Monthly Archives: May 2015

Tradition as deceiver

View of Windsor Locks
Courtesy of UConn Libraries.

I was recently searching The American Genealogist for information and found an article titled “Tradition and Family History.”[1] The article’s opening lines are: “Tradition is a chronic deceiver, and those who put faith in it are self deceivers. This is not to say that tradition is invariably false. Sometimes a modicum of fact lies almost hidden at its base.” As a researcher, I have done quite a few cases that involve family traditions, and the article made me think about some of the stories that I have been told about my family. Continue reading Tradition as deceiver

Into the garden

Aristides statue
Statue of Aristides the Just in Boston’s Louisburg Square.

When one is raised in Boston, one of the standard field trips in school is to walk the Freedom Trail. How lucky I was. Years later, when a family member moved to Beacon Hill, I became infatuated with this lovely section of Boston: gas lit lamps, cobblestone streets, wrought iron fences.  What’s not to love?

And then I discovered Louisburg Square. I can sum it up in one word: charming. If one lives here, one owns shares in the park in the square. On either end of this fenced-in park are two statues. Thinking about these statues one day, my curiosity got the best of me. I became obsessed with finding out all I could about them, and why they were there.

The garden in which these two statues are placed has been described as “… a beautiful location in the western section of our city, surrounded by the residences of many of our most distinguished and fashionable families. This place affords one among many evidences that taste and refinement are gradually beautifying our city, and by-and-by Boston will represent many outdoor specimens of the fine arts worthy of her character as the literary emporium and Athens of America.”[1] Continue reading Into the garden

A challenging environment: Alaska, 1900-1940

Alaska census takers 1940
The use of dog sleds by census enumerators continued through the 1940 census. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives (

The United States Federal Census is among the most frequently utilized resources of genealogical researchers. However, rarely do we stop and consider the difficulties faced by enumerators in obtaining the data that we value so dearly. Never was the plight of census takers more apparent or severe than during the early decades of the twentieth century, when a number of men were charged with surveying the population of the Alaskan Territory.

Unlike the other forty-four states, where the census was taken on 15 April 1900, in Alaska enumerators began surveying the population as early as July 1899, and certain areas were not counted until October 1900, a span of fifteen months.[1] Continue reading A challenging environment: Alaska, 1900-1940

A Victorian genealogist

Hedwiga Gray diary1
Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, entries for 5-7 February 1864. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

One of the mysteries of the Regina Shober Gray diary is why it came to be part of the NEHGS collection. It is an account of daily (or weekly) life, written between January 1860 and December 1884, and for many of the volumes Mrs. Gray is observant about the relationships of her friends and acquaintances, but far less interested, evidently, in the genealogy of the Shober, Gray, and Clay families.

That all changes, however, in March 1874, at tea with one of her nieces: Continue reading A Victorian genealogist

Something to love in Civil War pensions

Child 2
First page from David Franklin’s 1863 letter to his sister, from his Civil War pension file, application #236373.

Following up on my post last month regarding Revolutionary War pensions that can have troves of information, I remembered another subsection within Civil War pensions that are almost always filled with immense amounts of genealogical and biographical data. These are the “Parents’ Pensions.”

While most of us are probably familiar with veterans’ and widows’ pensions, the parents’ pension was claimed by one or both of the parents of a deceased Civil War soldier. The pension act of 27 July 1868 stated: Continue reading Something to love in Civil War pensions

A garden of red, white, and blue

Photo by Walt Doyle
Photo by Walt Doyle

On this Memorial Day Weekend every city, town, and village in America will have its commemoration. At NEHGS and, we are continually inspired by the annual Memorial Day installation that takes place on the nearby Boston Common, just blocks from our headquarters in Back Bay.

On a slope of the Soldiers & Sailors Monument, more than 37,000 flags are waving in a garden of red, white, and blue in tribute to the active duty military casualties from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recorded since the start of the Revolutionary War. It’s a dramatic reminder that here in the U.S. we’re privileged to be living in “the home of the free – because of the brave.”

Whether in Massachusetts or throughout the nation, undoubtedly there’s someone on your family tree who will be remembered in gratitude on this Memorial Day. Continue reading A garden of red, white, and blue

Public genealogists

Fairbanks house by Meaghan Siekman
The Fairbanks House in 2012.

I was recently a guest lecturer for a graduate museum studies class as part of the American Indian Studies program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. When I agreed to speak to the class I assumed I would be focusing on my academic work: my work as a public historian, work outside of genealogy. I was surprised to find that the students were most interested in discussing my genealogical work in the context of public history. Continue reading Public genealogists

Surname maps for genealogical research

Hampe surname distribution
German surname images courtesy of Click on the images to expand them.

My nineteenth century immigrant ancestors have caused me a lot of headaches. With the exception of my Muir ancestor, Robert, who listed his specific birthplace, my immigrant ancestors were very vague in listing their birthplaces on records in the U.S.

Though most of my ancestry is Irish, I have a German line that has always interested me. My great-great-grandfather, John Henry Hampe, came to the New York in 1872, and eventually moved to Boston. Though he claimed to have been naturalized in later census records, I was never able to locate a naturalization record for him, which I hoped would list his birthplace. Continue reading Surname maps for genealogical research

Verify what?

Alicia Crane WilliamsThere appears to be a bit of trepidation among new researchers about what is meant by “verifying” sources. It probably sounds horrendously difficult, time consuming, and redundant, but it doesn’t have to be as hard as some would think – and any time spent spent “auditing” sources can return great benefits. Here are a few pointers.

When assessing whether a source, or part of a source, needs verifying, consider the following: Continue reading Verify what?

Multimedia sources for family research

Seabiscuit with Red Pollard, from the private collection of Col. Michael Howard, U.S. Marines (ret.). Courtesy Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation

When the movie Seabiscuit (2003) was released in theaters, my family and I decided to throw our own version of a Hollywood movie premiere party. Seabiscuit was a well-known racehorse during years of the Depression. My mother’s paternal aunt, Agnes Conlon, was the wife of John “Red” Pollard, a jockey who rode Seabiscuit in a number of races. I saw the movie with fifteen of my relatives, followed by a get-together at my aunt and uncle’s home. Although my great-aunt Agnes was not included in the storyline of this movie, it was fun to watch Tobey Maguire portray my great-uncle Red.

Red Pollard and Seabiscuit were viewed by many as underdogs. Pollard suffered various injuries throughout his racing career, including an injury which resulted in blindness in his right eye. He kept that a secret, out of fear that he would not be allowed to ride. Continue reading Multimedia sources for family research