Category Archives: Genealogy

Unexpected Family Tree Finds – Western Electric’s Merrimack Valley Works

Sometimes, you need to work really hard to land the latest find in your family tree discoveries.  Sometimes, family history finds just fall in your lap.  Before going to work yesterday morning, I stopped at the barber shop, and checked Facebook while waiting for my turn in the chair.  And I found – quite a find.

A while back, I wrote a post about the Lawrence History Center, a small-city archive dedicated to preserving and sharing the  history of the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts.  For a few weeks now, I’ve been following their Facebook feed, which today delivered the find that made my genealogical day – a link to a video from 1959, showing Western Electric‘s manufacturing plant in North Andover, Massachusetts.

Western Electric eventually became AT&T, which spun off into Lucent Technologies, which today is Alcatel-Lucent.  Growing up in northeastern MassachusettsMerrimack Valley, Western Electric always played a large part in my life.  Most kids in my class had parents or relatives who worked at the Merrimack Valley Works plant, as it was called.  At its peak, 12,000 people worked there – including my parents.

My dad started there in 1960, my mom a year later.  A year after that, they met.  Many years after that, I visited the plant – during annual open houses.  But, I’ve always been curious what working there was like, especially in those first years, which today seem so long ago.  Sure, there’s the show Mad Men, which provides some great fictional insight into the life of ad men on New York’s Madison Avenue in the 1960’s.  But, I’ve been fairly certain that life at a Western Electric plant that was manufacturing equipment for the Bell System was quite different.  And after watching the video, I think I was right.

The video, from the AT&T Archives, lasts about thirteen minutes and shows views of North Andover, Massachusetts where the plant was located, as well as nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts and Haverhill, Massachusetts.  The idea behind the 1959 video was to emphasize the relationship between the plant, the larger community, and its employees.  Even if you don’t have a family connection to the plant, the video shows some interesting views into the Merrimack Valley of 1959 as well as what a mid-century working environment at one of the region’s key employers was like.


Most Likely to . . . Visit a Local History Center? High School Yearbooks and their Value to Genealogists

In these days of point-and-click genealogy (think sites like Ancestry.com or familysearch.org), local and regional history centers of the brick-and-mortar variety are sometimes unjustly overlooked.  Some, like the New England  Historic Genealogical Society, have online resources and an impressive web presence themselves.  Others, especially those dedicated to smaller cities or even towns, have wonderful resources that are woefully under-appreciated or even unknown to the genealogical community.

Like other genealogists, I’ve been excited to follow one of Ancestry’s most recent projects – the ongoing digitization of US school yearbooks.  Given the vast number of schools issuing yearbooks in the United States, this is a pretty tall order and this project is still in its infancy.  Lawrence, Massachusetts, for example, has no high school yearbooks loaded into Ancestry’s database.  Ancestry does have two high school yearbooks for Lowell, Massachusetts, for the years 1950 and 1951.

Yearbooks are typically overlooked in genealogy as they fall outside of a “research comfort zone” that includes federal census records, city directories, and military/immigration records, to name a few.  All of these are wonderful, reliable resources.  Yearbooks are . . . a little hit or miss.  In large cities, or with families that moved around a lot, some extra legwork (city directories are good here) might be needed to determine which high school your ancestor graduated from.  Figuring out the year of graduation can be tricky too – there’s more variation in age at high school graduation as you progress further back into the twentieth century and into the nineteenth.  And then, there are a whole score of reasons why your ancestors may not have graduated from high school at all – or may have graduated from the high school’s evening session, which may or may not be included in the yearbooks.

I’ve been lucky in that my families have pretty much stayed put and predictable.  This past weekend, I travelled to Lawrence, Massachusetts to the Lawrence History Center and looked through their Lawrence High School history collection.  The Lawrence History Center operates today on the grounds and in the buildings formerly held by the Essex Company, which planned and built the city in the mid-19th century.  They specialize in all things Lawrence:  records of the Essex Company, photographs and oral histories of Lawrence, and records that have been donated to the center over the years.  Their staff, which graciously accommodated my request for a Saturday morning appointment, were very helpful and knowledgeable about their collection.  When I told them that I was hoping to view high school records from 1915-1930, I quickly found myself surrounded by boxes of well-organized and well-kept records.

The most compelling and complete component of this collection is undoubtedly the Lawrence High School Bulletins, which are essentially newsletters that had been written by the students.  These are kept in chronological order – starting from the 1890’s and ending sometime in the 1970’s.  I poured through the period I was researching – the 1915-1930 years that my grandfather and his siblings would have attended the high school.  The bulletins are fairly concise – 10 or 15 pages each – about half of which contain advertisements from local business that seem to be a blend of the yearbook and city directory styles.  These are interesting from an artistic perspective and to give some insight into some of the businesses that were in existence when my grandfather was attending high school.

A High School Yearbook Photograph of Edward T Owen, from 1925. Personal Collection of Author.

The real value in the bulletins is the photographs of the students, some candid, most posed, as well as fiction and non-fiction pieces and reflections on high school.  Some bulletins even had alumni notes updating readers on members of earlier graduating classes.  After an hour or so, I found what I had been seeking – a photograph of my grandfather.

