Category Archives: Family Stories

‘Even birds want to be free’

This photograph shows Hiram Overton (ca. 1835-1911) and his wife, Evelyn Overton (1841-1917), my great-great-great-grandparents. We opened Black History Month at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology with a call to share personal stories highlighting our family connections to the African-American heritage we celebrate for these 28 days. I’m joining in the effort by sharing and honoring the story of Hiram and Evelyn Overton. Together they are the foundations of my maternal lineage, lovers of kin and country, survivors of slavery and institutional racism, keepers of the flame and inspiring #BlackEntrepreneurs. Continue reading ‘Even birds want to be free’

The family christening gown

Most families use a new christening gown with each baptism, each family, or each generation. My family used one gown from 1858 through at least 1990. I know because my mother made a list.

The gown was made by my mother’s mother’s father’s[1] mother Laura Matilda (Henshaw) Crane for his older brother, Charles, in 1857. It was then worn by my great-grandfather at his baptism in Bainbridge, Indiana, in 1858 – a ceremony at which his grandfather, Rev. Silas Axtell Crane, officiated – and by a younger brother, Clarence, in 1861. Continue reading The family christening gown

Mayors of Boston

With Boston mayor Marty Walsh expected to be confirmed as United States Secretary of Labor, our city will have a new acting mayor with our city council president Kim Janey, who will be the first female and African-American to serve in this position (acting or otherwise). This prompted me to look at her ancestry, as well as all mayors of Boston since the position was created in 1822. Boston counts 54 mayoral administrations between 46 men. (Six mayors served non-consecutive terms; this number includes five who served two terms. James Michael Curley served four non-consecutive terms, including a portion of his last term in prison.) Continue reading Mayors of Boston

Mice tracks

While we at Our Old House maintain a certain amount of “isolation” during this pandemic, we have walked or snowshoed our property for exercise, noting as we passed the tracks the local wildlife has made. Coyotes, deer, rabbits, bobcats, foxes, and others roam our “back forty.” I began to think about the same tracks Our Old House builder Asa Williams would have encountered in the late eighteenth century, along with the occasional bear or wolf, hopefully not in the front yard. Grizzlies on the lawn? No thanks! Continue reading Mice tracks

A different path

William Henry Rhodes, photographed in 1911.

More than fifty years ago, when I first saw the musical Oliver!, I could not have imagined the discovery of an ancestor living in a Victorian-era workhouse in England. Robert Rhodes, my great-great-great-grandfather, died of “old age” on 23 May 1873 aged 78 at the Newton Abbot Union Workhouse. The same day, Robert’s grandson William Henry Rhodes (1854–1941) embarked on a journey that took him to the United States. Juxtaposing these events clearly demarcates two different life stories and the events that set them in motion.

Robert Rhodes’s entry as a pauper in the 1871 England Census provides a snapshot of life in this institution, a place of last resort where he was counted among 306 inmates, slightly more men than women, ranging in age from 4 to more than 80. Continue reading A different path

Black families of Great Barrington

Reading Rufus Jones’s recent post discussing buying the home of James Weldon Johnson in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, reminded me of past research I had done on two other prominent African Americans with genealogical connections to that town. The first was the well-known historian and civil rights activist William Edward Burghardt [known as W.E.B.] Du Bois (1868-1963), who was born and raised in Great Barrington. I minored in African-American/African Studies in college (although I took enough courses for a double major had that been offered), and read several works by Du Bois. One of my college professors from Ghana had written a book on his country’s revolutionary leader Kwame Nkrumah, who invited Du Bois to Ghana in what ended up being the latter’s last few years of life writing the Encyclopedia Africana.[1] Continue reading Black families of Great Barrington

“Cousins by affection”

Umbrellas hanging over a street in Tlaquepaque, Mexico. Author’s photo

First, I have to give my mother full credit for coining the term “cousins by affection.” The definition is: non-relatives in your life who are a part of your family.

For my family, we have four different families we consider cousins by affection. They are more than just friends—they are family, even though they are not blood-related. I even call some members of those families “aunt,” “uncle,” “my second mother,” etc. Continue reading “Cousins by affection”

Good neighbors

The Pacific Bank on Nantucket’s Main Street. The entrance to the cashier’s dwelling was accessed through the door with fan-light, at left, and the building as originally constructed ended at the downspout one window down from that door.

Two years ago, I described several gifts that Genealogy Santa had brought me for Christmas. In that post, I hinted at a forthcoming, very juicy story about a family member, but I have failed to follow through thus far. Then a few weeks ago, Jeff Record virtually threw down the gauntlet in search of family bank robbers … and tagged me in his post to boot! Challenge accepted.

First, a little backstory. Continue reading Good neighbors

Super Bowl surprise

Courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs

Sometimes my Vita Brevis posts take time to develop. I started this post last year after the then-recent Super Bowl victory of the Kansas City Chiefs over the San Francisco 49ers, prompting me to look at the ancestry of the team’s quarterback and the game’s MVP, Patrick Mahomes. With Mahomes and his team heading to the Super Bowl again this year, I finally decided to complete this post. Continue reading Super Bowl surprise

Daniel Axtell, the regicide

One of my ancestors was named Daniel Axtell. Until recently, I understood that he was Daniel Axtell the regicide. A regicide is one who kills a monarch; in this context, the regicides were the 59 judges who signed the death warrant for the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and those who supported them.[1] They were able to enjoy the next eleven years in peace under Cromwell and the Commonwealth, but much to their chagrin in 1660 the king’s son, King Charles II, was restored to the throne. Many people who had been involved in the civil war against King Charles I were granted amnesty, but not everyone – 104 men were specifically excluded from reprieve. Twenty-four of these, including Cromwell, had already died, but their remains were dug up, hanged and beheaded, and, well, had lots of nasty stuff done to them. Continue reading Daniel Axtell, the regicide