Tag Archives: A Genealogist’s Diary

Some Back Bay houses

121-129 Commonwealth Avenue, ca. 1875, viewed from the steeple of the Brattle Street Church. (The house into which the family moved in 1922 was just around the corner on Dartmouth Street.) Courtesy of the Print Department, Boston Public Library

When my grandmother[1] was a girl, she could walk down the front steps of her parents’ house in Boston and along Commonwealth Avenue into the houses of her paternal grandparents and her father’s sisters nearby. Using the Back Bay Houses database, I can trace the staggered arrivals of her father’s family in Boston; in the process, I find I’m encountering a number of family and contemporary friends.

My great-grandfather[2] seems to have been the first member of the Ayer family to move to Boston, soon after his graduation from Harvard in 1887. Next came his father (my great-great-grandfather) and stepmother, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Ayer of Lowell,[3] who rented 232 Beacon Street in 1899-1900[4] while building their new house at 395 Commonwealth Avenue.[5] The family[6] was occupying the house by the end of 1900, although it appears that work continued for sometime thereafter. Continue reading Some Back Bay houses

ICYMI: “Socially, she is not received”

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 25 March 2016.]

Oscar Wilde by Sarony. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

A frequent theater-goer and enthusiastic pedestrian in the 1860s, by the early 1880s – following the death of her husband – Regina Shober Gray was going out rarely, and only to the houses of relatives and close friends. This does not mean that she lost her interest in the goings-on around Boston or, indeed, among the celebrated and notorious people of her day.[1]

1 Beacon Hill Place, Boston, Wednesday, 8 February 1882: Laura Howe[2] has sent Mary[3] a most humorous parody ‘After Oscar Wilde.’[4] She says she and Harry [Richards] agreed that the only thing to be done with his book of poems was to burn it, that there were some pretty things amid the filth! The ‘Swinburne’[5] School of poetry is certainly open to reprobation in the matter of good taste & pure morals! Continue reading ICYMI: “Socially, she is not received”

ICYMI: ‘If space allows’

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 5 January 2017.]

Thanks to a timely message alerting me to a collection of letters for sale at eBay, I recently acquired one side of the genealogical correspondence between Regina Shober Gray[1] and the Rev. Richard Manning Chipman, author of The Chipman Lineage (1872). Mrs. Gray, so expansive in some areas of her diary, is comparatively terse with regard to the beginning of the correspondence: Continue reading ICYMI: ‘If space allows’

ICYMI: A Victorian genealogist

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 26 May 2015.]

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
One of the mysteries of the Regina Shober Gray diary is why it came to be part of the NEHGS collection. It is an account of daily (or weekly) life, written between January 1860 and December 1884, and for many of the volumes Mrs. Gray is observant about the relationships of her friends and acquaintances, but far less interested, evidently, in the genealogy of the Shober, Gray, and Clay families.

That all changes, however, in March 1874, at tea with one of her nieces: “[Isa Gray] tells me [her sister Ellen] copied Aunt Eliza [Clay]’s[1] genealogical tree of the Clay family – and will lend it to me to have copied, at which I am most pleased. [Her husband’s cousin] Elizabeth Gray lends me a few records of the Grays to copy… I care a great deal for such things – and feel it right to collect for my children and their descendants all the family records & traditions I can obtain.”[2] Continue reading ICYMI: A Victorian genealogist

The better part of valor

Courtesy of forgottenoperasingers.blogspot.com.

I grew up surrounded by my father’s family, but at something of a distance. Looking back on it, I trace my parents’ incuriosity about these relatives – generally described as “Oh, he’s a cousin … somehow” – to my grandfather’s self-protective stance when he married into the sprawling Ayer family: he focused on his own friends (and a handful of his relatives) while maintaining a cool remove from his in-laws. (The one exception was his wife’s uncle, General George S. Patton Jr., a near neighbor and a man it was hard to ignore.)

So it was something of a surprise one summer’s day, out sailing with my father and a friend, for my father to point out a house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean as belonging to “our kooky cousin the Countess.” Even as a child, a keen reader of histories and romances, the word Countess – applied to a resident of Essex County, Massachusetts – piqued my interest; and I was still of an age where adult foibles (particularly those noticed by other grown-ups) were fascinating glimpses into adult life. Continue reading The better part of valor

Salient points

Mrs. A. C. Burrage Jr. and Mrs. C. F. Ayer, ca. 1915.

One of my great-grandmothers[1] was a penniless orphan, the kind found in storybooks: beautiful and, secretly, a dispossessed member of a once proud family. As often happens when a child’s parents die young, much of this background was lost: my grandmother’s mother, born Sara Theodora Ilsley in Newark, was the daughter of a composer (and member of a distinguished family of musicians), granddaughter of one of the men who owned the yacht America,[2] and the descendant of a notable set of families along the Eastern Seaboard, including the first Congressman from New York City (and an aide-de-camp to General Washington)[3] and the Attorney-General of the Colony of Pennsylvania.[4]

Her descendants knew almost nothing of this when I was growing up, perhaps because of that break occasioned by Theodora’s father’s death in 1887 and her mother’s death in 1895, when she was fourteen. Continue reading Salient points

College records

Harvard 1921 and Columbia 1873

In the books I have written (or co-authored) in the last twenty years or so – on the Thorndike, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, and Winthrop families – I have usually noted the academic histories of family members as well as the more usual genealogical data. I’m occasionally asked why, and until recently I didn’t really have an answer.

While I generally answered that college and university records could help flesh out a sparse biographical narrative for someone treated in one of these books, I would now add that, often, they help keep the genealogist honest. After all, someone born in 1940 wouldn’t be likely to graduate from college in 1954, while a late graduation date begs further study. At the very least, a focus on filling in this area helps distinguish Charles Smith from Chad Smith – not to mention Charles Chad Smith! Continue reading College records

Royal Livingstons

While working on the various connections of the Livingston family in Scotland, I had a vague recollection that I had encountered multiple Livingstons in the ancestry of the late Diana, Princess of Wales; several years ago I edited a book on her forebears,[1] and I pictured several lines from which to choose. The same, in a sense, must be true for the Prince of Wales, whose ancestry was covered so fully in Gerald Paget’s 1977 work.[2]

Well, yes and no. I suspect the name I sought was the Saltonstall family in the Princess’s ancestry – a family about whom I have written a book![3] The Saltonstalls appear with some frequency in The Ancestry of Diana, Princess of Wales, as we were careful to note the families in her ancestry with American connections. Continue reading Royal Livingstons

Mysterious Menteiths

Click on images to expand them.

As I work at reconstructing the environment in which the Livingstons of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries lived, I have been struck by the frequency with which I have encountered members of the Menteith family. (It is fair to say that there are a number of such families in this project, interrelated in various ways, but the Menteiths keep turning up!) To arrive at the early modern Livingston family, I have gone back on various lines (including the ancestry of Livingston spouses), so the resulting family trees cover individuals who were not named Livingston – or aware of these particular connections. Continue reading Mysterious Menteiths

In ceaseless orbit

Gowrie House, Perth. Courtesy of Perth & Kinross Council

As I continue to map out the connections of the Livingston family of Callendar, Stirlingshire, I am struck by how comparatively closely related the sixteenth-century Livingston family was to two of the husbands of Mary, Queen of Scots. A third connection, rather less salubrious, was to some of the murderers of David Rizzio, or Riccio, which occurred in the presence of the Queen while pregnant with the future King James VI. (Rizzio was accused by his assailants of being the child’s father.) Continue reading In ceaseless orbit