28 June 2010

Finding cemetery inscriptions and photographs online

Down the street from my house, there was an old cemetery that my sister and I visited—when we dared. We didn’t expect ghosts to rise up or bones to rattle, but it was a disconcerting place. After all, in the first row, there were granite markers for young children who had died, apparently from a contagious disease that nearly wiped out the entire family. We rarely saw anyone else visit the graves or leave flowers. It was a forgotten place, until John Fipphen published Cemetery Inscriptions, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

Some cemeteries were visited by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) or Works Progress Administration (WPA), by family or cemetery associations like Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries Inc. Staten Island (FACSI), or by individuals like Fipphen—and their transcriptions may be available in microfilm, book, manuscript, or database format. To help you find such listings, check out books like David Allen Lambert's A Guide to Massachusetts Cemeteries and Janice Kohl Sarapin's Old Burial Grounds of New Jersey

However, it's the Internet, which attracts volunteers from all over the world, that has become an essential place to look for transcriptions, gravestone photos, and much more. My favorite site is Find a Grave, which I’ve watched grow exponentially over the years. Below, I’ve listed some national, New England, and local cemetery web sites. Also try search engines such as Google for cemetery listings. You may find currently operating cemeteries have databases online, such as the Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor, Maine. Some old cemeteries have been transcribed and posted online too, such as the Hampton, New Hampshire, cemetery database. Or you may find an old book, like Ogden Codman's Gravestone inscriptions and records of tomb burials in the Granary Burying Ground, Boston, Mass., which has the benefit of being published before some vagaries of time and weather erased tombstone details.

No luck finding transcriptions? Search for the cemetery name and location online to find out who owns or maintains it. I've had success contacting cemeteries, funeral homes, churches and religious societies, local libraries, and historical societies for manuscript transcriptions and burial records. For abandoned or town-owned graveyards, contact the town's cemetery division or department of public works.

Don't know where your ancestors are buried? Check if the death certificate or obituary mentions your ancestor's final resting place.  


USGenWeb Tombstone Transcription Project (see also USGenWeb state and county sites) 

New England


New Hampshire



Rhode Island


26 June 2010

Visit the three oldest cemeteries in Boston

A great example of a death's head from 
"Mrs / Elizabeth Peck / Wife of Mr Moses / 
Peck Died August / The 7th 1757 /In the 39th
Year / Of Her Age" at Granary burying ground. 
PHOTO by Robin Mason.

Rumor has it that ghosts roam the Freedom Trail, which stops at the three oldest burial grounds in Boston. Follow the path and you’ll find plenty of skeletons, caskets, and death’s headsat least carved on the gravestonesand maybe you’ll encounter a spirit or two.

Meet the Grim Reaper

Dating from 1630, King’s Chapel Burying Ground is the oldest cemetery in Boston. More than 1,000 people were buried here, although only 600 gravestones still exist. Here, you’ll see one of the most popular mortuary icons, the death’s head with wings, such as the one carved on top of Samuel Hood’s marker (died 1733). Although we associate it more with pirates, the skull and crossbones is another frequent symbol, such as the one on Sarah Todd’s gravestone (died 1777). And don't miss the elaborate memorial for Joseph Tapping, who died at age 23 in 1678; it features an hourglass, a death’s head, the Grim Reaper, and a skeleton snuffing out a candle.

In contrast to these representations of mortality, look for Bartholomew Gedney’s headstone near the entrance gate. His elaborately carved marker is of a knight’s helmet surrounded with heraldic symbols. Also, left of the entrance you’ll find a tabletop tomb for 11 members of the Winthrop family, including John Winthrop (1588-1649), the first governor of Massachusetts. The plaque includes a heraldic shield on top, though the stone probably dates from 1920 when the last Winthrop was entombed.

Revolutionary Endings

Since 1660, more than 5,000 people have been buried at Granary Burying Ground, though less than half are marked by gravestones. That’s partly because early Boston residents carted off headstones for their own building projects, including the one marking John Hancock’s grave. Today, there’s an obelisk for this famous signer of the Declaration of Independence, near the side of the Park Street Church. You’ll also find other revolutionaries, such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, buried here.

On the path to the right of Benjamin Franklin's family obelisk in the center of the cemetery, you’ll find another much visited stone. Mary Goose, wife of Isaac, died in 1690 at age 42 after having 10 children. Although Mary’s headstone is frequently photographed, the name Mother Goose is usually given to Isaac’s second wife, Elizabeth Foster (1665-1758), who had six children. Both women deserve the moniker, even though the term “Mother Goose stories” was used in France before both their births.

Ministering to Witches

Located in the North End, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground has a commanding view of Boston Harbor and the U.S.S. Constitution (Old Ironsides) in the Charlestown Navy shipyard. Since 1659, more than 10,000 people have been buried here, including close to 1,000 African-Americans. Near the Charter Street gate, you'll find the brick vault for three generations of Puritan ministers: Increase, Cotton, and Samuel Mather. Both Increase Mather (1639-1723) and his son Cotton Mather (1663-1728) were involved in the 17th-century witchcraft hysteria.

