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.

In the span of one and a half weeks this month, I attended the Massachusetts Historical Society’s conference “So Sudden an Alteration”: The Causes, Course, and Consequences of the American Revolution in Boston and the New England Regional Genealogical Consortium’s biennial conference (NERGC 2015), run by a consortium of regional societies, held this year in Providence, Rhode Island. I have never done two conferences nearly back-to-back before (for me, there was a three-day break between them) and while it was a bit overwhelming to do, both events were fantastic. Since past experience has taught me that it will take me at least a little bit of time to turn my detailed drafts into blog posts, this post is my initial wrap-up of them.

For those that have never been to one of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s seminars, the basic format is that attendees read the paper in advance, the author talks a little bit, a commenter responds to the paper (and, if they wish, to what the author just said), the author is given the opportunity to respond to the commentary, and then the floor is opened to comments, questions, and suggestions from the attendees. Most of the MHS conference was in a similar format, except that there were two or three authors on each panel instead of just one, and the commenter responded to all papers before opening the floor to the audience. During most of the time slots, the entire conference was a single track, but there were two time slots when we got to choose which panel we wanted to attend.

Not surprising given the format and the mostly-single-track, some of the papers were of more interest and relevance to me than others, but I enjoyed every panel I attended. It was also great to see some familiar faces and meet some new people. The people in attendance seemed to me to be a mix of history professors and other historians, grad students, archivists/librarians, and interested third parties like me. I had prior exposure to the work of two of the panelists (Gloria Whiting and Serena Zabin) through MHS’s seminar series, and their papers were two of my favorites in the conference. I also got to hear Barry Levy speak for the first time; I cited his book Town Born: The Political Economy of New England from Its Founding to the Revolution in one of my articles.

In two and a half days, I got to learn about things as varied as the African-American community in colonial Boston, British soldiers renting from Bostonians, how Pennsylvanian society grappled with reintegrating Loyalists who stayed after the American Revolution, and Americans’ early efforts at trade in China alongside the behemoth that was the British East India Company. Much more to come.

As longtime readers of my blog know, NERGC 2013 (my first one) fell under the long shadow of the Boston Marathon bombing, which had been that Monday, and the hunt for the living bomber, which was occurring while I was at the conference. I’m pretty sure that not having the stress of, for example, so many of us spending our breaks on Friday standing around a hotel lobby’s TV for updates on the hunt for the bomber at least partially colored my different response to 2013 vs. 2015. But it’s not just that. NERGC’s speakers, attendees, and talk subjects were more diverse than they had been in 2013; there were more attendees, period (a record-breaking number for NERGC); and I know so many more people in the genealogical community than I did then, and met even more over the span of the four days I attended, including several people I’d known online for a while but had never met in person before.

I also was pleasantly surprised that nearly all the talks I chose to attend were excellent, as that had not been the case with the previous NERGC (though I had still had better luck in 2013 than many others I knew). For Tech Day (which 148 of us attended the day before the main conference started), we had to commit fully to one of two tracks so had no options for what talks we attended, but for the three days of the main conference, we had the option of eight talks in each time slot, with each day having eight thematic tracks. The schedule was so well-done that there was only one time slot for the entire three-day main conference wherein nothing seemed particularly of interest to me, so I volunteered at a booth in the Exposition Hall at that time.

This was also my first time volunteering at the New England Chapter of the Association for Professional Genealogists (NEAPG) luncheon of special-interest tables; volunteers from NEAPG moderate the tables. I did a table on “Researching in England’s Records” because I thought it was something that was likely to be of interest to enough attendees to more or less fill a table (and indeed, only one seat was empty at mine). For a while I’ve been slowly working my way up to speaking in public in front of total strangers, and I thought this would be a good next stepping stone, which it was. Handouts were optional but I chose to create one with a timeline I created myself and a bibliography of some of my suggested books. (I like handouts.) I thought that including a bibliography of websites would probably be superfluous, but I turned out to be wrong as a number of my questions were about websites.

In four days I learned about things as varied as how to turn my iPad from an expensive email checker into something I actually regularly use, that there were at least 45 different groups in the Hudson River Valley of New York before 1800, much of what’s in the amazing U. S. Sanitary Commission collection at the New York Public Library, the African-American community in pre-Civil-War Vermont, and speculation about where genetic genealogy will be in five or ten years. Again, much more to come.

