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
The 31 October edition of NEGHS’s Weekly Genealogist ran a quiz asking readers whether they had any ancestors who participated in organized sports as adults. It reminded me that this past Thanksgiving marks one hundred and twenty years since my great-grandfather first played in “The Big Game” between the University of California (Berkeley was its only campus at the time) and Stanford – this year’s game will be played tomorrow.
Fred Athearn played a variety of sports at Pomona College, and when he transferred to the University of California he was urged by both students and faculty to be part of their football team. Cal had never beaten Stanford, but they’d just hired a new coach from “Back East,” and hoped that this – plus new blood among the players – would yield better results. The stakes of this rivalry were now higher than ever, since U.S. Senator James D. Phalen had just offered to place a statue on the campus of whichever university won two successive games. Until that happened, the statue would remain on display in Golden Gate Park. Continue reading “Grandfather Mustache”
Every few months, we have a “Staff Research Night” at NEHGS, where staff members stay in the library after closing and work on their genealogy. Several of the staff genealogists assist staff members in other departments who might be new to genealogy or would like some guidance. Awhile back I worked with Rachel Adams, our Database Services Volunteer Coordinator. She was interested in learning more about her mother’s Jewish ancestry in Connecticut and New York. While we found several items, the ancestor who surprised us both was her great-grandfather, Albert Goldberg (1886–1932) of the Bronx. Continue reading Stolen identity
When the time comes for me to plunge into my Boston Irish Catholic ancestry – my Tierneys, Quinlans, Sweeneys, and Kellards – I intend to make full use of the Catholic parish records that are currently being digitized by the historic collaboration between NEHGS and the Archdiocese of Boston. Until that time, I am comforted in knowing that these precious records are safely ensconced online, for all eternity, ready at the click of the mouse.
Which doesn’t mean that I haven’t already been dabbling in a few things Catholic. Indeed, my current project took me to Braintree, Massachusetts, to the Archives of the Archdiocese of Boston (www.bostoncatholic.org/Archives) in search of answers about my Protestant grandfather, John Osborne, he of stern Puritan stock, who, we were always told, had been orphaned at a young age. Continue reading Divine intervention?
In extending my research on the Trottier family (Cousins of St. Casimir), I discovered in a genealogy of St. Casimir families that Marie Trottier’s eldest sister, Athanaïs, became a Sister of Providence, an order of nuns founded in Montréal. The genealogy provided no other details on her subsequent life. Seeking to learn more information, I wrote to the Archivist of the Sisters of Providence with the certainty they would possess her necrology, an account of the sister’s life written after her death. These documents are more akin to a spiritual profile than facts recounted in an obituary. What I received—a photograph, a list of her dates and places of service, as well as the necrology—exceeded my expectations. Continue reading Religious necrologies