Tag Archives: Critical Analysis

Facing death

Deathbed portrait of Elizabeth Royall, attributed to Joseph Badger, ca. 1747. NEHGS Fine Art Collection, photograph by Gavin Ashworth

Unfortunately, over the last month I had to visit a few different funeral homes. On one visit, my husband asked why funeral homes always resembled a house. Knowing a bit about the evolution of how we handle death in America, I explained that it is because a wake or viewing used to take place within the person’s home. Funeral “parlors” or “homes” are intentionally designed to resemble the parlors in homes where we once laid out our dead for visitation.

This question led me to revisit some of my old studies about death in America and how handling the dead went from being a very personal and hands-on experience for the survivors to something that is handled by professionals outside of the home. Continue reading Facing death

Texture and depth

Like so many passionate genealogists, I descend from proud and feisty Irish famine immigrants. While the details of how my great-great-grandfather Thomas Healy made his way to the United States have not come down to us, his life here and in Ireland became clearer thanks to a tremendous amount of research time, more than a little bit of luck, and some rather unique research tools. Continue reading Texture and depth

Finding your ancestor’s occupation

Courtesy of Wikimedia.org

Why should you pay attention to your ancestor’s occupation? Are you merely filling in the details of a life or looking for an essential clue to break down a brick wall? Each of our ancestors is unique – however, figuring out what makes them unique can be challenging. Finding your ancestor’s occupation may help distinguish your Ebenezer Smith from other Ebenezer Smiths, particularly if your ancestor’s occupation was something other than farmer or laborer. Continue reading Finding your ancestor’s occupation

As the crow flies

Rand McNally map of St. Clair County, Michigan, 1911. Courtesy of genealogyhound.com

In my mind’s eye there’s always a crow, a silly old crow really. It follows me as I search after forgotten things, and spies out the burial place where my ancestor, Erastus Lee, ought to be – but isn’t.[1] Indifferently, that darn crow watches me, as my mind traverses the Wolverine State landscape of St. Clair County and the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, there, in Wales Township.[2] Like me, the old crow knows that, lost or not, this is where Erastus’s grave surely has to be. True enough, too, the crow knows that Wales Township is a place that neither of us (unless it’s the old crow) will ever get to explore. And, as much as it chagrins me to say, I’ve come to accept that there will always be “those places” in family research that many of us will never get to see. Places remaining only approachable in the mind’s eye – and visited on occasion by that old crow.

My own phantom bird travels there, northeast to Wales Township, revealing peaceful surroundings but few possibilities about the grave of Erastus Lee. Continue reading As the crow flies

Error fatigue

You have undoubtedly seen online exchanges that go something like:

“That genealogical claim is wrong/unproved.”

Reply: “Prove that it is wrong/unproved!”

I first experienced this back in the early days of the Internet when I posted a caution that the royal ancestry attributed to Mayflower passenger Richard Warren was not proved. I was immediately challenged to prove my claim. Continue reading Error fatigue

Curiouser and curiouser

The interior side of the Hancock Mansion’s front door, preserved in the Massachusetts Old Statehouse. This is the side that Cato Hancock would have known well.

I truly went down a rabbit hole recently, and all the credit goes to NEHGS’s Chief Genealogist, David Allen Lambert. He recently reported in Vita Brevis that his second academic sabbatical was spent transcribing the 1800 “Taking Books” (tax records) for Suffolk County, Massachusetts. I commented then that I looked forward to checking out this new database, and recently I got around to doing so.

I’d already discovered my ancestor, George Athearn, in Boston city directories for 1798, 1800, 1803, 1805, 1806, and 1807, but it was still fun to check out his entry in the Taking Books. I noted wryly that his surname and that of his business partner, Stephen Fales, were both misspelled; additional notes were “Merch[an]t: ½ Store on Spears W[harf], partners w[ith] Fails, Large Ho[use]” with real estate valued at $3,000. Continue reading Curiouser and curiouser

Genealogical gold

Click on images to expand them.

My great-great-great-great-grandfather, James Luke, emigrated from Birmingham, England in 1816 at the age of 20. I’ve been lucky enough to find a couple of documents that identify his parents as William and Margaret Luke, but I’ve been trying to discover his mother’s maiden name for years.

James was a prominent citizen in both Cambridge and Wilbraham, Massachusetts, so I have been able to find information about him in a number of publications, and learned that he was one of the founding members of the Harvard Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge. Further research revealed that the records of that church are now kept at the library of the Boston University School of Theology. Continue reading Genealogical gold

Some fascinating connections

Courtesy of De Nederlandsche Leeuw.

For years I have received De Nederlandsche Leeuw [The Dutch Lion], the journal of the Koninlijk Nederlandsch Genootschap voor Geslacht-en Wapenkunde [Royal Dutch Society for Genealogy and Heraldry], published since 1884 in The Hague. I scan each issue for any scraps on the ancestry of the settlers of New Netherland in the seventeenth century. Continue reading Some fascinating connections

Preventative measures

Nancy de Freitas, aged 8.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a message from a woman curious to know why her grandmother was in my online family tree. This is hardly a unique occurrence, since I enjoy tracking down fairly distant family connections. In this case, however, our connection was very close (at least by my standards): her mother was the great-aunt of my first cousin’s husband. I even personally saw my correspondent’s first cousin at my cousin’s wedding!

My husband, father, and I were able to represent the Mainland contingent of our family at her wedding on the Big Island of Hawaii. It was a fascinating experience, complete with island customs such as leis,[1] a whole pig roasted in an imu,[2] poi,[3] and miniature kahilis[4] as party favors. Continue reading Preventative measures

Block Island revisited

Nathaniel Briggs Paine, aged 87. Photo by Parlow Studio, New Bedford

Writers find inspiration in other writers. As Vita Brevis celebrates its fifth anniversary, I have been inspired by rereading the scope, depth, and variety of the blog’s posts. These essays have also nudged me out of my comfort zone – to share what I hope to accomplish in my leap into the unknown: in this instance, the mysteries of autosomal DNA.

Sometimes our most carefully reasoned genealogical constructions crumble like a house of cards. Few other ancestral haunts have gripped me like Block Island, Rhode Island. Of all places in the Ocean State, it is the most remote for on-site research. To give myself the maximum amount of time in the town vault, I would fly to Block Island from Westerly rather than take the ferry. I spent years combing through land evidence page by page to sort out confused family relationships. In the end, even after publishing two articles, I had to unlink every one of my eighteenth-century Block Island ancestors. Here’s why: Continue reading Block Island revisited