Posts Tagged ‘mill girls’

This past week, for the first time I had the pleasure of attending the New England Regional Genealogical Conference (known as “NERGC,” and pronounced sort of like “nerk”). NERGC is held every two years in various places in New England, mostly small cities. This year NERGC was held in Manchester, New Hampshire, about an hour’s drive from metropolitan Boston, and I was able to find people with whom to carpool each day.

NERGC opened with a first-timers’ session, which folks recommended I simply skip as they thought the information in it would be too basic for me. After the session I talked with another first-timer who did attend it and said that there wasn’t any useful-to-them information given in the session, so I was glad that I had decided to socialize instead. In the lobby of the hotel where the conference was being held, I met Heather Wilkinson Rojo of the well-known blog Nutfield Genealogy in person for the first time after meeting her online a number of years ago, and saw many other people.

Next on the schedule was what the program called the “opening session,” which was comparable to what many other conferences and events term a “keynote speech.” While I was waiting in the crowd to enter the big hall, another person waiting said that as of that morning, there were 863 people registered for NERGC. While as a first-timer to NERGC I don’t have a basis on which to compare this, reactions of others to that number and generally to the large crowds for the venue suggested that this was a lot for this conference.

For the main speech of the opening session, Sandra Clunies discussed the mill workers of Lawrence and Lowell, towns in Massachusetts that were built on the mill trade, spending a fair portion of her lecture on three specific example mill workers. As regular readers of my blog know, some of my family lived in Vermont starting in the 1700’s. One of my ancestors was born on a farm to a large family. My ancestor was the oldest child and stayed in Vermont, but his three oldest sisters sized up their options in the small, mostly rural Vermont community and decided to head to the booming mill towns around the time they opened in eastern Massachusetts. There is a very good chance that they were introduced to mill recruiting materials in their town and it is quite possible that one of the mill agents actually visited their town, as the agents knew that girls and young women from small farming communities were excellent candidates to recruit to mill work and traveled around talking with them and urging them to sign contracts with the mill they represented and leave immediately. [I have had a partially written post on his sisters and the mills in my blog draft file for months; hopefully one of these days I will finally finish and post it.]

Like one of Sandra Clunies’s three main example research subjects, my ancestor’s sisters made money and met husbands there. All three of his sisters married in Massachusetts and then literally went in different directions from there. I had hoped to gain new insight into the mill towns via the lecture, but as someone from one of the mill towns whom I met at a later lecture phrased it regarding themselves, “I already knew too much.” That’s certainly not Sandra Clunies’s fault.

For anyone who has an interest in the New England mill towns, I recommend reading Loom & Spindle: or, Life Among the Early Mill Girls by Harriet H. Robinson. I particularly recommend the revised edition that was published in 1976 by Press Pacifica. Future abolitionist and suffragist Harriet Hanson Robinson started working in the Lowell, Massachusetts, mills in 1835 at age 10, and Loom & Spindle is the memoir that she published decades later reflecting on her early life in the mills. Press Pacifica slightly revised the work based on notes in Robinson’s own copy of her book and added a succinct, informative introduction by Jane Wilkins Pultz that greatly helped me understand the mill girls’ politics and lives.

Next up was a break, for attendees to have lunch and for the venue to break the large hall where we had heard Clunies speak into smaller rooms for the afternoon lectures; at the end of the talk they requested everyone leave the hall so they could do just that.

After lunch I first attended Laura Prescott’s talk entitled “Spinsters and Widows: Gender Loyalty within Families.” The description led some of the other people I knew there to suspect the lecture would be too basic for them, and as far as I am aware, I am the only person I knew there who attended it. This was a shame, as I enjoyed it and did not find it overly basic. She started out talking about more and more American women waiting longer to marry starting around the mid-1800’s, and cited some specific examples of stories and songs from pop culture of the time period. This is something that I have noticed in my own research, but I had not heard the subject addressed in a genealogy lecture I attended before.

