Saving Grace

Photo of Grace Dixon with her three childrenSometimes it starts with that picture in the attic. It falls out of its black corners and yellow cellophane as if to say, look at me, I’m here for a reason—challenging you to rediscover its past, to make the voice of its subject heard.

I think it must have happened this way for my sister, as she explored the small attic of our mother’s house a few months ago. Here among the musty bric-a-brac and old pictures, a single photograph shook itself free. Mrs. Grace Dixon: a woman none of us in the family had laid eyes on before, waiting buried deep within our archives for one of us to uncover her story.

Sis called me right away, and indeed, I was impressed with her find. I’d first heard of Mrs. Grace Dixon1 years ago, not through any family member, but rather via a brief biographical sketch in Phillip Judd and his descendants.2 At that time, I’d attempted to explore some of the facets of Grace’s life, and I admit that I’d given into genealogy’s worst enemy: assumption. Seeing her there in that old photo with her children, I winced at some of my previous speculations. My sister’s discovery became my opportunity to revisit Grace, and reevaluate what I thought I knew. Continue reading Saving Grace

Following Irish Migrant Workers

Photo of the Irish countrysideHow did our Irish tenant ancestors earn the money they needed to pay their yearly rent? One possibility: they travelled to Great Britain to work for the summer.

A common occurrence in many parts of Ireland in the 1800s, the Irish harvest migration was a well-established means of earning a living. In the spring an Irish cottier would plant his potatoes, cut his turf, and possibly plant some oats. By late spring, little needed to be done on the farm until the fall harvest, giving the farmer time to take on supplementary work elsewhere. One option was to sail to Great Britain and find agricultural work for the summer. When the harvest was done in Britain, the farmer would return to Ireland for the fall, leaving enough time to bring in his potatoes and harvest any other crops. But most importantly, he would return home with cash to pay the landlord for his lease.

Continue reading Following Irish Migrant Workers

Van Salee Descendants

Reis Mourad the Younger

African Founders , a recent publication by David Hackett Fischer, discusses Anthony Jansen van Salee (1607-1676), known as the “Black Mohammedan.” His mother was of African origin, and his father was Jan Jansen van Haarlem, known as Reis Mourad the Younger, a highly successful Dutch pirate in Algeria and Morocco. Anthony and his brother or half-brother, Abram Jansen van Salee (d. 1659), were early settlers in New Amsterdam, now New York City. Their surname “Van Salee” refers to their origin in the Republic of Salé in modern Morocco. Anthony had considerable landholdings in Manhattan and later, after some disputes with other Dutch settlers, in Brooklyn near Coney Island. Abram lived in Brooklyn as well. Anthony’s descendants largely married into other Dutch families of the area, while Abram’s descendants largely married other people of African descent. Continue reading Van Salee Descendants

A Secret Government Hideaway in the Allegheny Mountains

Photos courtesy of the Greenbrier Hotel.

It’s really hard for me to go on vacation without being tempted to do genealogy. I don’t mean my own family—that’s its own problem—I mean researching the history of the place I’m visiting, or the family history of the people who made it a vacation destination.

Case in point: I recently visited the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia with my family. Super fancy, very historic. The decoration style isn’t what you’d call modern—the bold colors, wallpaper patterns, bright carpeting, and ornate chandeliers could only work in that space. The sprawling campus is home to a hotel, three golf courses, a spa, horseback riding trails, a casino, and—most compelling of all—a former secret government bunker.1 Continue reading A Secret Government Hideaway in the Allegheny Mountains

Boston Roots in the Keweenaw Peninsula

Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Photo courtesy of novanumismatic.com

I am incredibly fortunate that I have my dream job, working remotely as a Genealogical Researcher with the Boston-based New England Historical Genealogical Society (NEHGS), while living in my dream location – the remote Keweenaw Peninsula of northern Michigan.

Last week I was sitting in Shute’s 1890 Saloon—an historic watering hole in the city of Calumet, Michigan—reflecting on my good fortune, when I looked up at the television flanking the old Brunswick-stained glass canopy and recognized a familiar ship on the screen. The film was a 1952 movie called Plymouth Adventure, a rather questionable depiction of the Mayflower landing on Plymouth RockIt got me thinking about how I came to be in this spot: a Finn drawing a paycheck from a Boston organization in remote northern Michigan. Surely, I represent a strange confluence of events. Continue reading Boston Roots in the Keweenaw Peninsula

Booties from Chief BlackHawk

Photo of beaded bootiesI recently read New Yorker article about the complicated status of Black members of Native American nations, which stirred my memory and prompted me to research a Native American family I once knew.

Over fifty years ago on an autumn Sunday, I met formally with Chief BlackHawk of Tiverton, Rhode Island. My visit had been arranged through the chief’s sons, Algoma “Goma” Clarke (1926–1980) and Watacee “Tecee” Clarke (1934–1975), master carpenters who built my father’s office in 1964 and remained family friends. Tall and spare, with graying hair combed straight back and hazel eyes, Chief BlackHawk looked like he could have stepped out of an Edward Curtis photograph. He presented me with these booties, which I kept atop my bedroom dresser ever since, until they made their way into a display case with other cherished mementoes. Continue reading Booties from Chief BlackHawk

James Dean: Of Winslows and Wishful Thinking

Photo of James DeanFew cinematic icons have endured in our collective consciousness as well as James Dean. Nearly seventy years after his death, his short and quixotic life has caused many to study not only his life and legacy, but also the possibilities of his ancestry. Indeed, with over fourteen hundred James Dean family trees on Ancestry.com, it seems that interest in this proverbial 1950s bad boy isn’t going away anytime soon.1

For me, there’s still an unabated curiosity revolving around the possibility of Dean having Mayflower ancestry. A quick look at several biographies and a myriad of trees reveals all the “old names” (Dean included) that might lead back to our cousins at Plymouth Rock. Yet nowhere among them could I find anything definitive, beyond the most tepid of answers or the vaguest research. I kept expecting someone to say that Dean had descended from the irascible Doty or the pious Brewster, or perhaps simply confirm that all possible Mayflower connections had been unequivocally disproved. Thus far, I’ve only found one researcher who was willing to make a definitive statement: “no such descent has been found.” That conclusion was drawn in a mid-1990s article by author Richard E. Brenneman.2

Continue reading James Dean: Of Winslows and Wishful Thinking

Governors of Massachusetts

Massachusetts made history with the recent victory of state Attorney General Maura Healey as our next governor, becoming both the first elected female governor in the bay state and the first openly lesbian governor in the United States.1 When Healey became the nominee for her party earlier this year, I started to look at her ancestry, and found many families in common that I had recently researched for who will be her gubernatorial predecessor, Gov. Charlie Baker.

Earlier this year in April, Governor Charlie Baker was our speaker and guest at our Family History Benefit Gala “A Boston Homecoming” where Brenton Simons presented the governor with a handbound genealogy of his family. His mother’s ancestors largely went back to Scotland and Ireland via Ohio and Canada, while his paternal grandfather was born in New York City with a lot of ancestry in Steuben County, New York, and some earlier ancestors in New England. The ancestry that was in the same community for the longest time was the ancestry of his paternal grandmother, Eleanor Johnson (Little) Baker (1886-1983), herself a genealogist and member of NEHGS, whose ancestors largely went back to several families (often many times over) in colonial Newbury and Newburyport, Massachusetts.2 Continue reading Governors of Massachusetts

Dead Reckoning: How Genealogy Brings Memory Back to Life

Mt. Hope Cemetery in Lewiston, Maine. Photo via FindaGrave.com.

The dead charge us with the duty to remember.

I can trace my fascination with genealogy back to a moment in my early childhood, when I first heard the call of the dead. It was January 7 th, 1972, and I was about four and a half years old. We were at the funeral of my great-grandmother Beatrice Frances Callahan Carroll. I could remember her very clearly, sitting in her grand house in front of a roaring fire, playing with very old toys while the adults did dull things. I remember her smile. It was not frequent, but it was very moving when I looked up and saw it, often particularly directed to me as the newest member of the family. Now, there she was in a casket—her, but not her.

My Nanna, a tall and elegant New England woman, put an arm around me—a rare tender moment for her. She wore a fur coat with a leopard pattern, which I thought very wild, while the rest of the adults wore dark colors. She said then the words she would repeat to me a quarter-century later at her husband’s viewing: “I was born in the room above us, and one day will be here.” Continue reading Dead Reckoning: How Genealogy Brings Memory Back to Life

That Woman

Wallis Simpson in 1936, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The recent death of Queen Elizabeth brought many things to mind, including “That Woman”—the epithet chosen by Elizabeth’s mother for Bessie Wallis (Warfield) (Spencer) Simpson, whose marriage to King Edward VIII was the catalyst for Elizabeth’s eventual reign. Remembering the story of Wallis Simpson led me to investigate my own family’s version of “That Woman”: Lucille Forden, whose multiple divorces made her infamous and even thwarted her run for a seat in Congress.

“Those Women” shared some things in common. Wallis Warfield and Lucille Forden each had three husbands. Although neither was born in Baltimore, it was the city that both called home for most of their formative years and early adulthood. Continue reading That Woman