25 November 2014

Expand your research skills with genealogy magazines and journals

When you receive a new issue of a genealogy magazine or journal, do you read it cover to cover? Or do you browse through the pages, looking for an article that fits in with your family research plan or contains related surnames? If you’re in the latter group, you may be missing opportunities to increase your research skills or overlooking more than a connection to a collateral line.

Be Prepared

Genealogy publications such as Family Tree Magazine are filled with useful articles ranging from finding Civil War ancestors and German roots, using social media or the latest DNA tests to find cousins, and reviewing the best web sites to how-to ideas for courthouse research or archival storage, and deciphering clues hidden in legal documents or photo mysteries.

Read all the articles, regardless whether you have a Czech ancestor or need new genealogy software. Why? Even if the article doesn’t pertain to you right this minute, you may find out three months later that your German great-great grandfather actually was born in Bohemia or that your beloved database program has been discontinued. Or a good friend—who has never been interested in your hobby, your obsession—has an event scheduled in her Swedish grandparents’ homeland, and she wants to know how to start her family tree.

Besides learning something specific, you may be able to apply what you’ve read to another part of your research. You could learn about using a record group available in the National Archives and turn that knowledge into using corresponding state-level resources. A piece on marriage records may explain why your great-great’s diary mentioned “jumping the broom” or a hand-fast, or it could explain how laws differed in bordering states or countries, making an unexpected wedding ceremony location make sense—or even give you a clue where to search for a marriage certificate or notice.

Apply What You Learn

Scholarly genealogical journals—such as The American Genealogist (TAG), New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly—often feature more in-depth articles, on a specific family or area. An article on an unrelated couple in Connecticut could give you clues about your own family’s migratory path from Essex county, Massachusetts. Or it may mention a name within a four-generation study that ties into your own line—and you may have missed it if you didn’t read page 83 or thoroughly scan the annual everyname index.

You may learn how to evaluate your data in a different way. If you have a tendency to use mostly vital records and census records in your research, reading about how someone used city directories or probate records to distinguish men of the same name could provide you with incentive to learn more about underused resources. It helps to see how people use mapping software or land ownership to solve parent/child relationships. You may even learn historic tidbits, such as military conscription or wedding fees, and how they influenced your ancestors’ lives.

Book reviews, articles, footnotes, and references could include publications, web sites, library collections, or unpublished manuscripts that could help you crack your brick wall.

You never know what you’ll find within the pages of an article that will help your genealogy research. So pick up a magazine or journal. Don’t just browse. Read!

30 October 2014

Ann Putnam Jr. and the aftermath of the Salem witch trials

Danvers Witch Memorial. Photo by Robin Mason
Whether your ancestors took part in the Salem witch trials or heard about them second-hand, the emotional toll and the potential hardships they experienced no doubt lingered well beyond 1692. Consider their roles in the witch hunt and how that may have affected their political, judicial, and religious views as well as how they felt about particular individuals and their communities as a whole. Not surprisingly, some of the accused moved away, to start a new life, while some of the afflicted girls married and had children.

It took a few years before Reverend Samuel Parris finally packed his bags in 1697. He was replaced by Reverend Joseph Green, who helped rebuild the community of Salem Village. A new meeting house was built and the old one abandoned, the excommunication of church member Martha Corey was reversed, and, in 1706, Ann Putnam Jr. was accepted as a full church member.

Though the people of Salem Village probably never forgot 12-year-old Ann Putnam’s role in the witch trials, the church members apparently forgave her—or at least put her fate in God’s hands—when they accepted her confession 14 years later.

“I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father's family in the year about '92; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood; though what was said or done by me against any person I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill-will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan. And particularly, as I was a chief instrument of accusing of Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters, I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humbled for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families; for which cause I desire to lie in the dust, and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offence, whose relations were taken away or accused.

“This confession was read before the congregation, together with her relation, Aug. 25, 1706; and she acknowledged it.”

The Delusion of Satan

In Ann Putnam’s confession, she doesn’t exactly take responsibility for her actions of 1692. Instead, she repeatedly calls herself an “instrument” of Satan—as if she too made a pact with the Devil and acted on his behalf, much liked the people she accused. Written with the help of Rev. Green and reviewed by Samuel Nurse, son of Rebecca Nurse who was hanged in 1692, Ann’s confession gives little insight into the motives behind her actions that fateful year. From the history books, it does not appear as if she were coerced, but rather prompted, into accusing certain people of witchcraft. Undoubtedly, Ann was well-versed in local gossip, since it appears as if rumors of others’ behaviors (such as Rev. George Burroughs’ verbal abuse toward his wives) as well as unsettled disagreements (including land disputes between the Nurse and Putnam families) influenced who she targeted. At times, her dramatic fits and words seem deceptive, yet family members, neighbors, and magistrates did not call her bluff.

