Last week I wrote about John S. Goodwin’s two pamphlets, Christmas Questions and Christmas Answers, which were published in 1892 and 1893. I admired Goodwin’s creative appeal for genealogical information, and thought his questions and methods contained good advice for today’s researchers.
This week I’m focusing on two slim volumes in the NEHGS Library that may serve as models, even today, for how family history can be shared during the holiday season, and then preserved. Both books were written and privately published by Charles Henry Dalton (1826–1908), a native of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, who lived most of his life in Boston. According to the BOSarchitecture website, “Dalton was a merchant and businessman. During his career, he served in a variety of positions, including as president of several railroads, president of the Consolidated Coal Company, treasurer of the Manchester Print Works, and treasurer of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company. He also was the first treasurer of MIT, serving from 1865 to 1867, and was president of Massachusetts General Hospital for many years.”
The first book, A Wintersnight Tale, published in 1904, opens with the words “Told on Christmas Evening, 1903” and follows with a list of the names of seventeen people — including ten Daltons — who had spent the holiday together. Charles Dalton and his wife, Mary (McGregor), had no children so the Daltons listed were probably the children and grandchildren of his brothers. What follows is twenty-two pages of history, genealogy, and especially reminiscences about the family of his mother, Julia (Spaulding) Dalton, whose roots in Chelmsford dated to at least the mid-1600s. Dalton wrote about the Chelmsford homestead where he was born and which had been in the family for 160 years. After his family moved from Chelmsford when he was a child, he returned to spend summers there, and in his story confided, “It seemed to me the pleasantest of all possible places. I liked it better than going to school.” He described the rhythms of life on the farm, and changes that had taken place during his lifetime, especially in transportation.
He closed with the following words: “You young folks will doubtless live to see even greater changes, such as, for example, flying machines, to which I do not doubt you will contribute your full share. [The flight at Kitty Hawk had just occurred on December 17, 1903.] And I trust you will take your revenge on somebody by telling your stories, as a recompense for what you have so politely endured listening to mine.”
Charles Dalton must have been pleased at the reception of his reminiscences, because the following year he published another volume, titled, A Christmas Eve Family Story. Sixteen people were in attendance for Christmas Eve 1904. That year’s reminiscences were about Dalton’s paternal ancestors, back to his great-grandfather, “Captain James Dalton, mariner and merchant of Boston,” who was born in 1718.
Both of these books were handsomely printed on nice paper with attractive marbled covers. Fifty copies of A Christmas Eve Family Story were ordered, and the same number may well have been purchased of A Wintersnight Tale. The books were likely to have been fairly costly to produce. The easy and inexpensive options for creating and disseminating books that exist today were still about one hundred years in the future.
Charles Dalton clearly felt it was important to document and preserve his recollections of his early life, his memories of his parents and grandparents, and his knowledge of his family history. He might well have simply regaled the company with his stories on those Christmas Eves and done nothing further. But he went that extra vital step and, by publishing his stories, enabled them to live on, long after those present were no longer living. Over a century later, Charles Dalton provides us with a model for leaving a genealogical legacy.