30 December 2013

Preserving keepsake memories

A cherished ornament.
Whether they have pride of place on your mantle or are tucked away in a drawer out of sight, all of us have keepsakes or even family heirlooms with stories to tell. As genealogists, we focus on people, places, events, and relationships. Objects have history too.

For example, you have an old Punch and Judy tea set. Your mother’s uncle owned a storage and moving company. After a family didn’t pick up the tea set, the uncle gave it to your mother. The tea spout has been imperfectly glued back together and the old-fashioned pattern doesn’t appeal to kids these days, but its charm is that your mother played with it as a girl. You can tuck the story of its provenance inside that teapot.

Your grandfather built dollhouse furniture for all of his grandchildren, or at least for all of the girls. Your grandmother painted all the pieces, from beds and dressers to tables, rocking chairs, and grandfather clocks. Although the dollhouse didn’t survive and some of the furniture has broken or gone missing, what remains are pieces of your childhood. Look through your photo albums for pictures of you playing with the dollhouse. You may be able to date when the furniture was made by looking at pictures, but at least you’ll be able to pass on who made it and why. Write a note and attach a photo to place in one of the drawers.

If you collect Christmas ornaments, you can photograph them as you’re taking down the tree. Use one of the online photo gift companies such as Shutterfly to create a photo book. You can include captions under each picture, telling about the special memories attached to each ornament. 

Paper Goods

If you collect postcards, you can write something on the back about the place, why it was special, and the date you visited. If you keep holiday newsletters written by family members (or yourself), you can compile them in a three-ring binder, putting the individual pages in sheet protectors back to back so you can read it like a book. If you save greeting cards, you can group ones that match a theme (say, Valentine’s Day, summer, or cards from Germany), then mount and frame them. If you hold onto holiday photo cards, you can store them in a box, using dividers to separate the years. And, it goes without saying, if you have photographs, label them all!

26 November 2013

Giving thanks genealogy style

Etiquette experts often provide tipping guides during the holidays and throughout the year. Let’s take that idea and use it year-round to show appreciation for all the people who have helped our genealogy research. 

Recently, I requested obituaries from the Worcester Public Library, which has an online form for submitting obituary requests. The search, photocopying, and mailing are free for Massachusetts residents, but you can donate money to support this great service. The Salem Public Library and many others also help with similar services—just don’t expect them to do your research for you.

My public library is part of a consortium of public and academic libraries in the area, making it easy to do interlibrary loans. It provides a wide array of online databases, including newspapers, Ancestry.com, HeritageQuest, and WorldCat. It offers museum passes for JFK Library & Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum. It also maintains its own local archives. I’ve used all these services and I must admit I have “donated” to the library through late-book fees, but I also donate books for the book sales held by the friends of the library, a group of people who support the library by raising funds for services and programs beyond the library’s budget.

As an almost 20-year member of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), I have spent days browsing the stacks, checked precious manuscripts for clues, scrolled through microfilm, received advice from staff members, taken classes, read its publications cover to cover, and spent many hours using the online resources. As a nonprofit member organization, NEHGS accepts cash donations and gifts of stock; offers premium membership benefits and volunteer opportunities; and provides a home for donated genealogical materials. 

I consider Plimoth Plantation a top-notch living history museum, well worth visiting even if you only have Puritans in your family tree (like me). It immerses you in the life of the 17th century, from buildings, food, and clothing to artisan crafts and farming techniques. Plimoth has unique gifting opportunities, from providing feed money for rare animal breeds to helping restore the Mayflower II before the 400th anniversary of the pilgrims’ voyage.

Other nonprofits, such as historical societies and museums, provide similar thanks-giving opportunities. Nonprofit cemeteries and churches (where you’ve found family graves and records) usually accept donations. Check with government-run entities to see if you can give a gift or donation.


You also can pay back your genealogical successes without providing a dime. I use FamilySearch frequently to access vital records, censuses, wills, passenger lists, draft cards, and so much more. Its web site grows frequently, thanks to thousands of volunteers who index records. I have transcribed records from Texas to New York, regardless whether or not I have any genealogical interest in the area. I figure it’s good karma to help others. I keep hoping another volunteer will come across the ship manifest listing my great-great-grandmother. 

Typically, I read blogs to stay up-to-date on genealogy news, research suggestions, technology issues, legal conundrums, case studies, and DNA. If you’ve read a particularly good blog or one that’s useful to your research, consider commenting on it or sharing it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, other social media platforms, or email. Writers like feedback and they like knowing they’re being read by someone other than their mothers. 

Support the genealogy community and others who help your family research by tipping to show your appreciation.

