10 September 2020

Proving (and Disproving) my Family's Mayflower Connections, part 2 of 2

As detailed in the first part of this post, 2020 marks the 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower crossing to New England. Many of the celebrations and commemorations that have been planned for years in the build-up to this year’s landmark anniversary have been delayed, altered, or scrapped entirely, due to the current COVID-19 crisis, which is, sadly, how 2020 will likely be most remembered. The crisis notwithstanding, Mayflower commemorations will continue into 2021 and still with great significance. Although “401st anniversary” doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, it is still an impressive milestone, one year more so than the 400th! In fact, the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving celebration (setting aside the concerns about the historical accuracy of the event) didn’t take place until November in the year after they made landfall, which means that in 2021 we’ll celebrate the 400th Thanksgiving.

In my earlier post, I also recounted the way, during my 2012 research to prove our Mayflower connections, in which I had to summarily negate a long-held and cherished Mayflower descent in my family. We had long thought that we were descendants of Francis Cooke of the Mayflower through his daughter Jane. We knew that we were descendants of her husband, Experience Mitchell, and until the 1980s, all of Experience’s children were still being admitted to the Mayflower Society as descendants of Jane Cooke and her father Francis. However, research published in 1973 shows that only a few of Experience Mitchell’s children qualify. Jane Cooke died early in their marriage and Experience married again. Only two of his eight children could have been Jane’s, and we descend from a child of his second wife, thus eliminating our Mayflower connection through Jane.


After this dramatic correction to my family legends, there was still one more Mayflower connection outlined in Elizabeth Rowland’s family history, so the next step for me, back in 2012, was to prove or disprove that other descent. Given what I had just encountered, I was naturally concerned at what I might find! I really didn’t want to erase our only remaining Mayflower connection that same day. If I wanted to prove the connection, however, I had to take that chance.

05 July 2020

400th Anniversary of the Mayflower Crossing and Proving (and Disproving) my Family’s Mayflower Connections, part 1 of 2

Wedgwood saucer commemorating
the Mayflower 350th anniversary
in 1970, inherited from my
maternal grandmother
2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing to New England. Commemorations of the voyage’s quadricentennial (I had to look that one up!) began several years ago, with a number of organizations not only focusing on the original passengers, but also on their modern-day descendants. A number of organizations are taking a hard look, too, at the impact of the Pilgrims on the native Wampanoag Nation. The current worldwide COVID-19 crisis has put a halt to most of the events planned for 2020, but some (like my college reunion this year) may be postponed until 2021. Others may go online.

Note to my family members: The Woodruff line of my family does not have any Mayflower connections that I’ve been able to discern, and given that I have traced the Woodruff line back to the days of the Pilgrims, it is unlikely that one will emerge. The Mayflower descent outlined below is through my mother’s family, so it applies to my mother, my brother, his son, our maternal first cousins, my mother’s maternal first cousins (full and half-cousins), and me (and many other extended family members too).



05 January 2020

The Woman in the Glass

Among family papers and photographs I inherited from my maternal grandmother, I found what I thought was a photographic glass plate negative of a young woman.  Doing more research, I found a fascinating CBS News article explaining how glass plate negatives had been used starting in the 1850s to “etch” photographic images onto thin glass plates that could then be used to transfer the images to paper.

In the 1870s, a “dry” version of glass negative was created which was easier to use and required less exposure time.  These glass negatives were used for almost all types of photography until the late 1910s, when plastic negatives, known as “films,” were introduced into mainstream photography after 20 years of being inefficient and expensive.  Although the glass plate negatives provided better quality (more clarity of detail) than films, they were more difficult to use, so quickly fell out of use for mainstream photography. (Glass plate negatives remained in use for some professional photography until the 1970s and there is still a small group of photographers who use glass plates today for specialized photography.)

In performing this research, I realized that the glass plate I held in my hand was not, actually, a glass negative.  Glass plate negatives are extremely thin and very fragile.  Mine was thicker and more durable.  I wasn’t sure what to call what I had, but I did know that I didn’t get a very good reading of the figure depicted, so I set about making the image easier to interpret.

31 August 2019

Family History Depicted in Portraits

Lewis Sturtevant Woodruff Jr. ("Bud") and Patricia Mary
Cassils Bunting, my paternal grandparents around the time
of their wedding. None of their grandchildren ever met
Bud and only two of eight grandchildren met Patricia.

Five years ago, one of my Woodruff first cousins was married and I struggled with an appropriate wedding gift.  I am the oldest of my generation by many years, with a whopping span of 32 years’ age gap between me and my youngest first cousin!  Our Woodruff grandfather died before I was born, and our Woodruff grandmother died when I was ten and my younger brother was six.  None of our Woodruff first cousins had yet been born, so he and I are the only two (out of eight of us) who have any memory of our grandmother.

