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.”

I was honored to be asked by Emma Jolly to participate in a Writers’ Blog Tour, which aims to showcase writers in a variety of non-fiction and fiction genres and help more people know about their blogs. Emma’s Tour post is over here and includes information on the Tour and on a number of the other participants. Emma invited myself and Debra Watkins to join the Tour. For my turn on the Tour, I am to answer four questions on my writing and then introduce you to the writers that are joining the Tour at my invitation. I apologize that my post is appearing later than it had been scheduled to debut; there was a death in my family (see my most recent post if you want details).

What am I working on?

I am in the process of writing or editing multiple articles on family history and social history for print publications, including an article on utilizing DNA testing in research and an article on a local women’s organization’s programs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I am also working on a non-fiction book about some facets of 19th century America and always have a number of drafts for my blog which are in various stages of writing/editing prior to posting. I enjoy researching and writing about a variety of subjects rather than focusing on a single subject.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

One of the main things I like to do regarding family history, in both articles and blog posts, is to try to give people a good idea of the tools to approach a specific type of research; I like to use both specific examples and social history for background so that people can hopefully better understand both specific situations and the general tenor of an area of research, and hopefully carry it forward to their own successful research. While there were general patterns in the past, just like today each situation was unique, and some people were closer to the median than others. With my pieces that focus primarily on social history, I like to try to share stories that seem to have been forgotten with the passage of time, and that hopefully will help the reader understand more about the wider time and place in which that part of history happened. My most recent print article was “The Long Trek Westward: Migration from New England to New York and the Midwest,” published in December 2013.

Why do I write what I do?

I love history – social history, family history, almost all history really. I enjoy sharing my passion for history with others and hopefully helping people to better understand the past and, if they are a fellow researcher, to do more successful research.

How does my writing process work?

It differs somewhat depending on what I am writing. If I am writing an article for publication and know in advance exactly what the topic will be and a required approximate length, I usually write an outline in advance, flesh out the article, and then edit it down to the required size. Occasionally I still do the outline longhand, but more often I start typing from the first word. If I am writing a blog post or writing an article that I intend to submit to prospective publications after finishing, I may start with an outline or I may simply start writing and see where my writing goes. I generally write at home, but I sometimes write in situ, most often in a café or an archive.

Introducing Two More Family History Writers

I now have the pleasure of introducing the next two people on the Tour, two fellow genealogical writers who are also editors. Both live here in the States.

Carol Swaine-Kuzel is a genealogist and a historical researcher. She has written research articles for the New Hampshire Genealogical Record and is co-editor of the New Hampshire Families in 1790 project for the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists.  She blogs about her explorations in genealogical research at Journeys of a Constant Genealogist and about her ancestors’ Civil War experiences in three sesquicentennial tribute blogs: http://20thmassregt150.blogspot.com/, http://13thnhregt150.blogspot.com/, and http://27thctregt150.blogspot.com.

Judi Scott is a genealogical writer, editor, and researcher. For five years she was an editor of The Bulletin, the quarterly publication of the Genealogical Forum of Oregon. She has written articles and stories on a variety of genealogical topics but her main interest is discovering and writing family stories.  She specializes in colonial research in Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas but has recently developed a passion researching orphan train children. She blogs at http://puzzlesofthepast.blogspot.com/.

My father died last week. American Independence Day was his favorite holiday, so today seems like the best day to share a little about him here. He loved fireworks, and would spend the rest of the year planning out his personal fireworks display for July 4th. We would sit on our back porch, and our neighbors would sit on their back porches, and sometimes guests would be invited too. It was only when I grew up that I fully understood how much planning went into it, and how much pride he took in providing one night of delight a year to the rest of us. Where I live now, fireflies are a recent phenomenon, only coming in the past five years or so and still not seen very often. But where I grew up, fireflies are common in summertime, and the 4th of July was the height of their show. I remember, as twilight came to our neighborhood, running in the front yard with friends, holding sparklers as hundreds of fireflies flew around us while we waited for it to be dark enough for my father’s fireworks show to begin.