24 October 2013

The Salem witch trials and the Body of Liberties laws

William Stoughton
When the witch hunt started in Salem Village in February 1692, the Massachusetts colonists were waiting for Rev. Increase Mather to return home from England with a new governor, Sir William Phips, and joint monarchs William & Mary’s new charter. In the interim, four magistrates held examinations (hearings) to see if any of the accused should be held for trial. The jails in Salem, Boston, Ipswich, and elsewhere were filled with accused witches when Governor Phips arrived in May 1692. In short order, he established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer to handle the witchcraft cases, before heading northward to handle military issues with the Native Americans.

Led by Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, the Salem court had an imposing job set before them: Discover witches during unruly public meetings filled with “afflicted accusers,” scared or disbelieving townspeople, and bewildering stories of possession, strange occurrences, unexplained deaths, animal familiars, black Sabbaths, and the like.

So, how did the judges and jury decide each case? In December 1641, the Massachusetts Bay Colony published the Body of Liberties. These 100 rules, which were based on both English law and Biblical law, were intended to be the foundation of the colony’s court system. And under rule 94, Capital Laws, number 2 it says:

“If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.”

Deuteronomy 18:10-11 had a much larger definition: “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” But the Salem judges specifically were looking for Sarah Good’s yellow bird or Bridget Bishop’s cat.

So, let’s look at some of the other legal points and see how they pertained to the Salem Witch Trials.

26. Any man that findeth himself unfit to plead his own cause in any Court, shall have the liberty to employ any man against whom the Court doth not except, to help him provided he give him no fee or reward for his pains. This shall not except the party himself from answering such questions in person as the Court shall think meet to demand of him.

On 9 September 1692, sisters Sarah (Towne) Cloyse and Mary (Towne) Easty petitioned the court to allow testimony on their behalf, “seeing we are neither able to plead our own cause, nor is council allowed to those in our condition” (Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, p. 620). These two eloquent women were fit to plead their cases, but clearly were not allowed to in the Salem court. They had no defense attorney and the judges were acting as prosecutors.

45. No man shall be forced by torture to confess any crime against himself nor any other unless it be in some capital case where he is first fully convicted by clear and sufficient evidence to be guilty. After which, if the cause be of that nature, that it is very apparent that there be other conspirators or confederates with him, then he may be tortured, yet not with such tortures as be barbarous and inhumane.

According to accused witch John Proctor, 18-year-old Richard Carrier and his 16-year-old brother Andrew Carrier, “would not confess anything till they tied them neck and heels till the blood was ready to come out of their noses” (Robert Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World, 1700). The Carrier brothers had not even been indicted, much less been charged guilty before being tortured. 

46. For bodily punishments we allow amongst us none that are inhumane, barbarous, or cruel.

It goes without saying that peine forte et dure, or being pressed to death like Giles Corey, is “inhumane, barbarous, or cruel.” Once the rocks were placed on his prone form, even if the 70-year-old Corey changed his mind and started talking, he’d probably die from the internal injuries anyway. It took him two long and painful days to die.

47. No man shall be put to death without the testimony of two or three witnesses, or that which is equivalent thereunto.

Since witchcraft meant being in league with the Devil, it’s surprising that the justices did not rely on the opinion of several prominent ministers who were against using spectral evidence—visions seen only by the “afflicted accusers”—as the main reason to charge a person. Nor did the justices find conflict in accepting the words, visions, and bodily contortions of the “afflicted accusers” that, if believed, one could say were possessed by the Devil themselves. The “afflicted accusers” often supported each other's testimonies or mimicked each other during the trials while confessed witches claimed to have seen the accused at witch meetings. Robert Calef called the accusers “lying wenches…[who] let loose the devils of envy, hatred, pride, cruelty, and malice against each other.”

Since the court was using confessors to find more witches, the confessors were spared. In most circumstances, confessing to a crime was as good as or better than having two witnesses. Yet none of the confessors were hanged before Governor Phips stopped the trials.

94 Capital 11. If any man rise up by false witness, wittingly and of purpose to take away any man’s life, he shall be put to death.

For the many accused witches who pleaded their innocence, they must have thought the “afflicted accusers” or confessed witches were either possessed by the Devil or liars. However, after the trials were over, we don’t hear much backlash against the accusers or the judges and jury. Some disappear from the records, while others, such as Judge Stoughton, continued to be prominent members of society. None were accused of any wrongdoing from the trials themselves, though Judge Samuel Sewall, numerous jurymen, and accuser Ann Putnam Jr. publicly asked for forgiveness for their part in the trials. Their guilt was their only punishment.

13 October 2013

20 executed in Salem 1692

During the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, 14 women and five men were hanged for witchcraft and one man was pressed to death.

Hanged 10 June 1692
Bridget Bishop

Hanged 19 July 1692
Sarah Good
Elizabeth Howe
Susannah Martin
Rebecca Nurse
Sarah Wilds

Hanged 19 August 1692
George Burroughs
Martha Carrier
George Jacobs Sr.
John Proctor
John Willard

Pressed to Death 19 September 1692
Giles Corey

Hanged 22 September 1692
Martha Corey
Mary Easty
Alice Parker
Mary Parker
Ann Pudeator
Wilmot Redd
Margaret Scott
Samuel Wardwell

Rest in peace.