Due to family circumstances, none of my first cousins had much exposure to our family history, but most of them have expressed an interest in learning more over the years.  I decided that I would create something for this cousin’s wedding that could act as an introduction to some of our shared past.

06 April 2019

Unusual and Unanticipated Family Connections - The Edward Gorey Connection


I spent last Christmas in Newport, Rhode Island visiting with cousins and an aunt who live there.  (Some of our ancestors were original settlers of Aquidneck Island and we’ve had a presence in Newport ever since, but that’s a future topic.)  This Christmas in Newport, I gave the same gift to a number of my family members, purchasing one for myself as well: the new biography of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery.  This book, Born to be Posthumous, was perfect for the family, as we all admire and appreciate Edward Gorey’s macabre and unusual art and writing styles.  Ask anyone in our family who is their favorite Gashlycrumb Tiny and we will, to a person, answer Neville.  (He died of ennui.)  My cousin Sophy, always on the same wavelength with me, gave me a copy for Christmas too.  Luckily, I divide time between Atlanta and DC, so we now have a copy in each residence.

Along with the book, I was able to share with them more information which came as a surprise to them: we have a family connection to Edward Gorey!  My mother’s second cousin, John Black (whose name and photograph you have seen in other of my blog postings), was a Harvard classmate of “Ted” Gorey, as they knew him then.  Before he died, John asked me to scan and print some select photos from an album he had collected in the 1950s and 1960s.  Two of those photos were of his friend Ted Gorey reclined on a couch (or a sofa, as I think Gorey would have called it) in John’s apartment on the Upper East Side in New York City.  There is no date on the two photos, but other photos on the page are dated 1953 and 1963, so the Gorey photos could date from anytime in the 1950s or early 1960s.  When I saw the Gorey photos, I quizzed John about the connection, which is when I found that they were Harvard classmates.  He also told me an amusing story about Gorey that I’ll get into later in this post.


A few weeks later I was getting caught up on unread periodicals and found the latest alumni magazine from my alma mater, Occidental College (“Oxy”), in Los Angeles.  To my surprise, I saw an article feature concerning Mark Dery and this new book of his.  Turns out he is also an Occidental College graduate, 3 years ahead of me (as is his wife), yet another small world coincidence!  I immediately wrote an email to the editor of the magazine to exclaim on the fact that this had been my primary Christmas gift to my family this year and to share the family connection.  I also sent a scan of one of the photos from John’s album (right) and invited the editor to share my email and the photo with Dery if the school were so inclined.  Within 30 minutes of pressing “send” on that email I received an email from Mark Dery, the author, himself!    

02 February 2019

Who to Include? Everyone, of Course!


2012 Mini Family Reunion
Some family historians wrestle with the question of how to document non-blood relations.  Should step-children go on a family tree?  How about adopted children?  As keepers of the family record, we are not just involved in the past, defining the relationships of our ancestors, we also deal in the present day.  We document today’s births, marriages, divorces, and all the other myriad life events of the present-day greater family.  In fact, one of our most important roles is to tell the detailed story about the lives of today’s family so that we will leave future family historians with a better understanding than they would be able to glean from public records alone.

There are those who question how much detail to include for either the present or past family narrative.  If there was a second marriage and step-children were brought into the fold, should the tree include those children?  How about their children when they have them?  My answer is that when documenting our family histories, we are not here to just detail the DNA line.  It is our duty to include everyone and everything.  I take this position for several reasons. 

17 November 2018

Inherited Objects Tell Their Own Tales


In my family, both immediate and more broadly, I have the reputation as the one to whom family items can be entrusted.  Relatives near (my parents, uncles, aunts) and more distant (a half-second-cousin once removed, for example) have given me family artefacts, papers, books and other objects over the years. I’ve been fortunate to obtain objects from all four branches of my family.  (See my post Getting Started and Getting Organized for more information on how I segment my family research into four branches.)
RMS Carpathia in New York
after rescuing survivors of the Titanic disaster

From my Woodruff side, I have inherited a large collection of china that came (I had thought) from the family of my dad’s father.  I didn’t believe there was much handed down from my dad’s mother and assumed the china was all from my grandfather.  Although my grandmother was born into a wealthy Canadian family, her family lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash when she was 16 years old.  The following year, she moved to the States and started out on her own in New York City (see my post The Life of an Aspiring Actress – New York in the 1930s).  I always believed that she didn’t bring anything from her family, as they weren’t in a position to keep much.  Her mother went from living in a mansion with servants to living with strangers, her husband having abandoned her after losing the fortune, in boarding houses, so I knew that it was unlikely she would have had any fine china to give her daughter.  I proved to be wrong about this assumption when I researched my Woodruff china and found a possible connection to my grandmother’s family and the Carpathia, the famous ship that rescued survivors of the Titanic.