Throughout the 1692 trials, some people openly criticized the court for giving credence to the words, visions, and actions of the afflicted accusers. Reverend Samuel Willard, pastor of Boston’s Third Church, said the accusers were “scandalous persons, liars, and loose in their conversations and therefore, not to be believed.” Several accused witches, including Martha Carrier, chastised the court by saying “it is a shameful thing that you should mind these folks that are out of their wits.” It seemed, the more a so-called witch complained against them, the worse torment the afflicted showed.

When one of the afflicted girls, 20-year-old Mary Warren, claimed she had recovered and suggested the other girls “did but dissemble,” they accused her of witchcraft. Caught between two worlds, Mary confessed to being a witch and accused others, namely her employer, John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth. Teenager Margaret Jacobs, who was accused of witchcraft and in turn accused others, asked for forgiveness, admitting, “What I said was altogether false against my grandfather and Mr. Burroughs, which I did to save my life and to have my liberty.” Unfortunately, not enough credence was given to these admissions until after Governor William Phipps put a halt to the court proceedings in late fall.

Providence of God

Through her confession, it’s obvious the guilt Ann Putnam feels and her status of a pariah in the neighborhood must have weighed heavily on her. Unfortunately, her recorded confession does not include her Puritan conversion experience—or what turned her from being a sinner into a saint—which was a two-part requirement for becoming a full member of the Salem Village church.

After being the center of attention in 1692 by accusing 62 people of witchcraft, Ann Putnam’s position in society and her circle of friends no doubt diminished greatly. Five years after the witch hunt started, in 1699, Ann’s parents died within weeks of each other, leaving 19-year-old Ann and several guardians to care for her siblings, ranging in age from 7 months to 16 years. Unlike most girls of her age, Ann never married. In 1715, “being oftentimes sick and weak in body,” Ann wrote her will. She died the following year at age 37. She’s buried with her parents in an unmarked grave in the Putnam Cemetery in present-day Danvers, Massachusetts.

21 October 2014

Psychological stress in 1692 Salem Village

Rev. Samuel Parris, Massachusetts Historical Society.
With a long and difficult winter, political uncertainty, ongoing Indian attacks, religious disagreements, strange illnesses, unexpected deaths, land feuds, and squabbles among neighbors, the people of Salem Village were feeling the pressure of the uncertain world around them in early 1692. 

The beleaguered Reverend Samuel Parris, whose congregants were not providing him with the food and firewood his family needed, preached dark tales of the Devil at the pulpit. Instead of making his listeners do good deeds, like pay his salary, however, his sermons caused them to look suspiciously at each other—and find witches among them. After all, witches would explain away the bad luck that had befallen them.

The parsonage became the epicenter of the witch storm, with Reverend Parris’ daughter Betty and his niece, Abigail Williams, being afflicted or “under an evil hand” first. That center soon shifted to the Thomas Putnam household, more than a mile away, where Ann Putnam Jr. showed the same affliction, and eventually accused more than 60 people of bewitching her. In total, about 70 afflicted accusers displayed symptoms of maleficium (evil magic) or had spectral dreams and visions.

In Witchcraft at Salem (1969), Chadwick Hansen suggested the afflicted showed symptoms of mass hysteria. In her novel Conversion (2014), author Katherine Howe uses a contemporary setting—an all-girls school in modern-day Danvers—to explore the mass hysteria theory, which today would be called conversion disorder, “a condition in which you show psychological stress in physical ways. The condition was so named to describe a health problem that starts as a mental or emotional crisis—a scary or stressful incident of some kind—and converts to a physical problem” (Mayo Clinic).

The people of Salem Village could have different psychological causes, depending on their backgrounds and situations, yet still exhibit physical symptoms that fit under the umbrella term of conversion disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of conversion disorder include:
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Abnormal movement, such as tremors or difficulty walking
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty swallowing or “a lump in the throat”
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Episodes of unresponsiveness
  • Numbness or loss of the touch sensation
  • Speech problems, such as inability to speak or slurred speech
  • Vision problems, such as double vision or blindness
  • Hearing problems or deafness
Symptoms could be persistent or sporadic, and certain stressful conditions—like being a witness in a court case or waiting for an acceptance letter from Harvard—could make the disease worse. Looking at the list, it appears as if most of the afflicted accusers exhibited one or more symptoms of conversion disorder.

And, while Howe offers up the conversion theory, she also suggests, as the Proctors’ maid Mary Warren put it, the afflicted “did but dissemble.”

