Learning social history from fiction

I was recently introduced to Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mystery series. The series starts with the main character fleeing Ireland and coming through Ellis Island into NY around 1900. The accounts of the landlord system in Ireland, the cramped quarters of steerage, and the confusing passage through Ellis Island is in line with what I have read about those. The second book delves more into life in New York at the turn of the 20th century–again in line with what I have read, although I am not an expert in this time period.

I find reading these mysteries more fun than reading straight history books. I also find that due to the liberties of character development allowed in fiction that are not allowed in non-fiction, that I can get a better feel of the times and the characters come to life.

While I am certainly not recommending that historical fiction replace academic research and primary source research, I do think that well-written and well-research historical fiction can give us a window into the time period that may not be available from primary source or academic research.

What are your favorite historical fiction authors?

Upcoming Social History/Genealogy Events

I gave a talk recently to the Falmouth Genealogical Society and afterwards one of the members came up and told me about her ancestors who were rope makers in the mid 1800s. She is learning all kinds of things about making rope and is attending a talk in Plymouth about the Cordage Company and will go to Mystic Seaport where they have the ropewalk from the Cordage Company. I was thrilled to see her excited about learning about the occupation of her ancestors and how they were literally coming to life for her.

Local genealogy and historical societies are a really great place to learn about social history and place your ancestors in context. The historical societies have relevant historical records and the genealogy societies have members that share your passions. It is a wonderful place to network and share knowledge.

Now that spring is coming and it’s nice to venture outside, I wanted to let you know about some upcoming history events at some of the living history villages in the area. Most offer demonstrations on daily life for the time periods which they cover. Many are informal, meaning that you walk into a house and the living historian will tell you about the house and life in the time period. Others are more formal where you need to register and pay in advance.

Historic Deerfield is offering two sets of cooking demonstrations. April and May were when colonists literally scraped the bottom of the barrel for food as they waited for spring blooms. Also learn what your colonial ancestors would cook in the summer.  Strawbery Banke is hosting a Civil War encampment June 8 and 9. Also see if Plimoth Plantation or Old Sturbridge Village are offering anything of interest to you.

Food history is becoming more popular among genealogists. Historic Deerfield’s annual Dublin Seminar is on foodways this year. The seminar is from June 21-23. Talks will cover foodways during many periods since 1620 and includes some talks about food and politics that sound very interesting.

Let me know if there are any local programs that you are looking forward to. I am really looking forward to the Dublin Seminar.

Upcoming history and genealogy events in Greater Boston

There are many upcoming history and genealogy events in the Greater Boston area. Here is a sampling:

New England Historic Genealogical Society
(click on the “Resources” tab and the “Programs” link)
One Colonial Woman’s World: The Life and Writings of Mehetabel Chandler Coit
February 6, 6:00, free and open to the public

Colonial Society of Massachusetts
Free and open to the public
Mapping the Boston Poor: Inmates of the Boston Almshouse, 1795–1815
February 21 at 3:00 p.m.

Boston Athenaeum
Painting Women: Women Artists from 1860 to 1960
February 26, 6:00, open to the public

Ancestry Day with NEHGS
March 2, all day, pre-registration required and there is a fee
Full-day conference with Ancestry.com & NEHGS. See link for more information about classes that will be offered.

Massachusetts Historical Society
Open to the public
Massachusetts and the Civil War: The Commonwealth and National Disunion
April 4-6

Seminars (most meet monthly) on the following topics. Free and open to the public.
Boston Area Early American History
Boston Environmental History
Boston Immigration & Urban History
History of Women and Gender
New England Biography

Exhibitions: Free and open to the public.
“Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land”: Boston Abolitionists 1831-1865
February 22 to May 24

Forever Free: Lincoln & the Emancipation Proclamation
January 2 to May 24

Lincoln in Manuscript & Artifact
January 2 to May 24

New England Family History Conference
March 30, Franklin, MA. Free and open to the public. Pre-registration advised.
Annual conference sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Several tracks of interest to all genealogists (regardless of religious affiliation) are offered throughout the day.

