Category Archives: Collections

The Jeffers Engine

The Jeffers Engine sits in the basement of Station 2 of the Woonsocket Fire Department, covered in dust and surrounded by workout equipment. Built by William Jeffers of Pawtucket, pulled first by hand, then by horse, and now missing its pump, the first steam fire engine the department purchased in 1872 is a far cry from the massive engines in the garage above.[1] Something in the large red wheels and the big dull water drum shares their spirit, though. It too once raced through the streets of Woonsocket towards scenes of danger, carrying fire fighters just as determined to save lives and livelihoods as those who serve today. Continue reading The Jeffers Engine

White bronze

During a walk in the historic cemetery in my town, I spied a headstone perched at the edge of one of the steep terraced slopes. It caught my attention not only because it seemed ready to topple over the edge, but also because it was different: it appeared to glow with a bluish color in the spring sunlight. With a kind of eagerness, I suspected that it might be one of the “trendy” monuments that I had read about and that had had a brief popularity during the Victorian Era.

I made my way up the hill, reached the monument, and proceeded to apply the proof test by knocking on the surface (hoping and praying that no one would knock back!) and, indeed, it was hollow. I had found, quite inadvertently, my first example of a grave marker made of cast zinc. Continue reading White bronze

Ease of use

In my work on the current “Watertown Cluster” for the Early New England Families Study Project, I am getting a heavy refresher course in the records of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. In the olden days, I would get on the Green Line and go to the Middlesex County Court House in Cambridge to access probate records. Today, I find online access is both a blessing and a curse.

AmericanAncestors.org has images of Middlesex County probate files, but in my search on William Parry/Perry of Watertown, I found that the image of his original will from these files is indecipherable (to me, at least).[1] In such cases, the next step is to access the copy book versions of the records, images of which are accessible on FamilySearch.org.[2] Continue reading Ease of use

Miniature works of art

Richard Bowers Oliver

Following up on Patty Vitale’s recent post on her Uncle Dominic’s war photography, I can offer another take: photos created by Private Richard Bowers Oliver (1913–1985) at Camp Wheeler near Macon, Georgia, during the Second World War.

Oliver seems to have been the camp’s official photographer, a member of the Public Relations Office.[1] While much of his work covered the camp’s daily life, there were occasional celebrities to be seen, as when Cab Calloway (1907–1994) paid Camp Wheeler a visit. Continue reading Miniature works of art

Popham’s promise

The John Hunt map. Courtesy of canadianhistoryworkshop at WordPress

When I was a child, my mother and grandmother enjoyed taking me and my siblings to Fort Popham and Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg, Maine. We loved exploring the Civil War-era fort, combing the beach for sea glass and shells, and ending the day with a visit to a candy shop along the way home for glittery rock candy on a stick. As a child, the 100+-year-old Fort Popham appeared to be ANCIENT. But lying-in-wait several hundred feet away was the long-forgotten and soon-to-be-rediscovered 412-year-old Popham Colony of 1607. Continue reading Popham’s promise

The census taker missed

How many times have we pored over a census sheet desperately seeking our ancestors only to reluctantly conclude that the census enumerator must have missed a house? Or how often have we tried variant spellings, first name searches, and wild cards with a search engine attempting to wring a census record out of cyberspace? Well, sometimes the census enumerator really did miss dwellings and occasionally a whole block of dwellings. Continue reading The census taker missed

Mapping the Great Migration

In early 2015 I had just completed work on The Great Migration Directory: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1640, with abbreviated entries for each known head of household or isolated individual participant in the Great Migration. The result was an alphabetical listing of about 5,700 families or individuals. Each entry included last name, first name, English origin, year of migration, first residence in New England, and a brief listing of the best primary and secondary sources available for each. For about 1,800 of the entries, the English origin (defined as the last known residence in England before migration) was known. Continue reading Mapping the Great Migration

The long way around

My ancestors are like everyone else’s ancestors, I suspect: entertaining, frustrating, sometimes obstinately invisible, always playing hide and seek, changing our perspectives and perceptions of them and of ourselves. They leave us their legacies and properties, perhaps confident that we will care for them as they themselves would without considering that we might develop other plans. Continue reading The long way around

Selecting images for a family history

My late mother-in-law, with her father, in 1927.

How do you choose photos for a family history? Someone recently asked me that excellent question. She happened to have dozens, if not hundreds, of photos and didn’t know how to start. I had never really come up with guidelines for selecting photos, but as I answered the question, I realized that I do have some rough rules of thumb: Continue reading Selecting images for a family history

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