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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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Thus far I have used my “52 Ancestors” posts to highlight people about whom I already know a lot. This week I want to take a look at someone whose origins remain a mystery. Elizabeth Fletcher lived in Chemung County, New York, which was carved from Tioga County, New York. Her town of residence was similarly carved: Horseheads was originally considered a part of Elmira, then carved out from Elmira into its own town, and the small village (in New York it’s technically a “hamlet”) where they lived, Breesport, has always been a subset of Horseheads. So Elizabeth lived in a subset of a second subset of a town. The earliest event I have for Elizabeth is her marriage to Charles Pierson Brees/Breese on 28 Feb 1829 in Veteran, Tioga County, New York, performed by Justice of the Peace Nathaniel Smith. Like Elmira, Veteran was in the part of Tioga County that would subsequently become Chemung County; Veteran was on the northern edge of the area that would become Chemung County, and the town from which it had been formed in 1823, Catharine, would become part of Schuyler County when the new counties were formed from Tioga County. All of this shows how important it is to know precisely where someone lived – always in my opinion but most especially in any area where boundaries changed over time.

Elizabeth and Charles had six sons. I know her maiden name because of an enumerator who included more information than he was required to do, and I know their marriage date and location because their youngest son, Sylvester Fletcher Brees/Breese (usually known as Fletcher), enlisted in the 50th New York Engineers of the Union Army during the Civil War and died of disease at the hospital in City Point, Virginia, less than three months after enlisting. Fletcher was only 19 years old when he died. Elizabeth applied for a parent’s pension, for which parents who were financially dependent on a child who died serving in the Union Army during the war were eligible. As you may already know, most parents’ pensions were proved by the parent sending letters from their child in with the pension, where the child said, for example, that they were sending part of their Union Army pay back to the parent with the letter; the letters were never returned, even though it may have been the last letter the parent ever received from their dead child, and they remain in the pension files today, now held at NARA in Washington, D. C.

Elizabeth & Charles's household on the 1865 NY state census

Elizabeth and Charles’s household on the 1865 New York state census, followed by the household of their married son John. The enumerator for this part of Chemung County, New York, took the unusual step of listing the maiden names of married women. Also note that Fletcher is enumerated here though he was dead by this time; this was so that his Civil War service could be enumerated (see the other image in this post). From ED 01, p. 17, of the Chemung County, New York, state census; in the FamilySearch images, it is image 9 of 24. (Image courtesy of FamilySearch.)

Elizabeth presumably didn’t have letters from Fletcher – I’m not even sure if Fletcher knew how to write – as she took the more unusual tack of soliciting testimony from neighbors and others, which were given as affidavits and are in her file. The testimony paints a dire picture of Elizabeth and Charles’s life on the margins of society. Charles had trained as a blacksmith, like his father before him, and Elizabeth and Charles lived on a very small farm. According to testimony, Charles’s physical and mental health problems had made it increasingly difficult for him to practice his smithing trade, and the tiny farm was on marginal land that barely produced enough to minimally feed the couple. Elizabeth’s testimony says she “has also been obligated to provide for the support of the father (i.e. her husband) ever since the enlistment of said Sylvester…” Unfortunately her testimony does not provide specifics on how she did this. Elizabeth’s and her neighbors’ testimony says that Fletcher had started working as a farm hand on other farms when he was about twelve years old and had used the money to support his parents before enlisting. Whether we as historians can believe testimony is always a question; even in modern courts some people believe testimony they hear “live” and others don’t. What I can say for sure is that the Pension Bureau believed the testimony, because Elizabeth was awarded a parents’ pension.

Civil War service of men living in ED01 of Chemung County, New York

Like many state censuses taken in Union states during the Civil War, enumerators in New York were asked to collect information on the service of people in their district for the 1865 New York state census. This is one of two blanks for reports of service of those in this part of the enumeration, and as instructed, the enumerator included information on which people were taken prisoner and/or had died. Sylvester and Corydon are the second and third people listed here. The listing for Sylvester says he died of Malaria Fever, which is different than what his Compiled Military Service Record says. The listing for Corydon reports his experience as a prisoner of war; Corydon was still serving at the time of the enumeration. (Image courtesy of FamilySearch.)

The pension file story doesn’t end there, though. Elizabeth died in 1876 and Charles, widowed and living alone, applied for a parent’s pension of his own. For his application to be approved, he had to prove his relationships – that he was married to Elizabeth and the father of the child through which Elizabeth had drawn a pension. That’s where Elizabeth’s marriage details show up in the pension file – not in her own application, but in her widower Charles’s. His testimony also includes that he had a “family Record” which was “in the hand writing of Elizabeth Brees wife of deponent and mother of said soldier who died,” and the Notary Public copied information about Sylvester from this record to send to the Pension Bureau. The current whereabouts of this family record, if it exists at all, are unknown.

Charles’s application also provides the detail that they had been married by Justice of the Peace Nathaniel Smith and that as far as they knew, there was no written record of the marriage. Nathaniel Smith had moved away long ago, and Charles had attempted to locate his whereabouts. The pension file includes an affidavit from someone who knew Elizabeth, Charles, and Nathaniel and who reported that Nathaniel had “removed from the said town of Veteran according to deponent best recollection about the year 1840 to one of the Western States (Illinois),” and that Nathaniel had died many years prior to Charles’s application. So Charles got someone else to give testimony that she had attended Elizabeth and Charles’s wedding. I always like when an application for something like a pension hits a snafu, as it generates additional records which provide additional details.

Most records list Elizabeth’s birth location as “Vermont” if they list it at all; at least one adult child lists her birth place as Montpelier, Vermont, on a record. However, so far I have not found Elizabeth in Montpelier or elsewhere in Vermont, and her birth family remains a mystery.

The information in this post illustrates very well how researching American women in the past generally primarily involves researching records regarding the men in their lives – such as their fathers and brothers, and their husband(s) and/or son(s) if they were married and/or had children. Most of what I know about Elizabeth comes from records generated by the actions of her youngest son and her husband/widower. This is not to suggest that Elizabeth was a passive participant in circumstance, simply that, for example, she applied for a pension because Fletcher made the ultimate sacrifice of his life; without his actions, she would not have been able to apply and there would be no pension file. However, it was Elizabeth’s choice to apply, and given that it was more difficult for an application to be successful without written letters from the financially supportive son, the fact that her pension was approved says something about Elizabeth’s application and the perceived credibility of Elizabeth and of the witnesses she chose to speak on her behalf.

The children of Elizabeth and Charles Brees/Breese:

  1. Erasmus Darwin (1831-1914) [went by Darwin], m. Amanda ___
  2. John P. (1833-1907), m. Harriet [Dean?]
  3. Charles F. (1836-1887), m. Sarah ___
  4. William Henry (1839-1855)
  5. Corydon (1841-1938), m. 1st Ann Tanner, m. 2nd Elizabeth (___) Daugherty
  6. Sylvester Fletcher (1845-1864)

Elizabeth and Charles are buried at Breesport Baptist Church Cemetery in Breesport, Chemung County, New York, but some of their family is buried at Hilltop Cemetery, also in Breesport, New York.

Further Research

  • A document compiled by Pension Bureau staff says that Elizabeth had recently purchased a small lot with money left to her by a deceased brother. Unfortunately it does not list the brother’s name nor where he had lived. So far the probate in question has not been located, but the search continues.
  • Evidence garnered to date suggests that Elizabeth’s husband Charles’s family moved from New Jersey directly to the Horseheads area. Thus, their marriage in Veteran could have been due to Elizabeth’s ties to the town rather than Charles’s, since as far as I have been able to determine so far, Charles does not appear to have had any connections to Veteran at the time. There were three Fletcher households enumerated in Tioga County on the 1820 U. S. federal census, though none were enumerated in Catharine. Since Elizabeth did not marry until 1829 in Veteran, it is quite possible that she and/or one or more relatives moved to the area after the 1820 census. So far nothing conclusive has been found, but research is continuing. However, Nathaniel Smith, who married them, lived in Veteran according to the pension file, so that could have been the reason they married there.
  • Regardless of the above, Elizabeth must have moved to Chemung County for some reason, and investigations into possible family connections to the area continue.
  • Presuming Elizabeth correctly self-reported a birth place of Vermont, investigation into what would have made someone go from Vermont to southern New York – whether she did so as a child with her family or a young woman on her own – may provide clues to her family and/or exactly where in Vermont she would have been most likely to have originated.
  • Hope remains that someday the family record mentioned in the testimony will surface intact.

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NOTES

My 2011 post “Civil War court martials” is about Elizabeth and Charles’s son Corydon, though I didn’t mention him by name in the post.

Another researcher has listed at various sites online that Fletcher died at Gettysburg. Not only did he die over a year after the Battle of Gettysburg, but he hadn’t even enlisted yet when the 50th NY Engineers were at the Battle of Gettysburg, completely refuting any possible argument that he belatedly died of injuries sustained at Gettysburg. Please check original sources yourself whenever they are extant – don’t take anyone’s word for anything!

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