Below is my father with his mother and his great-aunts (both are his mother’s aunts).

my father on his mother's lap, with her aunts

Below is my father with his father.

my father as an infant, being held by his father

Below is my father with his aunts (both are his father’s sisters).

my father with his aunts

Below is my father with his little brother, Burrie.

my father with his little brother

Below is my father with his older cousin Janie. They are standing at the edge of the lake where his mother’s ashes were scattered and where his ashes will be scattered as well.

my father as a child, with a smiling Janie.

The thing that’s always gotten me the most about death is that life goes on. One life is snuffed out by natural causes or otherwise, a thousand lives in a tsunami or a battle, millions in a global epidemic or a genocide – no matter how it happens or how many die in one day or one event, the world spins on. Rain is lashing my windows as I finish this post, part of the huge Hurricane Arthur that is moving up the Atlantic Seaboard, and there are still bills to pay and a meal to cook. This is why I started my 52 Ancestors posts with my father’s little brother, Burrie, who died as a child, and why I photograph the gravestones of as many colonial children as I can. No one should be forgotten, no matter where or when they lived, no matter how recent or how long ago, no matter whether they lived for one minute or more than a century. After everyone who knew a person has died, it’s up to genealogists, historians, and archivists to carry on the mantle, to keep their existence known and preserve as much of the past as possible. I hope that after I am gone, this post will remain as a signpost to show that my father existed in this world.

Rest in peace, Dad.

my father as a child, looking out a car window.

Sometimes being contacted about one of my lines by another researcher spurs me to do additional research on that line. So it has been recently with the Plumb family of Essex County, England, and early colonial New England. I say “Plumb” but it’s got a ridiculous number of spellings – Plumbe and Plumme being two of the most common variants, probably actually more common than Plumb back in Early Modern England. Then there is an additional layer of mistranscription. The National Archives [UK] has, rather to my surprise, indexed the Plumme materials that have the line over the first “m” to represent the second “m” as “Plume” rather than “Plumme,” and the other sites I’ve checked so far have followed suit. Most online trees seem to have copied this spelling as well.

This may sound like a digression, but an online tree is how I came to write this post. I was going along doing more research on the family in original records after receiving a note from the researcher, and I thought I would check and see what other people have posted online about the family. In some of the Plume trees on Ancestry there is a small photo (seemingly snatched from a website) of a Spaines Hall, County Essex, with a lengthy caption about how the first person to add the photo to Ancestry had been curious about Spaines Hall and done a web search, wherein they discovered that it was still in existence and was now a popular wedding venue. They also copied information about how this Spaines Hall had only ever been owned by three families – and oddly, none of those surnames were any variants of Plumme. Did none of the people who had added this information wonder why a manor would only be associated with surnames that don’t match the one they are researching? Curious, I double-checked back in the original records for their references to a Spaines Hall associated with Plummes, and verified that rights to a Spaines Hall in Great Yeldham had been willed by Plumme family members. Then I set about trying to sort all of this out.

A web search for Spaines Hall Essex quickly turned up references to an old manor that is indeed a popular wedding site today, including hosting a bridal expo. However, while this Spains Hall is in Essex, it is not in Great Yeldham. I clicked through to the Wikipedia article and discovered that: 1) Much of the information in the Ancestry caption had been copied and pasted without attribution from the Wikipedia page; 2) There are at least two other Spaines Halls (varying spellings) in Essex, including one in Great Yeldham that today is usually spelled Spayne’s Hall. A more precise web search for Spaynes Hall Great Yeldham Essex turned up the Spayne’s Hall that was actually associated with the Plumme family. It doesn’t have nearly as much historical information online and it doesn’t have nearly as flamboyant a modern usage, but it’s the correct manor.

As always with genealogical research, one question for researchers is: Are you looking for information on a family with the same names and places that have matching names? Or are you looking for your family members and the locations associated with them?