Edited to add: If I’m calculating correctly, I attended 26 presentations and 9 panels within 11 days (including attending a presentation the day before the first conference and another during the three days between the two conferences).

On Friday I discovered that the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) Library had recently subscribed to the site HistoryGeo.com, which I subsequently discovered is a relatively new subscription site. The site has two major collections so far, the “First Landowners Project” (by which they appear to mean the first person/organization/etc. to own land under the American system of landownership) and the “Antique Maps Collection.” I spent a while exploring the First Landowners Project. Their aim is to have all the first public-land-state landowners in their database, though they do not yet include all public-land states.

As longtime readers are likely aware, I like to use test cases where I already know the answer when I am first testing a research tool that is new to me. So I first tried to find my great-great-grandparents, who were homesteaders in the part of Dakota Territory that is now South Dakota, but immediately discovered that neither Dakota is included yet. Most of the homesteaders I am personally researching lived in Dakota Territory. So I moved on to Iowa, and some people where I did not know the answer for sure – I knew they lived in Iowa but did not know if they would return results. The database allows you to input the surname and be as vague as searching all the included public-land states to as specific as only searching a single county in a single state.

I first looked for Richardsons in Lee County, Iowa, but did not find the family I was seeking. Then I tried Hills in Johnson County, Iowa, and was pleasantly surprised to get relevant results for my cousin and her husband, who had moved from New Hampshire to Iowa circa 1850. The results come up as little circled numbers if there are multiple hits in one area, and as little green people if there is only one result. The more you zoom in, the more the circled numbers turn into individual green people. I zoomed in far enough to see that my cousin and her husband bought adjacent land patents in Johnson County. The map lists owners’ names and the date each patent was awarded. My cousin and her husband each bought one-fourth of a parcel in 1850, and my cousin bought an adjacent parcel in 1852, so that together the couple owned three-quarters of the quadrant. If you click on the individual parcel HistoryGeo’s system tells you more information, including under which law the person(s) purchased the land. Seeing through this system that they were awarded cash-entry land patents, I went over to the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office (BLM GLO) site and found their patents on it. I was also able to print the current screen view of the HistoryGeo map showing my cousin and her husband, and because the system uses current view to print, I was even able to print two maps – a wider shot showing a good number of their neighbors, and a more zoomed view better showing the shape of their individual parcels.

I then tried to find my Breese family in Greenwood County, Kansas, who had relocated there from New York. I’m sure they were homesteaders, but they did not come up in the search results. The name is spelled a wide variety of ways in records, and I didn’t take the time to search all the variants I know, so I cannot say for sure that they are not included. I do know that they are not on the BLM GLO site even though they were homesteaders, which is probably because they bought their homestead via the Osage Trust lands (created as the Osages were removed to Indian Territory by the US government), so I am not sure if that is also why I did not find them in the HistoryGeo database. Though I was not able to locate the family, when I searched HistoryGeo it still brought up a map of the Greenwood County area (as you should find any time you place an unsuccessful search of a specific area), and I noted with interest that a Massachusetts college and an Indiana college were listed as the landowners of several parcels in the county. Out of curiosity I tried test searches for the colleges’ property in Greenwood County, but neither the state name nor a few other keywords in their names brought them up as results, so the database search engine seems to only be keyed to peoples’ names.

After this I did a few general searches for unusual surnames to see where they were distributed around the included public-land states. As a fairly visual learner, I found the way the numbers for multiple hits pop up around the map of the United States to be helpful in quickly gauging their distribution. It was fast and easy to zoom in on a couple several-hits states for each surname to get a better sense of distribution within the state. It seems like a tool that would be very helpful for anyone doing a one-name study. I found that in areas of counties where the land was broken down into small lots, instead of showing names and years on the map, the square on the map would say something like ‘Individual Lot Owners – Click for a List of Names.’ These lot owners’ names did turn up in the search, so that you knew to click through to the list if someone with the surname was on it. I also found that the database included warrantees who sold their land as well as the people who bought it from the warrantee, and that if multiple people with different surnames bought a patent together, the database included all of them.

