Category Archives: American History

Facing death

Deathbed portrait of Elizabeth Royall, attributed to Joseph Badger, ca. 1747. NEHGS Fine Art Collection, photograph by Gavin Ashworth

Unfortunately, over the last month I had to visit a few different funeral homes. On one visit, my husband asked why funeral homes always resembled a house. Knowing a bit about the evolution of how we handle death in America, I explained that it is because a wake or viewing used to take place within the person’s home. Funeral “parlors” or “homes” are intentionally designed to resemble the parlors in homes where we once laid out our dead for visitation.

This question led me to revisit some of my old studies about death in America and how handling the dead went from being a very personal and hands-on experience for the survivors to something that is handled by professionals outside of the home. Continue reading Facing death

Texture and depth

Like so many passionate genealogists, I descend from proud and feisty Irish famine immigrants. While the details of how my great-great-grandfather Thomas Healy made his way to the United States have not come down to us, his life here and in Ireland became clearer thanks to a tremendous amount of research time, more than a little bit of luck, and some rather unique research tools. Continue reading Texture and depth

Finding your ancestor’s occupation

Courtesy of Wikimedia.org

Why should you pay attention to your ancestor’s occupation? Are you merely filling in the details of a life or looking for an essential clue to break down a brick wall? Each of our ancestors is unique – however, figuring out what makes them unique can be challenging. Finding your ancestor’s occupation may help distinguish your Ebenezer Smith from other Ebenezer Smiths, particularly if your ancestor’s occupation was something other than farmer or laborer. Continue reading Finding your ancestor’s occupation

Sold for a song

“You know, there is a shortage of beautiful, old theaters left in this country and this is one of them…” – Daryl Hall

 At some point during the first decade of 2000s, I went to see Hall and Oates at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. They were on a tour to promote a Christmas music album they released earlier that year, but I don’t think I knew that and I don’t know that many people in the audience did either. I went there to see Sarah Smile performed live, just like everyone else. When they were about to start their fifth consecutive Christmas folk song of the night, the entire theater whined in unison, and Daryl Hall was not amused. A known curmudgeon, he motioned for the band to stop playing before he disembarked the clown car of complaints about the esthetic and operational state of the theater. He said that he had seen quite a few such old auditoriums, that the one we were all together in at that moment was one of the most beautiful, and what a shame for the current owners not to value its charm and elegance. Continue reading Sold for a song

Desired havens

Rev. Ichabod Wiswall’s gravestone.

Before she married my grandfather, my paternal grandmother was Vivienne Isabel Wing. Born in Rumford, Maine in 1903, six generations after Simeon Wing (1722–1794) and his family had traded Sandwich, Massachusetts for the wilderness of New Sandwich, Maine (incorporated as Wayne in 1798), my grandmother was proud of her Wing ancestry; at times, she lamented that as an only female child she would be the last in her long line to bear the name.

Had my grandmother not been a woman of a certain generation she might have at least “kept” her name. Continue reading Desired havens

Error fatigue

You have undoubtedly seen online exchanges that go something like:

“That genealogical claim is wrong/unproved.”

Reply: “Prove that it is wrong/unproved!”

I first experienced this back in the early days of the Internet when I posted a caution that the royal ancestry attributed to Mayflower passenger Richard Warren was not proved. I was immediately challenged to prove my claim. Continue reading Error fatigue

Curiouser and curiouser

The interior side of the Hancock Mansion’s front door, preserved in the Massachusetts Old Statehouse. This is the side that Cato Hancock would have known well.

I truly went down a rabbit hole recently, and all the credit goes to NEHGS’s Chief Genealogist, David Allen Lambert. He recently reported in Vita Brevis that his second academic sabbatical was spent transcribing the 1800 “Taking Books” (tax records) for Suffolk County, Massachusetts. I commented then that I looked forward to checking out this new database, and recently I got around to doing so.

I’d already discovered my ancestor, George Athearn, in Boston city directories for 1798, 1800, 1803, 1805, 1806, and 1807, but it was still fun to check out his entry in the Taking Books. I noted wryly that his surname and that of his business partner, Stephen Fales, were both misspelled; additional notes were “Merch[an]t: ½ Store on Spears W[harf], partners w[ith] Fails, Large Ho[use]” with real estate valued at $3,000. Continue reading Curiouser and curiouser

Genealogical gold

Click on images to expand them.

My great-great-great-great-grandfather, James Luke, emigrated from Birmingham, England in 1816 at the age of 20. I’ve been lucky enough to find a couple of documents that identify his parents as William and Margaret Luke, but I’ve been trying to discover his mother’s maiden name for years.

James was a prominent citizen in both Cambridge and Wilbraham, Massachusetts, so I have been able to find information about him in a number of publications, and learned that he was one of the founding members of the Harvard Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge. Further research revealed that the records of that church are now kept at the library of the Boston University School of Theology. Continue reading Genealogical gold

Some fascinating connections

Courtesy of De Nederlandsche Leeuw.

For years I have received De Nederlandsche Leeuw [The Dutch Lion], the journal of the Koninlijk Nederlandsch Genootschap voor Geslacht-en Wapenkunde [Royal Dutch Society for Genealogy and Heraldry], published since 1884 in The Hague. I scan each issue for any scraps on the ancestry of the settlers of New Netherland in the seventeenth century. Continue reading Some fascinating connections

Presidents’ Day reflections

I am not sure where my fascination with the personal histories of American presidents began. Maybe it was the long road trip I took with my family in 2003 when we listened to David McCullough’s John Adams on audio book or my earliest visits to Washington, D.C. and Mount Vernon when I was even younger.

I do remember that after that road trip, I demanded a visit to Quincy to visit Adams National Historic Park and Peacefield. This spark of curiosity came full circle in the summer of 2016 when I was a graduate fellow at United First Parish Church in Quincy, aka the Church of the Presidents, the final resting place of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams. Continue reading Presidents’ Day reflections