What do you know?

Margaret Steward (1888-1975) in Tours during the First World War.

In a recent meeting here at NEHGS, the conversation turned to the ease with which visitors to our Newbury Street building could fill out a three-, four-, or five-generation family chart, listing themselves, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents. I suspect that for many members of the NEHGS staff, such a chart would be easy to create – the vital record sources for that chart, of course, would take longer to fill in, and it’s unlikely that any one of us could make up that list from memory.

I thought it would be interesting to see if my siblings could do it: Could they go beyond our grandparents, three of whom they might have known, to list great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents?

The answer, based on a response rate of 75%, is … No.

My siblings responded, flatteringly, with variations of the comment “I know you know the answers, Scott, so I rely on you to keep track.”

I had … numbers of Ayer cousins (and cousins with other surnames) whose exact relationship to us my parents, with a weary sigh, generally declined to explain.

I suspect that many Vita Brevis readers are the record-keepers in their immediate family, and perhaps that responsibility extends further, to cousins of whatever degree. I’ve written about my Great-Aunt Margaret, who undertook much research on the Stewards and Beeckmans. In the case of my paternal grandmother’s family, there were several people who took on this role – funnily enough, one of the most ambitious was the second husband of an Ayer-by-marriage, so I am quite grateful to “Cousin” Dick. On the Bell and Glidden sides, it was my maternal grandfather and his wife’s sister who knew what tantalizingly little there was to know about their respective families.

What did I know, starting out as an adolescent?

My paternal grandfather came from New York. After graduating from Harvard, he stayed here in Boston. When I first knew him, he had one surviving sister (Aunt Margaret), but we weren’t close to his nieces and nephew, and I could not have named them. Who the Stewards were, before my grandfather … I wasn’t too sure, although the portrait of a namesake ancestor of my father’s hung in our front hall. (No one could explain him, of course!)

My paternal grandmother with her mother and older sister.

There was a painting over the fireplace in my Steward grandfather’s library of a young Titian-haired woman circa 1810. She was, I now know, my grandmother’s namesake, Anne Beekman Finlay. My grandmother’s family was local: I had a great-great-uncle who lived nearby and numbers of Ayer cousins (and cousins with other surnames) whose exact relationship to us my parents, with a weary sigh, generally declined to explain. My paternal grandmother’s sister lived in Virginia and, again, we rarely saw her children, so it was those inexplicable local cousins who constituted our “family.”

On my mother’s side, there was my glamorous grandfather, a genuine war hero in the process of becoming an Episcopal minister. When asked, he produced a family tree naming his parents and grandparents, with some interesting (and to me, remote) cousins with fascinating (first) names like Miles and Turpin. On inquiry, though, it was clear he knew the most about his paternal grandmother, the alliterative Belle Phillips Bell, and almost nothing about his grandfather John Francis Bell, while his mother’s family – the Jacksons – were a complete mystery.

My maternal grandmother’s father.

My maternal grandmother, whom I just remember, had an old New England surname (Glidden) but seems to have gotten a lot of her drive from her mother’s family, the Bouchers – descendants of the painter François, I was informed, incorrectly.

As I think of it, though, it was my Grandmother Bell who had the most developed sense of family, since she told my mother about several Glidden cousins she might encounter, now that my mother had left Baltimore on her marriage to a Bostonian. My mother absorbed all this information and, what’s more, she passed it along to me intact.

In those days, now almost 40 years ago, there was no World Wide Web in which to look things up, but when the time came for me to work on my Glidden kinships, there they were: the Dixons, the Perrins, the Lawrences, and the Woods. These third cousins of my grandmother’s appeared on the Glidden family tree, and just where she had said they would be; needless to say, while I could do it, I might have to scramble to name some of my third cousins today!


For the record, here are my great-great-grandparents (the + marks individuals for whom I have more ancestral information):

  • John Steward +
  • Catharine Elizabeth White +
  • Gilbert Livingston Beeckman +
  • Margaret Atherton Foster +
  • Frederick Ayer +
  • Cornelia Wheaton +
  • Francis Grenville Ilsley +
  • Emily Anne Finlay +[1]
  • John Francis Bell
  • Isabella J. Phillips +
  • Oliver Dodridge Jackson +[1]
  • Rebecca Jane Eggleston +[1]
  • William Pierce Harrington Glidden +
  • Jane Letitia Hughes +[1]
  • William Boucher Jr. +[1]
  • Mary Frances Giles +[1]


[1] Almost everything I know about his/her family comes from original research; when I started out, no one in my family circle seemed to have any information on this subject.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

15 thoughts on “What do you know?

  1. My grandfather was a classical scholar and a careful keeper of family memorabilia, but a lousy genealogist. So far two out of two death certificates for which he was an informant are very wrong–his father’s parents’ names and his mother-in-law’s parents’ ditto. Unhappy discovery that death certs, like so much else, are garbage-in, garbage out!

  2. As the family genealogist, I am used to the yawns, the eye-rolling from some younger members if I get too detailed about our family, but sometimes I can spark their interest a bit with an interesting historical item or famous person with a link to our family. Also, I sometimes blow them over when they are talking about someone they have met and I say, casually, “You know that is your cousin, don’t you?” When I follow up with explaining how so-and-so is the brother of their second cousin’s (once removed) wife, or some such link, they are kind of impressed. I just hope someday one of them will “pick up the torch” and keep the story going!

