Posts Tagged ‘boston history’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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On Friday (February 28th) I visited Boston City Archives for the first time. I had wanted to visit since I attended a talk on the Archives by archivist Marta Crilly last year at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference, which was held in Boston. I typed my notes from that lecture up in my post on IAJGS 2013 Day 2. At the talk, Marta had stressed booking an appointment in advance and, if at all possible, coming by car rather than by public transit. I called a few days in advance and booked an appointment for Friday. Marta was the one who answered the phone, and asked what I would be researching. She told me she would pull the first thing in advance of my arrival. I mentioned that I would be coming with a friend to make sure that this would be OK, and she said to stress to my friend that they are a nearly exclusively pull facility so my friend should bring along specifics if she wanted to research something in their records.

Boston City Archives is located in West Roxbury, a neighborhood of Roxbury, which was formerly an independent town and is now part of the City of Boston. The Archives is located near the border with Brookline. The parking lot is wide in front of the building, and there were signs posted around most of the lot saying the parking was for city employees, so we parked near the other end from the entrance. Someone walking in the parking lot confirmed that the entrance where we could access the Archives was where we were guessing it was. There is a ramp leading up to the entrance in addition to a small set of stairs; there are also three handicapped parking spaces, the closest parking spaces to the entrance, and these spaces were all empty while we were there. When you enter the building, the door to the Archives Reading Room will be on your right. There is a desk at the front of the Reading Room where there is usually a staff member seated.

The exterior of Boston City Archives

The exterior of Boston City Archives, as seen from the parking lot when we were leaving in the late afternoon. The entrance is in the grey boxy bit on the left. There are also a couple of other city offices through the same entrance, including the City Archaeology Lab. (All photos in this post were taken by the author.)

When we arrived, there was one researcher sitting at one of the two tables nearest the desk looking through records, and Marta said the other table nearest the desk was for us. The rest of the tables in the fairly large Reading Room were covered with items from the Boston Marathon bombing victims’ memorial, and there were a number of people moving around the Reading Room working on cataloging these items. There are lockers behind the desk and we were asked to stow most of what we had brought with us in them; we were allowed to keep pencils, papers, and cameras/cellphones. There are extra pencils in case someone didn’t bring one along or brought one that broke on-site. Marta had said on the phone that she would pull a register book for me before I arrived, and it was waiting for us. There were also two pieces of foam that she requested I use to prop up the books to help protect them. She sat with us for a bit listening to the other things we wanted to research and taking notes, and then left to pull more records.

The pull cart at Boston City Archives

The pull cart at Boston City Archives. Since we usually asked for several things at a time to be pulled, it was left by our table while we researched and temporarily removed when new things were pulled.

I started my research doing work for a client, and had brought along a typed page of information on folks I am personally researching in Boston. Most of the information regarding my personal research did not lead to records, but I was able to do some personal research in tax records. Based on the street address I had brought with me, Marta pulled several tax books (pictured on the top shelf of the pull cart above), starting with the first year I was sure the person had lived at the address. The first year, the street address was not listed in the tax book, but a nearby address with two digits exchanged (1879 rather than 1897) was listed, and there was a dental practice at that address, so I thought that I may have mistyped the address and that my dentist research subject, early in his career at that point, may have been an apprentice at that practice at the time. However, Marta urged me to check a minimum of one more book before sending the records back. I’m glad I did, as the address 1897 was in the next year’s tax book and my dentist was listed at it. See photos of the record below. He was also in the next year’s tax book at the same address, while the following year – the year he had graduated from Harvard University’s Dental School – there were two other dentists listed at his apparently now-former address. I checked a couple more books, but after that the address was rented by a carpenter. I know he was still living in Boston at the time, so I will have to verify more addresses before I go back to research more. (See the captions for how to use street addresses with the tax books.)

Sample of tax records at Boston City Archives, page 1 of 2

Here is a sample of the old tax records at Boston City Archives, page 1 of 2 from the 1871 tax books. Willis Battles, shown here, is a relative of mine; the “1” to the right of his name indicates that he paid the year’s poll tax. Most of the locations on this page were businesses, but in a city directory of this time period Willis was listed as living at the same address where he worked as a dentist. Men were subject to the poll tax and women weren’t, so Marta said that it is rare to find an occupant woman listed in the tax books. However, if a woman operated a shop at a separate address from where she lived, you should be able to look up the street address of the shop if you know it, even though the woman wouldn’t have been subject to the poll tax. The books are organized by street address. You look in the front of the book to see if the street of interest is in it, then search the listed street numbers for the page that contains the exact address. (Some streets are in more than one book.)

