26 July 2015

Hawthorne and the Guilt-Ridden W?

Nathaniel Hawthorne c. 1860-1865 by Mathew Brady
Numerous articles and books repeat that Nathaniel Hawthorne added a W to his surname to distance himself from his ancestor, the hanging judge John Hathorne (1641-1717) of the Salem witch trials—without offering any proof. But is it really true? Did he ever tell someone or write down why? 

Or did people assume they could peer into his psyche—through reading his short stories and romances, perhaps—and say ancestral guilt led him to add a letter to his surname? It doesn’t make sense. 

From “Young Goodman Brown” to The House of Seven Gables, Salem permeates Hawthorne’s writings, whether it’s the setting itself, the story line, or even the Puritan mentality. Hawthorne couldn’t escape the ghosts in his past, whether he believed actual ghosts meandered through the headstones at the Old Burying Point or whether he felt ancestral eyes were watching him, much like the judge’s painting in Seven Gables.

During the early 19th century, Salem was a busy seaport. Surrounded by wealth and worldliness, Hawthornes family relied on relatives for support after his father died of yellow fever in Surinam when the author was four years old. And those relatives, no doubt, regaled the young boy with stories of his ancestors, to keep alive the Hathorne legacy.

Legends of the Tree

Hawthorn flowers
The author’s long-ago ancestors lived near Binfield and Bray, co. Berks, in England, where there’s a legend of two pots of gold buried beneath the hawthorn tree on Hawthorn Hill (p. 110). Genealogist Henry F. Waters, himself a son of Salem, regretted he didnt make this discovery earlier, when Hawthorne was still alive. Waters wrote: “How eagerly [Hawthornes] quaint and vivid fancy would have seized even upon the scanty materials offered to it in the Legend of Hawthorn Hill and its pots of gold, to weave therefrom a story that should rival in weirdness any of his Legends of New England (Register, Vol. 38, p. 203).

Home to the faerie folk, hawthorn is linked to courtship and May Day celebrations. At the same time, the tree is considered unlucky. It’s protected with thorns and blossoms that smell of illness or death—and, ironically, it’s supposed to be a favored wood used to make witches’ brooms.

It’s possible that centuries ago the family took its name from the hawthorn tree. And, like many words, some surnames evolved and changed spellings over time. Reviewing vital records, probate proceedings, and histories, the surname has appeared as Harthone, Harthorn(e), Hathorn, Hatthorn, Haughthorne, Hauthorn(e), Hawthorn(e), Horthorne, Hotharn, Hothorn(e), and Hothornne, among others. Between handwriting, literacy, and clerical errors, it’s easy to see how names change on paper.

Take it one step further and consider how the surname is pronounced. Try saying “Hathorne” with an English accent, specifically with the intonations of someone from 17th century London or co. Berks. Then try it with a 19th century Massachusetts accent. Would it sound differently?

Without the Story, It’s Guesswork

Without knowing the story behind the change in spelling, we cannot assume it’s because of guilt by association.

Who’s to say that it wasn’t Hawthorne’s publisher who added the W? Not necessarily separating the brooding author from his heritage but because the hawthorn tree, with its white flowers and red berries, added a touch of romance to the authors persona? Or because the printer made a typographical mistake on the book cover?

And who’s to say that maybe Hawthorne, inspired by his family tree, did a little genealogical research in the Salem church records and found his father was baptized as “Nathanael Hawthorne” in 1775 and his great grandfather as “Joseph Hauthorn” in 1692?

We may never know the truth, but lets stop guessing that ancestral disassociation was behind the decision to add the W in Hawthorne.


Ancestors of Nathaniel Hawthorne in America

Nathaniel Hawthorne, b. 4 July 1804, Salem, Mass.; d. 19 May 1864, Plymouth, NH; m. 9 July 1842, Sophia Amelia Peabody (1809-1871). Author.