12 October 2014

Descendants of witch-hunt victims turn to fiction to reimagine history

More than 300 years have passed since the Massachusetts witch hunts in 1692, and yet every year, more books are written to explore theories of why more than 150 people were jailed for practicing witchcraft while 19 were convicted and hung. For genealogists seeking answers about how this turbulent time affected their ancestors’ lives, whether they were participants or not, reading trial records and historical accounts may not bring the past to life. But a good writer can reimagine the past, filling it with characters, dialogue, settings, context, and historic facts. 

Kathleen Kent, a 10th generation descendant of Martha (Allen) Carrier (hanged 1692), doesn’t shy away from her ancestor’s austere and uncompromising personality or her sharp tongue—as shown in actual historical records. She builds it into her novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, narrated by Martha’s young daughter Sarah. From being accused of bringing smallpox to Andover to being accused of witchcraft, Martha and her family’s bonds grow stronger through persecution.

Though Reverend Cotton Mather famously calls her the “Queen of Hell,” Martha Carrier professes her innocence and chastises the judges for believing the words of a few hysterical girls, aware her harsh speeches might lead her to the gallows. But when her three sons and daughter Sarah are imprisoned, she tells them to lie and admit to witchcraft to save their lives, even if it means damning their souls. Meanwhile, Martha’s giant and silent husband Thomas walks miles to the prison to support and sustain his family.

Besides historical sources about the trials, Kent uses family stories passed onto her by her mother and her grandparents to infuse character and details into her novel. Though fictional, you’ll be wishing one of the Carrier descendants has a little red book hidden away.

Katherine Howe, descendant of Elizabeth (Jackson) Howe (hanged 1692) and Elizabeth (Bassett) Proctor (sentenced to death in 1692 but reprieved), turned to fiction to understand the past. In writing The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Howe asks herself: What if some of the accused were practicing witches? In real life, Deliverance confesses to being a witch to save herself, so Howe turns her into a witch with supernatural but good powers and an in-depth knowledge of herbology. But Howe strays from history by having Deliverance executed in her novel, though she lived until 1735, because it works better for her story.

In Conversion, Howe considers how Ann Putnam Jr.’s 1706 confession came to be. In interludes between a present-day story, Ann tells the rapt Reverend Joseph Green her role in the witch hunt and why she thinks her heart is black. This confession, this humbling before God to admit wrongdoings, is Ann’s saving grace to become a full-fledged member of the Salem Village Church. From Reverend Samuel Parris’ sermon notes, we know he denounced Mary Sibley for suggesting the making of a witch cake. In her novel, Howe expands upon that little detail, putting the required ingredients of the recipe together—making it uncomfortable for the girls, for Tituba, and even for the reader. 

For the present day, Howe weaves the story of girls at an exclusive Catholic boarding school in Danvers, preparing for their last year and moving onto college—and all the stress that entails. These girls end up exhibiting conversion disorder, a medical diagnosis in which psychological stress manifests itself as physical symptoms.

The juxtaposition between Ann’s confession of getting caught up in lies and deceit and the cloistered girls displaying conversion disorder makes the reader ask if one or both were the underlying causes of the 1692 witch hunt.

In their novels, Kent and Howe show in-depth knowledge of the witch hunts. Both successfully use their imaginations to help readers envision what their ancestors may have experienced in 1692.

24 September 2014

Finding Irish roots through Boston Pilot newspaper ads

From October 1831 to October 1921, The Boston Pilot, the city’s Catholic newspaper, helped people locate their relatives and friends through advertisements in its “Missing Friends” or “Information Wanted” column. Widely circulated throughout the United States and Canada, the weekly newspaper featured ads from recent immigrants seeking family and friends they had lost touch with or who had relocated. The “missing” may have been in the country a few months or many years. With its large readership, the paper served Catholics of different nationalities, with a high percentage of Irish readers. Not all ads had a Boston connection.

These ads not only serve as a replacement for missing ship manifests, they sometimes offer great detail about your ancestors. You may learn the missing person’s birth place or hometown, age, marital status, maiden name, alias, name of ship, departure port, arrival port, travel dates, intended destination, last known residence, usual occupation, employer, physical description, and more. The person seeking information may include relationship and residence as well as a way to contact him/her.

In 1989, the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) published its first volume of The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot 1831-1920. The book series concluded with volume 8 in 1999. Several years later, NEHGS offered a CD-ROM version. 

Boston College created the first online database of advertisements for Irish immigrants published in the Boston Pilot. Currently, it does not cover the full run of newspaper issues. Free.

NEHGS’s AmericanAncestors.org web site includes the database under the title: Irish Immigrant Advertisements, 1831-1920 (Search for Missing Friends). Membership required.

Ancestry.com lists the database under the title: Searching for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in The Boston Pilot 1831–1920. Subscription required.

The official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, The Boston Pilot is still published today.

04 September 2014

Strategies for finding obituaries in newspaper databases

If you haven’t had much luck finding your ancestors’ obituaries and death notices online, you may need a few strategies to improve your search results.

