“In the fits of our ages, tales and characters are revealed” … or so it was the case with my grandmother, as dementia stole over her mind during the last years of her life. I have used “fits” and “ages” here in the plural form, as I want to tell you a tale of that composite age, the age that my grandmother was then, and an age in life when our minds return to what we once knew best. This is the way it was for my grandmother Babe Sage (as she was called), and how the specter of a woman called “Ma Seal” came into our lives. Ma Seal, for long years unknown to the rest of the family, was a grand old lady whose identity was only revealed in the last couple of weeks. I hope you will indulge me as I try to explain the whys and hows of it all, and yes, perhaps the “fits” and “ages” of it, too. Continue reading Finding Ma
Okay. Let’s clear something up straight away. Like the rest of us here, I see dead people. The truth is, though, that “my visions” aren’t always very clear, and truer still, is that I don’t exactly see dead people so much as I hear them. (And no, it’s not time for you to call your local mental health professional on this blogger just yet – but do give it time.) I know it may seem like a big genealogical s t r e t c h, but I have to believe you know just what I mean. They, our dearly departed, “come a calling” to leave one with that feeling of a special message – one intended for you alone. It’s almost like some form of spectral evidence meant to guide us in researching the old family tree. Stretch or not, most of the time my own dearly departed are just like this; that is, showing up with their usual hints of hushed and secretive messages. “Messages” that make me sweat it out for the smallest discovery of their lives, relationships, whereabouts, or demise. (Well, they never promised that it would be easy, right?) Continue reading Delayed messages
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.
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
Research Problem 1
After tracing your family line as far back as possible, you have run into the inevitable brick wall. You should: (a) persevere in your research and hope for an eventual breakthrough; (b) claim that you are a direct lineal descendant of Alexander the Great or King Arthur, acknowledging that your evidence is open to differing interpretations; or (c) give up and accept your failure as a genealogist.
ANSWER: (a), unless you’re like 27 percent of the amateur genealogists posting family trees on the internet, in which case the correct answer is (b). Continue reading Pop quiz
Census records are obviously an essential resource for genealogical research. Until recently, my understanding was that the first U.S. census to provide a place of origin was the 1850 census. Beginning in 1850, the census began to include the names of all family members, ages, and place of birth, among other information. This contrasted with earlier census records that only provided the name of head of household and a broad age range for each family member. However, while doing some recent case work on a Snow line in Hancock County, Maine around 1800, I came across an article by Walter Goodwin Davis published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1951. In this article, entitled “Part of Hancock County, Maine in 1800,” Davis called attention to the 1800 census for Hancock and Kennebec Counties (at that time part of Massachusetts) which actually had a column labeled, “from whence emigrated.” Continue reading ‘From whence emigrated’
Well, there’s one thing this pandemic isn’t going to do, and that’s dampen my (well-quarantined) spirits for the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower. From perusing the pages of a Silver Book to taking advantage of new on-line resources (at NEHGS and elsewhere), well, let’s just say it’s a really cool time to be a Hopkins or a Howland. There are so many advances being made to the study of Mayflower ancestry that, heck, for me it’s a lot like Must See TV. Though I’ve got to tell you, the best part about “Mayflower 2020” – and I do mean the very best part – is in teaching my granddaughters about our pilgrim ancestors, and the reasons behind that voyage of so long ago. Continue reading The General Society
In a previous Vita Brevis post, I sang the praises of tax lists as useful sources of information for family history research. Today’s post focuses attention on another valuable but underutilized research resource: unpublished doctoral dissertations.
Since the 1960s, Ph.D. candidates at U.S. universities have written a surprisingly large number of dissertations on the histories of individual American towns, ranging from the early settlements of colonial New England and other regions to nineteenth-century midwestern farming communities. Continue reading In praise of dissertations
One of my personal “Great Moments in Family History Research” occurred several years ago in the town hall of Pomfret, Connecticut. I was immersed in a volume of early Pomfret land records at a small table set aside for researchers, when I happened to ask a former town clerk in passing whether any of the town’s early tax lists had survived. Without a word, she disappeared into the town hall’s records vault and emerged carrying a large cardboard box filled with original copies of eighteenth-century local tax lists.
I hadn’t really worked with tax lists before, but I knew that they were supposed to be a useful source of information for family history research. From an early date, American towns large and small annually assessed the value of their residents’ property holdings for tax purposes. Continue reading In praise of tax lists
From our modern perspective, seventeenth-century New England was a strange cultural cosmos: a post-medieval/pre-modern world where metaphysical beliefs, superstition, and fear of the supernatural still prevailed – a world in which people believed that witches were real and that ghosts, “specters,” and spirits from “the invisible world” could directly influence the lives of humans. We look back on that world today with a mixture of amusement and condescension, horror and fascination. Continue reading Twilight
Last month my sons Oliver and Charlie each received a postcard from their grandparents—Grandpa Bill and Oma—in Michigan. My husband Tom and I were slightly mystified because the postcards were from Boston and Cambridge and had seemingly traveled through time from the past. The Boston skyline didn’t look quite right. And who talks about beans anymore? Even the style of the fonts and the graphic design are extinct. Continue reading Postcards from the past