Category Archives: Genealogical Writing

Retroactive suffixes

An occasional question I receive relates to two practices used in publications by my longtime friend and colleague, Gary Boyd Roberts, that I would summarize as retroactive suffixes and surnames. The latter is used in many other genealogical compendia, largely in relation to royal genealogy (which I’ll discuss in part two of this post), while the former is perhaps less common, and used more often in identifying Americans after 1620. I would identify Gary as belonging to “Team Present,” in terms of using a modern genealogical naming system for past eras, while Vita Brevis editor Scott Steward would belong to “Team Contemporary” in trying to identify people by the names they used in their lifetimes. I would put myself in “Team Whatever,” usually omitting suffixes entirely, except when their contemporary identification is useful to determine how they might fit genealogically into a family. Continue reading Retroactive suffixes

An introduction to nicknames

Rotundo, Barbara. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (Concord, Mass.) gravestone: Nellie, February 1989. Barbara Rotundo Papers (PH 050). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

As a genealogist, I often get questions from patrons about differences in given names. For example, are Ellen Turner and Nellie Turner the same person? What was her “real” name? What about Ann Coe and Nancy Coe? (The answer, in both cases, is yes, they were the same person.)
Continue reading An introduction to nicknames

In praise of maiden aunts

Sally Leeds. Author’s collection

As most genealogists focus their in-depth research on direct ancestors, I have adopted the term “genealogical orphans” for persons with no living descendants to take an interest in researching them. While we usually document the births of all known children in a family, and sometimes their marriages and deaths, we less frequently go beyond the basics to learn about their lives. We have been encouraged to investigate family, associates, and neighbors (the “FAN club”), but often do so only in search of evidence to document a hard-to-prove family relationship. Yet I have found that these maiden aunts, bachelor uncles, and childless couples often have fascinating stories, and sometimes had profound impact on our ancestors. Continue reading In praise of maiden aunts

ICYMI: A New England love quadrangle

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 29 April 2014.]

In December 1648, Lucy (Winthrop) Downing sent her nephew John2 Winthrop a letter full of family news: her husband, Emmanuel Downing, had been at the birth of John’s baby half-brother, Joshua, the week before, and “I belleeue our cosen Dorithe Simonds is nowe wonne and weded to Mr. Harrison the Virginia minister.” Sounding at once like a modern-day gossip and a character in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Downing also noted that her daughter Lucy would probably soon marry: she “was a little [while ago] goeinge to be maryed to Mr. Eyers sonne Thomas I meane, but he had not yet art enough to carye his [court]ship, so they turnd backe, and nowe wee are apon an earnest motion with Mr. William Norton. The man is verye fayer, but she hath not yet forgotten Mr. Eyers his fresh red [sic] but hath goten some obiections concer[n]inge Mr. Norton, which are nowe sent to be answeered by [William’s brother] Mr. Jhon Norton…”[1] Continue reading ICYMI: A New England love quadrangle

Nostalgia

I recently remarked to Son how it seemed to me that as I age my family history research becomes more like nostalgia, a walk down Memory Lane, and increasingly frequent but random reminiscences. Eschewing the expected age jokes, Son promptly provided me with several columns in the Maine Farmer newspaper written between October 1876 and May 1877 by one “D.C.” and entitled “Random Thoughts and Recollections.” D.C. wrote more than ten columns in the slightly purple style of the times about his memories of people, places, and events, a gold mine of information about places and people in the 1820s and 1830s, Augusta and Hallowell, Maine in particular. Continue reading Nostalgia

A problem in perspective

Culter Kirk. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sometimes one loses perspective on one’s researches, so when I say that the identity of Master James Livingston, a younger son of the 4th Lord Livingston, is a problem for the ages – a quandary for which many await resolution – I may be overstating things a little. Still, he is one of several men in the ancestry of the American Livingston family whose life, and whose marriage(s) and child(ren), has long been a puzzle. Continue reading A problem in perspective

Finding Clifford

Clifford and Alta Dixon

We are often ‘best known’ by the mementos we leave behind. After we’ve passed, an old picture book, pocket knife, glass dish, or a diary may be all that’s left to provide any clue as to who we were in life, or what may have mattered to us. As years go by, and that old picture book gets torn apart, or Cousin Johnnie misplaces the pocket knife and Niece Mary gives the glass dish away at a bake sale, well, there often isn’t much ‘left’ of anyone or even anything left to tell. While we are all so much more than just the sum total of our possessions, it can be a harder story to tell once those pieces may have lost their meaning or become scattered. It’s even more difficult when there weren’t very many to start with. Continue reading Finding Clifford

The language of genealogy

Over the last few months, any number of Vita Brevis posts have pointed out the frustrations of relying on public trees and trying to sort through the “dross of Internet information” that does little but “cause trouble for everyone else.” Those who try very hard to get it right, who quibble over trifles and worry about the minor details are, it seems to me, in the best sense of the word, genealogical pettifoggers.[1]

Accuracy does matter. Chronology matters. Details matter. In fact, the tiniest detail can be the clue that turns a theory on its head or knocks down a brick wall. Details, however minor (and one can certainly make the argument that there are no minor details in genealogy), can also bring a story alive. Continue reading The language of genealogy

Cats and dogs

Courtesy of the Berkshire Eagle

For those of you who are familiar with the Berkshires, you will recognize this statue of a cat and dog spitting at each other as the centerpiece of an iconic fountain in downtown Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The statue sits in the intersection of South and Main Streets and entices travelers to explore beyond the famed Red Lion Inn. The sculpture has had a number of meanings attached to it over the years and has become a piece of Stockbridge history. Continue reading Cats and dogs

Marion’s genes

Marion Sylvia at his farm in Marion, Massachusetts in 1917.

In 1982, when I discovered my mother’s great-grandfather, Azorean immigrant Marion Sylvia (ca. 1847–1924), Mom asked me, “How much Portuguese ancestry do I have?” Marion remains my only identified maternal forebear without any links to the British Isles. Long before DNA analysis, I calculated Mom’s Portuguese ethnicity at 12.5%, with her mother at 25%, and her maternal grandmother, Marion’s daughter, at 50%. Now, we all know these percentages may not match the amount of atDNA after four or five generations. Continue reading Marion’s genes