware,” an American citizen in 1856. Willimantic censuses and baptismal and marriage registers from St. Joseph’s Church document the remaining eight children born to the couple. Philip bought several tenements on Valley Street, and the neighborhood became a mecca for other Kerry immigrants. Continue reading An ‘extinct’ family

Religious necrologies

Sister Annunciation of the Sisters of Providence. Providence Archives, Montréal

In extending my research on the Trottier family (Cousins of St. Casimir), I discovered in a genealogy of St. Casimir families that Marie Trottier’s eldest sister, Athanaïs, became a Sister of Providence, an order of nuns founded in Montréal. The genealogy provided no other details on her subsequent life. Seeking to learn more information, I wrote to the Archivist of the Sisters of Providence with the certainty they would possess her necrology, an account of the sister’s life written after her death. These documents are more akin to a spiritual profile than facts recounted in an obituary. What I received—a photograph, a list of her dates and places of service, as well as the necrology—exceeded my expectations. Continue reading Religious necrologies

Cousins of St. Casimir

Above, left: Eugénie Vallée. Above, right: Marie Trottier.

This blog post, a sequel to “The widow of St. Casimir,” contrasts the lives of two women, Eugénie Vallée (1880–1973) and Marie Trottier (1855–1928), first cousins born in St. Casimir, Québec a generation apart. (Eugénie’s mother, Lumina de Varennes [1844–1922], was the younger sister of Marie’s mother, Léocadie de Varennes [1828–1897].) Marie came to my attention through an online family tree with an elegant photo of her circa 1875. Eugénie’s grandchildren were immediately struck by the strong resemblance between their grandmother at the same age and Marie. Did these look-alike cousins, who likely never met, have similar experiences in their migration path to the Unites States, where they lived the majority of their lives? Continue reading Cousins of St. Casimir

The widow of St. Casimir

Ambrotype of Hermidas Vallee, ca. 1865.

My sister-in-law Sue and I hoped we might uncover a backstory behind the marriage of her great-great-grandparents. Aimé Vallée, age 21, of St. Casimir, Québec, wed his third cousin, Marguerite Vallée, age 43, widow of François Trottier, mother of twelve children. François died in November 1844, age 69; Marguerite married Aimé three months later, with a dispensation omitting two additional banns of marriage. We sensed our curiosity might be allayed by visiting St. Casimir, midway between Trois Rivières and Québec City. Its splendid late nineteenth-century Catholic church attests to its central place in the life of that community and a long tradition of recording genealogy. Continue reading The widow of St. Casimir

Living moments

Many of us cherish the notion that historical photographs capture a frozen moment in time. Upon more detailed examination, though, studio pictures sometimes possess more artifice and contrivance than would have been expected. Take, for instance, these paired images of my great-great-great-grandparents, Reuben Paine and Lovicy Hall. Continue reading Living moments

Classroom roots

Teaching Of Plimoth Plantation in 1983.

A time of major transition – I just retired from teaching after a wonderful run of thirty-five years. No one who knows me well asks: What will you do [more of] next? While genealogy, per se, was not part of the prescribed English and history curriculum, that quest always played in the background and sometimes assumed center stage. Particularly in the teaching of American history, it became the hook which anchored students to a personalized past.

Every Thanksgiving, I would manage to sneak in a lesson on William Bradford, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, that usually began with a recitation from Of Plimoth Plantation, committed to memory: “It is well known unto the godly and judicious…” What impressed my students more than a hearty declamation of the text was that I could recount my descent from Bradford. During my first year of teaching, when seniors just a few years younger than I sorely tried me, one student stayed after class to talk to me. “Don’t tell my friends I told you this, but I am a descendant of John Alden. Have you heard of him?” Continue reading Classroom roots