My grandfather died a few weeks after I was born.  Although I never knew him, I had heard the stories of how he had played baseball for the Lawrence Independents, a semipro baseball team that counted former Olympian Jim Thorpe among its members.  Legend has it that my grandfather played alongside Thorpe during the 1924 season.  Family stories also recount how my grandfather had tried out for the Braves baseball organization, when it was still located in Boston.  Lawrence has had many sports teams through the years, and I wasn’t able to find anything directly related to the Lawrence Independents, but I did find a team photograph among the pages of a 1916 Lawrence High School bulletin showing my grandfather – then a high school freshman with his baseball team.

A family story exists that recounts how my grandfather once played baseball alongside Jim Thorpe. Image via Wikipedia.

For me, this was the genealogical holy grail I had been hoping to find.  Staff at the Lawrence History Center were glad to hear of my discovery and provided me with a couple of additional boxes of high school history to sort through.  In those, I found a 1920 yearbook – one year after my grandfather had graduated.  Initially, I was counting my bad luck that it couldn’t have been just one year earlier.  But, I looked through it and found a class history written by a member of the graduating class.

An earlier post on this blog spoke about the impact of Spanish Influenza on Lawrence during what was my grandfather’s senior year in high school.  The writer of the class history, a high school junior during the outbreak, recounted how her junior year felt like it had started twice – once on schedule in September and again after the outbreak – and a five-week suspension of classes.  It was during that five-week suspension that my grandfather must have seen the wagons descending his street for the bodies of flu victims, another memory of his that has lived on in our family stories.

John R. Rollins School Lawrence, Massachusetts

J.R. Rollins School, Lawrence, Massachusetts - Image via Wikipedia

Just when I thought I would call it a day, I mentioned to the staff of the Lawrence History Center that my grandfather came from the Prospect Hill section of Lawrence and that he had attended the Rollins School there.  They informed me that the Rollins School had issued a centennial yearbook as part of its one-hundredth anniversary celebration in 1992.  And that book contained class photographs of most of the eighth-grade graduating classes since the school’s inception.  It turned out that the eighth grade class photographs of my grandfather (from 1915), and his siblings (1919, 1921, and 1923) were all included.  His older brother, graduating in 1913, was not pictured, but a program from his graduation ceremony was included in its place.

My first visit to the Lawrence History Center won’t be my last.  The staff was wonderfully informative and welcoming.  I even got a tour of the Center’s main building, including the Essex Company’s vault and boardroom, dating from 1883.  My “finds”, greatly facilitated by their staff, contributed significantly to my own family history holdings.  After all, who wouldn’t want to see a never-before-seen photograph of a grandparent, at 15 years old?  One last note – the center also offers off-street parking on their grounds, which is no small mercy if you’re concerned about finding parking on Lawrence’s busy downtown streets.


Embrace your black sheep ancestors!

Black sheep ancestors – we’ve all got them.  If you don’t, it probably means that you haven’t discovered them yet.  I find them fascinating.  I mean, I enjoy the church-going, god-fearing, alms-giving ancestors as much as the next genealogist, but there’s a certain spark of interest that surges when you come across ancestors who were . . . a bit more colorful in their lives.

When I step back for a moment and take off my genealogist’s cap, I start to think that the non-genealogists who must endure us probably find it charming (or maybe even a bit odd) how we get excited over the discovery of another name on the family tree, another branch a little closer to the top, a link leading us a bit closer to the past.  For us, names can mean a key to unlocking another chapter in a family’s story.

In my case, the name of my wife’s third-great-grandfather led me to a man who was quite well-known in 19th-century Henry Township in Fulton County, Indiana.  According to Wikipedia, Henry Township’s population in 2000 was just north of 2,800 people; I imagine that it must have been much smaller during his lifetime.

Rose Savannah (Nixon) Deardorff stands second to the right on the day of her son's wedding in November 1910. Farmlands in Indiana pretty much look just as desolate today, in winter.

When I first came across Sylvester Nixon, he was just another name to add to the tree.  I added him as the father of Rose Savannah Nixon.  Rose Savannah was the motherly figure who appeared in lots of our old family photographs – both formal family ones as well as posed photos on the windswept farms in the Indiana winter.

The first facts I learned about Sylvester were rather mundane, interesting enough to genealogists, but not so interesting that they would capture the wandering attentions of his present-day descendants.  He was born a long time ago, in 1827, in Ontari0; that much I learned from the US Federal Census records.  At some point early in his life, his family has moved to Fulton County, Indiana.  His first wife, Elizabeth Haladay, died a few weeks before Christmas Day, 1869, leaving him a widower with a five-year-old daughter, Rose Savannah, who later became the subject of all those treasured family photographs I mentioned above.

Sylvester NIxon, with his third wife, Sarah Ann Staton, and younger children, ca. 1880

Sylvester NIxon, with his third wife, Sarah Ann Staton, and younger children, ca. 1880

Sylvester didn’t stay widowed long.  Over the next five years or so, he married two more times, once to Huldah Clementine and later to Sarah Ann Stanton.  With them, he had two more daughters and a son.  Most of that was learned from census records, some from family bible writings.  All in all, pretty vanilla and not very interesting.

Then, there’s the power of a Google Search.  One night I typed in “Sylvester Nixon”, “Fulton County” and Indiana into Google’s sparse interface.  A handful of results popped up, most from the public library in Fulton County.  Apparently, someone had taken the time to transcribe excerpts from the local Rochester newspapers, covering the years 1858-1879.  It was quite a find – and provided some insight into a man I had known nothing about.

