Tag Archives: Object Lessons

Misconceptions of an American

People always ask: What ethnicity are you? This is a difficult question for genealogists, as we can get quite detailed with our answers: “Well, on my mother’s maternal line we have Irish from County Leitrim and Monaghan, on my mother’s paternal line we have Italians and Irish, and my paternal line…” Well, you get the drift.

And while I’ve researched Italians, Germans, Irish, and Norwegians in my own ancestry, I’ve identified most with the Irish, given my closeness with my (likely mostly Irish) grandmother. Because of this, I’ve always thought that I knew something about the Irish, their culture, and their history. However, after two weeks in Ireland, and several guided bus tours, I found that of what I thought I knew, I actually knew very little. Here are some of the most embarrassing revelations: Continue reading Misconceptions of an American

ICYMI: Researching family heirlooms

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 23 January 2017.]

Side chair, De Young Museum: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (San Francisco, California) via Wikimedia Commons.

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 at left, and that the chair is not a reproduction. Continue reading ICYMI: Researching family heirlooms

Gropius in New England

In 1919, Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus, a German school of design combining art, crafts, and industrial technology. This modern form of design favored clean lines rather than ornamentation – creating elegance in practicality, economy of form, and attention to materials. The Nazis, however, did not favor this minimalist school of design, and closed the school in 1933. Continue reading Gropius in New England

‘The first of their fellow citizens’

The life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Treasury Secretary, has penetrated the wider public consciousness ever since the release of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical.

The musical touts Hamilton’s connection to his adopted home, New York City, and in truth his name is found on streets and buildings across Manhattan. Meanwhile, though Boston was a stronghold of his fellow Federalists, Hamilton did not spend much time in the city during his lifetime. As such it is peculiar that his statue can be found on the Commonwealth Mall in Boston’s Back Bay. Continue reading ‘The first of their fellow citizens’

Finding peace

Empty copper tubes mark spots where ceramic containers of ashes have been removed to be reunited with families. The original Oregon State Insane Asylum building is visible in the background.

If you do family history long and broadly enough (searching out great-great-aunts and fifth cousins, as well as your direct ancestors), you’re sure to find them: family members whose census or burial records indicate that they were living in a state hospital or similar institution. Continue reading Finding peace

‘An iron will’

View of a ceiling in the Palazzo Ottolenghi. Courtesy of La Stampa

Immigration case records from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) often involve siblings, parents, spouses, children, or other relatives, but in some circumstances people reach out to whomever they can, asking for assistance from anyone they know. Anetta Ottolenghi Cavalieri was from the Piedmonte region of Italy, and had deep family roots there; she had no family or even close friends in the United States. But when Fascism began to make inroads in Italy, she reached out for help to pen pal Bessie Buxton of Peabody, Massachusetts, with whom she had discussed horticulture on and off for several years. Continue reading ‘An iron will’

I left my ship in San Francisco

My lovely step-mother, Joanne Athearn, checking out the diorama of the Niantic in her beached state.

In my last post for Vita Brevis, I shared a picture of “Cleaveland House” on Martha’s Vineyard, which is currently owned and inhabited by a direct descendant of James Athearn, the man who built it. One reader asked, “How did ‘Cleaveland House’ get its name? Is there any association with the descendants of Massachusetts Colonist Moses1 Cleveland?”

The house is named for Athearn’s great-great-grandson, Capt. James Cleaveland, who bought the house about a century after its construction and substantially renovated it. Its next major renovation came about a century after that, when it finally acquired modern amenities such as indoor plumbing! Continue reading I left my ship in San Francisco

A hint of Rosemary

She was just a little tyke, picture perfect really, her arms draped around a sheepish grandpa’s neck and shoulders. The only clue I had as to who she might be was in her name, Rosemary, penned out along with that of “Grandpa” in stylish ink beneath the old photograph. She and Grandpa (or rather a grainy picture of the same …) arrived in my mail box all the way from Alexandria a few weeks ago.

I didn’t start out looking for Rosemary, and I really wasn’t too sure who “Grandpa” was, either, but the more I looked at their picture, the more they seemed to be calling out to me. I was pretty sure I’d never “met” Rosemary before in the family tree – and I definitely needed to back track a bit on figuring out just who “Grandpa” was. However, like most of us who do family history, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to let it go. There seemed a reason for Rosemary to be looking at me from that old picture – and it was going to bug me until I found out just who she was. Continue reading A hint of Rosemary

A-hunting we will go

For the most part, my ancestors travelled very little, inclined to stay on home ground, at home or on the farm. I’ve discovered, however, that as recreational travel became easier, some of my ancestors “went up country.”

Out of my squirrel bins came a large album clearly entitled “Illustrated Postcards.” At first I assumed it was nothing more than a collection of vintage postcards. Indeed it is that, but it is also a travel history, a list of friends and relatives, and at the very least an indication that my family members were all literate. Continue reading A-hunting we will go

A desirable residence

“Cleaveland House,” built for James Athearn and inhabited by George and Hepsibah (Hussey) Athearn.

Don’t you love how certain themes seem to pop up and swirl around all at one time? The very definition of serendipity! A couple of days ago, while reading an article online about a completely different topic, my eye spied an article titled “Slave trader’s home, slum, des res: the stories of one house raise restless ghosts.”[1]

I’ll bet that most family historians would be interested in this article – as well as the television mini-series it describes, which is sadly not generally available to American viewers. For me personally, the title immediately put me in mind of my ancestor George Athearn, although in this particular case the “slave trader” turned out to have been a Victorian trader of cotton produced by slaves. Continue reading A desirable residence