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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 (, 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.

Some Research Alternatives for Thomas Snow

Thomas Snow (1735-1790), my 5th great-grandfather, remains an elusive research subject. Last week I received his probate documents from Barnstable County, MA, but the packet contained only an appointment of Executor and a Final Account, with no listing of the heirs to his estate. I need some new avenues of inquiry for him.

Three possibilities appeared this week when I reviewed for Thomas:

  1. Oddly, Thomas has two memorials. One claims a burial in Brewster Cemetery in Brewster, MA. This record was created in 2009 and even provides the middle name “Rogers” for Thomas although it offers no source for this information. The second memorial, created in 2012, lists his burial in Old Burying Ground, Brewster, MA. How can a man be buried in two cemeteries? Hoping to get some answers to the question of why Thomas has two FindAGrave memorials, I have sent a message to the man who created the second one to see if he can provide some clarification.
  2. Thomas’ cemetery marker states he died at age 54 in the West Indies. The Brewster Cemetery FindAGrave memorial claims a more specific place of death, Barbados. Again, no source is provided. Is this information correct? What happened to Thomas in Barbados? Did he die of natural causes or for some other reason like effects of a storm, an epidemic, or a pirate attack? This week I asked an acquaintance who has Barbados ancestry for some guidance on researching records there. She did a little research and found there were no hurricanes in Barbados in 1790. She provided me with contact information for a repository in Barbados that might have information on other events the occurred in Barbados in 1790.
  3. The cemetery marker on Thomas’ grave names him as Capt. Thomas Snow. If he was a sea captain, a maritime record of his ship might exist in Massachusetts. My acquaintance pointed out that if Thomas’ body was returned to Massachusetts from Barbados, the ship record would tell the story. I have never looked at any maritime records, and this would be quite a learning curve for me. I will need to educate myself on how to do this.

None of these records will likely show the connection between Thomas and his daughter Lucy that I need to clinch my pedigree, but it would be interesting to fill in his life story. Ancestors feel more real when we know the particulars of their lives. I would love to know what happened to Thomas Snow.

A Dead End

As I await a response to my application for membership in the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, I continue to search for records strengthening the argument that Lucy Snow Hall (1760-1795) of Barnstable County, Massachusetts was the daughter of Thomas Snow (d.1790) and Hannah Lincoln (d.1817), both Mayflower descendants. My pedigree hinges on this link. I have no primary evidence of this relationship, only a biographical entry from the 1916 Encyclopedia of Massachusetts. On the other hand, I have not been able to prove that Lucy was not their daughter.

Recently, I came across a consolidated probate index for Barnstable and other Massachusetts counties that lists a 1790 will for Thomas Snow, Jr. of Harwich. My Thomas Snow, also known as Thomas Snow, Jr., died in Barbados that year but resided in Harwich, Barnstable County. I hoped the will would name a daughter, Lucy Snow Hall, as an heir.

The index says this will was filed as Case Z3. I could not find the probate case online, so I wrote to Barnstable County for the record.

They replied promptly.

The record they sent contains just two pages. The first is a copy of the Letters of Administration granted to Edward Snow in 1790, the same year Thomas died.

No relationship between Thomas the deceased and Edward the Administrator was specified, but Thomas and Hannah Snow did have a son Edward baptized at the Brewster church in 1763. Same person? This appointment lends weight to the argument that the Thomas who died in 1790 is the same Thomas who, with his wife Hannah, was the parent of children Lucy, Edward, Bethiah, Hannah, Priscilla, and Benjamin, all baptized in Brewster in the 1760’s and 1770’s. This does not prove that Lucy Snow, baptized daughter of Thomas and Hannah, assumed daughter of Thomas who died in 1790, is the same Lucy Snow who married my ancestor Gershom Hall.

The only other page sent to me by the county was an Inventory filed by Edward Snow over a decade after the estate was opened. It lists debts settled. Dashing my hopes, the last line mentions Legacies paid, but it does not name any of the recipients. It lists only an aggregate amount.