After I returned home on Friday, I discovered that Sunny had posted a brief blog post about HistoryGeo at Lisa Louise Cooke’s site the same day: “Land Ownership Maps: New Online Property Map Tools for U.S. Genealogy Research.” While Sunny’s post and HistoryGeo’s own site both take the angle of using the site for genealogy, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t also be useful for people doing historical research in the same time frame.

In my last post, I discussed Finding probates 1858-1995 in England and Wales, including that I had ordered some wills through the UK government’s new online ordering system. Now that I have received the wills, I wanted to post again to discuss the process. The system estimated that the wills would be ready to download on January 7th, and as I blogged, I wasn’t sure whether the system took holidays into account. I’m still not sure if they do, but the wills were ready to download on January 9th, which is comparable to the estimated time vs. actual time that someone tweeted to me that they had experienced while I was waiting to receive mine. However, the system did not notify me by email until the evening of January 13th my time. At first I thought maybe the email had been temporarily lost in transit, but I checked the full email header and nope, it said that the email was sent shortly after midnight on January 14th GMT. So if you are waiting for a will, I would strongly suggest logging into your account yourself once a day starting on the day the system has estimated it should be ready rather than relying on a timely email notification.

When I did log in I discovered that if there was a problem retrieving the will, the download page itself won’t tell you; you’ll download what you think is a will, and instead you’ll open a form letter notifying you that they haven’t been able to locate the file you ordered and giving you some ideas as to what might have gone wrong. It is through this letter, not the website, that I discovered for sure what the handwritten numbers by some entries in the Probate Calendar are – they’re folio numbers, and if there’s a handwritten one by your Calendar entry, you have to include it in your order. If the probate service doesn’t find the will you request, they keep the search fee (which is a common policy) and you will have to pay a new search fee if you want to try again.

I also had a mysterious problem – the system showed that each of my wills should be ready to download, but the final one listed didn’t have any file to download. After spending about 20 or 30 minutes looking around the website for who to contact, I finally contacted the email address that’s listed for “feedback” and said that if that wasn’t the right address, to please forward my problem to whomever was appropriate. I immediately got an automated response that showed that it is the address to email with problems and questions as well as with feedback, which at least to me, the site doesn’t really make clear. They responded quickly; their email said there was a technical error with displaying that file and somewhat implied that there should have been one of those form-letter files saying that my will hadn’t been found, but since their email was not completely clear on the latter point, I wrote again saying I wasn’t sure if that was what they meant and asking them to verify whether it was. I’m really glad that I did, as it turned out that was not the real problem. After four more days, they emailed me an apology for the confusion and attached a copy of the will I’d requested.

The scans of the wills themselves are good. They come as PDFs and include the probate proceedings page(s) as well as the actual will. You can also order administrations; since those had no will (or a will that had been ruled inadmissible), those files are only probate proceedings. The administrations don’t have very much detail, so whether it’s worth ordering one would probably depend on your reasons for wanting it. In my case, I ordered one administration as well as some wills, and the administration provided me with some information that I hadn’t found elsewhere and got me closer to finding a living relative on that line. Wills themselves are also always a gamble – you never know until you view it how much detail it will have or how much it will (or won’t) help you. In my small sampling of wills, I received everything from a brief will where the person left everything to their spouse, who was also their executor, and a several-page will where someone died without living descendants and left a variety of items and money to their siblings, their grand-nieces and grand-nephews (including specifying which were the children of deceased siblings), and their long-time housekeeper (with the qualifier that she was still in their employ at their death), and they included exact addresses in other countries for their relatives who had emigrated from the UK. And thanks to the new ordering system, all of that information was downloaded to my computer for a fee of just seven pounds.

The UK government recently debuted their own free site for their Probate Calendar, previously only readily accessible online on pay site Ancestry. It has been up for a bit, but made waves yesterday (December 27th) because the UK government issued a press release about it. I hadn’t explored the site until the new waves because I already use the Probate Calendar on Ancestry and had read reviews from some other researchers that the search engine on the UK government’s site was less practical if you were searching for someone with a common name, as it only allowed you to search for the surname for probates from 1858 to 1995, not the given name, location, or other limiting parameters. But after it made so much fresh news I decided to explore the site, partly because based on the press release and the buzz around it, I wasn’t completely clear that it was still the same site that had recently gone up, with capabilities just to search the Probate Calendar, until I searched myself and discovered this. The first thing I want to stress, because in my opinion the press release didn’t make this clear unless you read the “Notes to editors” bullet points at the end, and some people/sites who have shared it may have unintentionally added to the confusion, is that it’s still the Probate Calendar that’s free to view on the site, not original wills themselves. You use the site to find entries for wills/probates and then use the information you have found to order copies for a fee through the site’s ordering system.

