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Unspoken in the materials I quoted in my post on American slaver vessels last month was the inference that perhaps some of the slavers involved in the slave trade after the international treaty theoretically prohibited it were falsely flying American flags because of the United States’ lack of signing the treaty allowing slaver patrol crews to board American vessels looking for signs of the vessel being a slaver. While not explicitly stated in those materials, it was a very real concern of the slaver patrols.

To wit (my transcription of a printed letter):

Cyclops, off Ambuz, April 17, 1850.

Sir: I consider it my duty to bring under your notice a conversation that I had the honor of holding with Commander Levin M. Powell, commanding the United States ship-of-war “John Adams,” relative to the recent captures which have been made by some of the cruisers under your orders on the southwest coast of Africa of Brazilian vessels, which have attempted to evade search by presenting false American papers and hoisting American colors on meeting a British cruiser.

Commander Powell began by stating to me that he was not desirous, in this conversation, of referring to past captures, but that now an American vessel-of-war was stationed on the southwest coast of Africa, he desired to make some arrangement or have some agreement between the respective cruisers on all further occasions of our meeting vessels bearing the emblem of our respective countries, but producing, in the individual boarding captain’s opinion, no just right to wear it, and he would suggest that for the future, should a vessel be boarded by any of our cruisers presenting, in our opinions, false American colors, and that on our doubting the nationality of the vessel, and informing the master that our duty was, doubting his nationality, to send him to an American officer for further scrutiny, that should the said master, (should the vessel be an illegal trader, and employed in the slave trade, or fitted to be so employed,) for fear of the consequences, (the law of the United States inflicting death of any of its subjects convicted of being engaged in the slave trade,) destroy the fraudulent American papers, and immediately present Brazilian ones, and direct a Brazilian ensign to be hoisted, that we, the British officers, should not seize such vessel as a Brazilian slaver, although we see she is fully equipped for the slave trade, and is delivered over to us as Brazilian, but that we ought to detain such vessel, on the grounds that false papers were first presented to us to evade search, and either give such vessel up to the American cruiser, if present on the coast, if not, to be sent to an American port for adjudication. …

From Serial Set Vol. No. 859, H. Exec. Doc. 105 (Monday, May 19, 1856, quoting a letter from April 17, 1850), pp. 5-6

This excerpt was followed by the British author asking the government for advice, including a hypothetical situation wherein American and British slaver patrol cruisers together encountered “a strange vessel.” The first part of the letter particularly struck me because it suggested that the American Commander Powell assumed: 1) that American law was so strong and so well enforced on this subject that anyone confronted with the possibility of being subject to it would immediately simply give up any charade; 2) that the person, upon giving up, should not be subject to the law which had terrified them into confessing.

Accompanying this printed letter was another British letter on the subject (again, my transcription of a printed document):

… in order to maintain cordial and friendly co-operation between the officers of the British and United States navies respectively engaged in the suppression of the slave trade; and I stated that her Majesty’s government derived the sincerest gratification from the proofs … of the efficiency of the steps taken by the United States government to prevent the abuse of the United States flag, for purposes of slave trade …

… her Majesty’s government consider it a general and acknowledged principle of international law, that the nationality of a vessel must be determined, not by the flag which may be hoisted from time to time at her masthead, but by the papers which prove her ownership; and upon this, issued those instructions to which Commander Fanshawe refers, for the guidance of her Majesty’s naval officers engaged in the suppression of the slave trade, ordering such officers to board any suspected vessel and to require the production of her papers, whence arise the questions mooted by the commander of the United States cruizer “John Adams.”

It appears to her Majesty’s government that the proper course to be pursued would be that, if a vessel so boarded should produce American papers, and the master should persist in asserting her American character, and if, nevertheless, there should be grounds either for suspecting her to be engaged in slave trade, or for supposing her papers to be false, the vessel should be delivered over to the nearest United States naval officers. But, if the master should disclaim American nationality, or if the United States officer should, on examining the papers, find them to be false, then, and in either of those cases, the vessel should remain in, or be given back to the charge of the British officer, to be dealt with by British courts according to the real character of the vessel.

This proposed arrangement is founded on the presumption that the courts of the United States could not deal with a vessel detained for slave trade unless she was United States property. And that if a slaver were to be sent for trial to the United States, and it should appear on trial that she was not an United States vessel, the court would acquit her for want of competence in the case.

From Serial Set Vol. No. 859, H. Exec. Doc. 105 (Monday, May 19, 1856, quoting a letter from December 31, 1850), pp. 3-4

What a different window into history this offers, including the suggestion that Americans should not be given the responsibility for dealing with international slaver vessels because American courts could not handle such cases, and that British slaver patrols should only hand a vessel over to the Americans if the crew continued to insist that they were indeed Americans despite the claim seeming dubious. Having researched and blogged about the international incident involving the Douglas out of Duxbury in 1839, I imagined upon reading this that the reason the British even went that far in their suggestion was because of prior incidents like the Douglas being detained – better to err on the side of caution than to cause another international incident. But when I read further letters, I discovered that it wasn’t just past incidents but very recent complaints by the masters of American vessels – or as the published letters put it, “legal traders” – whose participation in international trade, possibly including the slave trade, was disrupted by patrols.

Weaving throughout these letters is the fact that slaver vessels of other nationalities were hoisting American flags and carrying false American papers because the American government had refused to sign the international treaty allowing patrol crews to board and search American vessels and continued to defend its citizens rights to legally participate in the slave trade as long as they were selling people to countries where it was legal to do so. The American government could have made all of this moot at any time by signing the treaty. But it did not.