12 October 2013

10 misconceptions about the 1692 witch hunt

Salem Witch Trials Memorial
If your ancestors lived in Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 17th century, at some point they were affected by the Salem witch trials of 1692. Perhaps they were one of the accused witches, one of the participants (afflicted “girls,” accusers, judges or jury members), one of the trial attendees, or watched, as Rev. Nicholas Noyes said, the “firebrands of hell hanging there.” Perhaps they were neighbors of the accused or the accusers—or maybe they lived far enough away from the vortex. But, undoubtedly they knew about the events in Salem, whether from experience, word-of-mouth, ministers preaching, or reading various treatises on the subject.

More than 300 years have passed since the witch hunts, and over time, much has been lost, from original court papers to buildings associated with the trials. It’s as if the communal memory was erased, once men such as Rev. Cotton Mather and Robert Calef wrote their books. In the 19th century, after Salem’s maritime fortunes were on the wane, writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles W. Upham returned to the theme of witchcraft. Since then, many theories have been proposed of what really did happen in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to cause more than 150 people to be imprisoned for witchcraft—and the answers still elude us today. 

A Discovery of Witches

Although we’ve lost much through the passage of time, we’ve also heard, seen, or read many things that are not true—from Salem tourist attractions, popular media, and even scholars—about the witch hunts of 1692. So let’s clear up 10 misconceptions.
  • No accused witches in Colonial America were burned at the stake. Witchcraft was a capital offense, which meant death by hanging. In continental Europe, witchcraft was heresy against the church and punishable by burning at the stake. 
  • What is now called Gallows Hill in Salem is not where the accused witches were hanged. In early 2016, the Gallows Hill Project team verified conclusions made by early 20th century historian Sidney Perley that the victims were hanged at Proctor's Ledge, on the lower slope of Gallows Hill bounded by Proctor and Pope streets. In 2017, a memorial was created and dedicated at that location.
  • Judge Jonathan Corwin’s house, now called the Witch House, is billed as “the only structure in Salem with direct ties to the witchcraft trials of 1692.” Yes, the wealthy judge lived there, but were any of the accused witches brought there? Probably not.
  • Salem is considered the epicenter of the 1692 witch hunt. However, the first accusations were from “afflicted” girls in Salem Village, now the town of Danvers. The witch hunt spread to other towns, most notably Andover. Salem’s role was mostly judicial; Salem is where the Court of Oyer and Terminer tried people accused of witchcraft and where the 20 victims were executed. The accused were jailed not only in Salem but in such places as Boston and Ipswich.
  • The “afflicted accusers” were not all girls. Nine-year-old Betty Parris and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams were the first to have strange fits. However, their “affliction” spread to the young and old, men as well as women and children.
  • Old, poor widows were not the only ones accused of witchcraft. People jailed for witchcraft in 1692 range in age from four years old to in their 80s, both male and female. Some were poor, some were wealthy. The first three people arrested for witchcraft were 38-year-old beggar Sarah Good; sickly, widowed Sarah Osborne; and a West Indies slave, Tituba, who lived in Rev. Samuel Parris’ household. Sarah Good was hanged, Sarah Osborne died in jail, and Tituba, who pleaded guilty, survived. 
  • Though Upham and many other writers claim Tituba told stories of voodoo and the Devil to impressionable young girls, starting the witch hunt, no contemporary accounts point fingers at Rev. Parris’ slave. Images from the trials are of witches on broomsticks, witches with animal familiars (a yellow bird was rather popular), witches signing the Devil’s book in blood, heretical baptisms and communions—all centuries-old Western European themes, not voodoo. Mary Sibley had the help of John Indian, Rev. Parris’ other slave, in making the witchcake, maybe not Tituba. In the Danvers church records, Rev. Parris believed the “diabolical means” of making the witchcake “unleashed the witchcraft in the community.” 
  • Bridget Bishop, one of the most notorious accused witches and the first to hang, was not the red corset-wearing tavern keeper as often portrayed. In 1981, David L. Greene, editor of The American Genealogist, proved how Bridget Bishop of Salem Town and Sarah Bishop of Salem Village were conflated into one person. Both were married to men named Edward Bishop. 
  • The youngest victim, Dorothy Good, is mistakenly called Dorcas in most books about the Salem witch trials. Dorcas is the name Judge John Hathorne wrote on her original arrest warrant, though he wrote Dorothy on subsequent records. (The name Dorcas is not a nickname for Dorothy.) According to William Good, his daughter Dorothy “a child of 4 or 5 years old was in prison 7 or 8 months and being chain'd in the dungeon was so hardly used and terrifyed that she hath ever since been very chargeable haveing little or no reason to govern herself” (petition for compensation, Salem, 13 September 1710).
  • Although the last executions for witchcraft occurred on 22 September 1692, there were more trials, and even some guilty convictions. In March 1693, four weeks after she was found not guilty of witchcraft, Lydia Dustin died in prison because her family could not pay her jail fees.
The more you learn about the 1692 witch hunts in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the better you can understand the times and trials your ancestors lived through.

