Tag Archives: A Genealogist’s Diary

An artist’s ambition

Major General the Baron von Steuben, by Ralph Earl. Courtesy of Wikipedia

I am continually struck by the effects of happenstance in genealogy. Because I was putting together notes on my grandmother’s family, I went looking for a source on the Gates family of Worcester, Massachusetts; because my eye was caught by the next entry to one for my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother;[1] because I remembered enough of my eighteenth-century art history to recognize the artist Ralph Earl (or Earle) as both an ancestral uncle (by unhappy marriage) and a cousin, I have found a family painter who might almost stand in for the even more famous François Boucher, a forebear my grandmother’s family has had to give up. Continue reading An artist’s ambition

ICYMI: ‘Neutral ground’

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 13 February 2018.]

Frederick Ayer

Many of us have bunches of old family letters set aside to review – preferably with the sender and the recipient already noted on the envelope. Years ago, as I was researching my first family history (The Sarsaparilla Kings[1]), I was fortunate enough to have some published (as well as unpublished) sources available to consider the relationship between my great-great-grandfather Frederick Ayer (1822–1918) – one of the two Sarsaparilla Kings – and his son-in-law George Smith Patton Jr. (1885–1945).

Frederick Ayer made two distinct fortunes – in patent medicines with his elder brother, Dr. J. C. Ayer, and in textiles and other investments later in life – and by the turn of the twentieth century he was a wealthy man. His second wife, Ellen Barrows Banning (1853–1918), was a member of a sprawling family with connections in Delaware, Minnesota, and California, among them to the family of George and Ruth Patton of San Gabriel, California. Continue reading ICYMI: ‘Neutral ground’

The Harvard Polo Club

My grandmother [Anne Steward] with her father-in-law Campbell Steward, on the steps of the Steward house in Goshen, New York.
File this one to “You never know what you might find…”

I have written before about my great-grandparents’ house in Goshen, New York, built on land that had belonged to the Steward family since the eighteenth century. In the course of collecting family photos – generally, groups of (likely) house guests gathering on the front steps to be photographed – I’ve become familiar with some of the house’s features. At this point, I might be one of the very few who could look at a photo and say “Oh! the Steward house in Goshen.”

I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the book I was paging through was my great-great-uncle’s history of the Harvard Polo Club. Amos Tuck French[1] was one of the founding members of this iteration of the club, and he begins engagingly: “Polo was started at Harvard in 1883, many years before it was even thought of at any other college. In fact it was not generally understood what the game was, for we received a challenge from Yale to play a match and discovered on enquiry that the Elis wanted to play hockey on roller skates!”[2] Continue reading The Harvard Polo Club

A milestone

Late in the day on Wednesday, Vita Brevis marked an important milestone: 3,000,000 page views since it launched in January 2014. In that period, 151 bloggers have published 1,774 posts on a wide range of subjects of interest to genealogists.

Looking back at the top ten most popular posts for the period 2014-2022, I am struck by the top three: Jean Maguire’s announcement that the legendary Boston Transcript genealogical column (1911-41) was now available online, and Penny Stratton’s twin posts on elements of style: how not to make words plural, and how to feature dates in genealogical works. These three posts, from 2015 and 2016, account for about 77,000 page views, and no doubt they have driven traffic to other posts over the years. Continue reading A milestone

ICYMI: Research strategies for 2021

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 20 January 2021.]

A new year offers a new chance to look at old problems with a fresh eye – and to consider fresh methods for breaking through well-established brick walls. Here is a chance to put the word out: What are your favorite approaches to beginning new research or to resolving long-standing problems?

As the editor at Vita Brevis, it is my job to write up my own research successes (and failures), and to edit the similar – but invariably different – accounts of travails and victories from the blog’s 100+ contributors. Over the years I have recommended a variety of hints and how-tos, starting with pointers on how best to utilize Google searches. Continue reading ICYMI: Research strategies for 2021

ICYMI: A problem in perspective

Culter Kirk. Courtesy of Wikipedia

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 26 March 2021.]

Sometimes one loses perspective on one’s researches, so when I say that the identity of Master James Livingston, a younger son of the 4th Lord Livingston, is a problem for the ages – a quandary for which many await resolution – I may be overstating things a little. Still, he is one of several men in the ancestry of the American Livingston family whose life, and whose marriage(s) and child(ren), has long been a puzzle. Continue reading ICYMI: A problem in perspective

2021: the year in review

“May you live in interesting times” is supposed to be a curse – it’s certainly an exhausting way to go through life. As 2021 rolls over to 2022, here is a look back at 2021 in Vita Brevis:

In January, Ann Lawthers urged genealogists visiting cemeteries to apply some of the insights garnered from their research, in this case about how the changing cultural norms around death translated into stone: Continue reading 2021: the year in review

Family associations

My grandfather in Topsfield with his sister Margaret and son Charles, December 1953.

Here I don’t mean surname associations or descendant groups — I mean a family’s association with a place. This concept is on my mind as my father prepares to sell his house, built 27 years ago on land that his parents had bought back in the 1920s. For that matter, my paternal grandfather[1] was born in a house his parents built and on a piece of land that had (already, in 1898) been in the Steward family for about 150 years.

Sad to say that neither my great-grandparents’ house nor the older John Steward Homestead still exist. Continue reading Family associations

ICYMI: The family historian

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 30 December 2014.]

Margaret Steward in Goshen, New York

Most families have one: the family historian. Whether or not the focus is genealogical, there is usually at least one family member who keeps track of siblings and cousins, sometimes to the nth degree. My father’s family had one in my great-aunt Margaret Steward (1888–1975). I do not remember meeting her, but I’ve been told I take after her, at least in so far as the mantle of family genealogist passed from her to me when I was still in middle school. Continue reading ICYMI: The family historian

Remembered in stone

Mary Pearson Palmer’s gravestone in Rowley. Images courtesy of Findagrave

My family tried something new for Thanksgiving: lunch at a (very nice) restaurant in Rowley, up the road from my father’s house in neighboring Topsfield, Massachusetts. As I was there early, I went for a walk up Main Street, past the Rowley Burial Ground. Most of the stones nearest the road were well-weathered, but two popped out at me: stones for a Pearson and a Pickard.

Both are names in my seventeenth-century New England ancestry, so I sat beside a fire pit next to the restaurant and did some online digging.

Continue reading Remembered in stone