“Virtually all New Englanders” were anti-slavery by the 1820’s-1830’s, the speaker said, providing background information on John Quincy Adams’s anti-slavery petitions on the House of Representatives floor, eventually culminating in his stand against the Gag Rule. Widespread access to video and sound via the internet has allowed much more access to events than had been possible previously, and I had the talk on in the background on Thursday as I worked in my home office. This assertion made me stop in surprise. I think often of how successful the North was in its campaign to present itself as the all-abolitionist, always-slavery-free region during and after the Civil War, and to me this claim is a good example. Not only is it inaccurate, but it recasts actions like John Quincy Adams’s, and those of many much less famous Northerners, as being ho-hum: Of course John Quincy Adams presented anti-slavery petitions because everybody where he was from was anti-slavery; of course other individuals took stands against slavery because everyone was doing it. I thought, for example, of the mob that attacked and could have killed William Lloyd Garrison in Boston and the mob that burned down Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia after it had been open for just three days because anti-slavery speeches were being given at it by Angelina Grimké Weld and others. (Here is Angelina’s speech, given as a mob gathered outside, heckling her through the walls.) I thought, also, of the petitions from small groups of women to the Massachusetts legislature asking to secede in the lead-up to the Civil War, hoping that by removing their anti-slavery selves from the United States they could help stave off the war.

The night before I listened to that talk, I had attended Harvard Law School’s historian Daniel Coquillette’s talk on the first hundred years of the Law School at Royall House. The administration of Harvard Law School had actively recruited from the South, and because of this, they had a much higher percentage of Southerners than other Northern law schools before the Civil War, leading to many of their alumni being officers in the Confederacy, with West Point being the only other Northern school that graduated about the same amount of future Confederate leaders. Coquillette estimated in his talk that in the 1840’s 35% of the students at the school were from the Deep South. He explained that there were three main groups at the school:

  • Deep Southerners who were “very pro-slavery”
  • Cotton Whig Northerners, who were sympathetic to the Deep Southerners
  • Conscience Whig Northerners, who weren’t really pro-slavery but saw the best strategy as trying to contain slavery to its current locations (leading to such events as Bloody Kansas)

To put it mildly, this paints a different picture of Northerners than an assertion that all of them were anti-slavery. And while of course people at a law school are a tiny portion of the overall populace, many of them went on to become leaders who had regional or national influence. According to Coquillette, Charles Sumner had originally been considered the top person at the school to replace its head, but was told that his abolition wasn’t welcome there, and rerouted himself into politics instead.

In 1859 a newspaper editor, Charles B. Flood, and a US Marshal, Matthew Johnson, were using the Cleveland newspaper Daily National Democrat as their own bully pulpit to level political accusations outside of courtrooms. When John Brown was captured after the raid on Harper’s Ferry, a letter addressed to Cleveland resident Mrs. Isaac Sturtevant was found on him, and the Daily National Democrat published the claim that she had known about and helped to fund the raid. Mrs. Sturtevant wrote a lengthy letter to the Democrat‘s competitor the Plain Dealer in response, which I reproduce partially below (my own transcription of a printed letter, including a few quirks of printing):

… In reply to the charge against me of having incendiary letters sent to my care, I would say if the editor of the Democrat knows any such letters to be incendiary, he knows more about their contents than I do. … As to the charge of being a working woman I acknowledge myself such, especially in the cause of human-freedom, and while my strength remains I shall aid it by such means as I may command. …

While I have thus deigned to notice these charges against me, and this shameful and unjust attempt on the part of a public officer and a hireling editor, to bring reproach upon myself and husband, I wish to utter my protest against any and every effort of the kind. I deny the right of Marshal Johnson or editor Flood to pry into and bring before the public, the private doings of any of our citizens. If we have violated the laws of the land, the Government has pointed out a way and established tribunals whose especial business it is to investigate such violation. No honorable man would seek to prejudice the public against the accused. And it has guaranteed to every citizen, even to negroes and women, the privilege of a fair trial. But pray what chance has any one for an impartial investigation when the public mind is filled with false rumors and statements, as it has been of late by those two most unworthy officials, who have thus departed from their legitimate functions and have arrogated to themselves duties which in no manner belong to them. …

Am I amenable for such acts to the government at Washington and its petty officials stationed here? Or to the laws of Virginia, or its crazy executive, or its blood thirsty judiciary? who in their zeal to convict a person, as in the case of Mr. Brown make him guilty of twice murdering the same man ! Or to either of the political parties who in their strife for power ignore all the rights of individuals and seem to forget and wholly repudiate the plainest and dearest immunities which belong to us as private citizens, the right of private judgment and the liberty to act in harmony therewith. There is a system of espionage being established here which exceeds in servility the worst days of Democratic France. Slavery and the darkest features of the infamous system have obtained such a foothold here, that it would seem that we are not standing erect in the dignity of free men and women of Ohio but are cowering at the feet of the insolent slave power.

Men seem to forget to inquire what are the laws of Ohio–what does her Constitution guarantee to her citizens; but, what says the slave power? What does the Fugitive Bill demand? What of liberty is left us by the Dred Scott decision?

Now, for one, I utterly repudiate and abhor the requisitions of those laws. I would add, if indeed they are laws, I would disregard them. Any law, enactment, or custom which forbids me to aid suffering humanity wherever found, I utterly reject and despise. And I would thus publicly give notice to all the friends of oppression in every form, that I shall treat all such laws as a nullity, and if a grand jury can be found who will indict me for such disobedience, they are perfectly welcome so to do. I shall neither “flee to Canada” nor cease to do all that lies in my power to break down this unrighteous system of oppression, which is even here at the North, stifling every noble feeling or impulse of the human heart. …

[Plain Dealer issue of Saturday, 5 November 1859, page 2]

I can’t imagine anyone reading the above letter and still thinking that all Northerners were unified on the subject. But to say that there was unity is to erase the bravery of acts such as the publication of this letter.