As an example, at subscription-based GenealogyBank.com, a simple search for Honora Williams (with the death year and state specified) turned up two hits—not for her obituary, but for her husband’s, since he died in the same year. Using a few tricks, another search found the desired obituary and death notice for Honora.

Widen Your View

Search results will list which newspaper editions match your query, but sometimes there’s more than one hit within one issue of the paper. Zoom out in case your search terms (often highlighted in yellow) show up several times on one page or on several pages. Clicking on the results link may bring you to a death notice, and if you’re not looking for more, you may miss an obituary with photo or an article about funeral arrangements on the same newspaper date.

What’s in a Name

At first, try only the surname in the name field. Sometimes people used their initials, middle names, or nicknames throughout their lives, only to pull out their legal or more formal names on odd documents. My Abigail Louise has been recorded as Abgail, Abby, Abbie L., Abby Luie, A. Luisa, Louisie, Louisa, and Louisa A. Her daughter Theresa shows up as Thressa and Tessie, while Marguerite is often misspelled Margaret. Skipping all the alternatives and adding a date may make it easier to search for someone.

If you’re looking for an uncommon first name, like Honora, use that in the name field without a surname.

Try alternate spellings, since names may change over time. Plus, misspellings and mistakes were not uncommon and typos happen, especially when newspaper deadlines are looming. OCR or optical character recognition works best on clean, easy-to-read copy—and some old newspapers are tattered and worn, with ink smudges and bleed-through, producing poor results or even gibberish.

Look for a woman under her husband’s name, even if she’s a widow. Doing a search on “Louis Williams” with the year and state brought up the obituary for Honora. Why would that happen? In the headline she was listed under her husband’s name and her first name, Honora, was mentioned later in the article. That’s because some searches look for a certain number of words or spaces between two joined search terms. In older newspapers, sometimes first names weren’t even mentioned, just a reference to “Mrs. Williams.” 

Use only part of the surname as a search term, in case a name is hyphenated and part of it is carried to the next line. In this example, the “iams” in Williams may produce results, while “Will” may pick up unrelated men named William as well as probate matters.

Narrow by Date or Keyword

If the name produces too many results, add to your search terms. If known, include a year and then update the sort field from “best matches” to date order (“oldest items”). That way, you can go directly to the death month. You may want to include a wider date range, to pick up any probate or estate proceedings that can happen months or even years after a death.

Adding a relative’s name may focus the results. Searching for “Williams” and “Cooney” (her daughter’s surname) found an article on Honora’s probate.

Include more details if you still have too many results. Add a town, city, or street name to your keyword search. (However, in cases of city newspapers, it may be a community or neighborhood—like the North End—mentioned instead.) Add a description or job title, such as attorney/lawyer or pianist.

Location, Location, Location

You may be able to narrow your search to a specific paper, city, or state. Check the database for a list of newspaper titles (see example for GenealogyBank.com). Then click on a title and search. Also, from the homepage of GenealogyBank.com, you can narrow your search by state.

If a newspaper you’re looking for is not online, still look. Some obituaries tell other newspapers to copy the notice. (That also gives you clues to follow up about previous residences or other relatives.) In one case, my ancestor had a brief death notice in his local newspaper. However, a newspaper editor in a nearby town wrote a full obituary a few days later. In it, the editor mentioned reading that death notice and expanded on it with great detail about my ancestor’s life and character. It turns out the editor knew my ancestor well, since he owned a business there. 

Some newspapers pick up sensational or curious stories, even though an event happened hundreds or thousands of miles away, and the person would be unknown otherwise. For example, a 10-year-old boy died by falling between parked railroad cars. This story was picked up in several states, with some of the accounts containing additional information, particularly about the extent of his injuries. 

Skip the Categories

Don’t limit yourself to obituaries and death notices. You may find classified ads and legal notices about settling an estate, a news story about an accident or investigation, marriage notices of children (daughter of the late Honora), or mentions in the society or local news pages.

Review the Collection

Still having no luck? Not everything is online and different newspaper databases have different collections. You may find an obituary through Legacy that is not available at Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, FamilySearch, or other genealogy databases. Also, newspaper collections are always growing, so check back at a later date.

If you know the death date and location, see if a local library will check obituaries in their newspaper collections or request newspapers on microfilm through interlibrary loan.

And, if your search produces no results, remember, not everyone had obituaries or death notices written about them.  

29 August 2014

Newspaper obituaries and online memorials

A good obituary serves as a brief synopsis of a person’s life, from birth to death, and everything in between. Genealogical details may include the names of parents, siblings, spouse, children, grandchildren, collateral relatives, and friends; birth and/or marriage dates; cause of death; funeral arrangements and burial location. Some include career, military, and voluntary work highlights; religious attendance; hobbies, favorite things to do, personal characteristics; illnesses, personal difficulties, hardships, and triumphs; and maybe even a photograph. It’s no wonder that obituaries are high on the list of records to search for family history.

