Category Archives: Technology

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

Facing death

Deathbed portrait of Elizabeth Royall, attributed to Joseph Badger, ca. 1747. NEHGS Fine Art Collection, photograph by Gavin Ashworth

Unfortunately, over the last month I had to visit a few different funeral homes. On one visit, my husband asked why funeral homes always resembled a house. Knowing a bit about the evolution of how we handle death in America, I explained that it is because a wake or viewing used to take place within the person’s home. Funeral “parlors” or “homes” are intentionally designed to resemble the parlors in homes where we once laid out our dead for visitation.

This question led me to revisit some of my old studies about death in America and how handling the dead went from being a very personal and hands-on experience for the survivors to something that is handled by professionals outside of the home. Continue reading Facing death

A gift for archivists

The recent news that a leak at the National Archives in Boston damaged about 300 hundred cubic feet of records during the government shutdown was hard to hear for many of us who work with records collections as caretakers and researchers.[1] While I immediately thought about the loss of the 1890 census in 1921 and the fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in 1973, I was relieved to hear that most of the damaged records only need to be air dried and rehoused in new folders and boxes.  This reminded me of a fascinating tool created by Suzanne Morgan, a conservator at Arizona State University to help archivists and conservators find the perfect container for any item they might encounter. Continue reading A gift for archivists

Cento emigration site launches

Back in August 2018, I wrote a post about the strong connection between the Italians of the town of Cento, Italy and the Plymouth Cordage Company in From Cento to America. At that time, I mentioned a web site created by the Archivio di Storico di Cento (the historical archives of Cento) that would be launching in the near future to share stories of those who left Cento for other countries around the world. That day has arrived. Continue reading Cento emigration site launches

A family thicket

When people ask me which DNA test I recommend, I turn around and ask them some questions. If what they are after is taking is an “autosomal DNA test,” I may tell them different reasons to take a test with Ancestry or 23andme (and then usually recommend they also upload their Raw DNA onto GEDMatch, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage to connect with more matches). While I have had many examples of successful connections with the first four sites, I had not any significant breakthroughs with MyHeritage until very recently. Continue reading A family thicket