Monthly Archives: April 2017

A scrapbook love letter

My mother’s letter

I grew up in a normal home with two parents, one older brother, various dogs, cats (house and barn varieties), and a one-time parakeet. Like most people with that background, I thought I knew my parents and their individual backgrounds well, especially because my mother was careful to instill in me an appreciation of both lines of the family history.

In the early-mid 1930s, my mother was teaching and boarding with the principal of her school where My Father The Milkman delivered the semi-weekly bottles. It was a bottle of milk that began my parents’ relationship and a 1938 marriage lasting for more than 57 years, until my father’s death in 1995. Continue reading A scrapbook love letter

‘The salvation of the country’

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
Mrs. Gray’s diary[1] continues, with the results of the 1864 presidential election:

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Wednesday, 9 November 1864: The great election-day passed off without disorder or disturbance – and, Thank God, Lincoln is re-elected by splendid majorities. Every New Eng. state, Penna. & New York state have gone for him. New Y. city went McClellan[2] by 30,000 majority – but that was expected; & he has New Jersey & Kentucky – all the others are Lincoln.

Kansas did not even have an opposition ticket, so heartily Republican was the whole state. The long anxiety, suspense, & dread are over – a good God has overruled the madness of home traitors for their own ruin, and the salvation of the country; that accursed Chicago platform, the offspring of foul treason, cowardice, and political corruption, happily trampled McClellan’s hopes to nothingness. He might have had some chance but for that. Continue reading ‘The salvation of the country’

Cambridge Cameos

Reading Alicia Crane Williams’s post on Sex in Middlesex reminded me of another great work by Roger Thompson – Cambridge Cameos – Stories of Life in Seventeenth-Century New England, which contains forty-four sketches from the period 1651 to 1686. They are fascinating stories involving mostly ordinary people. Some of the more colorful chapters cover Brutality or Bloodsucking; Town versus Gown; Witchcraft or Madness; and A Subversive Physician. These vignettes are based on thousands of original documents Thompson examined that provide a rare chance to hear firsthand accounts of many seventeenth century New Englanders. Continue reading Cambridge Cameos

Book marks

Courtesy of Historic Oregon Newspapers.

With the addition of so many newspapers to online databases, it’s been illuminating to page back through time to see so much of our ancestors’ everyday lives. For me, one of the more curious people encountered ‘in the news’ has been my maternal great-great-grandfather Jacob Ginder (1837–1901). Jacob’s roots are unusual in my standard array of westward migrating New Englanders. Jacob’s origins are from mid-Atlantic Quaker stock, the kind you can follow backwards from Iowa to Virginia in the 1700s.

While it isn’t in the newspapers, I know that Jacob Ginder wasn’t one to sit still. Continue reading Book marks

Local landmarks and genealogy

What do every day landmarks within your community and genealogy have in common? Everything! Yes, that is correct, everything. Regional genealogy is all around you. The names of everyday landmarks are useful clues connecting local surnames to specific geographical regions. Some of the oldest family names within a region can be found in the names of streets, buildings, and some of popular destinations within a community. Continue reading Local landmarks and genealogy

What’s in a (family) name?

My grandmother Sylvia Mae (Turnbull) Rohrbach.

I have always enjoyed musing on names and their origins. The dictionary we had in my childhood home had a back-of-the-book listing of “common English names.” I read it voraciously and repeatedly, making lists of potential names for my future children.

As it turned out, my husband and I chose family names for our children, so all that dictionary research was unnecessary. My daughter, Emma, was named for her great-grandmother and great-great-great-grandmother, and my son, Samuel, for my father and great-grandfather and great-great-great-grandfather. (See “The Name Game.”) Continue reading What’s in a (family) name?

Deference to defiance

The last of Roger Thompson’s books on my shelf, and the biggest (593 pages including index), is From Deference to Defiance, Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1629–1692. Published in 2012 by NEHGS, this is the last of Thompson’s works on three founding colonial towns – Watertown, Cambridge,[1] and Charlestown. It is a pièce de résistance for descendants of Charlestown families – including a sketch on one of my most interesting ancestors, Phineas Pratt, who died in Charlestown at the age of 90 after surviving in his younger days a heroic, solitary trip through frozen woods to bring rescuers to the aid of Weymouth settlers in 1623. Continue reading Deference to defiance

What generation am I?

Catedral Santa Ana, San Francisco de Macoris, Dominican Republic (where I have found records on my father-in-law’s ancestors back to 1822). Courtesy of

Following up on a post by David Allen Lambert on the question of identity, a semi-related topic involves the generation in the United States to which someone belongs. In my experience, this might mean something different for a genealogist belonging to a family long resident in America, as opposed to the child or grandchild of a recent immigrant.

My most recent immigrant ancestors were my great-great-great-grandparents Joseph Kelly and Rebecca Nelson, who came over from Ireland to Philadelphia in the 1840s and married there in 1850. Through that part of my ancestry, I would call myself sixth generation. I count Joseph and Rebecca as the first generation, and would describe it in a genealogy as follows: Continue reading What generation am I?

Another place

“It is good people who make good places.” – Anna Sewell

Courtesy of, Massachusetts Collections online.

Like most of us discovering our family history, I rely heavily on census records. Often we come across numerous variations in the spelling of names of people, places, and things as we review those records. Recently, in looking through a few extended branches of my tree in differing U.S. Federal Census records, I discovered that a place can mean many different things.

I found an example of this with my great-great-grandfather, John Henry Record (1840–1915). John Record was from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and (for the most part) records reflecting his origins, and those of his parents, are generally consistent with that area. However, with the arrival of the U.S. Federal Census for 1900 my progenitor states that his mother was born in Sweden. Sweden? Continue reading Another place


Implementing crowdsourcing as the chief means of gathering information has had success from Wikipedia and the Oxford English Dictionary to Planters Peanuts. In fact, I would be so bold as to put Vita Brevis on this list – as comments from our readers have led to many breakthroughs in our bloggers’ brick walls.

Case in point: On 20 April 2015, I wrote a blog post (Where did the first Boston Marathon winner go?) in which I lamented the problems facing genealogists, especially when asked to locate a person with a very common name in a very large place. Continue reading Crowdsourcing