Some details were rather mundane.  In 1874, old Sylvester married a Miami County lady (his third wife) and apparently came to town daily with a load of wood.  Sadly, the reasons why he brought a load of wood into town so often or why this was newsworthy have been lost to history.

I kept looking.  Three years later, in 1877, a brief clip in the paper carried the report of a Fulton County farmer who had seen old Sylvester beat his horse to death while he was returning to his home, drunk.  So, it appeared Sylvester enjoyed his liquor, and apparently was quite determined when he set his mind to something.  It’s got to take a lot of effort to beat a horse to death.

One year later, in 1878, a Mrs. Collins, out in her horse and carriage, had the misfortune of meeting old Sylvester along the road.  Sylvester, “blind drunk”, failed to give her carriage the half of the road it was entitled to, and soon, their wagons collided.  Mrs. Collins found herself without a hind wheel and Sylvester found himself with a reputation as a dangerous driver.  The local paper goes on to advise readers to avoid old man Nixon on the road and let him “pass on in his glory”.

The following year, the paper recorded that Sylvester nearly froze to death during a cold snap in January.  A kind soul saved him, when he or she found him near death, lying across the town’s railroad track.

The 1870’s were eventual for Sylvester.  The earliest entry I found for him recorded that he had, by 1871, acquired a reputation for mischief within the town – in addition to the bad driving, the horse beating, and all that.  Apparently, he and “his team” liked to cause havoc on the local merchants and then “run away” before the owner returned to town.  On this one occasion, recorded in the paper, he had selected the lumber yard of the unfortunate John Beeber, and “scattered his board piles in every direction.”

I scrolled through the paper’s later editions.  The 1880’s were quieter for the aging Nixon – or maybe the newspapers had moved on to covering other topics.  He did have one last entry, in an edition published soon after his death in 1893.  The account discounted the rumors that he had committed suicide with poison.  An autopsy, the paper revealed, had indicated that old Sylvester had died a natural death.  Thanks to information posted at Find-a-Grave, I now know that he’s buried nearby, in Mount Hope Athens cemetery.

I’m thankful for Sylvester Nixon and his contributions to the family tree, even if they caused some level of drama in his Indiana town of the 1870’s.  Based on the newspaper accounts, I think his contemporaries liked the old man too (or at least found him interesting).  Not all of our ancestors can be “saints”.  Finding a few “sinners” among the leaves of the family tree adds a layer of humanity and reminds us that people in previous centuries were just as imperfect as people today.


Boston’s Immigrant Experience in 1900 – Anticipation & Hope Amidst Confusion & Exploitation


Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

SS Canopic lands in Boston on October 17, 1920

Imagine the anticipation of these folks aboard the SS Canopic as it docked in Boston over 90 years ago.  Were your grandparents or great-grandparents among these immigrants, who had perhaps spent more than a week aboard ship traveling to a new life?  How long had these families planned, sacrificed, and prepared for this moment as they watched Boston come into view?

I find photographs like this one, from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr Photostream, particularly inspiring.  A good number of my ancestors immigrated through Boston’s ports between 1869 and 1909.  In fact, my own second-great-grandparents came across the Atlantic on that same SS Canopic eleven years before the photograph above was taken.  Some relics from my family’s immigrant experience remain – a diary entry from July 25, 1869, written in my 2nd great-grandfather’s elaborate hand, recording his arrival into Boston; and a Victorian-era trunk that carried my great-grandmother’s belongings from the Azores when she arrived at Boston in 1907.  Relics like these help us imagine their immigration experience, but don’t really provide a lot of detail.

Surviving records like censuses or ships’ manifests tell us where, whence and when they arrived; they will even tell us who they arrived with.  And later records will tell us where they intended to settle and what they did for occupations.  But, unless stories have been passed down the generations, or otherwise recorded in diaries (or maybe even in rare newspaper accounts), we can only guess at the lost tales which might have told us what they experienced in that time between when their ship docked and when they “got settled”?

From Ancestry.com, this ship's manifest lists immigrants arriving to the port of Boston from Portugal's Azores Islands.

This ship's manifest lists immigrants arriving to the port of Boston from Portugal's Azores Islands. The ship, the SS Canopic, is the same that is pictured above. Lines #14 & #15 contain the registries for my second-great-grandparents.

To learn more about the immigrant experience for my ancestors, I first came across the website of the Ellis Island foundation.  So much is available about the Ellis Island experience in New York, which is important to me too.  My four-year-old grandfather, his parents, and younger brother all came through Ellis Island in 1913.  He never spoke of the experience (and probably didn’t remember much of it), but the records available do provide meaningful insight into what he and his family might have experienced there.

What’s sometimes forgotten is that Boston was also a major immigration port during Ellis Island’s active years.  Unlike Ellis Island, Boston’s immigration inspections were not concentrated in any one place.  Immigrants passed through the East Boston, Charlestown, and Commonwealth (South Boston) docks.  Each had a room equipped for immigrant inspections, which were carried out by federal US immigration officials.  These inspections could be quite daunting.  In my mind’s eye, for comparison, I imagine myself passing through an immigration checkpoint at a foreign airport in a non-English speaking country.  Like an immigration checkpoint today, the public was not allowed in the inspecting room or even on the docks.  This was designed to prevent the coaching of arriving immigrants.  While immigrants awaited the entry inspections,  they waited in general waiting rooms, which were segregated according to the class of service by which one arrived.

