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Detective Work, Discoveries, and the Family Tree

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View from the Family Tree

One of my favorite new nonfiction books is Philip Mould's The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds, and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures (Viking, 2009). Mould, an art dealer in London specializing in portraits, is a regular on the BBC Antiques Roadshow. In his book, Mould presents a collection of stories ranging from discovering unrecognized masterpieces on eBay, to identifying a long missing Gainsborough landscape, to laying out the circumstances of a masterful fraud at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. As the jacket says, "the art world has never seemed quite so treacherous, so beguiling --- and so much fun."


Why is this book a great "read" for a genealogist? Because, at its core, it is about detective work, not to mention gathering and analyzing evidence. It relates closely to the research you and I conduct in establishing the facts around our lineages. Like Mould and his associates, we sometimes go on hunches, frequently form hypotheses, always search for primary evidence, and sometimes discredit bad research or lofty claims made by others in print or on the Internet. I also see a parallel in the way Mould describes the restoration work his colleagues conduct on paintings that have suffered from being "doctored" by amateur hands or heavily varnished over time. Conservators carefully remove overpainted layers added long after a work was completed in order to return the canvas or panel to its truest, original form. These anecdotes remind me of the work we undertake in family history, often removing layers of misinformation --- wrong dates, places, names, etc. --- that have gathered like bad varnish over time on the surface of our family history. Mould says it best, a "discovery is dependent on knowledge that transforms something formerly unrecognized into something that is understood and valued." At the New England Historic Genealogical Society and on, we are always excited to help facilitate discoveries for families and communities so that our history may be better understood and valued.


Wishing you all the best in 2011! Brenton

D. Brenton Simons
President and CEO

Winter Morning and Holiday Memories

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View from the Family Tree

Few images evoke the spirit of the holidays for me as much as an 1861 Fanny Palmer print by Currier & Ives, "Winter Morning." This print, a visual recollection of a quaint and bygone era, hangs in a hallway of the New England Historic Genealogical Society near our R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, the great treasure trove of American family history containing millions of original records. Beneath gray skies and shrouded in a blanket of snow, Fanny Palmer presented scenery that is in no way bleak. Rather, it is animated, even festive: a horse drawn sleigh carries a man through the snow towards a welcoming house, barnyard animals amble behind a stockade fence, and, in the distance, skaters whirl across a frozen pond below rolling hills. This image fuels romantic visions of a holiday our ancestors might have known and enjoyed. It also touches upon two of our key concerns at NEHGS: the family and the community.


Every year, we enjoy selecting an image from our collections to be used in conjunction with the Society's holiday greetings. This season we chose an antique photograph of two children being pulled on a sled through the snow by a car, another lovely image that evokes memories of happy holidays long gone. (Antique automobile experts, please identify the make and model of this car!) This undated photograph, from our Martha Clapp Wyman Palin collection, has touched a nerve among several members of the NEHGS family who have seen it on the joy of youthful winter fun and frolic in decades past!  


This year, in addition to celebrating the holidays with your family or friends, spend a few moments thinking about special times in years past and give some thought to our ancestors and their lives, many of which were difficult and without the comforts or liberties we enjoy today. At the New England Historic Genealogical Society we work hard to keep the memory alive of those long gone. Thank you for all your support in 2010 in fulfillment of our great mission and to all, happy holidays and all best wishes in 2011! Warmly, Brenton

D. Brenton Simons
President and CEO

A Year in Reflection

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Welcome to my new blog, "View from the Family Tree." I hope to post to it on a weekly basis if not more frequently, as time permits. Here I will plan on sharing insights on activities at NEHGS, impressions from the fields of genealogy and local history, as well as a few personal reflections on my own interests and family history experiences. I want to start by thanking our capable web team, lead by Ryan Woods, and to Brian A. Sullivan for the use of his excellent photograph, taken last summer at Walpole, N.H., as its logo.


This evening the New England Historic Genealogical Society will host its annual holiday party for members, staff, and their families. The building is abuzz with excitement. We will have all the requisite ingredients of a successful holiday party, including refreshments, music, raffles and prizes, and, for the first time, even a magician! Thank you to longtime member and genealogist Philip Vanderbilt Brady for coming all the way from South Carolina to entertain our group with a magic show. But, more importantly, this event gives me the occasion to reflect on what we have accomplished as an organization in 2010. I am proud of the good work our staff has done, the positive impact of the contributions of our volunteer corps, and the loyalty, generosity, and friendship of our members across the nation and the world.


It has been a good year, even during uncertain economic times. Membership is up --- in fact, way up, earned and contributed revenue is ahead of plan, and our new state-of-the art website, was successfully launched a few months ago. Some of the highlights:


  • The American Jewish Historical Society made NEHGS the headquarters for its major archives and three-person staff
  • The launch of a new website with 25+ million new names
  • The premiere episode of "Who Do You Think You Are" on NBC with our beautiful library featured and the wonderful chemistry between our own Josh Taylor and Sarah Jessica Parker 
  • The debut of new, unique data and journals on our website, including most recently "The Mayflower Descendant," begun in 1899
  • The presentation at our annual dinner to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of his family history (with a foreword written for the occasion by Oprah Winfrey) and his moving response; and the impact of his series on PBS, "Faces of America" 
  • The beautifully presented remarks by Pulitzer-prize winning author Annette Gordon-Reed at the same event 
  • A special collaboration with the Museum of African American History and the African American Historical and Genealogical Society to launch and publish a guide to our African American holdings at NEHGS 
  • The pleasure of interacting in real time with our members and friends (7,300 and growing!) on Facebook 
  • A discovery-filled trip with members to research Irish family history at repositories in Dublin
  • An exciting, interactive "weekend retreat" with our Board of Trustees in October
  • A delightful visit to London last February for the world's largest genealogical exhibition and our fun evening of "wit and whimsy" at the historic Rule's restaurant near Covent Garden 
  • Visits with members in California, Connecticut, New York, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, to name just a few!
  • Our ongoing dedication to scholarship through publications (both online and in print), education, and library services
  • And, finally, laying the groundwork for a $50 million Capital Campaign to secure the Society's future and advance our mission, an effort which will be announced in a few weeks

The list of exciting things that have happened at NEHGS this year is very long but I will stop here. As the holidays approach, I hope you will join me in reflecting upon the important role NEHGS plays in advancing family history research in New England, New York, and beyond. You are central to the success of our great American mission and on behalf of the Society's board, council, and staff, I thank you for your participation in our lives and work.


Warm regards,



D. Brenton Simons
President and CEO
New England Historic Genealogical Society
99 - 101 Newbury Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116, USA

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