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  • The Thwing Collection: A Resource for Boston Genealogy

    Philip S. Thayer

    Published Date : April 1985
    Genealogists with an interest in Boston history and genealogy may be aware of the book The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston, by Annie H. Thwing, which can be of considerable help in locating some ancestors in Colonial Boston. However, even more valuable is her major basic work, formally called “The Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston” but commonly called “The Thwing Collection,” at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

    To explain the relationship, we can use the words of the author herself. Last year, the writer purchased a second-hand copy of “Crooked Streets,” and received the bonus of a letter, enclosed loosely before the flyleaf, from Miss Thwing to a gentleman in New York (who need not be identified here) who had written her apparently seeking information from, or a copy of, The Inhabitants and Estates. She clarifies matters as follows, in her own handwriting:

                                                                                                                Feb. 9, 1927

    “My dear Mr. ____:

    (First paragraph omitted - his genealogical question is difficult to deal with)

    “I fear you do not realize what ‘The Inhabitants and Estates of the Town of Boston’ is. It consists of over twenty volumes of extracts from public records, wherein I have traced every estate in Boston proper from 1630 to 1800, and a card catalog of references of 125,000 cards on which are the facts of life of every individual who was on the records. Thus you can see that this could scarcely be published. It was from this work that I wrote the ‘Crooked Streets.’ And thus I can give you the facts relating to the house lot of [your relative].

    “But I must mention the fact that I am some years past the allotted age of man, and have a house and a brother still older, to look after, so that it may be some little time before I can get to the Historical Society where my work is. I could not undertake to look up records in other libraries, and do not at present know of any responsible person. I am so to speak ‘out of the swim’. But I will ask Mr. Tuttle, the Librarian, when I do get to the Historical Society.

    “You see I am addicted to facts, and there have been many books written about Boston which are far more delightful reading than my book, but, though perhaps I should not say it, in some cases, the writers have drawn on their imagination. Like our good Dr. Hale, a charming writer and speaker, but we have all laughed at him as to his facts. The second edition of the ‘Crooked Streets’ by the Lauriat Company has corrected many typographical errors. In my larger work, I have given chapter and verse for every statement recorded, and I have requested those who consult that work and are writing for publication to go to the original records before printing.

    (Paragraph about genealogical query omitted)

                                                                                        Yours very truly,

                                                                                                    (Miss) Annie H. Thwing /s/”

    The 125,000 cards are still there. They are arranged alphabetically by name, and for a typical person with some length of residence in Boston include: marriage, children, property acquisition and disposal, public activities, occupation, will and inventory of any other items found in Miss Thwing’s earnest perusal of virtually every possible source. As she says in her letter, the sources are identified, and thus can be gone to for corroboration or further details. (An index of abbreviations at the start of the file helps with this.)

    The twenty books are arranged alphabetically by street. For each location on a street, located by reference to cross streets, the successive owners from 1630 (or the earliest known owner) to about 1800 are named. The street names used are the original names but are referred to the names in use at Miss Thwing’s time (1900-1925, say). Boston being as it is, her street names are essentially those used in 1800; in the assessors’ Street maps from the mid-1800’s on; in 1920; and at the present time (except where urban renewal, etc. has destroyed the past). Thus, with a fair hope of success, one may attempt to place the home of a colonial ancestor on the present-day map of Boston. One further aid in doing this is an unfortunately incomplete set of maps, based on early 20th century plans, of locations of 1800 owners.

    All in all, this was a tremendous achievement, and immense gratitude is due Miss Thwing from all researchers since. I have found no obituary for her, nor memorial notice in either the Register or any publication of the Massachusetts Historical Society, so perhaps this note will satisfy part of that obligation.

    Biographical note - Annie Haven Thwing was born in Roxbury, July 4, 1851, the daughter of Supply Clap and Anne Shapley (Haven) Thwing. Her father was a well-to-do merchant of Boston, descended from Benjamin Thwing, a joiner (carpenter or cabinetmaker) in Boston from at least 1635. She lived all her life in Boston and Roxbury, finally at 65 Beech Glen Street, Roxbury, and at 177 Highland Ave. at the time of her death. We know little of her life, the Thwing genealogy prepared by her brother, Walter Eliot Thwing, giving only her birth-date. She died June 5, 1940, less than a month before her 89th birthday. The Boston Transcript published a death notice on June 7, announcing funeral services at the First Church in Roxbury. She was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery.


    Thwing, Annie H. The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston, Marshall Jones Company, Boston, 1920.

    ______ 2nd ed. Lauriat, Boston, 1925.

    ______ Tercentenary ed. Lauriat, Boston, 1930.

    Thwing, Walter E. Thwing: a genealogical, biographical and historical account of the family, D. Clapp, Boston, 1883.

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