Tag Archives: Research tips

In praise of maiden aunts

Sally Leeds. Author’s collection

As most genealogists focus their in-depth research on direct ancestors, I have adopted the term “genealogical orphans” for persons with no living descendants to take an interest in researching them. While we usually document the births of all known children in a family, and sometimes their marriages and deaths, we less frequently go beyond the basics to learn about their lives. We have been encouraged to investigate family, associates, and neighbors (the “FAN club”), but often do so only in search of evidence to document a hard-to-prove family relationship. Yet I have found that these maiden aunts, bachelor uncles, and childless couples often have fascinating stories, and sometimes had profound impact on our ancestors. Continue reading In praise of maiden aunts

Galician military records

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The point of this brief post is to inspire and frustrate. Mostly inspire.

I have been working on a few research cases lately where the clients’ ancestors were from the historical region of Galicia – part of the Austrian Empire until the end of World War I, but today divided between the modern states of Poland and Ukraine. Research in Galicia, like so many European genealogical research areas, relies heavily on surviving vital and church records to document families. Sources are often difficult to locate, as the region switched hands often in the last 250 years or so. Regional archives in Poland, Ukraine, or Austria might hold collections that include your specific town, city, or village of focus. Continue reading Galician military records

Finding Ma

Ma Seal revealed. Images by Lora Webb Nichols, courtesy of the University of Wyoming

“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.[1] 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 Sealcame into our lives. Ma Seal,[2] 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

Delayed messages

Minnie Maud (Hickok) Wilcox with her twin sister Mallie Mae (Hickok) Bodwell. Courtesy of Tom Kennedy

Okay. Let’s clear something up straight away. Like the rest of us here, I see dead people.[1] 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

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

Pop quiz

Research Problem 1

Courtesy Groton.org

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

‘From whence emigrated’

A page from the Davis article.

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.”[1] Continue reading ‘From whence emigrated’

The General Society

“Howland Overboard,” courtesy of mikehaywoodart.co.uk.

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[1] 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.[2] 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 praise of dissertations

Harvard’s Widener Library. Courtesy of Harvard Magazine

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

In praise of tax lists

Courtesy of NARA

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