These two pages, the Letters and the Inventory, do not contain enough personal information to tie my ancestor Lucy Snow Hall to this Thomas Snow. Questions remain. Why is there no will in this file? Why did Edward not name the Legatees who received money from the estate? I do not like Edward.

This probate file is yet another disappointing dead end in the search to connect Lucy to her parents and her husband.

Leif Erikson Day

All the proud Scandinavians like to remember Leif Erikson Day every year on October 9.

The day honors the Viking explorer who is thought to have been the first person from the old world to set foot in the new. Five hundred years before Columbus, Leif the Lucky, as he was known, was perhaps blown off course while sailing from Norway to Greenland. Or maybe he traveled there deliberately after hearing of lands to the west from an Icelandic trader. The Norse sagas tell conflicting tales.

When Leif and his crew landed in North American, they noted the vast forests. They also spotted abundant grapes growing so they named the new land Vinland (Land of Wine).

Unfortunately, the sagas do not tell us the coastal location of Vinland. It remained a mystery until archaeologists found Viking-type ruins in northern Newfoundland at a place called L’Anse aux Meadows. Perhaps this is where Leif Erikson stopped.

Americans began observing Leif Erikson Day in 1964. President Lyndon Johnson began the tradition of issuing an annual proclamation to remember the Viking and to honor the contributions of Americans of Nordic descent.

October 9 has no connection to Leif Erikson himself. The day was chosen because the wave of Norwegian immigration to America began on October 9, 1825 when the ship Restauration from Stavanger, Norway arrived in New York.

How will I celebrate Leif Erikson Day and my Viking heritage tomorrow? One of the Sons of Norway lodges in California is hosting an online talk about the explorer, and I may tune in for that.

Leif Erikson Day calls for Nordic refreshments, too. My husband/tech advisor and I plan to bring out the aquavit as we honor the Viking spirit of discovery. Skål!

NGS-FGS Merger Party Today

The wheel is about to turn.

Two genealogy societies officially merge today. A little over a year ago, the National Genealogical Society (NGS) and the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) announced their intention to combine into one organization. The consolidated group will operate as the National Genealogical Society.

The new NGS plans to continue its mission of supporting individual members. It will also take on the FGS role of supporting local genealogical societies and family organizations. The FGS work of advocating for the preservation of records and running digitization projects will continue.

I have long belonged to NGS, probably since 1996 or so. My local societies, The Colorado and the Highlands Ranch Genealogical Societies, both belong to FGS.

My NGS membership has enriched my genealogy career over the years. They publish a superb quarterly journal, the scholarly National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Any serious genealogist should read this publication to see the results of well-executed research projects.

NGS also puts out a quarterly magazine, the NGS Magazine, which is packed with Society news and how-to articles.

Another benefit of NGS membership is the annual conference. I have attended two of these multi-day events over the years—I volunteered at the 1998 conference in Denver, and we drove to Kansas City for the 2008 conference. FGS has hosted conferences, too, although I have not been to one.

This evening the new NGS will celebrate the merger with an online party hosted by well-known blogger, Judy Russell. I plan to tune in.

I do not know whether they are serious in their request to wear party hats and bring noisemakers. Perhaps I will dig into my New Year’s Eve box for these accessories. It will not hurt to be prepared.

This merger represents a big change for the genealogy world. Now we will have one-stop shopping for excellent publications, educational offerings, and research guidance. We will have an expanded opportunity for interacting with other genealogists and volunteering on record preservation projects.

The architects of this union hope it will better serve the genealogy community by creating a larger organization with more resources. It all starts tonight.



I Triangulate

In my quest to connect my ancestor Lucy Snow Hall to her parents Thomas Snow and Hannah Lincoln, I have yet to find a primary source document that spells out this relationship. The paper trail still hinges on an entry for the Hall family line in The Encyclopedia of Massachusetts. I continue to search for additional sources that could verify this relationship.

