Category Archives: Research Methods

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 Today’s post focuses attention on another valuable but underutilized research resource: unpublished doctoral dissertations.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

Lemuel Shattuck, visionary

Figure 1

Lemuel Shattuck founded the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 1845 with four of his Boston friends: Charles Ewer, Samuel Gardner Drake, John Wingate Thornton, and William Henry Montague.[1] The new society was incorporated for the “purpose of collecting and preserving the Genealogy and History of early New England families.”[2] In addition, the society solicited donations of books, family registers, Bible records, and newspapers and manuscripts related to the goals of the organization to be preserved at its headquarters in Boston. The Society received approval for incorporation on 18 March 1845 from the General Court of Massachusetts.[3] Continue reading Lemuel Shattuck, visionary

Twilight

Courtesy of Findagrave.com

From our modern perspective, seventeenth-century New England was a strange cultural cosmos: a post-medieval/pre-modern world where metaphysical beliefs, superstition, and fear of the supernatural still prevailed – a world in which people believed that witches were real and that ghosts, “specters,” and spirits from “the invisible world” could directly influence the lives of humans. We look back on that world today with a mixture of amusement and condescension, horror and fascination. Continue reading Twilight

A walk in their footsteps

Sam Carlsen in his Coast Guard uniform, ca. 1940s.

My great-grandfather was born in Wisconsin in 1901, just about a year after his parents and older sisters immigrated from Norway. His father, a sailor who was once “honored by the King of Norway,” settled the family on the shores of Lake Michigan and began a long career with the U.S. Life Saving Service, which became the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915. Though this man, my great-great-grandfather Søren “Sam” Carlsen, died in 1955, long before I was born, he has always been a central figure in the family lore. His portrait is displayed proudly and prominently at my grandpa’s house, and many of my grandpa’s childhood stories feature “Grampa Carlsen” swooping in to save the day. Continue reading A walk in their footsteps