Genealogy Blog

Why Not Wikipedia?

02 May 2015


Wikipedia has become a replacement for the encyclopedias we used growing up. Filled with information about the most esoteric of subjects. But as widespread as its use is, it is still not allowed as a resource for most scholarly endeavors, and students at colleges and universities are often banned from using it as a source for their assignments. What is wrong with Wikipedia?

Wikipedia started in 2001 as a collaborative resource. There are five fundamental principles, called the Five Pillars:

  1. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.
  2. Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.
  3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute.
  4. Editors should treat each other with respect and civility.
  5. Wikipedia has no firm rules.

And right away, we start to see some of the problems with using Wikipedia.

The third pillar states that “anyone can use, edit, and distribute” any content. It goes on to say that “since all editors freely license their work to the public, no editor owns an article and any contributions can and will be mercilessly edited and redistributed.” One of the major problems for genealogists is that there is no control over who says what on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia wants editors to come to consensus, but no provision for expertise. One person with years of knowledge in a field can be overruled by two others with little to none. Or, worse, simply make up information without being contradicted. On the About Wikipedia page, it states that “People of all ages, cultures and backgrounds can add or edit article prose, references, images and other media here. What is contributed is more important than the expertise or qualifications of the contributor.” Under these circumstances, how can you tell how accurate the information is in any given article?

Many articles have sources at the bottom of the page. How often have you gone back to look up a printed source mentioned? How frequently do you click on links to online sources when reading an article? And if you do follow links, do you actually read through the source? How many times are the links broken, so you can’t even try to read them?

There are many reasons why someone might want to put false information on Wikipedia. Often, there is a deliberate attempt to misinform. Sometimes it might be a genuine mistake. Harvard’s guide for using sources for assignments includes a discussion of the problems with Wikipedia, and provides a perfect example. Several years ago, a student was writing a paper on the issues of Wikipedia. He posted a fake entry for himself that said that he was the mayor of a small town in China. Even today, if you search for mayors of towns in China (or look on the student’s name), his entry still shows.

The statistics for Wikipedia are amazing. It  includes more than 34 million articles in 285 languages. There are almost 5 million articles in English, containing more than 36 million pages of information. Almost 770 million edits have been made to these articles. The average page has been edited more than 21 times!

There is nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a starting point. But it should never be used as the sole source of information. It should be used to point you in the right direction to find credible, reliable, and authoritative information.

Five Tips for Building Your Genealogy Reference Shelf

24 Apr 2015


One of the most important tools in genealogical research is the reference shelf. Looking up names in online databases is wonderful, but if you don’t understand the records, the time and place in which they were created, the words used, etc., you will have difficulty determining your actual ancestors from others who have the same name. This is where reference works come in. They help you to understand what you are dealing with. Here are some tips for what to include as you build your genealogy reference shelf.

I have several dictionaries in my reference area, including two that my father used in high school and college. Some I use to translate between French and English. Some of them are from the 19th century. Online dictionaries often contain only modern definitions. This is especially true of online translation tools, which can make their use for genealogical purposes very dangerous. One mistranslated word can cause major problems for your research.

Geographic Resources
Online sources can help with modern geography, but it can be difficult to find historical information from them. I have numerous gazetteers and geographical dictionaries from the 19th and 20th centuries. I also have a number of atlases, such as the 1994 edition of the Historical Atlas of the United States from the National Geographic Society. Atlases like this provide a huge amount of information besides maps. For example, there are maps that show what crops were grown in the different areas of the United States, what livestock were raised, migration routes, and more.

Research Guides
General methodology works are important, especially when you are getting started. Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy has helped many Americans get started with their research. Although dated, it is still very helpful in understanding the basics of research.  I purchased a copy of Ancestral Trails, a detailed guide to researching British ancestors, for expanding my knowledge of British research. For example, when I first started researching, I got a copy of Guide to Genealogical research in the National Archives of the United States. Now there is a new version, called the Genealogy Tool Kit: Getting Started on Your Family History at the National Archives. I also obtained copies of books on researching ancestors in the British Army and the Royal Navy, to help with the complex system of records available there.