updated 2017

Select Sources:

“Danvers Church Records,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 11 (April 1857)

Demos, John Putnam, Entertaining Satan (1982)

Greene, David L., “Salem Witches I: Bridget Bishop,” The American Genealogist, Vol. 57 (July 1981)

Rosenthal, Bernard, Salem Story (1993)

Rosenthal, Bernard, editor, Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (2009) 

12 September 2013

DNA testing for genealogists

In the last decade or so, genealogists have turned to the study of DNA to help trace their family trees or resolve conflicting (or missing) information. Currently, there are three DNA tests that people most often use for genealogy. Y-DNA tests are only available for males, since the Y-DNA takes us down the surname path from our father’s father’s father and so on. mtDNA tests work for both males and females, as mtDNA travels back from our mother’s mother’s mother. Autosomal DNA tests skip the X and Y chromosomes entirely and rely on the other 22 pairs of autosomes. This last test is not as predictable in that you can't follow a surname or maternal line into the past, but you can learn about your ancestral origins.

Three companies in the United States are well known for their genealogical DNA testing. Founded in 1999, FamilyTreeDNA is known for its surname, lineage, and geographical projects. Started in 2006, 23andme focuses on health-related genetic portraits and ancestry data. AncestryDNA is a relative newcomer to the scene, but as part of Ancestry.com, one of the largest online genealogy companies, it has the potential to grow rapidly because of its large subscriber base and its sponsorship of the popular TV show, Who Do You Think You Are? (TLC network). 

In a recent Weekly Genealogist Survey by the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), 50 percent of respondents used FamilyTreeDNA for genealogical DNA testing, while 43 percent used AncestryDNA and 16 percent used 23andme. (The 2,855 people who took the survey could select more than one company.) At the Massachusetts Genealogical Council annual seminar in July 2013, speaker Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist, suggested to me to transfer results from one company to the other two to get the most cousin connections. 

Patience is critical for genealogists who have taken DNA tests. After all, 52 percent of the 4,400 people who took another weekly survey by NEHGS have not had their DNA tested. That makes it difficult to find your closest (unknown) relatives through genetics. But some genealogists have taken more than one DNA test, with 28 percent testing their own or a male relative's Y-DNA; 26 percent testing their own mtDNA; and 25 percent had an autosomal test.

So test yourself, and then ask your relatives and potential cousins to test their DNA too.

18 July 2013

The genealogy of Adams National Historical Park

133 Franklin Street, Quincy, Massachusetts
How does a house reflect a genealogy? When it's part of the Adams National Historical Park.

The National Park Service owns three homes associated with John Adams (1735-1826), the second president of the United States, in Quincy, Massachusetts. The park includes the country's oldest (two) presidential birthplaces and the first presidential library. (Built of stone in 1873 according to John Quincy Adams' will, the library was designed as a fireproof place to house 14,000 volumes of books. It is not an open research library and most of the presidential papers are not included in the archives.)

Begin Your Tour

Start early at the visitor center (1250 Hancock Street) in order to hop on the trolley for a two-hour tour of five generations of the Adams family. The future second president was born in a typical clapboarded saltbox house at 133 Franklin Street, with huge fireplaces and not-quite-level floors. His father was a farmer and deacon of the local Congregational church who also made shoes during the winter. At one point, the family owned many acres surrounding the house, and yet only 75 feet separates the birthplace from the older house where lawyer John Adams lived after marrying his third cousin, Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818), in 1764.

It's in the second home where John and Abigail's children were born, including future diplomat and sixth president of the U.S., John Quincy Adams (1767-1848). Being embroiled in the causes of independence and freedom meant that John didn't spend all that much time in this house during the American Revolution, leaving Abigail to write her many famous letters while melting her spoons into musket balls. 

In 1788, John Adams returned from abroad and the family moved to the Old House at Peace Field at 135 Adams Street, a much more stately home than their farmhouse. Still, it wasn't big enough for their family and social lives, so they expanded the original 1731 foundation by nearly double.

Four generations called Peace Field home, from 1788 to 1927. The house reflects the different time periods, furniture styles, and family interests throughout—as well as the many visitors who were entertained. There are stories as to which portraits hung where, from George Washington's in a place of honor in the dining room to the portrait of John Quincy Adam's wife Louisa (1775-1852) being relegated to the back hallway due to her English birth (and maybe some mother-in-law issues). There's the spacious second-floor office with its celestial globe where the second president died on the 4th of July, hours after his friend and rival Thomas Jefferson died. Through a late-addition hallway, created for an early-rising Adams didn't want to walk through the guest room, and to the right are several famous pieces of art, near the modernized (to some extent!) bathroom and servants' quarters just over the kitchen.