Capt. Nathaniel Hathorne, bapt. 21 May 1775, Salem, as “Nathanael Hawthorne”; d. 1808 in Surinam; m. 2 August 1801, Salem, Elizabeth C. Manning (1780-1849).

John Hathorne's grave at Old Burying Point, Charter Street, Salem.
Daniel Hathorne, bapt. 22 August 1731, Salem; d. 18 April 1796, Salem; m. 21 Oct. 1756, Salem, Rachel Phelps (1733-1813).

Joseph Hathorne, bapt. May 1692, Salem, as “Joseph Hauthorn”; d. 23 June 1762, Salem; m. 30 June 1715, Salem, Sarah Bowditch.

Col. John Hathorne, bapt. 2 Aug. 1641, Salem; d. 10 May 1717, Salem; m. 22 March 1674/5, Ruth Gardner. Known as “the hanging judge” for his part in the 1692 Salem witch trials.

Major William Hathorne, born about 1606/1607, Bray, co. Berks, England; emigrated about 1633; died April 1681, Salem, Mass.; married Ann.


Sources
Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850: Salem (NEHGS online)

French, Elizabeth, “Genealogical Research in England,” in New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 67, pp. 248-260 (1913).

Kerry, Charles, The History and Antiquities of the Hundred of Bray, in the County of Berks (London: Savill and Edwards, 1861).

Moriarty, G. Andrews, “Genealogical Gleanings in England VII,” in New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 79, pp. 311-316 (1925).

Waters, Henry F., “Genealogical Gleanings in England,” in New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 38, pp. 201-204 (1884).


27 June 2015

Finding the right man with the wrong photo

When something doesn't add up (Ancestry.com trees)
Recently, Ancestry.com redesigned its web site to provide “a whole new way to bring your ancestors’ stories to life.” Incorporated into this redesign is the new Facts View on Ancestry online trees, which visually and literally connects sources to support the family tree’s relationships and life facts. It’s easy to check sources by clicking the links to viewable documents within Ancestry.com’s database.

One Ancestry.com family tree included a photo of a husband and wife, which referred to a 1920 passport as the source. What a find! I hadn’t thought to look past the immigrant ship manifests to see if anyone in the family traveled back to the mother country to visit relatives. I couldn’t wait to tell my uncle I found a picture of his grandparents online. Luckily, I checked the source first.

It turns out that the pictured couple is not my uncle’s grandparents but another passport applicant and his wife (#16380). By 1918, a passport application for naturalized citizens was a two-sided form. The front of the application included the person’s name, birth date, emigration and naturalization dates, home address, occupation, travel plans, and oath of allegiance. The back included a description of the applicant, an affidavit of an identifying witness, and a photograph. These original papers were bound together in book form and scanned. 

Obviously, the family tree poster saw the couple’s photograph on the left and assumed it belonged to the applicant on the right. And since the couple’s application was accompanied by a letter-sized note from the man’s employer, it covered up the back side of their legal-sized application—except for their photo. My uncle’s grandfather (#16381) also had a letter from a business associate explaining the reason for the trip overseas and on the scanned page, visible below that letter, is a third passport applicant’s oath of allegiance (#16382). 

Although I couldn’t swap the couple’s photo with the correct grandfather’s face on the family tree posted at Ancestry.com, I did add a note about the misidentified image to prevent others from making the same mistake. And, thanks to that online tree, I was able to share with my uncle his grandfathers passport application and photo. 

For sources, it’s important to check the pages or images before and after the one that you’re looking for—in case you misinterpret or miss information that you need.

06 June 2015

Written in Stone: Proof of the Hazen/Gibson Marriage

Before writing more about the Gibsons, I am including my article printed in the New England Historic Genealogical Society's magazine in 2009.




