Category Archives: Research Methods

A special relationship

Do you have a special attachment to one ancestor? I do, and she was a source of curiosity and amusement even before I started investigating my family history in earnest.

During a move ten years ago, I uncovered a (mostly correct) pedigree chart for my father’s side of the family. It sat for a while on my dresser, and in flipping through it with my husband one evening, the name “Hephzibah” caught our eyes. This Hephzibah[1] (also spelled Hepsibah or even Hepsibeth in her later years) was a granddaughter of two other Hephzibahs, each born in Massachusetts by 1700. Continue reading A special relationship

‘There is no try’

Currier and Ives’ “The Road, Winter.”

As a family historian, you can’t help but love the holiday season. It’s a time for reconnecting with extended family, and an excellent opportunity to share everything that you have learned about your ancestral past. With a bit of tact, you can engage your relatives in genealogical discussions, coaxing out anecdotes that flesh out your research. To that end, I have assembled a list of some of my favorite holiday genealogy dos and don’ts. Continue reading ‘There is no try’

Bunching pensions

I wrote two years ago about the incredible value of Civil War pensions, but a recent example reminded me that occasionally just getting a valuable pension may be challenging as well. Whenever I realize a Civil War pension exists, whether for a book project or an article, I almost always request it, on the strong likelihood that it will provide further genealogical information, as well as substantial biographical data on the veteran’s life, his widow, and sometimes other family members. Continue reading Bunching pensions

The thousandth post

Today marks the one-thousandth Vita Brevis post since the blog launched in January 2014. The blog’s pages have been accessed more than one-and-a-half million times, and by my (not very scientific) count the following eighteen posts have led the field, read by more than one hundred thousand readers.

By far and away the most-read post at Vita Brevis is Chris Child’s August 2014 account of Robin Williams’s maternal ancestry. The circumstances of Williams’s death, and the affection he had inspired in millions of Americans, made the post a place to stop and reflect about what he had meant to members of the genealogical community. Continue reading The thousandth post

Alternative facts

I recently read one family historian’s method for gleaning her father-in-law’s stories: she would write questions on slips of paper and put them in a Mason jar. When her father-in-law visited, he’d choose one slip and question from the jar, and she would write down whatever story he told. It’s the kind of method I wish I’d thought of to entice my reticent family to talk!

We are always encouraged to ask our living family members about their personal stories, and in so doing we must take what they choose to tell. In recording these stories for posterity, however, we often must weigh the truth of what we’re told against what facts we might have, realizing that those facts might completely change the color and substance of the story and our perception of the teller. Continue reading Alternative facts

‘I was much amazed’

Elizabeth (____) Sturgis’s letter, in the Winthrop Family Papers, 1537-1990, at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Captain Daniel Patrick was a well-known and powerful figure in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1640. He had been a “common soldier in the Prince’s guard” in Holland, and that experience was sufficient for him to be appointed Captain of Militia in Massachusetts Bay. He commanded 40 soldiers in the Pequot War, and he and his company were notable for executing the “fighting age” Pequot male prisoners captured near present-day Ledyard, Connecticut, on 5 July 1637. Captain Patrick was clearly a formidable character.

He was also a well-known philanderer and eventually departed the colony: “For though he had a wife of his own, a good Dutch woman and comely, yet he despised her and followed after other women and perceiving that he was discovered, and that such evil courses would not be endured here, and being of a vain and unsettled disposition, he went from us… ” Continue reading ‘I was much amazed’

Gender determined later

1850 U.S. Census, Windham, Connecticut

I found a rather curious census entry that was definitely not as it appeared. The above 1850 census in Windham, Connecticut listed Anna C. Tingley, age 56, Merchant; Ann M. Tingley, age 60, no occupation; Anna N. Tingley, 27, Clerk; and Ann M. Tingley, 23, no occupation. This quartet would appear to be an all-female household, with two women named Anna and two women named Ann. The women named Anna have occupations, while the women named Ann do not. Does this seem peculiar? It is! Continue reading Gender determined later

Account books

A current research project has led me to peruse dozens upon dozens of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Connecticut River Valley account books. Used to maintain records of business transactions, account books have been an important component of the store owner and merchants’ trade throughout much of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in America. While account books tend to be more frequently consulted for the items that were retailed by store owners, the inclusion of names and other data also make account books an invaluable genealogical source. Continue reading Account books

Returning Elijah

Elijah Burson (1807-1886)

A year ago last summer I was contacted by a gentleman from Zeeland, Michigan. While out weekend bargain hunting, he had come across an antique photograph for sale at a local flea market. The gentleman wrote with empathy about family history, and he seemed to have at least a hobbyist’s eye for old pictures. His curiosity was piqued by this one particular picture, so he purchased it, no doubt saving it from the fate of some Michigan land fill.  He said that the only identifier as to who the person in the photo might be were the words “Grandpa Burson” written on its back.

From what I could gather, the man from Zeeland enjoys following where the clues in any old pictures might take him. Continue reading Returning Elijah

A circus family, part two

The 1870 census, showing a Caron household in Connecticut.

The weekend after my blog post was published in July, I sat down at my kitchen table and knocked down that brick wall. Welcome to part two of my quest to uncover my ‘circus family.’

I joined a website called Genealogy Quebec (https://www.genealogiequebec.com/en) on the recommendation of a co-worker and dedicated a rainy Saturday to my search. I started with the information about which I was confident: my great-grandmother Nora Caron’s birth and death certificate listed her parents as “Alphonse Caron” and “Mathilda Gauthier.” Continue reading A circus family, part two