History

“A Date Which Will Live in Infamy”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, stunned virtually everyone in the United States. Pearl Harbor was totally unprepared. 353 Japanese planes mounted a surprise assault on American naval forces stationed in Hawaii. The attack killed 2,403 United States personnel, injured 1,178, drew the United States into World War II, and altered the course of history forever.

President Franklin Roosevelt quickly addressed Congress to ask for a declaration of war. This action was soon followed by declaration of war with Germany and, soon after, with Italy.

Today is the appropriate time to pause and reflect on the events of 76 years ago today. Let us vow to never again allow any nation ever catch us unprepared.

100 Years Ago Today the Halifax Explosion nearly destroyed Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

On the morning of 6 December 1917, the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship laden with high explosives left the dock in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and headed for Bordeaux, France. The explosives were destined to be used by the French military in World War I. At 8:45 AM, the SS Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo in the Narrows, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin. A fire broke out on the French cargo ship. 20 minutes after the collision, at 9:04:35 am, the SS Mont-Blanc exploded.

The blast destroyed both ships along with most of the Richmond district of Halifax. Approximately 2,000 people were killed, about 500 of them children, by the blast or by flying debris, fires or collapsed buildings. An estimated 9,000 others were injured.

The Halifax Explosion was one of the worst disasters in North American history. It was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons, releasing the equivalent energy of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT.

The Truth You’ve Never Heard About Plimoth Colony and the First Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving story you know probably goes a bit like this: English Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they found a rich land full of animals and were greeted by a friendly Indian named Squanto, who taught them how to plant corn.

The true story is more complicated. Once you learn about the real Squanto — also known as Tisquantum — you’ll have a great yarn to tell your family over the Thanksgiving table.

How is it that Squanto knew how to speak perfect English when the Pilgrims arrived?

Postmortem Photography

It sounds ghoulish but many of our ancestors accepted the idea as normal: photographing the corpses of family members shortly after their death. During the Victorian era, such photographs were meant to be happy reminders of the life of the deceased person for their families. Death, and personally dealing with death, was prevalent throughout the entire world as epidemics would come quickly and kill quickly. Postmortem photographs not only helped in the grieving process, but often represented the only visual remembrance of the deceased and were among a family’s most precious possessions. These were often called “Memento Mori Photography.” Memento mori is Latin for “remember that you have to die.”

 

Mother and deceased child

Scroll through Colonial life with the Harvard Library

This should be a fabulous resource for anyone researching Colonial American ancestry. It isn’t a genealogy database. Instead, it will teach you about the lives your ancestors led and the world in which they lived.

In a few weeks, the Harvard Library will release a new website for its ongoing, multiyear digitization “Colonial North American Project at Harvard University.” Approximately 450,000 digitized pages of all the known archival and manuscript materials in the Library relating to 17th- and 18th-century North America will be available to the public. The library’s vast collection from era, from love letters to receipts, is being digitized for public view

Witches in Your Family Tree

This is the time of year for ghosts, goblins, and other such superstitions. However, perhaps it is also a time to pause and reflect on the horrors of those who suffered in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The witches of Salem and nearby towns probably have hundreds of thousands of present-day descendants. If you have ancestry from early Essex County, Massachusetts, you have an excellent chance of finding a connection to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Circa 1692, The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Circa 1692, The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Salem, Massachusetts, and the surrounding towns in Essex County were amongst the first settled in this country. Most of the towns were established prior to 1640. By the time of the witchcraft trials of 1692, a complete legal system of courts and clerks was well established. Records were written, and many of them have been preserved. Even if your ancestors are not among those accused, it is quite possible that you can find them mentioned as witnesses, those who gave depositions, or perhaps even those who served on a jury.

The Truth about Christopher Columbus and His “Discoveries”

Alternative Title: Columbus was Really Bad at Math

Almost all the “facts” you learned in school about Christopher Columbus are wrong! Amongst other things, Columbus never proved that the earth is round and he never set foot in what is now North America. A YouTube video below and also available at https://youtu.be/3MJoKhO9G1g sets the record straight.

The Mysterious Tree Carvings of America’s Basque Sheepherders

The Atlas Obscura web site has an interesting article about Basque immigrants to the United States. The article begins:

“Some Americans, to learn about their ancestors, can dig through documents detailing when they passed through Ellis Island or flew in or got married, or where they lived at the time of a census. But for some Basque families in the United States, the only record they have of their immigrant ancestors is carved into trees in secluded aspen groves throughout the West. Names, dates, hometowns, and other messages and art scar the pale bark of aspens where Basque men watched over herds of hundreds of sheep from the 1850s to the 1930s.

