Category Archives: Family Stories

The occasional cognac

S. & W. Howard account book 3, showing the Asa Williams account. Courtesy of Linda Novak, Director/Curator, Old Fort Western

There are those theorists who say that time is a river with many bends, and that if we could look back around one of those bends, we’d see the past. I think of that whenever I cross the Kennebec River here in Augusta on my way to Old Fort Western. If I could see around the river’s bend, would I see my ancestor, the Pilgrim John Howland, arriving to establish the Cushnoc Trading Post for the Plymouth Colony in 1628? I might find my house-builder cousin, Asa Williams, on his way to the Fort in 1777, or his brother Seth trading at the S. & W. Howard store in 1790. Maybe my great-great-great-great-grandfather George Read would be galloping by to call the midwife Martha Ballard to help deliver his first child,[1] or perhaps I’d see that same midwife on her way to view an autopsy in Eunice (Fisher) Williams’s kitchen.[2] Continue reading The occasional cognac

Happy error

In genealogy, mistakes are rarely fortuitous. They often send us down time-consuming rabbit holes and frustrate us to no end. But, sometimes, they work in our favor.

Recently, I had been working to extend my Garvin line in Mallow parish in County Cork. I had been able to confirm my great-great-great-grandparents, Francis Garvin and Ellen Coleman, but I had been unable to locate a marriage record for the couple. Though there were several Garvin family groups in Mallow parish and the surrounding area, I could not place Francis Garvin with a family. Continue reading Happy error

‘A mighty happy time’

My great-grandfather was a man of few words, at times, as when he made his sole reference to a new office: “Elected to the [Norfolk] City Council tonight.”[1] A more typical effusion occurs nine days later, when he notes the “Early cabbage [is] looking good.”[2]

1918

1 April: Bought an Overland car.

3 May: Went with Hotel Ass[ociatio]n to Cape Henry[3] for Oyster Roast.

8 May: After supper tonight the whole family[4] went to the strawberry patch and picked berries for breakfast. Had a mighty happy time. Continue reading ‘A mighty happy time’

A light-bulb moment

A “family record” from the Sefrit collection.

This past week I began to explore the large collection of Bible records on the American Ancestors Digital Collections website, and I was expecting to find just ordinary records, not anything surprising. What I uncovered, however, is just how helpful these records and registers can be in understanding your family history. While the records typically convey very simple information to the reader, such as births, deaths, and marriages, they sometimes contain other information that can result in a “light-bulb” moment when you are piecing together your genealogy. NEHGS has digitized a series of Bible records and family registers, and continues to add new records regularly, creating a selection of nearly 300 so far in the Digital Collections. Continue reading A light-bulb moment

‘Old Green’

In my house, there’s an old book that stands guard against the march of time. It’s not any great work or an impressive tome, that’s for sure, as it’s pretty humble in title and origin. However, it still endures – and much like a singular nomad on my Costco bookshelf, it spends its days between the works of Robert Charles Anderson and my collection of Mayflower Silver Books and issues of the Mayflower Descendant. Nevertheless, this book – which I have taken to calling “Old Green” – has its own unique story, as she was once the prized possession of my great-great-grandmother Mary (Hoyt) Wilcox. (Even now I have to believe Mrs. Wilcox keeps a watchful eye on it from the Great Beyond.) You see, truth be told, if our home was ever to (God forbid) fall prey to any disaster, man-made or otherwise, I am ‘bound’ by some celestial edict to rescue “Old Green.” It seems silly to say so, but I count it among those irreplaceable things, and among those things with a life of their own, serendipitously placed by our ancestors for safe-keeping. Continue reading ‘Old Green’

Stubborn facts

Joe Pease. Courtesy of Findagrave.com

My second-ever Vita Brevis post featured the story of how my grandfather[1] became a stationmaster for Pan Am’s flying boat operations in the South Pacific. On the morning of 8 December 1941 (on his side of the International Date Line), Papi oversaw the departure of a Pan Am Clipper flying boat from Noumea, New Calendonia, which would immediately thereafter enter aviation history by flying “the long way” back to New York over uncharted routes. At almost the exact same time (on the American side of the International Date Line), a young man named Joe Pease was at the dock of Pan Am’s Pearl Harbor facility, awaiting the arrival of another Clipper. Needless to say, Joe had the more exciting morning! Continue reading Stubborn facts

‘Stopped by rains’

By 1917, my great-grandfather’s farm in Princess Anne County, Virginia, was up and running, with actual profits registered. The weather remained a preoccupation:

1917

3 February: Coldest day in eighteen years.

10 February: Fred’s yew [sic] had two lambs[;] she disowned one and had to [be forced to] nurse.

23 February: Little Frances[1] sick in bed with measles.

4 March: Inauguration Day – President Wilson’s second term… Fred served at communion today at the nine o’clock service and the 11 a.m. service. Frances recovered from measles. Continue reading ‘Stopped by rains’

‘Planting watermelon’

I have a vivid memory as a boy of the time my mother’s father showed me a healed wound in his leg. While he was a decorated veteran of the Second World War, with the Purple Heart (among other medals) to show for it, this scar – deep enough for a child probe with a finger – came from a shooting accident when he was not much older than I. The idea that my grandfather had ever been an unruly boy – his childhood inconceivably remote in the early 1970s – fascinated me, and, anyway, boys love the squeamish and the gross: this evidence of time’s passage, long-healed, formed a Proustian memory, sending me back to a hot summer’s day and a moment’s connection with my beloved grandfather. Continue reading ‘Planting watermelon’

Cousin confusion

Agnes Horan Bento

My grandmother Anne (Cassidy) Dwyer never met her father, Patrick Cassidy, who was killed in a Fall River (Massachusetts) mill seven months before her birth, but from the Cassidy side of the family, she knew a dozen or more Irish-born first cousins. Six sisters from one family alone came to Fall River to escape the grinding poverty of rural Ireland. Agnes Horan, a favorite cousin, arrived at age 20 in 1908. Agnes’s elder sister, Annie Driscoll,[1] paid for her passage. Agnes, in turn, brought over the next sister. In 1919, after working ten years as a domestic servant, Agnes married Joseph Bento, son of Azorean immigrants. Agnes died in 1930, leaving her husband and four small children. For the rest of her life, Nana Dwyer nonetheless maintained contact with Agnes’s children. Long after my grandmother’s death, I renewed acquaintance with the Bento family, sharing genealogical information and photographs. Continue reading Cousin confusion

The weekend farmer

Of my four grandparents, it is my maternal grandfather[1] whose background seems most mysterious. He and his parents duly appear in Norfolk (Virginia) city directories and censuses, but much of the personal – the quirks and the quotidian – seems missing from the life he led before he won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1919.

His father, J. Frank Bell (John Francis Bell, 1878–1944), has, if anything, been more of a cipher. It was his father, also John Francis Bell (1839–1905), who appears out of thin air, hailing from Isle of Wight County and establishing himself as a contractor in Richmond. Frank Bell went south to Norfolk, where he met and married my great-grandmother, Minnie Estelle Jackson (1876–1935). Frank Bell seems as solid as Estelle’s father, the roguish O.D. Jackson, proved transient, and he became a leading figure in Norfolk, managing hotels, winning election to the City Council, and helping to found the Rotary Club. Continue reading The weekend farmer