Laura Prescott then moved on to a variety of strategies researchers can use in researching the women in their families, including a variety of types of documents, websites, and repositories. I thought it was particularly interesting that she had found a document in a 19th-century American deed book wherein a woman who had waited some time to marry and thus accumulated some of her own belongings before marriage entered into a contract with her future husband, with a detailed list of a number of her belongings and a statement that these belongings were to be brought to a house secured by her future husband and his family in a specific town. Laura Prescott said she basically thought of it as an early prenup. I don’t think I would personally think of it in those exact terms, but I’m always fascinated to learn there is a record type of which I had previously been unaware.

The other thing I found most noteworthy about Laura Prescott’s talk was that she cited some examples of “spinster” being used in colonial documents to mean a woman legally acting for herself rather than the definition many of us most often encounter, a woman who has never married. When I heard it I didn’t remember ever hearing it before, though on the car ride home I was reminded that Melinde Lutz Byrne gave the same explanation in her National Genealogical Society Quarterly [U. S.] article on Zipporah and the headless baby. This is a good example that sometimes we just forget things! The article Laura Prescott suggested reading for more information is “Spinster: An Indicator of Legal Status” by Eugene A. Stratton, CG, FASG, in The American Genealogist 61:3 (Jan/Apr 1986).

I next attended David Allen Lambert’s talk titled “Massachusetts Native American Research.” Despite the schedule’s title, the description made it clear to me that this was not a general lecture geared towards learning how to research any southern New England Native American tribe, but rather a case study of the tribe known as the Punkapoag. I had already attended a talk of the former type at the Boston Public Library last year so I did not mind. I spent a semester of college living on a Reservation in British Columbia and traveling to other Native communities (or more precisely, “to other First Nations,” as it is phrased in Canada), and Native American tribes’ histories and cultures remain of interest to me. I found the lecture very interesting, though I don’t know how I would summarize it here. The audience for this lecture was one of the smallest of any of the lectures I attended at NERGC, which was too bad.

One thing that especially stuck with me is that David Lambert gave a few examples of people for whom he has only found one extant document for their entire life, and it made him wonder about all the people for whom he has not found any. This is something I think about a fair amount in my own research, especially when I am researching farther back in time and/or researching in frontier areas of North America.

The last lecture I attended on Thursday was Colleen Fitzpatrick’s “You Will Never Look at Your Old Photos the Same Way Again!” Forensic genealogy expert and retired rocket scientist Colleen Fitzpatrick gave several lectures at NERGC, and I chose to attend this one on using background details to help analyze old photos because I felt that it could be immediately useful in helping me to identify my old photos that have no date, no place, and/or no people listed. I was right.

Colleen Fitzpatrick successfully analyzed bits of background details that it never would have occurred to me to even attempt to do. My favorite example was her longest one, of trying to date a photograph of some men in a bar in New Orleans. She picked apart every background detail she could, including the cash register and the items on the wall, and when those didn’t successfully identify the date, she moved on to the items you could barely see outside the bar through the door, such as a car you could kind of see that she and the people she works with were able to identify as a particular type of Model-T, and the first manufacture date of the car gave a precise earliest date that the photo could have been taken. By the end of her work with the photograph, she was able to pinpoint the exact street address of the bar, the approximate date that the client’s ancestor took over the bar, the business across the street, and an approximately year-long time range when the photograph could have been taken.

In the process Colleen Fitzpatrick also found a number of background-information items that she considered interesting but which turned out not to help date the photograph. However, as she illustrated well, there is no way to know for sure whether something in the background of a photograph (or mentioned in a document, or…) will be useful in photo identification or other research until you do the background research and determine whether it is. This is very much the same way I work when I am researching so I found her process very easy to follow and understand. At the end Colleen Fitzpatrick took questions. Someone asked her what software she uses and she said that she does not use PhotoShop but rather freeware called IrfanView. I intend to try it out, but haven’t done so yet.

