Tag Archives: Serendipity

The trouble with Jimmie

Albert James Lefurgey (1901-1948), Folsom State Prison 1928

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I work on family history I get bored. After all, how long can one be expected to stare at the same old brick walls, or to wonder why researching on Rootsweb these days feels more like your worst blind date ever? I guess you could say that this sort of ennui has gotten me into a bit of trouble, as in the absence of anything interesting in my own family tree I start looking for ways to escape the solitary confinement of (what I like to call) my own little “genealogical slammer.” I know it’s a bit dangerous to go on the lam like this but, hey, I think you’ll agree that, genealogically speaking, you truly can meet a lot of interesting people along the way. Continue reading The trouble with Jimmie

First person singular

Henry Coffin (1807-1900)

Well, for what looked like it was going to be an awesome year … even in Roman numerals (MMXX) … 2020 is set to go down in history as one of the most trying ever! When so much of what we typically learn about history is painted by textbooks in wide, sweeping gestures, it can be illuminating to read the granular experiences of individuals. I’ve seen several small museums publishing requests for their patrons to keep diaries now, and sharing items online from their collections illustrating the importance of first-person history. In this spirit, I thought I would share a few accounts written by my own ancestors who lived through momentous events. Continue reading First person singular

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

A genealogy of churches

Courtesy of findagrave

My recent post about distant Child cousins living in the Boston area who were early members of NEHGS reminded me of another genealogical (and geographical) connection. Near my home in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, there is a very small cemetery—known as the Walter Street Burying Ground—within the Arnold Arboretum (leased from the City of Boston and maintained by Harvard University) that only has ten stones standing. Frequently friends and colleagues who notice these graves will see the “twin stone” at left, of Benjamin and Grace Child, and ask me if there is any relation. Why, yes, there is!

Continue reading A genealogy of churches

Famous for its Cabots

There are few things that make me happier than snuggling up with my sons Oliver and Charlie at bedtime and reading. We recently read The Trumpet of the Swan. It was the exact copy that my parents read to me many years ago, cracked spine and all. It was an awesome experience to read it again as an adult, observing Oliver and Charlie as they took in the humor, drama, and thrills of the story. Only now could I appreciate the author’s turns of phrases; only now could I grasp certain references and concepts.

Continue reading Famous for its Cabots

Icing on the cake

Anni Virta and Nelly Virta with their relative Everett Rintala on their 1960 trip to Ohio. Photo courtesy of Antti Virta

“Goodbye Helsinki,” Anni Virta wrote in July 1960, “our trip to the west has started and the point of the dream has become a reality.” Anni was a cousin by marriage. An English translation of her diary came to me recently through a serendipitous connection.

Anni’s nephew, Antti Virta of Helsinki, had written to the daughter of one of my cousins, making the connection via WikiTree, asking for information about his aunt Mary Rajasilta, wife of my mother’s brother, George Isaacson. Busy with an ailing mother, my cousin’s daughter bounced Antti’s request to me. I looked up some information about Aunt Mary in American records for Antti. And there began a pleasant correspondence. Continue reading Icing on the cake

The name’s the same

Click on images to expand them.

There’s something that happens when researching genealogy and family history. It’s actually a lot like a trip to the House of Mirrors or the “Ye Olde Fun House.” It’s one of those things that occur when you’ve examined someone’s life but find there’s something that you still can’t quite resolve. I mean, it’s not exactly a brick wall – as everything else about the subject’s life in question will look “just fine” – “but.” Really, all the pieces of the puzzle go together perfectly … or do they? It seems that there is always one piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit quite right.

So we genealogists dance around the puzzle. For me, I like to use words and phrases like “probably, likely, could-a-been, might-a-been,” and my all time favorite, without a doubt. We might even build a sketch of the person’s life, ever careful not to disturb the tenets of our research, all the while practicing a little bit of the X Files mantra that “the truth is out there.” Continue reading The name’s the same

Flushed with pride

In this period of self-isolation, the imagination of genealogists will likely extend significantly. Frequent Vita Brevis writer Jeff Record recently shared with me an online tree that purportedly gave a Mayflower line back to Seth Wheeler (1838-1925) of Albany, New York, known as the creator of perforated paper, who obtained the earliest patents for toilet paper and dispensers in 1883. The tree depicted a descent from Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke by calling Francis the father Henry Cook of Salem, Massachusetts! Francis did not have a son named Henry, and the origins of Henry Cook (who was in Salem by 1638) are unknown. So, unfortunately, I had to tell Jeff that the Mayflower line was worthless, but at least we can thank Wheeler for toilet paper! Continue reading Flushed with pride

ICYMI: ‘If space allows’

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 5 January 2017.]

Thanks to a timely message alerting me to a collection of letters for sale at eBay, I recently acquired one side of the genealogical correspondence between Regina Shober Gray[1] and the Rev. Richard Manning Chipman, author of The Chipman Lineage (1872). Mrs. Gray, so expansive in some areas of her diary, is comparatively terse with regard to the beginning of the correspondence: Continue reading ICYMI: ‘If space allows’

The power of a mark

Petition to the Ipswich selectmen, 12 April 1686. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

History came vividly alive for me on a cold December day ten years ago in Salem, Massachusetts. For a retired historian, the Phillips Library of Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum was the perfect place to enjoy a brief respite from winter’s doldrums by indulging in the quiet pleasures of archival research. Housed in an elegant, mid-nineteenth-century Italianate townhouse brimming with antiques and historical artifacts, the library’s reading room was warm, intimate, and inviting – its library tables and comfortable Windsor chairs surrounded by bookshelf walls filled with classic reference works on New England history. Above them, original portraits and busts of prominent Massachusetts Bay colonists gazed down on the reading room’s patrons – who, on the day in question, consisted of a few family history gray-beards like myself and a young doctoral candidate or two engaged in dissertation research.[1] Continue reading The power of a mark