 Sample of tax records at Boston City Archives, page 2 of 2

Here is a sample of the old tax records at Boston City Archives, page 2 of 2 from the 1871 tax books. The people shown on this page are the property owners. The books are organized by street address, so if you know the address someone owned, you can look them up in the tax records regardless of whether they lived there. There were a number of woman property owners listed in the books I searched from the 1870’s and the books my friend searched from the 1910’s, so I think you are much more likely to find a woman property owner than a woman occupant in these records. To search the books, you look in the front of the book to see if the street of interest is in it, then search the listed street numbers for the page that contains the exact address. (Some streets are in more than one book.)

One of the ledgers I used was the most fire-damaged record I’ve ever personally used, and also had some water damage. I had to keep washing soot off my hands. See the photo below.

Ledger damaged by fire and water at Boston City Archives

This ledger damaged by fire and water is at Boston City Archives. Using it required much washing to remove soot from my hands, and it also left bits of soot all over the table.

Before we went to the Archives, my friend had found something with no known personal connection to her research that she thought sounded interesting in the Archives catalog, and after she finished researching she looked through it, a box of folders of loose papers of warnings-out from Charlestown, Massachusetts, in the 1700’s. Charlestown was once an independent town and is also now part of the City of Boston. For those of you that don’t know what warnings-out were, to oversimplify, here in New England they were a way to make sure that a town did not have to pay for someone who became indigent who was not a legal resident of the town by legally “warning them out” of the town. The system was similar to England’s Settlement Laws, though in New England being warned out simply meant the town was no longer financially liable for upkeep, not that the person(s) necessarily left the town. For those of you that want to read more, Josiah H. Benton wrote an entire book about it titled Warning Out in New England, published in 1911 and now scanned and freely available on multiple sites (I’ve linked to one).

A sample warning out from 1700s Charlestown at Boston City Archives

A sample warning out from 1700’s Charlestown, Massachusetts, at Boston City Archives. This record begins “In His Majesty’s name” and the date at the end includes “In the Twenty Second year of His Majesty’s Name,” the last word of which was probably supposed to be “Reign” rather than “Name.”

I’m glad I asked around till I found someone with a car who was both willing and able to go with me, as after going there I agree that it would be difficult to reach the Archives on public transit. I also want to stress that if you are going by car, it’s a good idea to bring GPS and/or a detailed map of the neighborhood. We only had written directions with us and discovered that there were many intersections without street signs which made it difficult to follow the written directions. After we realized we had started going in circles, we called the Archives and asked for directions from where we had pulled over.

Additional Tips:

  • Bring something to take digital photos! The Archives has a photocopier, but it is easier (and sometimes the only feasible way) to photograph items. You are allowed to photograph any record you view.
  • As Marta stressed at her lecture, call in advance and book an appointment. Have an idea of at least one thing you are going to be researching at the Archives before you call so that you will be able to provide details over the phone when you schedule your appointment.
  • If you know street addresses and/or wards, bring them along. Bring along as many street addresses and wards as you have, and include known dates for each one in your notes. If someone moved and/or their street address/ward changed without them moving, bring that information along as well, as it will make a significant difference. It is difficult to research in their old tax records without an exact street address, and probably impossible to research in their old voter records without a ward. While the Archives has some Ward maps as per my posted notes from Marta’s lecture, the maps do not cover as many years as the voting records do. The 1870 US federal census enumeration doesn’t typically include Wards in Boston, but the State Library of Massachusetts’s Massachusetts Real Estate Atlas Digitization Project has an 1874 atlas of Suffolk County (including Boston), which is earlier than the Archives Ward maps. If I had known there were no 1870’s Ward maps at the Archives and checked the 1874 atlas for wards in advance, I could have tried to look Willis up in the voting records while I was there.
  • If you plan to search the women’s early voting records (women were allowed to vote [only] in school elections in Massachusetts before federal women’s suffrage), plan to schedule a minimum of an entire day to only doing that. I asked about looking in them for my female personal research subjects and Marta said that because they are completely unindexed, they would probably take me a couple of weeks to thoroughly search. (Because I had other things to research that day, she didn’t pull them at all for me and I have yet to view any samples from that record set.)