In the meantime, I can tinker with analyzing DNA results to search for clues. After listening to a presentation by local DNA detective Greg Liverman, I decided to modify the cluster approach he suggested for identifying unknown ancestors. He described how to use online family trees and the 1940 census to fill in the family lines of matches back to a common ancestor.

As I perused my dad’s match lists on the sites where he tested his DNA, I looked for people with New England ancestry. I focused on those with surnames that appear in my own tree, but I did not find much of interest.

I did notice a couple of matches who claimed Nickerson forebears. My ancestor Lucy had two close relatives, a sister and a daughter, who married into the Nickerson family. I spent a couple of days trying to put together the family trees for these Nickerson descendants, and I think they also descend from my Thomas and Hannah:

Thomas Snow and Hannah Lincoln descendants

Lucy Snow Hall                                       Bethia Snow Nickerson

Rhoda Hall Dunbar                                Thomas Nickerson VI

Olive Dunbar Riddle                              Thomas Snow Nickerson

Laura Riddle                          Annie Nickerson Mills        Alva Nickerson

Grace Riddle Reed                Mildred Mills Cushman       Maude N. Kaliher

Earl Reed                                Alta Cushman Brodie           Private

                                                  Private                                     Private


The last two people in the threads of the Bethia Snow Nickerson line, Dad’s predicted 5th cousins, both match him on the 13th chromosome. They match each other in the same place.

This is called triangulation. It means people who are not closely related match one other, indicating a common ancestral couple.

In this case, I think the couple must be Thomas Snow and Hannah Lincoln although it is possible there is a different common ancestor. If Thomas and Hannah are the common ancestors, Dad descends from their suspected daughter Lucy. The two men who match his DNA descend from their suspected daughter Bethia.

Thomas and Hannah did have daughters Lucy and Bethia who were baptized at the Brewster, MA church in the 1760’s. Are these the same girls who married into the Hall and Nickerson families?

I still do not have a paper trail proving these relationships, but the DNA result adds weight to my hypothesis.

Genealogists and Home Libraries

I am in the 5%.

Every week the New England Historic Genealogical Society sends around an electronic newsletter called The Weekly Genealogist. It always contains a survey, and last week’s question asked how many books are in personal genealogy libraries.

I answered that I have 251-1000 genealogy books, and only 5% of the respondents fell into that category. The largest group, 20%, had 26-50 books.

Luckily for me, I did not have to purchase all my books, although my husband/tech advisor still grumbles that he had to buy and install bookcases for them. I inherited most of what I have from my dad’s cousin.

I rarely use most of them, but I like having them around for when I need them. I do keep a few, well-thumbed references on my desk that I consult regularly:

  1. Black’s Law Dictionary. I received a copy of the 1891 first edition for Christmas one year, and it really helps for finding definitions of unfamiliar words in old legal documents.
  2. Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills. I regularly turn to this reference when creating source citations.
  3. The Handybook for Genealogists, ninth edition. I won this as a door prize once, and it provides a quick reference for county information across the United States.
  4. Historical and Genealogical Atlas and Guide to Barnstable County, Massachusetts. This gem has great, detailed maps of the towns on Cape Cod.
  5. A Primer for The Master Genealogist by Terry Reigel. I still use the no-longer-available TMG for my genealogical database, and this wonderful handbook gives clear instructions for using all its intricacies.
  6. Rand McNally Road Atlas. My ancestors lived all over the United States, and I find it useful to consult the maps of their states.
  7. The Reeds of Ashmore by Michael Hayden. My distant cousin Michael put this together in 1988 as part of his doctoral dissertation. It traces our Reed lineage from colonial times. I use his book to determine how modern-day descendants fit into my family tree. In recent years, it has become helpful in determining my relationship to DNA matches.
  8. A Research Guide for Norwegian Genealogy, sixth edition by Carol A. Culbertson and Jerry Paulson, editors. This book is packed with information about Norway, Norwegians, and how to do Norwegian genealogy. It includes a useful glossary of Norwegian genealogical terms.