The Plummes/The Plumbs

I am in the process of documenting the Plumme/Plumb family to my satisfaction. This is the family tree according to the published version of the 1634 Visitation of Essex (note that due to their purpose, the Visitations only documented some lines of descent); names spelled here as in the Visitation, including variants within the pedigree:

John Plumme of Yeldham Magna [Great Yeldham] m. [unknown]. Children:

  • Robert Plumme of Yeldham Magna [Great Yeldham] m. __ daughter of ___ Purcas of __ in Essex.

Children of Robert and __ (Purcas) Plumme:

  • Robert Plumme of Yeldham m. Grace, daughter of Robert Crackbone.
  • Margeret Plumme.
  • Elizabeth, wife of Richard Symonds.
  • Thomas Plumme of Yeldham Magna [Great Yeldham] m. Mary, daughter of Richard Hamond of Ellingham.
  • Mary Plumme.
  • Anne Plumme.
  • Edmund Plumme.

Children of Robert and Grace (Crackbone) Plumme:

  • Robert Plumme of Yeldham Magna [Great Yeldham] and Lincolns Inn, 1634, m. 1st Frances, daughter of __ Gaswell of Watlington, Norfolk; m. 2nd Honora, daughter of Thomas Woolrich of Cowling, Suffolk.
  • John Plumme of Ridgwell, Essex.
  • Ethelred, wife of Phillip Sparrow of Wickham Brooke, Suffolk.
  • Frances, wife of John Upcher of Colchester.
  • Hannah, wife of William Sadleir of Horksley, Essex.

Children of Robert & Grace’s brother/brother-in-law Thomas Plumme and his wife Mary (Hamond) Plumme:

  • Samuell Plumme of Yeldham Magna [Great Yeldham], 1634, m. Dorathey, sister of Sir Richard Higham of Eastham, Essex, and daughter of William Higham.
  • Thomas Plumme.
  • Robert Plumme.
  • Mary, wife of Henry Milsop of the Ile of Ely.
  • Jane, wife of Robert Brooke, rector of the church of Woodham Walker.
  • Martha, wife of Samuell Pratt.
  • Elizabeth, wife of William Sandford, rector of the church of Eastwell, Kent.

Children of Robert and Grace’s son Robert Plumme and his first wife, Frances (Gaswell) Plumme:

  • Robert Plumme, aged about 16 in 1634.
  • Edmund Plumme.
  • Anne Plumme.
  • Sarah Plumme.
  • Frances Plumme.
  • Jane Plumme.

Children of Robert and Grace’s son Robert Plumme and his second wife, Honora (Woolrich) Plumme:

  • Honora Plumme.

Children of Thomas and Mary (Hamond) Plumme’s son Samuell Plumme and his wife, Dorathey (Higham) Plumme:

  • Samwell Plumme.
  • Thomas Plumme.
  • Robert Plumme.
  • Dorathey Plumme.
  • Mary Plumme.

Children of Thomas and Mary (Hamond) Plumme’s daughter Elizabeth (Plumme) Sandford and her husband William Sandford (listed on the Sandford Visitation pedigree):

  • Thomas Sandford.
  • William Sandford.

Children of Margaret (Plumme) Strutt Woodcock, daughter of an unspecified Plumme, and her second husband John Woodcock of Alphamstone, Essex (Woodcock Visitation pedigree):

  • John Woodcock, 7 years old in 1634.
  • William Woodcock.

It is interesting that the Visitation documented two lines of descent. It is also interesting to note that the Plummes seem to have been an up-and-coming family in Essex at the time, as they were not mentioned in Essex’s earlier Visitations. In my research I have found a Prerogative Court of Canterbury will for a Plumme who was described as of Ely, Cambridgeshire, which is particularly interesting since the Visitation described Thomas and Mary’s daughter Mary’s husband Henry Milsop as “of the Ile of Ely,” which was a separate administrative area near the town of Ely. Also intriguing, the family used the name Ethelred repeatedly for daughters, and Anglo-Saxon Saint Æthelthryth, whose name was/is often transliterated to Ethelreda, had been Abbess of Ely, though this certainly could be coincidence, as there were a number of well-known historical Ethelreds (though usually men). I have yet to fully sort out what the family’s connection to Cambridgeshire and Ile of Ely might be.

