Category Archives: American History

Playing Pilgrims

For me and my friends growing up on Cape Cod, the story of the Mayflower voyage took on a mythical quality. It felt significant to us to be walking the land that the Pilgrims saw after that long and perilous voyage. Our frequent field trips to Plimoth Plantation and the Mayflower II provided fuel for our imaginations, and through the long New England winters we played Pilgrim in our houses. My mother let us empty out a large closet, and my friends and I would gather some blankets and toys and munch on stale bread in the dark, pretending we were in cramped quarters on the Mayflower with our children. In the summer we gathered wildflowers for our forest fort – our version of a Plimoth Plantation cottage. I had no ancestral connection to the Mayflower, but I was drawn to the idea of a seafaring adventure and of reinventing oneself in a new land. Continue reading Playing Pilgrims

NEHGS in 1920

Façade of 9 Ashburton Place, NEHGS headquarters in 1920.

During this 175th anniversary year, I wondered how we marked an earlier NEHGS milestone, one hundred years ago. To learn about the state of the Society in 1920, I looked at Boston newspapers online and NEHGS Proceedings and a scrapbook in our R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

On Thursday, 18 March 1920, NEHGS celebrated its 75th anniversary of incorporation—to the day—and recognized the 300th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. From 2 to 6 p.m. that day, the Society welcomed the public to an open house at “its spick and span headquarters,” then located at 9 Ashburton Place in Boston, near the Massachusetts State House. Guides greeted the visitors and introduced them to the Society and its collections. Tea was served. Continue reading NEHGS in 1920

South Carolina leaders

Montage created in 1876 showing the “Radical Members” of the South Carolina Legislature. (Click on images to expand them.) Courtesy of facinghistory.org

I recently watched comedian Dave Chappelle’s powerful Netflix special 8:46, remarking on the death of George Floyd and several other recent events. During the performance, Chappelle mentioned that President Woodrow Wilson received a delegation of African Americans from South Carolina after a black man was lynched in that state. This delegation was led by the comedian’s great-grandfather, William David Chappelle (1857-1925), born enslaved, the 37th Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Dave Chappelle also mentioned this ancestor’s wife was the woman Dave’s father called out to on his deathbed, and how that memory reminded him of when George Floyd called out to his mother knowing his death was imminent.

I had worked on the genealogy of Dave Chappelle over a decade ago, and biographies of Bishop William David Chappelle appear in Who Was Who and Who’s Who in the Colored Race. Continue reading South Carolina leaders

The trouble with Jimmie

Albert James Lefurgey (1901-1948), Folsom State Prison 1928

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I work on family history I get bored. After all, how long can one be expected to stare at the same old brick walls, or to wonder why researching on Rootsweb these days feels more like your worst blind date ever? I guess you could say that this sort of ennui has gotten me into a bit of trouble, as in the absence of anything interesting in my own family tree I start looking for ways to escape the solitary confinement of (what I like to call) my own little “genealogical slammer.” I know it’s a bit dangerous to go on the lam like this but, hey, I think you’ll agree that, genealogically speaking, you truly can meet a lot of interesting people along the way. Continue reading The trouble with Jimmie

Phantom faces

On a glorious late spring afternoon, just days before the solstice and the return of summer, I should have been jostling with the crowds on my visit to Plymouth, Massachusetts. I should have been standing on the hot pavement waiting my turn to see the sanctuary of the beautifully restored First Parish Church in Town Square. Should have been in a long line snaking its way to the pavilion to get a glimpse of Plymouth Rock, after which I should have been climbing the hill for a tour of the eighteenth-century Edward Winslow House, built by the great-grandson of Pilgrim Edward Winslow, and now the headquarters of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. I should have been among the throngs visiting the humble thatched homesteads of the Pilgrims at the recreated Plimoth Plantation, watching them cultivate their gardens and listening to them recount stories of their first years in the New World. Continue reading Phantom faces

The last founder

In researching the origins of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, I came across an article about the Society’s fiftieth anniversary in the Boston Post dated 20 April 1895, which omitted the names of founders Charles Ewer, Lemuel Shattuck, Samuel Gardner Drake, and John Wingate Thornton, but credited the efforts of William H. Montague specifically.[1] Surely the Post had a reason to single out Montague; though he had died by 1895, he was the last surviving founder of NEHGS. Continue reading The last founder

First person singular

Henry Coffin (1807-1900)

Well, for what looked like it was going to be an awesome year … even in Roman numerals (MMXX) … 2020 is set to go down in history as one of the most trying ever! When so much of what we typically learn about history is painted by textbooks in wide, sweeping gestures, it can be illuminating to read the granular experiences of individuals. I’ve seen several small museums publishing requests for their patrons to keep diaries now, and sharing items online from their collections illustrating the importance of first-person history. In this spirit, I thought I would share a few accounts written by my own ancestors who lived through momentous events. Continue reading First person singular

Some Back Bay houses

121-129 Commonwealth Avenue, ca. 1875, viewed from the steeple of the Brattle Street Church. (The house into which the family moved in 1922 was just around the corner on Dartmouth Street.) Courtesy of the Print Department, Boston Public Library

When my grandmother[1] was a girl, she could walk down the front steps of her parents’ house in Boston and along Commonwealth Avenue into the houses of her paternal grandparents and her father’s sisters nearby. Using the Back Bay Houses database, I can trace the staggered arrivals of her father’s family in Boston; in the process, I find I’m encountering a number of family and contemporary friends.

My great-grandfather[2] seems to have been the first member of the Ayer family to move to Boston, soon after his graduation from Harvard in 1887. Next came his father (my great-great-grandfather) and stepmother, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Ayer of Lowell,[3] who rented 232 Beacon Street in 1899-1900[4] while building their new house at 395 Commonwealth Avenue.[5] The family[6] was occupying the house by the end of 1900, although it appears that work continued for sometime thereafter. Continue reading Some Back Bay houses

A genealogy of churches

Courtesy of findagrave

My recent post about distant Child cousins living in the Boston area who were early members of NEHGS reminded me of another genealogical (and geographical) connection. Near my home in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, there is a very small cemetery—known as the Walter Street Burying Ground—within the Arnold Arboretum (leased from the City of Boston and maintained by Harvard University) that only has ten stones standing. Frequently friends and colleagues who notice these graves will see the “twin stone” at left, of Benjamin and Grace Child, and ask me if there is any relation. Why, yes, there is!

Continue reading A genealogy of churches

Essex County probates

There are three published sources for transcribed and abstracted probate records of early Essex County: Essex Institute of Historical Collections [EIHC], published from 1859 to 1993, which we discussed earlier regarding criminal and civil court recordsEssex
Antiquarian
(1897–1909), a magazine that reprinted many abstracts published in EIHC; and The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts, published in 1916, also based on work first presented in EIHC.[1]

Continue reading Essex County probates