New England Ancestors (Fall 2009): 40.
For the last decade, I’ve overturned rocks in my efforts to find the parents of John Gibson, a miller in the North End of Boston, who died in 1721. I often collaborated with my newly-found fifth cousin twice removed, Ruby (Gibson) White. One of her common refrains was: “What about Hannah Hazen’s Gibson children?” At first, I dismissed this lead. In New England Marriages Prior to 1700, [i] Clarence Almon Torrey listed her marriage with an extra editorial: “GIBSON, William & Hannah HAZEN?, dau Edward (very doubtful).”

When the New England Historic Genealogical Society published Torrey’s 12-volume manuscript on CD a few years ago, I checked his sources. I found it odd that he referenced the major Hazen genealogy,[ii] while doubting is accuracy in his concise synopsis.

Hannah Hazen was born the seventh month of 1653 in Rowley, Massachusetts,[iii] daughter of Edward Hazen (b. 1614[iv]; buried 22 July 1683 in Rowley[v]) and his second wife, Hannah Grant (b. 1631[vi]; d. Feb. 1715 in Haverill as widow of Capt. George Brown[vii]). The Hazen volume claimed that Hannah Hazen married William Gibson and died before 1683, leaving three children. When Hannah’s father died intestate, the inventory of his estate by his widow Hannah and son Edward was attested in Ipswich court 25 September 1683, and recorded 12 March 1683/4. The settlement gave the names of his children, including “Hannah Gibson deceased (3 children living) hath received 15.18.” After debts and the widow’s thirds, the estate was divided between the 10 Hazen children, with the eldest son receiving a double portion. Each child was entitled to 33 pounds and 10 shillings, with “William Gibson having = Rstd [received] 15.18.8/ Rest. [remained to be paid] short of a share 17.11.4.” [viii]

After Hannah (Grant) (Hazen) Brown died in February 1715, land that was part of her widow’s thirds was distributed to her children. This agreement, dated 20 June 1716, makes provision for her grandchildren, “brother Gibson’s children . . . they having their share with the others.”[ix] Unfortunately, the probate records do not mention the Gibson children by name nor identify their residence, but the plural “children” means at least two and possibly all three, Gibson children were still alive by this date.

Hannah (Hazen) Gibson gravestone, Granary Burial Ground (2008)
In addition to these two probate records, an additional source now confirms the Gibson-Hazen marriage. In early August 2008, I was taking cemetery photos for the Halloween issue of a local parenting magazine in the Granary Burial Ground in Boston, when I stumbled by chance across Hannah’s gravestone alongside the path near the wall by Tremont Place (by wall tomb 103):

“Hannah wife to/ William Gibson/& daughter to Edward Hazen/aged about 25….”[x]

Prior to this cemetery visit, I had checked the NEHGS database, Old Cemeteries of Boston, [xi] to see if any of my ancestral connections were buried there, so I knew Hannah’s stone was not included. Nor is the stone mentioned in the 1856 survey or the 1905 inscriptions compiled by Henry A. May, both of which were consulted for Ogden Codman’s Gravestone Inscriptions and Records of Tomb Burials in the Granary Burial Ground. [xii] Hannah’s grave was not included in the 1980s survey by the Historic Burial Grounds Initiative (HBGI) nor can it be found on HBGI’s map. When I contacted HBGI, project director Kelly Thomas had no record of the grave and could not say whether it was found during recent conservation.[xiii] Since the grave had been forgotten or misplaced for the last 150 years (since the 1856 survey), on 22 August 2008, Kelly Thomas and conservators at the cemetery lifted the stone to reveal the rest of the inscription:

“Hannah wife to/ William Gibson/& daughter to Edward Hazen/aged about 25/ years dec’d October ye 10/1678/Also 2 sons lyes by her.”