In my test searches I wanted to start with people I already knew how to find, so I began with a 1919 death and probate whose probate I have yet to order. I plugged in the surname and the year he died (the only parameters allowed by the 1858-1995 search engine) and up popped the first page of the surname in the 1919 Probate Calendar. The site told me that there were 9 relevant pages total in 1919 and allowed me a few options – next page, next year, and zoom. I paged through until I found the right person in the Probate Calendar. It was surprisingly fast and easy for the surname Davis (perhaps the surname is more common here in the States by this point than it is in England), though since I already knew I would find what I was seeking, that may have influenced my opinion. In my searching I discovered something that I hadn’t personally seen anyone mention in their pre-press-release reviews – the Probate Calendar scanned on the UK government’s site includes notes, presumably made by staff into the copy that was scanned. It was particularly glaring on the first page that came up in my first test search because underneath a 1919 Probate Calendar entry, a handwritten note added, “Further probate granted 19 January 1934.” However, most of the notes are just numbers written beside entries, including beside the person for whom I searched in my first test search. I am not personally completely clear on what the numbers mean.

My first search had raised a question that I wanted to try to answer with my next test search. While the search engine says to plug in the year the person died, since the pages returned were that year in the Probate Calendar, I had a feeling that what you really needed to input was the year the person’s probate went through, and that any delayed probate wouldn’t show up if you inputted the year the person died rather than the year their estate was probated. This is particularly large an issue in cases like some I have had where a probate went through many years after the person died, sometimes after their surviving spouse finally died. But it could be a problem in smaller ways, too – say, for example, if someone dies in December and their probate isn’t processed till early January. So for my next test of this site, I decided to try one of the crazier cases in my tree, someone who died in 1903 and whose estate was probated a whopping 45 years later. As I suspected, plugging the year of probate (1948) into the search engine for “Year of death” turned up the relevant page. I then tried the actual year of death in the search engine, and was told that there were two pages for the unusual surname for that year, but when I went to the pages, they were only for other surnames that started with RED-.

I next searched for a Davis who died in December 1961 and their estate was probated in January 1962. Again, plugging in 1962 as the death date, even though the Probate Calendar entry was explicit that it was when the estate was probated rather than when he died, was what brought up the entry. This time there were 32 pages to wade through, and I was glad it was someone with a given name early in the alphabet.

These test searches were ones where I already knew the answer, so next I decided to try some searches where I didn’t know what the results would be. This is possible because the Probate Calendar on the UK government’s site goes to 1995 (with a separate search engine going from 1996 to a few weeks before the current date), whereas Ancestry’s Probate Calendar only goes to 1966. I first searched for another of the Redcliffe clan; she and her sister had never married, and her sister had died in 1965 with enough money to have a will. Alma died in 1978 and a search for Redcliffes with a probate in 1978 did not turn up Alma’s probate. With the unusual surname and the way the viewing is set up, it was easy to quickly click through the coming years to check to see if Alma’s probate was belatedly processed. I made it to 1982, when their brother William’s probate turned out to have been processed, before giving up on Alma. I had found their brother’s probate, which had been my next planned search, and I still can’t say for sure that Alma’s probate wasn’t belatedly processed, only that it isn’t on the Probate Calendar as far forward as I searched in this test. After this I searched for another woman who was born with an unusual surname but in this case died with a more common one. Finding Grace (Brimacombe) Davey’s probate was easy – she died in 1973 and her estate turned out to have been probated in 1973, and it only took a few pages of Daveys before I found her entry.

