Category Archives: Family Stories

ICYMI: A Victorian genealogist

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 26 May 2015.]

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
One of the mysteries of the Regina Shober Gray diary is why it came to be part of the NEHGS collection. It is an account of daily (or weekly) life, written between January 1860 and December 1884, and for many of the volumes Mrs. Gray is observant about the relationships of her friends and acquaintances, but far less interested, evidently, in the genealogy of the Shober, Gray, and Clay families.

That all changes, however, in March 1874, at tea with one of her nieces: “[Isa Gray] tells me [her sister Ellen] copied Aunt Eliza [Clay]’s[1] genealogical tree of the Clay family – and will lend it to me to have copied, at which I am most pleased. [Her husband’s cousin] Elizabeth Gray lends me a few records of the Grays to copy… I care a great deal for such things – and feel it right to collect for my children and their descendants all the family records & traditions I can obtain.”[2] Continue reading ICYMI: A Victorian genealogist

Enduring mysteries

Ida Mary Way, age 3-4, ca. 1866, Berkeley County, West Virginia.

My first visit to NEHGS was with a now-deceased friend and former coworker and her husband in a February in the mid-1980s. This was also my first visit to New England. We drove up for a genealogy-related purpose: Sally was picking up a melodeon, a reed organ, from a cousin of hers in Dedham. While in the Boston area, we went downtown, ate at Durgin Park, visited Goodspeed’s Book Shop, and, of course, went to NEHGS for a few hours. It is a far different place now than it was 35 or so years ago. I still remember some of the look of the place, especially where the microfilm used to be on the level between the two of the floors, along with most of the rest of the public areas. Continue reading Enduring mysteries

The General Society

“Howland Overboard,” courtesy of mikehaywoodart.co.uk.

Well, there’s one thing this pandemic isn’t going to do, and that’s dampen my (well-quarantined) spirits for the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower. From perusing the pages of a Silver Book[1] to taking advantage of new on-line resources (at NEHGS and elsewhere), well, let’s just say it’s a really cool time to be a Hopkins or a Howland. There are so many advances being made to the study of Mayflower ancestry that, heck, for me it’s a lot like Must See TV.[2] Though I’ve got to tell you, the best part about “Mayflower 2020” – and I do mean the very best part – is in teaching my granddaughters about our pilgrim ancestors, and the reasons behind that voyage of so long ago. Continue reading The General Society

In praise of dissertations

Harvard’s Widener Library. Courtesy of Harvard Magazine

In a previous Vita Brevis post, I sang the praises of tax lists as useful sources of information for family history research. Today’s post focuses attention on another valuable but underutilized research resource: unpublished doctoral dissertations.

Since the 1960s, Ph.D. candidates at U.S. universities have written a surprisingly large number of dissertations on the histories of individual American towns, ranging from the early settlements of colonial New England and other regions to nineteenth-century midwestern farming communities. Continue reading In praise of dissertations

The better part of valor

Courtesy of forgottenoperasingers.blogspot.com.

I grew up surrounded by my father’s family, but at something of a distance. Looking back on it, I trace my parents’ incuriosity about these relatives – generally described as “Oh, he’s a cousin … somehow” – to my grandfather’s self-protective stance when he married into the sprawling Ayer family: he focused on his own friends (and a handful of his relatives) while maintaining a cool remove from his in-laws. (The one exception was his wife’s uncle, General George S. Patton Jr., a near neighbor and a man it was hard to ignore.)

So it was something of a surprise one summer’s day, out sailing with my father and a friend, for my father to point out a house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean as belonging to “our kooky cousin the Countess.” Even as a child, a keen reader of histories and romances, the word Countess – applied to a resident of Essex County, Massachusetts – piqued my interest; and I was still of an age where adult foibles (particularly those noticed by other grown-ups) were fascinating glimpses into adult life. Continue reading The better part of valor

In praise of tax lists

Courtesy of NARA

One of my personal “Great Moments in Family History Research” occurred several years ago in the town hall of Pomfret, Connecticut. I was immersed in a volume of early Pomfret land records at a small table set aside for researchers, when I happened to ask a former town clerk in passing whether any of the town’s early tax lists had survived. Without a word, she disappeared into the town hall’s records vault and emerged carrying a large cardboard box filled with original copies of eighteenth-century local tax lists.

I hadn’t really worked with tax lists before, but I knew that they were supposed to be a useful source of information for family history research. From an early date, American towns large and small annually assessed the value of their residents’ property holdings for tax purposes. Continue reading In praise of tax lists

Scrope v. Grosvenor

In July 1385, King Richard II of England led an army on an ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Scotland. While the invasion itself would play a role in British history, it was a chance meeting – beginning on the battlefield – that resulted in one of the first known trials involving heraldic law. In the end, the case of Scrope v. Grosvenor would result in major changes in how heraldry was interpreted. Continue reading Scrope v. Grosvenor

Anne Cassidy, district nurse

Annie and Anne Cassidy in 1916.

The coronavirus crisis has inspired me to think of past health heroes. My paternal grandmother, Anne P. (Cassidy) Dwyer (1892–1964) of Fall River, Massachusetts, immediately comes to mind. As a first-generation American, daughter of an Irish widow, Anne overcame adversity through drive and determination. She worked ten years in the cotton mills to put her brother through school before she enrolled at St. Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing in Providence. When she graduated in the spring of 1917, the United States had entered World War I. Some of her classmates volunteered for service in France, but Anne’s mother vigorously dissuaded her from going. One of those nurses, Henrietta Drummond of Pawtucket, perished in a mustard gas attack.[1] Continue reading Anne Cassidy, district nurse

Overlooked no longer

Click on the images to expand them.

Just the other day I received an email from a friend in Provincetown. It started out cheerily enough with him telling me of an exhilarating walk he had taken at Great Island in Wellfleet, but it struck a despairing note at the end when he mentioned that a recent New York Times story about Mayflower 400 events had failed to even mention Provincetown. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Pilgrim story, Provincetown is accustomed to being overlooked. Continue reading Overlooked no longer

‘A remarkable old lady’

When I joined NEHGS with my aunt in 1992, we were the first members of our family to join this organization. While several members of our family had an interest in genealogy, no one was near enough to the Boston area to join NEHGS. (Now, of course, with our vast online presence, physical proximity to our library is less essential, and a few family members across the U.S. are members.) As this year marks the 175th anniversary of NEHGS’s founding in 1845, a new database of membership applications, “1847-1900,” has gone online, and I was curious to search it to see if more distant cousins were members in the past.

The earliest cousin I found was Isaac Child (1792-1885) of Boston, a life member admitted on 9 June 1846, one year before the founding of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. His was the thirteenth membership file for 1846, and as there are 88 files for 1845 (the Society’s inaugural year), I could say Isaac Child was our 101st member, although the files appear to be in alphabetical order by year! Continue reading ‘A remarkable old lady’