The grafting trunk

The clickety-clack of my great-grandmother’s ‘old lady shoes’[1] resonated as I toddled after her down the narrow hallway to the old trunk. There, in that back bedroom she and I would sit in the dark brilliance of polished woods, with the old trunk somehow beckoning us as if the face of some minor deity or oracle. Indeed, my great-grandmother treated the old trunk as if it held all the wonders of the world, which, in many ways, it certainly did (and still does…). Continue reading The grafting trunk

The Wentworth connection

Click on the image to expand it.

As Gary Boyd Roberts announced yesterday, Meghan Markle has a distant kinship to Prince Harry through their shared descent from Sir Philip Wentworth (died 1464) and his wife Mary Clifford. While Gary continues to work on much of American ancestry, especially her forebears in colonial New England, I’ve composed the chart at left from his notes. This outlines the three closest kinships between Meghan and Harry that have so far been identified – two through Harry’s mother and one through his father. As Gary has noted, there are hundreds of other ways they would be distantly related.

I’ve also been working on Meghan Markle’s American ancestors, so stay tuned! Continue reading The Wentworth connection

‘The noble pilot’

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
Mrs. Gray’s Easter Sunday entry[1] for 1865 is one of the longest in the diary. In it, she grapples with the sharp shock of President Lincoln’s assassination at the moment of the Civil War’s end. Her 15 April diary concludes “A horror of darkness & gloom has settled over all. This awful calamity shuts out every thought but of itself…”

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Saturday, 15 April 1865: Oh, dark, dark day! Our great, good, wise President, is dead – assassinated in Ford’s theatre, in Washington City at about 20 minutes past nine last evg. Shot through the head, and lay insensible till about 22 minutes past seven this morning when he breathed his last. The assassin is supposed to be J. Wilkes Booth,[2] the actor, and brother to the great tragedian Edwin Booth.[3]

…At about the same hour another desperado made his way past the servants, into Secretary Seward’s[4] sick chamber, leaped upon his bed and stabbed him three times about the head and neck – stabbed Major Seward[5] in the arm & head – mortally wounded the nurse, a man, who leaped on the bed behind him and tried to pinion his arms – and also injured a state messenger, who was in the room – thus disabling entirely the four unarmed & astounded men who opposed him he too made his escape. Continue reading ‘The noble pilot’

‘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’

A royal engagement

R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

Today’s announcement of the engagement of Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales and Ms. Rachel Meghan Markle reminds me of an interesting genealogical tree that recently entered the Society’s collection. Bought by D. Brenton Simons from an antiquarian book dealer in the United Kingdom, it is a print from the 1900 edition of Mrs. Oliphant’s Queen Victoria: A Personal Sketch.[1]

A simpler version of the royal family tree published for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the print treats the Queen (but not her late husband, Prince Albert, who had died as long ago as 1861) as the trunk of the tree, with her eldest children as the most established branches. Continue reading A royal engagement

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

‘To have his family around him’

George H. Folger joins the holiday mix.

As a genealogist, I have so much to give thanks for. Soon after I started my genealogical quest, I discovered that the Nantucket Historical Association had correspondence from my great-great-great-grandfather[1] in their collections. Of course I was anxious to read it and asked for copies … not knowing that there were more than eighty letters, many of them comprising multiple pages!

It took a while to accustom myself to my ancestor’s writing, since he adopted a sort of modified scripto continua, with virtually no punctuation or capital letters at the start of sentences. Much of the correspondence was dry, relating to business transactions, but there were also many droll comments and insights into the character and activities of the extended family. Continue reading ‘To have his family around him’

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

Fadeaway

John Alfred Young (1890-1960), ca. 1935.

I’ve always wanted to know more about the life of my great-grandmother Opal Young (1895–1978). To do this, I decided to see what researching her siblings might reveal about her. By and large, information about her siblings has been limited to meager ‘raw data.’ An interesting exception to this has been the life of my great-grandmother’s brother John Alfred Young (1890–1960). He is called Johnnie on the back of this Hitchcock-like cameo – it is the only known photograph to show him.[1]

Johnnie Young came to California about the time his sister Opal did in the late 1920s. Their lives as children back in Kansas seems to have been pretty normal – other than there were a LOT of people living with them in the Young household.[2] Continue reading Fadeaway