Category Archives: Research Methods

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

A Loyalist!

Grave marker of Daniel Ward (1700-1777). Courtesy of Findagrave.com

As this month will mark the 244th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord (where my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Jason Russell was killed by British troops), I decided to do a search to see how many patriot ancestors I had. I used the “Ancestor Search” on the website of the Daughters of the American Revolution. This does not necessarily identify all patriots, but rather those for whom a descendant has joined that organization, with caveats that not all service may qualify today.

Using this search, I found 23 direct ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War. I also know of at least one more ancestor, Joseph Tourtellotte, who was not listed here, but had a wonderful pension record, bringing my total to 24. Continue reading A Loyalist!

Well played

The last surviving windmill on Nantucket (ca. 1746) is also the oldest operational mill in the United States. It is mentioned in one of Cato Cary’s deeds.

In my very first post for Vita Brevis, I mentioned that I’d learned a wonderful tip from NEHGS staff: many historic Massachusetts land deeds can be browsed free online through Family Search. Since NEHGS serves lots of folks with family roots in Massachusetts, this is a valuable resource for many of this blog’s readers.

Armed with this knowledge, I sat down at my computer expecting to discover family real estate transactions … which I definitely found in spades. However, various other deeds were also recorded that I had not expected to find, including those for ships and even church pews. Then I found another kind of deed that really knocked me for a loop: a deed of manumission. It had never occurred to me that documents freeing slaves might be recorded alongside those for houses and farms. The man receiving manumission even shared a name with the man I wrote about in my last post: Cato, a former slave of John Hancock. Continue reading Well played

Generations and geography

Anna Wassel and her family. Photo courtesy of Brittany Contratto

Recently I had an opportunity to assist someone through a consultation. She was searching for the Lithuanian origins of her great-great-great-grandparents, James and Anna Wassel. The information sent to me prior to the consultation had me hitting my head against the same brick walls that she and her family had experienced, and I was getting nervous that I might not be able to offer much in the way of guidance when we met. However, the morning of the consultation, I took another look at the family and two things jumped out at me that I had overlooked previously – undoubtedly because I didn’t have all my attention on the problem (the hazard of working a genealogical reference desk). Continue reading Generations and geography

What they endured

Detail from the Gallery of Maps. Click on image to expand it

As I prepared for a recent visit to Europe, I conducted some preliminary research, both on the new destinations I would be visiting and on my ancestral patrilineal village, where I would be staying for a few days. Like many readers, I revel in the historical aspects of travel, and I try to make connections to my personal genealogy whenever possible. Understanding the context in which an ancestor lived adds so much more complexity and depth to characters who may otherwise only appear in birth, marriage, and death records. Paying attention to details that are not immediately relevant can often lead to great future discoveries. Continue reading What they endured