How the gravestone was overlooked for generations is a mystery. Clearly, it is not new. The fan-sunburst motif on Hannah’s gravestone can be attributed to an unnamed carver “whose works are to be seen primarily in Charlestown, Cambridge, Watertown, Malden, Wakefield, Woburn, the Granary, and King’s Chapel.” This design by the “Charlestown carver” was only used in the 1670s and 1680s, making the gravestone contemporary with her death date. “From the extant evidence it would seem that the [Charlestown carver’s] earliest carving, stemming from broadsides, developed north of the Charles River possibly as early as 1674 and certainly by 1678.”[xiv]

Given that the gravestone was probably placed shortly after her death in 1678 and before her father’s 1683 probate, Hannah and William Gibson had at least five children, born between say 1670 and 1678. Five Gibson children (none named John) are recorded in Boston records during this time but belong to another couple with the same names: William Gibson, often referred to as “the Scotchman” or by his occupation as cordwainer or shoemaker, [xv] and his second wife, Hannah Phippen.

Finding Hannah (Hazen) Gibson’s grave not only confirms her marriage but also gives her exact death date and narrows the time period for her children’s births—all information not found in contemporary records. Based on the grave inscription, I can conclude that Hannah Hazen is less likely than Ruby and I hoped to be the mother of our John Gibson of Boston, who filed a marriage intention on 18 December 1708 to Margaret Wood of Ipswich. [xvi]

So the search continues—for my John Gibson’s parents as well as “brother Gibson’s children.”

Footnotes
[i] Clarence Almon Torrey, New England Marriages Prior to 1700 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985, 1997), 301.
[ii] Tracy Elliot Hazen, The Hazen Family in America (New Haven, Conn.: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Co., 1947).
[iii] Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 (Online Database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2009).
[iv] Torrey, New England Marriages, 361, and Hazen, The Hazen Family, 4-5, 7-8.
[v] Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850.
[vi] Torrey, New England Marriages, 361, and Hazen, The Hazen Family, 10-11, 14.
[vii] “Descendants of Henry Brown of Salisbury” in Essex Antiquarian, 12 (1908), 97.
[viii] Hazen, The Hazen Family, 21-23.
[ix] Hazen, The Hazen Family, 24.
[x] Since 1660, more than 5,000 people have been buried at Granary Burying Ground, though less than half are marked by gravestones, which have sometimes been moved in an effort to straighten the rows. Hannah (Hazen) Gibson’s grave is located in a row with three unrelated and also relocated graves, for Susannah Reynolds (died 5 May 1746, aged 26); Windsor Goulding (d. 26 August 1702, aged 13 months and eight days); and Mary Coney (d. 17 June 1697, aged 21 months). There are no known Hazen graves in Granary, and the other Gibson burials are probably unrelated.
[xi] Old Cemeteries of Boston (Online database: AmericanAncestors.org, NEHGS, 2007), taken from Robert J. Dunkle and Ann S. Lainhart, Inscriptions and Records of the Old Cemeteries of Boston (Boston, MA: NEHGS, 2000).
[xii] Ogden Codman, Gravestone Inscriptions and Records of Tomb Burials in the Granary Burying Ground, Boston, Mass. (Salem, Mass.: The Essex Institute, 1918).
[xiii] The Historic Burying Grounds Initiative is part of the city of Boston’s Parks & Recreation Department. HBGI has an online database of burials (http://www.cityofboston.gov/parks/hbgi/). Email correspondence with Kelly Thomas, 11 Aug. 2008; 15 Aug. 2008.
[xiv] Allan I. Ludwig, Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols, 1650-1815 (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999), 291.
[xv] See Annie Haven Thwing, Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston, 1630-1800 & The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston, 1630-1822 (Boston: NEHGS, CD-ROM 2002) for his profile. From 1663, this William Gibson is credited with at least 20 children, including 15 with Hannah Phippen, listed in The American Genealogist 17 (1940): 12. The Scotchman was actively involved in the community and more likely to record his children’s births. None of the gestational periods overlap. His wife Hannah Phippen was born 25 July 1653, just two months before Hannah Hazen, according to Boston Births, Baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths, 1630-1699 (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill City Printers, 1883), 41.
[xvi] The average age at marriage for males during this period is 25. If John Gibson were Hannah Hazen’s son, he would have been between 30 and 38 in 1708. Vital Records of Ipswich, Massachusetts to the End of the Year 1849 (Salem, Mass.: The Essex Institute, 1910) 2:181.