    1. Yes, I too have to weave it into stories to get most of my siblings the least bit interested. For my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, I put together a printout of our family tree and genealogy report, along with a few pictures of the family and a large table display showing the Europe-to-U.S. routes for our major branches. That got family members’ attention, at least during that event.

      A few decades ago, I hooked one sister on the genealogy bug and she’s done a lot of work too. We still talk through family history details, nudging each others’ memories about how remote ancestors are related to us and to each other. At over 60 years old now, I consider it my form of crossword puzzles to keep my mind sharp. Much more interesting, though, because the details relate to stuff that really happened in history.

  3. It is true, after you’ve been doing the family genealogy for a while, that relatives can kind of take it for granted that they don’t have to know things because you’re keeping track. But I am thankful that in every generation there seems to have been at least one person who took interest in the family tree. One was a great-grand aunt, others were cousins, and there was a great-grandmother. But I’m not sure who will carry the torch – so to speak – when someday I am gone. By the way, I notice that in your list, I recognize at least 3 surnames from my family: Ayer, Foster, and Wheaton. Wheaton was my grandmother’s maiden name so maybe we are related somehow. I’ve lots of early New England ancestry.

    1. Decades ago, when I started actively searching out family history, I showed my dad the facts I had learned about his family. I will never forget his excitement when he exclaimed, “Bartlett! I had cousins named Bartlett and never could figure out why they were my cousins.” He had never been told that his grandmother, Hattie Ralston, was born Harriet Bartlett.

    1. I don’t know if I can help but will be happy to try. Since you provided email, I’ll contact you shortly :-).

  4. I can fill in the chart for my 16 great great grandparents with ease but I have been working on it for 45 years!

    I have been in contact with Betty above. Both my husband and I are descended from Robert WHEATON c.1606 of Salem and Rehoboth. Soctt are you a descendant of Robert WHEATON as well? Lots of Cornelias. My friend in England Jean WHEATON has catalogues what we have here http://www.wheatonjk.co.uk/Robert_and_Alice_BOWEN.htm.

    If anyone would like to do a little reconnaissance mission to the Salem Town Hall please drop me a line. I have a mystery and have written and called the Salem Town Clerk without success. In the very early published town records there are pages transcribed that do not appear in the microfilmed copies in Salt Lake City and this missing page is the one where Robert WHEATON is first recorded in the Salem record. If interested contact me at a4est42 at gmail.com. Thanks Kelly Wheaton

  5. None of my 1st cousins (8 of them, both sides) have any interest in genealogy or family history at all, even Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers or even Mayflower ancestors!
    My son has a passing interest, my daughter not so much. No grandkids.
    While I’ve enjoyed spending 50+ years documenting the family tree, it does make me wonder what’s wrong with them, or perhaps me.

  6. I’ve also been working on my family tree for many years, and except for one of my brothers, no one has shown much interest in it. In fact, I think my explanations of who is related to who and where they came from, is as effective as any over-the-counter sleep aide.

    I also have an Eggleston line in my family. They settled in Windsor, CT and eventually ended up in upstate NY, in the counties on the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Perhaps we are related in some way.

    Thanks for all the great Vita Brevis articles that you and your fellow writers have contributed over the years.

  7. Gratefully I know far more now than I ever thought I would! About 15 years ago I had no exposure to researching family history but took the challenge of validating some of my husband’s family “lure”. (And yes, it was only lure!)

    A few years later I learned that my Mother knew little to nothing about her own family history aside from her grand-parents Seeing that her (then) 80th birthday was approaching I thought I’d see what I could learn and present it as a gift. And a rich gift it was; one that continues giving to this day due to her deep New England roots.

    Now the question I’m asked most often is “What are you going to do with it all?” And there’s only one answer for that …. pass it on! Someday there’ll be another who wants to know. In the meantime I get to enjoy (and share) all that I’ve learned. Although I must admit I can make those that ask glassy-eyed in mere moments with the depth of the past I’m uncovering.

    Still enjoying every minute!

  8. Fun exercise. Took a few minutes longer than I thought, due to the fact that certain ancestral couples loom larger in the imagination, and seem to belong to a more recent generation.

    George Cicero Brandon
    Sarah Pamela Glenn
    William Alexander Brandon
    Mary Olivia Beaty
    Thomas M. Boyd
    Martha Ratchford
    Joseph Green Nivens
    Cynthia Johnston
    John Gardner Macy
    Mary Anne Pearson
    Jacob Wengert
    Mary Elizabeth Hiner
    William Porter
    Caroline Merrill
    Thomas Wm. Cox
    Eunice Ann Eaton

  9. This was great fun Scott! – I have to say that I tried your listing exercise above with my siblings and children. – I even supplied them with ALL the names to see if they could simply tell me what relationship any one of those names was to each of them – (either great great or great great great) – So far not one reply! Success rate was o.oo%
    Utterly amazing…

  10. When I started researching my family I had typed papers from my mother with names of her parents, siblings and nephews and nieces. The page for my father’s side had his parents and maternal grandparents. There was one comment indicating my mother had no information whether my paternal grandfather had any siblings.
    My first research indicted that my paternal grandfather was the youngest of 7. I was off and running from there and still haven’t stopped! I have now traced ancestors on both paternal and maternal lines back to 1700s in France and Germany. I know when and where they came to the US and many branches extending from the main branch. And I still have 2 major brick walls – both on my paternal grandmother’s side.

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