The way the system is set up, as far as I have been able to determine, you can only order 1858-1995 wills through the dialogue boxes that show up in the right sidebar after you perform a search. However, through my testing, I determined that once the ordering sidebar comes up, you can fill in anyone’s information to place an order, not just the person for whom you searched. So if you already have found folks in the Probate Calendar on Ancestry but haven’t obtained their wills yet, you can do a search for anyone and then plug in the information you already have to order the will(s) you want. While a calendar pops up when you go into the sidebar’s “Death Date” and “Probate Date” dialogue boxes, I determined that you can type in the date in the English style (day/month/year) rather than having to toggle through the calendar. Each will costs ten pounds and you can pay by a few different types of credit cards. If you don’t already have an account you will need to create one before you can place your order, but the process is fast and I found it easy to do. Once you place the order you are told an estimated digital delivery date; mine was listed as January 7th for every will I ordered, and the system isn’t clear as to whether it takes governmental holidays into account. The site warns, “You will have 31 days to download your copy of each will, starting from the first day that you log in to see it.”

If you don’t have an idea of the death date and/or are researching a common surname and/or think the person died by 1966, Ancestry’s Probate Calendar is a lot more effective to search since their index includes the given name(s), the death date, the theoretical death place, and the probate registry used. I say “theoretical death place” because in my experience, what they index is almost always where the person typically lived, regardless of whether the Probate Calendar is very specific about them dying somewhere else. If you know where the person’s usual residence was at the time they died, this is probably better since you may not know where they died; but either way, this difference is something to keep in mind while you search Ancestry’s Probate Calendar. But the UK government’s Probate Calendar is great if you do have an idea of the death date, are researching a less common surname or willing to search through many pages of results, and/or believe that the person died after 1966. Plus the UK government’s Probate Calendar is free for anyone with an internet connection, whereas for Ancestry you need to either have a subscription to their UK records collection or access Ancestry Library Edition somewhere that does. And most importantly, non-local researchers now have a way to order wills online, thanks to the new ordering system.

Can American genealogical conferences and other events embrace diversity? Back in 2013, I attended my first fairly large genealogical conferences, a regional one and an international one. After the first one, I started a post of suggestions for American genealogical conferences, which I expanded after the second one but have never finished and posted it. Prompted by DearMYRTLE’s discussions on her blog this week, I wanted to pull the point that I feel is the most important from that draft – the issue of diversity in topics and attendees – and expand upon it. Before (or after, if you really prefer) reading my post, I suggest you read Myrt’s posts and the many comments to some of them. Here are the links to her posts:

Following was one of my suggestions for American genealogical conferences that I wrote in 2013 a week or two after attending the New England Regional Genealogical Consortium (NERGC) 2013 Conference, which had been decidedly lacking in seeming diversity both in attendees and topics:

Reach out to organizations that are specifically focused on the history and/or genealogy of people of color, religions other than Christianity, and other so-called “minorities,” trying to get more speakers and attendees from these groups. Most lectures at most if not all American genealogy conferences focus by default on the experiences of white Christians, and while of course I cannot judge the heritage of someone else, most attendees at most of them appear to be white. Even most of the lectures that were focused on various “minorities” at NERGC 2013 and at other regional events that I have attended were given by people who do not personally identify with the group on which they are speaking. This is not to say that someone can’t become experienced at researching people other than their own self-identification; if that were the case, only people with a completely homogenous background would be able to successfully research their own family’s history and historians would only be able to do good research on people just like them. But after attending many lectures, I believe that people who are a part of the group being presented bring a different perspective to a lecture than people who are approaching it from an outsider’s perspective, and I also think that the best presenters are fully cognizant of this. Part of why I think this would be such a great idea – beyond the obvious issue of diversity or lack thereof – is because you cannot judge someone’s research interests based on how they physically appear to you.

Since typing the above and failing to ever post my draft, I have attended many more genealogical and historical events, including a second conference, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies’ (IAJGS) 2013 Conference. I want to stress again that I cannot speak for others’ self-identification nor their heritage, but based on my perceptions alone, there were significantly more people who appeared to be persons of color at IAGJS than there had been at NERGC. There have also been more people who appeared to be persons of color at historical events I have attended that had to do with slavery in Massachusetts than there were at either genealogical conference, and as I noted in my most recent post, I think this speaks to the fact that if topics of interest are discussed and the event is advertised in a way where persons of color see it, persons of color will attend. This seems to me to be pretty basic, but based on my experiences as a white genealogist and the experiences of a number of genealogists I know from a variety of backgrounds and heritages, it seems to be beyond what the planning committees for many genealogical conferences/seminars and other genealogical events do.