At the bottom of the hill, you’ll see a granite pillar marking the grave of Prince Hall (1748-1807), a black Revolutionary soldier and anti-slavery activist. Another activist who died in 1769, Daniel Malcolm’s grave apparently struck the ire of the Red Coats. His epitaph reads: “a true son of Liberty/a friend of the Publick/an enemy to oppression/and one of the foremost/in opposing the Revenue Acts/on America.” It’s a good thing Malcolm is buried in a “stone grave 10 feet deep” because his marker was used for target practice, with a bull’s eye on the carved skull.

Visiting Hours

Maintained by the city of Boston, these three burying grounds are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gravestone rubbings are not allowed. For more information, including a list of burials, visit the Historic Burial Grounds Initiative web site.

20 June 2010

Use your library card to access databases for free

Public libraries are wonderful resources. Not only can you borrow books, movies, and music, you can request materials from other libraries and access special databases that are often only available to libraries and schools.

My local library subscribes to many worthwhile reference databases. I can visit my library and search millions of records on Ancestry.com, without paying an annual membership fee. Other databases are accessible to me at home by using my library card number. For example, I can search for obituaries and news stories from the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and several local newspapers—both recent and historic issues. For me, however, the most useful database accessible through my library card is HeritageQuest Online. And I can view it in my pajamas!

Currently, HeritageQuest has seven different searches:

Census: Images from the complete U.S. Federal censuses from 1790 to 1940.

Books: 250,000+ local and family histories, searchable by names and locations. You can browse through the list of books alphabetically and even read a book page by page.

PERSI (or PERiodical Source Index): Search through this index of 2.1 million genealogy and local history articles by name, place, or keyword. Search periodicals by title or look for how-to articles by record type.

Revolutionary War: Search selected files from Revolutionary War-era pension and bounty land warrant applications. Note: These are the “selected” files, chosen for their genealogical value, not the complete files.

Freedman’s Bank: This bank served mostly African Americans after the Civil War (1865-1874). Details may include parents, siblings, spouse, children; birth and death date and place; plantation, master; current residence; military information; occupation, etc.

U.S. Serial Set: Search for private relief actions, petitions, and memorials handled by the U.S. Congress.

Check your local library to see what databases are available to you for in-library use or with remote access. Many libraries subscribe to HeritageQuest Online and various newspapers as well as biography, historic and current events, and reference databases.

14 June 2010

Google your ancestors

Search engines are wonderful tools for finding information on your family tree, as long as you can separate the wheat from the chaff. For an example, let’s use Google to find information on one reader’s ancestor, Samuel Bass, who died in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1694. Here’s what the query looks like:

“Samuel Bass” 1694 ~genealogy

The name is in quotation marks so that all results have the phrase “Samuel Bass” listed together. Since the year of death is known, it’s listed to narrow down the focus. The tilde mark (~) before the word genealogy acts as a synonym finder; it will look for web sites with similar words, such as family or even misspelled variations of the word genealogy.
The query brings back about 1,950 hits. Of course, we can narrow down the hit list by adding to our query, with spouse’s name or a specific location. But let’s just see how well this query worked.

Hit #1: The Pane-Joyce Genealogy 
This personal web site does include a Samuel Bass, son of John Bass (1658-1724) of Braintree, Massachusetts. It looks like a grandson or great-grandson. Luckily, source notes are provided, suggesting we look at Susan E. Roser's Mayflower Increasings for more details on John Bass (and possibly our original Samuel Bass). The web site’s index does not list a Samuel Bass who died in 1694, so we go to the next hit.

Hit #2: Ancestry.com surname board for Bass
Although she’s not related to this line, Basketlady420 posted an entry from Melinde Lutz Sanborn’s book, Supplement to Torrey’s New England Marriages prior to 1700, p.7, “BASS, Samuel (c1600 -1694) & Ann SAVELL (c1600 -1693); m. Saffron Walden, Essex 25 April 1625 Roxbury/Braintree. [GMSP].” This is great information, with an estimated birth date; a spouse, a marriage date and location; and a residence. The data comes from the Great Migration Study Project sponsored by New England Historic Genealogical Society. Before moving on, you should check to see if any more information on Samuel Bass is posted on this surname board.

Hit #3: Family Tree Circles
This free web site provides “journal” space in order to link researchers and trees together. Phatbug313 lists Samuel Bass’ marriage as above, plus their children. Although this entry is from 2006, it’s worth contacting Phatbug313 for details, especially since she has provided source notes. On her profile, you can see the journal entries she’s written as well as a link to her TribalPages (a genealogy web site).

