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  • Tracking Down Public Records Back When NEHGS Was First Founded

    David L. Greene

    Charles Ewer, who founded the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 1845 and became its first president, and John Wingate Thornton, who gave the Society its name and filed its incorporation papers, had become acquainted a year earlier through their mutual interest in genealogy. When the Society was begun, railroads were recent innovations and traveling even from Boston to Cape Cod was not a trip to be undertaken on a whim. About 1846, Ewer and Thornton want out to the Cape partly to enable Thornton to find references to his immigrant ancestor in the records of Yarmouth. Ewer' s account, in an unpublished manuscript in the Society's library, shows the difficulty of finding public records during the Society's early years:

    I invited [Thornton] to go with me down to Barnstable by the steamer calculating….that we could spend some hours agreeably in looking over the Records, &c….He was desirous, relative to site information he wished to acquire in regard to Old Thomas Thornton, to go after we have arrived in Barnstable, by the stage to Yarmouth, to which supposing it would occupy an hour or two I consented. We stopped at Searls Tavern where he expected to have found the Yarmouth Records, but they had been removed & we learnt to the lower parish, that which joins upon Dennis. Mr. Thornton was for pushing on after them but the distance was considerable, being about four miles, and there was also an additional expense to be incurred. The final decision of the question whether we should go or not was left with me. Seeing how intent or desirous Mr. T. was to proceed, I agreed to go, though not without much reluctance…..When we arrived at the place we found that the old Record Book had been loaned to Revd. Mr. Rockwell. Mr. T. succeeded, however, through the kindness of our host, in obtaining a more recent one into which a part of the old one had been copied.

    On this trip, at least, Ewer and Thornton never got to the original record book they had sought. We wonder how many original record books were lost, not through fire or vermin, but simply because they were loaned to people who never returned them; in that case they would retain unavailable not only to the Society's founders — who pushed on after them by steamer and stage — but also to us today.

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