Arriving in Boston in 1890, my great-grandfather, Matthew McNamara, and his three brothers (all aged between eight and fourteen years old) were to continue to New York to meet their parents and younger siblings who had immigrated in 1888. The family was reunited after my second-great-grandparents managed to save the funds to purchase the four additional trans-Atlantic tickets.

Family members were never allowed within the waiting rooms, but people holding custom passes – generally those “favored” by immigration officials – were allowed into the waiting rooms to “advise” the immigrants amidst what was frequently a sea of hopeless confusion.  These favored individuals were mostly employees of transfer companies and had a reputation for bilking immigrants out of their money under false pretenses.  Many were representatives of immigrant banks, who helped immigrants coordinate onward travel by converting prepaid travel into valid stateside tickets.  Officially, they charged no additional fees for these services.  Unofficially, this wasn’t always the case.

Many arriving immigrants spoke little English and were unfamiliar with the cultures and even the geography of Boston.  The very young, or those who gave suspicious addresses and who seemed to be arriving to see friends in or near Boston might be detained until their friends were notified to call for them.  But, most were released after primary inspections cleared them and their baggage. Upon release, arriving immigrants walked into the same crowds as any cabin passenger, which could prove to be quite bewildering.

The option did exist for immigrants to wait within the waiting rooms.  However, eventually, they would have to leave and they had no way of knowing whether their own friends or relatives would be among the many people in the crowds outside.  Sometimes, a representative from one of the humanitarian private societies, e.g., the North American Civic League for Immigrants or the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) among others, would be available to search the crowds for them, calling out the names of persons given to him by the arriving immigrants.  This helped some, but the experience of leaving the immigrant inspection area and meeting one’s loved ones on the other side must have been daunting and disorienting.  A lot of concern was voiced for the safety and well-being of the immigrants.  The Commission on Immigration was created to look into these concerns.  The Commission was particularly concerned about the situation of young women, of whom there were many and who were considered to be especially vulnerable.

Published in Harper’s Weekly - November 7, 1874.

Emigrants board an America-bound steamer in Hamburg, Germany

Many immigrants arrived with addresses given to them by someone in their villages; often, these addresses were incorrect or outdated.  In 1913, the Commission on Immigration learned of a Polish girl (in the parlance of the time, this could have been any unmarried female under 25) in 1913 who arrived on the Cleveland and reported her father’s address at 51 Beckford Street in Roxbury.  Commission investigators, later looking into her well-being, learned the man did not live at that address, and no one there had ever heard of him.  What happened to his daughter after she arrived at the address was never learned.

In November 1913, the Commission learned of another Polish girl who arrived on the docks at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier, on the ship Hanover, and gave a South Boston address.  An immigrant banker took her to his Salem Street establishment in the North End, charged her 75 cents and then put her on a street car leaving her to find the South Boston address alone.  The Commission never learned anything more about her.  In another case, during the same month, the Commission looked into the case of a Lithuanian girl, 21 years old, who had arrived on the ship Laconia and gave an address of 164 St. Clair Street in Boston.  One of the Commission’s investigators later tried to find that address to verify her safe arrival only to learn that no such street existed within the city.

The Commission did not only look into cases of young women.  In one investigation, they placed one of their own investigators in a cab with four immigrants – two men and two women.  An immigrant banker at the docks demanded $1 each from each of the immigrants “for the fare” of the cab he located for them.  The cab driver later demanded 50 cents each from the immigrants as he reached their respective destinations.  The legal fare for the ride was 50 cents in each case.  To add to the overcharging, the investigator, the last to be in the cab, provided the driver with an address he could not find.  After a cursory attempt, the driver gave up and left the investigator on the road amidst a “crowd that gathered around him”.  Frequently, cabmen became responsible for the welfare of immigrants who became lost in a sea of people, unable to find their friends and relatives.  Some proved to be trustworthy; some didn’t.

Many immigrants with final destinations outside Boston came with orders for railroad tickets that had been purchased abroad or sent from relatives and friends in the United States.  What wasn’t widely understood was that these orders needed the approvals of steamship company officials and also needed to be exchanged at the railroad ticket office.  One man, from Poland and with an ultimate destination in Michigan, arrived in Boston with his ticket already purchased and managed to get his ticket stamped and signed on the dock, which was two of the requirements, but did not realize he needed to exchange that ticket for another on the dock.  On the train to Michigan, without the right ticket, he was charged $11 by the conductor.  The average wage for a working man at the time was about 25 cents an hour.

Even if they managed to find a reliable ride to their final destinations, concerns existed around luggage handling and even getting food.   Confusion abounded about luggage requirements and fees.  In a complex fee structure (not unlike today’s airline fees), immigrants with continuing tickets were allowed one piece of baggage free of charge, but the procedures for additional pieces of luggage and for checking luggage through to its final destination were complex and far from uniform.

Immigrants continuing on from Boston most often bought food from the lunch counter on the dock.  Investigators from the Commission on Immigration found that hot food, or even hot coffee, could not be found on the docks.  They came across one vendor, who had a contract to sell food to immigrants awaiting additional questioning, selling 10-cent bottles of sarsaparilla for 25 cents, 10-cent packages of canned meat for a quarter, and 5-cent loaves of poor quality, stale bread for a dime.  Without much competition, immigrants had little choice but to shell out the exorbitant prices.

