Monthly Archives: December 2014

The year in review

1928 Newbury Street Artist Rendering
99-101 Newbury Street, the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s home since December 1964

As I write this, a few days before the New Year begins, Vita Brevis is nearly a year old; it has had more than 300,000 page views since its first post on 2 January 2014. (This is a statistic I like to trumpet, although of course a single reader on a given day might well look at more than one entry: so I cannot claim 300,000 unique readers over the course of the first year, much as I would like to!) That first post, Generatio longa, vita brevis, hinted at the blog’s purpose: “Vita Brevis will include short posts on research methods – applicable to a variety of genealogical subjects – as well as posts on results. Like a mosaic, these posts will, in time, form a new collection for the genealogical researcher to explore.” Continue reading The year in review

The family historian

Margaret in Goshen for VB
Margaret Steward in Goshen, New York

Most families have one: the family historian. Whether or not the focus is genealogical, there is usually at least one family member who keeps track of siblings and cousins, sometimes to the nth degree. My father’s family had one in my great-aunt Margaret Steward (1888–1975). I do not remember meeting her, but I’ve been told I take after her, at least in so far as the mantle of family genealogist passed from her to me when I was still in middle school. Continue reading The family historian

Town and city annual reports

Somerville_1887Municipal annual reports provide a breakdown of various city and town department budgets and expenditures for the year. At first glance it may seem that these publications would not be useful for genealogical research, but taking the time to search these reports for information about your ancestors may lead to some interesting discoveries about their lives and the lives of their contemporaries. Many of these reports include a roster of municipal employees and their annual salaries. For example, the 1887 edition of City of Somerville (Massachusetts) Annual Reports contains information submitted by a number of departments, including the School Committee.[1] Their report includes a table listing the school teachers who worked in Somerville that year, their salaries, and the year they were hired. Continue reading Town and city annual reports

Moving to (and through) New York

Hist of Ancient Fams of NY-29387Building on previous posts, which featured books that help with researching ancestors who arrived first in Massachusetts and then moved westward or northward, this entry will look at some resources available to researchers whose ancestors moved to or first arrived in New York. As Henry B. Hoff, Editor of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, notes in his introduction to the Research Guide on New York, “Finding information about your New York ancestors can be tricky. The difficulty depends on time, place, and group. Researching Dutch-descended New Yorkers in the Hudson Valley during the eighteenth century is likely to be easy; whereas researching settlers from New England in the same locale may be difficult. And of course the 1911 fire at the State Library in Albany and the fact that statewide registration of vital records did not start until 1880 only adds to the difficulty.” Continue reading Moving to (and through) New York

A Christmas box

Grandpa with Scrapbook
My grandfather with his album. Click on the images to expand them.

In this season of giving, sometimes the most enjoyment comes from sharing items you forgot you had instead of those newly received. Three years ago, I celebrated Christmas at the mountain home of my paternal grandparents. At some point, my grandfather mentioned to my father and aunts that he still had a box of their old vinyl records in storage. Naturally, they could not recall what might have been left over from their school days, and my cousins and I were curious about our parents’ musical tastes. We convinced my grandfather to dig out the box. Continue reading A Christmas box

Forefathers’ Day

Alicia Crane WilliamsPlymothians invented Forefather’s Day in 1769 to mark the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, and to emphasize Plymouth Colony’s independent origins in response to what they felt was continued oppression by the English Crown. At different times the event has involved a ball, dinner, orations, and church services. Speakers have included the likes of Daniel Webster and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. For most of the last 200 years, the event has been hosted by the Pilgrim Society, whose Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth is the mecca for everyone interested in early New England history. Continue reading Forefathers’ Day

Reading other people’s mail: Part Two

Hutchinson Jacket coverThomas Hutchinson (1711–1780) was the last crown-appointed civilian governor of Massachusetts. During his term of office, he dealt with the aftermath of both the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. The Colonial Society of Massachusetts has recently published the first volume of his selected correspondence covering the years 1740–1766. It is most readily available through Here are further thoughts about the process of documentary editing by John Tyler, one of the volumes’ two co-editors.

It is often said that transcription (translating eighteenth-century handwriting into Microsoft Word) is about one-third of the work involved in documentary editing. For the Hutchinson papers, Malcolm Freiberg and Catherine Shaw Mayo had already established, in a preliminary way, the text of most key letters. Elizabeth Dubrulle and I would be negligent, however, if we did not check these against the originals, but Freiberg was very rarely wrong. Continue reading Reading other people’s mail: Part Two

Town historians: a helpful resource

Southampton blog post
Town of Southampton. Courtesy of

Recently, I was searching for records in the towns of Southampton, Easthampton, and Bridgehampton, all in Suffolk County, New York. I was trying to determine the identity of the father of Abraham C., who was born in 1720 in Southampton and died about 1785. The client had done some excellent research, and through his efforts, concluded that there were two possible outcomes. Since finding direct evidence from records for New York during this time period can be tricky, I examined numerous publications from our NEHGS collection, including town histories, such as the multi-volume series Records of The Town of Southampton, With Other Ancient Documents of Historic Value; published genealogies; and the excellent New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. Continue reading Town historians: a helpful resource

Jump starting your genealogical research

Newbury Street TodayThis post marks the 250th blog post at Vita Brevis. To mark the occasion, I have asked some of our peerless contributors for suggestions on the theme of  jump starting genealogical research (and publication) for the holidays – with an eye toward 2015!

Consider sending a holiday letter out via email to your relatives. Then print a copy for posterity. – David Allen Lambert

Continue reading Jump starting your genealogical research

Solving a “mystery of baseball”

Moses Walker
Moses Fleetwood Walker. Courtesy of

Ask any baseball fan who the first African-American major league player was, and nearly all will tell you it was Jackie Robinson. Ask anyone familiar with the game’s long and storied history before Robinson’s debut in 1947, and they’ll tell you it was Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Weldy, who broke into the game in 1884.[1] Very few, if any, would tell you that it was a man named William Edward White who became the first African-American to play in a major league baseball game in 1879. Had it not been for a few keen researchers, William Edward White’s name would have been lost to baseball history, perhaps forever. Continue reading Solving a “mystery of baseball”