Obituaries and Paid Notices

Originally, obituaries were news articles written by newspaper staff about well-known people. Larger newspapers sometimes skipped the details and offered a necrology, a list of names (sometimes with addresses, ages, and/or exact death dates) of people who had died recently. In addition, many newspapers contained paid advertisements, including death notices detailing funeral arrangements or estate matters; tribute notices from fraternal organizations, employers, and others connected with the deceased; memorial notices on the anniversaries of a person’s birth, marriage, death, or special occasion; and thank you notices from families acknowledging special help during difficult times.

These days, unless a person was famous or otherwise newsworthy, it’s more likely that an obituary was written by staff from a funeral home, with details added by family members and friends, before being published in the newspaper. Although these articles read more like staff-written obituaries than brief death notices, they are paid advertisements—another line item for funerary charges. And with the costs of burials, some people have skipped the newspaper fees and tried newer methods of offering tributes to the dead.

Finding Recent Obituaries

Through a Google search you may find obituaries posted on newspaper and funeral home web sites. Obituaries typically date from the time the newspaper or funeral home first decided to post them online. To narrow your search, you also can try ArrangeOnline’s directory of funeral homes. Some funeral directors contribute obituaries to the National Obituary Archive, where families and others are invited to make corrections for free while tributes may be attached to an obituary for a fee.

Legacy.com provides an obituary hosting service for more than 1,500 newspapers online. Most recent obituaries are available for free, while older obituaries may be viewed for a small fee. Use the ObitFinder search engine or have ObitMessenger deliver alerts to your email.

Finding Historical Obituaries

GenealogyBank, Newspapers.com, and other genealogy sites offer access to obituaries and other newspaper articles on a subscription basis. Before you subscribe, check their location and date ranges for areas that interest you.

This year, FamilySearch.org—the largest genealogy organization in the world—started a new initiative to index and post historical obituaries online for free. You can search, volunteer to index, or add a new obituary.

If you have a death date and location, some public libraries will check for obituaries in their newspaper collections. 

Online Memorials

Numerous web sites exist for posting public and private online memorials. Some are here today, gone tomorrow—dependent on one-time or annual maintenance fees, online candle sales, and memorial gifts, all of which may not generate enough income to keep a web site active. Other sites, such as Facebook and Fold3 (a subscription-based genealogy web site), are more stable, since memorial pages are not their primary focus and revenue stream. Some online tributes show up on search engine results; to find others, check Cyndi’s List for online memorials.  

24 July 2014

Museums and historic sites tell the story of your ancestors’ occupations part 2

Tewksbury Hospital old administration building
In order to learn about our ancestors’ lives, it’s important to know their occupations. Fortunately, in Massachusetts, we have many museums and historic sites that can help you envision their lives and work—and the tools and equipment they used. Below, you’ll find Part 2 (M-Z) of places to visit in person or online to learn more about your ancestors’ occupations. If you missed Part 1 (A-L), read it here.

Some of these places feature live demonstrations of their craft, while others have tours, displays, classes, and/or hands-on activities. Before you go, contact the museum about hours and admission fees. Some have seasonal schedules and limited hours.

Maritime Adventurer:

Coast Guard Heritage Museum in Barnstable. Also features the oldest jail left in the U.S. 

Hull Lifesaving Museum in Hull. 1889 Point Allerton U.S. Lifesaving Station. 

Liberty Fleet of Tall Ships in Boston. Sail in Boston Harbor. 

Marine Museum at Fall River. Ship models and artifacts. 

New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford. Check out the half-scale Lagoda whale ship built in 1916. See also New Bedford National Historical Park.

USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown. See also the USS Constitution, or Old Ironsides, which launched in 1797 and served in the War of 1812.  

Medical Professional:

Clara Barton Birthplace Museum in North Oxford. Clara Barton (1821-1912) was founder of the American Red Cross. 

Paul S. Russell MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation in Boston. Housed in the Massachusetts General Hospital. 

Public Health Museum in Tewksbury. Opened in 1854, the Tewksbury Hospital served as an almshouse and infectious diseases (tuberculosis, smallpox, typhoid fever) hospital.

Warren Anatomical Museum in Cambridge. Part of Harvard Medical School. See also its archives collections. 

Military Men and Women:

Battleship Cove in Fall River. Battleship USS Massachusetts (1941), submarine USS Lionfish (1942), destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (1945), and PT boats.

Fort Devens Museum in Devens. From camp to fort, 1917-1996. 

Museum of World War II in Natick.  