In my humble opinion, these are some things that could be a good start at changing things for the better in the American genealogical world:

  1. If an organization hosting a conference/seminar/etc. comes up with themes or suggested proposal topics in advance, try to ensure that these include a wide variety of topics. While an organizer might think, “This topic wouldn’t be of interest to my intended audience” – how can they know for sure that it wouldn’t unless they try it? And how can they know what their future audience might potentially be unless they offer topics that attract a wide range of attendees?
  2. More widely advertise calls for proposals to reach a more diverse group, and take chances on proposals from speakers that aren’t already familiar to you.
  3. Similarly, advertise conferences, seminars, and other events in a wide variety of ways and places to reach as many potential attendees as possible. I feel that some genealogical organizations and groups create a self-fulfilling prophecy by trying to make everything appeal to their current or most recent attendees, so I feel that (1) and (2) are important for (3), because most people only attend things that they expect to find interesting and/or useful and which they expect to be worth the cost.
  4. As Eva Goodwin eloquently stressed in a comment on one of Dear Myrtle’s posts this week, the default in the American genealogical world seems to be that anyone who is a general genealogical expert speaker is someone who is perceived as white, regardless of the fact that most well-known white genealogical speakers are specialists in one or two “niche” kinds of research and despite the fact that, to use the specific example that Eva used in her comment, African-American genealogical research is difficult to do so anyone who is really good at doing it must also be really good at doing genealogical research in general. We need to work to change this – and by “we” I mean everyone in the American genealogical community.
  5. Please, please, please consider offering a discount on attending a single day of a multi-day conference. Many American genealogical conferences offer single-day registration that is nearly as expensive as attending the entire conference. How many more people could they be attracting if they offered reasonable single-day registration? Before you, dear reader, say “Then it would be overwhelmed on Saturday,” this August I attended the first-ever Celtic Connections Conference, which offered more affordable single-day registration, and there were a number of people who were more interested in Friday’s topics and only attended on Friday, so both days sold out in advance even though a number of people only attended one day or the other of the two-day conference. Without financially-reasonable options for people who are only interested in one day’s lectures or who work on weekdays and can only attend weekend events, an entire pool of people will skip a multi-day event entirely. And yes, I am already well-aware that “Genealogy is an expensive hobby,” to quote a common response to such suggestions. A lot of genealogists are at jobs whose paychecks help fund their genealogical hobby but which they can’t leave just to attend an event.

If we want to have a thriving American genealogical community, we need to embrace a diversity of people – from many different races, heritages, classes, religions, sexual orientations, and so on. The more voices we help to come through the din, the better our community will be for it and the better all of us will be as genealogists.

I want to thank Myrt for her posts as they prompted me to finally post and I also want to thank my Twitter friend who goes by The Descendant for encouraging me to finish and post my suggestions when she found out earlier this I’d been working on my original suggestions post – I’ve kept your encouragement in mind all this time, and hopefully you’ll feel this is better late than never!

On Monday (August 25th), I attended a talk on the Middle Passage given by a National Park Service Boston African-American National Historic Site Ranger in the Great Hall at Faneuil Hall. In this historic location so tied to the American Revolution and which many presidents and other significant historical figures have visited, she discussed the Middle Passage from Africa to the Colonies of the Western Hemisphere as well as slavery in the Colonies in general and in New England and Boston in particular.

In 1637, the Desire was the first ship to leave the Northern Colonies with slaves (she said it was “somewhat unique” in that it carried slaves both directions). It carried Pequot prisoners of war to be sold in the Caribbean and picked up slaves for New England, returning to Boston in 1638 to sell them. The Desire‘s most likely landing spot was Boston’s town dock, which no longer exists. Long Wharf, completed by 1715, subsequently became the most common place to sell slaves. The handout included a number of quotes, one of which was an ad that ran in Boston newspapers in 1751 saying that parties interested in their cargo of “Five strong hearty stout negro Men, most of them Tradesmen…” could inspect it on the ship docked at Long Wharf in advance of the sale. The public sale was being held at the Bunch of Grapes, a tavern on King Street, and she emphasized that this showed how integrated slavery was in Massachusetts culture.

