As a child, I read every book by Roald Dahl; Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was one of my favorite movies. I can still say most of the dialogue by heart and occasionally listen to the film’s soundtrack. I was saddened to hear last week of the death of child actress Denise Nickerson, who portrayed Violet Beauregarde. As I often do when someone in the news passes away, I decided to see if I could find anything of interest on her family history, recognizing her surname often has connections to colonial Cape Cod. Continue reading Remembering Denise Nickerson
There are those theorists who say that time is a river with many bends, and that if we could look back around one of those bends, we’d see the past. I think of that whenever I cross the Kennebec River here in Augusta on my way to Old Fort Western. If I could see around the river’s bend, would I see my ancestor, the Pilgrim John Howland, arriving to establish the Cushnoc Trading Post for the Plymouth Colony in 1628? I might find my house-builder cousin, Asa Williams, on his way to the Fort in 1777, or his brother Seth trading at the S. & W. Howard store in 1790. Maybe my great-great-great-great-grandfather George Read would be galloping by to call the midwife Martha Ballard to help deliver his first child, or perhaps I’d see that same midwife on her way to view an autopsy in Eunice (Fisher) Williams’s kitchen. Continue reading The occasional cognac
Recently, I had been working to extend my Garvin line in Mallow parish in County Cork. I had been able to confirm my great-great-great-grandparents, Francis Garvin and Ellen Coleman, but I had been unable to locate a marriage record for the couple. Though there were several Garvin family groups in Mallow parish and the surrounding area, I could not place Francis Garvin with a family. Continue reading Happy error
In my house, there’s an old book that stands guard against the march of time. It’s not any great work or an impressive tome, that’s for sure, as it’s pretty humble in title and origin. However, it still endures – and much like a singular nomad on my Costco bookshelf, it spends its days between the works of Robert Charles Anderson and my collection of Mayflower Silver Books and issues of the Mayflower Descendant. Nevertheless, this book – which I have taken to calling “Old Green” – has its own unique story, as she was once the prized possession of my great-great-grandmother Mary (Hoyt) Wilcox. (Even now I have to believe Mrs. Wilcox keeps a watchful eye on it from the Great Beyond.) You see, truth be told, if our home was ever to (God forbid) fall prey to any disaster, man-made or otherwise, I am ‘bound’ by some celestial edict to rescue “Old Green.” It seems silly to say so, but I count it among those irreplaceable things, and among those things with a life of their own, serendipitously placed by our ancestors for safe-keeping. Continue reading ‘Old Green’
My second-ever Vita Brevis post featured the story of how my grandfather became a stationmaster for Pan Am’s flying boat operations in the South Pacific. On the morning of 8 December 1941 (on his side of the International Date Line), Papi oversaw the departure of a Pan Am Clipper flying boat from Noumea, New Calendonia, which would immediately thereafter enter aviation history by flying “the long way” back to New York over uncharted routes. At almost the exact same time (on the American side of the International Date Line), a young man named Joe Pease was at the dock of Pan Am’s Pearl Harbor facility, awaiting the arrival of another Clipper. Needless to say, Joe had the more exciting morning! Continue reading Stubborn facts
‘What’s in a name?’ asked Juliet of Romeo, concluding that the name of something does not define what it really is. A rose, after all, by any other name would smell as sweet, but for family genealogists, a rose by any other name can become an obstacle to progress and success. Naturally, we go in search of a name as we expect it to be, as we’ve always known it to be and, in doing so – in not considering all the possible variations or that any given spelling may not necessarily be the “correct” spelling – we may overlook vital clues and new pathways for our research. I suspect that most family genealogists who stay at their research beyond the “low hanging fruit” stage, who don’t give up too soon, eventually double back and realize their earlier oversights. Continue reading What’s in a name?
I have been exploring the ancestry of the twenty-plus 2020 presidential candidates. Although I will likely wait some time until the number is reduced before reporting on most of them, I was recently surprised to find in the ancestry of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, via a small amount of his New England ancestry, connections to two prominent figures in the United Kingdom! Continue reading Mayor Pete’s cousins
My grandmother Anne (Cassidy) Dwyer never met her father, Patrick Cassidy, who was killed in a Fall River (Massachusetts) mill seven months before her birth, but from the Cassidy side of the family, she knew a dozen or more Irish-born first cousins. Six sisters from one family alone came to Fall River to escape the grinding poverty of rural Ireland. Agnes Horan, a favorite cousin, arrived at age 20 in 1908. Agnes’s elder sister, Annie Driscoll, paid for her passage. Agnes, in turn, brought over the next sister. In 1919, after working ten years as a domestic servant, Agnes married Joseph Bento, son of Azorean immigrants. Agnes died in 1930, leaving her husband and four small children. For the rest of her life, Nana Dwyer nonetheless maintained contact with Agnes’s children. Long after my grandmother’s death, I renewed acquaintance with the Bento family, sharing genealogical information and photographs. Continue reading Cousin confusion
Of my four grandparents, it is my maternal grandfather whose background seems most mysterious. He and his parents duly appear in Norfolk (Virginia) city directories and censuses, but much of the personal – the quirks and the quotidian – seems missing from the life he led before he won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1919.
His father, J. Frank Bell (John Francis Bell, 1878–1944), has, if anything, been more of a cipher. It was his father, also John Francis Bell (1839–1905), who appears out of thin air, hailing from Isle of Wight County and establishing himself as a contractor in Richmond. Frank Bell went south to Norfolk, where he met and married my great-grandmother, Minnie Estelle Jackson (1876–1935). Frank Bell seems as solid as Estelle’s father, the roguish O.D. Jackson, proved transient, and he became a leading figure in Norfolk, managing hotels, winning election to the City Council, and helping to found the Rotary Club. Continue reading The weekend farmer
As I mentioned in my last Vita Brevis post, I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks in Europe this past March. Like any good vacation, my travels were filled with historical and genealogical research. After a wonderful stay in Rome and having thoroughly (re)explored its ancient history, I made my way to the Tiburtina Terminal in the northeastern part of the Eternal City to board a bus and pursue what historians and genealogists alone would consider recent history: nineteenth-century records.
As any Italian genealogist knows, many records that have been digitized are available on FamilySearch.org and the Italian Antentati (i.e. “ancestors”) site. The digitization process is far from complete, however. Continue reading Coming home