Category Archives: Research Methods

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

Ease of use

In my work on the current “Watertown Cluster” for the Early New England Families Study Project, I am getting a heavy refresher course in the records of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. In the olden days, I would get on the Green Line and go to the Middlesex County Court House in Cambridge to access probate records. Today, I find online access is both a blessing and a curse.

AmericanAncestors.org has images of Middlesex County probate files, but in my search on William Parry/Perry of Watertown, I found that the image of his original will from these files is indecipherable (to me, at least).[1] In such cases, the next step is to access the copy book versions of the records, images of which are accessible on FamilySearch.org.[2] Continue reading Ease of use

Genealogical instincts

Over time and practice a family historian develops an instinct for when a recorded fact does not make sense. The following examples may serve as illustrations of genealogy as more art than science.

Thirty-seven years ago, my uncle-by-marriage, Bill Shea, made an ancestral pilgrimage to Ireland in pursuit of his County Cork great-grandparents, Dennis Shea and Eva Bard. He did not find them. Later I commented to Bill that Eva Bard was not an Irish name and seemed an unlikely match with Dennis Shea in Catholic Ireland during the last third of the nineteenth century. “How do you know her name was Eva Bard?” He replied, “That’s the name of the mother on grandfather’s death certificate.” Continue reading Genealogical instincts

Passing the torch

Portland’s current mayor, Ted Wheeler, poses with our former principal. During senior year, Ted served as class president and I as class historian, so I guess we both ran true to form!

I recently attended a gala celebrating the 150th anniversary of my high school in Portland, Oregon. When I was a student there, and even at its 125th anniversary, Lincoln was billed as the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi. However, it turns out that Lowell High School in San Francisco (presumed to be private because it’s open to only a few select students, like Boston Latin) was actually the first. Curiously enough, both schools use the colors red and white; they share the cardinal as mascot. This coincidence is even stranger when one considers that zero cardinals live on the West Coast! Continue reading Passing the torch

Popham’s promise

The John Hunt map. Courtesy of canadianhistoryworkshop at WordPress

When I was a child, my mother and grandmother enjoyed taking me and my siblings to Fort Popham and Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg, Maine. We loved exploring the Civil War-era fort, combing the beach for sea glass and shells, and ending the day with a visit to a candy shop along the way home for glittery rock candy on a stick. As a child, the 100+-year-old Fort Popham appeared to be ANCIENT. But lying-in-wait several hundred feet away was the long-forgotten and soon-to-be-rediscovered 412-year-old Popham Colony of 1607. Continue reading Popham’s promise

Dom Vitale’s war

Some of Dom Vitale’s fellow soldiers.

Last year, while going through boxes of old photos at my dad’s house, we came across a plastic bag containing hundreds of photos taken by my great-uncle Dominic Vitale during the Second World War. The photos were curled and disorganized, but on the backs of many of the photos Uncle Dom had written the names of his buddies who were in the photos, as well as dates, locations, and the names of their hometowns. I took the photos home with me, hoping to find a way to organize them electronically and eventually find relatives of his army buddies who would appreciate seeing them. Continue reading Dom Vitale’s war

The census taker missed

How many times have we pored over a census sheet desperately seeking our ancestors only to reluctantly conclude that the census enumerator must have missed a house? Or how often have we tried variant spellings, first name searches, and wild cards with a search engine attempting to wring a census record out of cyberspace? Well, sometimes the census enumerator really did miss dwellings and occasionally a whole block of dwellings. Continue reading The census taker missed

Elusive sources

From time to time while researching someone’s family history, I incidentally come across a piece of information that catches my attention or leaves me intrigued. Recently I found myself in this situation while researching a family in the town of Lee, Oneida County, New York. As I often do, I searched local histories for this area of New York State to try and gather more clues for further research.

Our County and its People: A Descriptive Work on Oneida County, New York, edited by Daniel E. Wager, mentions a Colonel Alpheus Wheelock and his wife Rachel. This source claimed that Rachel was actually “a famous female physician.”[1] However, a search of the rest of this source showed no additional information about Rachel. This stuck with me and I sought to find more information about Colonel Wheelock’s “famous” wife. Continue reading Elusive sources

Digging deep

I have found over the years that most family historians are so intent on pushing back to the next generation that they often do not stop to see what their family tree is telling them about the generation they just identified. Additionally, with the advent of “type in a name” research, many family historians are content to find the record and move on to the next record, or the next suggested record, without ever stopping to ask why or how their ancestors ended up recorded in a particular document. After all, the records that genealogists use to trace the family connections were not created with genealogical research in mind. Family historians have found ways to pull family information out of vital records, military draft cards, census records, passenger ship lists, and more to aid them in tracing their family back through the generations. Continue reading Digging deep

Mapping the Great Migration

In early 2015 I had just completed work on The Great Migration Directory: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1640, with abbreviated entries for each known head of household or isolated individual participant in the Great Migration. The result was an alphabetical listing of about 5,700 families or individuals. Each entry included last name, first name, English origin, year of migration, first residence in New England, and a brief listing of the best primary and secondary sources available for each. For about 1,800 of the entries, the English origin (defined as the last known residence in England before migration) was known. Continue reading Mapping the Great Migration