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As a genealogist and historian, I am always interested in going from theory to practice: Here is a record; how can I utilize it to get me further in my research? The State Library of Massachusetts has quite recently scanned most of their real estate atlases and put them online at a section of their site which they call the Massachusetts Real Estate Atlas Digitization Project. I had no idea how many links my family had with the area where I now live until I began doing family history research. As a case study, I chose to use the atlases to track down the locations where my ancestor’s niece, Florence M. Battles, had lived in the Boston area, with the hopes of eventually being able to visit all the relevant locations in person. Her 1920 address turned out to be the easiest for me to physically visit, so that is the one I chose to visit in person first and which I detail in this post.

Florence M. Battles was a music teacher who appears to never have had any children nor married. By 1880 she was living in the Boston area, and seems to have spent the rest of her life there, dying in Boston in 1929. Via researching Florence’s life, I discovered that Boston’s school system was a pioneer in introducing music education to what we call public schools here in the States (not the same meaning as the term has in British English), and that music education had been introduced to public schools in this area long before Florence moved here. I have not yet determined whether she was a teacher at schools, a private teacher for individual students, or a combination of the two over the course of her life. As someone who is without descendants myself, I always find it especially satisfying to document others who have lived and died without leaving living descendants to carry on their memory.

On the 1920 census, Florence was living in Boston at 114 Huntington Avenue. She was part of a two-person household, and there were a total of four households at her address. The temporally-closest Boston atlas at the State Library of Massachusetts site was published in 1917, so I chose that atlas to locate Florence’s address. The 1917 atlas indexed the streets by plate, and further by street numbers if the street ran through multiple plates, so it was pretty easy to locate Florence’s 1920 address on a map. (Click on any of these maps to view a larger version.)

Florence's 1920 Boston address as shown in a 1917 Boston atlas

The leftmost street shown here is Huntington; this excerpt is oriented to show the bulk of the area of the neighborhood that we walked around and I photographed. Florence’s address, 114 Huntington Ave., is almost at the bottom of this excerpt. From Plate 23 of Atlas of the city of Boston : city proper and Back Bay (published by G.W. Bromley & Co., 1917); scan courtesy of the State Library of Massachusetts website.

Zoomed map of Florence's 1920 Boston address from 1917 Boston atlas

Here is a zoomed view of Florence’s 1920 address, 114 Huntington Ave., as seen in the 1917 Boston atlas that is digitized on the State Library of Massachusetts site. Her address is again near the bottom-center of the map. Four households were living at 114 Huntington on the 1920 census; the “4” written on 114 Huntington Ave. here indicates that the building was 4 stories, and the lack of a “B” suffix indicates that it had no basement. Every building shown in pink here is constructed of brick. The double line running through most of the streets around this area indicate that they were on the sewer system, and the single line indicates they were on a water main. The circled x’s indicate fire hydrants; there are three hydrants in this excerpt.

I then searched for 114 Huntington Ave. on Google Maps. I saw on the modern map that Garrison St. was still there and still with the same name, so I was able to quickly determine that the numbering on Huntington had changed in the nearly 100 years since the atlas was published. Google Maps now estimated 114 Huntington as being a little over a block before where the 1917 map showed it. Garrison St. still intersecting Huntington Ave. also allowed a way for me to try to estimate the distance to the former 114 Huntington Ave. location. This area of Huntington Ave. was now mostly commercial, so I wrote down the names of a number of the businesses in the area so that I would be able to orient myself “on the ground.” I packed my camera, and a friend and I headed out to locate the former site of 114 Huntington Ave., with me pretty sure that the entire block of buildings had been demolished in the intervening decades.

I turned out to be correct. The block on which Florence lived is now a hotel and an apartment high-rise.

Colonnade Hotel, formerly Florence's block

Most of Florence’s block is now taken up by the Colonnade Hotel, shown here. Based on the 1917 Boston atlas, I believe that Florence’s 1920 home was approximately where the Colonnade meets the building next door (the slight divide is shown here on the far left, with an entrance to a parking garage on street level). Huntington Ave. is in the foreground. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

The rest of Florence's former block, now an apartment building

This is the rest of Florence’s former block, a much less wide but much taller apartment building at the corner of Garrison and Huntington. This building’s street address is 118 Huntington Ave., confirming that the numbering has changed since Florence lived in the neighborhood. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

We noticed right away that the buildings in the neighborhood behind these modern buildings seemed to mostly be period buildings, and walked over to look at them.