I understand that generalizations are to some degree necessary when discussing wider history. However, I plead for people to be careful that generalizations do not wipe out the complexity of history nor the individual stories of individual people leading individual lives, be it in this era or any other.

Those of you that live in places where you bring individual trash cans to the curb have probably been in this situation before: One of your neighbors has taken their trash can(s) to the curb, and then another sees the curbside can(s) and does the same, and soon most of them have. You’re pretty sure that there was a holiday this week and that trash pickup has been delayed by one day. But the more people who bring their cans up, the more you start to wonder whether you’re correctly remembering. Perhaps you even double-check the calendar to make sure you are right. But in historical and genealogical research, there is no calendar to check. When the majority choose a different argument or interpretation from yours, you may find yourself looking for a signpost in the scholarly wilderness. People may write a piece disputing your research or contact you directly to express that your conclusions are inaccurate.

In researching historical events and people, none of us will ever know for sure what actually happened. The best we can do is come as close to accuracy as we can with the records and other resources available to us, reach our own interpretations and conclusions, and then always be willing to reexamine them if new records and/or research come to light. This makes research especially contentious, since even something as simple-seeming as an historical birth date can be up for debate.

“Truth is not a democracy”

The subheading is from a seminar I attended several years ago, and was the initial response when an audience member asked a question about when the majority disagrees with your conclusions. It’s a quip that has always stuck with me, because I have found over and over again that just because most people agree on something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best interpretation of the evidence, nor that the others have necessarily reviewed all the records and other evidence that you have reviewed. When I’m contacted by someone who disagrees with my conclusions, my own starting point is usually: Can you please tell me your evidence for your position?

Take the case of the two Simeon Lymans as an example. Simeon Lyman the father was born circa 1718, probably in Northampton, Massachusetts, as his family was living there at the time. Simeon moved to Salisbury, Connecticut, around 1744, as he bought 85 acres on the “highway to Sheffield” from Joel Harvey in that year. In 1747, Simeon was officially admitted as a “resident” of the town of Salisbury according to the town meeting minutes, which included the ability to vote at town meetings. In January 1748/9 he followed these steps with the common next step of marriage. Like most New England families of this era, Simeon and his wife Elizabeth (Beebe) Lyman proceeded to have a lot of children; in their particular case, I have identified nine, including children named after each parent, again as was typical. Their nuclear family was shattered when Elizabeth died in 1773, on the eve of the Revolution. A little over a year later, a Simeon Lyman married an Abigail Chipman in Salisbury.

And this is where the controversy begins.

I had been as thorough as I could, and had also found that a Simeon Lyman had married a Joanna Palmer in 1780. Simeon Lyman the younger was born on 7 January 1754, meaning that he would have been 20 if he had married Abigail Chipman in 1774, and 26 if he married Joanna Palmer in 1780. Is it possible that Simeon the younger married Abigail and Simeon the elder (or some other Simeon) married Joanna? Of course. But it makes a heck of a lot more sense for the widower who still has children at home to remarry quickly and for the young man to wait until he’s a bit more established to marry. And that’s not even getting into the question of ages and how much more sense it generally makes for an older man to marry a woman relatively close in age to him (Abigail was born circa 1730) and a younger man to do the same, and indeed, the Simeon-Joanna pair proceeded to have children of their own. My initial theory was greatly bolstered by reviewing Joanna’s Revolutionary War widow’s pension file, in which affidavits clearly state that she married the younger Simeon.

This has been an extremely basic overview of time-consuming research that I feel is solid. Having noted that most posted research conflated Simeon’s two wives into a single wife (squashing the maiden name of his first wife and the given name of his second wife into a single wife, probably copied uncited from a compiled genealogy that had made the same error), I decided to put a basic sketch of my research on Simeon the elder online, not realizing at the time that it might be controversial beyond the conflated Abigail-Elizabeth question. And that’s when the emails began.

You’ve made a mistake, they said: Simeon the younger married Abigail.

The first time I got one, my initial response was (as usual) to go back over my research to see if I had made an error that was obvious to me. I was relieved when my review confirmed that my conclusions were, to me, solid conclusions based on extensive research and what I considered a preponderance of evidence. However, as I have mentioned, the nature of historical research means conclusions can always change depending on what evidence and research an individual researcher has viewed.

Consequently, I would respond, Can you please tell me your evidence?

They would usually respond, Ancestry. Could you please be more specific? And then I would usually get, U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900. This is an index-only database that is described by Ancestry thusly: “This database contains marriage record information for approximately 1,400,000 individuals from across all 50 United States and 32 different countries around the world between 1560 and 1900. These records, which include information on over 500 years of marriages, were extracted from family group sheets, electronic databases, biographies, wills, and other sources.” None of the entries specify what the exact source is for a marriage, but given that the entry for Simeon and Abigail claims that Simeon was born in 1755 and that Abigail was born in 1757, neither of which is true, I don’t think it is an unfair educated guess to speculate that a family group sheet created by a rather bad researcher is probably the source.

So then I was left trying to explain that I had done hundreds of hours of research on the family and popping a name into an Ancestry search box and coming back with an index-only result is not a substitute for that. Finally I added a note to my posted research that if anyone wanted to contact me disputing what I posted, to please present me with evidence from records, and that I don’t count an unsourced index-only database entry as a record. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but nobody has emailed me since I added that note.