Massachusetts National Guard Museum & Archives in Concord. 

Springfield Armory National Historic Site in Springfield. First armory in nation, largest collection of U.S. military small arms. 


Baxter Grist Mill in Yarmouth. Built in 1710.

Judah Baker Windmill in North Dennis. Built 1791. 
1912 Lawrence millworker strike

Mill Worker:

American Textile History Museum in Lowell. 

Bisbee Mill Museum in Chesterfield. Reconstructed 19th century grist mill, blacksmith shop, and woodworking shop. 

Boott Cotton Mill in Lowell. 1920s weave room, part of Lowell National Historical Park.

Crane Museum of Papermaking in Dalton. Papermaking from 1770 to today. 

Lawrence Heritage State Park in Lawrence. Visitor center is a restored 1840s boarding house featuring stories of mill workers and the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. 


The Pirate Museum in Salem. Tour a Colonial seaport, pirate ship, and cave. 

The Whydah Pirate Museum in Provincetown. View what was salvaged from pirate Sam Bellamy’s ship wrecked off Wellfleet in 1717.  


The Plumbing Museum in Watertown. Early examples to modern plumbing fixtures. 

Waterworks Museum in Boston. The machinery and reservoir behind our drinking water. 


The Museum of Printing in North Andover. Graphic arts, typesetting, bookbinding, and printing. 

The Printing Office of Edes & Gill in Boston. An 18th century print shop in the Clough House. 

Quarry Worker:

Quincy Quarry and Granite Workers Museum in Quincy. 

Seamstress, Tailor:

New England Quilt Museum in Lowell. 

Religious Leader:

African Meeting House in Boston. Part of Museum of African American History.  

Bidwell House Museum in Monterey. 1750s parsonage. 

The Mission House in Stockbridge. 1742 house of missionaries to the Mohicans.

School Teacher:

Abiel Smith School in Boston. Part of Museum of African American History. 

Schoolhouse Museum in Eastham. One-room schoolhouse built in 1869 and used until 1936. 


Cape Cod Maritime Museum in Hyannis. See boat builders in action. 

Essex Shipbuilding Museum in Essex. The village shipyard is known for building the most two-masted wooden fishing schooners. 

United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum in Quincy. 


E.N. Jenckes Store Museum in Douglas. Circa 1895 general store, built in 1830s and enlarged. 

Monroe Tavern, Lexington, Mass.

Tavern Keeper:

Blanchard’s Colonial Tavern Museum in Avon. 

Buckman Tavern and Munroe Tavern in Lexington. Setting for meetings that played part in the Revolutionary War. 

Kingman Tavern in Cummington. Also includes a replica of a 1900 country store, a barn with hand and farm tools, a carriage shed, and an 1840s cider mill. 


Aptucxet Trading Post Museum replica in Bourne. 

Transportation Driver & Builder:

Amesbury Carriage Museum in Amesbury. Horse-drawn carriages, sleighs, and automobiles. 

Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum in Lenox. 1903 Lenox station. 

Chatham Railroad Museum in Chatham. 1887 railroad depot, 1910 caboose, models. 

Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline. From horse-drawn carriages to motor cars.

National Streetcar Museum in Lowell. 

Old Colony & Fall River Railroad Museum in Fall River. Four rail cars and displays. 

Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum in Shelburne Falls. Take a ride on Trolley No. 10 and old-fashioned pump car. 


Old Schwamb Mill in Arlington. 

General Industrial:

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham. 

Museum of Our Industrial Heritage in Greenfield. 

Read Part 1 for more museums and historic sites A through L.

21 July 2014

Museums and historic sites tell the story of your ancestors’ occupations part 1

Samuel Adams Brewery, Boston, Mass.
In 17th century Boston records, William Gibson is often referred to as the cordwainer, apparently so people did not confuse him with another William Gibson whose wife also was named Hannah. But what’s a cordwainer? A shoemaker. If you didn’t know that old-fashioned term, check out the glossary of old occupations and trades.

If you’re wondering what your ancestor did all day and what tools he used, you can learn more at Massachusetts museums centering on occupations. For example, a bunch of local museums have shoemaking displays, but the city of Lynn was particularly known for it, which is why Lynn Heritage State Park includes a shoemaking exhibit. (While you’re there, you may want to explore Lynn’s connections to the world-famous Lydia Pinkham’s medicinal cure-alls.)

Below, you’ll find suggestions of places to visit (or, if you’re not local to Massachusetts, explore online) to learn more about your ancestors’ occupations. Some of these places feature live demonstrations of their craft, while others have tours, displays, classes, and/or hands-on activities. This is not an all-inclusive list; there are many historical societies with great collections and larger community museums (such as Plimouth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village) that cover multiple occupations in one location as well.

