Revolutionary women

Needlework (including black silk, silk and gilt thread, beads) attributed to Sally Cobb Paine, circa 1760-65. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society online collections

March is women’s history month, which makes me think of my favorite women’s history topic, women in the American Revolution. Specifically, I enjoy learning about the social history of the time. Working as a family history researcher, these themes generally take a back seat to primary source documentation like vital, church, and probate records. But diaries and letters between family and friends remains one of my favorite sources to examine. What was the time period like for women? What were society’s expectations of them and how did they fulfill them? While women still held tight to traditional female roles, the American Revolution provided extraordinary circumstances for women and their daily lives.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds papers for the Paine family of Taunton, Massachusetts. These family letters and diaries are full of details about life at the time and demonstrate themes of politics, marriage, and wartime separations. Continue reading Revolutionary women

Artistic imposture

Belva Kibler and Dorothy Dow by Carl Van Vechten.

The recent acquisition of a 1947 photograph of the mezzo-soprano Dorothy Dow playing Susan B. Anthony[1] made me think about how historic figures have been represented on stage and in film – and, thus, in the still photographs that capture moments in these productions. In most cases, inevitably, the production choices reflect the date of the production as much as the purported date of the action. This example, by Carl Van Vechten, tells us as much about Van Vechten as it does Susan B. Anthony. While the setting is presumably the stage set for a scene in the opera, the lighting and even the backdrop belong in the photographer’s own studio. Continue reading Artistic imposture

Age and Methodology

Although it would seem logical that an older genealogy would always be less valuable than a newer one, as we would assume that the author of the newer work had access to more and better resources and modern genealogical methodology, that is not always so.

The biggest advantage that really old genealogies have is the author’s personal and family knowledge. If the genealogy was published in 1857 by an author who was born in 1800 and contains information on his immediate family in his lifetime, one could have more confidence that he knew what he was writing about. Continue reading Age and Methodology

El Dorado 1914

Jeff Record’s post on Monday, and the comments on it, have nudged me into summarizing how I was able to use his father’s DNA results to determine Jeff’s grandmother’s biological father. Jeff has written two articles in Mayflower Descendant, one on the Young family from whom his grandmother descends, so with that, as well as his past blogposts, I’ve been aware of the general chronology on this family. Jeff also shared with me his ahnentafel with all of his known ancestors, as we both have connections to Kansas. His grandmother, Georgia Lee Young, later Katheryn Elizabeth Ogle, was born in 1914 in Newton, Kansas, which is the same place of birth as my mother. Continue reading El Dorado 1914

‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’

Figure 1

Originating in an Italian proverb in 1603 and popularized by Voltaire in 1770, we have all heard the phrase “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” This phrase is very well-suited to the topic of searching genealogical databases, and particularly for

Over the last year, the NEHGS web team has been researching a wide variety of things that we can do to improve the search experience for our 250,000 members. Along the way it has become clear that one of the bigger problems our members face is the dreaded “0 records returned” message (Figure 1). You just know that the record you are looking for is out there, but you can’t seem to find it when you fill out the search form. Continue reading ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’

The hidden face

“Katheryn,” ca. 1920.

My questions about him had been endless. He was, after all, the phantom in my ancestry, a great and impervious vapor, a Wizard of Oz if you will. He was my fleeting great-grandfather, the drawn curtain of my pedigree chart, his family lines going, well … nowhere. I don’t know that I ever really expected to find him, or to see his face. I certainly did not expect any DNA results to fall from the sky, making a picture of his smile even possible. Yet those DNA results did pull back the curtain (coming in just last week) and therein I was able to find his face, albeit grainy in brown and white, and sheepishly grinning down and away, as if to say he knew I’d been looking for him for a very, very long time. Indeed, I had been. Continue reading The hidden face

Hard to love

I want to love the husband of my favorite ancestor, Hepsibah, as much as I love her … but I can’t. When I first began researching George Athearn,[1] he seemed to be the very model of an eighteenth-century gentleman: a 1775 graduate of Harvard and judge of probate in his hometown. I was proud to have him as an ancestor, ecstatic to stay five nights in his former home, and diligent in finding out everything I could about him. Continue reading Hard to love

A case of Civil War PTSD

Carte-de-visite photo of Irving B. Delano, ca. 1866, taken at Knowles and Hillman, 8 ½ Purchase Street, New Bedford.

Although the term PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) did not come into widespread use until a century after the Civil War, the aberrant and antisocial behavior of Irving Brewster Delano (1840–1905) of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, seems to fit some of its symptoms. He served in the United States Navy from October 1862 until October 1863 aboard the U.S.S. North Carolina, Dacotah, and Alleghany. Irving’s family entry in the prodigious genealogy, The American House of Delano, gives details on his marriage and the births of his three children but neglects to mention his divorce.

From the evidence of the Delano family gravestone in Riverside Cemetery in Fairhaven, with full dates for birth and death, Irving would seem to be tucked in the family plot among his parents and three of his siblings. In fact, though, he died far from home in Haskell, Polk County, Florida, where he had lived as a lone Yankee for the last twenty years of his life. Continue reading A case of Civil War PTSD

Genealogical lessons

A poster dated April 24, 1851, warning colored people in Boston to beware of authorities who acted as slave catchers. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Many genealogists will tell you that they get absorbed into the world of the ancestors they are researching. Often one can’t help but recreate their environment and the things they experienced while seeking out documents that help piece together that puzzle. Due to the nature of my work, for me this means coming face to face with the realities of slavery and colonization nearly every day.

Slavery research can be difficult logistically as I try to piece together the lives of ancestors where little documentation exists. The harder aspect of the work is emotional, particularly when it means going page by page through slavery registers of children to find an ancestor recorded among them. Regardless of the challenges, it is important work that has provided me with a much deeper understanding of our past as a nation and the continuing implications of that history on our present. Continue reading Genealogical lessons


First, does the book give footnotes, endnotes, or other citations to the sources the author used? Second, are those citations useful?

One could say that “any citation is better than none,” and citations do not have to follow all of the “manual of style” rules to be useful. Their main purpose is to tell the reader where the information came from. That said, an understanding of standardized citation rules is always better than none. Continue reading Citations