Patriots’ Day, a holiday unique to the State of Massachusetts, commemorates the famous skirmishes between local colonial militia and the British army in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on 19 April 1775. In Lexington, the day is typically celebrated with an early morning reenactment of the skirmish on the town’s green. As an avid watcher of the reenactment, my favorite part of the event comes just prior to the skirmish. Before the fighting ensues, members of the Lexington minutemen—each representing a particular individual who was present on the green that morning—gather on the common for a roll call and commence calling their names in succession. As the roll is taken, one cannot help but notice the frequency at which similar surnames are repeated. Hearing this serves as a reminder that the men who stood on the green that April morning were not only committed to defending their town, their property, and their rights, but they were also related. Continue reading A family reunion
While perusing the shelves at a local book sale several months ago, I came across a small volume that would ultimately help to broaden my understanding of a seminal event in American history. The title of the book – Heroine of the Battle Road, Mary Flint Hartwell – caught my attention and interest. As an enthusiast of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts history, I was familiar with the phrase “Battle Road”– likely a reference to the famous march of the British army from Boston through Lexington to seize powder and arms in Concord the night of 19 April 1775.
My suspicions were confirmed when I read the subtitle: A Drama of One Woman’s Courage on the Night of Paul Revere’s Ride in April of 1775. Having read several books on the famous skirmishes at Lexington and Concord I was curious why I had never heard of Mary Flint Hartwell. By purchasing the book, I hoped to find out more.
The Research Services team at NEHGS is occasionally approached with questions relating to the history of ownership (i.e. provenance) of a particular family heirloom. These questions are usually supplemented with stories about the heirloom’s first owner and how the object was acquired. Genealogists are uniquely qualified to carry out provenance research due to their familiarity with and frequent use of two sources commonly used in provenance research: wills and estate inventories. However, before consulting any of these sources, a serious study of an heirloom’s provenance should begin by studying the object itself.
To illustrate how the study of an object is crucial to provenance research, consider the following hypothetical scenario: An individual is interested in documenting the ownership of a piece of heirloom furniture (a side chair) that has been in the family for multiple generations. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s say that the chair is similar in form to the image in Fig. 1, and that the chair is not a reproduction. Continue reading Researching family heirlooms
One might be surprised to learn that the profession of “historian” in America is a fairly recent creation. The American Historical Association (AHA), founded in 1884, was established partly in reaction to growing numbers of individuals who were pursuing the serious study of history. America’s earliest historians were focused largely on recording the events and sequence of history: that is, political events, wars, and other nation-building activities. Only recently have America’s historians begun to ask what life was like for ordinary men, women, and minority groups – questions of significant relevance and interest to family historians and genealogists. Continue reading A lesson in history
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 Thank an antiquarian
The name Benjamin Bagnall holds a place of distinction in the annals of Boston’s early history. Bagnall is often recorded as one of the city’s earliest clockmakers, and credited—as Morrison Heckscher notes—with constructing “a town clock for the New Brick Meeting-House” in Boston c. 1717. While the building upon which Bagnall constructed his town clock no longer stands, a few other examples of Bagnall’s work survive to this day. The works of a tall case clock, in the possession of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (Fig. 1), is one of the Bagnall commissions that does survive.
According to NEHGS records, Benjamin Bagnall constructed the works of the clock about 1725. Bagnall, who was born in England c. 1689, acquired the skills associated with the clock-making trade in his native country before arriving in Boston c. 1713. After his arrival in Boston, Bagnall married Elizabeth Shove of Charlestown, Massachusetts. By this marriage, Bagnall had seven children, including Samuel and Benjamin Bagnall. Continue reading Keeping time
In addition to its vast collection of genealogical materials, the New England Historic Genealogical Society houses a fine collection of early American furniture and decorative arts. Scattered throughout the Society’s Newbury Street headquarters are superb examples of eighteenth-century tall case clocks, high chests, and desks. Some of these pieces possess quite interesting provenances, including an easy chair believed to have been owned by eighteenth-century Boston merchant and Massachusetts governor John Hancock (Fig. 1).
According to NEHGS records, the Hancock easy chair originally stood in Hancock’s Beacon Hill home, which he had inherited from his uncle Thomas’ wife, Lydia Henchman, sometime after Thomas’ death in 1764.[i] It is believed that the chair is the “Yellow Damask Easy Chair” listed in John Hancock’s 1793 estate inventory (Fig. 2).[ii] Continue reading The Governor’s chair
Genealogy, like the study of history in general, aims not only to identify the names of a particular individual’s ancestors, but also to reconstruct the details of that ancestor’s life. Driven by natural curiosity and a desire to connect with those of the past, genealogists and family history researchers strive—as best as they can—to understand who a person was and what he or she did. To accomplish this, a number of sources are typically consulted, including obituaries, biographical reviews, town histories, family letters, and (un)published genealogies. Another important method for obtaining information on the lives of our ancestors—and perhaps the most enjoyable one—is interviewing or asking family members about their family history. Continue reading Making time to talk