All together, the three homes portray a family growing and widening its circle, from local farmers and lawyers to diplomats and presidents.

Final Resting Places

Along with many other local notables, the Adams were buried in Hancock cemetery, across the street from their local church. However, one descendant decided that wasn't quite good enough for two U.S. presidents and their ladies. Their bodies were removed and put into four huge stone tombs in the specially created crypt beneath the United First Parish Church at 1306 Hancock Street. 

27 June 2013

DNA USA paints a genetic picture but misses its mark

Bryan Sykes, DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America (New York: Liveright Publishing Co., 2012)

In the last 10 years or so, genealogists have studied the mysteries of DNA and its potential for furthering family research. Collected from males, Y-DNA takes us down the surname path from our father’s father’s father and so on, while mtDNA travels back from our mother’s mother’s mother. 

In DNA USA, Bryan Sykes has a new test, the chromosome paintings or profiles done by the personal genome company, 23andMe. Instead of using the X and Y chromosomes, this test splits the 22 pairs of autosomes in half, separating the two copies of each chromosome, and then highlighting which DNA segments correspond to one of three continental origins (Europe, Africa, Asia). The results can be further analyzed by marking 146 genes on the chromosome portrait to show which continental origins contributed to 11 different body systems (such as pigmentation, eyes, digestion, and immune system).

In three months, Sykes tours cross-country, stopping here and there to interview people working in the field of genetics, such as Bennett Greenspan of FamilyTreeDNA and Dr. Rick Kittles of African Ancestry. The interviews are often on-target to probe deeper into a subject, such as Ashkenazi DNA, but it does seem to be a balancing act so the book wouldn’t sound like an advertisement for 23andMe. (Sykes, a professor of human genetics at Oxford University, also founded his own commercial company, Oxford Ancestors, as an offshoot of private genome research.)

His travelogue, peppered with American movie references, takes him from Boston to Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco by train, with a few side trips along the way. Although he writes like a great adventurer, his route is not as random as it sounds. He has specific goals and stories to tell in his book, and his travels correspond to them. However, Sykes chooses to bypass the Southeastern states because he was able to pick up DNA samples from two African-American women from Atlanta at a hotel convention in California. Later, though, he regrets not being able to sample DNA from a Ku Klux Klan member to reiterate his point that many European Americans from the South show traces of African DNA.

The Faces of DNA

On his excursions, Sykes collects DNA samples from 25 individuals. Yes, out of 316 million people (U.S. Census Bureau) living in the 3.7 million miles that make up the United States, Sykes chose only 25 people for his genetic portrait, saying that to do more would be ridiculously expensive. And so, he chose to backfill our genetic story with previous research, both his own as well as others in the field. After all, America is the melting pot, a cross-section of the continents. Sykes already covered Europe in the bestselling The Seven Daughters of Eve (2001) and, more specifically, the British in Saxons, Vikings, and Celts (2007). When he rehashes his previous books, Sykes is not as engaged in the storyline and tends to add more travelogue and movie references. But with new material, particularly the chapters on the Jews and the Africans, his interest is piqued again and it shows.

America's story starts with Native Americans. Due to other scientists' prior unsanctioned medical research and the legal backlash that followed, however, Sykes avoids collecting DNA from them. He relies on earlier research, shored up with his Polynesian studies. When he travels to tribal lands, Sykes judiciously leaves his DNA kits behind, knowing the scientist in him could overwhelm common courtesy. In the book, he acknowledges the spiritual beliefs of the Native American creation stories and at the same time, he wants to prove their genetic profiles tell a different story.

Finding an Audience

Like his other books, DNA USA is written not for the scientific community but for a popular audience—including genealogists, some of whom are featured in the book. These genealogists prepared ancestral charts, told detailed stories of their forebears, and provided DNA for Sykes to analyze. He admits “not being a genealogist” (p. 75), though “the speed and enthusiasm with which the American genealogy community has embraced genetics has been truly astounding” (p. 72).  

So, if DNA USA was written for a focus group, it is the American genealogist. That’s why it’s disconcerting that throughout the book Sykes repeatedly refers to the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) by the wrong name. Although this may seem a trivial point, the mistake suggests potentially sloppy research and fact-checking in other parts of the book. (DNA USA could have used more proofreading to pick up other typographical errors as well.) In addition, there are no footnotes or a bibliography—another pet peeve of genealogists.

However, thumbing through the chromosome paintings and recognizing faces from the DNA volunteers—with their high-level pedigree-researching skills—prove how fascinating and potentially useful genetic testing is for genealogy.