Social Guides
Understanding the social and legal environments around records is important. I have a number of legal and social histories to help with this. Among these are Inheritance in America From Colonial Times to the Present, which delves into the history of probate. Another is Women and the Law of Property in Early America, showing what, exactly, women’s rights were in respect to owning property.

Regional Guides
General methodology books are good, but guides that apply to your area of research are even better. For example, those who have research in the northeast will find the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research from the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society to be indispensible. [note: I am the editor of the New England book, and helped with the production of the New York book, but I receive no royalties, payment, or any other benefit from sales of the books. And many others will be happy to tell you how indispensible these books are.]



Sailing, Sailing, Over the Bounding Maine: Researching Maritime Ancestors

04 Apr 2015

Many of us have ancestors who made their livelihoods in the sea. Whether they were involved in the merchant trade, whaling, coastal packets, or a myriad other maritime occupations, the sea has played an important role in our families’ lives for centuries. The industry was particularly important in New England. Because of this, there are a large number of museums from small to large, dotted around the region dedicated to the sea and the people who earned their living from it. And they often have materials that go wide beyond New England, so they are worth checking out, no matter where your ancestors lived. Each of the following museums operates a library filled with valuable resources for finding information about your maritime ancestors and how they lived.

Maine Maritime Museum
The Maine Maritime Museum started life as the Bath Marine Museum more than 50 years ago. The Percy & Small Shipyard was donated in 1975, and the name was changed to Maine Maritime Museum. It is the only intact shipyard in the U.S. that once built large wooden sailing ships. The library’s collections include information from around the world, including 14,000 published volumes, 53,000 issues of nautical periodicals, 2,000 linear feet of manuscripts, 1,000 maps and charts, 42,000 sheets fo ship plans, and a variety of miscellaneous ephemera. There are also hundreds of videotapes an oral history tapes.

Penobscot Marine Museum
This is a perfect example of a small museum with a wide variety of resources that extend far beyond what one might expect. The research center collections focus primarily on the area around Belfast and Searsport, Maine. They include ships logs, business and merchants’ records, and family papers of seafaring families. Because the maritime industry is so intrinsically linked to this area, the library also has a variety of materials specifically for genealogists, including vital records, newspapers, cemetery inscriptions. Most importantly, the library is the repository is the custodian of the records of the Congregational churches in Searsport and Belfast dating back to the seventeenth century

Mystic Seaport
This is perhaps the largest and most well-known maritime museum in the entire country. Founded in 1929, the museum has an incredible variety of materials in the collection, including more than 500 historic watercraft of many sizes. Among them in the Charles W. Morgan, and 1841 whaling ship that is the oldest commercial ship still in existence. There are also books, photographs, charts, maps, plans, films, and videos. The manuscript collection includes countless ships’ logs, journals, diaries, ledgers, and miscellaneous documents.New Bedford Whaling Museum


The longest painting in the world, in the collections of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The longest painting in the world, in the collections of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.


New Bedford Whaling Museum
The Old Dartmouth Historical Society is dedicated to the history of the original area of Dartmouth and surrounding towns, including what is today the towns of Acushnet, Dartmouth, Fairhaven, and Westport, and the city of New Bedford.  Four years later the organization started the New Bedford Whaling Museum. While the library collections focus on the maritime industry in general, there is a major focus on those involved in the whaling industry, a major part of the 19th-century American economy. In addition to logbooks, journals, maps, charts, ships and personal papers, and the like, there are a number of items specific to the whaling industry, including tools of the trade, whaling prints, and an extensive collection of scrimshaw. It also owns and 1848 painting, Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Around the World. It is 8.5 feet tall and at 1,275 feet long, it is said to be the longest painting in the world.