Another quoted newspaper ad (Boston Gazette, 10 June 1728) lists cargo being sold at Henry Caswall’s warehouse on Long Wharf, including “…Sooseys, Persians, Taffities, Ginghams, Long Cloths, Irish Linens of all sorts, Men & Women’s Worsted and Silk Hose, Powder, Cordage, Duck, Nails, Sweeds and Spanish Iron, with sundry other European and East India Goods, lately Imported, also Negro Boys & Girls, and Barbados Rum.” The rum, like the slaves, was an integral part of the Slave Trade Triangle that existed between the North American Colonies, Africa, and the sprawling sugar plantations of the Caribbean and South America. All told, she said there were about 1,000 ads regarding enslaved people in Boston in the 18th century.

The speaker stressed that statistics she was giving from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database were only slaves being sent directly from Africa, and that a good number were shipped from the Caribbean to North American Colonies, including New England. Overall, by far the highest number were sent to Brazil, with many more also going to the Caribbean and northern South America than to North America. However, the death rate was so much higher in the Caribbean and Brazilian plantations that many more slaves that were sent here survived, and slaves that were later shipped from the Caribbean to North America were often glad that at least this increased their chances of survival (she read some excerpts from slave narratives expressing these sentiments).

While there are classically thought of slave trade vessels, many types of ships were involved in the slave trade, from those ships built expressly for it to small schooners transporting small numbers of slaves. Her handout included a well-known diagram of a 1790-91 ship, also available several places online, such as at Wikimedia Commons. While the importation of slaves directly from Africa to the United States was outlawed in 1808, she stressed that there were workarounds, from importing slaves from the Caribbean (which she said was legal) to making illegal slave trade runs directly from Africa, as well as trading slaves born in the U. S. I did not realize that illegal runs were still being made from Africa until I started researching in 1800’s American newspapers, wherein I found incensed Northern newspaper reports of captured slave trade ships that had been trying to make it from Africa directly into Southern ports as close to the outbreak of the Civil War as the 1850’s, and I would imagine there were likely other slave trade ships that made it through undetected.

She said that in the 18th century, it is estimated that between 1 in 10 and 1 in 4 households in New England had one or more slaves. Most were clustered in/near coastal areas. (I want to note, in case you don’t already know, that a large percentage of the white colonists were also clustered in/near coastal areas, like the Native American tribes before them, so it would make sense that the slaves were too.) She said that it is also estimated that during the first half of the 18th century, the slave population of Massachusetts went from 1,000 to 13,000. In Boston the slave population was concentrated in the Copps Hill area, and “oppressive laws” included: a 9pm curfew; a law against carrying anything that could be mistaken for a weapon, including canes and sticks; a requirement for slaves to perform public works without pay.

She also discussed Cotton Mather and the smallpox inoculation method he learned from his former slave (I’m sorry, I didn’t write down his name and am not finding it in several minutes of searching, though I do note that many sites say the person was still Mather’s slave, which is not what the speaker said) and introduced to Boston in 1721. She did not note that it caused much controversy at the time (I’ve done a fair amount of my own reading on this subject). The speaker said that at that point smallpox was estimated to have a 15% fatality rate in Boston, while the inoculation method had a 3% fatality rate. There are a lot of places, online and offline, to read more about this subject. One starting point is Harvard University’s Contagion page on the 1721 epidemic.

She discussed Prince Hall and the African Lodge of the Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons of Boston, which he founded and which sent a lot of petitions to the legislature, and David Walker, an abolitionist born in North Carolina who moved to Boston and wrote the famous pamphlet Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America, which a brief survey on my part suggests a lot of webpages term “incendiary.” She noted that in the pamphlet he frequently used the terms “colored citizens” and “American citizens,” the latter meaning “white citizens,” illustrating how disenfranchised he felt from society. After he died in 1830, his friend Maria Stewart “took up his mantle,” and the speaker read quotes from one of Maria’s speeches to the African Masonic Hall in Boston.

