All posts by Sheilagh Doerfler

About Sheilagh Doerfler

Sheilagh, a native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, received her B.A. in History and Communication from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research interests include New England, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Westward Migration, and adoptions.

Frog Alley

east-tisburyRecently, I traveled to Martha’s Vineyard to conduct some research at the Dukes County Registry of Deeds. There, as I was learning about property located in Tisbury, I came across some familiar folks – my great-great-great-grandparents! In another genealogical coincidence, I learned that the gentleman I was researching bought my great-great-great-grandparents’ home in Tisbury. Continue reading Frog Alley

Updating “My ancestor was born … where?!”

Saint Helena map 1906
Map of Saint Helena, 1906. Courtesy of

In September of 2014, I wrote a blog posted entitled “My ancestor was born … where?!” about my family’s unexpected ties to Saint Helena, a remote volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean. My great-great-great-grandmother, Charlotte (Sears) Legg, was born on the island of Saint Helena in 1808. She married Henry William Legg, and after his death, settled on Martha’s Vineyard with her children. This discovery fascinated me, and since then, I have resolved to learn more about Charlotte and her family. But ultimately, I hoped to learn why my ancestors had settled in such a far-flung locale. Were they soldiers of the British military or members of the East India Company? Sailors who tired of the sea? Or did they simply settle here seeking a better life? Continue reading Updating “My ancestor was born … where?!”

Québec notarial records

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Marriage contract between Joshua Chambers and Elisabeth Stickney, 20 December 1799. Notarial Records of Léon Lalanne

If you descend from French-Canadians, or your ancestors spent some time in Québec, notarial records will be an important source to examine in your research. In Québec, notaries recorded wills, property transactions, inventories, guardianship records, business contracts, and more. Some early notarial records even include marriage contracts. These records will undoubtedly aid your research and provide a wealth of information regarding your ancestors.

First and foremost, you have to establish which notaries practiced in the judicial district where your ancestor lived. To do so, you can consult finding aids. Here at NEHGS, we have finding aids located on the 4th floor, which list notaries alphabetically by surname and by judicial district. The years that each notary practiced are also listed. In our collection, we also have Robert J. Quintin’s The Notaries of French Canada, 1626-1900, a very helpful published finding aid. Each of these finding aids also lists the area that each notary served within a judicial district, like Champlain or Chambly. Continue reading Québec notarial records

Maps of Maritime Canada

Yarmouth County map
A.F. Church, Yarmouth County Map: detail of Lake George in Nova Scotia

Tracing the origins of Canadian ancestors can be difficult, and the lack of early vital records can prove frustrating. Often, we have to turn to other sources to help piece together family histories. One of the “other sources” that I love to use are maps. Maps not only provide us with the locations of our ancestors’ homes or farms, they can also provide us with significant clues. Here are just a few sources that I have come across that I hope will aid you in your Canadian research.

Nova Scotia

Crown Land Grant Maps
The Crown Land Information Management Centre at the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources maintains Index Sheet Maps of Nova Scotia Crown Land Grant maps. If you know the general vicinity of where your ancestor settled, then the Index Sheet Maps will prove useful. Continue reading Maps of Maritime Canada

New England planters

Charles Lawrence proclamation_2
Charles Lawrence’s 1759 proclamation

In my last Vita Brevis post, I wrote about some of the best sources to help identify your Loyalist ancestors. But before the Loyalists fled to Canada after the American Revolution, another important group settled Maritime Canada: the New England Planters. This often overlooked group of New Englanders (and others) left a cultural and political impact on Canadian history.

After the expulsion of the Acadians in 1750s, the British government was eager to resettle the area. In the fall of 1758, the Governor of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, published a proclamation in the Boston Gazette welcoming proposals for the settlement of the now vacant lands. Just a few months later, in January of 1759, Lawrence published another proclamation, detailing the terms of settlement. Continue reading New England planters

Loyalist ancestors

Encampment of the Loyalists
“Encampment of the Loyalists in Johnstown, a new settlement on the banks of the River St. Lawrence, in Canada West,” courtesy of Archives Ontario.

Mabel Winters, my great-grandmother, left Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia, when she was about eighteen or nineteen years old. She arrived in the United States about 1900, and first lived with her older brother George in Norton, Bristol County, Massachusetts. I have heard many wonderful stories about Mabel, and I wanted to learn everything that I could about her. As I began to research her life in Nova Scotia, I discovered that she was descended from several Loyalist families. Continue reading Loyalist ancestors

A very small world

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The Burkes of Oranmore

It’s a very, very small world.

Recently, I received some photos of my mother’s Irish ancestors from a cousin. Most of these photos featured the Burke family of Oranmore, Galway, and I was excited to learn that many of the photos had been labeled and dated. Continue reading A very small world

Irish Petty Sessions Court Registers


Michael Burke
Michael Burke, charged with wandering pig, 1861, as found on

The Petty Sessions Court Registers are an invaluable source for Irish ancestral research. These court records are chock-full of fantastic information, and can offer a depiction of your ancestor that traditional Irish sources will not. Continue reading Irish Petty Sessions Court Registers

Finding Revolutionary War Ancestors

Frederick Wingdorf's record in the Index to Revolutionary War Service Records.
Frederick Wingdorf’s record in the Index to Revolutionary War Service Records.

Patriots’ Day—the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—is fast approaching here in Massachusetts. This particular holiday makes many of us a little reflective. Was my ancestor involved in the American Revolution? If you have ever been curious about that, here are some great resources to jump-start your research.

One of the best places to start looking is Virgil D. White’s Index to Revolutionary War Service Records. Available in the NEHGS research library, this particular series is a transcription of the General Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Revolutionary War Soldiers, Sailors, and Members of Army Staff Departments, also known as M860, housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. White’s transcription lists the rank, regiment, or company of each soldier, and is a fantastic resource because it includes every state of service. Consider yourself lucky if your ancestor had a rare name, such as Frederick Wingdorf. Frederick was a drummer in the 3rd Massachusetts Regiment, and—not surprisingly—was the only Frederick Wingdorf in the index. If you are not so lucky and your ancestors had very common names like Samuel Jones or William Moore or, worse, John Smith, you might need to consult secondary sources to help whittle down the long list of candidates. Continue reading Finding Revolutionary War Ancestors

My family is Scandinavian . . . now what?!

1866 parish register of marriages, Lavik, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway, viewed at
1866 parish register of marriages, Lavik, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway, viewed at

In the years after the American Civil War, an influx of immigrants from Scandinavia settled in the United States. Pushed from their homelands by famine, overpopulation, and lack of economic opportunities, these Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, and Danes poured into the country. In particular, they were drawn to the American Midwest, where large tracts of fertile farmland were abundant. Here they established their own communities, where they spoke their mother language, established their own churches, and even published their own newspapers. Today many Americans can claim Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Danish ancestry. And if you are one of these Americans, you may be apprehensive about researching these ancestors because of the language barrier. Don’t be; with the right base of knowledge and a little practice, you’ll be well on your way to uncovering your Scandinavian roots. Continue reading My family is Scandinavian . . . now what?!