Old North Church and domestic medicine

On Oct 2 I had the opportunity to talk at the Old North Church in Boston (of Paul Revere, one if by land, two if by sea fame) about medicine in the 1600s.  I used medical recipes as the lens to examine common beliefs and treatments in the home in the 17th century, including botanicals, magic, religion and astrology. It is a fun way to introduce the audience to 17th century medicine. C-span filmed the talk so you can watch to learn more.20150711_095931

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Hex Marks in New England

I visited the Fairbanks House for the first time today in Dedham, MA. It is the oldest timber frame house in North America, built around 1637.

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The home was continually inhabited by members of the Fairbanks family until the early 1900s, when it became a museum. We learned about early American architecture, woodwork and Puritans, but the most fascinating part to me was this little mark (the X) near the fireplace:

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Known as a witch mark, or a hex mark, it was a protection against witches in a time when everyone thought that they existed. The chimney was thought to be the easiest access point for witches, so the mark placed here would help keep them from entering the home through the fireplace.

I had heard of these in England, but had no idea any existed in New England. While rare, this house is not the only house in North America with this protection. Shoes were also found hidden near the chimney. According to the curator, foot odor was thought to be the essence of humans. If old, smelly shoes were hidden in the chimney, witches would be distracted and not enter the home.

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History repeats itself

Today the Hartwell Tavern, typically associated with the Patriots in Lexington and Concord, invited two Loyalist regiment re-enactor corps, to educate the public about Loyalists. I spent time with members of the McAlpin and Parker regiments, learning more about the social history of the Loyalists.

This is the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Saratoga. Both corps supported Burgoyne’s campaign, which ended in disaster in September, 1777 at the Battle of Saratoga. Rather than re-enacting any battles this year, the corps are focusing on the social history of the Loyalist refugees.One of the rooms was set up as to mimic what conditions may have been like.

Throughout the war, Loyalists found themselves stripped of their land or in fear for their safety. Many fled to Canada in severe conditions. They recounted the story of 5 women and almost 30 children who arrived in November with just one pair of shoes between them. My ancestor lost everything and blamed the death of his wife on the rebels for driving them out of their home.

According to the re-enactors, the British government and military weren’t  all that happy with the influx of Loyalists, who expected the British would help them get back their land and property in return for their loyalty. Refugee camps were set up, but no one know how to deal with them all as it was the first American refugee crisis. Since then there have been many: French Acadians, Native Americans, 19th century Mormons and others. What we are seeing today with the Syrian refugees is not new.

We may think of human shields as a relatively new invention, but it is not. Many male Loyalists fled, thinking their families would be safer if he was not there. The opposite turned out to be true in many cases. The rebels (Patriots)–pick your favorite term depending on which side you are on–would make it very difficult for the family left behind to leave. They had to get permission, and to quote the woman re-enactor, they were “very mean” when deciding what the Loyalist women and children could take with them. Often a mattress was permitted, while blankets were not. They thought that by keeping the wives and children of Loyalists in town would prevent the husbands and fathers from burning the town. Human shields.

The American Revolution was a civil war. Family member fought against family member. Both sides committed atrocities.

Meeting with the Loyalist re-enactors today was a somber reminder that history repeats itself again and again. As we focus on our family history, understanding the social history surrounding our ancestors will help us better understand them.

You can learn more about these re-enactors at:
Peters Corps

McAlpin’s Corps

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Networking: Opening Doors

network-1020332_1920-3The term networking often invokes feelings of discomfort among genealogists (and nearly everyone else). However, talking with those around us at our local genealogy meetings, asking questions on social media, and looking for opportunities to share and learn from others, doors to resources and methods you didn’t know existed will be opened.

Networking used to be a scary term for me too because I am an introvert. Then I became caught up in the excitement of sharing with and learning from others and I didn’t even realize I was networking. Talking to the person standing next to me at a history event connected me with a fellow genealogist who is a librarian and we will soon be meeting to swap resources about the history of medicine and genealogy. Another genealogist knew I was interested in medicine and directed me to a cookbook with medical recipes she had found at a repository. That became the primary source for my thesis.