Armenian-Americans in Boston, 1908; Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library's Photo Collection via WikiMedia Commons

Reading through accounts of immigrants’ first moments in the United States provides some interesting insights into what my own ancestors might have experienced as they arrived in Boston and prepared for their onward journeys to other destinations within Massachusetts.  Regardless of which port your ancestors came through, each had a story.  Some have been preserved in official records or family diaries – or maybe through the oral history passed down through the generations within a family.  In our lives, so much is influenced by our surroundings – our schools, towns, states, and even the country where we spend our childhoods.  It’s interesting to ponder that someone so long ago sought to seek a better life amidst more opportunities, and that this choice, from decades before we were born, influenced our own lives to such a great extent.


A Window into the Past: Ancestors’ Letters as Genealogical Records

So, say you’ve inherited a large stack of family photographs showing ancestors who are far up your family tree – such as great-grandparents, or their siblings, cousins, or close family friends.  As you stare into the moment in time captured in that cabinet card or tin type photograph, do you ever wonder what their voices sounded like, or what sort of accent they spoke with?  Do you wonder what words they chose when they spoke?  Or what perspective they brought to their life experiences?  Or even what activities filled a day in their lives?

In some very rare cases, a home movie might surface, allowing you a glimpse of your ancestors (or someone else’s) living through some long-ago day.  For most of us, though, home movies from that far back just don’t exist (and likely never existed).  But, if we’re looking to learn more about the faces in our old photographs, we might be able to rely on letters that have survived through the decades.  Letters provide a sense of immediacy, a glimpse into a moment or day otherwise completely lost to living memory – and it’s all captured in the yellowed pages that you hold in your hands.

I was fortunate to marry into a family who saved . . . everything – photographs, family bibles, letters, journals, Christmas cards, insurance bills . . . and, yes, even old tissues – you know, the ones from long ago that came in shades of hot pink and cool blue.  I’m not sure when those came off the market, but it’s been some time.  I view these as a testament to how dedicated they were in saving just about everything for posterity.

The photographs and family bibles are great, but the letters really go the furthest when I try to flesh out the names, dates, faces, and personalities that have emerged on that side of the family.  Letters can tell you a lot about what words and expressions ancestors used when they spoke, how they pronounced them, what an average day was like for them, and what perspective they brought to their everyday lives.

A Page from the 1900 US Federal Census

In this page from the 1900 US Federal Census, the Hamlett Family appears in Lines 30-35

The Hamlett Family posed for this photograph several years after the 1899 letter was written. Frank is the older man standing in back, at left. Mae stands to the immediate left of her brother, in the photograph's center.

Among the many letters I’ve come across in my in-laws’ collection of family artifacts, was the one below, written in the first days of 1899, by an 11-year-old girl to her father, who was, quite literally, a traveling preacher.  Tessie Mae Hamlett (‘Mae’ to the family) was the second-oldest daughter of the four children of William Franklin Hamlett and his wife, Samantha Ann (Peck) Hamlett.  When the letter was written, the family lived in Americus, Indiana, a small town near Lafayette, Indiana.  The attached page from the 1900 US Federal Census shows the family, just 17 months later, in June 1900.

Frank Hamlett, as he’s come to be known by his descendants, was a preacher in his mid-40’s at the time of the letter.  Mae, just a few days past her 11th birthday, wrote the letter below that reached him at some location whose name has been lost to history.

Below, I’ve attached the front and back of the letter, as well as a transcription.

The Front Page of the Jan. 3, 1899 Letter

From Americus, Indiana – Jan. 3, 1899

Dear papa:

I thought I would write to you this evening to let you know that we are as well as usual and hope this may find you the same.  George and Ann was up to day.  Aunt Susie is sick.  She has got a swelling on her hip.  They butchered to day that little pig. It weighed 125 pounds when it was dressed.

Bessie got a letter from Bennie Pepper to day.  He got home all right.  George said to tell you that he got a letter from worth judgement to day.  Bessie is making her a apron and manson is fixing her shoes.  Manson got mad at Bessie on Saturday but he wasn’t mad long.

We was at Kurkehains saturday night.  We popped pop corn, had lots of fun.  Well, papa, when are you coming home?

We have not heard from Jessie Emmons since they went home.   They left here friday morning about 6 o’clock in the morning and it was 10 o’clock before they got to go

Tessie Mae closes the January 1899 letter on Page 2.

away.

Well, I guess this is all for this time so good night, answer soon, good by.

Tessie Mae to papa

As I typed up the transcription, I kept the original word choice, but not the misspellings, since they appeared to be more the product of an 11-year-old girl learning her spelling than that of a true guide to her pronunciation.  This isn’t always the case, though, especially with letters written by adults.  It’s interesting to see how much contact Mae had with her family.  She makes mention to Bessie, her older sister, an Aunt Susie, and Jesse Emmons, an uncle, who lived with them at the time of the 1900 census, several months later.  There’s a bit of a rural feel to the letter too, encouraged by the talk of the butchered pig.  There’s also talk of clothing made at home – an apron, by her sister, Bessie.  And, perhaps most interesting, there are hints at the way Mae talked, when she notes “we was up at Kurkehains saturday night.”

