Category Archives: Genealogical Writing

In the beginning

Shortly after the founding of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 1845, the first issue of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register was published. The Register first appeared in January 1847 and was the visionary work of the Society’s first president, Charles Ewer. Mr. Ewer envisioned a society made up of hundreds of members, offering a physical library to house thousands of volumes of books, where a publishing program would expand upon the work of John Farmer’s Genealogical Register.

Mr. Ewer’s goal was to create a quarterly journal of history and genealogy that “would give members of the Society a further vehicle for research, discussion, and writing about New England’s Puritan fathers as well as fill a deficiency in historical literature by providing information on families.”[1] Additionally, he wanted to rescue records that were being destroyed in public offices and present them as transcribed and printed resources for future research.[2] Continue reading In the beginning

The Society’s first member: Lucius Robinson Paige

In November of 1844, five men “organized themselves into a society for historical and genealogical research” in Boston, Massachusetts.[1] The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) was incorporated the following March. Prior to the society’s incorporation, several additional members were elected, the first being the Reverend Lucius Robinson Paige on 21 January 1845.[2] At the time of his death on 2 September 1896, he was the oldest member of NEHGS.[3] While the distinction of being the first member of NEHGS is noteworthy, his accomplishments during his lifetime are also worth a closer look. Continue reading The Society’s first member: Lucius Robinson Paige

College records

Harvard 1921 and Columbia 1873

In the books I have written (or co-authored) in the last twenty years or so – on the Thorndike, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, and Winthrop families – I have usually noted the academic histories of family members as well as the more usual genealogical data. I’m occasionally asked why, and until recently I didn’t really have an answer.

While I generally answered that college and university records could help flesh out a sparse biographical narrative for someone treated in one of these books, I would now add that, often, they help keep the genealogist honest. After all, someone born in 1940 wouldn’t be likely to graduate from college in 1954, while a late graduation date begs further study. At the very least, a focus on filling in this area helps distinguish Charles Smith from Chad Smith – not to mention Charles Chad Smith! Continue reading College records

Mayflower trolls

Internet trolls are people who lurk on social media and generally cause trouble for everybody else. I recently found a list of the ten types of internet trolls, and suspect I probably qualify under No. 5, “The Show-Off, Know-it-All Or Blabbermouth Troll.” Or at least that is how I feel whenever I chime in on one of the Mayflower/Alden-related Facebook pages or the like. It becomes my job to deflate the balloons of some of these wonderful newly-found Mayflower descendants, who have, most unfortunately, inadvertently gathered and believed all the dross of Internet information about their ancestors. Continue reading Mayflower trolls

Four hundred years local

Plymouth Harbor at dusk.

For whatever reason, my grandmother’s ancestors stayed put. They ignored the call to go west (“young man!”) or to secure the nation’s manifest destiny. Maybe they had political objections and instead manifested disdain for American imperialism and conquest. Maybe they felt comfortable where they were, and bred wanderlust right out of the gene pool. Wasn’t it enough that many of their ancestors had traveled thousands of miles to get to Plymouth in the first place? Plympton is west; Marshfield and Kingston are north; and that is just about as far as they went.

And here is the humble brag: because my grandmother’s ancestors stayed put, and let’s face it, married their extended relatives (folding the family tree in on itself numerous times), I can prove descent from many Mayflower passengers, many times over. Continue reading Four hundred years local

Whistle in the wind

Pennell manuscript boxes at the Maine Historical Society library.

Much to my chagrin, google Thomas Pennell + Pennellville and this excerpt of a Wikipedia article still comes up: “Pennellville was settled by Thomas Pennell II (1720–1770), who arrived in 1760 at the age of 40. His father, Thomas (1689–1723), had emigrated from Jersey (in the Channel Islands) around 1708. He originally settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He married Sarah Durrell, and sired two sons and two daughters.” Continue reading Whistle in the wind

2019: the year in review

In January 2019, Vita Brevis marked its fifth anniversary with a series of posts, among them one on the blog “By the numbers.” After listing a number of statistics about the blog to that point, I made the following comments:

[But] Vita Brevis is more than the numbers, the percentages, the ongoing series. It is meant to educate; it is meant to entertain. Like P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, it aims to guide its readership – gently, with carrots, not sticks – to the right path, toward genealogical breakthroughs. How? By breaking down the thought processes that successful genealogists use to undertake fresh research, building upon previous work when assessing a new genealogical problem. Continue reading 2019: the year in review

Christmas for the horses

Photos courtesy of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

The other night I tuned into one of my favorite programs, the always interesting and informative American Experience. I’ve been a devotee for most of the 30 years that the series has been produced. Taken as a whole, the series reminds me of one of those exquisite, perfectly-put-together album quilts of yesteryear, made by many hands, each block of eye-catching fabric elaborately designed, intricately sewn, and an expression and remembrance of the world as it was. Continue reading Christmas for the horses

Provincetown and the Boston Post canes

Having been occupied with a project these last few months, not only have I been away from Vita Brevis for far too long, but I’ve allowed issues of the Weekly Genealogist to pile up in my in box. In truth, I do open them each week to add my vote to the survey, but until the other day I had not had the opportunity to read them start to finish. While each issue is always brimming with interesting things, I particularly enjoy the Stories of Interest. And so, as I binged on my backlog of six weeks, a story from October 2 about the town of Ashland, Massachusetts recovering its long lost Boston Post cane caught my eye. Continue reading Provincetown and the Boston Post canes

Royal Livingstons

While working on the various connections of the Livingston family in Scotland, I had a vague recollection that I had encountered multiple Livingstons in the ancestry of the late Diana, Princess of Wales; several years ago I edited a book on her forebears,[1] and I pictured several lines from which to choose. The same, in a sense, must be true for the Prince of Wales, whose ancestry was covered so fully in Gerald Paget’s 1977 work.[2]

Well, yes and no. I suspect the name I sought was the Saltonstall family in the Princess’s ancestry – a family about whom I have written a book![3] The Saltonstalls appear with some frequency in The Ancestry of Diana, Princess of Wales, as we were careful to note the families in her ancestry with American connections. Continue reading Royal Livingstons