Finding Revolutionary War Ancestors

Frederick Wingdorf's record in the Index to Revolutionary War Service Records.
Frederick Wingdorf’s record in the Index to Revolutionary War Service Records.

Patriots’ Day—the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—is fast approaching here in Massachusetts. This particular holiday makes many of us a little reflective. Was my ancestor involved in the American Revolution? If you have ever been curious about that, here are some great resources to jump-start your research.

One of the best places to start looking is Virgil D. White’s Index to Revolutionary War Service Records. Available in the NEHGS research library, this particular series is a transcription of the General Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Revolutionary War Soldiers, Sailors, and Members of Army Staff Departments, also known as M860, housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. White’s transcription lists the rank, regiment, or company of each soldier, and is a fantastic resource because it includes every state of service. Consider yourself lucky if your ancestor had a rare name, such as Frederick Wingdorf. Frederick was a drummer in the 3rd Massachusetts Regiment, and—not surprisingly—was the only Frederick Wingdorf in the index. If you are not so lucky and your ancestors had very common names like Samuel Jones or William Moore or, worse, John Smith, you might need to consult secondary sources to help whittle down the long list of candidates. Continue reading Finding Revolutionary War Ancestors

Read the problem; Trust, but verify

Click on Register page to enlarge.
Click on Register page to enlarge.

My father, the MIT graduate, used to try to tutor me in math. His most frequent frustration was getting me to remember to “read the problem.” All the answers were there, he claimed, if I understood the problem. Alas, I never conquered math, but the advice is applicable to genealogy.

When I was writing the Early New England Families sketch on Hilliard Veren, whose wife, Mary, was remembered in the will of her mother, Jane (Slade) (Conant) Searle, I cited the abstract of the will published in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 52 (1898):271 (at left), which gives the date of the will as 1 May 1665. Apparently, I neglected to read the entire abstract and note that the date of probate was given as 20 June 1658. ­­­­ Continue reading Read the problem; Trust, but verify

Indexing your family history

Penny at podium_croppedIf you’re writing a family history, you’re ultimately going to index it, right? If you’ve ever consulted a printed genealogy in hopes of finding an ancestor . . . only not to find an index to help you, you’ll know the importance of creating an index for your own work.

In pre-computer days, you’d have used index cards to make your index, making a card for each entry and then painstakingly writing the appropriate page numbers on the card. Then you’d have typed it up into a manuscript. Now you can just start typing index entries in a word-processing or spreadsheet program, later alphabetizing them. (If you’re producing your book completely in Microsoft Word, you can mark entries in your file and Word will generate the index.) Alternatively, you can use indexing software such as SKY Index or Cindex. Continue reading Indexing your family history

Finding Uncle Morris

Family Tradition versus Fact, and a few shades of Gray

Gravestone of Morris Larned Healy.
Gravestone of Morris Larned Healy.

One story often repeated in my family concerned the mystery of my grandfather’s uncle, Morris Larned Healy, who reportedly had died of “lead poisoning” at a bordello in New Orleans . . . or Atlanta. My grandfather, who told the story, was known for his vivid imagination, so I decided to see if the story had any validity.

Morris Larned Healy was born at Dudley, Massachusetts, 22 February 1875, son of Lemuel and Elizabeth Eaton (Larned) Healy. I can find him in the 1880 census, with his parents in Dudley, but in no later censuses. According to Healy History Revised,[1] Morris Healy died in Atlanta, Georgia, 28 September 1909, was buried at Dudley, and was married, with no children. I also found a record of Morris L. Healy getting married in Boston, Massachusetts, on 11 January 1910—four months after his supposed death—to Milla E. Clark, born Milla Eliza Kendall, at Townsend, Vermont, 21 April 1870, daughter of Amos Gould and Gertrude A. (Bruce) Kendall. Milla was first married to Norman F. Clark, by whom she had two children; they divorced in 1902. Her marriage to Morris Healy in January 1910 listed this marriage as her second.

In the 1910 census, however, Milla is still listed with her first husband’s surname, living with her widowed mother, Gertrude. Morris Healy is nowhere to be found. Even stranger, Milla gets married for the third time in 1915 in Leominster, Massachusetts, to Edmond Metcalf, but she is using the name of Milla E. Clark, and still claiming this is only her second marriage! What happened to Uncle Morris?

Mortuary notice for Morris E. Clark. Atlanta Constitution, 26 Sept. 1911.
Mortuary notice for Morris E. Clark. Atlanta Constitution, 26 Sept. 1911.

Healy History Revised had claimed he died 28 September 1909, but his tombstone in Dudley shows he died in 1911. Perhaps the genealogy got the year wrong, and he died 28 September 1911. I checked the Webster Times, the newspaper of Dudley’s neighboring town, for funeral announcements in the fall of 1911. There I found a notice for funeral services for Morris Healy at his parents’ house October 5, which mentioned that he died September 24. I then checked the Atlanta Constitution for fall 2011, and on September 26, I found the mortuary notice for Morris E. Clark, aged 36, who died the previous day at a private sanatorium, survived by his father Lenuel Clark of Dudley, Mass. This is partly why Morris has been so hard to find: he was using an alias. Perhaps he used the surname Clark as this was the last name of his wife when he married. His death certificate from Fulton County, Georgia, listed him as Morris E. Clark, with his correct date and place of birth, and as the son of Lemuel and Elizabeth Clark. His cause of death was acute nephritis that lasted two weeks. So much for “lead poisoning”!

Death certificate for Morris E. Clark. City of Atlanta, Death Certificate #3009, from Fulton County Bureau of Vital Statistics.
Death certificate for Morris E. Clark. City of Atlanta, Death Certificate #3009, from Fulton County Bureau of Vital Statistics.