As a final aside on the Lymans in case anyone reached this post through searching on the family, Simeon Lyman the younger carved the powder horn that J. L. Bell blogged about over on Boston 1775 in 2012.

Discovering a new path in the scholarly wilderness

Sometimes something very different happens and you find something that it appears no one else has previously found. Sometimes everyone is immediately accepting of and excited about it. But sometimes not.

Late last year Susan Moore was going through a 16th century record set in England on my behalf and sent me a report about it. I found something in it that I had never seen mentioned anywhere before and was initially taken aback. I first wrote to ask if Susan thought I was correctly interpreting it. Then I checked through published scholarship to see if I had missed its being mentioned, and I could not find a mention of it anywhere.

I am lucky enough to live in a location where I often interact in person with well-established scholars, and I happened to be somewhere with someone who has researched this shortly thereafter, and mentioned it with excitement. It went over like a lead balloon; the response was deep skepticism. After going back and forth about it in my mind a good deal, I decided to try talking to a second scholar before giving up, and their initial response was the same as mine had been – to check published scholarship to see if anyone had mentioned it previously. They could not find anything either. They then congratulated me on making what appeared to be a new find and suggested Susan and I keep plugging away at the research to see what else we could find. (I’m not really sure how I constrained myself from doing a little dance until I was alone.) I readily admit that if the second scholar had similarly reacted with skepticism, I probably would have stopped trying to talk to people about it, although I wouldn’t have given up on the research altogether. Make no mistake that it can be a little scary and/or somewhat intimidating to posit something different than what has been publicly posited before you. Since this experience, I have even more respect for people who have published pieces correcting or disputing previous published research.

I apologize for my vagueness in this part; I hope to be able to publish something about this after having completed further research, and don’t want to spill the beans publicly as a result.

Alone with the research trees

It can be hard to be the one person who doesn’t take your trash cans to the curb on the wrong day, even if you’ve checked the calendar and know that your neighbors have forgotten about a holiday. Similarly, it can be difficult to know that people vehemently disagree with your research, even if you know that your research is as good as it can be and have faith in your own interpretations. In my opinion, part of being a good researcher is being open to being wrong or to discovering new information, and also reviewing your research from time to time to see if your greater knowledge now leads you to question one of your earlier conclusions or realize perhaps there is something you missed reviewing because you did not know it existed at the time. It’s important to read the research of others and to collaborate with others, but it’s also important to remember that others are not necessarily going to agree with you and that this in and of itself doesn’t speak badly of either of you.

In October 1839, the Duxbury-Massachusetts-based brig Douglas was on its route from Havana, Cuba, towards what reports called “the port of the river Bras” on the coast of Africa, when it was stopped and boarded by some of the crew of the slaver patrol brigantine-cruiser HMS Termagant*. The crew inspected the ship’s papers and the passengers’ passports, insisted the hatches be broken open, ordered the American flag taken down, and seized the ship on suspicion of being a slaver.

This caused a furor, months of sporadic newspaper coverage, and a diplomatic incident.

The problem?

The United States hadn’t signed the international treaty allowing the patrols hunting for slavers to search ships for evidence that the ship was involved in the slave trade. Slaver patrol crews could not legally so much as board the deck of American vessels if they were not granted permission.

The Douglas purportedly became less sea-worthy, and three of its crew died on the return trip, which was from coastal Africa to Curaçao and then back to Havana. The United States blamed the Termagant‘s interference for these events.

The British government apologized multiple times, but the United States government was underwhelmed and sent a formal letter of protest. The British government proceeded to agree to provide compensation for the incident, and their staff upped their diplomatic-speak; to quote one of the letters published in a volume of Correspondence with the British Commissioners (following is my transcription of part of a published letter):

Her Majesty’s Government cannot be insensible of the strong desire which the Government of the United States, and the nation at large, feel in the complete annihilation of the African Slave Trade.

The course pursued for the last 30 years is best calculated to mark the feelings and opinions of the Government and people of the United States, in relation to a traffic, now properly regarded by most civilized nations as alike repugnant to justice and humanity, and which, in relation to the United States, is not the less so to all the dictates of a sound policy.

It is true that the American Government have declined to become a party in treaties with other nations for the suppression of the Slave Trade. Although repeatedly urged by Her Majesty’s Government to do so, the United States have been forced to decline all conventional arrangements, by which the officers of ships-of-war of either country should have the right to board, search, or capture, or carry into foreign ports for adjudication, the vessels of each other engaged in the Slave Trade. Indeed, it may be well doubted, apart from other considerations, whether the constitutional powers of the American Government would be competent to carry into effect those portions of the existing system, so indispensably necessary to give it the character of just reciprocity.

These objections on the part of the United States have been repeatedly and frankly made known to Her Majesty’s Government, and are doubtless well understood by the British Cabinet . . .

They cannot, however, consent that the provisions of the Treaties in force between Great Britain and other Powers for its abolition, and to which they are not a party, should be made to operate upon the commerce and citizens of the United States. It cannot but be apparent to Her Majesty’s Government that these Treaties are of a nature which cannot, and ought not, to be applied to the United States . . .

A. Stevenson, on November 13, 1840

Interestingly, part of the argument was that the United States did not have colonies like European powers did.

Some American newspapers picked up A. Stevenson’s letter and published it in full.