How 19th Century Women Were Taught to Think About Native Americans

It is always interesting to try to guess what happened in the minds of our ancestors. Writing in the Jstor Daily web site, Erin Blakemore offers insights into the minds of many 19th century women in the US:

“What did nineteenth-century Americans know about Native Americans? For years, scholars have focused on stereotypes of indigenous Americans as brutal and sadistic—depictions that dominated press portrayals and that reverberate in culture to this day. But a look at those portrayals with an eye on gender reveals a slightly different story, writes Linda M. Clemmons—one that suggests Native American women were portrayed as equal with their white sisters.

Portrait of a young Choctaw woman, 1850 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Predictions for the Year 2000 from The Ladies Home Journal of December 1900

The Ladies Home Journal from December, 1900, contained an article by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr.: What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years. Mr. Watkins wrote: “These prophecies will seem strange, almost impossible. Yet, they have come from the most learned and conservative minds in America. To the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning I have gone, asking each in his turn to forecast for me what, in his opinion, will have been wrought in his own field of investigation before the dawn of 2001 – a century from now. These opinions I have carefully transcribed.”

Well, I am about seventeen years late in analyzing Mr. Watkins’ predictions. However, I think they are still interesting and many of them were surprisingly accurate.

Prediction #1: There will probably be from 350,000,000 to 500,000,000 people in America and its possessions by the lapse of another century. Nicaragua will ask for admission to our Union after the completion of the great canal. Mexico will be next. Europe, seeking more territory to the south of us, will cause many of the South and Central American republics to be voted into the Union by their own people.”

Floridians: Share Your Digital Photos of Hurricane Irma

NOTE: This has nothing to do with today’s genealogy. However, Florida residents are invited to help preserve the history of the state and to record events that perhaps will benefit future historians and possibly even future genealogists.

The Florida State Archives is asking residents to preserve hurricane history by donating your digital images of preparation, damage, volunteers, shelters, recovery and other effects of Hurricane Irma. The donated photographs will join past photos of Camille, Andrew, and Charley as one of many hurricanes that have shaped Florida’s history. Some of the photographs donated to the State Archives will appear on Florida Memory.

Details may be found in the Florida Memory web site at: http://bit.ly/2wLmnCs.

How One Woman Brought the ‘Mother’s Curse’ to Thousands of Her French-Canadian Descendants

The first King’s Daughters—or filles du roi—arrived in New France in 1663, and 800 more would follow over the next decade. Given their numbers, they were not literally the king’s daughters of course.

They were poor and usually of common birth, but their passage and dowry were indeed paid by King Louis XIV for the purpose of empire building: These women were to marry male colonists and have many children, thus strengthening France’s hold on North America. French Canadians can usually trace their ancestry back to one or more of these women.

For more information about the filles du roi, see my earlier article at http://bit.ly/2wG6ecP.

Whenever a small group of people leave a large population (France) to found a new one (New France), they bring with them a particular set of mutations. Some of these mutations will by chance be more common in the new population and others less so. As a result, some rare genetic disorders disproportionately impact French-Canadians.

One of these is Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which causes vision loss, usually in young men. Recently, geneticists using French Canadian genealogy have reexamined the effects of Leber’s and found a striking pattern of inheritance: It seems to show a long-theorized but never-seen-in-humans pattern called the “mother’s curse.”

The 19th-Century Freakout Over Steam-Powered Buses

Many of our ancestors were petrified by buses. No, not the twentieth-century buses but those of an earlier generation.

In the 1830s, the transportation industry of the United Kingdom took a dramatic turn. Large, clunking, hissing steam-engined vehicles—which looked like a cross between a carriage and a trolley car—began to rumble along the roads. Alarmed by their appearance, some people threw rocks at them. Others wrote furious letters to the local government. Still others used stones to block the paths of traveling steam buses.

The Internet Archive 78 RPM Records Archive is now Online

Want to listen to the music of your parents or grandparents? You can now do so, thanks to the Internet Archive. The Great 78 Project is a new project by the Internet Archive to preserve 78 rpm records that has released about 26,000 records as of today. One new digitized 78 rpm record is being added to the online collection every 10 minutes. More than 200,000 records are expected to be available online when the project is completed. In fact, you can even add your collection of 78 RPM records as well.