I like having print resources available. In seconds I can use these familiar tools to lay my hands on the information I need without having to take time to scour the internet for it.

Most of the people who responded to The Weekly Genealogist survey had fewer than 50 books. I would fall into that category, too, if it were not for the inheritance from Dad’s cousin.

Few of the newsletter readers have the large library I do. I am glad to have it during these months of the pandemic when I cannot visit libraries in person to find sources that have not been digitized.

I enjoyed taking this survey to see where I fall on the spectrum of researchers and their books.


I Discover a DNA Cluster Tool

This week I had the opportunity to hear a genealogy presentation by a local DNA expert. Dr. Greg Liverman of Pinewood Genealogy addressed the first meeting of the Highlands Ranch Genealogical Society’s 2020-2021 season via Zoom.

He showed us how to use DNA clusters to identify unknown ancestors in recent generations. I have such an ancestor—my dad’s maternal grandfather. According to Greg, this is just the sort of research problem that cluster analysis can solve.

The task of sorting all of Dad’s DNA matches by hand was overwhelming. I learned from Greg that I do not have to do that. There are tools available that will do the sorting for you. He mentioned several.

I decided to try the Auto Clustering feature on the My Heritage ( online genealogy platform. It is free to use when you have an account, and my husband/tech advisor had already uploaded my dad’s DNA data to the site. All I had to do was run a report.

To my surprise, what takes hours to do by hand required only a few minutes with the sorting tool. I soon had a color-coded report that put my dad’s DNA matches into relationship groups, or clusters.

To find relatives of an unknown ancestor, Greg told us to look for a cluster of matches who are not related to any family members whose family tree you already know. Locate the names of people in that cluster who are most closely related to you, who match you at the level of 50 cM or more. Then look at the family trees provided by these people for their common ancestor. This ancestor is probably yours, too.

This seems a simple enough process. I needed to search for people not related to anyone in Dad’s paternal line or his direct maternal line.

The report came back with twenty clusters of matches, some including only a couple of people who are quite distantly related to us. I set those small, remote clusters aside for now and began with the first, larger clusters to see if I could recognize anyone:

  1. Cluster 1 had three people who matched at over 50cM. Two I do not know, and they have no family trees on My Heritage. The third is a descendant of my Dad’s paternal cousin. I assume the others belong to the same paternal line.
  2. Cluster 2 included two people closely related to us. Both had family trees on the site, and both are descended from Dad’s paternal grandmother’s family.
  3. Cluster 3 had two close relatives, both descended from another of Dad’s paternal cousins.
  4. Cluster 5 included Dad’s double cousins, who descend from both his father’s family and his direct maternal line.
  5. Clusters 6-20 included either no close relatives or else relatives who barely met the 50cM threshold. Many of them also matched someone in Clusters 1, 2, 3, and 5.

That left cluster 4. It contains just 5 people, none of whom reach the 50cM match level. But these people do not match those in the other clusters, all of whom descend from the families of Dad’s three known grandparents.

If Greg is right, these people in Cluster 4 should belong to the family of my unknown great-grandfather. If I can identify their common ancestor, I can learn who his family was.

I was disappointed when I found that none of these people has placed a family tree on My Heritage. Learning about their families will take more legwork. That is the next step.

Perhaps with the tool of cluster analysis I have at last found the key to discovering the identity of my unknown great-grandfather. He has hidden himself from us for over 100 years. I hope his DNA trail can now force him to step out from behind the curtain.

Celebrating Labor Day

Labor Day weekend approaches. As we take this holiday to visit the outdoors or enjoy picnics, we see little mention of why we have this holiday in the first place.

President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day into law as a federal holiday in 1894 to acknowledge the role of the organized labor movement in our society. We owe them our 8-hour workday, among other things.

