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Posts Tagged ‘researching’

Those of you that live in places where you bring individual trash cans to the curb have probably been in this situation before: One of your neighbors has taken their trash can(s) to the curb, and then another sees the curbside can(s) and does the same, and soon most of them have. You’re pretty sure that there was a holiday this week and that trash pickup has been delayed by one day. But the more people who bring their cans up, the more you start to wonder whether you’re correctly remembering. Perhaps you even double-check the calendar to make sure you are right. But in historical and genealogical research, there is no calendar to check. When the majority choose a different argument or interpretation from yours, you may find yourself looking for a signpost in the scholarly wilderness. People may write a piece disputing your research or contact you directly to express that your conclusions are inaccurate.

In researching historical events and people, none of us will ever know for sure what actually happened. The best we can do is come as close to accuracy as we can with the records and other resources available to us, reach our own interpretations and conclusions, and then always be willing to reexamine them if new records and/or research come to light. This makes research especially contentious, since even something as simple-seeming as an historical birth date can be up for debate.

“Truth is not a democracy”

The subheading is from a seminar I attended several years ago, and was the initial response when an audience member asked a question about when the majority disagrees with your conclusions. It’s a quip that has always stuck with me, because I have found over and over again that just because most people agree on something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best interpretation of the evidence, nor that the others have necessarily reviewed all the records and other evidence that you have reviewed. When I’m contacted by someone who disagrees with my conclusions, my own starting point is usually: Can you please tell me your evidence for your position?

Take the case of the two Simeon Lymans as an example. Simeon Lyman the father was born circa 1718, probably in Northampton, Massachusetts, as his family was living there at the time. Simeon moved to Salisbury, Connecticut, around 1744, as he bought 85 acres on the “highway to Sheffield” from Joel Harvey in that year. In 1747, Simeon was officially admitted as a “resident” of the town of Salisbury according to the town meeting minutes, which included the ability to vote at town meetings. In January 1748/9 he followed these steps with the common next step of marriage. Like most New England families of this era, Simeon and his wife Elizabeth (Beebe) Lyman proceeded to have a lot of children; in their particular case, I have identified nine, including children named after each parent, again as was typical. Their nuclear family was shattered when Elizabeth died in 1773, on the eve of the Revolution. A little over a year later, a Simeon Lyman married an Abigail Chipman in Salisbury.

And this is where the controversy begins.

I had been as thorough as I could, and had also found that a Simeon Lyman had married a Joanna Palmer in 1780. Simeon Lyman the younger was born on 7 January 1754, meaning that he would have been 20 if he had married Abigail Chipman in 1774, and 26 if he married Joanna Palmer in 1780. Is it possible that Simeon the younger married Abigail and Simeon the elder (or some other Simeon) married Joanna? Of course. But it makes a heck of a lot more sense for the widower who still has children at home to remarry quickly and for the young man to wait until he’s a bit more established to marry. And that’s not even getting into the question of ages and how much more sense it generally makes for an older man to marry a woman relatively close in age to him (Abigail was born circa 1730) and a younger man to do the same, and indeed, the Simeon-Joanna pair proceeded to have children of their own. My initial theory was greatly bolstered by reviewing Joanna’s Revolutionary War widow’s pension file, in which affidavits clearly state that she married the younger Simeon.

This has been an extremely basic overview of time-consuming research that I feel is solid. Having noted that most posted research conflated Simeon’s two wives into a single wife (squashing the maiden name of his first wife and the given name of his second wife into a single wife, probably copied uncited from a compiled genealogy that had made the same error), I decided to put a basic sketch of my research on Simeon the elder online, not realizing at the time that it might be controversial beyond the conflated Abigail-Elizabeth question. And that’s when the emails began.

You’ve made a mistake, they said: Simeon the younger married Abigail.

The first time I got one, my initial response was (as usual) to go back over my research to see if I had made an error that was obvious to me. I was relieved when my review confirmed that my conclusions were, to me, solid conclusions based on extensive research and what I considered a preponderance of evidence. However, as I have mentioned, the nature of historical research means conclusions can always change depending on what evidence and research an individual researcher has viewed.

Consequently, I would respond, Can you please tell me your evidence?

They would usually respond, Ancestry. Could you please be more specific? And then I would usually get, U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900. This is an index-only database that is described by Ancestry thusly: “This database contains marriage record information for approximately 1,400,000 individuals from across all 50 United States and 32 different countries around the world between 1560 and 1900. These records, which include information on over 500 years of marriages, were extracted from family group sheets, electronic databases, biographies, wills, and other sources.” None of the entries specify what the exact source is for a marriage, but given that the entry for Simeon and Abigail claims that Simeon was born in 1755 and that Abigail was born in 1757, neither of which is true, I don’t think it is an unfair educated guess to speculate that a family group sheet created by a rather bad researcher is probably the source.

So then I was left trying to explain that I had done hundreds of hours of research on the family and popping a name into an Ancestry search box and coming back with an index-only result is not a substitute for that. Finally I added a note to my posted research that if anyone wanted to contact me disputing what I posted, to please present me with evidence from records, and that I don’t count an unsourced index-only database entry as a record. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but nobody has emailed me since I added that note.

