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Ask a Genealogist: Researching citizenship in the 1870 U.S. Census.

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Question asked in 1870 US Census Whether a male citizen over the age of 21 and the right to vote had been denied on grounds other than rebellion or other crimes? What would the grounds be that denied these voting rights?


Reply by Rhonda McClure, NEHGS Genealogist.

In the directions to enumerators for the 1870 census as they dealt with columns 19 and 20, the following was given:

“Upon the answers to the question under this head will depend the distribution of representative power in the General Government. It is therefore imperative that this part of the enumeration should be performed with absolute accuracy. Every male person born within the United States, who has attained the age of 21 years, is a citizen of the United States by the force of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution; also, all persons born out of the limits and jurisdiction of the United States, whose fathers at the time of their birth were citizens of the United States (act of February 10, 1855); also, all persons born out of the limits and jurisdiction of the United States, who have been declared by judgment of court to have been duly naturalized, having taken out both ‘papers.’

“The part of the enumerator’s duty which related to column 19 is therefore easy, but it is none the less of importance. It is a matter of more delicacy to obtain the information required by column 20. Many persons never try to vote, and therefore do not know whether their right to vote is or is not abridged. It is not only those whose votes have actually been challenged, and refused at the polls for some disability or want of qualification, who must be reported in this column; but all who come within the scope of any State law denying or abridging suffrage to any class or individual on any other ground than the participation in rebellion, or legal conviction of crime. Assistant marshals, therefore, will be required carefully to study the laws of their own States in these respects, and to satisfy themselves, in the case of each male citizen of the United States above the age of 21 years, whether he does not come within these classes.

“As the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the exclusion from the suffrage of any person on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, has become the law of the land, all State laws working such exclusion have ceased to be of virtue. If any person is, in any State, still practically denied the right to vote by reason of any such State laws not repealed, that denial is merely an act of violence, or which the courts may have cognizance, but which does not come within the view of marshals and their assistants in respect to the census.”

In short, if a person were deemed incompetent by reason of insanity, mental defect, etc. for most states, but in the south in this particular census it could also have been a result of illiteracy. Consider for a moment that it was illegal in most southern states to teach slaves to read and write. Coming into the 1870 census, many of these states that could no longer bar voters based on race, were trying to institute literacy tests to keep the now freed African Americans from being able to vote.

Beyond this, as it says in the directions, marshals were to familiarize themselves with the laws of their state. So, if you have a person who is listed in the 1870 census as being denied the right to vote, you will want to locate the statutes for New Hampshire at that time to see what laws were on the books at the time that could affect his right to vote.

Ask a Genealogist: Looking for Cambridge, Mass. residents in the 1930's

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Can you offer some assistance in locating what happened to John Edward and Georgiana (Bowman) Foster who were living in Cambridge, Mass. in the 1930's? 


Reply from Jeanne Belmonte, NEHGS Genealogist

A brief search for John Edward Foster in the Massachusetts death index 1931-1935 and 1936-1940 did not have a listing for a John Edward Foster dying in or any of the surrounding towns of Cambridge. His wife Georgiana (Bowman) Foster appears to have died in Cambridge in 1939. Her death record in volume 29, page 509 for the year 1939.

The Cambridge City Directory for 1937 did have a listing for a John E. Foster, living at 9 Ivy Street, occupation Janitor and wife is listed as Georgiana Foster. I believe that this may be your ancestor. You may view the city directory record at Since it does appear that John is alive in 1937, I checked a later volume of the Massachusetts death index.

John Edward does appear to have died in Cambridge in 1941. His death record is volume 29, page 505 for the year 1941. The death records are available at Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, located at 150 Mt. Vernon Street, Dorchester, MA 02125-3105. The Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records is open to the public for research. More information about research hours may be found at . Death certificates issued in Massachusetts from that time period contain the name of the funeral director and the cemetery where the burial took place.

Ask a Genealogist: Records of mariners from Boston.

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I just need direction on how to find lists of ships my great grandfather may have sailed out of Boston on, or sources of reported deaths at sea of mariners, for 1900-15. He was a mariner and family rumor has it he was lost at sea. He lived in Boston area from 1870s to 1900, then I cannot find him. Where would I look for these?


Traditionally, deaths at sea would be reported at the first port reached by the ship after the death. This is true of deaths taking place on passenger ships coming to the various ports of the United States, where a death taking place onboard a ship that docks at New York City would be recorded in New York City.

If the death of your great-grandfather took place while the ship was sailing to a foreign port, it is possible that his death was recorded there rather than in the United States. However, Massachusetts has long recorded deaths of individuals, that resided normally within the state, if the death took place somewhere else. So if you cannot find a death for your great-grandfather, then it is possible that he had moved out of the state before his death happened.

In city directories and newspapers you will often find listings of the shipping companies that were active in a specific city—in this case, Boston. The shipping companies are how you would identify the ships that were leaving from Boston, and are usually listed in the city directories. The dates of embarkation and ports of call for ships were often published in the newspapers, and may assist you in a better understanding of where certain ships traveled, as they often traveled specific routes.


Ask a Genealogist: Looking for a marriage in Nova Scotia ca. 1812

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Looking for marriage of Robert Butler to Mary Eldridge in Nova Scotia around 1812. Need documentation for Sons of American Revolution. There is a question about her surname.


Reply by Rhonda McClure, NEHGS Genealogist

There are few vital records for Nova Scotia for the time in question for Nova Scotia. Births and deaths were not kept as this time, but there are some marriages. In 1812 a marriage could be contracted by either banns (being read in the church several times) or by license. An incomplete collection of the licenses and bonds (which were designed to protect women from breach of promise of matrimony according to Genealogist’s Handbook for Atlantic Canada Research edited by Terrence M. Punch and George F. Sanborn) are available through the Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management .

It is likely though that you will need to turn your attention to church records. In order to use church records you will need to know more than just the Province of Nova Scotia.

First you will need to identify the town in Nova Scotia where Robert Butler and Mary Eldridge were married. Then you would need to know the denomination of religion for the couple. The religions with records in Nova Scotia for the time in question include: Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and United.

Many of the church records are available on microfilm, and you will want to check the web site as they have many church records now online in a “browse images” format. This means that the images are not indexed and searchable by name, but can be viewed online and gone through page by page, such as with a traditional microfilm on a machine. You can see the data sets available at for Nova Scotia at this link .

Ask a Genealogist: Searching for a 17th century diary.

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Question: I am trying to find any type of memoir or diary that may have been kept by the Rev. Thomas Thornton of Boston, Massachusetts from the 17th century.


Reply by Alice Kane, NEHGS Genealogists.

Answer: Thank you for your query about the Reverend Thomas Thornton and his possible memoirs or diaries. The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts (138 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, 02111; 617-482-5800; email: ; web: holds archival materials about congregations in New England, and might have materials referring to your Rev. Thornton. The Massachusetts Historical Society (1154 Boylston Street, Boston, MA, 02215-3695; phone: 617-536-1608; web: is an institution that collects materials related to all periods of Massachusetts history. You may also wish to use NUCMC, the National Union Catalog of Manuscripts Collections, for your search. The Library of Congress has offered since 1959 this cataloging program to historical societies and archives that do not participate in a national level one. A hardcopy series of the catalog is available at most large public libraries (at NEHGS on 7th floor, Z6620.U5 N3) covers all submissions to the catalog between 1959 and 1991 when the print version was discontinued. All items submitted to the program since 1986 is searchable online via WorldCat or the NUCMC search page. The first search option on the NUCMC main search page at  is simple and easiest to use.

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