25 May 2010

Starting your family tree

Just like Julie Andrews explains to the children in The Sound of Music: “Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. When you read you begin with A-B-C; when you sing you begin with do-re-mi." 

Much like reading and singing, with genealogy you learn the basics and then you build upon what you know. Start with a small project. With a little sleuthing, you can create a four-generation pedigree chart. 

Begin your family tree by downloading a pedigree chart. Your name goes in the number one spot, along with birth date and place. Your father's name and dates go in the number two spot, and your mother's in number three. As your chart branches out, you'll notice two things: males are even numbers and females are odd numbers; and your paternal ancestors are on top, maternal on bottom. At first, it will be as simple as filling in the blanks. After all, you should know when you were born. One of the first rules of genealogy is to work from the known to the unknown, verifying facts along the way. 

Home Sources

So far, it's easy. But the further back in time you go, the less information you know. That's where you need to check your home sources and ask your relatives questions. Tucked away in a drawer someplace, maybe you (or your family) have important papers, like birth certificates, marriage licenses, family mementos, newspaper clippings, photographs, school report cards, old letters, address books, yearbooks, wedding albums, and baby books. Find out if great-aunt Ruth owns the family Bible and ask your grandfather to tell stories of his parents. All of these sources may provide genealogical information. 

As you gather your facts, it's important to write down your sources. You may ask why, since it's only for your family, but you may come across conflicting data. Then you'll need to determine which one is the better source. For instance, when I visited a cemetery, I found a death date disagreed with the actual death certificate. In this case, the death certificate carried more weight, since it was written at the time of death or shortly thereafter. The headstone, however, could have been chiseled years later, with dates based on faulty memories. It's a good idea to keep a file (or many files) of your sources, from notes of your interview with great-uncle Harry to obituaries to copies of marriage certificates. These files will become part of your family treasures.

Internet Sources

Say you've mined all the home sources, filled in some blanks on your pedigree chart, but you don't know when your grandmother died, when your grandfather was born, or when they married. Here's where you move from the known to the unknown. With Internet access, you can find some information online, from scanned records, record transcriptions, and indexes to queries and extensive family trees. Some material is freely available, such as data from FamilySearch and the USGenWeb Project. Others charge a membership fee for searches, such as Ancestry.com and FindMyPast.com

The FamilySearch site is more than indexes and compiled data. It includes many scanned images and transcriptions from all over the world. In the same way, Scotlandspeople.gov.uk has scanned many of their birth, marriage, death, and census records so you can print and download them for a nominal fee.

Like indexes and extracted records, compiled data and trees are useful for clues. 
The trick is to use these resources to help you delve into the actual records. Be aware, however, that there are many people who are collectors instead of researchers, busy building the biggest database of so-called relatives rather than carefully fact checking before adding people to their trees. With the Internet, mistakes get reproduced many times over. 

It may take more time to order vital records, peruse a census microfilm, visit a cemetery, and read county biographies, but you'll have confirmation that that person really does fit on your family tree.

Finding the Answers

Doing an online search of the 
Social Security Death Index should help you find your grandmother's death date. The SSDI gives birth and death dates for millions of people, mostly from the 1960s on, but also as early as 1937. Not everyone is in the database, but it's always the best place to look first. With the date in hand, you can go to VitalChek to order the actual death certificate. The death certificate may include birth date, parents' names, spouse's name, occupation, address, cause of death, cemetery name, and funeral director's name—all depending on what information was required by the state. 

Besides the death certificate, you may want to check for obituaries, cemetery records, and funeral records. By going to the USGenWeb site for the state and county, you may find leads to help you get these unofficial but often very revealing records. Sometimes obituaries will give names of parents and children (which is particularly helpful with married women's names), occupation, membership in societies, and a short biography. I also check the always growing Find a Grave for cemetery inscriptions and photos. 

For your grandfather's birth, you also can check the Social Security Death Index. Other sources include headstones, family Bibles, Social Security applications, obituaries, and passports. Follow up by ordering the birth certificate. It will help you go back another generation by naming his parents. Marriages are a little trickier to pinpoint, unless you have a wedding album, photo, or wedding invitation that include a date. Some obituaries may mention how long a couple was married. Another option is to estimate a date two years earlier than the oldest child or at the average age for marriage, say 25 for grooms and 22 for brides. Then search the statewide marriage index or give a date range for the record clerk to search for the actual birth certificate. Keep going until you've filled in all the blanks. Then share your newly created keepsake.