Peabody Essex Museum
In 1799 a group of ship captains and supercargoes from Salem, Massachusetts, founded the East India Marine Society for those who had traveled around either the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. In 1992 its descendant organization, the Peabody Museum of Salem merged with the Essex Institute to become the Peabody Essex Museum. The Phillips Library has one of the most extensive collections of maritime history anywhere. Holdings include printed books, correspondence, logbooks, nautical charts, maps, merchant account books, shipbuilders’ records, and customhouse records from Marblehead, Newburyport, and Salem. There are also many ship registers, shipping lists, and paintings of ships.

A Phonetic Secret Weapon

02 Apr 2015

Within the world of family history, all of us are eventually faced with the challenge of reading sloppy handwriting. Whether we discover it on a census record, documentation of a birth, or a lengthy property deed, record keeping has never been known to be an arena of clear, concise writing and perfect spelling. Deciphering the writing is one challenge, but there are times when the handwriting makes finding your ancestor a challenge because it is spelled phonetically.

The census itself tells us that in 1870, 20% of the population surveyed were illiterate[i].  With the interpretation left to the enumerator in the case of the census, the county clerk, or the business recorder, there are many variations on a name. In order to discuss phonetics’s in genealogy, we must first define it: “denoting any perceptible distinction between one speech sound and another.”[ii] This definition is truly important, as each of us will hear those distinction’s differently, and therefore interpret them differently. By its very nature, taking a name from someone at the front door, said perhaps with an accent or emphasis, and then putting that onto paper led to wild variations. As researchers, it is always smart to attempt a list of phonetic spellings: how many versions of the same name can you think of?

Let’s look at an example. One of my ancestors had a fairly common name: Oscar Brown. How many ways can we spell that?







There are more, of course, but the point here is that how we spell the name may not be how they spelled the name generations before.

My secret weapon: a five year old


I’m lucky: I have one in my household. My suggestion to you is to find yourself a young research partner. Perhaps its a grandchild or neigbor, or there may be an opportunity through a local day care center, senior center program, or school district. Wherever they are, take advantage of their willingness at the age of five or six to practice their letters, and ask them to spell the name of your ancestor. Make it a game, so they stay interested, and give them the freedom to get a little silly. Give them minimal instructions so as to not lead them one direction or another, simply “sound out this name and write it down.” Then sit back and watch.

I guided my six year old daughter through this exercise recently with the same name: Oscar Brown. Her list is much, much different than mine.


genealogy, phonetic, family history, spelling, census, handwriting, youth, enumerators, illiteracy, records, interpretation

Phonetic spelling from a six year old.


Why Occer? 

She is just learning that a “C” can have a smiliar sound as the letter “S,” so to her, the two are interchangeable (at least for now). When she first sounded out O S C A R, she heard an opportunity for both letters. Although a quick search for “Occar” did not prove to be fruitful for me, it’s an obvious example of how this one little trick can open your imagination to other possibilities. I certainly never thought to try to his spell his name that way!Why Occar?

Turning to your community can be a great way to add creativity and imagination to your family history research, and those are two skills that are very valuable to have. The idea of “finding” a young research partner is not so far-fetched, either. My daughter’s kindergarten class is working on a family history project of their own this spring, and they issued a request for local volunteers to help them; and there are programs like this throughout the country. In many cases, we just need to have our eyes open to the opportunity.

One last tip: if you do manage to collaborate with a youngster, be sure to do this exercise quickly and often. They don’t stay young forever!


[i] National Assessment of Adult Literacy. National Center for Education Statistics, Illiteracy from 1870 to 1979. Percentage of persons 14 years old and over who were illiterate (unable to read or write in any language), by race and nativity: 1870 to 1979.” Accessed 26 Mar 2015.

[ii] “Phonetic.” Accessed 26 Mar 2015.

Happy Retirement, Lou!