Yet Labor Day never meant much in my family except as a paid day off. Few of us entered a trade. We were originally farmers and ranchers whose children left the homesteads and often went to college or joined the military.

As I grew up, I was oblivious to any labor activities that may have taken place around me. Unions had little clout. I lived in a right-to-work state where an employee need not join a union even if the workplace is unionized.

I my later years, I have wondered whether any of my ancestors ever belonged to a labor union. I can think of only a handful who may have had the opportunity:

  1. My maternal grandfather, Bjarne Bentsen (1906-1986) worked in a couple of industries that are often unionized today. He was an electrician for an iron mine and later at a power plant. Between these jobs, he worked as a police officer for several years. He never mentioned union membership to me.
  2. My mother, Joyce Bentsen (1929-2000), and her mother, Martha Mattila Bentsen (1906-1977) both taught school. They served in small town and rural communities, and neither belonged to a teacher’s union as far as I know.
  3. My paternal grandfather, Owen Herbert Reed (1896-1935), worked as a railroad freight agent and later as a trucker. He died long before I was born, and no one ever mentioned any unions in relation to him.
  4. My dad, Earl Reed (1927-2017), worked briefly for the railroad while he was in college. I do not know whether he joined the union during that time.

If any of these people did belong to a labor union, they paid their dues but did not engage in union activities or rhetoric. I never heard of any of them going on strike to get better working conditions or benefits.

Only one relative by marriage was an outlier to this pattern. My grandmother’s brother-in-law, John Kerzie (1915-2012) worked as a mechanic in the U.S. Steel Sherman iron mine near Hibbing, Minnesota. He was a labor leader there and became Vice President of the U.S. Steel Workers Union.

In my family today, no one engages in unionized work. But we owe gratitude to those people who did organize, for they brought us reasonable hours, paid vacations, and safer working conditions. We can be thankful for all those things as we enjoy our barbeques this weekend.




A 90th Birthday

We just returned from Wyoming where we joined in the celebration of my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. In these days of Covid-19, we could not throw the party we would have liked, but we all enjoyed our time together despite the need for social distancing.

As the woman we all know as Grandma reached this milestone, I thought about my own family members who reached their nineties. There have not been many.

In my own generation, we are all years away from our nineties. We cannot tell who among us might reach this age although we know one who will not. My brother James Reed (1959-2017) has already passed away.

Of my parents and those in their generation, only my father Earl Reed (1927-2017) reached ninety. My mother did not, and neither have any of their siblings. One still has a chance, though. My maternal aunt is eighty-one.

None of my grandparents lived to be ninety. My grandmothers’ siblings did not, either. My grandfathers’ families had more longevity:

  1. Annie Reed McDavitt (1870-1967) was my paternal grandfather’s half-sister.
  2. Bertha Reed Richards Evert (1884-1981) was my paternal grandfather’s eldest full sister.
  3. Viola Mae Reed Gwinn (1889-1983) was another of the same grandfather’s full sisters.
  4. Otto Sigurd Bentsen (1918-2013) was my maternal grandfather’s younger brother.

We had some nonagenarians in my great-grandparents’ generation as well:

  1. Ida May Reed Bovell Thompson (1864-1954) was my paternal great-grandfather’s youngest sister.
  2. Anna Petronellia Sherman Reed (1865-1961) was my paternal great-grandmother.
  3. Ole Jørgen Bentsen (1880-1976) was my maternal great-grandfather.
  4. Olga Mattila Silberg (1874-1969) was another maternal great-grandfather’s older sister.

My father always claimed that people normally do not live into their nineties and that only occasional outliers actually do. He may have been right about that, at least in our family. In three generations, only eight of my own family members, out of 90 people, have reached this age.

It was somewhat ironic, then, that he would reach ninety himself. My mother-in-law, too, has lived this rare, long life. We were glad to join in with other family members to celebrate this achievement yesterday. The drive to another state for the day was worth it.