Let it snow!

Painting of Pilgrims walking through snow to attend church by George Henry BoughtonAn occasional project I have worked on is compiling a list of “near- Mayflower” families. These are families who were not on the 1620 voyage themselves, but most or all of whose present-day descendants share Mayflower ancestry. There are easy cases at the first or second generation like Robert Cushman (whose only surviving child Thomas married passenger Mary Allerton), Thomas Little (who married Ann Warren, daughter of passenger Richard Warren), and my ancestor Christian Penn (spouse of passengers Francis Eaton and Francis Billington). Others are more complicated. Continue reading Let it snow!

Finding the family historian in my own family history

Interviewing my grandfather about his life

Even before I earned my master’s degree in public history, I liked to fancy myself a bit of a family historian. I am lucky enough to still have three living grandparents: ages 86, 89, and 94. I have taken up the task of recording conversations with them about their early lives and families, so that their stories can be preserved for future generations.

I’ve gone through photo albums with my grandparents and seen some of the family heirlooms that have been passed down for generations. As a former journalist, I was interested in documenting stories, and that was my focus for years. I recently went back to school and received a master’s in public history. So last Christmas, when I was visiting my paternal grandparents down in Florida, I decided to use my new training as a historian to ask my grandmother more questions and document what I might have missed over the years. Continue reading Finding the family historian in my own family history

Uncovering Thomas Dalton’s Tragedy

Gravestone reading: In Memory of Thomas Dalton, MUS, U.S. Army, Civil War, May 31 1850, Jun 30 1864The story of Thomas Dalton is a tragic one, and one that had been forgotten for many years, until a DNA match brought the truth of his brief life to light. I stumbled across the Dalton family years ago when investigating the origins of my own 2nd great-grandmother Mary Ann Dalton, who was born in 1828 in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. I’d been having a difficult time finding Mary’s parents when I discovered a handful of DNA matches for descendants of two Dalton brothers, sons of Irish immigrants Peter Dalton and Ann McDonnell, who had also been born in Nova Scotia but moved away young: James Dalton, born 1826, who moved to Lowell, Massachusetts before 1849, and John Thomas Dalton, born 1830, who moved to Ballarat, Australia around 1852.

These Dalton descendants shared the right amount of DNA with my grandfather to indicate that my ancestor Mary Ann Dalton was a close relative of John Thomas and James (likely their sister or cousin). The subject of my story today, Thomas Dalton, was the first son of James and his wife Eliza McNally, born 31 May 1849 in Lowell. Continue reading Uncovering Thomas Dalton’s Tragedy

Locating Family Bible Records

Page from an original family bible, with vital records for the family of John Dunlap (1775-1848) and his wife, Betsey Lester (1778-1850).

Discovering the existence of a family bible can be one of the most thrilling revelations in family history research. Original Bibles possess what archivists refer to as artifactual value: intrinsic worth as objects apart from their content. We often revel in family heirlooms because their very survival is a matter of chance. At least one representative from each succeeding generation must cherish the item, or serendipitously leave it forgotten in a secure location for it to be recovered decades later.

For genealogists, family Bibles can also convey unique information. Heirloom Bibles often contain records of birth, marriage, and death dates—usually scrawled on the Bible’s inside flyleaf—and can serve as proof of parentage in the absence of a vital or church record. Continue reading Locating Family Bible Records

Continuing the search for the first Boston Marathon winner: we want your help!

John J. McDermott, winner of the first Boston Marathon. Boston Sunday Journal, 1 May 1898.

Scott Steward, founder and editor of Vita Brevis, retired last month. This blog has been a wonderful creative outlet for all of us at American Ancestors/NEHGS, allowing me space to vent about research projects, share what I’ve learned about certain record collections, and manipulate a genealogical theme just enough to warrant another post about Harry Potter.

But the most satisfying, miraculous, and fulfilling posts that I’ve written were about the first winner of the Boston Marathon, John J. McDermott—and we still don’t have an answer to our mystery yet. But you could help!

