When I was growing up, my father would sometimes solemnly remind me to remember Francis Ward Lewis. I would just nod absentmindedly in response. I don’t recall him explaining who this man was or why he was important—I’m not sure that he even knew himself. But for some reason, it was vital to him that I remember and honor this name.
Later, when I was in my forties, my paternal grand aunt Em causally mentioned that Francis Ward Lewis (17 July 1817¬-9 November 1906) was her grandfather. Finally, I knew how he and I were linked. She recounted that on the Fourth of July, he would march in his uniform in the local parade in Concord, California, and then return home to set off a canon from the roof of his home. He did sound like an interesting individual. So, when I began my genealogy research, he was naturally the first relative I sought out.
As I researched my paternal great-great-grandfather, I was surprised to encounter some of his other descendants, previously unknown to me, who had also been told to “remember Francis Ward Lewis.” Despite the shared family mythology, none of us knew much about him. Together, we eagerly shared our clues and combined our research to discover his identity and his importance in our lives. Cousin Paul shared a note that his mom had written, stating that at one time he had sailed on the brig Elizabeth. Unfortunately, she did not list a source for this information. Pam Lewis, a cousin by marriage, uncovered his “Reminiscences” in the California State Library, which he had written shortly before his death in 1906. The fourteen-page memoir recounted his life following his 1846 arrival in California. Lucky for us, it included his photograph as an old man. As we read his thoughts, it seemed as though we were sitting at the knee of a fascinating, kind elder as he reflected on his adventures and times past. Continue reading Finding Francis Ward Lewis→
This year, January 22 marked the beginning of the Lunar New Year, a holiday that is celebrated by millions of people from many Asian cultures around the world. The lunar calendar is based on the moon’s twelve phases, so the starting date changes from year to year. Each year is represented by an animal—2023 is the Year of the Rabbit. In honor of the Lunar New Year, I decided to write about my Chinese heritage.
My maternal grandparents were originally from the Kwangtung (or Guangdong) Province in China. My grandfather emigrated to Jamaica as a young man in the 1930s. He was part of a large wave of people who migrated mainly from the southern and southeastern parts of China between 1900 and 1940. 1 He first married while living in Jamaica, but his wife and their child sadly died during childbirth. He returned to China, where he met and married my grandmother. They moved to Jamaica shortly after and remained there for the rest of their lives. Continue reading Rediscovering my Chinese Roots→
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→
It was a busy and exciting year for the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center (JHC). In a belated celebration of the eight nights of Hanukkah, which began November 28 and ended on December 6, here are our top eight achievements for the year!
1. After the pandemic postponed what was meant to be the first annual conference in March 2020, the JHC hosted an online event to launch the New England Jewish History Collaborative in January 2021. A partnership between Jewish history organizations in all six New England states, including the JHC, the collaborative created a website and resource guide for researchers interested in New England Jewish history. Visit the website and stay tuned for more programming in 2022.
Two hundred eleven years ago today, on 6 August 1810, Assistant Marshal Ebenezer Burrell set out to make a full and accurate count of the residents of Salem, Massachusetts. He was instructed to make a formal inquiry at each dwelling house, or with the head of household, to count the number of free white males (under the age of 10, 1-15, 16-25, 26-44, and 45 years and older), free white females (under the age of 10, 1-15, 16-25, 26-44, and 45 years and older), and free persons of color (no gender or age designator) living at the residence. He was also told to make two copies of the enumeration, placing them both in two public places for verification. After the enumerations were confirmed, one of the copies was sent to the District Court for safe keeping, while a summary of the statistics was sent to the Secretary of State in Washington, D.C. Continue reading Devil in the details→
As we reach the end of this extraordinary year – one marked by titanic public stresses and private losses – it is time to review a few of the blog posts that appeared in VitaBrevis in 2020. Most posts, of course, concerned genealogical pointers and results, but some addressed the current moment, when so much of our time was spent solitary and in front of a computer screen.
Of course, at the start of 2020 the blog – and NEHGS – focused on twin anniversaries: the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, in 1620, and the 175th birthday of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, in 1845. Continue reading 2020: the year in review→
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→
Two weeks after an explosion leveled parts of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in December 1917, a survivor named Walter Hoganson wrote a letter to a friend in Stoughton, Massachusetts. In the letter, Hoganson provides a harrowing first-person narrative of the events that occurred the morning of December 6, from the initial blast to the arrival of the Massachusetts Relief Expedition. At the end of his letter, he extols the virtues of the Expedition’s Commissioner-in-Charge, Abraham Ratshesky; Hoganson’s letter was placed with care in Ratshesky’s scrapbook, part of his papers in the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center at NEHGS.
First-person narratives are archives’ most enduring materials – they provide those of us in the present with a keener understanding and empathy for those in the past. Continue reading For the future→
There is a great deal of irony here. Having spent 45 years practicing genealogy, I have just had a very rude shock.
The first official genealogy in our family was collected and typed in the 1950s using a manual typewriter and four carbon copies (one for each of her four grandchildren) by my mother’s mother, Alice Mason Crane Hawes. Alice had inherited all the family “stuff” from both her own ancestors and and those of her husband, so she had a rich trove to use that included Bibles, photographs, letters, and much more. Gram had just about all the information she needed from family sources, plus published works in the New England Historic Genealogical Society to fill in eight or more generations of ancestors on my mother’s fan chart. When Gram died in 1962 my mother gathered the papers with the intention of carrying on and, eventually, dumping (er, passing) them on to me. Continue reading Genealogy chaos→
Some of you may know of Herbert Brutus Ehrmann. A Harvard-educated attorney born in Louisville, Kentucky, he is most known for serving on the defense team for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants convicted of (and later executed for) murdering a paymaster at a shoe company during an armed robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1930. The JHC has a collection of his materials.
His wife Sara Rosenfeld Ehrmann was equally well-known in the Boston community. Also born in Kentucky, she was raised in Rochester, New York, and married her husband in 1917. Partially in response to the injustice she saw in the case against Sacco and Vanzetti, she devoted her life to fight against capital punishment. Continue reading Lost in the mountains→