Last year, while going through boxes of old photos at my dad’s house, we came across a plastic bag containing hundreds of photos taken by my great-uncle Dominic Vitale during the Second World War. The photos were curled and disorganized, but on the backs of many of the photos Uncle Dom had written the names of his buddies who were in the photos, as well as dates, locations, and the names of their hometowns. I took the photos home with me, hoping to find a way to organize them electronically and eventually find relatives of his army buddies who would appreciate seeing them. Continue reading Dom Vitale’s war
The recent news that a leak at the National Archives in Boston damaged about 300 hundred cubic feet of records during the government shutdown was hard to hear for many of us who work with records collections as caretakers and researchers. While I immediately thought about the loss of the 1890 census in 1921 and the fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in 1973, I was relieved to hear that most of the damaged records only need to be air dried and rehoused in new folders and boxes. This reminded me of a fascinating tool created by Suzanne Morgan, a conservator at Arizona State University to help archivists and conservators find the perfect container for any item they might encounter. Continue reading A gift for archivists
One of my favorite research topics while investigating my family tree is learning more about my Prince Edward Island (PEI) ancestors. This Canadian province captured the hearts of my ancestors, particularly my grandfather Michael Doherty. My dad would often tell us stories of heading in the car with his parents and siblings from Long Island in New York up the coast to PEI to visit cousins. Continue reading Prince Edward Island reflections
I have a ghost standing at my shoulder, pointing a skeletal finger at my family history “to do” list to remind me of my deficiencies. This ghost arrives at year’s end when The Weekly Genealogist arrives with a survey asking if I’ve completed my genealogical goals, and then asking what my goals are for the coming year.
Wait! There’s a difference? Continue reading The Ghost of Failures Past
I recently revisited one of my all-time favorite books, The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. Years ago, when I first discovered the book, I raved about it to anyone who would listen. “You HAVE to read this book,” I’d implore. “What’s it about?” they’d ask. “It’s about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary,” would be my enthusiastic reply, whereupon I could immediately sense a kind of let-down, as if they were saying You’re kidding, right? A story about a dictionary? Why not a telephone book? My reply was “Trust me, there’s more to it than just the dictionary and you won’t be able to put it down… You’ll wish it would never end.” My would-be converts assured me that they would check it out and off they scampered, every bit of their body language saying, Not a chance. Continue reading A madman and his family
It’s always interesting when research projects overlap – and in unexpected ways. In working on a new genealogy of the Samuel Lawrence family of Groton, Massachusetts, I’ve encountered a man I covered in my 2013 book on the descendants of Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill, Massachusetts. What makes the resonance even greater is that earlier members of both the Whitney and Saltonstall families appear in the Regina Shober Gray diary, and there is even a marriage between a Saltonstall cousin and one of Mrs. Gray’s sons. Continue reading Synchronicity
When people ask me which DNA test I recommend, I turn around and ask them some questions. If what they are after is taking is an “autosomal DNA test,” I may tell them different reasons to take a test with Ancestry or 23andme (and then usually recommend they also upload their Raw DNA onto GEDMatch, FamilyTreeDNA, and MyHeritage to connect with more matches). While I have had many examples of successful connections with the first four sites, I had not any significant breakthroughs with MyHeritage until very recently. Continue reading A family thicket
In May of 2017 I had the privilege of visiting Italy with my siblings and parents. It was the first time we had all visited Italy together, and we had a full itinerary. Yet as delightful as Rome and Amalfi are, particularly for anyone who loves history, I was most thrilled (unsurprisingly) by our road trips to the countryside, where we visited our ancestral towns.
I could write ad nauseam about the experience – about the unparalleled hospitality of distant cousins and family friends; the bottomless jugs of homemade wine and never-ending courses of local dishes; the ancient, gnarled olive trees and cobblestone streets that glow and delight the eye in the evening sunset. And for the genealogist, there is a distinct benefit to walking in the footsteps of your ancestors – nearly every road will lead to the town hall, where decades, sometime centuries, of vital records sit at your fingertips. Exploring the details of these original records, rather than extracts, certified copies, or indexes, is the subject of this post. Continue reading It’s all in the details
In a few days’ time the blog will celebrate its fifth anniversary. Here, to review the year just ended, are some posts from the second half of 2018 demonstrating the range of material published at Vita Brevis.
In July, Meaghan E. H. Siekman wrote about her great-grandfather, the Chicago-born son of Czech immigrants who
spent his lifetime chasing the American dream and preserving a history which was not directly his own, as none of his ancestors ever lived in colonial America. Evidence of the importance of American history in his life can be found in his obituary, which focuses more on his collections [parts of which ended up in the Smithsonian Institution] and preservation work than his career in medicine. Continue reading 2018: the year in review concluded
I am not sure why my family decided to elect me – maybe because I majored in History? – but I am the “family archivist.” What does that entail exactly? I have the responsibility to decide what is kept and what is thrown away in the box of family photographs, letters, and journals. I organize this material in a way that makes the most sense to me, so future generations of the Cann family can look at them and understand their history. Continue reading The family archivist