Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Caring for the land

From the author’s collection

Prior to my career at American Ancestors, I worked at the living history museum called Plimoth Plantation (now referred to as Plimoth Patuxet). For five years, I had the remarkable opportunity of learning and telling the story of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Natives. I first started in the Group Sales Office, where we assisted school and tour groups with their planned visits to Plimoth Plantation. Throughout the fall season, we could accommodate up to 2,500 children per day. After about a year, I was promoted to work in the Education department and was responsible for scheduling all the programs offered through the interpretation staff – off-site classroom visits, workshops, overnights at Plimoth Plantation, and summer and winter day camps. In this role, I learned to love the seventeenth century. Continue reading Caring for the land

Rooted in history

A detail of the Clapp pear tree

As a genealogist, when I hear the word “tree” I typically think of family trees, not the outdoor variety used for shade on a sunny day. However, I came across an interesting newspaper article about a gentleman named James Raymond Simmons who gave a lecture on trees at the New England Historic Genealogical Society one hundred years ago. Simmons, who served as secretary-forester of the New York State Forestry Association and assistant state forester of Massachusetts, described trees as “the oldest living witness of our past history.”[1] He compiled a list of Massachusetts trees and their connection to people and historic events, which he included in his book The Historic Trees of Massachusetts.[2] Although a few of his examples have tenuous connections, I appreciate the message Simmons attempted to convey to his audience. Continue reading Rooted in history

ICYMI: Four hundred years local

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 6 January 2020.]

Plymouth Harbor at dusk

For whatever reason, my grandmother’s ancestors stayed put. They ignored the call to go west (“young man!”) or to secure the nation’s manifest destiny. Maybe they had political objections and instead manifested disdain for American imperialism and conquest. Maybe they felt comfortable where they were, and bred wanderlust right out of the gene pool. Wasn’t it enough that many of their ancestors had traveled thousands of miles to get to Plymouth in the first place? Plympton is west; Marshfield and Kingston are north; and that is just about as far as they went.

And here is the humble brag: because my grandmother’s ancestors stayed put, and let’s face it, married their extended relatives (folding the family tree in on itself numerous times), I can prove descent from many Mayflower passengers, many times over. Continue reading ICYMI: Four hundred years local

Of Plimoth Plantation

Watching the videos of Mayflower II being escorted through the Cape Cod Canal brings weird thoughts to my mind. What if there had been a canal in 1620? Would “Plimoth Plantation” have been “Long Island Plantation”? Things would have been different, but since there was no canal, that stray thought is of no importance.

Of great importance, however, among the celebrations of the settlement of Plimoth Plantation is the new publication by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and New England Historic Genealogical Society: Of Plimoth Plantation by William Bradford, The 400th Anniversary Edition.[1] I highly recommend that if you buy only one four hundredth anniversary souvenir, it should be this book, which will be a legacy for your descendants. Continue reading Of Plimoth Plantation

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

In the neighborhood

The Fensgate, today’s Charlesview Condominium. All images courtesy of backbayhouses.org

Real estate transactions might not seem very romantic, or as offering much in the way of narrative, but sometimes proximity and dates can signal ongoing relationships. One in my own family comes to mind: in 1899, my Ayer great-great-grandparents[1] moved from Lowell to Boston, initially renting a house on Beacon Street while they planned to build a new home on Commonwealth Avenue.

At the same time, my great-great-grandfather’s sister-in-law, the former Mary Hascall Wheaton,[2] was living in a house on Beacon Street while planning her own new house, just two doors down. Of all these houses, only Aunt Minnie Kittredge’s former home has been torn down, to make way for The Fensgate at the corner of Beacon Street and Charlesgate East. And while the street addresses don’t hint at it, the Kittredge and Ayer houses were just two blocks apart. Continue reading In the neighborhood

Mayflower myths 2020

Detail of Leiden map, ca. 1600, a hand-colored engraving created by Pieter Bast, showing the Pieterskerk and surrounding area. Note the clock tower that gave Clock Alley its name. The boats on the Rapenburg show where the Pilgrims boarded. Courtesy of Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken (Heritage Leiden and Region)

There are many Mayflower myths already, but the Mayflower 400 year brings new ones. The very latest Mayflower myth is that the Pilgrims boarded the Speedwell in Leiden. The simple truth is that the Speedwell was never in Leiden. The Pilgrims took canal boats to Delfshaven, where the Speedwell was waiting for them, and set sail for Southampton. A widely shared blog post proposes an alternative myth: the Pilgrims travelled from Leiden to Delfshaven on foot, on horseback, and by carriage.

A myth that’s been repeated a lot the last year or so is that the Pilgrims boarded those canal boats at a spot marked by a statue. The text on the base of that statue reads “From here the Pilgrims left Leiden on their journey to the new world,” and that text is easily misunderstood. The statue is near the Vliet Bridge, and the text wouldn’t be misunderstood if the statue had been placed on that bridge instead of merely close to it.

Back in 1620, the bridge was part of the border wall of Leiden, and the Pilgrims left Leiden when they crossed under that bridge. They did not board at that spot. They boarded at the Rapenburg, not far from the Pieterskerk and John Robinson’s house. Continue reading Mayflower myths 2020

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

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