After the last lecture of the day, there was a structured hour-long break, followed at 5:15 by the “Society Fair & Social Hour” and at 6:00 by the opening of the “Exhibit Hall.” The Society Fair was comprised mostly of some of the smaller genealogical societies, most of them geographically- or surname-based. The vendors in the Exhibit Hall were primarily a mix of genealogical societies and libraries; genealogical services such as educational opportunities, websites, and professional genealogy companies; and private vendors selling such items as books and maps. Thanks to a tip from someone I know, I stopped by the Genealogical Society of Vermont‘s booth to check out the old books they turned out to be selling there in addition to their own publications. I ended up spending much of my hall time looking through their old books and chatting with the volunteers that were staffing their booth.

While we were chatting one of the Genealogical Society of Vermont’s volunteers told me a story regarding Vermont-born Chester Arthur, who was elected Vice President of the United States and then assumed the presidency when President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. Arthur’s father had emigrated from northern Ireland to Canada, and their nuclear family had initially lived in Canada before moving to Vermont. Though Arthur was born after the family moved to Vermont, the question of whether or not he was an American citizen was a hot political topic during the campaign. The volunteer I was chatting with said that he had attended an event at Arthur’s historic house in Vermont where the staff said that having been unable to prove Arthur’s Vermont birth through vital records or other similar records, the staff had used state directories (small Vermont’s equivalent of city or county directories elsewhere) to prove that the family was residing in Vermont by the time Arthur was born.

I arrived home in metro Boston around 8:30-8:45 and was in bed by 9:30, before the shootout that night between the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and police in nearby Watertown, Massachusetts, had made the news, as I would discover very early the next morning.


Some Tangential Further Thoughts

I know that often people who don’t normally visit a blog will visit certain posts specifically to read about conferences and other special events, so I’m putting most of my personal reflections and more tangential thoughts on each day at NERGC at the end of the post so these visitors don’t need to wade through them to read the rest of the post. Think of them as paragraph-sized bullet points rather than a narrative. You are of course welcome to simply skip this section.

For those of you that have never been to a genealogical conference before, it can kind of be a bit overwhelming, with a mix of information overload and sensory overload. I had hoped to blog during NERGC about the conference, but found that I was just too overwhelmed and tired to do so. I apologize that this first post is being posted a week after the conference. I am working on drafts for my other two days at NERGC as well as a draft of some general food for thought about what various genealogy conferences are doing well and some ideas they could maybe take from the way other conferences do some things. I hope to post all of these within the next few days or so.

My Thursday afternoon lecture choices were ones I consider pretty safe. I had heard both Laura Prescott and David Lambert speak on other subjects in the past, and a number of fellow alumni of Boston University’s Center for Professional Education’s Certificate in Genealogical Research Program had taken the Forensic Genealogy course that Colleen Fitzpatrick co-taught at Boston University last summer and raved about her teaching skills. Some genealogists I know prefer to stick to the well-known names in lecturing and teaching because they feel that guarantees a good lecture. But those well-known names became that way because someone initially gave them a chance. Personally I prefer to go to lectures by people I have heard before, speakers and/or lectures that are recommended by people I know, or subjects about which I am interested in learning more. This last one means that I have heard some dud lectures in my lifetime, but it also means that I have heard some gems where I was one of only a handful of people in the room.

One of my good friends says that there are two kinds of genealogists, the type that are interested narrowly and very specifically in genealogy and are only interested in  any history that they believe is directly applicable to their research, and the type that are also interested in history for history’s sake. As readers that are my friends and/or follow me on Twitter are likely already aware, I fall squarely in the latter category. I enjoyed David Lambert’s Punkapoag lecture for its own sake, but I can understand why attendance was small and most attendees chose to instead go to lectures that they hoped would directly* impact their research. (*Almost everyone I saw at NERGC seemed to be white, though of course I can’t speak to other people’s heritage nor research interests.)

As someone without a car, I am limited in what events I can attend by what is accessible by public transit or knowing someone with a car who is attending and willing to take me along. I count myself as lucky that I was able to carpool to NERGC this year and greatly thank those that carpooled with me and the additional person that offered to carpool after I had arranged all my rides.


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