An easy place to start is social media. I have found countless new (to me) resources via Facebook. I see what other people are posting on their feeds and interact with them. I also post on my feeds items of interest to me. Because people know my interests, they will often contact me with an article or resource they came across that they thought might interest me.

What success stories have you had with networking?

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Peacocks and Virden memories

Last week I visited family in Arizona. Somehow, one of my childhood memories came up in our conversation. My memory was fairly vague: We were visiting the small town of Virden (my mom’s hometown) when I was a young girl. My sister and I stayed in a small house by ourselves, and we were terrified of leaving the next morning because of the big, mean birds outside.

My sister remembered that we were about 10, the big birds were peacocks and that they butted their heads against the door all night. My mom was aghast that she would leave us alone all night at a stranger’s home.

 

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We spoke with my mom’s sisters and parents about who might own peacocks in Virden. My mom also considered the families she would leave us with in Virden. After much conversation and a hand-drawn map we arrived at the following: we stayed at Grandma Gruel’s house (a grandmother’s small house next to my mom’s relatives Donald and Myrtle) on the lot adjoining my grandparent’s home. The peacocks belonged to the Hatch family and must have gotten loose. The occasion was either my grandmother Elizabeth’s funeral in November, 1983 or my grandfather’s marriage to my stepgrandmother in June, 1984.

The map, while not drawn to scale, shows all the relevant info. My grandparent’s house is at the bottom (labeled Elizabeth and LeRoss). The Hatch family lived next to them, and Donald and Myrtle lived behind my grandparents.

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At the end of our conversation, my mother decided she wasn’t such a bad mother after all since (in her adult mind) Donald and Myrtle’s house and the nearby grandmother’s house was not that far away. However, there was a barn and a big pasture (at least to young city girls) in between the house where we stayed and my grandparent’s house where my parents likely stayed with my younger sisters. To city girls, crossing a pasture was kind of scary, even if peacocks weren’t around. When peacocks were around and seemed intent on chasing us, staying in that little house, and especially coming out the next morning, was terrifying.

It was only through involving lots of people that we were able to reconstruct one of my childhood memories and get a variety of perspectives on what happened. In another post, I will talk about reconstructing my earliest childhood memories involving frogs in our basement.

Have you tried to create one of your childhood memories by talking with others who were there?

Photo of peacock courtesy of Alex Pronove at WikiMedia Commons

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Heritage Trip to Thetford, Vermont

To celebrate the successful completion of my thesis and master’s degree, I took a relaxing last-minute heritage trip to Thetford, Vermont, home of my Loyalist ancestor.

The main focus of the trip was to take some well-earned relaxation, but I chose to go to Thetford so I could make it a heritage trip. Usually when one takes a research trip, hours of preparation go into reviewing online categories and deciding which repositories to visit. While I recommend preparation, due to the last-minute nature of this trip, I was not prepared and was ok with that.

I arranged to spend a few hours at the Thetford Historical Society (which is a gem and well worth your time) and have a few hundred pictures of documents, although most are secondary, unfortunately.

The bulk of my time in Thetford was spent relaxing (to celebrate the thesis being done) and driving around to get a sense of what it might have looked like during the short time he lived there. The area is mostly heavily wooded, just as it probably was when he lived there, as it was a relatively new settlement in the mid to late 1700s. Getting a sense of the lay of the land will hopefully prove to be very helpful once I begin researching.

I visited the cemetery, although I don’t think any of my family is buried there as the Sumner family was only in the area for a few years.

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Don’t delay visiting the home towns of your ancestors just because you haven’t put in hours of preparation. If the chance to visit comes up unexpectedly, just go. You will feel the power of walking in the general area where they walked, and having a sense of the lay of the land may prove fruitful in future research.

Have you ever embarked on a last-minute trip, where the itinerary included something related to your research? How did it go?

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Please check back in summer 2016

I am in the final months of writing my master’s thesis, which will be finished in summer 2016. Once that is submitted, Bridging the Past will be back with new blog posts and talks on social history.

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