Category Archives: Family Stories

Playing Pilgrims

For me and my friends growing up on Cape Cod, the story of the Mayflower voyage took on a mythical quality. It felt significant to us to be walking the land that the Pilgrims saw after that long and perilous voyage. Our frequent field trips to Plimoth Plantation and the Mayflower II provided fuel for our imaginations, and through the long New England winters we played Pilgrim in our houses. My mother let us empty out a large closet, and my friends and I would gather some blankets and toys and munch on stale bread in the dark, pretending we were in cramped quarters on the Mayflower with our children. In the summer we gathered wildflowers for our forest fort – our version of a Plimoth Plantation cottage. I had no ancestral connection to the Mayflower, but I was drawn to the idea of a seafaring adventure and of reinventing oneself in a new land. Continue reading Playing Pilgrims

South Carolina leaders

Montage created in 1876 showing the “Radical Members” of the South Carolina Legislature. (Click on images to expand them.) Courtesy of facinghistory.org

I recently watched comedian Dave Chappelle’s powerful Netflix special 8:46, remarking on the death of George Floyd and several other recent events. During the performance, Chappelle mentioned that President Woodrow Wilson received a delegation of African Americans from South Carolina after a black man was lynched in that state. This delegation was led by the comedian’s great-grandfather, William David Chappelle (1857-1925), born enslaved, the 37th Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Dave Chappelle also mentioned this ancestor’s wife was the woman Dave’s father called out to on his deathbed, and how that memory reminded him of when George Floyd called out to his mother knowing his death was imminent.

I had worked on the genealogy of Dave Chappelle over a decade ago, and biographies of Bishop William David Chappelle appear in Who Was Who and Who’s Who in the Colored Race. Continue reading South Carolina leaders

The trouble with Jimmie

Albert James Lefurgey (1901-1948), Folsom State Prison 1928

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I work on family history I get bored. After all, how long can one be expected to stare at the same old brick walls, or to wonder why researching on Rootsweb these days feels more like your worst blind date ever? I guess you could say that this sort of ennui has gotten me into a bit of trouble, as in the absence of anything interesting in my own family tree I start looking for ways to escape the solitary confinement of (what I like to call) my own little “genealogical slammer.” I know it’s a bit dangerous to go on the lam like this but, hey, I think you’ll agree that, genealogically speaking, you truly can meet a lot of interesting people along the way. Continue reading The trouble with Jimmie

First person singular

Henry Coffin (1807-1900)

Well, for what looked like it was going to be an awesome year … even in Roman numerals (MMXX) … 2020 is set to go down in history as one of the most trying ever! When so much of what we typically learn about history is painted by textbooks in wide, sweeping gestures, it can be illuminating to read the granular experiences of individuals. I’ve seen several small museums publishing requests for their patrons to keep diaries now, and sharing items online from their collections illustrating the importance of first-person history. In this spirit, I thought I would share a few accounts written by my own ancestors who lived through momentous events. Continue reading First person singular

Some Back Bay houses

121-129 Commonwealth Avenue, ca. 1875, viewed from the steeple of the Brattle Street Church. (The house into which the family moved in 1922 was just around the corner on Dartmouth Street.) Courtesy of the Print Department, Boston Public Library

When my grandmother[1] was a girl, she could walk down the front steps of her parents’ house in Boston and along Commonwealth Avenue into the houses of her paternal grandparents and her father’s sisters nearby. Using the Back Bay Houses database, I can trace the staggered arrivals of her father’s family in Boston; in the process, I find I’m encountering a number of family and contemporary friends.

My great-grandfather[2] seems to have been the first member of the Ayer family to move to Boston, soon after his graduation from Harvard in 1887. Next came his father (my great-great-grandfather) and stepmother, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Ayer of Lowell,[3] who rented 232 Beacon Street in 1899-1900[4] while building their new house at 395 Commonwealth Avenue.[5] The family[6] was occupying the house by the end of 1900, although it appears that work continued for sometime thereafter. Continue reading Some Back Bay houses

A genealogy of churches

Courtesy of findagrave

My recent post about distant Child cousins living in the Boston area who were early members of NEHGS reminded me of another genealogical (and geographical) connection. Near my home in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, there is a very small cemetery—known as the Walter Street Burying Ground—within the Arnold Arboretum (leased from the City of Boston and maintained by Harvard University) that only has ten stones standing. Frequently friends and colleagues who notice these graves will see the “twin stone” at left, of Benjamin and Grace Child, and ask me if there is any relation. Why, yes, there is!

Continue reading A genealogy of churches

Famous for its Cabots

There are few things that make me happier than snuggling up with my sons Oliver and Charlie at bedtime and reading. We recently read The Trumpet of the Swan. It was the exact copy that my parents read to me many years ago, cracked spine and all. It was an awesome experience to read it again as an adult, observing Oliver and Charlie as they took in the humor, drama, and thrills of the story. Only now could I appreciate the author’s turns of phrases; only now could I grasp certain references and concepts.

Continue reading Famous for its Cabots

Reflections on Researching Racism in America

Thomas Bivins Probate Inventory (1857), Marion, Inventories and appraisements 1852-1904, “Georgia, Probate Records, 1742-1990,” FamilySearch.

I have agonized over what I would say in a blog post that would speak to the gravity of where our nation is today. I question if it is my place to say anything or if this is even the forum to do so. The more I debated in my head, the more convinced I became that I needed to write something, if only to amplify the voices of those speaking out against the racism they face every day.

Continue reading Reflections on Researching Racism in America

Remember the Mavericks

Boston Massacre, engraving with watercolor by Paul Revere, 1770. Both photos courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Later this year, I will be giving a talk as part of Salem Ancestry Days in Salem, Massachusetts, entitled “Remember, Remember: Exploring Salem’s Mayflower Connections.” While Salem was only 80 miles north of Plymouth, the two early settlements had very little interaction. Still, there were at least four Mayflower families with a connection to Salem:

    • Richard More, Mayflower passenger and resident of Salem as early at 1637; he died in Salem in the 1690s;
  • Remember Allerton, Mayflower passenger and member of the Salem church in 1637 with her husband Moses Maverick; Remember’s father Isaac Allerton (Mayflower passenger) joined the church in 1647;
  • Elizabeth Turner, daughter of Mayflower passenger John Turner, was living in Salem by 1651;
  • Benjamin Vermayes (later the son-in-law of Mayflower passenger William Bradford) joined the Salem church in 1642.[1]

Continue reading Remember the Mavericks

Icing on the cake

Anni Virta and Nelly Virta with their relative Everett Rintala on their 1960 trip to Ohio. Photo courtesy of Antti Virta

“Goodbye Helsinki,” Anni Virta wrote in July 1960, “our trip to the west has started and the point of the dream has become a reality.” Anni was a cousin by marriage. An English translation of her diary came to me recently through a serendipitous connection.

Anni’s nephew, Antti Virta of Helsinki, had written to the daughter of one of my cousins, making the connection via WikiTree, asking for information about his aunt Mary Rajasilta, wife of my mother’s brother, George Isaacson. Busy with an ailing mother, my cousin’s daughter bounced Antti’s request to me. I looked up some information about Aunt Mary in American records for Antti. And there began a pleasant correspondence. Continue reading Icing on the cake