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Benjamin’s Life

How can you learn about the lives of your ancestors if they did not leave behind letters or diaries?

Perhaps you cannot know the minutiae of their daily activities, but you can find out more than you might think. Newspapers and local histories are good sources.

As I try to learn about the life of my third great-grandfather, Benjamin E. Dunbar (1776-1831), I spent some time this week searching for Massachusetts records that might tell me more about him.

The Family Search website ( allows for searches by locale. I went to the list of records for Chatham, Massachusetts where Benjamin spent most of his adult life.

I made a list of all the Chatham records that Family Search has available online. Then I worked my way down the list, viewing each item.

I found some interesting information in a town history of Chatham:

  1. The Methodist denomination started to take root in the Chatham area about 1795, near the time Benjamin arrived there. Benjamin’s name appeared on a list of Methodists in the 1820’s.
  2. The saltworks industry appeared at Chatham around 1800. Benjamin operated a saltworks. He must have been taking advantage of an opportunity in a new and growing industry.
  3. The War of 1812 posed a real threat to the people of Chatham. British war vessels patrolled the coast, and the residents could not go out to fish. Benjamin served in the Massachusetts militia, and the war would have affected his daily life in several ways—food supply, military service.

A history written for the 200th anniversary of Chatham’s Congregational Church in 1920 did not mention Benjamin, but it did give me an unexpected glimpse into the life of an even earlier ancestor, Gershom Hall (d. 1732). He was the third great-grandfather of Benjamin Dunbar’s wife, Rhoda Hall (1784-1850). Gershom lived at Harwich, a town bordering Chatham. I knew he was a lay preacher.

From the church history, I learned that Gershom was called twice to serve the congregation at Chatham. Their pastor drowned in a fishing accident in 1702 so Gershom was asked to fill in. He served for several years, until 1706, when the congregation finally attracted another trained minister. A few years later, when the pulpit was vacant again, the Chatham congregation requested Gershom Hall to return. He served from 1716-18. They must have liked him.

I have a few more sources to look at on the Family Search site. Perhaps I can find more about the times during which the Dunbars lived at Chatham. When Benjamin himself left few records, these histories can help me draw some conclusions about his life.

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