Boston Public Library at Copley (main library)
Local and Family History Lecture Series
Twice a month talks on local and family history
Free and open to the public

New England Regional Genealogical Consortium, Inc.
This multi-day genealogy conference covers a variety of topics of genealogical research, and some talks touch on social history. Attending this conference is a great way to learn and to network with fellow genealogists. Sign up for a day if you can’t come for the entire conference.
April 17-21, Manchester, New Hampshire

The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife
Foodways in the Northeast: A Second Helping
June 21-23, Deerfield, MA
This is one I would definitely like to attend. I am working on a master’s in history and my thesis will be about medicinal recipes used in the home (before a doctor was called, at least theoretically). Most of the homemade medicines of the time were made from herbs and other plants, so I will learn quite a bit. As I have been doing research in preparation for writing the thesis, I spoke with the food historian or food expert at 3 or the 4 sites below and they were very helpful. It was also nice to learn from each of the sites as they each have a different focus and cover various time periods.

Historic Deerfield and other living history villages in the area offer programs throughout the year on heirloom gardening, hearth cooking and other “day to day” life activities of our ancestors.
Historic Deerfield
Old Sturbridge Village
Plimoth Plantation
Strawbery Banke Museum

Don’t forget to check your local library, your local historical society and your local genealogical society to see what they have planned. Also, there are numerous on-line offerings in social history and genealogy.

Adding local history to your ancestor’s timeline Part II

In the last post focusing on Thomas Sumner, we relied mostly on books. Today, we will explore some of the other resources mentioned in the post last week, primarily US GenWeb and other websites while searching for relevant local history for Levi Savage. We will focus on the time he lived in Toquerville (1868-1910).

I first went to US GenWeb to see what they had. I scrolled down to select Utah. After that page loaded, I selected UTGenWeb county sites and scrolled down to Washington County. The link took me to this beautiful website. While this website itself doesn’t have a lot of information, the links on it lead to some great information, including biographies, cemetery indices, manuscripts, postcards and histories.

The Pioneer Index 1852-1870 states that Levi and his family arrived in Dixie (southern Utah) in 1862 and in Toquerville by 1870. Other links on the page give access to a newspaper from 1908-1923, listings in the FHL catalog, and a history of Dixie. They also have Utah research links and local research help, including local libraries and historical societies.

One of the links was to the Utah History Encyclopedia, which contains an entry for Toquerville. The article talks about the cotton-growing and wine-making endeavors of the people who lived there. By 1867 a telegraph was installed and the town was incorporated in 1917 (after Levi’s death). The information about the geology, agriculture and geography of the area are useful for understanding what life was like, but didn’t offer much in the way of local historical events. We’ll come back to the geology, agriculture and geography in a future post though as they are an important part of social history.

I also tried the Utah page of Cyndi’s List and discovered this timeline of Utah history. Relevant events listed include:

1847: First Mormon pioneers enter Salt Lake Valley1848: Mexican War ends, and the Salt Lake Valley is now part of the United States
1849: Constitutional Convention to form state of Deseret (rejected by US Congress)
1850: Congress passes bill allowing formation of Utah Territory
1852: Mormon church leaders publicly acknowledge practice of polygamy
1853: Walker war with Ute Indians
1854: Crops threatened by grasshoppers
1857-8: Utah War (conflict with US government)
1861: Another Constitutional Convention to form state of Deseret
1865-8: Ute Black Hawk War–last major Indian war
1873: Poland Act passed in US Congress makes it legal to prosecute polygamists
1882: Edmunds Act passed in US Congress making cohabitation illegal
1887: Edmunds-Tucker Act passed in US Congress–another act against polygamy
1890: Mormon leader ends church-sanctioned polygamy
1896: Utah becomes 45th state (almost 50 years after Mormons first applied for statehood)

The 1865-8 Ute Black Hawk War caught my eye, as Levi’s son mentioned some Indian troubles during this time period and I have a newspaper article mentioning US government money given to Levi as restitution for Indian attacks. I read more on the Utah Encyclopedia Page and will devote a post to what I find out about this. The various acts in Congress against polygamy, and the constitutional conventions for statehood are also interesting to me and will be explored further.

I have introduced some of the places where I go to find local history to add to my timeline. Where are some of your favorite places to go?