Reprinted by permission of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Robin Chalmers Mason, “Written in Stone: Proof of the Hazen/Gibson Marriage,” (New England Ancestors, vol. 10, no. 4 (fall 2009): 40-42. For more information about the magazine, now known as American Ancestors, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society, please visit www.americanancestors.org


31 May 2015

The house where witchcraft started

In 1892, Salem—which basked in its architectural splendor, its rich maritime history, and its scientific and educational pursuits—wanted to bury its dark past. But as the 200th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials approached, publishers and businessmen stirred up the pot by producing newspaper articles, travelogues, books, pamphlets, photographic prints, and even witch spoons. Taking advantage of the renewed interest, many of these printed items relied on town histories, Charles W. Upham’s Salem Witchcraft (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction, and unsubstantiated traditions.

One such book, Witchcraft Illustrated, Witchcraft to be Understood: Facts, Theories and Incidents with a Glance at Old and New Salem and its Historical Resources, includes images of Salem and Danvers interspersed between stories of witchcraft near and far. One curious photograph, identified as “The House Where Witchcraft Started, Now Danvers, Mass.,” also appears on Wikipedia and Find a Grave, but not in the many witch-hunt history books that have been published. The photo caption clearly is referring to the parsonage, home of Reverend Samuel Parris (1653-1720) when his daughter Betty Parris and niece Abigail Williams showed symptoms of being “under an Evil hand” in 1692. This same photo is featured on postcards captioned “the Old Parris House,” of which a colorized version, available at CardCow.com, is postmarked 1914.

Photo from Henrietta D. Kimball’s Witchcraft Illustrated (1892)
What a find! But, wait. If this is “the parsonage in Salem Village as photographed in the late 19th century” (as labeled on Wikipedia), why didn’t historians include the image in their books?

The Parsonage

The first minister of Salem Village, Rev. James Bayley (1650-1707), kept his own house, though the village promised a few times to build a parsonage. It wasn’t completed until after the second minister, George Burroughs (1650-1692), arrived, for in February 1681, the town voted: “We will Build a House for the Ministry and provid convenient Land For that end: the Dementions of the House are as followeth: 42 foot long twenty foot Broad: thirteen foot stude: fouer chimleis no gable ends” (“Salem Village Book of Records 1672-1697,” SWP No. d1e711).

According to the plaque at the parsonage site, “The house faced south and included a half-cellar on its west side which was composed of dry-laid fieldstones, and which was entered by means of a stairway from the porch (front entry). The east side of the house did not include a cellar, the house sills resting on ground stones. The first floor consisted of two rooms separated by the front entry and a massive brick chimney structure. Two bed chambers were located on the second floor. Each of the house’s four rooms included a fireplace. By 1692 a saltbox lean-to was attached to the rear of the house, and used as a kitchen.” 

Addition and Demolition

Rev. Peter Clark (1696-1768), who served as the Salem Village minister from 1717 to 1768, had the town build an addition to the original building. In January 1734, “it was then voted that ‘we will demollesh all ye Lenture behind ye parsonage house, and will build a new house of three and twenty feet long and eighteen feet broad and fifteen feet stud with a seller [cellar] under it and set it behind the west room of our parsonage house.’ This new addition was two and one-half stories high, included a side door which faced the west and a roof which ran perpendicular to the 1681 parsonage. The cellar foundation was composed of cut and faced stones and included a jog for a chimney (from 1734 Addition marker).

Over the ensuing decades, the parsonage continued its decline, but the townspeople could not afford to build a new parsonage nor repair the old one. In 1784, Rev. Benjamin Wadsworth (1750-1826) was given “an acre of land, bordering upon the road, for a house-lot. And upon this lot, the bounds of which may now be traced, he built for himself, about twenty rods west of the old site, the spacious house which is still standing” (Proceedings at the Celebration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the First Parish at Salem Village: Now Danvers, October 8, 1872p. 91). Afterwards, the original 1681 parsonage was demolished and the 1734 addition was moved to Sylvan Street.

