Category Archives: Research Methods

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

Enduring mysteries

Ida Mary Way, age 3-4, ca. 1866, Berkeley County, West Virginia.

My first visit to NEHGS was with a now-deceased friend and former coworker and her husband in a February in the mid-1980s. This was also my first visit to New England. We drove up for a genealogy-related purpose: Sally was picking up a melodeon, a reed organ, from a cousin of hers in Dedham. While in the Boston area, we went downtown, ate at Durgin Park, visited Goodspeed’s Book Shop, and, of course, went to NEHGS for a few hours. It is a far different place now than it was 35 or so years ago. I still remember some of the look of the place, especially where the microfilm used to be on the level between the two of the floors, along with most of the rest of the public areas. Continue reading Enduring mysteries

‘From whence emigrated’

A page from the Davis article.

Census records are obviously an essential resource for genealogical research. Until recently, my understanding was that the first U.S. census to provide a place of origin was the 1850 census. Beginning in 1850, the census began to include the names of all family members, ages, and place of birth, among other information. This contrasted with earlier census records that only provided the name of head of household and a broad age range for each family member.  However, while doing some recent case work on a Snow line in Hancock County, Maine around 1800, I came across an article by Walter Goodwin Davis published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1951. In this article, entitled “Part of Hancock County, Maine in 1800,” Davis called attention to the 1800 census for Hancock and Kennebec Counties (at that time part of Massachusetts) which actually had a column labeled, “from whence emigrated.”[1] Continue reading ‘From whence emigrated’

The General Society

“Howland Overboard,” courtesy of mikehaywoodart.co.uk.

Well, there’s one thing this pandemic isn’t going to do, and that’s dampen my (well-quarantined) spirits for the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower. From perusing the pages of a Silver Book[1] to taking advantage of new on-line resources (at NEHGS and elsewhere), well, let’s just say it’s a really cool time to be a Hopkins or a Howland. There are so many advances being made to the study of Mayflower ancestry that, heck, for me it’s a lot like Must See TV.[2] Though I’ve got to tell you, the best part about “Mayflower 2020” – and I do mean the very best part – is in teaching my granddaughters about our pilgrim ancestors, and the reasons behind that voyage of so long ago. Continue reading The General Society

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

The better part of valor

Courtesy of forgottenoperasingers.blogspot.com.

I grew up surrounded by my father’s family, but at something of a distance. Looking back on it, I trace my parents’ incuriosity about these relatives – generally described as “Oh, he’s a cousin … somehow” – to my grandfather’s self-protective stance when he married into the sprawling Ayer family: he focused on his own friends (and a handful of his relatives) while maintaining a cool remove from his in-laws. (The one exception was his wife’s uncle, General George S. Patton Jr., a near neighbor and a man it was hard to ignore.)

So it was something of a surprise one summer’s day, out sailing with my father and a friend, for my father to point out a house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean as belonging to “our kooky cousin the Countess.” Even as a child, a keen reader of histories and romances, the word Countess – applied to a resident of Essex County, Massachusetts – piqued my interest; and I was still of an age where adult foibles (particularly those noticed by other grown-ups) were fascinating glimpses into adult life. Continue reading The better part of valor

Lucky Essex County

I have always suspected that people with ancestors in Essex County, Massachusetts, do not know how lucky they are. I used to enviously wander among the stacks of published Essex County records at the NEHGS library – probates, court, town, church, deeds. Wow, Essex County has it all.

At the core of this treasure trove was the Essex Institute in Salem, which between 1859 and 1993 published 130 volumes of the Essex Institute Historical Collections [EIHC] – but the material in each volume varies widely from issue to issue resulting in information from the same record sets being spread among many years of issues. Continue reading Lucky Essex County

In praise of tax lists

Courtesy of NARA

One of my personal “Great Moments in Family History Research” occurred several years ago in the town hall of Pomfret, Connecticut. I was immersed in a volume of early Pomfret land records at a small table set aside for researchers, when I happened to ask a former town clerk in passing whether any of the town’s early tax lists had survived. Without a word, she disappeared into the town hall’s records vault and emerged carrying a large cardboard box filled with original copies of eighteenth-century local tax lists.

I hadn’t really worked with tax lists before, but I knew that they were supposed to be a useful source of information for family history research. From an early date, American towns large and small annually assessed the value of their residents’ property holdings for tax purposes. Continue reading In praise of tax lists

Plagues are personal

Baptismal record for Laers, son of Truels Laersen, living at Bruk 4 of Broe, from the Kirkebok for Rennesøy Palm Sunday 24 March 1771.

While I was researching and writing “The Early Years” segment of the book I have been writing about my great-great-great-grandfather Nils Trulsen Bru, I needed to look at his family of origin. What could be learned about his parents and siblings which might shed light on the course his life followed?

I had previously recorded data about his parents and the names and dates for his sister Malena and for two brothers, both named Lars. I knew that the first “Lars” died as a baby and that it was fairly common practice in those days to name a later child after one which had been lost. In fairness, I had never paid much attention to the death of the older Lars, who was baptized 24 March 1771 and buried later that year (on 10 November). Continue reading Plagues are personal

Using the library from home

Do you want to use the resources of the American Ancestors and NEHGS Library from home? The Library’s Collection Services team is working hard to bring our collections to you. How are we doing this? We are adding links daily in our library catalog to digital copies of materials, we are enhancing records with more information and subject headings to make searching for your family more effective, and we are preparing digital versions of unique library holdings to add to our Digital Library. There are now close to 15,000 links to digital versions of items that you can access. These links exist thanks to the efforts of the staff and our dedicated volunteers who assist us with this task and help you use the library from home. Continue reading Using the library from home