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  • Home to Excellence: Our Best Women Genealogists - Based on an Interview with John I. Coddington

    Melinde Lutz Sanborn

    Published Date : August-September 1988
    Quiet, soft-spoken, unassuming, yet she possessed one of the most accomplished genealogical minds of our century. Elizabeth French Bartlett, a prodigious contributor to the Society’s Committee on English Research, the woman responsible for uncovering the English origins of dozens of early New Englanders, has been called the best of a small group of our country’s leading women genealogists. She was remembered recently by John Insley Coddington, whose profound genealogical memory spans almost seven decades of American and European research.

    Great contributions are made to genealogical literature in many ways. Some researchers focus on abstracting or transcribing original records. Others pursue single surnames, full pedigrees or pioneer methods of problem-solving. Mrs. Bartlett excelled in each of these areas. Born in New York City on 27 January 1877, Elizabeth French attended Wheaton Seminary and Hunter College (now part of Columbia University) and early developed an interest in genealogy. She became a member of NEHGS in 1908 and lived for many years in London, abstracting records of early immigrants to New England and contributing numerous articles to the Register between 1909 and 1917. In a report of the Committee on English Research, which funded some of Miss French’s efforts, mention was made of her considerable courage: “Owing to the European war, the work [abstracting of English records] has been prosecuted during the past five months under considerable difficulties, which have caused delays and increased expenses; but Miss French has ‘stood her guns’ and supplied us regularly with the stipulated number of pages.”


    Another member of the Committee on English Research, Joseph Gardner Bartlett, became her husband in later life. Later still, Mrs. Bartlett, now a widow, showed even more courage, when in the shadow of World War II she took a steamer across the ocean and safely escorted Miss Julia Marlowe, the celebrated stage actress and her dear friend, back to America.


    After her death in 1961. Mrs. Bartlett’s surviving papers were rescued by Mr. John W. Farquharson of Goodspeed’s Book Shop, and given to the Society. These papers, comprising 22 large boxes of alphabetically arranged notes, cover an amazing range of surnames arid geographical areas. Primarily they are abstracts, many unpublished, of English records from the counties of Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex, with particular emphasis on surnames which appeared in New England at the time of the Great Migration.


    Mr. Coddington remembered, too, the Society in its old home at 9 Ashburton Place on Beacon Hill. Here, in the early 1920s. were to be found a very serious group of rather elderly (mind you, Mr. Coddington was barely 20 himself at this time!) genealogists, not much given to idle conversation, who worked with great concentration on their various interests.


    If Mrs. Bartlett was first, then who, we asked Mr. Coddington, rounded out the top five of our finest women genealogists. Mrs. Mary Walton Ferris, F.A.S.G., of Chicago, Illinois, author of the superlative two-volume work, Dawes-Gates Ancestral Lines (1931-1943), would be number two. Mrs. Mary Lovering Holman, F.A.S.G., and her daughter, Mrs. Winnifred Lovering Hohnan Dodge, F.A.S.G. (who is remembered as a red-haired, plump, and very cute woman), would be three and four. Mrs. Dodge donated many of the combined papers of this very successful mother-daughter research tradition to the Society in 1974. In the next generation, Mrs. Margaret Dickson Falley, F.A.S.G. of Chicago, Illinois, whose expertise was in Scots-Irish research, ranked as one of the very best.


    Of today’s women genealogists, Mr. Coddington mentioned Elizabeth Shown Mills, F.A.S.G., currently editor of The National Genealogical Society Quarterly, and Ruth Wilder Sherman, F.A.S.G., editor of The American Genealogist, among many others.


    Just as in earlier generations, when the NEHGS Library was home to many of the very finest women genealogists, today we find many of our most skilled professionals in the Reading Room. Women like the Society’s own Jane Fletcher Fiske, F.A.S.G., editor of the Register, Alicia Crane Williams, editor of the Mayflower Descendant, Ethel (Mrs. John E.) Smith, Mildred Mosher Chamberlain, and Ann Smith Lainhart can frequently be found “working with great concentration on their various interests,” at the Society.

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