Category Archives: American History

ICYMI: Four hundred years local

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 6 January 2020.]

Plymouth Harbor at dusk

For whatever reason, my grandmother’s ancestors stayed put. They ignored the call to go west (“young man!”) or to secure the nation’s manifest destiny. Maybe they had political objections and instead manifested disdain for American imperialism and conquest. Maybe they felt comfortable where they were, and bred wanderlust right out of the gene pool. Wasn’t it enough that many of their ancestors had traveled thousands of miles to get to Plymouth in the first place? Plympton is west; Marshfield and Kingston are north; and that is just about as far as they went.

And here is the humble brag: because my grandmother’s ancestors stayed put, and let’s face it, married their extended relatives (folding the family tree in on itself numerous times), I can prove descent from many Mayflower passengers, many times over. Continue reading ICYMI: Four hundred years local

‘Ye olde pandemic life’

My old Scottish home?

Now that a few of our shelter-in-place orders have been lifted, my wife Nancy and I have started to get back to the more ‘normal’ side of life. I have to admit, it’s been pretty nice not having to treat toilet paper like some new form of currency, and truly heartwarming to only Zoom with the grandkids for fun. Indeed, the pandemic life has reminded me of what’s most precious in life, i.e., family. Interestingly enough though, it’s also played an important part in helping me to find out just who I am – at least in ancestral terms. Yes, ye olde pandemic life has also taught me a thing or two outside of ‘the norm.’ And along with its implied “six degrees of separation,”[1] this period has reminded me about some ancestral ties I scarcely knew I had. Continue reading ‘Ye olde pandemic life’

The Wantons of Rhode Island, Part Two

Governor Joseph Wanton (1705-1780), by an unknown artist.

For much of the eighteenth century, the political landscape of Rhode Island was shaped by a single family. Between 1732 and 1775, four descendants of Edward Wanton served as the governor of the Colony of Rhode Island and another would act as deputy governor. The run of Wantons serving as the chief executive of the colony began when two of Edward’s sons, William and John, served consecutive tenures between 1732 and 1740; it came to an end when William’s son, Joseph, was removed from office at the start of the Revolutionary War after he opposed the formation of an army out of loyalty to the crown. While there have been many fathers, sons, and brothers who have held the same office at different times throughout American history, the story of the Wanton family is interesting for the number of individuals connected to the family who held prominent positions.

Gideon Wanton (1693-1767)

Five years after the death of his uncle, Governor John Wanton (1672-1740), Gideon Wanton became the next member of his illustrious family to serve in the same position. Continue reading The Wantons of Rhode Island, Part Two

Of Plimoth Plantation

Watching the videos of Mayflower II being escorted through the Cape Cod Canal brings weird thoughts to my mind. What if there had been a canal in 1620? Would “Plimoth Plantation” have been “Long Island Plantation”? Things would have been different, but since there was no canal, that stray thought is of no importance.

Of great importance, however, among the celebrations of the settlement of Plimoth Plantation is the new publication by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and New England Historic Genealogical Society: Of Plimoth Plantation by William Bradford, The 400th Anniversary Edition.[1] I highly recommend that if you buy only one four hundredth anniversary souvenir, it should be this book, which will be a legacy for your descendants. Continue reading Of Plimoth Plantation

Near neighbors

Small world. All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of backbayhouses.org

My grandfather[1] came from New York, and when I was growing up it was understood that the Stewards were from New York and the Ayers (my grandmother’s family) were from Boston. A little digging suggests a more complicated picture – my grandfather’s mother-in-law[2] came from Newark, and his maternal grandmother[3] had only New England ancestry – while there is also an interesting collateral connection, somewhat obscure to later generations of the family. Continue reading Near neighbors

Making plans

Plan of Boston surveyed by Osgood Carleton, dated 1795. Courtesy of digitalcommonwealth.org