Before you go, contact the museum about hours and admission fees. Some have seasonal schedules and limited hours.


Harpoon Brewery in Boston.

Samuel Adams Brewery in Boston. Founded in 1985 with old family recipes. 

Canal Worker:

Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park in Uxbridge. 

Candy Maker:

Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop at the Clough House in Boston. In the same building as the Printing Offices of Edes and Gill. Demonstrations, history, and samples.


Willard House & Clock Museum in North Grafton. Three generations of clockmakers, starting in 1766.

Cordwainers and Other Leather Workers:

Peabody Leather Workers Museum in Peabody. Adjacent to the George Peabody House Museum and Library. At one time, Peabody was known as the Leather Capital of the World. 

Customs Collector:

Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport. Includes displays of famous shipwrecks, model clipper ships, and the history of the Coast Guard. 

Salem Maritime National Historic Site in Salem. Includes the U.S. Custom House where author Nathaniel Hawthorne once worked; replica of the 1797 tall ship Friendship of Salem; the 1675 Narbonne house with artifacts from archeological digs in its backyard; and the 1762 Derby house. 


Appleton Farms in Ipswich. America’s oldest working farm. 

Hadley Farm Museum in Hadley. In the 1782 barn, see vehicles and equipment used from late 18th to early 20th centuries. 

Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm in Newbury. 1690 manor house and hands-on activities.


Boston Fire Museum in Boston. Also see the links page for other fire museums. 

Furniture builder:

Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture is a web site that brings together almost a dozen cultural institutions. Includes a list of exhibitions and events. 


Sandwich Glass Museum in Sandwich. Watch glassblowing demonstrations. 


Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site in Boston. House and office of landscape architect famed for the Emerald Necklace parks.

Lyman Estate Greenhouses in Waltham. Includes some of the oldest surviving greenhouses in the country, with its 1804 grape house, 1820 camellia house, 1840 orchid house, and a 1930 greenhouse.  

Reconstructed forge and mill at Saugus Ironworks by Daderot


Saugus Iron Works. Reconstruction of the first successful iron works in the Colonies, in operation from 1646 to 1670, plus the 1680 Iron Works House.

Lighthouse Keeper:

Bass River Lighthouse in West Dennis. Part of the Lighthouse Inn and restaurant.

See also New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide web site. 


Cape Ann Harbor Tours’ lobstering/harbor tour from Gloucester features a boat tour and lobstering demonstration.

Read Part 2 for more museums and historic sites M through Z.

28 June 2014

Surname changes in genealogy

Ellis Island by Ingfbruno via Wikimedia Commons
How many times have you heard the line: "My ancestor had his name changed at Ellis Island"? This is one of the most common myths (along with the three brothers story and the Indian princess story) in genealogy.

Scenario 1

An Irish man came to the United States and “at Ellis Island changed his last name to Green.” The family didn’t know what the original name was or why it may have changed. Tracing the family through the censuses, however, showed the immigrant claimed he arrived in 1888, four years before Ellis Island became an immigration station (1892-1954).

Ellis Island was the most well-known and busiest immigration station in the country. Before that, immigrants arriving in New York were processed at Castle Garden from 1855 to 1890. On the northeast and mid-Atlantic coast, other popular ports were Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston—in addition to Canadian border crossings. Ellis Island, however, marked the 1890 transition when the federal government took control of immigration and inspection.

When people disembarked from a ship, they were greeted by an immigration officer who spoke the same language, or were sent to one who did. That officer had the original ship manifest in his hands and checked off the names—which were written when the people boarded the ship in the first place—as the passengers shuffled through his station. He did not misinterpret what someone said and wrote down something totally different, declaring “from now on your name will be Smith.” Besides the checkmarks, you’ll see the American immigration officer’s notations on the ship manifests, sometimes telling the story of immigrants who were ill upon arrival and ended up in the immigration hospital or the ones who were deported for communicable diseases or political views or mental illness.

It’s quite possible that the Irish immigrant decided to switch his name to Green (and lose his Irish brogue) after seeing anti-Irish signs in windows (“Help Wanted. No Irish Need Apply”), which would diminish his prospects. Since he became a naturalized citizen, if the immigrant did change his name shortly after coming to this country, his naturalization papers would show his original name and alias because he needed to prove his arrival date and length of residency. From naturalization papers, obituaries, and possibly the Irish immigrant’s gravestone, the family may be able to gather enough clues to cross the Atlantic to do research in Ireland.

Scenario 2

Other people may have changed their names to sound more American or to break away from the past and start a new life. The surname of one family, who came from Italy in 1904, changed over time. You could see the surname’s evolution when you put records in order by date. Sometime after the deaths of two young daughters in 1908, the family used the new surname. Why it was chosen is a mystery. The name could have stemmed from a city in Italy, but not the one connected to the family’s known origins. But it also could have come from a shortened but jumbled version of the original surname. The spelling of both the immigrant name and the American name was inconsistent in early records, probably because the record taker was not Italian speaking and the family was not yet fluent in English.

