Category Archives: Genealogical Writing

Stories in stone

When the genealogy bug hits, one of the earliest field trips a budding genealogist makes is to a cemetery. Cemeteries are rich in history. The grave marker inscriptions reveal our ancestor’s death date, and perhaps age at death or date of birth. If we are fortunate, we also learn the names of spouses, maiden names, and names of children in a cemetery.

But how many of us pay attention to the grave markers themselves? There are substantial differences in the markers of the colonial period and the stones of later centuries. Continue reading Stories in stone

Research strategies for 2021

E. H. Glidden’s Wendell Mansions in Washington, D.C.

A new year offers a new chance to look at old problems with a fresh eye – and to consider fresh methods for breaking through well-established brick walls. Here is a chance to put the word out: What are your favorite approaches to beginning new research or to resolving long-standing problems?

As the editor at Vita Brevis, it is my job to write up my own research successes (and failures), and to edit the similar – but invariably different – accounts of travails and victories from the blog’s 100+ contributors. Over the years I have recommended a variety of hints and how-tos, starting with pointers on how best to utilize Google searches. Continue reading Research strategies for 2021

ICYMI: Rules of engagement

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 18 January 2019.]

Like Alicia Crane Williams, I have been inspired by the fifth anniversary of Vita Brevis to think about the writing of essays. When I first began contributing to this blog, I wasn’t sure if I really had anything to say – and, if I did, whether I could say it within the allotted word count.

As it turned out, I have come to relish the discipline of writing to the suggested 400- to 500-word count. I now recommend it to anyone who wants to get started in family history writing: pick some aspect of your family history and write 400–500 words on the topic. It’s only about a page to a page and a half of text. Continue reading ICYMI: Rules of engagement

Parallel Patricks

Three generations, 1937: Patrick Dwyer, grandson Francis Dwyer (my father), son Michael F. Dwyer. My grandmother captioned this one “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

My father’s Irish-born grandfathers, Patrick Dwyer of Newport, Rhode Island, and Patrick Cassidy of Fall River, Massachusetts, had much in common besides their first names. They left behind parents, emigrated in their early twenties, arrived in New York within a year of one another, quickly became United States citizens, joined fraternal organizations, and purchased homes. Their exact birthdates are approximated because although baptismal records have been found for other siblings, records for the two Patricks fall in the gaps of Catholic registers. And in another coincidence, they were married by brother Roman Catholic priests, Thomas and Philip Grace.[1]

Patrick Cassidy, ca. 1885

Paternal grandfather Patrick Martin [middle name added later] Dwyer (ca. 1862–1945), a native of Dreenauliff, County Kerry, had a lifetime job as a blacksmith with the New England Steamship Company in Newport. Past 80, he died from injuries sustained from crossing a busy street without looking. By contrast, maternal grandfather Patrick Cassidy (ca. 1862–1891), a native of Cloonierin, County Mayo, dead at 29, supports the chilling statistic that about one-fifth of Irishmen died in their prime, usually from work-related accidents. Continue reading Parallel Patricks

Not a gangster in the bunch

Recently, I wrote about the search for my great-great-great-aunt Minnie (Hickok) Wilcox, and the rewards and pitfalls of what I like to call those Delayed Messages from “beyond.” While I was happy to put the mystery of Minnie to rest (and to collaborate with my new almost-a cousin-in-law Tom), the rest of my family didn’t seem all that enthused to learn the tale and final resting place of Aunt Minnie.[1] Heck, even my clan’s most ardent family history aficionados seemed numb to the small cache of findings about Minnie. The only thing I can say here is that I’m hopeful that their nonchalance about Minnie was just in deference to (and disapproval of) her curmudgeon of a husband, Horace G. “Billy” Wilcox. My great-great-great-uncle Billy probably should have been a 1920s-style “poster husband” for spousal abuse. This isn’t to say that I didn’t hear from “da folks” with regard to Tom’s and my discoveries about Minnie (or Billy). Only to say that by and large I heard from those polite branches, and they for the most part, are distant from ye olde trunk. Continue reading Not a gangster in the bunch

Evaluating DNA matches: Part Two

Catedral Santa Ana in San Francisco de Macoris. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

My last post discussed how corresponding with autosomal matches may add additional ancestors to your research when family names or places have been forgotten. This post builds on that idea with how you might be able to assist others in adding ancestors to their family tree.

Responding to messages from autosomal matches can have their frustrations. I manage over sixty accounts and frequently the messages I receive do not indicate which account they match. Frequently the amount of shared DNA is simply too small for me to be able to provide any meaningful assistance. (I’ll respond as best I can.) Continue reading Evaluating DNA matches: Part Two

Evaluating DNA matches: Part One

Last November, I participated in an online panel discussion – Discussing DNA: Finding Unexpected Results – with authors Libby Copeland and Bill Griffeth, talking about some of the ramifications of genetic surprises that have come about from commercial DNA testing. I probably learn about these more than others, given my profession, and my own family is no exception.[1] However, your autosomal DNA matches also have the ability to find genealogical connections when someone’s recent family history has been lost, perhaps owing to family members dying young and later generations not learning of certain details to help find their ancestors in available records. These tests can sometimes be a time-saving genealogical shortcut in such cases. Continue reading Evaluating DNA matches: Part One

2020: the year in review concluded

Detail of Leiden map, ca. 1600, a hand-colored engraving created by Pieter Bast, showing the Pieterskerk and surrounding area. Courtesy of Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken (Heritage Leiden and Region)

[Author’s note: Part One appears here.]

In July, Tamura Jones collated the references to important dates in the Mayflower’s journey to New England to sort out when the Julian calendar is meant and when the Gregorian calendar is used. In the process, he pointed out that 31 July 2020 was the four hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrims’ departure from Leiden:

“The Mayflower Pilgrims left Leiden on 21 July 1620 of the Julian calendar. Commemorating that on 21 July 2020 of the Gregorian calendar makes no sense. You just cannot mix and match dates and calendars like that.

“There are two obvious candidate dates for the quadricentennial. If we were still using the Julian calendar, we would surely commemorate the departure on 21 July 2020 of the Julian calendar. Continue reading 2020: the year in review concluded

2020: the year in review

Plymouth Harbor. Photo courtesy of James Heffernan

As we reach the end of this extraordinary year – one marked by titanic public stresses and private losses – it is time to review a few of the blog posts that appeared in Vita Brevis in 2020. Most posts, of course, concerned genealogical pointers and results, but some addressed the current moment, when so much of our time was spent solitary and in front of a computer screen.

Of course, at the start of 2020 the blog – and NEHGS – focused on twin anniversaries: the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, in 1620, and the 175th birthday of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, in 1845. Continue reading 2020: the year in review

Finding confirming information

Researching someone with a common name can be challenging. Sometimes you will find too many records, and without more identifying information it can be almost impossible to determine which is the correct record. Or, if you do find a promising record, how do you know if it is for the person being researched or someone else with the same name? To overcome these problems, you need to find enough information to come to a solid conclusion.

I had this problem recently while researching Charles McDermott, who lived in New York City. I found a possible naturalization record for Charles in 1896. The record showed this Charles was about the right age and had immigrated around the right year. Continue reading Finding confirming information