As a final aside on the Lymans in case anyone reached this post through searching on the family, Simeon Lyman the younger carved the powder horn that J. L. Bell blogged about over on Boston 1775 in 2012.

Discovering a new path in the scholarly wilderness

Sometimes something very different happens and you find something that it appears no one else has previously found. Sometimes everyone is immediately accepting of and excited about it. But sometimes not.

Late last year Susan Moore was going through a 16th century record set in England on my behalf and sent me a report about it. I found something in it that I had never seen mentioned anywhere before and was initially taken aback. I first wrote to ask if Susan thought I was correctly interpreting it. Then I checked through published scholarship to see if I had missed its being mentioned, and I could not find a mention of it anywhere.

I am lucky enough to live in a location where I often interact in person with well-established scholars, and I happened to be somewhere with someone who has researched this shortly thereafter, and mentioned it with excitement. It went over like a lead balloon; the response was deep skepticism. After going back and forth about it in my mind a good deal, I decided to try talking to a second scholar before giving up, and their initial response was the same as mine had been – to check published scholarship to see if anyone had mentioned it previously. They could not find anything either. They then congratulated me on making what appeared to be a new find and suggested Susan and I keep plugging away at the research to see what else we could find. (I’m not really sure how I constrained myself from doing a little dance until I was alone.) I readily admit that if the second scholar had similarly reacted with skepticism, I probably would have stopped trying to talk to people about it, although I wouldn’t have given up on the research altogether. Make no mistake that it can be a little scary and/or somewhat intimidating to posit something different than what has been publicly posited before you. Since this experience, I have even more respect for people who have published pieces correcting or disputing previous published research.

I apologize for my vagueness in this part; I hope to be able to publish something about this after having completed further research, and don’t want to spill the beans publicly as a result.

Alone with the research trees

It can be hard to be the one person who doesn’t take your trash cans to the curb on the wrong day, even if you’ve checked the calendar and know that your neighbors have forgotten about a holiday. Similarly, it can be difficult to know that people vehemently disagree with your research, even if you know that your research is as good as it can be and have faith in your own interpretations. In my opinion, part of being a good researcher is being open to being wrong or to discovering new information, and also reviewing your research from time to time to see if your greater knowledge now leads you to question one of your earlier conclusions or realize perhaps there is something you missed reviewing because you did not know it existed at the time. It’s important to read the research of others and to collaborate with others, but it’s also important to remember that others are not necessarily going to agree with you and that this in and of itself doesn’t speak badly of either of you.

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Almost any time a website that’s used by a lot of people gets a major overhaul, there are likely to be unhappy people. Ancestry has been rolling out its latest website redesign; so far it’s available to people who log in to the “.com” version, and so far users can choose to switch back, though Ancestry warns when you do so that the version you are leaving will become the only version in the future. I don’t really care for the new profile style for people you’ve saved to your family tree, which seems designed primarily for people without much experience, to try to help them see what sources they have and realize maybe they should add some more. But what particularly concerns me is their new “LifeStory” view, which you can view from any profile in your family tree. This seems to be trying too hard to shoehorn people into more events that Ancestry has estimated will matter to them. Following are a couple of specific examples from my own tree.

My ancestor’s sister Jane (Evans) Brimacombe died on 29 June 1900 in Bideford, Devon, England. Ancestry apparently really, really wants to make English women’s suffrage relevant to Jane’s LifeStory. The result is an added event that (erroneously) implies that English women won the right to vote in 1900:

Jane Evans LifeStory view screenshot

Screenshot of LifeStory view implying that English women won the right to vote in 1900.

I know enough about British history to know right away that this implication was incorrect. But what of others who also live outside the UK and perhaps don’t? Or what if an event is more obscure and people take Ancestry’s word for it that the event happened when and where Ancestry says it did?

There is a second problem with their implication. Maybe suffrage was a part of Jane’s life though she died before women won the right to vote, and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe she was against it; maybe she had no opinion. Maybe if she had lived till women won the right to vote, she wouldn’t have registered anyway. Without specific records, there’s no way to know what Jane’s opinion and/or actions was/were, or whether she voiced any opinion on it at all.

The other issue I have discovered so far is a more personal one for people. Anyone who has been doing genealogical research for a decent length of time has probably discovered that the things uncovered can be touchy subjects and that people have always been as complicated and multilayered as they are today. Ancestry’s “LifeStory” view inserts events from a person’s family into their tree with no understanding of the nuances involved, because it is a program, not a person. Here is a specific example from my own tree:

Screenshot of Ancestry StoryView of William Buse Evans

Screenshot of William Buse Evans’s LifeStory view on Ancestry, implying that he was living with his daughter and cared that she had died.

This implies that my ancestor’s brother William Buse Evans actually cared when his daughter Ursula died, but as the different locations of each of them at around the same time might indicate, he probably didn’t even know of her death. His daughter died in a Union Workhouse, where she and her sister had been placed while William had moved to another city and married again. I tested this in my tree and could find no way to remove an event that’s related to a person’s family member, nor even to edit it, though I wanted to at least add something like “…and William very likely didn’t even know.” If this is mildly irritating to me as someone who never even met these people, I can’t imagine how upsetting or irritating it could potentially be to someone who had information inserted about people whom they knew or whom living family members had known.

