Tag Archives: Spotlight

Completeness and restraint

It is one thing for the author of a genealogy to have the goal (or scope) of publishing everything about all the descendants of [blank], and a much, much different thing to achieve that goal.

Clearly, there is no such thing as “everything” and “all.” The author has to decide what information she wants (or is able) to include, how much detail of that information to provide, and whether the same standard will be applied to everyone. Does the standard go beyond names, dates, and places? Are probates, land and church records, gravestones, obituaries, pensions, census records, and the like provided in detail when available? How exhaustive has the search for these facts been? Continue reading Completeness and restraint

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

‘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 AmericanAncestors.org.

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’

Genealogical uncertainty

Many of us are avid genealogists who want to trace our ancestry as far back as is reasonable in all lines. When filling out our family trees, we come to some dead ends where lack of information blocks us from going back further. We may also come to situations where there is some information relating to the parentage of a known ancestor but not enough to claim certainty. Continue reading Genealogical uncertainty

‘Strange and unusual Providence’

Rev. Samuel Willard. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I first learned the story of Elizabeth Knapp in 1982, when I read Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England by John Demos. Demos is a master storyteller, and much of the narrative as well the psychological insights are borrowed from his chapter on Elizabeth Knapp. With the exception of some irresistible passages lifted from William Bradford and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the first paragraph, all the quotations are taken from Samuel Willard’s “A Brief Account of the Strange and Unusual Providence of God Befallen to Elizabeth Knapp of Groton,” in John Demos, ed., Remarkable Providences, 1600–1760 (1972).

In 1671, Groton was an obscure frontier settlement on the far edge of Western civilization. To the west of the Nashua River, all was a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men,” “dangerous to travel to known places,” much less to venture into the unknown. Continue reading ‘Strange and unusual Providence’

Perfect 10

With the Winter Olympics almost upon us, we will be hearing a lot about “perfect” scores in the sports where judges assign points for such things as technical difficulty and artistic interpretation.

A “scoring” system for genealogies would be interesting. If, for example, we had ten categories on which to judge a genealogical source, and each category had a potential ten points maximum, the “perfect” score would be 100. Of course, this would all be subjective, but it would give us a way to group works for comparison (top 10%, bottom 50% etc.). Here are ten categories that I came up with, in no particular order (once we have the categories, we will examine them in detail in future posts): Continue reading Perfect 10

2017: the year in review concluded

On Friday, I wrote about some of the most widely-read Vita Brevis posts of 2017. To mark the beginning of the next year, here are six more popular posts showcasing the range of subjects covered in a blog that publishes about 250 posts a year. (In fact, Vita Brevis marks its fourth birthday on January 10, and the blog’s one-thousandth post was published in November.)

In July, Michelle Doherty laid out a genealogical case usingCircumstantial evidence”: Continue reading 2017: the year in review concluded

Compiling knowledge

Applicants to the Society of the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy (SDCC) must have “a proven lineal lawful descent from a clergyman who was regularly ordained, installed, or settled over a Christian church within the limits of the thirteen colonies prior to 4 July 1776.” Although not a descendant of a colonial clergy ancestor, I was invited to attend the SDCC business meeting on Saturday, 4 November 2017, because I was a speaker during their annual meeting luncheon. Continue reading Compiling knowledge

Ninigret II

Courtesy of RISD Museum. RISDM 48-246

A relatively recent treasure added to the NEHGS collections is a late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century oil painting of a Native American sachem. NEHGS purchased this painting in early 2016 from an art dealer. The portrait is traditionally believed to depict Ninigret II (ca. 1610–1677), a sachem of the eastern Niantics, a Narragansett tribe that held extensive lands in what is today Rhode Island.

Ninigret appears to have been a skillful player on the stage of seventeenth-century New England politics. He allied the Niantics with the English against the Pequots in 1637, and kept his tribe out of King Philip’s War in the 1670s. Continue reading Ninigret II

An unsavory connection

When Chris Child completed the chart of the ancestry of Meghan Markle, which depicts her descent from Edward III and the common ancestry she shares with Prince Harry, I was intrigued by Markle’s early American ancestors. In looking over the chart, one couple in particular caught my eye: John Smith and Mary “Polly” Mudgett.

As someone who has seen one too many true crime documentaries on Netflix, the surname Mudgett reminded me of Herman Webster Mudgett, more commonly known as H.H. Holmes, one of America’s first serial killers. H.H. Holmes is infamous for his “murder castle,” a hotel built for the 1893 Chicago World Fair where several of Holmes’ crimes are thought to have occurred. Continue reading An unsavory connection