At first thought, perhaps the surname changed because the husband was a notorious adulterer. (It was even a story in the local newspaper!) But that didn’t explain why his brother and family, who arrived in 1910, changed their surname too. Although it’s a stereotype, the name change could be an attempt to hide from the criminal element in the States or to cover up the family background in the mother country. 

Scenario 3

A first-generation American officially changed his surname several years after his marriage in the 1930s. With almost a quarter of the population from Portugal or the Azores, his city had so many families using the same Portuguese surname that they had aliases or descriptions added to their names to tell them apart. He adopted the surname of the family he lived with, which people already used as his alias. His name change was recorded in the court house.

Be wary of family stories that start with a name change at Ellis Island, but dig deep and you may be able to uncover whether and why a surname was changed.

29 May 2014

Finding the original or official vital records in Massachusetts

courtesy of National Archives
Vital records are often considered original sources for the events they represent, but that doesn’t mean the records themselves are truly the original.

Before Massachusetts changed over to preprinted, individual forms for each person, town clerks used large, bound ledger books for vital records. In addition to the event date, there’s another column specifically for the date of record or when the entry was submitted by the informant (clergy, medical doctor, justice of the peace, family member, etc.). You may find the event dates are mixed up, with March following June, to account for the different sources.

The town clerk is not the witness to an event, just the recorder. It’s the doctor or clergy who made weekly, monthly, or annual visits to the town clerk, providing information on who was born, married, or died. It could be data from scraps of paper in an itinerant preacher’s pockets or mildew-stained ledger books that had been used for decades, possibly gnawed on by a church mouse. Words can smudge, rips and tears happen. Let’s also not forget that events sometimes were written hours or days afterwards, when one’s memory may be slightly askew, especially if the informant didn’t know the family well. For instance, the groom’s name could be mistaken for his father’s or the birth date may mistakenly fall on one side of midnight, instead of the other.

You may be able to track down those original records from doctors and clergy, so make sure you take note of the informant’s name and address. But remember, not everyone had record-keeping skills like midwife Martha Ballard (1735-1812) of Massachusetts and Maine, who recorded 816 deliveries in 27 years in her diary.

Town and State Records

Before digital access, the Vital Records to 1850 series, by the New England Historic Genealogical Society and others, was one of the most widely used sources in Massachusetts. You’ll find the series referenced in many genealogy books and journals as well as DAR applications. These are transcriptions of town records—including church, cemetery, and family records such as Bibles—usually listed alphabetically by surname (or, in some cases, by multiple spellings of the same/similar name), not date. John Slaughter’s web site includes records from these so-called “tan books.” Not all towns and cities in Massachusetts were covered. If you had relatives from the Berkshires, luckily Blanche C. Stockwell transcribed records from several towns and deposited her manuscripts at the Berkshire Athenaeum. Her transcriptions for Sheffield and a few other towns are available online.

Jay and Delene Holbrook filmed records from 315 towns and cities in Massachusetts, now available on subscription site Ancestry.com as “Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988.” FamilySearch.org has images of “Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Towns Records, 1579-2001,” with some indexes already available.

Starting in 1841, Massachusetts required town clerks to copy their birth, marriage, and records and send them to the state. The town clerk’s copy is considered the original, and it sometimes has more details than the state version, but the most widely available records tend to be the state’s version (except as noted above in Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org collections). It’s often difficult to tell the two versions apart. No doubt the state requirement was much easier after the invention of the mimeograph, carbon paper, photocopiers, and scanners.

When looking at records online, pay attention to the source, whether it’s from the town/city or state. If you can’t read a record or if you want to verify its accuracy, contact the town clerk.

Records of Today

If you’ve been to a town clerk for a Massachusetts marriage license, you already know the prospective bride and groom must show up at the town hall together, with their birth certificates, and each fills out separate paperwork. The couple then brings the clerk-issued license to wed to the clergy or justice of the peace, which the officiator signs and returns to the town clerk after the ceremony. (The bride and groom also may sign the church ledger and receive a wedding certificate from clergy. Another resource to check!) Afterwards, the couple orders a copy of their official marriage certificate.

For births, the mother or the parents fill out a form, then the hospital inputs the data using Electronic Birth Certificate software. For deaths, the informant fills out the form, which is entered onto the official form, before being signed by the doctor. 

Birth, marriage, and death records today are submitted to the town or city in which the event occurred, and sometimes to the place where a person lives/lived, as well as to the state. Since the records are done electronically, there’s no variation among the town and state versions. The bonus, of course, is that the documents are perfectly legible.