Category Archives: Genealogical Writing

Collective memory

“As the flood itself has receded in Boston’s collective memory, so, too, have the players in this tragedy” – Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide

The Boston Globe, 15 January 1919

As genealogists, we build relationships with the dead. We see them in our minds as we peel back the layers of their lives. We absorb details about the environments where they lived and worked, and whether or not they had any time to play. Sometimes researching is like looking for a needle in a haystack; other times it’s like picking wildflowers in a field. When we have enough evidence, we write the stories of people we never knew. Continue reading Collective memory

A family thicket

When people ask me which DNA test I recommend, I turn around and ask them some questions. If what they are after is taking is an “autosomal DNA test,” I may tell them different reasons to take a test with Ancestry or 23andme (and then usually recommend they also upload their Raw DNA onto GEDMatch, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage to connect with more matches). While I have had many examples of successful connections with the first four sites, I had not any significant breakthroughs with MyHeritage until very recently. Continue reading A family thicket

It’s all in the details

My namesake Alessandro Ferzoco.

In May of 2017 I had the privilege of visiting Italy with my siblings and parents. It was the first time we had all visited Italy together, and we had a full itinerary. Yet as delightful as Rome and Amalfi are, particularly for anyone who loves history, I was most thrilled (unsurprisingly) by our road trips to the countryside, where we visited our ancestral towns.

I could write ad nauseam about the experience – about the unparalleled hospitality of distant cousins and family friends; the bottomless jugs of homemade wine and never-ending courses of local dishes; the ancient, gnarled olive trees and cobblestone streets that glow and delight the eye in the evening sunset. And for the genealogist, there is a distinct benefit to walking in the footsteps of your ancestors – nearly every road will lead to the town hall, where decades, sometime centuries, of vital records sit at your fingertips. Exploring the details of these original records, rather than extracts, certified copies, or indexes, is the subject of this post. Continue reading It’s all in the details

Rules of engagement

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 Rules of engagement

Vita Brevis turns five

Photos by Claire Vail

When I became Editor-in-Chief at NEHGS in June 2013, one of the new initiatives Ryan Woods and I discussed was a blog for the Society. Current and former colleagues worked with me to establish the blog’s purpose and name, and – in time – got me set up on WordPress. (Two years later, when I was on a sabbatical, three current and former colleagues managed the blog in my absence.) So Vita Brevis has been a cooperative venture from the beginning, relying on the energy and commitment of the NEHGS staff and some dedicated outside contributors to produce fresh content. Continue reading Vita Brevis turns five

A broadening education

When I was in school, I was better at English than math, but there were still a few sticky wickets I had to deal with. I could not spell. I missed the first day on “adverbs” and never caught up. I hated reading “essays.”

The “essay” is simply a “short piece of writing on a particular subject,” but as I remember it, we were assigned readings from men like Thoreau, Emerson, and Socrates which mostly just blew over my young teen-aged head. I vowed that whatever I did when I grew up, it would not involve writing essays.

Hmm. Well, when Scott Steward reminded me that we are celebrating the fifth anniversary of Vita Brevis, I was rather startled to realize that I have been writing essays for five years. Continue reading A broadening education

By the numbers

Since the blog launched (unofficially) on 2 January 2014 – with an official birthday of 10 January 2014 – Vita Brevis bloggers have written at least 1,252 posts, of which 1,244 have been published.[1]

The blog has 105 official users, with eleven administrators and 94 authors.[2]

In the blog’s five-year history, Scott Steward has published 260 posts, for about 21% of the total. Alicia Crane Williams comes next, with 175 posts (14%), then Christopher C. Child (82; about 7%). Other prolific bloggers include Zachary Garceau (49), Jeff Record (45), Jan Doerr (44), Penny Stratton (36), and Pamela Athearn Filbert (35). Continue reading By the numbers

Tell me a story

[Editor’s note: Vita Brevis will mark its fifth anniversary on Wednesday. The blog launched with some early posts on 2 January 2014; the official launch followed on 10 January 2014.]

Over the years, my efforts in tracing my family history have morphed from old-fashioned paper research to computer research to concentrating on the stories of my ancestors, whether I knew them personally or not. Family stories are what give life and voice to those who have “moved on.” And how much do you really know about the early lives of your living relatives, especially those with decades of stories to share? Talking to our “elders,” listening to stories of other families, or reading about other researchers’ exploits, techniques, failures, and successes are a few ways to dig out the stories. Reading posts on Vita Brevis is another wonderful resource. Continue reading Tell me a story

Gifts from Genealogy Santa

My Christmas gifts, lying under a simulated scrimshaw ornament of Nantucket’s Pacific Bank.

I’m sure that many of you asked for – and even received – some genealogical resources this holiday season. Hopefully they will be as rewarding as the items Genealogy Santa delivered to me! A few were things that I requested, but a couple were glorious surprises.

In the category of things requested were the latest mystery novel by my distant cousin, Cynthia Riggs, whose house on Martha’s Vineyard I wrote about last June; a very back issue of Historic Nantucket, the magazine of the Nantucket Historical Association; and a book published this year by history professor Everett U. Crosby. Continue reading Gifts from Genealogy Santa

2018: the year in review concluded

In a few days’ time the blog will celebrate its fifth anniversary. Here, to review the year just ended, are some posts from the second half of 2018 demonstrating the range of material published at Vita Brevis.

In July, Meaghan E. H. Siekman wrote about her great-grandfather, the Chicago-born son of Czech immigrants who

spent his lifetime chasing the American dream and preserving a history which was not directly his own, as none of his ancestors ever lived in colonial America. Evidence of the importance of American history in his life can be found in his obituary, which focuses more on his collections [parts of which ended up in the Smithsonian Institution] and preservation work than his career in medicine. Continue reading 2018: the year in review concluded