01 Apr 2015

Every once in awhile, if you are lucky, you get to meet a very special person; someone who makes a difference just by being who they are. Lou Szucs is one of those people. For more than thirty years she has been a leader, a major force in our community that has made a major contribution to what it is today. And after decades of commitment, she is finally retiring.

She started with Ancestry when it was book publisher. One of her major projects was a book long considered a Bible for genealogical research: The Source, which she edited with Sandra Hargreaves Leubking (just one of several books she authored or edited). And she helped bring to fruition many other books, including Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places, by her daughter Laura Szucs Pfeiffer. And more than 30 years later, she is still there. She has served for many years as Vice President of Community Relations.

Lou is at her best when she is working with people. She has great ability to bring people together to make things happen. Forty years ago she was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. It is one of the running jokes amongst our friends that the articles of incorporation were signed at her kitchen table. A table that now sits in her daughter Juliana’s home. Lou and I served on the FGS board together for a time. She was always energetic, and her knowledge of the history of the organization was invaluable in navigating the changing times as we moved into the digital age.


Lou and I at the 2014 RootsTech 2014 conference (from the collection of the author, used with permission).

Lou and I at the 2014 RootsTech 2014 conference (from the collection of the author, used with permission).


Among the many accolades she as been given through the years

  • Professional Achievement Award, Association of Professional Genealogists, given to highlight a record of exceptional professional achievement with contributions to the field of genealogy through individual excellence and ethical behavior.
  • Fellow of the Utah Genealogical Association
  • David S. Vogels, Jr., Award, Federation of Genealogical Societies, presented to an individual in recognition of outstanding career contributions to FGS (Lou was the first recipient of this award)
  • And the list could go on forever. . .

She is constantly sharing her knowledge. Through her writing, the countless presentations she has made over the years, and simple one-on-one consultations, she has helped genealogists from beginners to the most advanced improve their research skills.

But beyond all this, Lou is a genuine good soul. She always has time for people, to listen, to give advice, and just to catch up and make sure they are doing well. And not only does she share herself, she shared her family as well. Her husband Bob “Mr. Lou” Szucs has for years accompanied her to conferences and seminars. And her daughter Juliana has also made genealogy her career. Some of my best memories involve just sitting with them over breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even coffee.

Thank you, Lou, for all you have done for all of us. You have the gratitude of the entire genealogical community. As you set out on this new phase of your life, I can’t wait to see what you accomplish. You may be retiring from full-time work, but I have no doubt that we will continue to see you do great things.

5 Tips for Resolving Evidence Conflicts

27 Mar 2015



One of the great benefits of online research has been the search hints offered by websites like Mocavo and Findmypast. These are tremendously helpful, and can point you in directions you might not have thought to look. But at the same time, it is critically important to review this hints before blindly adding the information and/or individuals to your family tree. One of the biggest issues we have is conflicting evidence. Sources often provide contradictory facts. We have to evaluate the sources as well as the evidence in order to come up with a theory. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when evaluating your conflicting evidence.


1. Quality vs. Quantity

This problem has been around forever, but the digital age has compounded it tremendously. People find information and post it willy-nilly without checking first to see if it is accurate. Original records created close to the time and place of the event are usually the best. Secondary sources created later can still be accurate, but it is important to review them as well. Finding the same information posted in many places does not mean it is more accurate than information posted in fewer places.


2. First-Person Accounts Aren’t Always Correct

As a rule, first-person accounts of an event have a higher probability of being correct. But that does not mean that they are always correct. Family members, for example, may have an agenda. They may wish to have situations painted in certain ways so people will not think poorly of them. They may hide events, or they may provide misleading information. More than one marriage date, for example, has been fudged so that people would not know that the first child arrived less than nine months later.


3. Lineage Societies Are Not Infallible

There are numerous organizations whose membership is composed of individuals who have proven descent from specific ancestors. Daughters of the American Revolution, Society of Mayflower Descendants, etc., all have records available to the public for research for members who joined, showing their lineage. Unfortunately, requirements are stricter today than they used to be, and earlier records often have errors, and little actual documentation. In fact, many organizations no longer allow new members to enter based on older membership applications because of the lack of documentation. Any information in these records should be verified in original sources.


