Category Archives: Technology

The Jeffers Engine

The Jeffers Engine sits in the basement of Station 2 of the Woonsocket Fire Department, covered in dust and surrounded by workout equipment. Built by William Jeffers of Pawtucket, pulled first by hand, then by horse, and now missing its pump, the first steam fire engine the department purchased in 1872 is a far cry from the massive engines in the garage above.[1] Something in the large red wheels and the big dull water drum shares their spirit, though. It too once raced through the streets of Woonsocket towards scenes of danger, carrying fire fighters just as determined to save lives and livelihoods as those who serve today. Continue reading The Jeffers Engine

White bronze

During a walk in the historic cemetery in my town, I spied a headstone perched at the edge of one of the steep terraced slopes. It caught my attention not only because it seemed ready to topple over the edge, but also because it was different: it appeared to glow with a bluish color in the spring sunlight. With a kind of eagerness, I suspected that it might be one of the “trendy” monuments that I had read about and that had had a brief popularity during the Victorian Era.

I made my way up the hill, reached the monument, and proceeded to apply the proof test by knocking on the surface (hoping and praying that no one would knock back!) and, indeed, it was hollow. I had found, quite inadvertently, my first example of a grave marker made of cast zinc. Continue reading White bronze

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

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

Selecting images for a family history

My late mother-in-law, with her father, in 1927.

How do you choose photos for a family history? Someone recently asked me that excellent question. She happened to have dozens, if not hundreds, of photos and didn’t know how to start. I had never really come up with guidelines for selecting photos, but as I answered the question, I realized that I do have some rough rules of thumb: Continue reading Selecting images for a family history

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