I understand what Ancestry is trying to do with LifeStory view. But what it’s shown to me instead is that no computer software or algorithm can replace the thinking and processing of real people with real knowledge of the people, events, and records.

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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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In my last post, I discussed Finding probates 1858-1995 in England and Wales, including that I had ordered some wills through the UK government’s new online ordering system. Now that I have received the wills, I wanted to post again to discuss the process. The system estimated that the wills would be ready to download on January 7th, and as I blogged, I wasn’t sure whether the system took holidays into account. I’m still not sure if they do, but the wills were ready to download on January 9th, which is comparable to the estimated time vs. actual time that someone tweeted to me that they had experienced while I was waiting to receive mine. However, the system did not notify me by email until the evening of January 13th my time. At first I thought maybe the email had been temporarily lost in transit, but I checked the full email header and nope, it said that the email was sent shortly after midnight on January 14th GMT. So if you are waiting for a will, I would strongly suggest logging into your account yourself once a day starting on the day the system has estimated it should be ready rather than relying on a timely email notification.

When I did log in I discovered that if there was a problem retrieving the will, the download page itself won’t tell you; you’ll download what you think is a will, and instead you’ll open a form letter notifying you that they haven’t been able to locate the file you ordered and giving you some ideas as to what might have gone wrong. It is through this letter, not the website, that I discovered for sure what the handwritten numbers by some entries in the Probate Calendar are – they’re folio numbers, and if there’s a handwritten one by your Calendar entry, you have to include it in your order. If the probate service doesn’t find the will you request, they keep the search fee (which is a common policy) and you will have to pay a new search fee if you want to try again.

I also had a mysterious problem – the system showed that each of my wills should be ready to download, but the final one listed didn’t have any file to download. After spending about 20 or 30 minutes looking around the website for who to contact, I finally contacted the email address that’s listed for “feedback” and said that if that wasn’t the right address, to please forward my problem to whomever was appropriate. I immediately got an automated response that showed that it is the address to email with problems and questions as well as with feedback, which at least to me, the site doesn’t really make clear. They responded quickly; their email said there was a technical error with displaying that file and somewhat implied that there should have been one of those form-letter files saying that my will hadn’t been found, but since their email was not completely clear on the latter point, I wrote again saying I wasn’t sure if that was what they meant and asking them to verify whether it was. I’m really glad that I did, as it turned out that was not the real problem. After four more days, they emailed me an apology for the confusion and attached a copy of the will I’d requested.

The scans of the wills themselves are good. They come as PDFs and include the probate proceedings page(s) as well as the actual will. You can also order administrations; since those had no will (or a will that had been ruled inadmissible), those files are only probate proceedings. The administrations don’t have very much detail, so whether it’s worth ordering one would probably depend on your reasons for wanting it. In my case, I ordered one administration as well as some wills, and the administration provided me with some information that I hadn’t found elsewhere and got me closer to finding a living relative on that line. Wills themselves are also always a gamble – you never know until you view it how much detail it will have or how much it will (or won’t) help you. In my small sampling of wills, I received everything from a brief will where the person left everything to their spouse, who was also their executor, and a several-page will where someone died without living descendants and left a variety of items and money to their siblings, their grand-nieces and grand-nephews (including specifying which were the children of deceased siblings), and their long-time housekeeper (with the qualifier that she was still in their employ at their death), and they included exact addresses in other countries for their relatives who had emigrated from the UK. And thanks to the new ordering system, all of that information was downloaded to my computer for a fee of just ten pounds.

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The UK government recently debuted their own free site for their Probate Calendar, previously only readily accessible online on pay site Ancestry. It has been up for a bit, but made waves yesterday (December 27th) because the UK government issued a press release about it. I hadn’t explored the site until the new waves because I already use the Probate Calendar on Ancestry and had read reviews from some other researchers that the search engine on the UK government’s site was less practical if you were searching for someone with a common name, as it only allowed you to search for the surname for probates from 1858 to 1995, not the given name, location, or other limiting parameters. But after it made so much fresh news I decided to explore the site, partly because based on the press release and the buzz around it, I wasn’t completely clear that it was still the same site that had recently gone up, with capabilities just to search the Probate Calendar, until I searched myself and discovered this. The first thing I want to stress, because in my opinion the press release didn’t make this clear unless you read the “Notes to editors” bullet points at the end, and some people/sites who have shared it may have unintentionally added to the confusion, is that it’s still the Probate Calendar that’s free to view on the site, not original wills themselves. You use the site to find entries for wills/probates and then use the information you have found to order copies for a fee through the site’s ordering system.

In my test searches I wanted to start with people I already knew how to find, so I began with a 1919 death and probate whose probate I have yet to order. I plugged in the surname and the year he died (the only parameters allowed by the 1858-1995 search engine) and up popped the first page of the surname in the 1919 Probate Calendar. The site told me that there were 9 relevant pages total in 1919 and allowed me a few options – next page, next year, and zoom. I paged through until I found the right person in the Probate Calendar. It was surprisingly fast and easy for the surname Davis (perhaps the surname is more common here in the States by this point than it is in England), though since I already knew I would find what I was seeking, that may have influenced my opinion. In my searching I discovered something that I hadn’t personally seen anyone mention in their pre-press-release reviews – the Probate Calendar scanned on the UK government’s site includes notes, presumably made by staff into the copy that was scanned. It was particularly glaring on the first page that came up in my first test search because underneath a 1919 Probate Calendar entry, a handwritten note added, “Further probate granted 19 January 1934.” However, most of the notes are just numbers written beside entries, including beside the person for whom I searched in my first test search. I am not personally completely clear on what the numbers mean.