4. Conflicts Can Occur In a Single Source

Sometimes a single source can conflict with itself. Part of the information may be correct, or all of it may be, or none of it may be. For example, I was recently working with a diary in which a woman said of her brother that he died in 1819 at the age of 56. One of those facts could be correct, but they both could not be. Her brother was born in 1760, which would make him 58 or 59 in 1819. It would take additional research in other sources to confirm which is correct.


5. Sometimes There is No Resolution

When researching we always want to have an answer. Yes or no. This or that. Right or wrong. Unfortunately, in genealogy, sometimes there are no answers. Records are lost or destroyed, or may not have ever existed in the first place. Occasionally we must present both possibilities without being able to prove one way or another which is correct. The American Genealogist runs a regular column called Enigmas that deal with just these types of problems.

Time is a Very Precious Moment

25 Mar 2015

Many families have a tradition of family-owned businesses. Many of these are small companies that get handed down from parents to children. Many automobile franchises and restaurants, for example, are family-owned and operated. Even large corporations such as Mars, Bechtel, News Corp., Ford, and Wal-Mart, can be owned by a single family. One of the great side benefits of such organizations is that the corporate records can be very helpful in providing information on the family itself. Now imagine a family-owned business that can trace its history back for hundreds of years. How amazing would that be?

The three oldest family-owned businesses founded in the United States date back almost to the Civil War. Follett (an Illinois educational-products company), Gilbane (contracors and real estate development), and Kohler (plumbing and other products), were all founded in 1873. For more than 130 years, these corporations have stayed in the control of the founding families and their descendants.

The oldest company in America, however, is one that is near and dear to my heart as a musician. I would venture to say that there is not a musician or singer in the world who has performed with a band who is unfamiliar with the name Zildjian. The Avedis Zildjian Company was formed in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1919, but its roots go back much further. The first Avedis Zildjian was an alchemist who came across an alloy of tin, copper, and silver that could make music without shattering. Thus he began making cymbals in 1623 in his native Constantinople.

Back in 1591, brothers John and Brian Durtnell built their first home. It is still standing and occupied today. And the company they founded, R. Durtnell and Sons, is still flourishing today in Kent, England. Among their clients have been the Royal Military Academy, Chartwell House (home of Winston Churchill), and Buckingham Palace.

As a rule, it is exceedingly difficult to trace one’s ancestry back more than four to five hundred years. There are just too few records. Now imagine that your family has been running a business for years, centuries even. The records of the company and the transitions can be very helpful. Even if they don’t provide specific birth and marriage information, you can often find death information (as the business is transferred to the next generation when the last of the previous one dies). At the very least, they can help confirm familial relationships as various family members come and go in their involvement with the business.




Now let’s look at a business in Japan. Zengoro Houshi and his wife run the Houshi Royakan in the little town of Awazu, Japan (a ryokan is a Japanese inn). They are carrying on a family tradition that has run a spa at the ryokan for a very long time. A very, VERY long time. The royakan has been passed down to the eldest son for 46 generations. That’s right: 46. It was founded by a Buddhist monk in the year 718. He took in an apprentice and named him Zengoro, and it has remained in the family ever since.

Unfortunately the business is now facing an uncertain future. Zengoro and his wife Chizuko had one son and one daughter. Their son died, leaving only their daughter to pass the ryokan to. Imagine their struggles as the family tries to preserve the future of a family business that dates back more than a millennia.

The Atlantic recently ran a story, with a short video, about the Houshi family and their dilemma. In the video Zengoro talks about the changing times and the dilemma facing the family and what they are currently going through. He says that “Thinking about how this time is a very precious moment. Those make the history of Houshi family and become tradition.” What better way to describe family history?