Period homes with the modern apartment building in the background

This is the corner of Garrison St. and St. Botolph St., showing period homes in the foreground with the Huntington-Ave.-facing modern apartment building in the background. Based on the plans in the 1917 atlas, it is very likely that these homes were here when Florence was living in this neighborhood, less than a block from here. In modern Boston these types of buildings are called “brownstones” and were extremely common in this area. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Period brownstones on St. Botolph St., near Florence's former home

Here are more period brownstones, these on St. Botolph St., about a block from Florence’s former home; more modern buildings on Huntington Ave. rise in the background. This neighborhood was rather unusual in extensively using a wider variety of colors of bricks for its residential buildings than most of the other area neighborhoods with brownstones. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

A building that caught my eye from a distance had a number of composers’ names inscribed below the roof line. I wondered if it had formerly been an opera house. We walked up for a closer look. The Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society, shown on the map in the 1917 Boston atlas, was still there!

Musicians Mutual Relief Society building

The Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society building, at the corner of Garrison St. and St. Botolph St. The surnames of many composers are inscribed around the building below the roof line. The Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society’s building was a location for musician societies to meet, along with many other music-related purposes. As a resident of the neighborhood who lived about a block away, Florence would have seen this building every day, and as a music teacher, she likely regularly visited it. The building appears to have been converted into apartments. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Musicians Mutual Relief Society still visible over main door

The inscription “Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society” is still visible over the building’s main door on St. Botolph St. Also note the stained glass between the doors and the inscription; this neighborhood was home to numerous stained glass artisans at the time and still houses a stained glass studio today. The numbers in the stained glass reflect the street numbering at the time Florence lived in the neighborhood, and this building appears to have the same address today. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Convention Hall inscription still visible at the Musicians Mutual Relief Society building

The inscription “Convention Hall” is also still visible at the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society building, over another door on St. Botolph St. According to my research, the Convention Hall was added to the building between the time it was built and the time Florence moved to the neighborhood. It had room for over 1000 people and regularly hosted events; it is quite possible that Florence attended some of them. Perhaps she and/or some of her students even performed here, but I don’t know for sure. This building still meets the building next door (the division is visible on the upper left); I am not sure whether that building is period, but if so, it was identified as Turkish Bathhouses on the 1917 Boston atlas map. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Musicians Mutual Relief Society building #2

Another wide shot of the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society building, showing the side that faces St. Botolph St. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Across St. Botolph St. from the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society is another building from the 1917 Boston atlas, Garrison Hall.

Garrison Hall

Garrison Hall, shown on the map in the 1917 Boston atlas, is still there, at the corner of Garrison St. and St. Botolph St., across St. Botolph from the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society building today just as it was in 1917. The building appears to be apartments now. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Garrison Hall #2

Another shot of Garrison Hall. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Garrison Hall #3

A third shot of Garrison Hall, this one taken from St. Botolph St. of the side of the Hall; a modern building on Huntington Ave. is visible in the background (on the far right). Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Building on land MIT used to own

This building may look period but I don’t believe it is. It is a large building at the end of the short Garrison St., where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is listed as owning buildings in the 1917 Boston atlas, principally a Gymnasium and a second large building. If the map is accurate (and it generally appears to be extremely accurate), there was no building exactly at the end of Garrison on that land at the time. I suspect this building was built later but designed to look period to fit into the neighborhood. MIT moved to its current Cambridge location in 1923. Although the atlas isn’t more specific, according to my research, MIT used to run an “offshoot” school known as the Lowell School, an institute for “promoting industrial design,” that was on Garrison St.: “Its sophisticated weaving looms were capable of producing commercial-sized fabrics, and the school was regularly supplied with textile novelties from Paris” (Boston Landmarks Commission, St. Botolph Study Report, p. 13). Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Florence's 1920 neighborhood as shown in the 1917 Boston atlas

This wider view of Florence’s 1920 neighborhood as depicted in the 1917 Boston atlas shows that Florence lived about halfway between Symphony Hall and the Boston Public Library, which are at opposite ends of Huntington Ave. on this excerpt. A large rail yard was across Huntington from Florence’s home, and two rail lines ran near her location, so it was probably a noisy neighborhood. Due to the rail yard being in the way, Florence would have had to walk up to Exeter St. to get to Boylston St. and board the subway at the station by the Boston Public Library. We were able to walk up a street that didn’t exist in 1917; as we walked down the sidewalk on Ring St. after exploring the neighborhood, we were walking on what used to be the rail yard. Map courtesy of the State Library of Massachusetts site.