My first search had raised a question that I wanted to try to answer with my next test search. While the search engine says to plug in the year the person died, since the pages returned were that year in the Probate Calendar, I had a feeling that what you really needed to input was the year the person’s probate went through, and that any delayed probate wouldn’t show up if you inputted the year the person died rather than the year their estate was probated. This is particularly large an issue in cases like some I have had where a probate went through many years after the person died, sometimes after their surviving spouse finally died. But it could be a problem in smaller ways, too – say, for example, if someone dies in December and their probate isn’t processed till early January. So for my next test of this site, I decided to try one of the crazier cases in my tree, someone who died in 1903 and whose estate was probated a whopping 45 years later. As I suspected, plugging the year of probate (1948) into the search engine for “Year of death” turned up the relevant page. I then tried the actual year of death in the search engine, and was told that there were two pages for the unusual surname for that year, but when I went to the pages, they were only for other surnames that started with RED-.

I next searched for a Davis who died in December 1961 and their estate was probated in January 1962. Again, plugging in 1962 as the death date, even though the Probate Calendar entry was explicit that it was when the estate was probated rather than when he died, was what brought up the entry. This time there were 32 pages to wade through, and I was glad it was someone with a given name early in the alphabet.

These test searches were ones where I already knew the answer, so next I decided to try some searches where I didn’t know what the results would be. This is possible because the Probate Calendar on the UK government’s site goes to 1995 (with a separate search engine going from 1996 to a few weeks before the current date), whereas Ancestry’s Probate Calendar only goes to 1966. I first searched for another of the Redcliffe clan; she and her sister had never married, and her sister had died in 1965 with enough money to have a will. Alma died in 1978 and a search for Redcliffes with a probate in 1978 did not turn up Alma’s probate. With the unusual surname and the way the viewing is set up, it was easy to quickly click through the coming years to check to see if Alma’s probate was belatedly processed. I made it to 1982, when their brother William’s probate turned out to have been processed, before giving up on Alma. I had found their brother’s probate, which had been my next planned search, and I still can’t say for sure that Alma’s probate wasn’t belatedly processed, only that it isn’t on the Probate Calendar as far forward as I searched in this test. After this I searched for another woman who was born with an unusual surname but in this case died with a more common one. Finding Grace (Brimacombe) Davey’s probate was easy – she died in 1973 and her estate turned out to have been probated in 1973, and it only took a few pages of Daveys before I found her entry.

The way the system is set up, as far as I have been able to determine, you can only order 1858-1995 wills through the dialogue boxes that show up in the right sidebar after you perform a search. However, through my testing, I determined that once the ordering sidebar comes up, you can fill in anyone’s information to place an order, not just the person for whom you searched. So if you already have found folks in the Probate Calendar on Ancestry but haven’t obtained their wills yet, you can do a search for anyone and then plug in the information you already have to order the will(s) you want. While a calendar pops up when you go into the sidebar’s “Death Date” and “Probate Date” dialogue boxes, I determined that you can type in the date in the English style (day/month/year) rather than having to toggle through the calendar. Each will costs ten pounds and you can pay by a few different types of credit cards. If you don’t already have an account you will need to create one before you can place your order, but the process is fast and I found it easy to do. Once you place the order you are told an estimated digital delivery date; mine was listed as January 7th for every will I ordered, and the system isn’t clear as to whether it takes governmental holidays into account. The site warns, “You will have 31 days to download your copy of each will, starting from the first day that you log in to see it.”

If you don’t have an idea of the death date and/or are researching a common surname and/or think the person died by 1966, Ancestry’s Probate Calendar is a lot more effective to search since their index includes the given name(s), the death date, the theoretical death place, and the probate registry used. I say “theoretical death place” because in my experience, what they index is almost always where the person typically lived, regardless of whether the Probate Calendar is very specific about them dying somewhere else. If you know where the person’s usual residence was at the time they died, this is probably better since you may not know where they died; but either way, this difference is something to keep in mind while you search Ancestry’s Probate Calendar. But the UK government’s Probate Calendar is great if you do have an idea of the death date, are researching a less common surname or willing to search through many pages of results, and/or believe that the person died after 1966. Plus the UK government’s Probate Calendar is free for anyone with an internet connection, whereas for Ancestry you need to either have a subscription to their UK records collection or access Ancestry Library Edition somewhere that does. And most importantly, non-local researchers now have a way to order wills online, thanks to the new ordering system.

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By all known accounts, Eliza Smith was born around 1867 somewhere in England. Her marriage record says her parents were named Peter and Emily Smith. As far as I have ever been able to determine for sure, Eliza Smith was dropped off by an alien spacecraft in Ontario, Canada, just in time to meet her would-be husband.