Three Resources for Mayflower and Pilgrim Research

22 Mar 2015


If your research leads you to family that lived in southeastern Massachusetts, there is a good chance that you may discover ancestors who lived in the Plymouth Colony. If you are very lucky, you might even find that you have some who arrived on the Mayflower. Here are three resources to help you find out more about Mayflower ancestors.

1. General Society of Mayflower Descendants

The GSMD is dedicated to “education and lineage research on the journey of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and their lineal descent.” GSMD is the umbrella organization for the state societies which individual joins. Among many other activities (including maintaining a research library), one of their major projects is the “Silver Books.” These compiled genealogies trace the descendants of Mayflower passengers down throw the fifth generation. Amongst the other resources on the website, you can find the official list of passengers from whom one must prove descent in order to join.


Caleb Johnson is a well-known Mayflower genealogist, serving (amongst  other activities) as editor of the Mayflower Descendant (the journal of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants). He created the MayflowerHistory website to help researchers discover more about and help prove their descent from passengers on the Mayflower. The site has links to Pilgrim history, Mayflower Genealogy, sources for research, and online version of out-of-copyright works about the Mayflower,  her passengers, and their descendants.

3. Leiden American Pilgrim Museum Foundation

Jeremy Bangs is the leading scholar on Pilgrims and Mayflower research. He is director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum Foundation, which tells the story of the Pilgrims in a house built in Leiden in 1370. There is also an active project to transcribe, edit, and publish documents and records relating to the Pilgrims. Jeremy himself is a prolific writer and his articles appear widely in historical and genealogical publications. You can find out more about


Family Registers as Gifts

19 Mar 2015

One of the nice things about doing genealogical research is being able to share our family history with our family and friends. In today’s digital age, we have many new and exciting ways of doing this. But sometimes it is the traditional ways that are most fun, even when they carry a modern twist.  Creating new family record or family tree broadsides from antique originals is a great way to gift your genealogical research to other family members.

In days past, artists created masters which printers mass-produced and sold. Individuals would then fill them out for their family. Called Family Records or Family Registers, they became very common in homes in the nineteenth century.

Many of these are now available through antique stores and online auctions websites such as eBay. Often they are already filled out with family information. But many times you can find blank originals. Even if an item is already filled with family information, you could scan it, and have someone familiar with Photoshop crate a blank copy by digitally removing the family information from the scan. This will allow you to make clean copies. If this is the route you choose to take, consider what you will do with the original once you have a clean digital image. Consider donating it to a historical or genealogical society in the area where the family lived. This will ensure its preservation for future generations.

Another great source for blank records and registers is Pinterest. Individuals and even small businesses have posted blank forms. Some are available for free download. Others are available for a small fee. More and more I am enjoying Etsy as a source of quality products. I’ve bought a number of handcrafted pieces there. But a simple search for the term “family record” brought up numerous forms, both blank and filled out.


Family Record Website


There are also individuals out there making available items from their own collection. My friend Barbara Mathews posted on Facebook recently about the Family Record website. Here you can find dozens of family records and family registers to download and use for free.

Take advantage of all of these resources. You can make some wonderful gifts to share with family and friends. Whether you fill them in by hand, or do it digitally, your family members will appreciate the time and effort you put into creating something so beautiful and meaningful for them. ­

Remembering Boston’s 10,000 Rev War Refugees with Green Beer

17 Mar 2015

Today is a very important holiday in the history of our country. Such a significant day that it is actually a public holiday here in Massachusetts, when Suffolk County offices are closed. I’m speaking, of course, of Evacuation Day, when the British forces occupying Boston finally left after a year of laying siege to the town. The Siege of Boston caused 10,000 refugees to leave the town, and today is a state holiday celebrated with green beer.

Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, American forces moved to form a circular line from Chelsea around Charlestown and Boston, down to Roxbury and Dorchester. Both Charlestown Neck and Boston Neck (the only land access to those two towns) were cut off. The British could only access these areas by the harbor.

