Category Archives: American History

O Columbia!

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Just the other day, I found myself humming something that felt like an almost-forgotten song. As I hummed along (mindful of anyone thinking me completely bonkers), the tune brought me to a place I hadn’t expected to arrive. One couplet in particular tripped me up:

O Columbia! The gem of the ocean,

The home of the brave and the free…[1]

As I mulled through the verses of that old patriotic song, one word continually stood out. That word was “Columbia,” and I wondered to myself: “Where did that word come from?” Just who was Columbia? Had she fallen off the boat along with Christopher? (I mean, we Mayflower descendants understand all too well the “falling off” of boats, don’t we, John Howland?) Continue reading O Columbia!

Music of the Pilgrims

The first book published in North America was a book of hymns. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since music has been a connecting force (not only for religious reasons) that has a way of spreading joy and sorrow. It is universal. 

One of the best ways to learn and understand a culture is through its music. So for me, when deciding what to write about for this post, a big question that popped into my head was: What did the Pilgrims sing?  Continue reading Music of the Pilgrims

Childhood mortality

Millard Leslie Morse, ca. 1916, of Wareham, Massachusetts.

We are not far removed from a time when parents, as a matter of course, endured the loss of one or more of their children. In fact, each of my grandparents had a sibling who died in infancy or early childhood. Some years ago, as part of a field study in a local cemetery, one of my students, obviously struck by the number of children’s graves, asked me: “Do you think parents back then just didn’t get attached to their children because they knew some of them would die?” My answer to this question has deepened over the years as I have listened to family stories and discerned poignant signs of remembrance. Continue reading Childhood mortality

The first execution

President Garfield’s assassination

While William Bradford himself never delved into the life of my ancestor (and Mayflower passenger) Francis Billington, the same is not true for Francis’s father John Billington. He appears in several items in his ten years in Plymouth, nearly all in a negative light. He was brought before the Plymouth Company in March 1621 and charged with “contempt of the Captain [Myles Standish]’s lawful command with opprobrious speeches: for which he was adjudged to have his Neck and Heels tied together: but upon humbling himself and craving pardon, and it being the first Offence, He is forgiven.” In 1624, he was an outspoken supporter for Rev. John Lyford and John Oldham in their revolt against William Bradford and the rest of the Leiden contingent and the authority of the Plymouth church, but denied any involvement when brought up on examination.[1] Continue reading The first execution

The first women members

Fannie Wilder Brown’s application for membership.

Women’s history throughout American history has been an area of great interest to me. Women were not always permitted to be in the same areas as men, including universities, working as doctors and lawyers, and membership in organizations (including genealogical societies). Prior to 1898, women were not admitted as members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. This changed in January 1897 when members voted by a special ballot, and the motion to admit women was approved by the majority of voters.[1] Once the ballot was over, the charter had to be changed, which required a petition to the Massachusetts legislature and approval by the governor. The petition was approved on 10 April 1897.[2] Continue reading The first women members

Mayflower family traditions

Following the author’s wedding to Ian Holland at Old South Church in Boston in 1991.

With all the excitement about the four hundredth anniversary of the Mayflower sailing, I’ve been looking for my own Pilgrim ancestors. While my maternal side is mostly nineteenth-century German and English immigrants, my paternal side does have deep New England roots. So far, I haven’t found anyone who came over on the Mayflower in my family tree. Yet, I still feel a connection to those feisty Pilgrims. Their religious beliefs have rippled down through the centuries, with a few embellishments and changes, but are still flowing strongly in me and my family today.

The Pilgrims were a radical group of Puritans labeled as Separatists. While the Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England, the Pilgrims wanted to take it a step further and separate themselves into their own congregations. They wanted no church hierarchy and no one telling them what their congregation could or could not do. Plymouth Colony was founded on these principles in 1620. Continue reading Mayflower family traditions

Heraldry in the news

On 3 February 2020, the Committee on Heraldry at the New England Historic Genealogical Society will celebrate its 156th birthday. Known as the oldest non-governmental heraldic body in the Western world, the Committee on Heraldry task themselves with maintaining and adding to a unique collection of coats of arms associated with American families, as well as organizing educational programming to introduce more people to this artistic side of family history.

The Committee is chaired by Ryan Woods, Executive Vice President and COO at NEHGS. Woods follows in the footsteps of his kinsman, Henry Ernest Woods, who was chairman of the Committee on Heraldry from 1890 to 1911. Today, the committee of twelve meets three to four times yearly, and is charged with reviewing applications and registrations of coats of arms for Americans. These include both historical and modern coats of arms. Continue reading Heraldry in the news

Low ceilings

Mayflower II. Courtesy of Plimoth Plantation

I’ve always had a fascination with tall ships and antique sailing vessels. I like to think my interest is ingrained, coming genetically from my Norwegian seafaring ancestors. And I don’t mean Vikings, though it’s fun to think about those. I mean my oceanographer grandfather, Navy Lieutenant Commander great-grandfather, and sailor-turned-Coast Guard captain great-great-grandfather. Continue reading Low ceilings

The Society’s first member: Lucius Robinson Paige

In November of 1844, five men “organized themselves into a society for historical and genealogical research” in Boston, Massachusetts.[1] The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) was incorporated the following March. Prior to the society’s incorporation, several additional members were elected, the first being the Reverend Lucius Robinson Paige on 21 January 1845.[2] At the time of his death on 2 September 1896, he was the oldest member of NEHGS.[3] While the distinction of being the first member of NEHGS is noteworthy, his accomplishments during his lifetime are also worth a closer look. Continue reading The Society’s first member: Lucius Robinson Paige

College records

Harvard 1921 and Columbia 1873

In the books I have written (or co-authored) in the last twenty years or so – on the Thorndike, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, and Winthrop families – I have usually noted the academic histories of family members as well as the more usual genealogical data. I’m occasionally asked why, and until recently I didn’t really have an answer.

While I generally answered that college and university records could help flesh out a sparse biographical narrative for someone treated in one of these books, I would now add that, often, they help keep the genealogist honest. After all, someone born in 1940 wouldn’t be likely to graduate from college in 1954, while a late graduation date begs further study. At the very least, a focus on filling in this area helps distinguish Charles Smith from Chad Smith – not to mention Charles Chad Smith! Continue reading College records