By 1872, Charles Baker Rice describes the 1734 addition on Sylvan Street “in a condition next to ruinous, and occupied by hay, squashes, old barrels, and pigs” (p. 91). Rice continues, “It will thus be seen that this building, contrary to the report that has had some currency, was not in reality any part of the original parsonage, and was never occupied by Mr. Parris or any of his witches. It was not in existence until nearly forty years after he had left the place; and it has no other flavor of witchcraft upon it than what it may have absorbed in standing for half a century in contact with the older and once infected building (p. 92).

Righting a Wrong

67 Centre Street, Danvers
In his footnote, Rice refers to mistakes in J.W. Hanson’s History of the Town of Danvers, from its Early Settlement to 1848 (a sketch on p. 276) and John W. ProctorCentennial Celebration at Danvers, Mass., June 16, 1852 (on p. 13). Rice says: “Mr. Hanson has given, in his history, a view of the building now standing as of ‘a portion of the old Parris house.’ John W. Proctor also was misled in the same manner, though he speaks less confidently, and only as from report. But the measurements are conclusive. The present building corresponds to the dimensions of the addition of 1734, while it bears no likeness to the original house of 1681, or to any practicable section of it. The difference in height to the plates, for one item, is three feet. Due inquiry would have shown, too, that the more trustworthy tradition does not identify the buildings; while the fact of the removal of the present structure from the old site will readily account for the mistaken notion of some concerning it” (p. 92).

Richard B. Trask, town archivist at the Danvers Archival Center, also says the 1734 addition moved to Sylvan Street acquired an incorrect but much touted witchcraft connection during the 19th century” (Postcard History Series: Danvers, p. 20). That mistaken belief persisted long after the 1734 addition was torn down in the 1870s, and now has cropped up again, thanks to digital reproductions of the photo, postcards, and old books.

Recovering the Past
1681 Salem Village parsonage site (2014)

In time, the parsonage cellar hole filled in and by 1898 only a rough stone on the slight elevation in the field off the street...helps to identify the place where the Parris house stood, Edwin Monroe Bacon writes in Historic Pilgrimages in New England. After all, he explains, Upham says there was a general desire to obliterate the memory of the calamity” (p. 178). 

The place where the witchcraft outbreak started was almost lost to history until 1970, when Trask, then a history student, asked the property owners about excavating the land. Today, visitors can see the stone outline of the original parsonage, with a few interpretive markers adding context. Artifacts from the archaeological dig are located at the Danvers Archival Center. 


Thanks to Pie Ball and others who replied on my Facebook page, for helping me resolve this photo identification—once again.



15 May 2015

Envisioning ancestors’ neighborhoods: National resources Part 4

After you've checked deeds, probate records, censuses, tax records, and/or city directories, you may want to learn more about your ancestors’ neighborhood and what their dwellings may have looked like. If your family wasn’t from Lexington or Massachusetts (like the study in the previous three posts), you’ll find the strategies are similar but the resources may be different.

Historic Places to Visit

Collins Log Cabin (1818), Columbia, Missouri; photo: HornColumbia
If you’ll be in the neighborhood, check out USA.gov’s links to state travel and tourism web sites. From there, you can drill down by region, county, or town, or do a Google search for a local tourist bureau. You’ll find historic places to visit and a calendar of events. In all likelihood, you won't find your ancestral home, but you may find similar building styles and household furnishings pertaining to the time frame youre interested in.

The American Alliance of Museums’ directory lists museums from A to Z (aquariums to zoos), including history museums, historic sites, and museum associations that make up its membership. You can search by name, city, state, or museum type.

PreservationDirectory.com offers several databases for the U.S. and Canada, including historical societies by state/province, region, or keyword; historic house museums, living history museums, and specialty museums by category; and historic tours by category.  

