Category Archives: American History

Boston Roots in the Keweenaw Peninsula

Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Photo courtesy of

I am incredibly fortunate that I have my dream job, working remotely as a Genealogical Researcher with the Boston-based New England Historical Genealogical Society (NEHGS), while living in my dream location – the remote Keweenaw Peninsula of northern Michigan.

Last week I was sitting in Shute’s 1890 Saloon—an historic watering hole in the city of Calumet, Michigan—reflecting on my good fortune, when I looked up at the television flanking the old Brunswick-stained glass canopy and recognized a familiar ship on the screen. The film was a 1952 movie calledPlymouth Adventure, a rather questionable depiction of the Mayflower landing on Plymouth RockIt got me thinking about how I came to be in this spot: a Finn drawing a paycheck from a Boston organization in remote northern Michigan. Surely, I represent a strange confluence of events.

Kustaa and Hilda Sophia (Huhta) Mannisto

So what is my connection to northern Michigan? My ancestors traveled across the ocean in search of a better living, lured by the rich copper mines in the region. The industry would draw countless immigrants, including my great-grandfather Kustaa Mannisto, who emigrated from Ylivieska, Finland in 1896, and my great-grandfather Mikko Wanhala, who emigrated from Vaasa, Finland in 1887. My great-grandfathers would both meet their brides and live out the remainder of their days in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Over one hundred and twenty years later, my family still owns the Männistö maatila (farm) near the old site of the Phoenix Mine in Keweenaw County, and my father’s cousin still owns the Wanhala home on a narrow, windy country road just a few miles from where I sit. The road, coincidentally, is called Mayflower Road. Hmm…the Boston connection again.

Mikko and Sophia (Tormala) Wanhala

Ok, so my ancestors came here because they saw opportunity in the huge mining economy—but how did these great mines get here in the first place? That’s when the Boston brick hit me: my favorite northern Michigan town was literally built with Boston money.

Just down the street from Shute’s 1890 Saloon stood the old office of the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company, whose first president was John Quincy Shaw—a Boston Brahmin, the son of Robert Gould Shaw and Elizabeth Willard Parkman.1 The building itself was built by Boston architects Shaw and Hunnewell.2 In fact, the town of Calumet, Michigan was known as a “Boston town.” There is a small ghost-town just 10 miles away that was once known as Boston Location.

The Calumet & Hecla Mining Company, now the Keweenaw National Historic Park Headquarters, Calumet, Houghton County, Michigan, photo courtesy of the National Park System

Well, I’m a genealogist, so I keep digging. What brought wealthy Bostonians like John Quincy Shaw and Alexander Agassiz (who is memorialized in a statue two blocks away) to this neck of the woods to start copper mines in the first place? For that answer, we need to go back one hundred and eighty years. On 4 October 1842, the Ojibwe Indian Tribe—also known as the Chippewa—signed a treaty ceding their rights to this land along the shoreline of Lake Superior.3 The treaty, known as the Treaty of La Pointe 1842, was signed by forty-one Ojibwe citizens. It would ultimately be the catalyst for my paternal ancestor’s arrival in America, and the ongoing connection I find myself having with the great city of Boston, Massachusetts.4

Aw-Ke-Wen-Zee (Old Man), 1854, one of forty-two Chippewa leaders who signed the Treaty of La Pointe 1842, photo courtesy of Martin’s Gallery, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

The United States government certainly knew what they were gaining with the signing of the Treaty of La Pointe 1842. In 1841, the well-known Michigan geologist Douglass Houghton published the results of a geological survey he did on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the land’s rich copper deposits.5 In 1843, the United States Government would open a mineral land office in Copper Harbor, the Keweenaw’s most northern point, and Houghton’s geological findings would spread to east coast investors like Shaw and Agassiz.6 In 1844, the newly formed Boston Copper Harbor Mining Company would start America’s first mining expedition just outside Copper Harbor.7 The Boston Brahmins’ initial investments versus return would not be deemed profitable, but in time, the area which has been affectionally deemed “Copper County” would surpass investors’ hopes and flourish under the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company. 8

At some point in my ruminations, the questionable movie on the TV lost my attention, as the female passengers on the cinematic Mayflower sported low-cut dresses paired with white bonnets—a historical faux pas that woke me as quickly as smelling salts. Walking out of Shute’s into the cobblestone street, I felt an even deeper connection to my ancestors. I bet that I’m not the first Finn to sit on a bar stool in Shute’s Saloon paying for my drink with wages that originated in Boston. I was reminded of the Liam Callanan quote: “We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.”