The British public, however, was more skeptical. The United States continued to refuse to sign the treaty, and by 1857 it was widely reported that most to all of the slavers still operating were flying the American flag, spurring the London Times to publish this on 25 May 1857, a piece also picked up by a number of American newspapers, and excerpted here (again, my transcription):

Cuba is now almost the only country which regularly imports large numbers of negroes, and to supply the plantations of this island most of the slavers which now pursue their odius trade are fitted out. As the Americans refuse to admit the right of search, the Slave-Trade, it is said, is now almost wholly carried on under their flag. Nay, unless statements publcily and repeatedly made be false, the greater part of the slave-carrying crafts are owned by American citizens, and fitted out at American ports; so, indeed, it is declared in a resolution adopted by a meeting held at Kingston, Jamaica, in February last. The feelings of the inhabitants were, no doubt, much moved by the conditions of the blacks liberated from the slaver which had been captured by the British vessel Arab; and this meeting, which passed strong resolutions on the subject of Slavery and the Slave-Trade, was the natural result.

We have no desire to echo any Protectionist opinions of the Jamaican politicians, yet, as we ought to give the slave-owners, both Anglo-American and Spanish, their due, it may be said that in the minds of great numbers of them this country, by its dependence on tropical productions, and consequently on slave-labor, has its share in whatever sin there may be in Slavery. If Manchester buys more than half the cotton of the United States, and we receive the sugar of Cuba and the coffee of Brazil, the fact is not without its effect on those who are on the look-out for arguments against us, and are willing enough to turn the discussion from their own inhumanity to our inconsistency in denouncing it.

The editorial brought to my mind American Senator Charles Sumner’s succinct phrasing “the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom,” tying Southern cotton produced by enslaved people to the Northern textile mills that processed and exported said cotton. Never doubt that there were Northerners who had a vested interest in slavery continuing in Cuba and elsewhere, including the Douglas‘s owner(s) in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and people in Providence and Boston, the cities from which two of the crew who died on the Douglas‘s return voyage hailed.

 

*The now-archaic meaning of Termagant is “an imaginary character of violent and turbulent character.”

 

The 1939 Register for England & Wales debuted on FindMyPast last evening (my time). For those that don’t know, the 1939 Register was the UK government’s work to take a census of everyone living in the country in September 1939, through which they issued national ID cards. And from what I understand, it was quite precisely everyone living in the country at the time – anyone who wasn’t in the country wasn’t enumerated. There was no 1941 census because of the war, so the Register is also a substitute for a would-be record set that wasn’t created, and since the 1931 census was destroyed during the bombing of London, the 1939 Register is also akin to the 1900 US census – a document to try to  fill in gaps from 18 or 20 years of no censuses. Last week FindMyPast announced that the Register would be going live on Monday, November 2nd, which turned out to mean midnight GMT. They got a lot of flack for high pricing on the Register entries, with each scanned page costing 60 credits, and the Register not being included in what subscribers can view for no additional fee.

As a subscriber to both FindMyPast and the Lost Cousins newsletter, I got a coupon from each site for buying what they called five-household packages, which was technically a bundle of 300 credits per coupon. So I decided that I would use the coupons to find ten households to view. Many fellow Americans have said they will wait till the price (eventually) drops, but having booked a trip to visit the UK next year (yay!), I’m on a deadline to see if there are any more cousins there to find to be able to meet in person. Research takes time, and sometimes there’s the additional wait time for ordering specific records, and then doing legwork to try to locate anyone still alive also takes time.

Because 20th century England has often felt to me like people fell into a black hole in the early part of the century, I was not sure how easy it would be for me to find people, nor how many of them were living within England in 1939. The debut last year of the governmental site allowing people to order probates of England & Wales online up to a few weeks ago has made a significant dent in my 20th century research, as long-distance researchers can now order online (at £10 each, they cost more than viewing a 1939 Register household; however, ordering them online costs less than the way I had to do it before, which included paying a researcher for her time in going to the Probate Office on my behalf, ordering the copies, and mailing them to me). (For more information on the probate site, see my posts Finding probates 1858-1995 in England & Wales and Receiving copies of probates 1858-1995 in England and Wales.) Anyone who was born less than 100 years ago and which hadn’t been proven to be dead before a certain date (I don’t remember the exact date offhand) is redacted from the household entries in the Register, though you can send FindMyPast a scan of a death certificate to try to get a redacted entry opened.

Before I discuss in detail my foray so far, let me give you some general tips I have gleaned:

  • Don’t get stuck upon a certain birthday, even if you know what the person’s birthday should be. As with any record, sometimes there are errors and/or conflicting evidence.
  • Don’t get stuck upon someone definitely living with someone else, even if you are pretty sure they should be living together.
  • Start with as little information as possible. (This is how I do almost all my searching for research)
  • Adding in an estimated birth year (I would recommend starting with +/- 2 years and continuing to narrow if you still get too many hits) and/or a given name of a person that you think will be living with the main search target is a great way to narrow down an overwhelming number of results for a common name. But again – don’t assume that the record will reflect what you think it will or that the transcription will necessarily be correct.
  • For those like me that are searching for cousins rather than our own ancestors, use other records in conjunction with this to narrow down results. I have personally found probate records and electoral rolls particularly helpful in helping to give an idea of where someone might have been living in 1939.
  • In these early days, if you get an error message try reloading. (Last night I got error messages about 50% of the time.) If you get several error messages, take a break with some tea/coffee or a walk outside and try again later. The records will still be there.

