Michael Grow, a retired history professor at Ohio University and a longtime NEHGS member, is the author of John Grow of Ipswich, Massachusetts and Some of His Descendants: A Middle-Class Family in Social and Economic Context From the 17th Century to the Present (Amherst, Mass.: Genealogy House, 2020).
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After tracing your family line as far back as possible, you have run into the inevitable brick wall. You should: (a) persevere in your research and hope for an eventual breakthrough; (b) claim that you are a direct lineal descendant of Alexander the Great or King Arthur, acknowledging that your evidence is open to differing interpretations; or (c) give up and accept your failure as a genealogist.
ANSWER: (a), unless you’re like 27 percent of the amateur genealogists posting family trees on the internet, in which case the correct answer is (b). Continue reading Pop quiz→
History came vividly alive for me on a cold December day ten years ago in Salem, Massachusetts. For a retired historian, the Phillips Library of Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum was the perfect place to enjoy a brief respite from winter’s doldrums by indulging in the quiet pleasures of archival research. Housed in an elegant, mid-nineteenth-century Italianate townhouse brimming with antiques and historical artifacts, the library’s reading room was warm, intimate, and inviting – its library tables and comfortable Windsor chairs surrounded by bookshelf walls filled with classic reference works on New England history. Above them, original portraits and busts of prominent Massachusetts Bay colonists gazed down on the reading room’s patrons – who, on the day in question, consisted of a few family history gray-beards like myself and a young doctoral candidate or two engaged in dissertation research.Continue reading The power of a mark→
In a previous Vita Brevis post, I sang the praises of tax lists as useful sources of information for family history research. Today’s post focuses attention on another valuable but underutilized research resource: unpublished doctoral dissertations.
Since the 1960s, Ph.D. candidates at U.S. universities have written a surprisingly large number of dissertations on the histories of individual American towns, ranging from the early settlements of colonial New England and other regions to nineteenth-century midwestern farming communities. Continue reading In praise of dissertations→
One of my personal “Great Moments in Family History Research” occurred several years ago in the town hall of Pomfret, Connecticut. I was immersed in a volume of early Pomfret land records at a small table set aside for researchers, when I happened to ask a former town clerk in passing whether any of the town’s early tax lists had survived. Without a word, she disappeared into the town hall’s records vault and emerged carrying a large cardboard box filled with original copies of eighteenth-century local tax lists.
I hadn’t really worked with tax lists before, but I knew that they were supposed to be a useful source of information for family history research. From an early date, American towns large and small annually assessed the value of their residents’ property holdings for tax purposes. Continue reading In praise of tax lists→
In family history research, we often glean valuable information from genealogies published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the period when genealogical publishing was enjoying its first real heyday in the United States. For my family, a standard resource is the 1913 genealogy John Grow of Ipswich/John (Groo) Grow of Oxford by George W. Davis, a retired U.S. Army general whose mother was a Grow. Like many other pioneering genealogists of his day, Davis was a relentless researcher and a meticulous compiler of data – and for years I looked upon his work with a respect bordering on awe. Only recently did I discover that he deliberately sanitized the historical record to present Grow family members in the most favorable light possible. Continue reading Sins of the fathers→
From our modern perspective, seventeenth-century New England was a strange cultural cosmos: a post-medieval/pre-modern world where metaphysical beliefs, superstition, and fear of the supernatural still prevailed – a world in which people believed that witches were real and that ghosts, “specters,” and spirits from “the invisible world” could directly influence the lives of humans. We look back on that world today with a mixture of amusement and condescension, horror and fascination. Continue reading Twilight→
It was the stuff that dreams are made of. Novice genealogists, my wife and I had traveled from our home in Ohio to rural Windham County, Connecticut, on our first foray into family history field research, in hopes of finding a trace or two of my eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Grow ancestors, four generations of whom had owned a large hilltop farm somewhere in the Pomfret-Hampton border area.
With the aid of a map from an old genealogy, we soon located what appeared to be the original family farm – now a large commercial dairying operation – at the peak of a high elevation along a quiet, two-lane state road. Continue reading Lessons in oral history→