In actuality there’s a good chance that Eliza Smith was the 14-year-old English-born servant of the same name in the household of farmers Andrew and Ruth Gillespie in East Zorra Township, Oxford County, Ontario, enumerated on the 1881 census. It would put her in Oxford County – since you can’t wed someone who’s not proximate – and the Gillespies’ next-door neighbors were my Eliza’s future husband’s first cousin and his wife, Abraham and Elizabeth (McKee) Brown, and perhaps a visit to his cousin’s farm was how they met. But the trouble with tracking someone who’s moving around alone is that it’s hard to prove definitively that it’s the same person, even without adding the problem of a common surname.

Regardless of whether she was a servant girl in 1881, Eliza married George Alfred Brown in Woodstock, Oxford County, Ontario, on 29 May 1889. George’s brother Donald Manson Brown, who went by Manson, was one of the witnesses, and the other was named Mary Sim. When they married, George said he was 28 and Eliza said she was 22. Born in what had been known as Canada West at the time, and was by then known as the province of Ontario, George had established himself as a young farmer before the wedding. The family should appear on the 1891 census, but as yet I still haven’t found them.

The young family shortly decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and in 1893 they emigrated from Ontario to Dakota Territory, where they filed a homestead application and George applied for American citizenship, which would automatically naturalize Eliza and their children as well if his application was successful. The wedding had begun a pattern that would continue the rest of their lives: Known relatives serving as witnesses on documents were always from George’s side of the family, and so it was with their homestead application, when George’s brother-in-law William Adams was a witness for their application. George’s brothers Manson and David also moved down to the Upper Plains. William and his wife Mary Louisa (Brown) Adams had moved to Clark County, Dakota Territory, in 1887 and Manson had moved to Clark County in 1890, and it’s likely that George and Eliza followed them there. David moved a bit later, settling in North Dakota after Dakota Territory was split into two states and admitted to the United States.

In 1900 Eliza and George’s family was living in tiny-population Thorpe Township, Clark County, South Dakota, where they were farming, as were Manson’s and Mary Louisa’s families. In 1904 Eliza and George buried their daughter Emma Grace Brown. In 1905, Eliza and George reported on the individual cards of the South Dakota state census that they were living in Mt. Pleasant Township, Clark County, and that George was still a Farmer. Had they chosen bad land for their homestead or given it up for some other reason? I have yet to find Mary Louisa and William on the 1905 state census. In 1910, Eliza and George’s family had apparently slightly moved again to the small farming community of Elrod, Clark County, South Dakota, where Mary Louisa and William were also now living. Meanwhile, Manson’s family was “steady on,” still farming in Thorpe Township. Manson was listed as running a Stock Farm in 1910 while George and William were just listed as Farmers. In 1915 Eliza (whom appears to have been enumerated as Lisa) and George were still in Elrod and George remained a Farmer, but George reported on the individual-index-cards South Dakota state census that he did not own his own home/farm.

Between 1915 and 1920, George and Eliza decided to seek their fortunes anew, and moved again to Aitken County, Minnesota, fairly north in the state next door to where they had been. They left their older children behind in South Dakota when they moved. George’s sister and brother-in-law, Mary Louisa and William Adams, had moved from South Dakota to Aitken County by 1914, when their elderly mother died in Aitken County, having moved down from Ontario to have Mary Louisa take care of her after she developed paralysis.

George and Eliza began operating a dairy farm in Minnesota, and their oldest remaining child, Andrew McKinley Brown (who went by “Mac”), helped out on the farm while the youngest two, Ada Henrietta Brown and George Milton Brown, attended school. The lightly populated township of McGregor, fully enumerated in 8 pages in 1920, appears to have been a heavy dairying area, and with industry column comments like “New Settler” (repeated several times in the 8 pages) and “Hay Farm,” the 1920 enumerator Niels P. Hansen makes me feel like I have been dropped back in time and am walking along with him from farm to farm, standing beside him while he talks to his neighbors. I love record-keepers that are more specific than the record requires them to be; in a village and township with a mix of American-born folks and immigrants, he noted that the Italians were from Sicilia, my Canadians were from Ontario, and the Germans were from various German states and cities. Unfortunately Eliza’s birthplace entry is one of the few that has the lack of specificity of only stating a country, and Niels (as I think of him) also wrote her given name as “Lisa.” Given that this appears to be the second known American record where Eliza was written as Lisa, it raises the question of whether perhaps people in the Upper Plains of the States were unfamiliar with the given name Eliza or perhaps the way Eliza was pronounced made it sound like “Lisa” to those more familiar with the latter name. Alternately, may Eliza have possibly gone by the nickname Lisa in her everyday life?

By 1930 Eliza and George had moved once again, to nearby Jevne Township, Aitken County, and they finally owned their own farm again. There were no children left in the household, but plenty of relatives next door – their son Milton was renting the farm next to theirs, and their daughter Ada and her children were living with Milton while her husband worked as a trucker for a logging camp. The family had been lucky to have left South Dakota, where the northern Dust Bowl had hit particularly hard starting around this time. My relatives who lived through the Dust Bowl in South Dakota told me that, for example, you had the choice of opening your windows and risking choking on dust, or keeping them closed in a house with no air conditioning and scorching heat outdoors. I know from what I have read that some babies really did choke to death on dust. The 1940 census suggests that Jevne had not been hit nearly as badly by the Dust Bowl and the Depression as the area of South Dakota that Eliza and George had left behind.