I started out with relatives I’d recently traced, choosing first to search for my cousin’s husband with the unusual name of Studley Gerry. I can’t say as I was too surprised to find there was only one Studley Gerry living in all of England & Wales in 1939. Clicking through to preview the transcription showed that there were three people included in the record and three who were redacted, for a household total of seven people. I purchased the household and learned immediately that I had the correct household, as my cousin Winifred Audrey Gerry (Studley’s wife) was listed. I discovered that the other two people included were a son by her first marriage whom I had not known existed, and her little brother. The scan shows you what precise lines are redacted, and through this I believe that I have two to three more unknown-to-me children of Winifred to find, depending on whether the redacted line just above her brother is a child of Winifred or one of her siblings.

It was interesting to note that Winifred’s birth year was several years off, particularly since some people have recommended searching by exact birth dates (as birth dates are included in the entries). Her birth year had been written as the same year as a younger person in the household, and then crossed out by a different pen, with the last two numbers reversed by that other pen. So while it is tempting to say that Winifred was probably lying about her age after having married a younger man (something I have seen both men and women do), I wonder if it was instead a clerical error either on the household’s part or on the part of the person who copied their form into the register. However, this was not the only time I would see a birthday that wasn’t the one I have in my files – a cautionary tale for those exact-match searchers. The other time in the entries I have viewed so far, the birthday was exactly one year different than the birthday I had in my file, leaving me unsure if the error was in the register or in the documents I had previously viewed. The transcription of the household (after you pay you view the full transcription) also had an indexing error, with Winifred’s son and brother mistakenly listed as the same occupation that she had, “Unpaid household duties.”

I next tried to find Winifred’s father, who had the much more common name of John Turner. It took a lot more winnowing on my part, including inputting a year of birth. I had recently ordered his will, which he had never changed after writing it in 1924, and that had given me a location for him post-1911-census. Luckily for me, he was still living in the same town in 1939. The preview contained a shock – it listed only him in the household. Skeptical that there had been an error, I bought it – but it was correct. Even though the woman I had known as his wife would still be alive for quite a while, and he had several children who could have been living with him, he was living by himself. Now I understood better why Winifred’s youngest brother was living with her. I tried to find his wife because I was curious, but with such a common surname as Turner, and my not even being sure that she hadn’t divorced him and married someone else by 1939, I quickly gave up the search.

I moved on to one of Winifred’s other siblings, with the very unusual (married) name of Sadrene Petherbridge. I had found through FreeBMD that Sadrene had married a William Petherbridge, but I had literally nothing about him in my files – I didn’t even know yet how old he was, much less where he had been born or anything, as the surname Petherbridge had turned out to not be as unique as I had expected when I found the marriage. (Like almost all researchers, I would buy every certificate possible if I could but have to pick and choose which ones I spend the money on. And I hadn’t bought William and Sadrene’s marriage certificate from the GRO yet.) Sadrene Petherbridge, like Studley Gerry before her, turned out to be the only one in the country in 1939. Clicking through to view their entry gave me William’s birthday, and information on a child I had not known about, with a redacted line below their son probably being another child. Through inputting William’s exact birthday I was able to find his death date, and used that to locate him in the Probate Calendar, then ordering his probate file from the governmental probate site. The child whose entry wasn’t redacted turned out to have died before his parents, but I’m hoping that William’s probate file might provide me the names of other relatives who could potentially still be alive.

Next I tried to search for Sadrene and Winifred’s brother Herbert, but Herbert Turner turned out to be a common name and I did not have an idea of where he was living in 1939, so after a few attempts to narrow down my results, I quickly moved on to a different branch of my tree. Finding the wonderfully-named Victor John Edward Crowley was another easy task from the unusual name combination, and through his household’s register entry, I found a wife I had not known about, including her exact date of birth. There is also a redacted entry that I am guessing is a child from one of his marriages.  Every entry gives another piece of the puzzle – another angle to pursue or person to try to give a name.

Through electoral rolls I knew that the husband of a cousin on a different line was living in Surrey in the 1940’s, so I next tried to find Charles Davey. As one might expect, I got a lot of results. This time I input a second name, my cousin Grace, just inputting her first name. Immediately the results changed and the top hit was the place where he had been listed on the electoral rolls, so I bought the household. It did indeed turn out to be the correct family. Like with Sadrene and William, I had Charles’s name and their marriage year but nothing else about him, so again the 1939 Register gave me an exact birth date. In this case so far it has not led to further records about him, but at least it is more information than I had.

This completed my first five-household package, but since I was still alert despite the growing late hour, I decided to try a couple more unusual searches. I tried a search for the surname Sadrene’s same-named niece married, as I have not been able to find any biographical information on him. His surname produced no results at all, which could be because he was not living in England at the time (his name sounds Continental European to me, and they did not marry until after the war), or could be because he would be less than 100 years old now. (I am not including his surname because I have yet to determine whether he is living or deceased, though I am sure both Sadrenes have died.) For my final search I chose an easier target, the Redcliffes, the last of whom died in 1982. I found them in Hereford as I expected, but was surprised to find the entire family still living together, though their three surviving children were in their late 30’s to early 40’s. It was a pleasant surprise that will save me further searches for the family, and nice too to see the daughters listed with paid jobs, an early sign of what was to come with the war.

Six households into my 1939 Register research, I reflected on my findings so far. It is of course important to get confirmation of what you expect to find or to add , but for me the most immediately satisfying finds were the unexpected – the brother living with his married sister’s family, the nuclear family all still living together after over 40 years. For some people I had no birth dates before last night, and for others (as well as them) I had no occupations before last night. Most people were in the location I expected them to be, but there were a couple households where I had no idea where they were living in 1939 until last night. And it has led me to new records, especially to the Petherbridge probate that I hope will lead to living cousins. If I had a lot of research in 1939 England, I think I would have been much more likely to just take the transcription at its word that John Turner was living alone despite what I’d expected and move on to a household that had more proverbial bang for the buck than his one-person household. Any time when money is an issue, researchers make decisions like this by necessity – which person(s), which records, to prioritize. For many of my fellow Americans, this choice has included not searching the 1939 Register at all at this point. I can’t say what is the right choice for others, but I am glad I have found the information that I have, and I look forward to downloading four more households in the future.