Letters, sometimes tucked in with stacks of photographs inherited from older family members, or pressed within the pages of yellowed family bibles, provide valuable insight into the lives of ancestors and help us understand them as whole people, and not just sets of names and dates.  After reading some of our Hamlett family letters, I began to get a sense of what their voices sounded like, the accent they might have spoken with, and what words they used when they spoke.  It’s not as telling as a video or a face-to-face interview, but with the upper branches of a family tree, letters may be one of the best available and sometimes most overlooked resources.

Readers, have you come across some interesting family letters from long ago?  Did they help you learn some interesting facts about your ancestors?


The Challenge of Researching Portuguese Ancestors

If you were to visit Lowell, Massachusetts before . . . say, 1890, you would not have met many men walking about the city named João or Manuel.  The Portuguese began arriving en masse in New England in the late 19th century and had established, by the first decades of the 20th century, sizable communities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  Most of these Portuguese hailed Madeira or the Azores, island possessions of mainland Portugal.  The three pages attached below are taken from the Lowell, Massachusetts City Directories for 1884, 1894, and 1910.  The surname Silva, one of the most common Portuguese surnames, does not appear at all in the 1884 directory.  Just ten years later, in 1894, ten Silva men are listed in the Directory.  And, by 1910, this number had grown to 42 individuals with the surname Silva.

1884 Lowell City Directory

1894 Lowell City Directory

1910 Lowell City Directory

If you’re among the roughly 1 in 20 Americans who today claim Portuguese ancestry, you’ve likely discovered that Portuguese genealogy presents some challenges.  Records are not as widely available as they are for other Western European countries, and often are not translated from Portuguese. Additionally, vital records (birth/baptism, marriage, death) are frequently church records whose form and content vary widely depending on the time and region of the record.  As an added challenge, many Portuguese arriving in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries changed their names either to appear more American or so others would be more able to pronounce their names. In my own research, I’ve found Machados who became Marshalls and Pereiras who became Perrys.   To add to the challenge, first names are often translated too. José becomes Joe and João becomes John.  There’s some evidence of this in the Lowell City Directory listings above, where many of the Silvas use Anglicized names like Joseph, Frank, John, and Louis.

It took me what felt like forever to find my grandmother’s Machado family in the 1920 U.S. census and with good reason.  When I finally found them, they were listed as an Irish family with the surname “Marsh”  (Below, see lines 54-57.)  Sometimes, the errors recorded in census records tell you more than the true information that was recorded.  From this record, I can get an idea of how my great-grandfather’s pronunciation of “Machado” sounded to a native English speaker from Massachusetts.  How she ever ended up listing them as English speakers from Ireland though, I’ll never know.  They were light-skinned Portuguese folks with light eyes, but likely spoke broken English at the time.

Admittedly, the challenges of Portuguese genealogy are many, but the Portuguese people have a rich history. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about one’s ties to a culture that gave us some of the world’s great explorers, e.g., Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, as well as fellow present-day descendants like Tom Hanks and Meredith Vieira? The Portuguese even had their own crazy set of royals (which they overthrew during the Revolution of 1910).  And Portuguese history is full of interesting stories that are not well-known in the English-speaking world.  Perhaps one of the most curious tales to have occurred during the nearly eight-century history of the Portuguese monarchy is that of the legend of Pedro I.  The legends goes that Pedro I was so distraught that his wife, Inês de Castro, had died before he became King that, when he eventually ascended the throne in 1357, he exhumed her body, put her upon the throne, bejeweled and dressed in a rich gown, and then required each of his new vassals to kiss her hand as a show of fealty to their new queen.

By Litografia Epaminondas Gouveia. Rua do Rangel, 16. C. Frese [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cigar wrapper depicting Ines de Castro upon her throne

When I first started researching my grandfather’s family, I vaguely knew that he had come from Madeira, a Portuguese island about 600 miles from mainland Portugal and 400 miles from Morocco that had first been settled by the Portuguese about a decade after Henry the Navigator had sponsored a voyage there in 1419. When I later read his obituary, it rekindled a memory that he had been born in its capital city of Funchal.  I also knew his parents names had been John and Frances.  With his birthdate, it was a good start.

While genealogy records seem to abound for ancestors from the British Isles, Portugal’s ancestral records are relatively unexplored. Even a few years later I started researching, online resources were still fairly limited. There were a few people in Portugal willing to help out through the internet, but with the foreign currency issue (how to pay them), and the vague unease associated with internet transactions, it seemed more trouble than it was worth.  I tabled further research for a while, content to know that my ancestors came from Madeira, from its capital city Funchal – until I was fortunate enough to land a temporary work assignment in Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon. In April 2004, I arrived in Lisbon to work the assignment, and to perfect the Portuguese I had been learning in Brazil.

Three things about Portugal: 1. the Portuguese of Lisbon is very distinct from the Portuguese of Brazil; it varies verbally and grammatically to a greater extent than American English differs from British English. 2. the Portuguese of Madeira sounds a lot different from the Portuguese of Lisbon. 3. Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal and is considered somewhat separate, both culturally and geographically, from mainland Portugal.

Even from Lisbon, Funchal is still a two-hour flight.  But, by 2004, Portugal had begun to put some of its genealogical information online. Already armed with my grandfather’s date of birth and his birth city, I requested his birth record from the government-run website. A few weeks later, the baptismal record arrived.  And, as I opened it, I thought ‘what luck!’ The certificate included not only details around his birth, but also details about his parents and even grandparents. And, it showed that my family had come from an even smaller village on Madeira a generation earlier, called Caniςo.

