Category Archives: Genealogical Writing

Facing death

Deathbed portrait of Elizabeth Royall, attributed to Joseph Badger, ca. 1747. NEHGS Fine Art Collection, photograph by Gavin Ashworth

Unfortunately, over the last month I had to visit a few different funeral homes. On one visit, my husband asked why funeral homes always resembled a house. Knowing a bit about the evolution of how we handle death in America, I explained that it is because a wake or viewing used to take place within the person’s home. Funeral “parlors” or “homes” are intentionally designed to resemble the parlors in homes where we once laid out our dead for visitation.

This question led me to revisit some of my old studies about death in America and how handling the dead went from being a very personal and hands-on experience for the survivors to something that is handled by professionals outside of the home. Continue reading Facing death

As the crow flies

Rand McNally map of St. Clair County, Michigan, 1911. Courtesy of genealogyhound.com

In my mind’s eye there’s always a crow, a silly old crow really. It follows me as I search after forgotten things, and spies out the burial place where my ancestor, Erastus Lee, ought to be – but isn’t.[1] Indifferently, that darn crow watches me, as my mind traverses the Wolverine State landscape of St. Clair County and the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, there, in Wales Township.[2] Like me, the old crow knows that, lost or not, this is where Erastus’s grave surely has to be. True enough, too, the crow knows that Wales Township is a place that neither of us (unless it’s the old crow) will ever get to explore. And, as much as it chagrins me to say, I’ve come to accept that there will always be “those places” in family research that many of us will never get to see. Places remaining only approachable in the mind’s eye – and visited on occasion by that old crow.

My own phantom bird travels there, northeast to Wales Township, revealing peaceful surroundings but few possibilities about the grave of Erastus Lee. Continue reading As the crow flies

Error fatigue

You have undoubtedly seen online exchanges that go something like:

“That genealogical claim is wrong/unproved.”

Reply: “Prove that it is wrong/unproved!”

I first experienced this back in the early days of the Internet when I posted a caution that the royal ancestry attributed to Mayflower passenger Richard Warren was not proved. I was immediately challenged to prove my claim. Continue reading Error fatigue

Genealogical gold

Click on images to expand them.

My great-great-great-great-grandfather, James Luke, emigrated from Birmingham, England in 1816 at the age of 20. I’ve been lucky enough to find a couple of documents that identify his parents as William and Margaret Luke, but I’ve been trying to discover his mother’s maiden name for years.

James was a prominent citizen in both Cambridge and Wilbraham, Massachusetts, so I have been able to find information about him in a number of publications, and learned that he was one of the founding members of the Harvard Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge. Further research revealed that the records of that church are now kept at the library of the Boston University School of Theology. Continue reading Genealogical gold

Block Island revisited

Nathaniel Briggs Paine, aged 87. Photo by Parlow Studio, New Bedford

Writers find inspiration in other writers. As Vita Brevis celebrates its fifth anniversary, I have been inspired by rereading the scope, depth, and variety of the blog’s posts. These essays have also nudged me out of my comfort zone – to share what I hope to accomplish in my leap into the unknown: in this instance, the mysteries of autosomal DNA.

Sometimes our most carefully reasoned genealogical constructions crumble like a house of cards. Few other ancestral haunts have gripped me like Block Island, Rhode Island. Of all places in the Ocean State, it is the most remote for on-site research. To give myself the maximum amount of time in the town vault, I would fly to Block Island from Westerly rather than take the ferry. I spent years combing through land evidence page by page to sort out confused family relationships. In the end, even after publishing two articles, I had to unlink every one of my eighteenth-century Block Island ancestors. Here’s why: Continue reading Block Island revisited

An approaching anniversary

Another anniversary is approaching. In April it will be six years since the first Early New England Families Study Project sketches were published on AmericanAncestors. While many of you have been following the project all these years, it is probably a good time to do a little recapping for newer readers.

The Early New England Family Study Project was conceived as a companion to the Great Migration Study Project and a fitting use for the massive compilation done by Clarence Almon Torrey, published by NEHGS in the four-volume New England Marriages Prior to 1700, which is also available as an AmericanAncestors database. Torrey’s work covers information gleaned from thousands of books, periodicals, and manuscripts in the NEHGS library about couples who lived in New England from 1620 through 1700. The total number of marriages treated by Torrey is estimated to be 37,000! Continue reading An approaching anniversary

‘Our new Eden’

An illustration in The Cruise of the steam yacht North Star… (1854). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Over the holidays, my boyfriend’s father and I delved into his family’s genealogy. John has a rich treasure trove of family documents that have been scanned, including an 1885 narrative of the life of Stephen Thomas Acres, his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. I immediately fell in love with Acres’ florid writing style, and his family story traces an interesting pattern of migration from Ireland to Spain to Gibraltar to Iowa. He begins thusly, “Deeming it my duty to place on record, such incidents of my being as will enable my children to know their lineage and descent, and in accordance with their desire so expressed, I now proceed without ostentation, and in the fear of God, to discharge that duty as truthfully as my memory and my own knowledge will enable me to do so.” Continue reading ‘Our new Eden’

Collective memory

“As the flood itself has receded in Boston’s collective memory, so, too, have the players in this tragedy” – Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide

The Boston Globe, 15 January 1919

As genealogists, we build relationships with the dead. We see them in our minds as we peel back the layers of their lives. We absorb details about the environments where they lived and worked, and whether or not they had any time to play. Sometimes researching is like looking for a needle in a haystack; other times it’s like picking wildflowers in a field. When we have enough evidence, we write the stories of people we never knew. Continue reading Collective memory

A family thicket

When people ask me which DNA test I recommend, I turn around and ask them some questions. If what they are after is taking is an “autosomal DNA test,” I may tell them different reasons to take a test with Ancestry or 23andme (and then usually recommend they also upload their Raw DNA onto GEDMatch, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage to connect with more matches). While I have had many examples of successful connections with the first four sites, I had not any significant breakthroughs with MyHeritage until very recently. Continue reading A family thicket

It’s all in the details

My namesake Alessandro Ferzoco.

In May of 2017 I had the privilege of visiting Italy with my siblings and parents. It was the first time we had all visited Italy together, and we had a full itinerary. Yet as delightful as Rome and Amalfi are, particularly for anyone who loves history, I was most thrilled (unsurprisingly) by our road trips to the countryside, where we visited our ancestral towns.

I could write ad nauseam about the experience – about the unparalleled hospitality of distant cousins and family friends; the bottomless jugs of homemade wine and never-ending courses of local dishes; the ancient, gnarled olive trees and cobblestone streets that glow and delight the eye in the evening sunset. And for the genealogist, there is a distinct benefit to walking in the footsteps of your ancestors – nearly every road will lead to the town hall, where decades, sometime centuries, of vital records sit at your fingertips. Exploring the details of these original records, rather than extracts, certified copies, or indexes, is the subject of this post. Continue reading It’s all in the details