Disclaimer: Your taste in music will dictate the usefulness of this collection for you.

You can play the music online or else download any of the records to your computer and save them for later use. Downloads are available in a number of file formats including MP3 and M3U. Images of most of the records are also available.

America’s Love-Hate Relationship with Immigrants

It does seem strange that a nation of immigrants has so often attempted to place restrictions on immigration. With today’s rules around immigration in flux, Angelica Quintero has provided a look at the enormously varied ways the U.S. has determined who can become an American throughout history. Her article in the Los Angeles Times explains some of the problems your ancestors may have faced when attempting to immigrate to America.

Quintero writes:

“In the 1800s, the Irish were a favorite target, and newspaper wants ads commonly included the phrase “No Irish need apply.” Later in the 19th century, anti-immigration sentiment was codified in federal laws that singled out Asians. Later federal laws targeted Italians and Southern Europeans.”

Most French Canadians are Descended from 800 Women Known as the Filles du Roi

If you have French-Canadian ancestry, you probably have one, two, or perhaps a dozen filles du roi in your family tree. Several of them even have proven lines of descent from Charlemagne and a number of other royal families from throughout Europe. If you are descended from one of the Charlemagne descendants, that obviously makes you a descendant of Charlemagne and other royal families as well.

Who were these young French women known as les filles du roi? They traveled from France to what was then called New France, now known as Québec, between 1663 and 1673 as part of a program designed to boost the population by encouraging female immigrants to settle, marry, and raise families.

The Unusual Cause of Death of Allan Pinkerton

Allan J. Pinkerton (25 August 1819 – 1 July 1884) was a Scottish American detective and spy, best known for creating the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Pinkerton emigrated as a young man to seek his fortune in the United States of America. A self-educated man, he had little formal training in any of the professions usually available to immigrants. However, that never slowed the ambitious young man.

He settled in Dundee Township, Illinois, fifty miles northwest of Chicago. He built a cabin and started a cooperage (making barrels). His home soon became a stop on the Underground Railroad, smuggling escaping slaves northward to Canada.

Pinkerton worked with the local sheriff to identify some counterfeiters who were working nearby. Soon he was appointed as the first police detective in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois. In 1850 he partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker in forming the North-Western Police Agency, one of the nation’s first private detective services. The company later became Pinkerton & Co and finally Pinkerton National Detective Agency, still in existence today as Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations, a subsidiary of Securitas AB.

Live Cannonball (or is it a Mortar Shell?) from the Battle of the Plains of Abraham found in Old Quebec

A cannonball fired by the British during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 has been unearthed at a building site in Old Quebec. The rusted, 90-kilogram projectile was unearthed during excavation work last week at the corner of Hamel and Couillard streets and still contained a charge and gunpowder.

One person took the cannonball back to his home, and noticed it still contained a charge. A team of army munitions technicians was dispatched from CFB Valcartier to collect the ball and neutralize it.

City of Tampa, Florida, to Release Two Newly Digitized Historic Photo Collections

Here is a great online resource for anyone interested in the history of Tampa, Florida: As part of its annual Archives Awareness Week, the City of Tampa’s Archives and Records Division will be releasing two recently digitized historic photographic collections to the public. These photo collections have never been shown beyond the City of Tampa’s archives, and were not previously available digitally. Similar to the iconic Burgert Brothers photographic collection, these collections will serve as an important historical resource to both citizens and researchers. In collaboration with the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library, the photographic collections will be available online and can be accessed on this web site: http://digitalcollections.hcplc.org/digital/.

The Hidden Rules of the Puritan Fashion Police

The fashion rules may have been tough for some of our ancestors, according to an article by Sarah Laskow in the Atlas Obscura web site. For instance:

“The Massachusetts Bay Colony passed its first law limiting the excesses of dress in 1634, when it prohibited citizens from wearing “new fashions, or long hair, or anything of the like nature.” That meant no silver or gold hatbands, girdles, or belts, and no cloth woven with gold thread or lace. It was also forbidden to create clothes with more than two slashes in the sleeves (a style meant to reveal one’s rich and fancy undergarments). Anyone who wore such items would have to forfeit them if caught.”

Then there are these questionable pieces of legislation: