‘Stopped by rains’

By 1917, my great-grandfather’s farm in Princess Anne County, Virginia, was up and running, with actual profits registered. The weather remained a preoccupation:

1917

3 February: Coldest day in eighteen years.

10 February: Fred’s yew [sic] had two lambs[;] she disowned one and had to [be forced to] nurse.

23 February: Little Frances[1] sick in bed with measles.

4 March: Inauguration Day – President Wilson’s second term… Fred served at communion today at the nine o’clock service and the 11 a.m. service. Frances recovered from measles. Continue reading ‘Stopped by rains’

What’s in a name?

‘What’s in a name?’ asked Juliet of Romeo, concluding that the name of something does not define what it really is. A rose, after all, by any other name would smell as sweet, but for family genealogists, a rose by any other name can become an obstacle to progress and success. Naturally, we go in search of a name as we expect it to be, as we’ve always known it to be and, in doing so – in not considering all the possible variations or that any given spelling may not necessarily be the “correct” spelling – we may overlook vital clues and new pathways for our research. I suspect that most family genealogists who stay at their research beyond the “low hanging fruit” stage, who don’t give up too soon, eventually double back and realize their earlier oversights. Continue reading What’s in a name?

‘Eyes dry as dust’

The Civil War was a time of conflict and distress. While we often hear stories of the courageous men who fought the bloody battles of a terrible and long war, the battles did not stop on the fields. Citizens from all states and backgrounds gathered strength and stepped into positions they never thought possible, including Betsey Jennings Nixon, who discovered fresh reserves of strength as the war progressed.

The NEHGS Library holds the diary of Betsey Jennings Nixon in its R. Stanton Avery Special Collections. The diary has been digitized and is available on the American Ancestors Digital Collections website. Betsey, the daughter of William and Louise (Sheldon) Nixon, was born in 1839 and grew up in Ohio, living in several neighboring states before eventually moving to Colorado where her sons had settled. Continue reading ‘Eyes dry as dust’

‘Planting watermelon’

I have a vivid memory as a boy of the time my mother’s father showed me a healed wound in his leg. While he was a decorated veteran of the Second World War, with the Purple Heart (among other medals) to show for it, this scar – deep enough for a child probe with a finger – came from a shooting accident when he was not much older than I. The idea that my grandfather had ever been an unruly boy – his childhood inconceivably remote in the early 1970s – fascinated me, and, anyway, boys love the squeamish and the gross: this evidence of time’s passage, long-healed, formed a Proustian memory, sending me back to a hot summer’s day and a moment’s connection with my beloved grandfather. Continue reading ‘Planting watermelon’

Mayor Pete’s cousins

I have been exploring the ancestry of the twenty-plus 2020 presidential candidates. Although I will likely wait some time until the number is reduced before reporting on most of them, I was recently surprised to find in the ancestry of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, via a small amount of his New England ancestry, connections to two prominent figures in the United Kingdom! Continue reading Mayor Pete’s cousins

Cousin confusion

Agnes Horan Bento

My grandmother Anne (Cassidy) Dwyer never met her father, Patrick Cassidy, who was killed in a Fall River (Massachusetts) mill seven months before her birth, but from the Cassidy side of the family, she knew a dozen or more Irish-born first cousins. Six sisters from one family alone came to Fall River to escape the grinding poverty of rural Ireland. Agnes Horan, a favorite cousin, arrived at age 20 in 1908. Agnes’s elder sister, Annie Driscoll,[1] paid for her passage. Agnes, in turn, brought over the next sister. In 1919, after working ten years as a domestic servant, Agnes married Joseph Bento, son of Azorean immigrants. Agnes died in 1930, leaving her husband and four small children. For the rest of her life, Nana Dwyer nonetheless maintained contact with Agnes’s children. Long after my grandmother’s death, I renewed acquaintance with the Bento family, sharing genealogical information and photographs. Continue reading Cousin confusion

The weekend farmer

Of my four grandparents, it is my maternal grandfather[1] whose background seems most mysterious. He and his parents duly appear in Norfolk (Virginia) city directories and censuses, but much of the personal – the quirks and the quotidian – seems missing from the life he led before he won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1919.

His father, J. Frank Bell (John Francis Bell, 1878–1944), has, if anything, been more of a cipher. It was his father, also John Francis Bell (1839–1905), who appears out of thin air, hailing from Isle of Wight County and establishing himself as a contractor in Richmond. Frank Bell went south to Norfolk, where he met and married my great-grandmother, Minnie Estelle Jackson (1876–1935). Frank Bell seems as solid as Estelle’s father, the roguish O.D. Jackson, proved transient, and he became a leading figure in Norfolk, managing hotels, winning election to the City Council, and helping to found the Rotary Club. Continue reading The weekend farmer

Coming home

Standing in front of the town flag at town hall. With, from left to right, Cristina Colella (town assessor), Massimo Colangelo (mayor), and Giovanni Presutti (vice mayor).

As I mentioned in my last Vita Brevis post, I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks in Europe this past March. Like any good vacation, my travels were filled with historical and genealogical research. After a wonderful stay in Rome and having thoroughly (re)explored its ancient history, I made my way to the Tiburtina Terminal in the northeastern part of the Eternal City to board a bus and pursue what historians and genealogists alone would consider recent history: nineteenth-century records.

As any Italian genealogist knows, many records that have been digitized are available on FamilySearch.org and the Italian Antentati (i.e. “ancestors”) site. The digitization process is far from complete, however. Continue reading Coming home

‘A short allowance’

Discovering details from the past that bring events to life is one of my favorite parts of genealogical research. Finding a passenger arrival record is great, but it doesn’t give you any idea of what the journey was like. I always want to know more. Recently, my quest for additional information turned up more than I could ever have hoped for. It all started with a Boston Pilot newspaper notice for the ship Thalia, which arrived in Boston from Cork, Ireland, on 14 April 1848. Continue reading ‘A short allowance’

Shared birthdays

When researching the paternal side of my family, I was intrigued by my great-grandfather, Frank Healy. He was born to Irish Catholic immigrants who settled in Hudson, Columbia County, New York, and the St. Mary’s baptismal record in Hudson identified his birth date as 14 June 1864. This warmed my heart, because I was born 100 years to the month after him. Somehow knowing this made me feel a bit closer to the man my father was named after, but whom neither of us had ever met.

The statistical probability of sharing a birthdate with anyone, even one’s own child, is 1 in 365. These are not bad odds, and certainly significantly better odds than holding a winning Powerball ticket. But what is the likelihood of multiple generations of parents and children, on both the maternal and paternal side, having shared birthdays? Continue reading Shared birthdays