I cannot find what happened to Morris’s wife after her 1915 marriage to Edmond Metcalf. Of her children, her son Guy Norman Clark was in the Windsor County Jail at the time of the 1930 census. Guy’s wife, Sarah Elizabeth Castor, was the daughter of Louis Castor, a man convicted for uxoricide, for the murder of Sarah’s mother! Several of Sarah’s descendants, as I have traced them over several generations, have met untimely deaths, which have opened up a whole new series of stories to tell when anyone asks, “So what happened to Uncle Morris?”


Addendum: Thank you everyone very much for the comments regarding lead poisoning as cause of acute nephritis. The implication my grandfather was going for was that this was a “lead bullet,” so perhaps there was some basis for his embellishment. I should also point out that my grandfather was born five years after his uncle Morris died.


[1] Ethel Eliza Pearl Brown Carrier, Healy History Revised (privately printed, Longmeadow, Mass., 1968), 34.

Twin Pastimes: Baseball and Genealogy

David's signed Bill Henry baseball card.
David’s signed Bill Henry baseball card.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved baseball. My father would tell me stories about his own childhood, recalling Ted Williams batting at Boston’s Fenway Park, and Warren Spahn pitching at the former Boston Braves field. My father’s idols, they became mine. At age 12, I started researching baseball old timers and Hall of Famers—and then started writing letters to the players of the 1910s to 1930s. I wrote almost a dozen times to “Smoky” Joe Wood (1889–1985), the last surviving member of the team that christened Fenway Park in 1912 and won the World Series the same year. Each time I received a letter back, it contained answers to my questions about Smoky Joe’s playing days, as well as a signed piece of baseball memorabilia I had sent him. Continue reading Twin Pastimes: Baseball and Genealogy

Crossing Paths: Two Stories of Buchenwald

U.S. Army troops in Germany, 1945. Photograph by Herbert Gorfinkle. From the Papers of Herbert Gorfinkle, P-904 at the American Jewish Historical Society-New England Archives.
U.S. Army troops in Germany, 1945. Photograph by Herbert Gorfinkle. From the Papers of Herbert Gorfinkle, P-904 at the American Jewish Historical Society-New England Archives.

April 11, 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp. In commemoration of this day, the American Jewish Historical Society–New England Archives (AJHS–NEA) is honoring the memory of two men who were present at Buchenwald for the liberation, and whose papers are in our archives.[1]

As an archive with a very specific mission (to collect and preserve the records of the Jewish communities of Greater Boston and New England), AJHS–NEA has many collections that are connected by family relationships. Continue reading Crossing Paths: Two Stories of Buchenwald

Testing the “strength” of a local legend

Elmer Bitgood and his back press board weighted with stones in Voluntown, CT. account of William Molis, Jr.
Elmer Bitgood and his back press board weighted with stones in Voluntown, CT. account of William Molis, Jr.

Voluntown, a small eastern Connecticut county of just over two thousand, was once home to a national legend who is all but forgotten today. From January 1869 until 23 July 1938,[1] it was the home of Elmer G. Bitgood, a man many locals claimed was the strongest man in the world. I was intrigued and wanted to investigate further.

Stories abound about the strength of Elmer Bitgood, who spent his entire life living and working on his family’s farm in Voluntown. Separating the truth from local folklore was increasingly difficult, even during Elmer’s lifetime, as residents of the area took a certain pride in their hometown Samson. By the 1920s, Bitgood’s fame had grown to national proportions, as articles detailing his exploits appeared in newspapers from New Orleans to Evansville, Indiana, to Rhinelander, Wisconsin.[2] Because he refused all offers to join circuses and museums, he became the focus of many stories throughout eastern Connecticut. Continue reading Testing the “strength” of a local legend

Beacon Hill Place

Tremont and Beacon Streets
At center, a view of the intersection of Tremont and Beacon Streets. G. W. Bromley & Co., Atlas of the City of Boston: City Proper and Roxbury (1890), Plate 2. Click on the images to expand them.

Mrs. Gray’s Boston, at least during the 1860s, was one largely arrayed around the Common. Her friends lived in houses stretching from Beacon Hill (Beacon, Bowdoin, Chestnut, Hancock, and Mount Vernon Streets) down Park Street to a long line of houses, all long-since demolished, on Tremont Street, thence along Boylston Street to the new Back Bay, with a focus on Arlington Street and Commonwealth Avenue, not to mention (again) Beacon Street. Her sewing circle sometimes met in Chester Square, in the South End, but Mrs. Gray was apt to leapfrog the Back Bay development to her numerous friends living in Roxbury, or perhaps in the country in Dorchester and Brookline. Continue reading Beacon Hill Place

Choosing a Lineage Society

Program of the Boston Tea Party Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Photo by Karen M. True.

So you’ve decided to join a lineage society. Maybe you’ve found an ancestor who meets the qualification for a society you’ve known about for years. Or possibly you’ve just found out about a society that sounds really interesting and you want to join. Either way, deciding to join a lineage society is just the first in a series of decisions about your membership.  Continue reading Choosing a Lineage Society

Becoming American: A Look at the Process

The National Archives’ Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service—which many genealogists informally call “Record Group 85”—is one of the best sources of data on immigrants to America, covering the years 1787 to 1993. It’s a common misperception that Record Group 85 contains only passenger lists, which are now viewable online through many sites. However, this record group contains hundreds of case files of immigrants either trying to come into the United States or trying to stay in the country. Also hiding in this series are documents that introduce us to what immigrants were expected to learn about their adopted country in different periods. Continue reading Becoming American: A Look at the Process