Learning about Architecture

If you didn’t take art history and architecture in school, you may want to brush up on some building styles and time periods to put your ancestors era in the correct context. For the Lexington, Massachusetts, study, I referred to Historic New England’s architectural style guide, but different regions tend to create buildings more in line with their landscapes.

Jeffery Howe, a professor at Boston College, put together a Digital Archive of American Architecture for his students. He includes a chronology, description, and examples of architectural styles. The web site hasn’t been updated in a while, but its still useful. Or pick up a book on architectural history.

The Anatomy of a Historic House

Maybe you’re lucky and your ancestral house has a National Register (NR) designation for being connected with a famous person or event, or for being culturally or architecturally significant. If not, you can learn about NR buildings in your ancestors’ community and surrounding towns. Some of them are private property, but their NR paperwork is available. 

In the 1960s, there was a big push for the U.S. government to recognize and preserve historic buildings. That’s why National Register of Historic Places seeks to “identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources.” Some states have their NR documentation posted online, with photos, floor plans, descriptions, and house histories. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, contact the State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO).


Location, Location, Location

Realtors know the importance of location. You may want to compare historic maps with Google Maps and Google Earth to get a bird’s-eye view to see why your ancestors may have chosen a specific location and how its changed over the years. Check out these collections:
Every Picture Tells a Story

Carlyle House in 1909, Alexandria, Virginia
William & Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine,
Vol.18, No.1., pp.1-17.
It almost goes without saying, but check your photographs and ask relatives if they have pictures of the old homestead. If not, you may be able to find pictures of your ancestral houses or neighborhoods. 

Public and secondary education libraries sometimes have archival collections online, such as the Archive of Photographic Documentation of Early Massachusetts Architecture at Boston Public Library, which includes late 19th century photographs and engravings of 17th and 18th century buildings in Eastern Massachusetts. Connect with state libraries, public libraries, academic libraries, and federal libraries for collections.

Old and new town histories usually have photographs of buildings, so do a search on Google Books, Internet Archive, HathiTrust digital library, or other digital providers. You also could go to your local library and check their collections or interlibrary loan.

Several web sites invite people to add their images, both old and new, to online maps. Check out HistoryPin.com and WhatWasThere.com. Waymarking.com tags historic buildings and much more—with photos and descriptions.

Arcadia Publishing specializes in local books filled with old photographs, often compiled by town historians or using historical society collections.

You’d be surprised what turns up on postcards. I have a postcard of Mirror Lake taken from the exact location where my parents built their house 30 years later, before any buildings existed on the property. I bought the postcard from eBay. I’ve also purchased historic house cards from CardCow.

Building a Foundation

Researching how people lived will give you a better understanding of your family in their neighborhood setting. Envisioning their homes, the everyday tools they used and chores they did, their status in the community, the luxuries they had, and the hardships they faced will help you appreciate your forebears and the choices they made.

And, now that youve gone beyond birth and death dates by filling in the space between, you should consider writing down what youve discovered and sharing it with your family. 


Read previous posts, Envisioning ancestors’ neighborhoods: A study of Lexington, Massachusetts

07 May 2015

Envisioning ancestors’ neighborhoods: A study of Lexington, Massachusetts, part 3

How can you picture how your ancestors lived and what their home may have looked like, if the original structure and photos do not exist? 

For this study, we’re using the year 1775 in Lexington, Massachusetts, as an example. Part 1 set the scene, with events and historic sites. In part 2, we covered books, maps, and photos. Now let’s add historical property data into the mix. 

The National Register of Historic Places (NR) seeks to “identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources.” However, Massachusetts is one of those states that hasn’t had its paperwork digitized yet. Fortunately, there’s the State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO), and in the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS), which provides information on Lexington. (Again, not all towns are digitized.)