Where the rail yard was on Huntington

Looking from approximately where Florence lived across Huntington Ave. (foreground) to where the edge of the huge rail yard used to be. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Wider shot showing more of the former rail yard

A wider shot showing even more of the former rail yard; Huntington Ave. is in the foreground. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Map of Florence's 1920 home and Mechanics Hall, from 1917 Boston atlas

The massive building that was called Mechanic Hall or Mechanics Hall, run by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, was directly across from Florence’s 1920 home at 114 Huntington Ave., shown here near the top-center. One end of the huge Hall was just above where this map excerpt cuts off. As can be seen here, the huge rail yard was behind the Hall; the rail yard also ran directly along Huntington Ave. above where the Hall was located. Map courtesy of the State Library of Massachusetts site.

Where the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association Hall was on Huntington

Looking from approximately where Florence lived across Huntington Ave. to where the Mechanics Hall, run by the Massachusetts Mechanics Charitable Association, was. The Mechanics Hall was a huge building that had been built in 1880 and “served to house yearly MCMA exhibits as well as classes, traveling exhibits, and conferences,” according to the Massachusetts Historical Society, which now houses their archives; they also note that the Hall was sold in the 1950’s. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

In researching the area after returning home, I found that the Boston Landmarks Commission had carried out an assessment of the area for the City of Boston starting in 1979. Through the digitized PDF I learned that Florence’s block was built in the “latter” part of the 1880’s, and that Florence’s building and the others in this area of Huntington Ave. were demolished from the late 1960’s to early 1970’s, as well as many similar buildings on another large street nearby, Massachusetts Ave. Most importantly for my purposes, the study asserts (p. 11), “From the period of its development, between 1881 and 1908, through to the present day, the St. Botolph neighborhood has been a living and working environment for artists, writers, and musicians and craftspeople. In addition, a number of schools teaching arts and crafts have flourished in the area during its century-long existence.” Is it any wonder that a music teacher – who must have also been a musician, to be capable of teaching music – was drawn to living in this neighborhood?

The PDF also has a map and some photos of the area at the time the study was commissioned. Based on the study, the Boston Landmarks Commission decided to create an historic district which they named St. Botolph Architectural Conservation District. Here is the link to the PDF of the study of the neighborhood. There are many more studies digitized (regardless of outcome) on the Boston Landmarks Commission site at this link.

What Can You Do from Home?

I chose to use this as a case study because I knew I would be likely to be able to visit at least one of Florence’s former home sites in person. However, I am also using the atlases to locate relatives’ homes that I am much less likely to visit in person, and I imagine many readers similarly utilize maps of locations which they are unlikely to be able to visit in the forseeable future. So what can a researcher do if they can’t visit in person and can’t find someone else willing and able to visit in their place?

While it was most satisfying to me to do the research partially by visiting in person, most of what I did could have been done without visiting. I could have used a street-view site and web searches to try to verify that buildings such as the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society and Garrison Hall were still there, or to research them even if they weren’t still extant. I could have also done more research from home to confirm that the modern numbering on Huntington Ave. is different than the numbering on the map; for example, looking up the street addresses of the businesses shown on Google Maps would have likely shown that the numbering was slightly off what it used to be.

I discovered the Boston Landmarks Commission report on the neighborhood by doing a web search for information on the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society, so if I had been researching the buildings shown near Florence’s home on the map, I would have found the report regardless of whether I had visited the location. I found additional information on the neighborhood at the Massachusetts Historical Society’s site by doing a web search for the Massachusetts Mechanics Charitable Association, another building listed on the map. The Boston Landmarks Commission report was the most helpful single source because they had done such extensive research on the neighborhood since they had a vested interest in their research being accurate. If someone else has already done good research on a subject of interest, there’s no sense in duplicating their work.

A Few Final Cautions

  1. Keep in mind that street numbers may have changed, possibly only slightly.
  2. Remember that, as they themselves warn, all addresses are approximate on virtual “on the ground” sites like Google Street View. Unless you can actually visibly see a street number, don’t assume that the building shown is the exact street address you are seeking.
  3. Remember that a building that looks period may have been built later but designed to fit in with older buildings in the area or designed with a retro architectural style. Always try to verify that a building is as old as it looks or as its design suggests. Similarly, an old building may have had cosmetic changes that may make it look newer than it really is; just because a building looks newer than the period you are researching, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not the building you seek.



I have created another blog where I am transcribing a journal I inherited of a year one of my American ancestors spent in Victorian Paris; it is called Addie’s Sojourn.

Yes, I am still going to finish the rest of my posts on IAJGS 2013 and post them. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to do so. They take so much time to write that I decided it was finally time to go ahead and post a couple of other blog posts while I am still working on the IAJGS 2013 drafts.

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