A Year of Genealogy Research

Just about a year ago I began some research into my family tree. I’d been wanting to do it for some time but didn’t know where to begin. Then in February 2009 my aunt passed away. She was the last remaining sibling to my father. When I read her obituary I learned things about the family I didn’t know. This provided the catalyst to begin though it took a month before my schedule would permit any attempts.

I decided to take advantage of a 14 day free trial at ancestry.com. I didn’t expect to find much. I didn’t know anything at all about my great grandparents and though I had birth and death dates for my maternal grandparents I only had the names of my paternal grandparents. It wasn’t much to go on.

To my surprise, I got an “ancestry hint” on my paternal grandfather. This indicated that there were two “historical records” that could refer to him. When I looked at them I found they were from the 1900 and 1910 census. I had no idea how much data was in the census. Neither was in the part of Massachusetts I had expected. The 1910 census was in Phillipston, not too far from where I had been expecting but the 1900 census from from Peabody.

I examined both of these documents and found that they could refer to my grandfather. How many people named Augustus Thomas could there be in early 20th century Massachusetts? His age on these census forms seemed plausible based on my father’s birth year. But there wasn’t a way to be sure because of the lack of other knowledge. Still, it felt right. There were no other matching census records coming up.

The most interesting moment for me was when I realized that since he was still living with his parents (being 13 in 1900 and 23 in 1910) that they, too, were listed on the form. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read “Frederick” and “Sarah L.” and saw them listed as “head” and “wife” with Augustus listed as “son.” There was a good chance that these were my great grandparents.

Ancestry then found a draft registration that had Augustus’ birth date and this matched up with the census records I found. I also found him in the 1930 census in the town of Petersham married to my grandmother and with my father and some of his siblings. This made sense as I knew my father had been born in Petersham. His age also matched up with the earlier census records. The odds seemed to be going up that I had located my great grandparents but it would be a while before I was certain.

That night I began following these hints that ancestry was showing me and before long I was back the 1700’s and much of the activity was centered around Salem. I began to wonder if my family might have some connection to the witch trials though I never believed it might really be true.

As it turns out, that idle musing was to get a kicked up a notch. One of the women that ancestry showed me as a direct ancestor was named Rebecca Nurse (born Towne). She was hanged in the hysteria even though she was 72 and a woman of known good character.

In the course of four to five hours I had covered over 300 years of history and found myself in 17th century Salem Village. To say it was surreal would be an understatement. I had never felt much connection with my family’s past because I was never exposed to it. My father’s family was from Massachusetts. My mother’s family was from Sicily. I was born and raised in Maryland. There wasn’t much family connection beyond my first cousins on my mother’s side. We had occasionally visited first cousin’s on my father’s side but that was a rare occurrence. Suddenly, I had a connection that went back to colonial America!

The only question was whether that connection was real.

The next day I went back to critically examine the data and found I had been far too trusting of ancestry hints that connected me with other trees. Much of the data was inconsistent or even impossible. I lopped off the tree at my great grandparents and started again. I also picked up a book on genealogy and began to educate myself on the process.

I reconstructed the tree on ancestry and again found myself with Rebecca and this time the data seemed believable. The only problem was that most of this lacked sources so I still didn’t know if it was real.

I next found the New England Historic and Genealogical Society and joined. I was hoping their databases would yield much of the source information I lacked. I wasn’t disappointed. Though their web interface was clunky and their image format non-standard, I was able to slowly work my way back.

I also contacted the Athol Public Library in search of the obituaries of my grandparents. The librarian there was incredibly helpful in getting me this data and my grandfather’s obituary confirmed that the census data was for him. I now had verified my starting point ensuring that I wasn’t heading down the wrong path.

Over the course a year, I’ve gone myself as far as their three Massachusetts vital records databases can take me. It hasn’t quite taken me back to Rebecca but it’s still back fairly far. On the line that ancestry says leads to Rebecca I get to a man named Peter Twiss. He was born in 1782 in Danvers. His father was also Peter Twiss (though it may have been Twist). His mother’s maiden name was Sarah Twiss so it appears that we had a Twiss/Twiss marriage. Unfortunately that’s where the database strands me. Peter’s father, also named Peter doesn’t have a clear lineage in this database. I’m hoping a trip to NEHGS to visit their library will help. It’s also possible that  a group called the Towne Family Association may have the data I seek.

Even if I never prove or even disprove my connection to Rebecca, it’s been an enlightening year. I’ve learned more about my family history than I ever thought possible. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • One of my great great grandfathers immigrated from Ireland making me 1/16 Irish
  • My paternal grandmother was born in Maine and only moved to Massachusetts later
  • My maternal grandfather actually went through Ellis Island twice

Things I’m working on:

  • Is the connection to Rebecca Towne correct?
  • Is the George Southwick who died in 1775 at the Battle of Lexington my 5th great grandfather?
  • Is the Eli Curtis Thomas born in 1843, the Eli C Thomas who died in the Andersonville POW camp in 1864?

I haven’t even begun the maternal side of my tree. My grandparents were born in Sicily and those records don’t appear to be online. Hopefully that will change. The Maine side of the family is also going to be a challenge because Maine didn’t require vital records to be kept until 1920. Though I’ve found some data, it will be tough to go beyond 1850.

I’m looking forward to what the next twelve months bring!


  1. Your blog about your genealogical year came up tonight (Sept 23) as I googled George Southwick, hoping to find more about my husband’s ancestor and why Hepsibah was listed in the AGBI (which I haven’t had direct access to yet). I very much enjoy the stories which come from the dry data and the interconnections we can sometimes find between ourselves and real history! If you need Maine help, I live there and have access to a good genealogical library or two– the account listed is my genie email account.

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