As I have attempted to stress, this is the family pedigree according to the 1634 Visitation of Essex. It may be completely accurate (as far as it goes) or it may have one or more errors. Having some family members listed in the wrong generation seems to be an especially common error, and as the pedigree probably already made clear, not knowing the origins or possibly even the names of some of the male family members’ wives was also common. Robert and Grace had died by the time of the 1634 Visitation and their son (and my ancestor), John Plumme/John Plumb, seems to have been willed the rights to Ridgewell Hall in Essex, and he was apparently living in “Ridgwell” at the time the pedigree was compiled. (Compiled genealogies state his land rights, but so far I haven’t located a will that explicitly states them and I have yet to view the family’s inquisitions post mortem, which are in hard copies at the National Archives [UK].) Within two years he would seek his fortunes anew, being in Connecticut Colony in New England by late 1636.

This is something I have seen time and again as I research my early New England colonists’ English ancestry – so many of them are the younger sons of gentlemen, or the younger sons of younger sons of gentlemen/knights. While I know enough about conditions for “average” people in England at this time that it is sometimes difficult for me to feel sympathy for them, from their perspective, their prospects were limited in England – they had gotten less (or no) rights to land than their elder brother(s) or knew that their father’s elder brother(s) had gotten more than their father and that they were likely to also be willed less money or land rights than their own elder brother(s). If you wanted to try to make your own fortune, own land outright (rather than, even if you were at the top of society’s echelons, at best being a large landholder holding your land direct from the Crown), and perhaps were seeking adventure and/or a society with others who shared your Puritan beliefs, moving to the Colonies won out in the “risk-reward” columns.

John Plumb had already married Dorcas Chaplin before they left England and they had at least nine children, most born in England. John became a trader in the “New World,” spending a lot of his efforts on trade with the Native American tribes, like his Massachusetts Bay Colony counterpart William Pynchon, whose relatives have made appearances in some of my posts from earlier in 2014. John also held various offices and amassed a good amount of land, which he owned outright and sold when his family moved, unlike in the country of his birth. How would he and Dorcas have done if they had stayed in England? I can’t say. But it seems to me like they did well for themselves and their children in their choice to start over.



Spayne’s Hall in Great Yeldham was listed by the British government in 1952. Their listing implies that the building dates from the time the Plumme family ran it, but the listing (not updated since it was first listed in 1952) notes that the property had had a large amount of 18th century and late 19th/early 20th century work done.

British History Online has digitized a 1916 inventory of Great Yeldham that includes Spayne’s Hall. It is interesting to note that the inventory-taker(s) dated the building as having been built later than the official listing’s estimate.

A location named Ridgewell Hall in Ridgewell, Essex, was also listed by the British government, but the listing says it dates from the late 1600’s, so I’m not sure it’s the same hall that John (seemingly) had been willed rights to occupy. There is no Ridgewell Hall listed at British History Online’s digitized 1916 inventory of Ridgewell, just a “Ridgewell Hall Farm,” though the latter is estimated in the inventory to date from early enough to possibly be the property related to the Plummes/Plumbs.

The Plumb, Crackbone, and Purcas families are featured in Clifford L. Stott’s “John Plumb of Connecticut and His Cousin, Deputy Governor Samuel Symonds of Massachusetts: Additions to Their English Ancestry” [part 1], The American Genealogist 70:2 (April 1995); Stott’s footnotes also contain additional sources that will likely be of interest to researchers of these families. NEHGS members can view a scan of this article on NEHGS’s website. Regular readers of this blog likely remember that I have found errors regarding other families in Morant’s History of Essex, which is used extensively in Stott’s article. (I have not yet tested Morant’s assertions about the families in this blog post against original records.)

Reminder: Essex Record Office has digitized their old parish registers and some of their other old records, all available on their pay-to-view site Essex Ancestors.


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