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The Daily Genealogist: Annie Haven Thwing’s Boston

(A Note from the Editor) Permanent link
Betlock Lynn

Lynn Betlock
Managing Editor

If genealogists researching Boston ancestors aren’t familiar with the work of Annie Haven Thwing (1851-1940), they should be. Born in Roxbury (now part of Boston), Thwing “devoted over thirty years of her life to painstaking historical research on early Boston. According to Thwing, her interest was sparked by a desire ‘to find out where my ancestors lived, who were their neighbors, and what the neighborhood was like.’ Only Thwing did not stop with her own ancestors; she set out to answer these questions for all of Boston. Focusing on analysis and synthesis of primary sources, Annie Haven Thwing created several indispensable and accessible resources for historians.”[1]

“When Annie presented her research collection to the Massachusetts Historical Society in December 1916, it consisted of twenty-two typewritten volumes of Boston deed extracts entitled ‘Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston, 1630–1800,’ a two-volume ‘History of the Streets of Boston, 1630–1800,’ and the Thwing Card Index. This last comprised approximately 125,000 index cards, with all the ‘items of interest of each inhabitant’ she had compiled arranged alphabetically by name. That index, still much used by researchers and now the foundation of an electronic database, fills seventy-four library drawers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.”[2]

In 1920, Thwing drew on her research to publish the book for which she is best known today, The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston, 1630–1822. In 2001, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the New England Historic Genealogical Society collaborated on a CD, Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston, 1630–1800 and The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston, 1630–1822, that includes the Thwing Index and contains more than 62,000 records. (The CD is available for purchase here.)

While many genealogists are familiar with Annie Haven Thwing’s scholarship, they might not be aware that she also created a model of Boston that can still be viewed today. “In 1900, the Massachusetts Infant Asylum, a charitable organization for which Annie served as one of the directors, planned a fundraising fair. Typically, Annie decided upon an ambitious project for exhibition: an accurate scale model of the town of Boston, ca. 1775, based largely on the information she had amassed…Annie was no modeler, however, and time was short, so the model had to be reduced to a…modest five and a half feet by four and a half feet. The outline and topographical features were drawn from a map Annie had commissioned for the book she planned to write. For the model buildings, Annie turned to a carpenter named Munsey living on Orr’s Island, Maine, where she passed her summers…Munsey worked from pictures supplied by Annie Thwing…[and her] model featured the eighteenth-century street pattern she had so carefully reconstructed and nearly 120 handcarved building replicas. In addition to the acclaim it received for its appearance at the fair for the Infant Asylum, the Thwing model also received appreciation in a city exposition in 1909. In December of that year, Annie gave the model to the Old South Association, where it resides as a popular exhibit to this day.”[3]

Built in 1729 as a Puritan meeting house, the Old South Meeting House is best known as the site of lively public meetings in the years leading to the American Revolution, including the meeting that led to the Boston Tea Party. At the time, Old South was the largest building in Boston. Today, Old South is a museum, a Freedom Trail site, and an active gathering place. (Old South is also a center for history education, as I witnessed last week when my children and their third grade classmates took on the roles of Loyalists and Patriots and debated the tax on tea.)

Annie Haven Thwing left a rich and invaluable legacy for Boston genealogists, historians, and institutions — and it all began with a simple desire “to find out where my ancestors lived.” For a detailed look at Thwing’s life, I highly recommend Len Travers’s article, cited below.

1Lynn Betlock, “Annie Haven Thwing: Guardian of the Crooked and Narrow Street.” The Dial of the Old South Clock 7 (spring 1995): 1.

2Len Travers, “‘You see I am addicted to facts’: Annie Haven Thwing and The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston,The Massachusetts Historical Review 1 (1999): 121–122.

3Ibid., 120–21.

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