Kathryn Bishop Eckert, Society of Architectural Historians, Keweenaw History Center (Calumet and Hecla Public Library) and New England Historical Society, Stonington, Maine, A Brief History of the Boston Brahmin, updated 2022.

2 Eckert, Society of Architectural Historians,Keweenaw History Center (Calumet and Hecla Public Library).

The Indigenous Digital Archive sponsored by The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (IDA), Santa Fe, New Mexico, from the U.S. National Archives collection of 374 Ratified Indian Treaties, Treaty Between the United States and the Chippewa Indians of the Mississippi and Lake Superior, Signed at La Pointe of Lake Superior, Wisconsin Territory, with Schedule of Claims, Ratified Treaty 242, created 4 October 1842.

The Indigenous Digital Archive, Treaty Between the United States and the Chippewa Indians of the Mississippi and Lake Superior, Signed at La Pointe of Lake Superior, Wisconsin Territory, with Schedule of Claims, 4 October 1842.

Theodore J. Bornhorst and Lawrence J. Molloy, Douglass Houghton- Pioneer of Lake Superior Geology, Superior Geology, A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum Web Publication 4, 2017, Michigan’s First State Geologist, page 5.

National Park Service, Keweenaw Historical National Park, Michigan Timeline of Michigan Copper Mining Prehistory 1850, timeline year: 1843, Copper Harbor mineral land office opens and Bornhorst and Molloy, Douglass Houghton- Pioneer of Lake Superior Geology, Superior Geology, A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum Web Publication 4, 2017, Michigan’s First State Geologist, page 5.

National Park Service, Keweenaw Historical National Park, Michigan Timeline of Michigan Copper Mining Prehistory 1850, timeline year: 1844, Boston Cooper Harbor Mining Company starts mining outside of Copper Harbor.

Bornhorst and Molloy, Douglass Houghton- Pioneer of Lake Superior Geology, Superior Geology, A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum Web Publication 4, 2017, Michigan’s First State Geologist, page 5.

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

Discovering Caleb Dyer, the Only Shaker Ever Murdered

Caleb Dyer ca. 1863, via Enfield Shaker Museum

Plenty of people own Shaker furniture or have heard of Shaker-style craftsmanship, but it’s less common to find someone with Shaker ancestry. There’s good reason for that: the Shakers, or the United Society of Believers, were a Christian religious sect that believed in gender equality, pacifism, and complete celibacy—no marriage or children. They first arrived in the U.S. from England in 1774 and settled in villages throughout the Northeast and Midwest, where they lived communally, kept separate from “the world” of nonbelievers, and worshipped through song and dance.

Shakers didn’t hold with violence, so I was intrigued to come across the story of Caleb Marshall Dyer, believed to be the only Shaker murder victim in history. A respected leader in his community, he was killed in a dispute with a local man over custody of the man’s daughters, who had been entrusted to the Shakers of Enfield for a period of time. Ironically, I only became aware of Caleb Dyer because of his involvement in an earlier custody dispute—that time not as a community leader, but as one of the children in question. Continue reading Discovering Caleb Dyer, the Only Shaker Ever Murdered

Continuing the search for the first Boston Marathon winner: we want your help!

John J. McDermott, winner of the first Boston Marathon. Boston Sunday Journal, 1 May 1898.

Scott Steward, founder and editor of Vita Brevis, retired last month. This blog has been a wonderful creative outlet for all of us at American Ancestors/NEHGS, allowing me space to vent about research projects, share what I’ve learned about certain record collections, and manipulate a genealogical theme just enough to warrant another post about Harry Potter.

But the most satisfying, miraculous, and fulfilling posts that I’ve written were about the first winner of the Boston Marathon, John J. McDermott—and we still don’t have an answer to our mystery yet. But you could help!