She also discussed Paul Cuffe, an African-American whaling captain who was in favor of the colonization movement, where free African-Americans would return to Africa. A few Boston families went with him and stayed in Africa on one of his trips there. Coincidentally, two days before the talk I had seen the Magna Carta exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the only African-American I saw highlighted there was Paul Cuffe; a portrait of him on loan from the New England Historic Genealogical Society hung in the room with the 1215 document, and the label discussed Cuffe’s own petitioning efforts (amongst other things). Many whites who supported colonization did so for implicitly or often explicitly racist reasons, and many African-Americans were against it. One of them was Frederick Douglass, who had given an anti-colonization speech at Faneuil Hall in 1833 and whose bust was now above us in the Great Hall watching over the proceedings.

She also discussed a number of things on which I did not take any notes and do not remember in detail to be able to recount properly here. I do not believe she mentioned that Faneuil Hall was partially financed with money from the slave trade, as its builder Peter Faneuil was a slave trader as part of his merchant business. There is a blog post about it here and the same site has a more general post on Massachusetts slavery here that covers some of the same things that were discussed in the talk as well as some different things. Slavery in the North has a Massachusetts slavery page here and a Massachusetts emancipation page here.

I thought her talk was very well-done and it was pretty well attended for a talk held during the daytime on a weekday without much publicity surrounding it. It included the largest percentage of African-Americans I believe I’ve ever seen at any of the many talks/events/conferences I’ve attended on history, genealogy, and related subjects, and every question and comment after the talk was from an African-American audience member. I think this shows that the local audience is there if you present a subject that is of interest to African-Americans and let them know about it. (I’ll continue to hold out hope that local genealogical event organizers will do this someday…)

The talk was the first event in what the NPS and the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project [note: at time of posting, their site seems to be down] hope to be a year of area events leading up to the unveiling of a Middle Passage Marker in Boston next August 23rd, UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition; Boston will be the 11th American port to get a marker. (August 23rd is the annual International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition because it was the start of the Haitian Revolution; see here for more info.) They also plan to eventually erect a permanent monument to the Middle Passage and the area’s slaves near the original beginning of (now much shorter) Long Wharf.  Many locals and most tourists do not realize that slavery used to exist here and that the slave trade used to happen here, and in addition to honoring the enslaved people who went on the Middle Passage, the NPS and the Project hope to help raise awareness of this. The Middle Passage Project aims to eventually have a marker at every port that was a part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If you are interested in helping them with a project already underway or starting one in your port, please contact them. They hold ceremonies of remembrance in locations involved in the slave trade as well as adding markers at ports.

I blogged earlier this year about Roco and Sue, two slaves that bought their freedom from my ancestor’s brother, John Pynchon, in inland Massachusetts. I find that it is common for genealogical researchers of colonial New England to either not realize there were slaves here or to assume that only the wealthiest families had slaves. I think that the estimate mentioned earlier in this post that 1 in 10 to 1 in 4 families – 10% to 25% – are thought to have owned a slave in 18th century Massachusetts shows that this is not necessarily accurate. While most people did not own several slaves like John Pynchon did, many families owned one or two slaves. If you are researching a free family/individual and not accounting for this possibility in your research, you may be missing the opportunity to learn more about your ancestors’/relatives’ lives and to help document a slave’s life for posterity and for that slave’s possible living descendants.

An excerpt from the 1700 Plymouth County, Massachusetts, will of Susanna Byram of Bridgewater

An excerpt from the Plymouth County, Massachusetts, will of my ancestor Susanna Byram of East Bridgewater (proved in 1700), wherein she grants freedom to her two slaves in between discussions of legacies for her granddaughters: “I give To miriam Negro maid hir freedom at my decease & on[e] homemade hood I give To Tom negro man Ten Shillings mony & his freedom At my Decease if hee be Thirty Years of age & if not hee Shall Secure[?] with my Son Nicolas biram Till he is Thirty yeares of age & then be free” (Plymouth County probate case file #3511; image courtesy of FamilySearch.)



There is a project underway through Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies that is indexing, transcribing, and digitizing slavery-related petitions to the Massachusetts colonial/state legislature. See the 2013 article about it in the Harvard Gazette, “Digitizing a movement: Harvard project covers thousands of 18th- and 19th-century anti-slavery petitions.”


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