Whenever I find myself doing Massachusetts research that predates 1800, I return to a collection of early town plans, 1794-1795, that are as much a documentary source as they are an aesthetic pleasure. Housed at the Massachusetts State Archives, a division of the Secretary of State, the original collection consists of sixteen volumes which were digitized in June 2017.[1]

In the post-Revolution years, it fell to the individual states to produce accurate maps to facilitate governmental administration, develop transportation networks, and encourage settlement. Continue reading Making plans

A family of strong women

Aurelia Jane (Hargrave) (Bottom[e]s) Corker, circa 1910. Used with permission from the Durand Family Archives
This month marks one hundred years since passage of the United States Constitution’s Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote across the country. Some of my female ancestors[1] were able to vote many years earlier, however, including my great-great-grandmother, Aurelia Jane (Hargrave) (Bottom[e]s) Corker, whom I wrote about late last year. Recently a fellow descendant sent me scans of scrapbook pages and family photos, which imparted more interesting details about this indomitable ancestress.

I already knew that Aurelia was a strong woman. She gave birth to her second daughter while traveling by wagon train from Hopkins County, Texas, to Southern California. According to the recently shared newspaper clippings, she usually drove the wagon’s team while her husband attended to other duties … but I guess even she had to take a break from that during the baby’s delivery!

Around the time of my great-grandmother’s birth in March 1878, Aurelia and John Thomas Bottoms divorced. Continue reading A family of strong women

The Wantons of Rhode Island, Part One

Governor William Wanton (1670-1733), by an unidentified artist.

For much of the eighteenth century, the political landscape of Rhode Island was shaped by a single family. Between 1732 and 1775, four descendants of Edward Wanton served as the governor of the Colony of Rhode Island and another would act as deputy governor. The run of Wantons serving as the chief executive of the colony began when two of Edward’s sons, William and John, served consecutive tenures between 1732 and 1740; it came to an end when William’s son, Joseph, was removed from office at the start of the Revolutionary War after he opposed the formation of an army out of loyalty to the crown. While there have been many fathers, sons, and brothers who have held the same office at different times throughout American history, the story of the Wanton family is interesting for the number of individuals connected to the family who held prominent positions. Continue reading The Wantons of Rhode Island, Part One

Campione d’Italia

Waterfront, Campione d’Italia, Lake Lugano, Italy. Courtesy Library of Congress

Researching family history does a lot to expand your knowledge of the world. I recently felt this way after discovering that my Italian roots are not as clear-cut as I had thought. Family lore had always stated that my great-grandfather, Julian Consolini, had come to America from Verona. I recently discovered that this was just family lore and that the documents tell a different story. His naturalization certificate states that he was born in Campione, Italy. Naturally, I looked into Campione to see where it was. My expectation had been that Campione was a small town on the outskirts of Verona. I imagined Verona was just the metropolitan reference point that people would understand better, in the same way that I tell people that I am from Boston when I really am not. I learned, however, that Campione was not close to Verona and, in fact, it wasn’t even in Italy. Continue reading Campione d’Italia

In the neighborhood

The Fensgate, today’s Charlesview Condominium. All images courtesy of backbayhouses.org

Real estate transactions might not seem very romantic, or as offering much in the way of narrative, but sometimes proximity and dates can signal ongoing relationships. One in my own family comes to mind: in 1899, my Ayer great-great-grandparents[1] moved from Lowell to Boston, initially renting a house on Beacon Street while they planned to build a new home on Commonwealth Avenue.

At the same time, my great-great-grandfather’s sister-in-law, the former Mary Hascall Wheaton,[2] was living in a house on Beacon Street while planning her own new house, just two doors down. Of all these houses, only Aunt Minnie Kittredge’s former home has been torn down, to make way for The Fensgate at the corner of Beacon Street and Charlesgate East. And while the street addresses don’t hint at it, the Kittredge and Ayer houses were just two blocks apart. Continue reading In the neighborhood