To summarize:

On April 20, 2015, I wrote the first of my posts ( Where did the first Boston Marathon winner go? ) in which I lamented the difficulty of locating a person with a very common name in a very large place. According to period newspapers, John J. McDermott, the winner of the first Boston Marathon in 1897, was an avid long-distance runner from the Pastime Athletic Club of New York City. John was born about 1880, immigrated from Ireland, and worked as a lithographer in New York. While McDermott should have been a celebrity of his time, newspapers and marathon histories neglected to report any information about his personal life: no date of birth, date of death, or names of his wife, children, or other family members. Continue reading Continuing the search for the first Boston Marathon winner: we want your help!

Mrs. Frank Leslie

In early July I was given the opportunity to attend an online educational event, “Women in the Gilded Age,” with guest speakers Laura Thompson and Betsy Prioleau, part of the American Inspiration series at NEHGS. The draw was my interest in women’s history, and this event sparked my interest further and provided me with a newfound love of the history of the Gilded Age of New York (1870–1910), a captivating era of growth, greed, and deep cultural changes.

I became truly fascinated by one woman in particular, Miriam Leslie, known in her day as Mrs. Frank Leslie. What intrigued me about Mrs. Leslie was the way in which she challenged the societal norms of the time; in a time that expected women to be homemakers, she stepped up, challenged misogyny, and worked her way to success as a professional businesswoman, taking over the publication business of her late husband, Frank Leslie, and inspiring women who sought more than domesticity. Continue reading Mrs. Frank Leslie

One more for the road

When Scott Steward told me about his forthcoming departure from NEHGS, he asked if I could send him one more Vita Brevis post “for the road.” The posts I have written have largely been when I need a mental break from whatever genealogy I am working on or go down a rabbit hole on a minor problem within a project; they are sometimes inspired when I am engaged in other forms of entertainment outside of work. While I had one such post “in the cupboard” for Scott to publish, I thought a more appropriate final post under Scott’s editorship would be reminiscing about the many projects we have worked on together for more than fifteen years! Continue reading One more for the road

Hall of Famer

On 24 July 2022, the National Baseball Hall of Fame celebrated the induction of the newest class headlined by Boston Red Sox great David Ortiz. In honor of one of baseball’s more cherished events, we will be looking back at the family history of one of the sport’s greatest players, who broke ground and paved the way for so many who came after him, Jackie Robinson.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in the small town of Cairo in Grady County, Georgia on 31 January 1919 to Jerry and Mallie (McGriff) Robinson; he was the youngest of the couple’s five children. Continue reading Hall of Famer

What they looked like 2

My father

My earlier post, featuring my parents and both sets of grandparents, sought photographs of these relatives from early adult life – I am fortunate to have a number of such images for all six from which to choose!

Looking for photos of my eight great-grandparents is more challenging. Continue reading What they looked like 2

Road lines

True love comes in the strangest ways.

It was, for me, not exactly love at first sight. There were those who said I was wasting my time with her; that she didn’t come from good lines and that her family was nothing but a bunch of hot heads or, worse, nouveaux riches. Still, I persisted. I mean it wasn’t like she’d been omitted from any of the more recent lists of Who’s Who in the appropriate Blue Books,[1] right? After all, what more could they want from her? Her family had indeed built skyscrapers;[2] in later years some of her adopted kin even became synonymous with our efforts during the last World War.[3] Perhaps in spite of all these things, or because of them, she rather captivated me, and I must confess that I quickly fell in love with her. Continue reading Road lines

Bessie’s story

The thing that interests me most about family history is the gap between the things we think we know about our families and the realities.” – Jeremy Hardy[1]

Remember that children’s game of Telephone (or Gossip) in which a message is passed on in a whisper to each of several people, so that the end version is often distorted from the original? Family stories are like that old game and can be even more distorted depending on how many narrators related the story to how many listeners. I recently found one example in Husband’s maternal family history concerning (ahem) One Child Left Behind.

The story was that Husband’s maternal grandmother, Catherine (Hrabal) Samson (1906-1987), had emigrated in 1910 as a child with her family from Czechoslovakia (or Czechia, Bohemia, Austria, or Moravia, depending on which U.S. Census you want to believe and what the international politics were at the time). Continue reading Bessie’s story