Hit #4: The Genealogy Forum
ConnieB5 posted a GEDCOM file of Samuel Bass (1600-1694), his children, and grandchildren. This file was uploaded in 1994, so it may not cover current sources—or any sources, for that matter! Personally, I’d skip this hit because I don’t download unknown files to my computer and too many GEDCOMs floating around my computer can lead me to confusion. However, I may look at the homepage of this site to see if there’s current information on the author and contact her.

Hit #5: Damon and Tabor Family Connections
Another personal web site, with sources. Worth mining for details as long as you fact check the sources. 

Hit #6: Genealogy
This page refers to the son of Samuel Bass, but I don’t have much confidence in its source, as stated at the bottom of the page: “Material on the Bass family culled from The Compendium of American Genealogy, Vol IV, pages 46, 153, 181, 424, 519, 571, 635, and 731, by Frederick Adams Virkus, pub. by the Virkus Company, 1930.” (Site no longer active.)

Hit #7: Genealogical and personal memoirs relating to the families of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts 
In his 1908 compendia, William Richard Cutter provides a good overview on many families, so it’s well worth culling this digitized book for information.

Hit #8: Deacon Samuel Bass (person sheet)
Celia Snyder has uploaded a personal page from her Reunion genealogy software program. It looks like much of the material comes from the profile of Samuel Bass in The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633, which is available by subscription at AmericanAncestors.org, the New England Historic Genealogical Society's web site.

Hit #9: History of an American Family: Samuel Bass
Another genealogy software upload, referencing the grandson. With a couple of clicks, you can go to the page for the grandfather.

Hit #10: Genealogy of 14 Families of the Early Settlers of New England
Another Google digitized book, this one by Elisha Thayer published in 1835.

The first 10 hits provided additional information to flesh out the original query. With some fact checking, you can build a family profile from this Google search and check out the references for more information.

Before you look at web sites, though, you may want to read Genealogical Standards: Guidelines for Publishing Web Pages on the Internet as recommended by the National Genealogical Society to find out the best practices for creating and using web sites.

09 June 2010

Where is Captain John Alden buried?

Gravestones at Old South Church wall by rmason
Sometimes having a distinguished background doesn't count. Consider John Alden (1626-1702), a well-known and wealthy Boston ship captain and son of Mayflower pilgrims John Alden and his wife Priscilla Mullins. At the height of the witch hunt of 1692, the afflicted girls of Salem accused Captain Alden of witchcraft. He served 15 weeks in the Boston prison before escaping. After the rash of executions was over and accused witches were allowed to post bail and be released from jail, Alden surrendered.

Today, it's not known where his body was buried. In 1870, however, during excavations on Eliot Street, old bones and gravestones were found, including the stone that had marked John Alden’s grave. If you visit the Old South Church at 645 Boylston Street, you’ll find gravestones from three of the church founders—including John Alden’s—on the right side of the portico.

So, don’t give up on finding your relatives’ graves. You never know who will be unearthed next!

Have Alden Connections?

A family association, the Alden Kindred of America, owns the the Alden House Historic Site where Captain Alden grew up. The home is designated a National Historic Landmark and is open for tours Mid-May through Columbus Day. It is located at 105 Alden Street in Duxbury, Massachusetts.

07 June 2010

Free genealogy records online

There are lots of wonderful genealogy web sites available, but here are some that provide records for free.

New England
New Hampshire 
Rhode Island

01 June 2010

Finding genealogical gems in message boards

After 25+ years of being an avid genealogist, it’s clear that some (okay, most) of my relatives do not share my passion for family history. A few nuggets of fascinating information and that’s enough for them to digest.

Luckily, I have Ruby. About a dozen years ago, I found a posting that Ruby had written to the RootsWeb message boards. I don’t know if it was posted in the surname or localities boards but clearly we were after the same elusive Ephraim Gibson of Ipswich, Massachusetts.

We soon discovered that Ruby and I are 5th cousins, twice removed. She descends from Ephraim’s son William (1744-1820) and I descend from Ephraim’s son John (1740-1797). We’ve never met in person. She lives on the West coast, I live on the East. But it’s not unusual for us to send email several times a week or even five times a day. Together, we have shared our research, split researching duties, and rejoiced in our genealogical finds.

You’d think that having two sleuths on the case would make the research easier—and it does—but this family has been elusive. Apparently, some avoided recording vital life events, others didn’t own land, a few drifted out to sea. We have come across family members in other people’s trees, often with no parents, no dates, and no documented data. It’s as if no one else “owns” them the way we do. We have found collateral cousins researching the Clough and Raynsford lines and we’ve found other Gibson researchers who stem from other trees. And all of these connections were from using online message boards.

Besides RootsWeb message boards (now owned by Ancestry.com), try CousinConnect or RootsChat. Then be patient. It may take months, even years, before someone responds. Maybe you’ll be lucky and you’ll find a new research friend like I did.