05 June 2022

A 317 Year Old Business, an 85 Year Old Painting, and Three Families Part 2 of 2

But What About the Painting?

The historical preamble in part one sets up the connection between the inherited painting, the longest-operating business in the United States, and my family.

I was prompted to research this painting because of Bill Kahl’s comments about it when I was visiting with him in 2012. Bill described the painting to me as follows:

“It was painted by John Howard Benson, the grandfather of Nick Benson. It is a painting of Lawton’s Valley in Middletown . . . my last recollection is that it hung just off the kitchen in their [my grandparents’] house in Kingston [RI] . . . the painting is an oil painting of a woodland scene in a heavy gold frame.”    

29 May 2022

A 317 Year Old Business, an 85 Year Old Painting, and Three Families Part 1 of 2

Newport, Rhode Island

My maternal grandmother’s family has longstanding roots in the State of Rhode Island. Through her, we descend from a number of the original settlers of Aquidneck Island, which is now made up of the towns of Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport. 

Aquidneck Island is named as a derivation from the Narragansett name for the island, “Aquidnet,” but is actually not its legal name at all. The island itself was officially named “Rhode Island” by the year 1637, with varying origin stories, but all tied to the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes. “Rhode Island” remains its legal name to this day. 

The Inn at Castle Hill with downtown Newport in the distance. Conanicut Island to the left.

07 March 2021

John Black Journals - A Weekend With the Dirlams Part 2 of 2

Continuation of a three-day excerpt from my cousin John Black’s diaries over the weekend of Friday through Sunday, January 15-17, 1954. In these entries, John describes a weekend visit that he and his brother Peter made to my grandparents’ house in North Stonington, Connecticut. (Note: when John reached the end of a page, he would continue at the top of the same page and sometimes on to other pages in the diary.)

Sunday, January 17, 1954

12 February 2021

John Black Journals - A Weekend With the Dirlams Part 1 of 2

I’ve written extensively about my cousin, John Baxter Black, who was a good friend and who influenced my interest in researching my family history. John was born in Mansfield, OH in 1924 and he died there in 2014 at the age of 90. From 1936, at the age of 12, to the week he died, John wrote a journal chronicling his daily activities and thoughts. 

John Black circa 1954
John left his journals to the New York Public Library, where I’ve reviewed a very small sampling. The collection is extensive and the process of transcribing pages from photos taken with my phone (the only method allowed) is daunting, but rewarding. I’m glad to have access to them. His diaries are dense, crowded with his tight, unique handwriting. I can read most of John’s entries quickly and easily, but it could be a challenge for others. He and I carried on written correspondence for 18 years, many of his letters being handwritten, so I have evolved into an expert at interpreting his scrawl! He wrote to me using a fountain pen in black ink, which matches these entries. 

John comes alive for me in these entries. I read his words and I can hear him speak. I picture him as he chronicles his observations and personality studies, along with his own insecurities and worries. 

Peter Black circa 1954
This short three-day excerpt from John’s diaries describes a weekend visit that John and his brother Peter made to my grandparents’ house in North Stonington, Connecticut. Over the weekend he encounters my mother, age 12, and her younger sisters, but they are not named in the entry other than collectively. They were “all good.” 

In 1954, at the time of these entries, John was 30 years old and lived in an apartment at on East 67th Street in New York City, just a few steps from Central Park. He was in the process of editing his one and only novel, The Night the Americans Came, which was published eight years later in London. 

At this moment in time, he was reading two books that he had purchased earlier in the month: The Diaries of Virginia Woolf and Gwen Raverat’s memoir, Period Piece (Raverat, a wood engraver in England who died a few years later, was Charles Darwin’s granddaughter). 

One note: when John reached the end of a page, he would continue at the top of the same page and sometimes on to other pages in the diary. With this bit of context, the entries for those three days: 

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.