Monthly Archives: January 2018


Another way to assess a genealogy is to consider the “scope” of its content. Few genealogies trace all descendants of a seventeenth-century New England couple through male and female lines to the present: just ask the Mayflower Society about their “Five Generations” program, now approaching sixty years of effort with more than fifty volumes – and still growing!

Standard genealogies usually trace descendants of the same surname through male lines because it is a much simpler task to collect data exclusive to one surname at a time. Continue reading Scope

Missing years

How old was Catherine Dwyer when this photo was taken in Newport’s Leavitt Studio, around 1882?

Before the internet and the digitization of some Irish records, one needed patience, persistence, and problem-solving skills to connect the lives of Irish immigrants here in America to the world they left behind. Guessing someone’s true age and their birth order within their parents’ household amounted to a shot in the dark.

In January 1941, the death certificate of my great-grandmother, Catherine (Dwyer) Dwyer, recorded her age as 76 years and ten months. She had lived in Newport, Rhode Island, for sixty years, and in that time knowledge of her specific birthplace had vanished from her children’s memory. One of her sons, who acted as informant, also misremembered his mother’s maiden name! Catherine’s obituary mentioned no siblings.

My imagined time line in Ireland of vital events for these Dwyers erred by an entire generation. Continue reading Missing years

An invented middle name?

Click on the images to expand them.

Last year I wrote about the family register that I was given detailing the family of my great-great-great-grandparents Robert Thompson (1795–1854) and his third wife Emma Russell (1808–1872) of Industry, Maine. I mentioned in the post that their eldest daughter (and my great-great-grandmother) was named Alice Goodrich Russell Thompson, in honor of her father’s first wife and Alice’s mother. As I hung this register on the wall of my house, I wondered if these two middle names were “really” correct. Continue reading An invented middle name?

The wintered leaf

“In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die: Ever drifting down the stream – Lingering in the golden gleam – Life, what is it but a dream?”  – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Yvonne Lee

My mother is dying today. She is reposing, half-seated on “the community’s” divan, twitching and fidgeting, the vapors of her life coalescing, escaping in small electrical bursts. Utterances, half-heard under her breath, relay the signs of her ascension. Watching her now, knowing that she is treading her way through the muddy reeds outside Elysium, is gut-wrenching. It breaks my heart that she has been dealt this terrible curse of dwindling.[1] She is, after all, a witch of sorts.

But hold your pitchforks! I call my mother a witch only out of the deepest respect, reverence, and love. Her devilish children and New England roots bestowed this title on her, a name of which she spoke with wry pride and amused regard. Continue reading The wintered leaf

Additions and corrections

I love it when other genealogists give me a hand. This past weekend someone from San Diego kindly alerted me to an eBay auction for an old Imperial Cabinet-sized photograph. Someone had thoughtfully labeled the people in the photograph years ago, and they all appear in my online family tree (though none as a close relation). Continue reading Additions and corrections

ICYMI: Thank an antiquarian

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 22 April 2016.]

Engraving of the town of Lenox, Massachusetts, by John Warner Barber. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Genealogists and historians of Massachusetts are indebted to the works of nineteenth-century antiquarians: that is, compilers or collectors of historical information and antiquities. The works of several antiquarians – including John Warner Barber, Samuel Gardner Drake, and John Haven Dexter – have become crucial reference works in the study of Massachusetts genealogy. Knowing what these sources contain, along with their respective shortcomings, can be helpful when researching your Massachusetts ancestors. Continue reading ICYMI: Thank an antiquarian

Royal cartes de visite: Part Three

[This series on royal cartes de visite began here.]

Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, with his sister Princess Alice. Carte de visite by Mayall Studio

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert viewed Prussia as their ideal among the multitude of German kingdoms, principalities, and duchies. Early on in their marriage, they hoped that the son of their friends the Prince and Princess of Prussia – the former the heir presumptive to the kingdom – might someday marry their eldest daughter, Vicky, as Prince Frederick William duly did, in 1858, when the bride was just seventeen.

Fritz and Vicky were happy as a couple, but the friendly alliance of Great Britain and Prussia (from 1871 the nucleus of the German Empire) did not play out quite as the bride’s parents had expected. Instead of a liberal Germany presiding over the restless nations in eastern Europe, the British court watched in surprise as the comparatively progressive Prince of Prussia became the conservative Kaiser Wilhelm I and the once-obscure Prussian diplomat Otto von Bismarck became all-powerful at the courts of Wilhelm I (1871–88), Friedrich III (1888), and then Wilhelm II (1888–1918). Continue reading Royal cartes de visite: Part Three

‘Of police court fame’

My grandfather, born in 1931.

The benefits of newspaper databases when conducting family research can be remarkable. One usually hopes to find valuable birth, marriage, and death notices, or, if you’re lucky, an interesting detail you may not be able to glean from the usual genealogical record. It is not so often that you discover your ancestors (and their exploits) were a favorite subject of the local newspaper, or how public family turmoil can sometimes be.

As someone with a close relationship with my maternal grandparents, it was interesting to learn that my grandfather does not know much about his own maternal grandparents – just that his grandfather, William Hatin, was such a small man that he supposedly wore children’s shoes. Continue reading ‘Of police court fame’

Who’s who

Enlarging on last week’s topic about Peer Review, it is always best to know who is who in any industry. The industry of genealogical research goes back almost 200 years, so that covers a lot of “Whos,” but here are some lists to help:

The American Society of Genealogists ( has elected 167 Fellows since 1940 based on their published work in books and articles. The ASG website includes biographies and lists of works by many past and present Fellows. Membership is limited to 50 Fellows at a time, so although many of the most recognized genealogists of the past 78 years appear on this list, it by no means includes everyone. ASG also gives several awards and certificates of appreciation to non-members for their work ( Continue reading Who’s who

New England winter weather

Photos of Plimoth Plantation by the author

One thing that we can all agree on is that New England weather always keeps us guessing! In a matter of days, the Boston area saw a “bomb-cyclone” drop over a foot of snow, lower than normal temperatures for consecutive days, as well as a stretch of 60-degree weather. As we celebrate a new year, I’m beginning to wonder about the weather conditions when the Mayflower passengers landed. What did they encounter? What did they expect?

We know that the passengers were not prepared for the New England weather, as many perished during the first winter (nearly half died). I am brought to Edward Winslow’s Good Newes from New England,[1] where in 1623 he states: Continue reading New England winter weather