22 May 2010

Exploring Boston on foot

Samuel Adams outside Faneuil Hall by rmason
If you want to imagine what Boston was like in the olden days, take a walk. Boston is a great walking town. It may be because walking is easier than dealing with traffic or that there are so many things to see once you’re out and about, such as a sneak peek at a secret Beacon Hill garden. Just so you’re not aimlessly walking around and possibly getting lost, here are some great walking tours for you.

Boston has the self-guided Irish Heritage Trail, the Black Heritage Trail, and the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail. But by far the most popular and most famous walking tour is the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile red-painted line from the Boston Common to Bunker Hill Monument that comprises 16 official sites, including the Old State House, Granary Burying Ground, Old South Meeting House, the Boston Massacre site, Paul Revere’s houseOld North Church, and the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”). Admission fees are collected at some of the privately owned and operated sites along the trail.

Since part of the Freedom Trail is encompassed within the Boston National Historical Park, you can join a free 90-minute walking tour led by a National Park Service Ranger. Or you can pay for a tour with a historically outfitted tour guide provided by such companies as the Freedom Trail Foundation, the Histrionic AcademyLessons on Liberty, and Boston by Foot.

For the younger crowds, the Boston by Foot company has a one-hour Boston by Little Feet tour of the Freedom Trail designed especially for children ages 6 to 12. The tour guides point out Shem’s grasshopper, the Democrat donkey, the royal lion and unicorn, and Benjamin Franklin flying a kite as part of their presentation on the architecture and history surrounding the American Independence sites. The company also offers tours of Beacon Hill, Victorian Back Bay, Literary Landmarks, and the North End.

Get out there and explore!

18 May 2010

Are you a Boston Brahmin?

Did you know Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809-1894)—the physician, professor, writer, and father of the Supreme Justice—coined the phrase "Boston Brahmin" to describe the uppercrust of society in 1860? 

If you're a descendant of one of the First Families of Boston, you could be a Boston Brahmin and not know it! Lucky for us, Wikipedia offers a list of who belongs in this select group, including the Adams, Bacon, Cabot, Chaffee, Choate, Cushing, Crowninshield, Dana, Delano, Dudley, Eliot, Emerson, Endicott, Forbes, Holmes, Jackson, Lawrence, Lodge, Lowell, Minot, Otis, Parkman, Peabody, Perkins, Phillips, Putnam, Quincy, Saltonstall, Thorndike, Tudor, Weld, Wigglesworth, and Winthrop families.

Of course, you can't just be a name-dropper. You need one or more of the following attributes, preferably all of them, to rank right up there with your peers: old New England roots, great wealth, political clout, cultural influence, and uppercrust sensibilities.

Hmm, no wonder I can't find some of my ancestors in the Boston records. They didn't make the list.

15 May 2010

Orchard House: home of the Alcotts

Louisa May Alcott, age 20
Visiting historic houses helps you envision your ancestors in the appropriate time and place.

In 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) purchased a home in Concord, Massachusetts, for $950. It was, his wife Abigail (May) Alcott (1800-1877) exclaimed, “a house fit for pigs and apple orchards.” The 12-acre lot actually contained two houses, dating from 1650 and 1730, which Bronson combined into one big structure he called Orchard House.

Fortunately, Bronson Alcott was handy with a hammer and inventive in his house plans. The kitchen was located over the well in the basement. Closets had windows in them for extra light. Niches in the walls created interesting space for sculptures. Bookcases and shelves were scattered about. And at a half-moon desk Bronson built between two windows in an upstairs bedroom, his daughter Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote Little Women.

Published in two parts in 1868-1869, this semi-autobiographical novel tells the stories of four teenaged sisters during the Civil War. Strolling through Orchard House is like walking through scenes from the well-beloved children’s book. You can picture Jo directing her melodramatic plays or quiet, shy Beth playing the piano in the parlor. You can imagine the March sisters running across the wide floorboards while playing one of their games of make believe.