Topographic data from the NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM3 v.2) (public domain)

Topographic and administrative map in French of Madeira

Even in 2004, a few well-planned online searches for Caniςo popped up some very specific hits, including one to a distant cousin who had, several years earlier, researched the family back almost 500 years to the early 1500’s. A quick email, and a day later, he had sent me an Excel spreadsheet listing out every ancestor and cousin in the family, their baptisms, marriages, and even how they were all related to each other. I later found a book indexing all of the Madeira records and tied out all of the records and verified his accuracy.  These days, much more is available online for Madeira, and you don’t really need a book only available in Portugal.  You can research marriages, baptisms, passport applications, and more at the Madeira Archives website at:

http://www.arquivo-madeira.org/homepage.php

At this point, the website and its indexes are only available in Portuguese, but with the knowledge of a few terms, you should be able to navigate the website quite easily.  From the homepage above, click on “bases de dados”.  For marriages, search “casamentos”.  Baptisms and Passports are the next two links in Portuguese words that will look familiar to English speakers.

I still stare sometimes at the earliest names on that list.  When I look at the earliest, a direct ancestor who was born in 1535, I  wonder what his life was like all those years ago on Madeira, and just how many descendants he has in New England, the United States, and in the many other regions of the world.  In years, 475 are a lot.  I don’t have his date of death (those seem to be less consistently recorded than dates of baptisms and marriages), but it’s probably a safe bet that he had long since passed away before the Pilgrims first stepped on Plymouth Rock in 1620.


Busting the Family Tree Brick Wall – Listen to those Rumors!

‘Herring choker.’  Today, it’s a somewhat pejorative term used in some circles to refer to Scandinavians or possibly folks from the Canadian province of New Brunswick.  In our family (which has neither of those connections), it’s remembered as the term my great-grandmother used when referring to my grandfather’s (her son-in-law’s) Owen family.

By the time I took up genealogy, both my great-grandmother and my Grandfather Owen were long dead.  The herring choker story remained, though, and older relatives speculated quietly that the term was meant to suggest that the background of my grandfather’s supposedly Irish-Catholic family wasn’t so Irish or so Catholic.  In my Depression-era Irish Catholic family, no assertion could be more disparaging.

When he was alive, my grandfather hadn’t spoken much about his family’s origins.  We always ‘knew’ the Owens had Irish roots, and overlooked the earlier (and unsubstantiated) doubts that his wasn’t the Irish Catholic background we always understood it to be.  He had been born around the last turn of the century in a small upstate New York town called Clayville, near Utica.  His parents had come from Canada – and their forebears had come from Ireland before that.  Of course.  Plain as that.  We might have even descended from St. Patrick himself, most surely.  And my first foray into genealogy showed that my grandfather had indeed been born, baptized, married, and buried through the Catholic church, as had his parents before him.

Still the ‘herring choker’ accusation nagged.  Where had it come from?  Surely, we couldn’t have Protestants in the family line.  Someone would have said something.  No one alive could, or did.  And so, for years, that branch on my family tree ended three generations up – with my great-grandparents William and Elizabeth Owen being born, Catholic, in what US records defined broadly as ‘Canada’.  I had met my first ‘brick wall’, a term used in genealogy to refer to a research dead-end.

A few years passed.  I researched other ancestral lines.  One day on a trip to the public library in Lawrence, Massachusetts, I came across an obituary for my great-grandfather, William George Owen, in his local paper, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune.  Neatly listed within the obituary, I found his place of birth:  Grey County, Ontario.  A new lead!  The brick wall wasn’t so foreboding.  In the days before Ancestry’s online census records, getting access to the Canadian National Census required some work – and I eventually found microfilmed copies at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston.  The 1871 Census for Ontario had a good index, and I was able to find my two-year-old great-grandfather, complete with his parents and siblings, in his native Grey County.  I could even now trace him to a particular plot of land in a specific township.  And – unlike their US counterparts, 19th century Canadian census records provide religious denomination.  The entire family was Catholic.  There were no herring chokers here – the Irish Catholic legacy stayed intact, safe.

Then, I looked at the neighbors – right below my toddler Catholic great-grandfather.  Another Owen family was listed – Protestants – Presbyterians even.  Maybe they weren’t related. . . . They lived on the same farm, shared similar names, had similar ages.  My genealogical intuition advised that I was looking at my 2nd great-grandfather’s brother and his family – cousins to my great-grandfather.  I printed the record, recorded the names, professions, and general ages that the census provides, and reopened the herring choker investigation.

The Page from the 1871 Census

The Page from the 1871 Census showing brothers George and William Owen living in Grey County, Ontario

Maybe Uncle George married a Presbyterian and converted?  Maybe the census enumerator made an error all those years ago.  All those things could happen.  I looked to the next census, unindexed at that point, for confirmation.  But, by 1881, both brothers had moved from Grey County and disappeared.  By the time my great-grandfather’s family resurfaced in New York in 1900, everyone else had vanished.