Adding local history to your ancestor’s timeline

A few readers commented on the importance of local history, over national history, on the last blog about adding historical events to your ancestor’s timeline. They are absolutely right. It’s not always easy to find local history events, but local events usually had a more significant impact on your ancestor’s daily lives than events that took place far away. This doesn’t discount though, the need to learn about the national history as well, where you will get a sense of wars, migrations, the financial climate, and discrimination against ethnic and religious groups. This post will focus on local history in the US.

Town and county histories are a good place to start learning about local history. Many local histories were written around 1900, or at the 100th anniversary (or some other noteworthy time period), of a town’s founding. They are often found in local libraries. Some of the older histories may be found in digitized form on Google books or Internet Archive. Digitized local histories can also be found at Ancestry.com (requires a subscription) or HeritageQuest Online (may be available at your local library). There are also some digitized books available at FamilySearch.org (look at the books tab).

If a print or digitized version of the history for a given locale cannot be found, there are a few more places to look. The US GenWeb Project is a volunteer website with the goal of building a free genealogy website for every county in the United States. If all else fails, a google search may yield some helpful information.

Local town records, including town meeting records and church records, should also be investigated.

Whether looking at local history books or websites, a few things must be kept in mind. The local history books were often of a celebratory nature, and people would sometimes pay to have their name appear more prominently. As with all good genealogical research, tidbits found in local histories must be backed up by additional research and documentation. The same applies to information found on websites and in published genealogies.

Don’t just look for your ancestor’s name in the books or websites. Find out when churches and school were built, and when new congregations were formed. Even if you ancestor was Baptist, if the only church in town for years was the Methodist church, he may have attended that church. If the family was in the area before schools were started, did the parents teach the children to read and write?

Let’s see what is available in local history resources for Thomas Sumner (Thetford, Orange County, Vermont Colony). A future post will cover the local history for Levi Savage.

I found the “Gazetteer of Orange County, Vt.” at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. The first several pages describe the creation of State of Vermont, and tension between the settlers and various competing governments: New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and the French and the Dutch. In 1764, King George annexed Vermont to New York (prior to this parts had belonged to New Hampshire, p. 34). In 1777, a convention was held that declared Vermont an independent state (p. 6). Below are the local events that are of interest in our research that were found in this book:

1) Competing claims mentioned above may have affected his land interests and ownership2) Town of Thetford chartered in 1761 (p. 35)
3) A Thomas Sumner appointed by New York government present at first session of court in Vermont, May 29, 1770 (p. 36).
4) Court in session with a Thomas Sumner, Esquire Judge, present for the following dates: 28 Aug 1770, 27 Nov 1770, 28 May 1771, 25 May 1773 (pp. 36-39).
5) “In 1777 Capt. John Strong, John Wright, John Robinson and William Moor served as a committee of safety, and the same year seven men suspected of tory sentiments were disarmed by the committee and made to take the oath of allegiance before their arms were restored. March 26, 1777 William Moor, Abner Howard and Joseph Hosford, the “committee of inspection,” took, according to an act or resolve of Congress, the real estate and personal property of Thomas Sumner, who had left town on account of tory sympathies, and placed Capt. John Strong in charge of it.” (pp. 425-6).
6) “At this date [1773] Rev. Clement Sumner was settled here…During the Revolution, Mr. Sumner being a tory, found it convenient to depart, going to Swanzey, N. H. where he exchanged his right in Thetford for the farm of William Heaton.” (p. 450).
7) In 1797 the state was divided into 11 counties (p. 9). It is possible, and perhaps likely, that some of the boundaries may have changed from when Thomas lived there. This is important to know when looking for government records.

According to the published genealogy “Record of the Descendants of William Sumner of Dorchester, Mass 1636” by William Sumner Appleton Clement and Thomas were brothers, both with tory leanings. This book also states that Thomas was a “Justice of the Peace, Commissioner, and Associate Justice of Inferior Court of Common Please of Gloucester Co., 1770; but being a decided Tory was obliged to leave the country, moved to Nova Scotia, thence to Canada, where he d. near Toronto, 4 January, 1820.” (pp 17-18). This book is also available at HeritageQuest Online.

From these records we learn that IF we have the right Thomas Sumner, he was in the Thetford area by 1770 and left about 1777. At least of his family members were also Loyalists, although his brother Clement did not have to leave the United States–he was able to relocate in New Hampshire.

Read more about the various acts of Congress and the states in punishing Loyalists.