13 May 2013

Massachusetts society and library blogs

American Antiquarian blog
Many historical and genealogical societies and libraries have blogs, from the U.S. National Archives to small, local societies such as the South End Historical Society in Boston. Their blogs are, to some degree, an extension of their mission statements, to highlight their collections and provide information to members and the general public.

For instance, the Massachusetts Genealogical Council's mission is to serve as an "umbrella organization representing Massachusetts genealogists, historical societies, and individuals who are concerned about records preservation and free and unfettered access to civil records." Its blog, the MGC Sentinel, is "keeping watch over Massachusetts public records." You'll find news about legislative bills that affect genealogists and family historians, both federal and local, and how you can help. 

The American Antiquarian Society's blog delves deep into its collections, telling stories about acquisitions, archives, and great finds. It makes you want to explore the AAS records in-depth to see if your ancestors are lurking in the library, waiting to be found.

The Cape Cod Genealogical Society blog includes special interest group (SIG) meetings, genealogy workshops, and monthly programs, interspersed with articles of local and national interest.

You can find more than 3,000 genealogy blogs listed on the Geneabloggers site and on the Blog Finder at Genealogue. New England GeneaBloggers have a Facebook page. (To see a list of members and links to their blogs, click on the "about" tab.) And when you find a blog you like, check its blog roll for other interesting sites the blogger follows.

Besides blogs, many societies and libraries use social media to reach their audience. They may post items of interest (and links to their blogs) on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and You Tube accounts. Be sure to follow the blogs and social media outlets that interest you, to give you new research ideas, to learn about collections, and to stay involved in the genealogical community.

07 May 2013

Massachusetts genealogy and history blogs part 2

History of Massachusetts blog
Below are more blogs to bookmark, covering historic Massachusetts in stories and photos as well as its graveyards, Redcoats, and folklore.
  • And This Is Good Old Boston"Boston history - sort of." Mark B. tells stories and shares photos of Boston, enhanced with maps to pinpoint the landmarks.
  • Retro Boston Remembered"Charles Boston’s scrumptious scrapbook of events and places from good old Retro Boston." A blog by the cultural historian who created Shopping Days in Retro Boston blog.
  • History of Massachusetts by Rebecca Brooks. Articles, animated timelines, photos, scanned books, and puzzles covering 17th to 20th century Massachusetts history, with an emphasis on 1692 witch trials and the American Revolution.
  • The Old Colony Graveyard Rabbit"A blog devoted mainly to the cemeteries of Southeastern Massachusetts with occasional forays elsewhere in New England. A member of the Association of Graveyard Rabbits."
  • New England FolklorePeter Muise is an "avid folklore fan and New England native" who likes "exploring and writing about New England legends, folklore, and traditions." Sites like these can help you understand some of your ancestral quirks and odd beliefs.
  • Muddy River MusingsJoin Ken Liss on his "meanderings through the thickets of Brookline's past." A "researcher and amateur historian," he offers "an idiosyncratic assortment: people, places, and events, big and small, ... interesting, amusing, poignant, or peculiar, or that otherwise caught [his] eye."
  • British Soldiers, American Revolution"A place for information about British soldiers who served during the American Revolution, 1775-1783. Thousands of soldiers wore red coats, but little is known about them as individuals. This site will change that, soldier by soldier."
You can find more than 3,000 genealogy blogs listed on the Geneabloggers site and on the blogfinder at Genealogue. New England GeneaBloggers have a Facebook page. (To see a list of members and links to their blogs, click on the "about" tab.) And when you find a blog you like, check its blog roll for other interesting sites the blogger follows.

In case you want to delve into blogging yourself, Geneabloggers includes blog resources and daily blogging prompts.

See also:

23 April 2013

Physicians in the family

Dr. John Warren
What kinds of records can you find if your ancestor was in the medical profession?

In many ways, physicians are public figures, well-known in their communities. You'll find them listed in city directories, featured in town histories (the so-called mug books), and mourned in their obituaries. They may have advertised their services in local newspapers, published scholarly articles on their research or medical cases (perhaps in the New England Journal of Medicine, first published in 1812), lectured at medical schools, or kept detailed journals. Their medical records may have been deposited in archives, from local historical and genealogical societies and museums to medical associations, hospitals, and universities.

Finding the Degree

Not all doctors, nurses, midwives, and others in the medical profession attended medical schools. Some were apprentices, sometimes taking over their mentors' practices. Over time, the barbers and bonesetters became degreed medical professionals.

Massachusetts is home to four medical schools: Harvard Medical School, founded in 1782; New England Female Medical College, founded in 1848, which became Boston University School of Medicine in 1873; Tufts University School of Medicine, founded in 1893; and University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, founded in 1962. Look for school histories, alumni directories, yearbooks, reunion records, and archival holdings. 