Orchard House (2013) by victorgrigas
But Orchard House is much more than the setting of Louisa’s novel. The Alcott family came to Concord at the request of Transcendentalist philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who lived down the street from Orchard House. Emerson admired Bronson’s ideas of educational reform and dreams of a Utopian society.
So Louisa borrowed books from Emerson’s library. She took long walks with naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). She played with the children of author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). These bigger-than-life characters were part of Louisa’s everyday circle. Perhaps it’s no surprise that by age 15, Louisa was publishing poems and magazine stories to supplement the family income.

Little Women’s Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy were certainly more conventional and more ladylike than the actual Alcott sisters (Louisa, Anna, Lizzie and May). Anna performed plays at public venues, not just in the parlor. May drew sketches of visitors and famous paintings on the walls and woodwork of Orchard House. To make money, she taught art classes and later showed some of her paintings in the Paris Salon. As for Louisa, “An old maid, that's what I'm to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and 20 years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps.”

Many furnishings and personal possessions of the Alcotts are on display at the Orchard House, where the Alcotts called home from 1857-1877. Located at 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, it’s open for guided tours year-round.

Much of the childhood Louisa described in Little Women, however, happened in the neighboring house, which is now known as Wayside: Home of the Authors. The Alcotts lived there from 1845 to 1852 before selling it to Hawthorne. Since he totally renovated the building and added a Tower Study addition, the Wayside no longer resembles the Alcotts’ home. Located at 455 Lexington Road in Concord, the Wayside offers guided tours of the house May through October.

Early Boston churches

Old South Church, Boston
Which churches existed in early Boston?

Knowing which church your ancestor belonged to is critical to finding early baptism, marriage, and burial dates. 

When the Puritans arrived in Boston, they wanted to create their own Kingdom of God on the hill. Early on, they banished and even executed people who had different (as in non-Puritan) beliefs. But the Quakers returned and the Baptists came, setting up their own places of worship. By 1669, a major division within the Puritan church (Congregational) over the issue of baptism caused the Third Church to be formed. But the hardest blow to the Puritans was Royal Governor Andros building King’s Chapel in 1686, bringing the Church of England (Anglican/Episcopal) to the New World.  

Below, you’ll find a list of the pre-Revolutionary War churches in the order of their founding (date in parentheses):
  • First Church of Boston (1630) Congregational: also known as Old Brick from 1711-1808.
  • Second Church of Boston (1650) Congregational: also known as Church of the Mathers and Old North (pre-19th century).
  • Quaker (1664).
  • First Baptist Church of Boston (1665).  
  • Old South Meeting House (1669) Congregational: also known as Third Church; Cedar Meeting House; and New Old South Church (1875).
  • King's Chapel (1686) Anglican: also known as Stone Chapel.
  • French Huguenot Church (1686).
  • Brattle Square Church (1698) Congregational: also known as Fourth Church; Brattle Street Church; and Manifesto Church.
  • New North Church (1714) Congregational: also known as Fifth Church.
  • New South Church (1719) Congregational: also known as Sixth Church.
  • New Brick Church (1722) Congregational: also known as Seventh Church and Cockerel Church.
  • Christ Church (1722) Anglican: also known as Christ Church Episcopal and Old North (from 19th century on).
  • First Presbyterian Church (1729): also known as Presbyterian Church in Long Lane; Long Lane Meeting House; Church of the Presbyterian Strangers (Scotch-Irish); Federal Street Church; and Arlington Street Church.
  • Hollis Street Church (1732) Congregational: also known as Eighth Church.
  • Trinity Church (1733) Anglican.   
  • West Church (1737) Congregational: also known as Ninth Church; Lynde Street Church; and West Boston Society.
  • Tenth Church (1742) Congregational: also known as Samuel Mather's Church.
  • Second Baptist Church (1743).
  • Eleventh Congregational Society (1748) Congregational: also known as School Street Church and Rev. Andrew Croswell’s Church.
Over the years, some of the the church congregations have moved, merged, or disbanded. Some have been founded again. For instance, the First Church of Boston (rebuilt in 1868) is now a Unitarian Universalist church.

To find out which church your ancestors went to, create a timeline of when churches were founded in the area and map out where they lived in relation to the buildings.