Category Archives: Research Methods

South Carolina leaders

Montage created in 1876 showing the “Radical Members” of the South Carolina Legislature. (Click on images to expand them.) Courtesy of facinghistory.org

I recently watched comedian Dave Chappelle’s powerful Netflix special 8:46, remarking on the death of George Floyd and several other recent events. During the performance, Chappelle mentioned that President Woodrow Wilson received a delegation of African Americans from South Carolina after a black man was lynched in that state. This delegation was led by the comedian’s great-grandfather, William David Chappelle (1857-1925), born enslaved, the 37th Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Dave Chappelle also mentioned this ancestor’s wife was the woman Dave’s father called out to on his deathbed, and how that memory reminded him of when George Floyd called out to his mother knowing his death was imminent.

I had worked on the genealogy of Dave Chappelle over a decade ago, and biographies of Bishop William David Chappelle appear in Who Was Who and Who’s Who in the Colored Race. Continue reading South Carolina leaders

Some Back Bay houses

121-129 Commonwealth Avenue, ca. 1875, viewed from the steeple of the Brattle Street Church. (The house into which the family moved in 1922 was just around the corner on Dartmouth Street.) Courtesy of the Print Department, Boston Public Library

When my grandmother[1] was a girl, she could walk down the front steps of her parents’ house in Boston and along Commonwealth Avenue into the houses of her paternal grandparents and her father’s sisters nearby. Using the Back Bay Houses database, I can trace the staggered arrivals of her father’s family in Boston; in the process, I find I’m encountering a number of family and contemporary friends.

My great-grandfather[2] seems to have been the first member of the Ayer family to move to Boston, soon after his graduation from Harvard in 1887. Next came his father (my great-great-grandfather) and stepmother, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Ayer of Lowell,[3] who rented 232 Beacon Street in 1899-1900[4] while building their new house at 395 Commonwealth Avenue.[5] The family[6] was occupying the house by the end of 1900, although it appears that work continued for sometime thereafter. Continue reading Some Back Bay houses

Essex County probates

There are three published sources for transcribed and abstracted probate records of early Essex County: Essex Institute of Historical Collections [EIHC], published from 1859 to 1993, which we discussed earlier regarding criminal and civil court recordsEssex
Antiquarian
(1897–1909), a magazine that reprinted many abstracts published in EIHC; and The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts, published in 1916, also based on work first presented in EIHC.[1]

Continue reading Essex County probates

ICYMI: “Clustering” Salem

[Editor’s noteThis blog post originally ran in Vita Brevis on 11 March 2020.]

I have most recently been concentrating on “clustering” research for the Early New England Families Study Project around Watertown, Massachusetts. Six new sketches – John Bigelow, Richard Norcross, William Parry, John Sawin, William Shattuck, and Daniel Smith – have been added to thirteen previously posted sketches of immigrant families in Watertown – NEHGS members can find links to all families in the database here.

While I still have some Watertown families in the pipeline, and there will be plenty more in the future, it is time for a change of scenery, so I am moving north to concentrate on Salem families for the next phase of the project. Continue reading ICYMI: “Clustering” Salem

Using the resources of the JHC

The Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at the New England Historic Genealogical Society (JHC) offers researchers a destination to explore families and institutions from the New England Jewish community. Through our archival collections, library catalog, and digital collections, researchers have access to over 250 collections, 2 million records, 400 books, and over 600,000 searchable digitized documents.

Continue reading Using the resources of the JHC

Pop quiz

Research Problem 1

Courtesy Groton.org

After tracing your family line as far back as possible, you have run into the inevitable brick wall. You should: (a) persevere in your research and hope for an eventual breakthrough; (b) claim that you are a direct lineal descendant of Alexander the Great or King Arthur, acknowledging that your evidence is open to differing interpretations; or (c) give up and accept your failure as a genealogist.

ANSWER: (a), unless you’re like 27 percent of the amateur genealogists posting family trees on the internet, in which case the correct answer is (b). Continue reading Pop quiz

The name’s the same

Click on images to expand them.

There’s something that happens when researching genealogy and family history. It’s actually a lot like a trip to the House of Mirrors or the “Ye Olde Fun House.” It’s one of those things that occur when you’ve examined someone’s life but find there’s something that you still can’t quite resolve. I mean, it’s not exactly a brick wall – as everything else about the subject’s life in question will look “just fine” – “but.” Really, all the pieces of the puzzle go together perfectly … or do they? It seems that there is always one piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit quite right.

So we genealogists dance around the puzzle. For me, I like to use words and phrases like “probably, likely, could-a-been, might-a-been,” and my all time favorite, without a doubt. We might even build a sketch of the person’s life, ever careful not to disturb the tenets of our research, all the while practicing a little bit of the X Files mantra that “the truth is out there.” Continue reading The name’s the same

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’