It is difficult to imagine the circumstances the thousands of citizens of Boston found themselves in. Among the residents of the town were a number of Benjamin Franklin’s relatives, including his sister Jane (Franklin) Mecom, nephew William Homes, and niece Grace (Harris) Williams, the wife of Boston merchant Jonathan Williams. In a letter written on May 14, Jane wrote of what happened around Lexington and Concord:

“the Horror the Town was in when the Batle aprochd wihin Hearing Expecting they would Proceed quite in to town, the commotion the Town was in after the battle ceasd by the Parties coming in bringing in there wounded men causd such an Agetation of minde I believe none had much sleep, sinch which we could have no quite. . .”

Within days, General Gage met with official from town to negotiate terms for the citizens to move freely in and out of the town. Women and children could leave with their effects, and men who swore not to take up arms against the British troops could leave. No plate (i.e., silver, gold, etc.) would be allowed to leave the town. This sounds like a peaceful process; it was anything but.

Thousands of refugees filled the streets. It quickly became difficult to find transportation. If they did not own livestock and carts to carry belongings, the residents could only depart with what they could carry themselves. And all had to pass through the one small road on Boston Neck. Many walked out with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Everything was left behind, with no knowledge of when, or even if, they would ever return.

As the residents were leaving, British regulars and Loyalists looted homes, setting fire to many after absconding with anything valuable. The roads surrounding Boston quickly became clogged with the refugees. The fortunate ones had family and friends in other towns, but many had nowhere to go. Many families were separated during the departure. Forced to leave at different times as passes became available, or separated in the chaos and confusion that surrounded the city, it would take some time for many to be reunited.

Jonathan Williams wrote to Benjamin Franklin from Worcester on June 19th: We relying on the faith of General Gage packed up all his Goods [materials belonging to his son who was with Franklin] in Order to remove them out of Boston, but was forbid by him out of whose Mouth proceds blessing and cursing. They there remain with all my Estate Which was indeed Sofficient for me and all my famely though a few days before I left that once happy Town which is no become a den of theaves and robers, to COmpleat ruin my Stores With all my papers and Some of my Books Were Consumed by fire. I was Oblig’d to leave all except a few trunk of Clouths and house linnen my Sons Goods nine house one of Which I valued at £15.000 Sterling and all its valueable furniture, but blessed be God I have now Colected my Scater’d famley Who are all hear in this Town. . .”

At the same time that Bostonians were fleeing the town, many were swimming against the stream to enter the city. Loyalists from around the area were trying desperately to get to a place where they felt safe, and made their way into the town to be protected by the British Regulars.

It is estimated that over the course of the next eight weeks 10,000 residents would flee Boston, about 60% of the population. General Gage’s army kept control of the town for almost a year. During that time conditions became quite horrible for those left behind. Food was scarce, as was firewood and many of the other necessities of life. And the majority of the residents were British soldiers, making life difficult for civilians.


Nineteenth-century depiction of the Evacuation of Boston from Wikimedia Commons.

Nineteenth-century depiction of the Evacuation of Boston from Wikimedia Commons.


On a stormy night in March, the Continental Trooops, under the comman of George Washington, fortified Dorchester Heights with cannon captured and brought to Boston from Fort Ticonderoga by Henry Knox. General Howe, now in command of the forces in Boston, was desperate to avoid another route like Bunker Hill, decided to retreat. On March 17, 1776, the British troops departed Boston, taking with them many Loyalists, and fled to Nova Scotia. It was Washington’s first major victory in the war.

In 1901 the city declared Evacuation Day to be a holiday. It was established as a holiday in Suffolk County in 1941. It is, of course, a complete coincidence that Irish politicians controlled the city at this point, and that the date of the evacuation is the same as St. Patrick’s Day. Complete coinicendce. So each year Bostonians remember the 10,000 refugees and the end of the siege by drinking green beer. Happy Evacuation Day!