First, let’s search the MACRIS database by location and time period. Select Lexington, and on the next screen, type <1775 under Construction Year (as in less than 1775). Thirty properties show up in the results, including the Lexington Old Burying Ground (c. 1690) and 1775 Traces of the Battle Road (c. 1636), since we did not select Resource Type (area, building, burial ground, object, structure). Objects include historic markers and monuments while Structures include walls, bridges, streets, wells, cow pens—much more than we want. By selecting Buildings, <1775, the results are 27 properties.

For each property, the onscreen spreadsheet shows the inventory number (Inv. No.), property name, street address, town, approximate year built (circa or range of dates), whether the house is listed on the State Register of Historic Places (SR), whether the National Register nomination has been digitized (NR), and (INV) for the scanned inventory file. For record detail, click on Inv. No.; for the scanned nomination paperwork, click on INV to download the PDF. 

Architectural Styles

MACRIS lets you select from many different kinds of architectural styles, including “altered beyond recognition.” However, the web site does not provide descriptions for these styles online. So let’s go to Historic New England, which divides architectural building styles before the 20th century into the following categories: 
  • First Period (Post-medieval English): 1600-1700
  • Georgian: 1700-1780
  • Federal (Adam): 1780-1820
  • Greek Revival: 1825-1860
  • Gothic Revival: 1840-1880
  • Italianate: 1840-1885
  • Second Empire: 1855-1885
  • Stick: 1860-1890
  • Queen Anne: 1880-1910
  • Shingle: 1880-1900
  • Colonial Revival: 1880-1955
Georgian Style

Let’s say an ancestor built a home in Lexington circa 1750 that no longer exists and we want to look at a home of a similar age and style. Houses dating from 1700 to 1780 were often Georgian in style, with the center entry flanked with an equal number of double-hung sash windows balancing each side. One or two stories high, these clapboard or shingled wood-framed homes had center chimneys (if built before 1750) or double chimneys on each end of the gable roof. The box floor plan was two rooms deep with a central hallway.

Henry Harrington - Dr. Joseph Fiske house (LEX.710)
In MACRIS, we search Lexington, Georgian and find 21 matches, including the Henry Harrington - Dr. Joseph Fiske house (LEX.710) at 70 East Street. Besides its architectural significance, it has an interesting history, being commonly known as the Lexington Pest House, and a long association with the Fiske family. The Lexington Historical Commission nominated the single-family dwelling as historically important in March 1998. The paperwork, downloadable as a PDF, includes a photo, a map showing location and footprint, an architectural description, a historical narrative, and—what every genealogist likes to see—a bibliography and/or references. 

Considered “one of the best-preserved of the 21 Georgian houses still standing in Lexington, the original house was rectangular with an integral lean-to, 2-1/2 stories, five-by-one bays, and side-gabled with a large center chimney and an exterior chimney at the west end of lean-to.... The original house has a center entrance with a surround composed of a projecting molded cornice and fluted pilasters; the 6/9 windows in this house have molded window heads on the first floor and are framed into the cornice on the second.” Major alterations include a “shed attached to house, rear addition, attached garage (1979).” 

House Genealogy


Although this file does not include a floor plan, it has genealogical and architectural value. Cary Library in Lexington includes notes from Fiske descendant, Mary Abbie Fiske, suggesting the house was built in 1745 by Henry Harrington (1712-1791) and three of his sons were born there. However, the house nomination paperwork questions the date since sons John was born in 1739 and Jonathan in 1744. By 1790, Dr. Joseph Fiske (1752-1837) acquired the house from Henry Harrington’s son John. Probably during an epidemic in 1792, Dr. Fiske was treating 32 smallpox patients at 70 East Street—hence the name pest house. In 1809, Dr. Fiske moved to the old Fiske house (LEX.735) at 63 Hancock Street after his father’s death, though several generations of the doctor’s family continued to live at the Harrington-Fiske house until the 1940s.

By studying the Georgian homes in the Lexington area, you can gain insight into how your ancestors lived at the beginning of the Revolutionary War.