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Archive for April, 2015

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).

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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.

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