Today marks the 250th anniversary of Boston’s first Stamp Act Riot, or as one of the blog posts I’ve read today more delicately phrases it, “the 250th anniversary of the Liberty Tree protests in Boston.” Here in what were then colonies, this is considered one of the major events in the lead-up to the American Revolution. At HistoryCamp 2014, I attended a talk on the Boston bankruptcies of 1765 by J. L. Bell of the blog Boston 1775, wherein he said that in his opinion, the bankruptcy crisis occurring in Boston at the time the Stamp Act was passed probably contributed towards local hostility towards the Stamp Act, since it included court fees and so many people here in Boston were interacting with local courts at the time. I found this helpful in understanding why events occurred as they did, and as those of us with the benefit of hindsight know, it was part of a string of events that would lead to rebellion.

While some members of my own family had been early colonists in the Boston area, they had moved away by the time of the Stamp Act Riots and my folks still in New England at the time formed a crescent-moon shape around eastern Massachusetts, with families in western Connecticut and central and western Massachusetts, shortly to be joined by folks who moved up to western Vermont in the time between the Stamp Act Riots and the beginning of fighting in the Revolution. There weren’t too many newspapers yet, and some of these New Englanders likely read Boston papers, on a time delay that is probably unimaginable to many today. Perhaps they bought the papers themselves; perhaps their neighbors passed it on at one of their homes or in the local tavern. It is hard to imagine that the reactions flamed by many newspapers, such as this reprint of the New-York Gazette in the Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser, went unremarked in these locations. With New England’s literacy rate so much higher at the time than in most of the American colonies, a large percentage of people could read and many of those could also write. But only with specific records can a researcher know for sure whether any particular person was literate, much less whether they read a newspaper article or what they thought of the contents or of the events that were occurring around them.

This, I think, has been one of the key differences historically between practicing historians and practicing genealogists – historians, by the nature of their work, have tended to focus on larger trends and on people for whom a decent number of records are known to be extant and available to view, while genealogists, by the nature of their work, have tended to focus on individual people, families, social networks, and communities, regardless of how many records there are for these smaller units. This has understandably led to historians sometimes expressing the opinion that genealogists are missing the forest for the trees and genealogists sometimes expressing the opinion that by focusing on the forest, an historian who wrote an overview work may have missed important information to be found by studying the individual trees. In my own opinion, anyone who wants to practice solid genealogical research will reach the point where they realize they need to look at more than the individual or the family – hence my including social networks and communities in the above list – and will look at the location in general and at scholarly works about that location and about topics that influenced the location and the lives of the people in it. However, the perception still persists amongst many outside of the genealogical community that American genealogists are all retirees from the ‘upper crust’ who are ‘just’ dabbling in their family’s history, and are probably doing so in the hopes of finding a famous relative or noble ancestor.

Earlier this year I attended the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s 2015 Annual Seminar, which was on “The Who, What, and Why of Early New England.” In one of the lectures, Robert Charles Anderson, director of the Great Migration Study Project, mentioned that he had come to decide on his master’s thesis topic over 30 years ago because he had noticed in his research that people in western Vermont tended to side with the revolutionaries while people in eastern Vermont tended to side with the Crown, and he wondered why. Having personally researched in western Vermont of that era but not eastern Vermont, I had not realized there was a strong geographical predictor of one’s likely overt sympathies until he mentioned it. I had used historical records to construct much of the lives and Revolution activities of my folks who were living in western Vermont at the time, and knew that according to surviving records, they were ardent supporters of the Revolution, including many of the men fighting in it. How much their geographic location influenced their actions, or whether it influenced them at all, is not clear from these records. As John Colletta said in his 2015 National Genealogical Society Conference lecture on researching the reasons why people did things, historians’ works are a great place to learn the reasons why a person, family, or small group may have done something, but any researcher of specific individuals, whether the research’s main focus is genealogical or historical, needs to utilize specific records to try to determine the reason(s) why people actually did something. This is how writing about any kind of research into the past moves from qualifiers like “may have” or “possibly” to qualifiers like “almost certainly” or “according to X’s diary, they…”

One of my posts on this blog, over four years ago now, was on using records to investigate a Revolution-era local history story on my own ancestor Gideon Ormsby of Manchester, Vermont. A few years before Boston’s Stamp Act Riots, Gideon and his family had moved from the disputed part of the Rhode Island/Massachusetts border to Amenia, Dutchess County, New York, as had Gideon’s relative Jonathan Ormsby and Jonathan’s family. I find it almost impossible to imagine that they did not hear about, and probably discuss, the Stamp Act Riots in Boston and in Newport, Rhode Island. But I do not know whether the Stamp Act Riots influenced their behavior, beliefs, or decisions.

Speculators had become proprietors of the area of land in Vermont that later became Manchester, but colonists had not yet moved there. The two Ormsby families’ move to Amenia would prove fortuitous for the family, as a group of travelers from Amenia were exploring this area of Vermont in 1761, saw the land, and expressed interest in it, leading them to become the new proprietors. Gideon and Jonathan were two of these new proprietors, and Jonathan was chosen proprietor’s clerk at their first meeting in Amenia in February 1764. At the same meeting, Samuel Rose was chosen moderator. The proprietors started laying out the lots shortly thereafter, and Gideon was one of the people appointed to lay out the highway. While local histories state that it is not clear whether families spent the first winter in Vermont, the births of Gideon and his wife Mercy’s children indicate that at least some of the families stayed in Amenia or returned to it over the first couple of winters.

