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An Assist from the NEHGS

Many Americans, including me, can trace their ancestry to Massachusetts. My fourth great grandparents, Lucy Snow (1760-1795) and Gershom Hall (1760-1844), lived in Harwich on Cape Cod where the sea was a part of everyday life. The water, with all its opportunities and vicissitudes, dictated much of our family history.

Four of the couple’s family members died far from home while away on sea voyages. Lucy’s father Thomas Snow (1735-1790) died in Barbados. Lucy’s son Daniel Hall (1781-1820) and his half-brother Gershom Hall (1798-1820) died in Havana. Daniel’s son Oreck Hall (1805-1830) was lost at sea. This week I began trying to determine the circumstances of these deaths.

Living in landlocked Colorado, I know little about sea travel and maritime records. I turned to the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) in Boston for some help. They have a handy online chat feature available.

I asked what type of records I might find for these men if they were on commercial ships. Crew lists? Newspaper accounts? Anything else?

I learned that the U.S. did not require crew lists until 1803 so I am unlikely to locate a record like that for Thomas Snow, who died in 1790. For the other three, the closest ports would have been Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, Boston, Salem, or Newburyport.

Family Search has some crew lists. I looked at those for Edgartown, the nearest port to Harwich, but found nothing.

The friendly NEHGS staffer told me that local newspaper accounts for these deaths will not be available. Cape Cod did not have its own paper until the Barnstable Patriot began publication in 1830. For news of earlier events, I will need to search the Boston or Newport, R.I. newspapers.

The public libraries in both these cities have digitized their historical newspapers. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to look at them because I do not reside in those states. Their websites instruct me to visit the libraries in person, but wait! They are closed due to the Covid-19 virus. As a retired librarian myself, I cannot understand motives for withholding information from people. My library always bent over backwards to provide access, requiring cards only for the nationwide commercial databases whose contracts require it.

I went instead to The Ancestor Hunt (https://www.theancestorhunt.com/), a wonderful free source of historic newspapers. There I found an early Newport paper, but it contained no mention of my lost ancestors.

I have not yet exhausted this search. Thanks to the folks at NEHGS, I have a direction for this quest and some hope that I will still find something about the Snow and Hall men who went to sea. If I cannot locate any American records, perhaps I can find something from Barbados or Havana.

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