In 1940 Eliza and George were still in Jevne, and George was the respondent for their household. He reported that he and Eliza had both completed 6th grade and that they were living in the same house as in 1935. At 79 and 74, neither had an occupation listed. George’s brother David was now living next door with his second wife Mary, listed as running a farm though they were age 78 and 75. Eliza and George’s children Ada and Milton were still living on the other side of Eliza and George, now split into two separate households, with both families also running farms. By far the youngest child, Milton had achieved the best education of Eliza and George’s children, reporting that he had completed three years of high school.

George died in January 1949 at age 88. Eliza lived 2 1/2 more years, dying on 28 September 1951. Her death certificate lists her birth date as 8 March 1865, her father as Peter Smith, and her mother as unknown. Neither of them seem to have left a probate. Some people, like George, stay closely connected to some or all of their relatives through much or all of their life. Others, like Eliza, seem to leave and not look back. None of my relatives even knew possible names for Eliza’s parents until I found her marriage record in my research.

Many fellow researchers have offered me suggestions for trying to track Eliza’s origins and a few have even followed some leads on their own on my behalf. Nothing to date has panned out. Record after record connects Eliza and George to George’s family, not to any relatives of Eliza. Researching the household she appears to have been working for in 1881 has gone nowhere, as has researching the witness to their marriage who wasn’t a known relative of George’s. The only Eliza/Elizabeth Smith on the 1871 Ontario census who might match turned out in subsequent research to go by her other given name on the rest of the records in her life, so it seems that my Eliza may have come to Ontario on her own. No passenger list has been located to date, and despite the common name, there don’t appear to be any good candidates in home child databases. No good match for an Eliza Smith in the household of a Peter & Emily Smith has been found anywhere on the 1871 England census (and I am not even sure whether she was still in England at the time). Perhaps one or both of her parents had died and she was taken in by a relative or a neighbor, but if so, I don’t know how I would figure that out since I don’t even know the area where she was born. People have suggested that perhaps she left England on her own when she was fairly young to run away from something or someone, maybe even changing her surname to the generic Smith, and while all of that is possible, I have no idea how I would ever prove it. If she appeared in Ontario as a young teen because she was running, she appears to have taken the secret to the grave with her.

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In recent months I have been making more extensive use of manorial records in England, and I thought I would share some basics here. The system and procedure appear to be mostly equivalent in Wales, though I haven’t personally done any research in Welsh manorial records (or more than a tiny amount of Welsh research at all to date).

There is a common perception that English & Welsh manorial records are only from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, and that they are all in Latin. None of this is true. While there were manors in the Middle Ages, the largest percentage of surviving manorial records date from the 19th and early 20th centuries, until the manorial system was effectively abolished through the Law of Property Acts of 1922 and 1924. Second to that in survival terms are manorial records from the 17th and 18th centuries, although those are more likely to have gaps. The earlier than that you go, the fewer extant records there are, and the more gaps they tend to have.

For many earlier manors, the only thing known to survive is the name – historians know the manor existed and that’s all. However, even for manors where their own records didn’t survive, you may be able to glean a fair amount of information by locating extant records from an adjacent manor, as a number of people held/rented land in more than one manor so manors that were near each other tended to reference each other in their records. It is also important to keep in mind that while some manors were the exact equivalent to a parish, many were not – sometimes there were multiple manors in one parish, sometimes one manor occupied parts or all of two or more parishes, etc. As to the question of Latin – technically all legal documents were supposed to be written in Latin prior to the change to English that took effect in 1733, but in actuality a fair number of manors started using English for most of their records prior to this date or had a record-keeper who didn’t know too much Latin and mixed the Latin they knew with English words in place of the Latin words they didn’t know. This having been said – there were certainly manors that kept records completely in Latin until the official change to English, and the likelihood tends to vary regionally.

Because manorial records can be in any number of locations, including still in private hands, and many manors had their records scattered between two or more record-keepers, the first stop in working with manorial records will generally be the Manorial Documents Register. The Manorial Documents Register is, in the words of the National Archives [UK], “partially computerised.” You can search all of Wales and some counties of England through the National Archives’ Manorial Documents Register database. As of the time of this writing, these English counties were complete in the online version: the Isle of Wight, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, the three Ridings of Yorkshire, Shropshire, Surrey, Middlesex, Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Bedfordshire. According to the site, they are in the process of adding Cambridgeshire, Essex, Huntingdonshire, Suffolk, and Sussex.

This database is very helpful not just in locating who holds which records for a manor, but also in determining what manors with surviving records existed in the parish you are researching and in neighboring parishes, because for England you can search the database by parish, not just by the name of the manor. If you are researching in a county that isn’t in the online database yet, you have to go in person to check, get someone to visit on your behalf, or write and ask the staff to check for you. Before I start using specific examples, let me note here that the main difference for researchers using the database for Welsh research will be that since Wales is not divided by parish, you will have to search by county if you don’t know the manor name or are trying to locate nearby manors.

Let’s use Wraysbury, Buckinghamshire, as an example. Wraysbury is where two of my colonial North American ancestors who chose to return to England died. If you haven’t used the site much or at all, I encourage you to bring up the site in another tab/window and practice searching along with my post. If you go to “Advanced Search” at the online Manorial Documents Register (an option from the front page) and enter “Wraysbury” in the “Parish” search field, leaving all other fields blank, two results will appear after you hit “Search”:

RECTORY, Wraysbury, Buckinghamshire (15)

also known as – Wraysbury Rectory

WRAYSBURY, Wraysbury, Buckinghamshire (27)

also known as – Wyrardisbury

The number after each manor is the number of different entries for manorial records there are in the database. Clicking through to view the results for each manor (termed “sub-records” by the Manorial Documents Register database), you will see at the top of the results pages that both of these manors were indeed in the parish of Wraysbury, so if you were researching someone who lived in Wraysbury and didn’t know precisely where they lived, you could potentially find them at either manor. Even if you did know their primary residence was at one of the manors, you might still find them holding/renting land at the other manor. Let’s click through to the Wraysbury Rectory results to start. You may note immediately that the results for each manor are arranged by the listed start date of each record set, so that if you are researching late in a manor’s existence, you can immediately scroll towards the bottom of the results to see what (if any) manorial records survive from that period.

Viewing the Wraysbury Rectory results, you will see that 14 of the 15 known extant manorial record sets are held by St. George’s Chapel Archives and Chapter Library at Windsor Castle, with a lone set of court rolls held by Westminster Abbey Library and Muniment Room at The Cloisters in Westminster Abbey. You can see at the results page that each listed repository is a live link; clicking on the link will give you details about where the repository is located, its contact information, what its hours are, and the barest basics of how you can access the repository’s documents. As an example, if you want to view the Wraysbury Rectory court rolls in person at Westminster Abbey, the database’s repository page says that you will need a letter of introduction to be allowed to do so. With extant records from 1353 to 1902, with huge gaps in availability of any records and in which types of records are available, Wraysbury Rectory is also a good example of the scattershot survival of manorial records. An additional note before moving on to the other manor in Wraysbury parish: Manors run by the Church were much more likely to keep all their records in Latin until the official change to English than other manors were.

Viewing the sub-results for Wraysbury Manor (AKA Wyrardisbury Manor), you will see that the location of the 27 surviving record sets is quite literally all over the place. There are listed record sets for Wraysbury Manor at the National Archives, Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Essex Record Office, Berkshire Record Office, and Westminster Abbey Library and Muniment Room. Again, the availability of any extant records at all and of which types exist today is really variable, with extant records from 1272 to 1890 with huge gaps.

Since we are looking for manorial records in the Wraysbury area, let’s do a further exercise. I like using the GenUKI site’s “Nearby Places” feature to show what was in and close to a parish. If you go to GenUKI’s Wraysbury main page, you can click on the link at the top of the page that’s titled “Nearby Places” to see what they are for Wraysbury. The GenUKI site defaults to a 5-mile radius, which is a good starting point. Reviewing the results, you can see that while the very closest next parish is “Horton (near Slough), Buckinghamshire,” the two following parishes are in other counties – Old Windsor in Berkshire and Egham in Surrey. Following are another parish in Berkshire (New Windsor) and then a parish in Middlesex (Staines). All of these parishes included locations that were 3 miles or less from Wraysbury parish. This is overall good information to know for researching someone, as people who lived near the border with one or more other counties often left some records in at least one of the other counties or perhaps even moved around between the counties.

Luckily for our purposes, all of these counties are already on the Manorial Documents Register database. So let’s go back to the Manorial Documents Register. Because there are multiple counties with places named Horton, if you don’t specify Buckinghamshire when you do an Advanced Search, some irrelevant results will be returned. If you search for Horton, Buckinghamshire, you get results for two more manors:

BERKIN, Horton, Buckinghamshire (0)

HORTON, Horton, Buckinghamshire (3)

also known as – Horton with Colnbrook; Horton with Colnbrook, Eaton Guildables and Chalvey; Eaton Guildables; Chalvey

As you can see, Berkin Manor is listed though it has a “0” after its name. Clicking to view Berkin Manor’s entry, you see: “NO RECORDS KNOWN TO SURVIVE.” Horton Manor also has many fewer surviving records than either of the manors in Wraysbury parish, and when you click through to view the sub-results, you will see that the surviving record sets cover 1619 to 1737 (with big gaps). Whether there are no later records because the manor no longer existed or simply because no later records survive, I do not know at this point. According to the database, all three of Horton Manor’s surviving record sets are at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies.

Next, let’s look up the next closest parish, Old Windsor in Berkshire. Because there was only one parish named Old Windsor, you don’t have to specify a county when you search the database. Like Wraysbury, Old Windsor’s results are divided into two manors with one a rectory:

WINDSOR RECTORY, OLD, Old Windsor, Berkshire (21)

also known as – Old Windsor Rectory; Rectory manor of Old and New Windsor

WINDSOR, OLD, Old Windsor, Berkshire (11)

also known as – Old Windsor

Old Windsor’s manors’ record set survival is also more similar to Wraysbury’s than to Horton’s. For Old Windsor Manor, the largest number of record sets are held at the National Archives, with record sets also at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, Berkshire Record Office, and Cambridge University’s Department of Manuscripts and University Archives. Record sets cover 1431 to 1900 with huge gaps. The most recent record set (covering 1840-1900 with gaps) is a file of evidence related to enfranchisement of copyhold land. If you are researching Old Windsor Manor, this tells you something without even having viewed the records themselves – copyhold land could be converted to freehold land by the Lord of the Manor, meaning that the copyhold tenant became freehold, and this record set implies that this was done over the course of the 19th century for some to all copyhold tenants at Old Windsor Manor. The Copyhold Act of 1852 had allowed copyhold tenants to demand that their copyhold become freehold, so this type of record became much more common as the 19th century progressed. For a basic overview of enfranchisement, see this page from the University of Nottingham.

The Old Windsor Rectory’s record sets are mostly held by Berkshire Record Office, with a small number held by the National Archives. Their record sets cover a tremendous period of time (with large gaps), from 1269 to after the manorial system was abolished, the final record set being papers related to “the extinguishment of manorial incidents” (1925-1933).

Let’s do one more parish in the Manorial Documents Register, the next nearest parish per the GenUKI site, Egham in Surrey. Searching for Egham via the Advanced Search, you get the highest number of results of any of the parishes we have searched:

ANKERWICK PURNISH, Egham, Surrey (2)

BROOMHALL, Egham, Surrey (41)

EGHAM, Egham, Surrey (43)

FOSTERS, Egham, Surrey (0)

also known as – Great Fosters

IMWORTH, Egham, Surrey (0)

also known as – Fosters

MILTON, Egham, Surrey (75)

also known as – Middleton

RUSHAM, Egham, Surrey (0)

also known as – Ruysshames

TROTTESWORTH, Egham, Surrey (1)

also known as – Trotsworth

As you can see, Egham had three manors where no records are known to exist, two with a very small number of surviving record sets (1 for Trottesworth Manor and 2 for Ankerwick Purnish Manor), and three that have a lot of extant record sets. Like Old Windsor Rectory, Broomhall Manor’s final extant record set is about the enfranchisement of copyhold land. And like Old Windsor Rectory’s final record set, Milton Manor’s final record set dates from after the abolishment of the manorial system – a “book of steward’s fees, with Ashford (Middlesex) 1926-1932” that is held by London Metropolitan Archives. It is also interesting and important to note that there appear to have been two different manors in Egham that were known by the name Fosters Manor; for one of them it appears to have been the primary name, whereas for the other it is listed in the alternate names field.

It is possible that someone who lived in Wraysbury held a tenancy at any of these nearby parishes’ manors. It is also possible that someone who lived at one of these nearby manors that has no known surviving records also had a tenancy at one or more of the manors where there are some, or even a good number of, surviving record sets.

Hopefully this post has given you an idea of a starting point for how to find English and Welsh manorial records and the wide variance in availability and current locations of extant records. Stay tuned for Part 2, wherein I will discuss how you can use manorial records in your research.

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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.

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NOTES TO REGULAR READERS

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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In the past few weeks I have very successfully added several more files to my blog drafts file while not publishing any actual finished posts. So I thought I would provide a bit of an update to a post from last November, “In defense of going down the chipmunk tunnel.”

As I noted in that post, the cause of the research that I turned into the post was my intent to mail off an order for a marriage record, and wanting to check to see if there was a second marriage amongst the siblings in the same city before sending it off, so that I could pool my order. In the end I discovered the other couple married in Ohio, and sent off the single request as originally planned.

But I never did hear back from the city. In my years of long-distance research, I’ve learned that there can be any number of reasons why a repository’s response never reaches me, from banal ones like a piece of mail getting lost to, as happened to me last year, the new archivist at an archive determining that as far as discernible, the previous archivist had cashed my check and never done the promised research. So after a while longer has passed than the estimated time for a response, I like to politely follow up with the repository to try to determine what happened. In this case, my second letter was answered with a letter from the city vital records stating that they could find no record of the marriage in their archive.

This provides an interesting research problem.

The marriage information I had was obtained from alumni listings. Those are generally provided by the alumni themselves, and then compiled into a listing by someone else. So a few of the major reasons I can see for this outcome are:

  1. The staff missed the marriage, possibly because a surname is misspelled. Unlikely but always possible.
  2.  The couple married there but had obtained their license elsewhere and/or went on to register their marriage elsewhere. I’m not sure yet of the law on this in this place and time, so I don’t know how likely it is that there would be no record at all of the marriage in the location where they were married.
  3. The alumni listings are wrong. Always possible as well since it is secondary information (which in this case specifically means after-the-fact information provided by one of the parties who was there) that has probably been compiled from alumni information by a third party, leaving additional room for error.

First next steps:

  1. Check on marriage laws at this time and place. Start with searches at Google Books and Internet Archive, as they have a lot of governmental publications and writings on the law (and not just for the US), including a number of past published state statutes.
  2. Depending on outcome of (1), widen search for marriage record and/or marriage license, and/or do further research on the couple aiming to find further marriage clues.

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