Tag Archives: Boston

Near neighbors

Small world. All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of backbayhouses.org

My grandfather[1] came from New York, and when I was growing up it was understood that the Stewards were from New York and the Ayers (my grandmother’s family) were from Boston. A little digging suggests a more complicated picture – my grandfather’s mother-in-law[2] came from Newark, and his maternal grandmother[3] had only New England ancestry – while there is also an interesting collateral connection, somewhat obscure to later generations of the family. Continue reading Near neighbors

Making plans

Plan of Boston surveyed by Osgood Carleton, dated 1795. Courtesy of digitalcommonwealth.org

Whenever I find myself doing Massachusetts research that predates 1800, I return to a collection of early town plans, 1794-1795, that are as much a documentary source as they are an aesthetic pleasure. Housed at the Massachusetts State Archives, a division of the Secretary of State, the original collection consists of sixteen volumes which were digitized in June 2017.[1]

In the post-Revolution years, it fell to the individual states to produce accurate maps to facilitate governmental administration, develop transportation networks, and encourage settlement. Continue reading Making plans

Undimmed luster

One of the features of this anniversary year – the four hundredth since the Mayflower’s landing at Plymouth as well as the 175th anniversary of the Society’s founding in 1845 – has been a focus on early members of the Society, people no one alive today can have known. As a historical society, we are familiar with old records, even ones biographical in nature, but there is still something uncanny about how some early members – even some of the Society’s founders – come to life in the stories of their own time. Continue reading Undimmed luster

Fire and ice

The fire after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Photo by Arnold Genthe, courtesy of the Library of Congress

After my parents were married, my maternal grandmother[1] gave my mother a dowry of a kind, one suited to her new life in New England: the gift of Boston cousins. My mother’s family was both Southern in background and, given my grandfather’s service in the Navy, coastal by experience, so the notion that my mother had Glidden cousins in Boston appealed to her. As it happens, other than her grandmother’s family in Baltimore, the sprawling Glidden family (originally from Maine) makes up the largest part of my mother’s near kin. Continue reading Fire and ice

NEHGS in 1920

Façade of 9 Ashburton Place, NEHGS headquarters in 1920.

During this 175th anniversary year, I wondered how we marked an earlier NEHGS milestone, one hundred years ago. To learn about the state of the Society in 1920, I looked at Boston newspapers online and NEHGS Proceedings and a scrapbook in our R. Stanton Avery Special Collections.

On Thursday, 18 March 1920, NEHGS celebrated its 75th anniversary of incorporation—to the day—and recognized the 300th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. From 2 to 6 p.m. that day, the Society welcomed the public to an open house at “its spick and span headquarters,” then located at 9 Ashburton Place in Boston, near the Massachusetts State House. Guides greeted the visitors and introduced them to the Society and its collections. Tea was served. Continue reading NEHGS in 1920

The last founder

In researching the origins of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, I came across an article about the Society’s fiftieth anniversary in the Boston Post dated 20 April 1895, which omitted the names of founders Charles Ewer, Lemuel Shattuck, Samuel Gardner Drake, and John Wingate Thornton, but credited the efforts of William H. Montague specifically.[1] Surely the Post had a reason to single out Montague; though he had died by 1895, he was the last surviving founder of NEHGS. Continue reading The last founder

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

‘A remarkable old lady’

When I joined NEHGS with my aunt in 1992, we were the first members of our family to join this organization. While several members of our family had an interest in genealogy, no one was near enough to the Boston area to join NEHGS. (Now, of course, with our vast online presence, physical proximity to our library is less essential, and a few family members across the U.S. are members.) As this year marks the 175th anniversary of NEHGS’s founding in 1845, a new database of membership applications, “1847-1900,” has gone online, and I was curious to search it to see if more distant cousins were members in the past.

The earliest cousin I found was Isaac Child (1792-1885) of Boston, a life member admitted on 9 June 1846, one year before the founding of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. His was the thirteenth membership file for 1846, and as there are 88 files for 1845 (the Society’s inaugural year), I could say Isaac Child was our 101st member, although the files appear to be in alphabetical order by year! Continue reading ‘A remarkable old lady’

Built environment

Today, the NEHGS headquarters at 99—101 Newbury Street stands eight stories tall, several stories higher than the neighboring buildings. However, the present building at 99—101 Newbury was not always the tallest on the block. It began as a three-story bank building.

After the Back Bay was filled in during the second half of the nineteenth century, a new neighborhood sprang up, filled by desirable Victorian brick rowhouses. Newbury Street was no different. It had been built up by 1890 and families had moved in. Numbers 99 and 101 Newbury Street were two separate residences (though attached, like all the other row homes in the area) which faced the Massachusetts Institute of Technology buildings across the street. Continue reading Built environment

‘Decidedly frosty’

Researchers unfamiliar with the history of the New England Historic Genealogical Society may assume women have been members since the organization’s founding in 1845. In fact, for the first fifty years, women were denied membership. In 1894, some members began to propose opening membership to women: “The reaction was haughty and dignified, if not decidedly frosty.” Women quietly persisted in submitting their applications to male members courageous enough to offer women’s names for election. When a woman’s name was read, though, it was greeted by silence. Several men went so far as to argue that “membership was limited to persons,” and women could not join because they were not “persons.” In early 1897 the issue was put to a vote by special ballot and passed, 451 in favor and fifty opposed, with thirteen offering qualified approval. On 2 February 1898, thirty-six women were nominated, twenty-nine accepted membership — and a new chapter began at NEHGS.[1] Continue reading ‘Decidedly frosty’