I was stuck.  I stayed stuck until several years later when the 1930 US census was released.  The 1930 US census was the first to be released after the creation of Northern Ireland, and the first to distinguish between the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, and the six that had separated off to create the North.  Shortly after its April 2002 release date, I looked up my great-grandfather in the record, and while he listed No. Ireland as the place of his father’s birth, another brother had listed only ‘Ireland’.  It was probably another lead:  my second-great grandfather may have been from Northern Ireland, which would narrow my search for his Irish geographical and religious origins to just six counties.

I researched the six counties of Northern Ireland, the Plantation of Ulster, how that had brought the Presbyterians to Ireland, and the effect all of this had on the earlier Catholic population.  I wasn’t really sure which side my family fell on.  I found lots of great general information that helped me understand the context of their times, and provided some color for the world of my ancestors’ ancestors, whose names have been lost to history.  I found some distant cousins on the Internet, and learned about stories that had been passed down their lines connecting our common ancestors to King Henry VIII.  Some research into obscure listservs from a decade ago pointed to a David Owen, a Welshman and a cousin of the monarch.  I had considered concluding there, fairly  certain that I had researched the family to the greatest extent I could, given the limited availability of records for so long ago.

Then came the Drouin records, a resource I had never heard of before it appeared on Ancestry a couple of years ago.  Those quickly yielded the marriage record of my second-great-grandparents, in French.  With my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, I was able to translate its faint, elaborate 19th century French handwriting.  I learned that my second-great-grandparents had been married at the (Catholic) Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal in August 1856.

Before Ontario, my family had lived in Montreal and were still Catholic.  No herring chokers here, no way.  Having the date and a new location was great, but . . .

I pondered the obscure, barely legible French text at the end of the record.  My 2nd great-grandfather received a special dispensation by the priest, because . . . he was not Catholic.  He had converted from Presbyterianism to marry my second great-grandmother.  My grandfather’s grandfather had been a Protestant.  I met some more internet cousins and learned that my line had been ‘excommunicated’ from the rest of the family over the marriage.  That explained why there were no Owen witnesses at the marriage, and the family’s flight to Ontario soon after.  They had been cut off.

A further search of the records found the rest of the family in Montreal – the rest of an ardently Presbyterian family.  I found a photograph of my 3rd great-grandfather’s grave on Ancestry.  His epithet, ‘Blessed are those who die in the Lord’, etched just five years after his son’s Catholic wedding seemed to seal off any doubts about how he felt about my branch of the family in his last days.

Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal, Quebec, Canada....

Notre-Dame Basilica, Image via Wikipedia

I wrote up what I thought would be the final version of the family history.  They had been Presbyterians, probably from No. Ireland – from a county unable to be determined.  It’s a common story in Irish genealogy.

And there it stayed.  Until earlier this year.  Like a lot of genealogists out there, I was excited to see Ancestry’s Who Do You Think You Are? appear in the TV listings.  I watched each Friday night episode religiously. I found the episodes interesting, but didn’t really learn any new techniques or resources.

Then came the Rosie O’Donnell episode.  Rosie had Irish roots, but didn’t know where in Ireland her family hailed from.  The show traced her ancestors to Montreal and then found vague references to Ireland.  My story exactly.  Then, the professional genealogists helped her came up with the obvious – newspaper obituaries.

For my local relatives in New England, I had extracted and scoured each word of each obituary years ago, with relative ease.  But, Montreal’s papers had never been accessible to me, and, in my experience, 19th century obituaries were never very informative – the best might include someone’s age or possibly last address.  Not so with Rosie’s ancestors.  Who Do You Think You Are? showed that the birthplace of her Irish ancestors had been recorded in the Montreal papers.  I figured I’d need a trip to Montreal to view the microfilmed newspapers, or at least hire a professional genealogist to do that for me.

Before going to bed that night, I looked to see which Canadian newspapers I could find online and quickly found the Montreal Daily Witness, available through the Google News Archive for free.  The search feature didn’t work so well, but the Drouin Records had already given me the exact dates of death.  All I had to do was browse the four- and five-page newspapers from those dates.

Minutes later, I found the obituaries of my family – and their birthplace – Co. Monaghan, Ireland.  I stared at the text, searched all of the other siblings and in-laws of that family.  They had all hailed from Co. Monaghan.  This made sense and explained why the 1930 census showed both Ireland and No. Ireland for my second great-grandfather’s birthplace.  Co. Monaghan is considered part of the Ulster region of Ireland, but wasn’t included in Northern Ireland when it was created in 1921.  And, at a present-day population of about 60,000 people, it’s one of the smaller Irish counties.  I joined the email listserv for Co. Monaghan, posted a message, and within a few hours, received an email from a local genealogist who had indexed the Presbyterian baptismal records for my family in Co. Monaghan.

Map of Northern Ireland.

Image via Wikipedia

With his help, I traced the birthplace of my ancestors to a 158-acre townland in Co. Monaghan and even identified their church: Ballyalbany Presbyterian Church, a church that was rather ardent in its interpretation of Presbyterianism.    I poured through its records, and found my own 3rd great-grandfather.    Several hours later, it became quite clear that he too had converted to marry.  He had left the Anglican church to marry my Presbyterian 3rd great-grandmother a generation before his son did something remarkably similar.

In genealogy, brick walls can be a source of significant frustration, but breaking through those walls can be quite rewarding.  Readers:  what was or is your toughest brick wall in your family tree?  Have you uncovered any surprises in past brick walls you’ve managed to break through?