Monthly Archives: August 2014

Musicians in the family: Part Three

Arthur Foote
Arthur Foote (1853-1937)

The Nathaniel Ilsley family of Portland, Maine (and later Chelsea, Massachusetts; Buffalo and Troy, New York; and Newark, New Jersey) produced more than a dozen singers, violinists, and conductors – and at least two composers. One of these last was my great-great-grandfather, Francis Grenville Ilsley (1831–1887), and the other was his younger brother, Eliphalet Clark Ilsley (1837–1866). Frank (or Grenville) wrote at least two hymn tunes that are still in general use – Ilsley and Dania – while Clark (or Clarke) ventured South and spent the Civil War years as the choirmaster of St. Paul’s Church in Augusta, Georgia. Continue reading Musicians in the family: Part Three

Like father, like son – like daughter?

Athlone Castle cropped
S.S. Athlone Castle, on which my grandfather was a deck hand in 1936. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland, John Oxley Library/Wikimedia Commons

Like many people in their early to mid-twenties, I am still struggling to figure out who I am. One day not too long ago, I was told that I was acting “just like my father.” Ah yes, the age-old phrase that was said to me when I was a child (and typically when I was misbehaving). This time, however, instead of shrugging off the comparison as I typically would, I decided to dig a bit deeper. If I act just like my father, then maybe I am destined to be like my father… Continue reading Like father, like son – like daughter?

Notes on Robin Williams’s ancestry

Click on the image to expand it.

When public figures die, I sometimes undertake research on their ancestry as a kind of summing up. In the days since the death of comic and acting icon Robin Williams, for example, I have been thinking about his potential connection to three American presidents.

From most online biographies, one learns that Robin McLaurin Williams’s mother, Laurie McLaurin (Smith) Williams, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, was the great-granddaughter of Mississippi senator and governor Anselm J. McLaurin (1848–1909). However, while most online trees indicated Laurie was the daughter of Laura McLaurin Berry (daughter of Stella Mae McLaurin, daughter of Governor McLaurin), there is disagreement about Laurie’s father, with some identifying him as Robert Forest Smith and others as Robert Armistead Janin. Continue reading Notes on Robin Williams’s ancestry

Nineteenth-century life in Newton

Tainter diary
Emily J. (Cook) Tainter diary. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

NEHGS has a rich collection of diaries. While browsing our Guide to Diaries in the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, I came across the mid-nineteenth century diary of Emily J. Tainter of Newtonville, Massachusetts. Newtonville, one of thirteen villages in the City of Newton, is just a few miles from Boston; the area was first settled in 1630. The Guide described the diary as concerning marriage and family life, and I was curious to get a glimpse of a Newton woman’s life during the mid-1800s.

The first entry was dated 5 September 1855; the last during 1881. The diary described weather conditions, the day’s outfit, as well as daily chores and activities. It spoke of whom the diarist visited and who visited her, neighbors who became sick, friends who got married, and family members who died. Continue reading Nineteenth-century life in Newton

Cheat Sheets: Part Two

Alicia Crane WilliamsIn a recent post I mentioned the Early New England Families Study Project “template” that I use: a Word document file with the categories pre-typed. I keep it on my desktop to open and “save as” the new file name each time I start a new family. For those of you who are knowledgeable about Word template files, you can set it up as such. As I do the research, I dump all the raw material into the form, then whittle it down as I proof, compare, and refine the text. Continue reading Cheat Sheets: Part Two

Musicians in the family: Part Two

Joseph Haydn
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

My great-great-grandfather Francis Grenville Ilsley (1831–1887) belonged to a family of singers and musical conductors and performers. The line apparently begins with his grandfather, Nathaniel Ilsley (1781–1870), who married four times and had (at least) fourteen children, eight of whom were notable in Portland, Buffalo, and Newark music circles. I covered the Portland period – and something of the musical careers of Francis L., Ferdinand, Arthur, Elizabeth, Esther, George, and Ann Ilsley – here.

By the late 1830s, the family had begun to scatter, and my great-great-great-grandfather Francis Lunt Ilsley (1804–1874) was advertising his services as an instructor at the Troy (New York) Academy of Music: his juvenile classes, and those for “young Ladies,” would be “progressively and thoroughly instructed in the elementary principles of vocal music, on the Pestolozzian or inductive system.” Continue reading Musicians in the family: Part Two

Musings from the Catskills

Siekman 1
“The Farm,” 17 October 2009

I spent my childhood at our family home in the Catskill Mountains in New York. My roots in the Catskills date back to the mid-eighteenth-century, when the first of the Holdridge line of my family appeared in the area. As far as we can tell, the Holdridges came from Connecticut, settling first in Columbia County, New York, before finally establishing a line spanning many generations in Greene County. While my mother’s family has lived in these mountains for two centuries, it was my father’s family home, which we lovingly refer to as “The Farm,” where I still spend many lazy days of summer. It is a special place for me which connects numerous points of my ancestry. Continue reading Musings from the Catskills

Taking the time to learn about my great-grandfather

A James E. Conlon clock

One of my favorite family history projects has been organizing the papers of my great-grandfather, James Edward Conlon (1880–1948). He worked in Boston as an antiques dealer and clock maker/restorer from the 1910s through the 1940s. James and his wife Mary had eleven children, including my grandfather John Francis Conlon (1911–1965). My grandfather worked as a firefighter, but in his spare time he painted a number of his father’s clocks, utilizing techniques such as reverse painting on glass and gold leafing.  When I began to look through my great-grandfather’s papers, I was surprised to discover a connection to my line of work as a researcher that I didn’t know existed.

Continue reading Taking the time to learn about my great-grandfather

A Ruth by any other name

Ruth Will Little
My great-grandmother Ruth (Will) Little

When I was a child, my classmate Jimmy would often tease me about my middle name: Paine. “Why is your name ‘Pain?’ Were you a pain to your mother when you were born? (Tee-hee!)” When I complained to my mother that my name was a problem and a target for Jimmy’s teasing, she replied, “Well, the name Paine is an old and extremely honorable name. You are, in fact, a descendant of Thomas Paine, who wrote the famous pamphlet Common Sense, which was one of the main inspirations for the American Revolution!” Wow! Was Jimmy impressed!

Not only do I have an old and honorable name, I’m also the descendant of a famous patriot! Of course, Jimmy stopped teasing me and I became a bit of a third-grade celebrity, for a day or two, anyway.  Continue reading A Ruth by any other name

Twentieth century research in Massachusetts

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Massachusetts is one of a handful or so states that allow relatively open access to vital information.  It is certainly possible to conduct family research after 1930 for Massachusetts using a combination of resources. provides free access to its record image and index databases that encompass records from around the world. Continue reading Twentieth century research in Massachusetts