The first year of the Early New England Families Study Project

Alicia Crane WilliamsIt is just a little over a year since NEHGS President and CEO Brenton Simons came to me with the idea for what became the Early New England Families Study Project. I was immediately interested, not only because it is an important institutional project, but because it brought me full circle to my beginnings in genealogy. My first job with NEHGS in the 1970s was to create a bibliography for Clarence Almon Torrey’s manuscript “New England Marriages Prior to 1700.” It took a number of years, with the help of colleague Peter Drummey, to compare Torrey’s short citations to the books in the library and decide which belonged to which.  It was an unparalleled education in genealogical literature!

This new project has developed a bit differently than we originally envisioned, but that is not surprising. Our first concepts were for short, simple summaries of information in print.  Short and simple is easier said than done. Actually, there is too much information in print about these families already – a good deal of it contradictory, incomplete, and/or wrong.  Surveying accounts published over the last 175 years about a New England family and then following the many copies, re-writes, enlargements, diminutions, corrections, and arguments is much like the proverbial peeling of the onion.

Nor is it sufficient to state the information found without critical analysis.  A sketch in progress on Samuel Dudley, eldest son of Governor Thomas Dudley, is nine pages!  So much for short. Sam married three times and had sixteen kids, and assigning, even tentatively, these children to his wives is a headache.  It is not the task of the Early New England Families Study Project to answer all the questions – with 35,000 sketches to do, we simply cannot – but the questions still have to be addressed or we risk perpetuating misconceptions and errors.

I love it. I never know where a family is going to take me, but I know I’ll learn something new and interesting. This first year has been one of development, but the project is off the ground and growing –  and I look forward to an excellent second year. To that end, I have thanks to give. To Brenton Simons and Ryan Woods for the job, to all of the staff at NEHGS who provide support, particularly Chris Carter, Sam Sturgis, Scott Steward, and Dave Dearborn. And extra special thanks to my old friend and new mentor, Robert Charles Anderson.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

12 thoughts on “The first year of the Early New England Families Study Project

  1. Vita – I’ve been researching my SKINNER line and have it well documented from John Skinner (Hartford Proprietor & Founder) down to me. John Skinner’s fifth generation was Jonathan Skinner who moved with 2nd wife Jerusha Merrill (1st wife was Thankful Butler) from Hartford to Partridgefield/Dalton/Hinsdale, Berkshire, MA in the early 1790s and was prominent in formation of the Town of Hinsdale and the Dalton Cong. Church. My great great grandfather Stephen was born in Dalton. Family moved to Pompey, Onondaga, NY where Jonathan died and Stephen and first wife Sophia Butler moved to Barre Centre, Orleans, NY. Stephen was a blacksmith and built the National Registered Skinner-Tinkham House. Sophia died there and Stephen married Lydia Mead. In 1839 they moved to Rockford, Winnebago, IL and were among the original Rockford pioneers. Stephen’s son Henry Mead Skinner participated in the Pike’s Peak gold rush in 1859-60 and I have several original letters between him and family. Another of Stephen’s sons was James Butler Skinner, also a blacksmith and inventor of farm machinery (4-gang plow, riding sulky plow, etc). James also owned the Steamer “Rockford” in the mid-1800s. I’ve done considerable research on Stephen and children:George E., James B., Truman A., Charles W., Mary Jane, Henry M. and Marvin H. I have many original documents and photos, including original portraits of Stephen and 2nd wife Lydia. If you think any of this would be of interest to your project, please let me know.

    I’m also a direct descendent of BURRITT (Stamford, CT) on my father’s maternal side. Much has already been published on BURRITT but it needs to be brought up to date.

    1. Ric, That’s a big question that deserves a full blog post, which I’ll be working on. Short answer is that the Early New England Families Project covers families pre 1700 that are not in Great Migration that deals with immigrants up through 1640 and John Skinner would be included in the Great Migration group. His children will be treated by Early Families in chronological order by date of their marriage — we’re still in 1641 with a total of 35,000 families to do! But all research needs to be preserved and my recommendation always is that everyone who has done work on a family write it up and deposit it with the NEHGS.

  2. Alicia, Has Torrey’s compilation of marriages been edited and updated with corrections? Is there such a version available to us NEHGS members? You mention that was your first project and wondering how to access and cross-check any info from Torrey that I have downloaded from ancestry.com, which always shows a digital copy of what I assume is the original manuscript.
    Your writing is both informative and filled with enthusiasm. Thank you!

    1. Hi Judy, thank you. The on-line database at americanancestors.org contains the transcribed information including source citations. Search under “Vital Records” and then subcategory “Torreys New England Marriages.”

      There is also a hard copy set of three volumes published by NEHGS in 2011 that can be ordered through the Store. It is expensive for an individual, but I highly recommend that every library have it, so you could give the info to your local librarian. They usually love to get compilations such as this.

      Neither of these has “corrected” information and both suffer from transcription errors, particularly page numbers, because Torrey’s handwriting was difficult and sometimes smudged. Early New England Families will become the “corrected” version, but that will be one family at a time.

    1. Susan, to find out if anyone has published new English research, you’ll need to keep up on current genealogical periodicals, which have reviews, lists of new articles, and often footnotes of interest in articles on seemingly other topics. For publications between 1980 and 2010 use Martin Hollick’s “New Englanders in the 1600s” published by NEHGS. To find out if anyone has done unpublished research, you’ll just need to troll the Internet — but be careful about what you accept. Enthusiasm isn’t the same as proof!

    1. Hi Paula,

      While the Early New England Families Study Project may eventually be published in book form, it is really an on-line project and available to all NEHGS members on americanancestors.org. Search under Category: “Genealogies, Biographies, Heraldry and Local History” and under Database “Early Families of New England.” The dropdown box for “Vol.” gives the list of families currently in the database. When new ones are posted, the Weekly Genealogist gives a notice under Database News.

  3. Wondering if this project will cover Jonathan Farren of Amesbury MA. He is my furthest back ancestor but I haven’t found his parents or his birthplace. There is a book on him by Frank Myer Ferrin called Captain Jonathan Farren of Amesbury Mass & Some of His Descendants. But he didn’t have that info either.

  4. I was wonering what information you have found about the Ells family? I think that they were first recorded circa1632.

    1. Gary, John Eeles is treated in Great Migration Begins, volume 1, pp. 618-620. His son Samuel married in 1663 and will be treated by Early New England Families when we get to the 1663 group — right now we are in 1641.

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