AMA Directory

The American Medical Association (AMA) was founded in 1847. At the turn of the 20th century, the AMA started to collect information on physicians nationwide, whether or not they were AMA members, and compiled its first American Medical Directory in 1906. Information on each doctor was kept on 4 x 6” index cards until 1970, when the AMA started to use a computer database to track doctors instead. The cards of physicians who died prior to 1970, now called the AMA Deceased Physicians Masterfile, became part of the AMA Archives. In 1993, the AMA printed the two-volume Directory of Deceased American Physicians 1804-1929, with biographical profiles. It is available as part of a paid subscription on Ancestry.com. A finding aid for the Masterfile is available online, to help you find doctors who died between 1906-1969 within the 87.5 linear feet of original documents. FamilySearch has images online. 

06 April 2013

Medical records useful in genealogical research

John Winthrop the Younger (1606-1676)
At a recent auction, “doctors’ appointment books, journals, etc., early prescriptions starting with 1830s, early medical treatment publications and records” were being sold along with a collection of more than “35 odd and unique medical devices, doctor bags, and tools.”

One can only hope that the papers—if not the “antique and vintage medical devices” and instruments—were sold together to a serious collector, a museum, or an archive to preserve the data for future generations. Why?

Medical records provide information on ailments, diseases, and matters of life and death. An individual’s records often define family relationships while a doctor’s records can portray a microcosm of a community. Finding your ancestors in such records can help your genealogical research—if you can find the records.

Early Medical Records

John Winthrop the Younger (1606-1676) was the founder of Ipswich, Massachusetts, and later governor of Connecticut. He also was a practicing physician, seeing perhaps a dozen patients a day. He recorded medical notes in his journals, which are useful today to track our ancestors and their illnesses. The Winthrop family papers 1537-1900 are at the Massachusetts Historical Society, available on microfilm. Almost 1,000 pages are John Winthrop the Younger’s medical notes covering the years 1657-1669. Pam’s Genealogy Page extracts a portion of the names mentioned in the records and indexed them on her site. (Don't confuse the Younger with his father, John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony and his famous journal, now known as the History of New England 1630-1649.)

Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote the book, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812. Using diary entries, Ulrich created interpretive essays on medicine, childbirth, home life, and much more. While Ballard recorded names, dates, births, marriages, and deaths in her diary, Ulrich selectively used Ballard's diary entries. However, the complete diary is available online for searching and reading. 

Other Journals

Sometimes journals not necessarily medical in nature or by a physician can give you medical and personal clues about your ancestors. For instance, John Haven Dexter's Memoranda of the Town of Boston in the 18th and 19th Centuries, published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society and available as a database to members, records many births, marriages, deaths, funerals—and much more. Dexter mentions the marriage of John Gardner Gibson and Catherine Hammond, daughter of Samuel, in 1833. Five years later he writes "John G. Gibson, of Boston, [died] on board brig Leander, from St. Iago de Cuba, to Europe, May 12, 1838." Dexter's accounts may not be in other records, or may offer more personal details.

In the Journals of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813) of Marblehead under the date 1 May 1774, Bowen wrote: "Robert Nimblett hath smallpox." Since Nimblett died before 1800, this could be the last surviving record in which he appears. Even though Bowen doesn't record Nimblett's death, it's possible he died shortly thereafter. 

Where to Find Records

Apparently, medical records, prescriptions, doctor's journals, and the like can show up at auctions, on eBay, in private collections, and at the dump. Luckily, some records have been deposited in archives, from local historical and genealogical societies and museums to medically themed research centers. Some journals, whether by physicians or by observant townspeople, have been published in print, online, and in databases. Remember when you're on location in your ancestral place, to look for medical and personal journals within your specific timeframe. 

25 March 2013

Freemen and Massachusetts town meetings

Massachusetts Bay Colony seal
In many Massachusetts towns, our ancestors attended town meetings just like we do today. Each town was self-governed, in that the citizens elected the officials, decided tax matters, and determined how to protect and improve the community, through the building of roads, structures, and public buildings.

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, only freemen—landowning inhabitants of the town who were members of the Puritan church—could participate and vote in town meetings. That’s why you’ll find lists of freemen in colonial town records, much like registered voter lists. If your ancestor was listed as a freeman, you know he was a full-fledged member of the Puritan church who had a certain amount of property.

If your ancestor held a town position such as tything man (tax collector), watchman, “clarkes for ye markitt,” or fence viewer, he had to be a freeman. Some men held the positions repeatedly, which could help you determine if a name’s-the-same man is yours or what his occupation was. For instance, William Gibson the Scotsman (1638?-1702) was a cordwainer or shoemaker. He’s listed in Boston town records as a sealer of leather in 1665 and 1671. He also may have served as sealer of leather in 1678, 1685, and 1686, but since another William Gibson became a freeman in 1678, it’s unclear who is referenced without knowing the second William's occupation. At the April 1702 meeting, John Jepson received a month’s pay as a watchman. The following month, the town records say he lost the note for payment as watchman. On 13 March 1709/10, Benjamin Gibson was chosen constable of Boston, and he refused the position.