The ripples sent out by events like the Stamp Act Riots would reverberate down the years and eventually tear apart cohesive groups like the proprietors of Manchester. That local history story I investigated in records was about the Rose family. The Roses had been the first white family to settle permanently in Manchester, but – bucking the geographic trend – Samuel Rose was believed to side with the Crown in the Revolution, and as part of Gideon Orsmby’s responsibilities as one of the higher-up Revolution-era militiamen in the area, Gideon was tasked with capturing Samuel and coordinating the guarding of him. Samuel was arrested and taken to Northampton’s gaol (jail), and his lands were confiscated by the Vermont government. Whatever Gideon and the other early colonists of the area may have thought, they showed no visible sentiment in this capture and confiscation, and some of them went on to buy Samuel’s lands at auction. When I first discovered this, it seemed like a conflict of interest; I have since discovered that this was rather common in many areas where land was confiscated, though it still seems like a rather dubious chain of events to me. When I wrote my previous post, I had not yet realized that Samuel Rose had been instrumental in the founding of Manchester, and to me it adds depth to the story. It is possible to write a local history without the details of this Revolution-era conflict – and indeed, many have already been written – and genealogical research that doesn’t include this level of detail could certainly be considered adequate. But to me, both historical and genealogical works really come to life when they go in depth about both the area and the people in it.

Over the time I have been doing research, I have come to believe that there is likely no such thing as an ‘average person’ or ‘ordinary person’ in any time period or place, and that conclusions to that effect are probably due more to a lack of extant records that flesh them out as people than because of any one person themselves. However, one’s loved ones, one’s social network, and one’s community at large greatly shaped one’s choices and the personas that one presented to others, and news events of a nearby town or a distant one often influenced people then as well as today, although of course news typically took much longer then to spread very far. Wherever your research subjects were living – whether they be your own families or your biographical subjects as an historian or biographer – it is interesting to contemplate what effect news of the Stamp Act Riots may have had on them, and perhaps to read newspaper coverage of how it was presented in the colony or country you are researching, if it was covered at all.

For those that live in this area today, there are several events this weekend commemorating the 250th anniversary of Boston’s first Stamp Act Riot. If you are interested in history, please consider attending one or more of them, regardless of whether you had any family in Boston (or in the colonies at all) at the time, to help keep alive the collective memory of these events that were (literally and figuratively) so formative to this country.

Almost any time a website that’s used by a lot of people gets a major overhaul, there are likely to be unhappy people. Ancestry has been rolling out its latest website redesign; so far it’s available to people who log in to the “.com” version, and so far users can choose to switch back, though Ancestry warns when you do so that the version you are leaving will become the only version in the future. I don’t really care for the new profile style for people you’ve saved to your family tree, which seems designed primarily for people without much experience, to try to help them see what sources they have and realize maybe they should add some more. But what particularly concerns me is their new “LifeStory” view, which you can view from any profile in your family tree. This seems to be trying too hard to shoehorn people into more events that Ancestry has estimated will matter to them. Following are a couple of specific examples from my own tree.

My ancestor’s sister Jane (Evans) Brimacombe died on 29 June 1900 in Bideford, Devon, England. Ancestry apparently really, really wants to make English women’s suffrage relevant to Jane’s LifeStory. The result is an added event that (erroneously) implies that English women won the right to vote in 1900:

Jane Evans LifeStory view screenshot

Screenshot of LifeStory view implying that English women won the right to vote in 1900.

I know enough about British history to know right away that this implication was incorrect. But what of others who also live outside the UK and perhaps don’t? Or what if an event is more obscure and people take Ancestry’s word for it that the event happened when and where Ancestry says it did?

There is a second problem with their implication. Maybe suffrage was a part of Jane’s life though she died before women won the right to vote, and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe she was against it; maybe she had no opinion. Maybe if she had lived till women won the right to vote, she wouldn’t have registered anyway. Without specific records, there’s no way to know what Jane’s opinion and/or actions was/were, or whether she voiced any opinion on it at all.

The other issue I have discovered so far is a more personal one for people. Anyone who has been doing genealogical research for a decent length of time has probably discovered that the things uncovered can be touchy subjects and that people have always been as complicated and multilayered as they are today. Ancestry’s “LifeStory” view inserts events from a person’s family into their tree with no understanding of the nuances involved, because it is a program, not a person. Here is a specific example from my own tree:

Screenshot of Ancestry StoryView of William Buse Evans

Screenshot of William Buse Evans’s LifeStory view on Ancestry, implying that he was living with his daughter and cared that she had died.

This implies that my ancestor’s brother William Buse Evans actually cared when his daughter Ursula died, but as the different locations of each of them at around the same time might indicate, he probably didn’t even know of her death. His daughter died in a Union Workhouse, where she and her sister had been placed while William had moved to another city and married again. I tested this in my tree and could find no way to remove an event that’s related to a person’s family member, nor even to edit it, though I wanted to at least add something like “…and William very likely didn’t even know.” If this is mildly irritating to me as someone who never even met these people, I can’t imagine how upsetting or irritating it could potentially be to someone who had information inserted about people whom they knew or whom living family members had known.

I understand what Ancestry is trying to do with LifeStory view. But what it’s shown to me instead is that no computer software or algorithm can replace the thinking and processing of real people with real knowledge of the people, events, and records.

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