To summarize:

On April 20, 2015, I wrote the first of my posts ( Where did the first Boston Marathon winner go? ) in which I lamented the difficulty of locating a person with a very common name in a very large place. According to period newspapers, John J. McDermott, the winner of the first Boston Marathon in 1897, was an avid long-distance runner from the Pastime Athletic Club of New York City. John was born about 1880, immigrated from Ireland, and worked as a lithographer in New York. While McDermott should have been a celebrity of his time, newspapers and marathon histories neglected to report any information about his personal life: no date of birth, date of death, or names of his wife, children, or other family members. Continue reading Continuing the search for the first Boston Marathon winner: we want your help!

Beyond the Letters: What We Can Learn from Gravestone Symbolism

A broken column forms a monument to Adeline Wilhelmina Howell, indicating her early death at the age of 18.

Gravestones have long served as the cornerstone of genealogical research. While the words they bear can be crucial sources of information about our ancestors, don’t forget to look at the symbols, too. Gravestone symbolism can point to information about your ancestors’ religious beliefs, group affiliations, life experiences, and more. Below are just a few noteworthy examples of common gravestone symbols and what they can reveal. Continue reading Beyond the Letters: What We Can Learn from Gravestone Symbolism

Think Outside the Search Box

Houston County Courthouse, Georgia

Online genealogical websites like AmericanAncestors.org, Ancestry.com, and FamiliySearch.org can be extremely helpful when researching your family tree. But what do you do when your search comes up empty, and you don’t have unlimited resources to travel in-person to your ancestor town? Sending emails, calling, and filling out inquiry forms for town libraries, historical societies, and local clerks’ offices may be the needed extra step in finding your ancestors.

This past month, we released research on Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ancestry, about 50% of which was conducted with “on the ground” help in Georgia. After fully exhausting records online, we had to turn our attention to collections that may only be available at the town and county levels. Continue reading Think Outside the Search Box

A Genealogical surprise in “store” in Newburyport, Massachusetts

The store of Knight & Poor in Newburyport, Mass.

We are fortunate to have so many newspapers available for researching our ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries. Early in my genealogy pursuits, finding obituaries was my main focus while cranking through endless reels of microfilm at the Boston Public Library. I would often see an article of interest, or occasionally by chance catch a surname as I slowly inched my way through the microfilm. This tedious process seemed endless until I struck genealogy pay dirt, making all the cranking of the microfilm reader worthwhile. One day while scrolling newspapers for ancestors in Newburyport, Essex, Massachusetts I caught the name of my third great grandfather Henry Poor (1769-1853).

Continue reading A Genealogical surprise in “store” in Newburyport, Massachusetts

An alter-ego’s tale

Groucho Marx:”Well, whaddya say girls? Are we all gonna get married?”

Woman: “All of us? But that’s bigamy!”

Groucho: “Yes, and it’s big-a-me, too.

Researching the collateral relatives of my great-great-grandfather John Henry O. Record has brought a host of complicated characters. From “liars, whores, and thieves”[1] and murdering wives,[2] to throat-slashing cousins[3] and snake oil salesmen[4] alongside lawyers for the KKK,[5] to the accompanying tragedies of kidnapping and allegations of rape,[6] it’s no wonder that some of them ran off to join a traveling theater,[7] or, oddly enough (and contrary to all other indications), the police force.[8] Yes, my folks from Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the Del Marva peninsula were a colorful bunch to say the least. Continue reading An alter-ego’s tale

Mrs. Frank Leslie

In early July I was given the opportunity to attend an online educational event, “Women in the Gilded Age,” with guest speakers Laura Thompson and Betsy Prioleau, part of the American Inspiration series at NEHGS. The draw was my interest in women’s history, and this event sparked my interest further and provided me with a newfound love of the history of the Gilded Age of New York (1870–1910), a captivating era of growth, greed, and deep cultural changes.

I became truly fascinated by one woman in particular, Miriam Leslie, known in her day as Mrs. Frank Leslie. What intrigued me about Mrs. Leslie was the way in which she challenged the societal norms of the time; in a time that expected women to be homemakers, she stepped up, challenged misogyny, and worked her way to success as a professional businesswoman, taking over the publication business of her late husband, Frank Leslie, and inspiring women who sought more than domesticity. Continue reading Mrs. Frank Leslie