In 1684, the first Massachusetts Charter was revoked by King Charles II of England. In 1691/2, a new charter by joint rulers William and Mary came into effect, creating the new Province of Massachusetts Bay and including Plymouth Colony, the Province of Maine, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. (Wars and witcheries happened in the interim, causing all sorts of political and judicial anxieties.) The new charter increased the number of eligible voters by removing the religious qualification and replacing it with a property requirement instead. The rule of the freeman was over.

See also:

The Freemen of Massachusetts Bay 1630-1636

List of Freemen, Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1630 to 1691

28 February 2013

Finding Boston probate records

John Gibson 1721 probate packet
Probate records can add more to your genealogy than heirs and possibly death dates; it can add stories and intrigue.

At the Massachusetts Archives, I held the actual probate papers for my seventh great grandfather. He died intestate (without a will), probably of smallpox which was epidemic in Boston at the time (1721). At first, I wasn't sure I had the correct ancestor as I paged through papers of administration, inventory lists, receipts and expenses. And then I discovered a letter to the court from the orphaned children's uncle, explaining how my ancestor sent his children to Ipswich to live with their uncle right before his own death. The probate packet didn't give me the names of the children, but it provided enough details to piece together his life and circumstances.

While looking for an obituary in a newspaper, I unexpectedly found a one-liner mentioning the probate of my third great grandmother's estate. I had pictured her as a poor, illiterate immigrant, so "estate" sounded too big of a word for her, really. When I received the probate papers, however, I discovered my ancestor had $314.72 deposited in the bank. She had no real estate or personal property to speak of, just cash in a bank. Curious. The details are scant, but at least the bare-bones document ties together three previously presumed-related siblings. 

As you can see, probate records can provide valuable information to add to your family history. 

Finding Probate Records

For early records, visit the Massachusetts Archives

Check the online Massachusetts Archives Collections (1629-1799), also known as the Felt Collection. The online database provides name, location, and subject access to 18 volumes. In person, you also can check the card catalog, which covers a quarter of this 328-volume collection. 

Two notable compilations with probate data are the Great Migration series and Annie Haven Thwing's index, both available from the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Look for Index to the probate records of the County of Suffolk, Massachusetts: from the year 1636 to and including the year 1893, prepared under the supervision of Elijah George. You'll find Volume 1: A to FVolume 2: G to O, and Volume 3: P to Z online, along with John T. Hassam's Registers of probate for the county of Suffolk,Massachusetts, 1639-1799.

For later records, contact the Suffolk Probate and Family Court

12 January 2013

Massachusetts genealogy and history blogs

Boston 1775 blog
With so many blogs being written every day, it's sometimes difficult to know which ones to follow to enhance your genealogical research. Some blogs are forays into the research process, with records and resources. Some are personal histories with plenty of "cousin bait" included. Some are photo histories and curiosities, covering buildings and people and events. Some delve into cultural, religious, immigrant experiences, and more.

Blogs can inspire or direct your own research, leading you to new discoveries. They can help put your ancestors in context or explain the world around them. 

Here are some of my recommendations:
  • In the process of researching a yet unfinished novel, J.L. Bell began his Boston 1775 blog featuring “history, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.”
  • Ryan W. Owen's Forgotten New England explores the area's history from the 1850s onward, with a special focus on Lowell.
  • Professional genealogist and house historian Marian Pierre-Louis has several projects of interest, including Marian's Roots and Rambles
  • If you have Mayflower families and/or other settlers from Plymouth and Barnstable county, check out Chris’ Massachusetts and More Genealogy Blog
  • Randy Seaver's Genea-Musings is jam-packed with “genealogy research tips and techniques, genealogy news items and commentary, genealogy humor, San Diego genealogy society news, family history research and some family history stories.” Although Randy lives in Chula Vista, California, he has New England roots. You'll often find record transcriptions (census records, vital records, wills, etc.), lineages, stories, and photos about his Massachusetts folks.
  • Although Heather Rojo's family is not from Nutfield (an area now known as Londonderry, Derry, and Windham, New Hampshire), she used the name for her blog, Nutfield Genealogy, to designate where she lived. She often writes about her Massachusetts roots. Pay particular attention to Tombstone Tuesday and Surname Saturday posts.
Thomas MacEntee’s Geneabloggers web site lists almost 3,000 genealogy blogs, from personal musings to professional insights, and everything in between. For more blogs, check out the Genealogy Blog Finder.

In case you want to delve into blogging yourself, Geneabloggers includes blog resources and daily blogging prompts.

See also: