Category Archives: Research Methods

Lessons in oral history

Grow Hill. Courtesy of Connecticut Day Trips

It was the stuff that dreams are made of. Novice genealogists, my wife and I had traveled from our home in Ohio to rural Windham County, Connecticut, on our first foray into family history field research, in hopes of finding a trace or two of my eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Grow ancestors, four generations of whom had owned a large hilltop farm somewhere in the Pomfret-Hampton border area.

With the aid of a map from an old genealogy, we soon located what appeared to be the original family farm – now a large commercial dairying operation – at the peak of a high elevation along a quiet, two-lane state road. Continue reading Lessons in oral history

Complicated responsibilities

Cover for the 1895 Treasurer’s Report: Scituate, Rhode Island (Providence: J. R. Day Printer, 1895).

Seven hundred thirty-eight pounds of pork, 152 bushels of corn, 65 heads of cabbage, 3 tons of oats, and 60 gallons of cider – and, no, this isn’t a farmer’s market. These items represent just a sampling of the produce sold in 1895 by the town asylum of Scituate, Rhode Island. The whole summary of the institution’s annual revenue and expenses may be found at the North Scituate Public Library’s local history room.

I came across these documents while researching a family living in Scituate. The 1870 federal census showed a traditional family unit living alongside what appeared to be ten strangers. Continue reading Complicated responsibilities

Lost in the census

Bethiah (Phinney) Hall (1795–1884), full-plate ferrotype, ca. 1860.

Recently, as I completed my Census 2020 information online, I wondered how many people like my elderly mother – who has never been online – would bother to complete their questionnaire if they did not have someone to do it for them. Without the personal contact of past censuses, how many people will be missed?

Right after the release of the last two censuses, 1930 and 1940, I asked friends and family recorded in their youth if they would like to see how they appeared. Sometimes what they saw was expected; other times it jogged a long dormant memory: “Oh, I had forgotten that Uncle Henry was living with us at that time.” Nonetheless, we all have our own examples of lost relatives in censuses. Were some of our ancestors truly not recorded? Did they slip through the cracks? Or is it that we just have not looked hard enough? Continue reading Lost in the census

Sturgis – or Sturgeon?

In my study of Sturgis family history, I have found many branches of Sturgis families besides “my” branch, which begins with Edward Sturgis of Charlestown (1635) and Yarmouth (1639.) There are Sturgis (or Sturges) families in Connecticut, Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania.

I began looking into Pennsylvania Sturgis families because of Samuel Davis Sturgis, who was a West Point graduate and Brevet Major-General during the Civil War.[1] I am fairly sure that I am not a direct relation to the famous General, but I would like to learn more about his ancestry. Continue reading Sturgis – or Sturgeon?

Quarantined kids and family history

If you are anything like me, you have spent the last couple weeks at home with little faces staring at you for attention while you try to get work done. Quarantine has proved particularly challenging for parents of school-age and younger children as we added homeschooling to our day jobs, all within the confines of our homes. The mom groups I am a part of have been sharing activity ideas to keep kids engaged and occupied. I realized a lot of them can be adapted with a family history theme to use this time to learn about our families and our history: Continue reading Quarantined kids and family history

‘Decidedly frosty’

Researchers unfamiliar with the history of the New England Historic Genealogical Society may assume women have been members since the organization’s founding in 1845. In fact, for the first fifty years, women were denied membership. In 1894, some members began to propose opening membership to women: “The reaction was haughty and dignified, if not decidedly frosty.” Women quietly persisted in submitting their applications to male members courageous enough to offer women’s names for election. When a woman’s name was read, though, it was greeted by silence. Several men went so far as to argue that “membership was limited to persons,” and women could not join because they were not “persons.” In early 1897 the issue was put to a vote by special ballot and passed, 451 in favor and fifty opposed, with thirteen offering qualified approval. On 2 February 1898, thirty-six women were nominated, twenty-nine accepted membership — and a new chapter began at NEHGS.[1] Continue reading ‘Decidedly frosty’

Catholic Association of Foresters

J. Frank Doherty 1876-1923

For the past year I’ve been focusing more on researching in old newspapers, and have had some amazing luck. Recently, newspapers led me to a collection of records that, while small, could be invaluable to anyone researching Irish ancestors who lived in Boston, Massachusetts.

My great-grandparents, J. Frank Doherty and Harriett Storen, were born in Montreal where they married and had three children. After the death of their oldest child in 1905, the family moved down to Boston where they had six more children, including my grandmother. Frank, who was a self-employed realtor, died suddenly in 1923 at age 47. By all accounts from my grandmother and her siblings, Frank’s death left the family really struggling, and all the children who were old enough to get jobs went to work to help support the family. The children ranged in age from 4 to 19 when he died. Continue reading Catholic Association of Foresters

ICYMI: Assorted populations of the Great Migration

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 24 March 2014.]

While the majority of the immigrants to New England between 1620 and 1640 were Puritans of some variety, a minority were conventional, conforming members of the Church of England, or of no particular religious persuasion at all. For example, West Country fishermen created settlements in Monhegan, Casco, and Richmond Island during the 1620s and early 1630s, accounting for (roughly) one thousand immigrants, or about five percent of the whole Great Migration. Continue reading ICYMI: Assorted populations of the Great Migration

Irish ancestors and the 1918 flu

During St. Patrick’s Day week, when the NEHGS instagram account shared pictures of our Irish ancestors, I shared the picture at left of my great-great-grandfather Thomas Nelson Kelly (1853–1943) of Philadelphia. His parents, Joseph Kelly and Rebecca Nelson, both emigrated from Ireland in the 1840s and met and married in Philadelphia in 1850. Joseph and Rebecca are my only ancestors who arrived in the United States after 1776. I still do not know where in Ireland they came from (some family have said Belfast, some have said Donegal): I’m still searching!

However, my Kelly ancestors were Protestants, and known as “Orange Irish.” Joseph and Rebecca married at the Scots Presbyterian Church and their children were baptized Episcopalian. Continue reading Irish ancestors and the 1918 flu

A colonial goldmine

Sarah Fayerweather cookbook. Images courtesy of Colonial North America at Harvard Library

Last year when I wrote about zinc headstones for Vita Brevis, I mentioned that after seeing my very first example of “white bronze,” I began seeing them regularly in various cemeteries. What were the odds, I asked? Well, it turns out that once we have been made aware of something, that something pops up frequently because our brains are unconsciously in search of another example. It’s called frequency illusion.

Which brings me to the recent daylong seminar at NEHGS – “Seventeenth-Century English Research with the Society of Genealogists UK” – that I had the pleasure of attending. Continue reading A colonial goldmine