Category Archives: Genealogical Writing

Finding Eddie

One of the biggest challenges in my family tree has been discovering information about my maternal great-grandfather, Eddie Gail. I had no information on his parents, and I don’t think he had any siblings. I knew he was a jewelry engraver in New York City and married my great-grandmother Mollie Siegel. He was an immigrant, but my family wasn’t sure which country he was from. I met him on his 100th birthday – I wish now I had asked him questions before he passed away at 102, particularly about his parents. Continue reading Finding Eddie

Title trouble

Punch cartoon from 1917. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The birth of Queen Elizabeth II’s eighth great-grandchild – the first child of HRH Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex,[1] and the former Meghan Markle – offers a 2019 gloss on names and titles in the British royal family.

During the First World War, the rulers of Germany and Great Britain were first cousins – and King George V of Great Britain had no agreed-upon surname. Whatever the family name was, it was German. This situation led to a wholesale renaming of the royal family (as the House of Windsor) and the ceding of assorted German titles for equivalents in the British peerage system. Continue reading Title trouble

The Lord Cluster

Time to break out the ginger ale. Four new Early New England Families Study Project sketches are ready to be posted. This is the “Lord Cluster” that I have talked about before. They are the first sketches in my “new” system of working on more than one family at a time, and I promised to report back about how this clustering thing is working out.

The Lord Cluster proved to be exceptionally challenging considering that it involved one woman, three of her four husbands, their other four wives and a combined total of 25 children.  The advantage of working on extended families, as expected, is being able to use common sources. Continue reading The Lord Cluster

The long way around

My ancestors are like everyone else’s ancestors, I suspect: entertaining, frustrating, sometimes obstinately invisible, always playing hide and seek, changing our perspectives and perceptions of them and of ourselves. They leave us their legacies and properties, perhaps confident that we will care for them as they themselves would without considering that we might develop other plans. Continue reading The long way around

Well played

The last surviving windmill on Nantucket (ca. 1746) is also the oldest operational mill in the United States. It is mentioned in one of Cato Cary’s deeds.

In my very first post for Vita Brevis, I mentioned that I’d learned a wonderful tip from NEHGS staff: many historic Massachusetts land deeds can be browsed free online through Family Search. Since NEHGS serves lots of folks with family roots in Massachusetts, this is a valuable resource for many of this blog’s readers.

Armed with this knowledge, I sat down at my computer expecting to discover family real estate transactions … which I definitely found in spades. However, various other deeds were also recorded that I had not expected to find, including those for ships and even church pews. Then I found another kind of deed that really knocked me for a loop: a deed of manumission. It had never occurred to me that documents freeing slaves might be recorded alongside those for houses and farms. The man receiving manumission even shared a name with the man I wrote about in my last post: Cato, a former slave of John Hancock. Continue reading Well played

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