Category Archives: Genealogical Writing

ICYMI: “Clustering” Salem

[Editor’s noteThis blog post originally ran in Vita Brevis on 11 March 2020.]

I have most recently been concentrating on “clustering” research for the Early New England Families Study Project around Watertown, Massachusetts. Six new sketches – John Bigelow, Richard Norcross, William Parry, John Sawin, William Shattuck, and Daniel Smith – have been added to thirteen previously posted sketches of immigrant families in Watertown – NEHGS members can find links to all families in the database here.

While I still have some Watertown families in the pipeline, and there will be plenty more in the future, it is time for a change of scenery, so I am moving north to concentrate on Salem families for the next phase of the project. Continue reading ICYMI: “Clustering” Salem

John Farmer: Contributions to American Genealogy

Portrait of John Farmer, New Hampshire Historical Society

Founded in 1845, the New England Historic Genealogical Society is famous for being the first genealogical society in the United States. As we mark our 175th anniversary, we should reflect on the historical context in which the founders established NEHGS, and the developments in genealogical thinking prior to 1845.

One man associated with this new era of American genealogy was John Farmer. He has been called “the founder of systematic genealogy in America”[1] and “the most distinguished genealogist and antiquary of this country.”[2]

Continue reading John Farmer: Contributions to American Genealogy

Pop quiz

Research Problem 1

Courtesy Groton.org

After tracing your family line as far back as possible, you have run into the inevitable brick wall. You should: (a) persevere in your research and hope for an eventual breakthrough; (b) claim that you are a direct lineal descendant of Alexander the Great or King Arthur, acknowledging that your evidence is open to differing interpretations; or (c) give up and accept your failure as a genealogist.

ANSWER: (a), unless you’re like 27 percent of the amateur genealogists posting family trees on the internet, in which case the correct answer is (b). Continue reading Pop quiz

The name’s the same

Click on images to expand them.

There’s something that happens when researching genealogy and family history. It’s actually a lot like a trip to the House of Mirrors or the “Ye Olde Fun House.” It’s one of those things that occur when you’ve examined someone’s life but find there’s something that you still can’t quite resolve. I mean, it’s not exactly a brick wall – as everything else about the subject’s life in question will look “just fine” – “but.” Really, all the pieces of the puzzle go together perfectly … or do they? It seems that there is always one piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit quite right.

So we genealogists dance around the puzzle. For me, I like to use words and phrases like “probably, likely, could-a-been, might-a-been,” and my all time favorite, without a doubt. We might even build a sketch of the person’s life, ever careful not to disturb the tenets of our research, all the while practicing a little bit of the X Files mantra that “the truth is out there.” Continue reading The name’s the same

ICYMI: ‘If space allows’

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 5 January 2017.]

Thanks to a timely message alerting me to a collection of letters for sale at eBay, I recently acquired one side of the genealogical correspondence between Regina Shober Gray[1] and the Rev. Richard Manning Chipman, author of The Chipman Lineage (1872). Mrs. Gray, so expansive in some areas of her diary, is comparatively terse with regard to the beginning of the correspondence: Continue reading ICYMI: ‘If space allows’

Magic of the attic

The Whorfs’ house in Provincetown.

While admiring April’s Super Pink Moon – and contemplating what the man up there must be thinking as he looks down on Earth’s current woes – the notion of the slingshot effect popped into my head. As someone who, as a kid, took great fascination in the Apollo program, I remember this term being used, described as a maneuver using gravity to change the speed or direction of the spacecraft. That’s as far as I will venture into the science of it, lest I earn the ridicule of all the scientists out there, but the term seemed an apt metaphor for my latest genealogical wanderings. We’ve all had those moments. We are on our way somewhere and then, in a sudden shift in trajectory, we are flung in another direction. Continue reading Magic of the attic

Bright Legacy

John Quincy Adams by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of NARA

When I read a news article about congressional testimony from Dr. Rick Bright, my mind immediately went to genealogy, thinking of my colonial ancestor Henry Bright of Watertown, and one of his genealogist descendants, Jonathan Brown Bright, an early member of NEHGS, who set up a rather specific scholarship for students attending Harvard College.

When I worked in Research Services from 1997 to 2002, we would get occasional requests on ancestry-based scholarships. I learned that Harvard University has a small number of these scholarships, listed here. The majority of these are very specific; probably the most broad are for descendants of Massachusetts Bay Governor Thomas Dudley (1576-1653) and New Haven Colony settler Robert Pennoyer, the last one established in 1670 by Robert’s brother William. Continue reading Bright Legacy

A family treasure

The Parker Richardson house in Methuen. All images courtesy R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

Several years ago, long before the online catalogue, I spent time going through the NEHGS card catalogue looking for materials related to my Richardson ancestors. I came across the card for a manuscript compiled by William S. Richardson. As it turned out, he was related: he’s my second cousin four times removed. We descend from William Richardson of Newbury, Massachusetts, through his great-grandson, Parker Richardson, Sr. Continue reading A family treasure

In praise of dissertations

Harvard’s Widener Library. Courtesy of Harvard Magazine

In a previous Vita Brevis post, I sang the praises of tax lists as useful sources of information for family history research. Today’s post focuses attention on another valuable but underutilized research resource: unpublished doctoral dissertations.

Since the 1960s, Ph.D. candidates at U.S. universities have written a surprisingly large number of dissertations on the histories of individual American towns, ranging from the early settlements of colonial New England and other regions to nineteenth-century midwestern farming communities. Continue reading In praise of dissertations

Mayflower kin: Part Two

A few months ago, I wrote a post on the Mayflower descents of Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul and The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon announcer Steve Higgins. Fairly soon after that post, I got an interesting e-mail from Paula Petry of New Mexico, whose son Ben Petry played Jake Pinkman, brother of Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman, on Breaking Bad. She let me know that her son Ben, through her husband’s ancestry, was also a Mayflower descendant, and that a few months prior, she had done done some genealogical research and connected back with Mayflower passengers Stephen Hopkins and his daughter Constance, William and Mary Brewster, and Thomas Rogers and his son Joseph. Continue reading Mayflower kin: Part Two