Category Archives: American History

My genealogical “coming of age”

The Rhodes children, summer 1915. In front: Cousin Edna Sylvia, Marion, Jack, Lois [Nana], Harry, and Walter Rhodes. in back: Amos Chase [partially concealed], Aunt Belle (Sylvia) Chase, and Grandmother Mary (Paine) (Delano) Sylvia.
Long before the shock and bewilderment of DNA evidence, some of us can pinpoint moments when we found family secrets profoundly disturbing. In April 1980, at the wake of my Nana’s brother Harry Rhodes of Wareham, Massachusetts, I overheard this aside: “Harry’s mother died having a back-room abortion.” These words stunned me because I thought I knew all the elements of the turbulent childhood of Harry and his siblings: Following the death of their mother Marion (Sylvia) Rhodes from “influenza,” her oldest child, Walter, age 9, went to live with grandparents and the other four children were placed in a New Bedford orphanage. When their father remarried in 1917, his new wife Mae created a home for the Rhodes children, except for Walter who chose to remain with his grandparents. Mae also erased all ties to the Sylvia family. On the marriage records of her step-children, including Nana, they gave Mae’s name – not Marion’s – as their mother. Continue reading My genealogical “coming of age”

Past is present

S-4 Memorial in the garden of St. Mary of the Harbor, Provincetown.

When I was a kid enjoying idyllic summers in Provincetown, a familiar face in the West End of town where I stayed was that of Johnny Oliver, born in Provincetown in 1899 to Manuel Oliver, who had emigrated from Brava, Cape Verde, and Mary Boatman, born in Provincetown to Portuguese parents. During my childhood, there were any number of “characters” in Provincetown, those otherwise regular, hardworking folks who just seemed to have a rhythm all their own. Johnny was one of them.

He was old enough to be my Dad’s father, but he and my Dad, who had grown up in Provincetown, seemed to hit it off and I often saw them jawing out in the street, Johnny always animated no matter what story he was telling, and my Dad enjoying every minute of it. Continue reading Past is present

An immigration obstacle course

One example of the 1941 letter informing people that they would need to start their visa application process over again. Click on image to expand it.

On the train from Washington D.C. to Boston this past summer, I sat next to an immigration lawyer by chance. Thanks to reading immigration case files all the time, I was proud that I could at least identify a few documents and steps in the immigration process he mentioned. I remember remarking how difficult it must be to understand the immigration process and navigate it successfully. Thinking about the encounter in hindsight, and after interning at the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center for a year, I realized that the immigration process being difficult, tedious, and full of unexpected challenges isn’t exactly new.

During the Second World War, the U.S. State Department was notorious for its role in impeding the immigration of refugees, particularly Jews. Reflecting fears about German spies, the Department issued a so-called “relatives rule,” which instructed U.S. consuls abroad to deny visas to any applicant with close relatives in Nazi-occupied territory. Continue reading An immigration obstacle course

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