Our Living Memorial to 9/11

Genealogists spend a tremendous amount of time in the past, seeking out our family members. We work hard to not only identify them, but to go past the bare bones of “born, married, died” to get a glimpse into who they were as individuals. How did they fit into their communities, both locally and on a greater scale? How did historical events, such as World War I, impact them individually? Unfortunately, we spend so much time in the deeper past that we often forget to write about our own lives.

Today marks the seventeenth anniversary of one of the most significant days in world history. Every one of us who was a teenager or older remembers where we were when the planes came down, and over the next few days. Have you taken the time to write down your memories of that time? What did you feel? How did it impact you, not only at the time, but afterwards? Here is a brief story of my experience and memories of that fateful day and its aftermath.

The morning of September 11, 2001, was bright and clear in Boston. My taxi pulled up in front of Terminal A at Logan Airport, dropping me off for my flight to the Quad Cities where I would be speaking at the FGS conference. As I walked in, an unprecedented sight hit me. The airport was closing down around us. Passengers were being herded from the gate areas. Check-in desks were closed. The monitors with flight information were blank. Attendants were as clueless as we were. I decided to back to NEHGS, wondering what was going on. In the taxi, we heard over the radio that reports were coming in of a plane hitting the north tower.

In my office at work, the horror unfolded over my computer terminal. Every plane in America was grounded. We all thought the flights would be going again the next day. On Wednesday morning, my friend Lynn Betlock and I decided we were going to take a bus from Boston to Quad Cities. It was important to us to be at the FGS conference (since it was in the Midwest, many people drove and had already arrived there). As we left Worcester, my mobile rang. Our friend Laura Prescott called to tell us she had obtained a rental car and would meet us in Albany to pick us up and finish the trip.

We drove through the night, arriving at the hotel just 20 minutes before I was to make my first presentation. A quick costume change and I made it to my room exactly on time. I, along with others, covered for those speakers who couldn’t make it that week. We delivered numerous extra presentations to ensure that those present would have as good an experience as possible. The flag flew in the central entryway, next to televisions tuned to the news all day. During those long few days we hugged and cried. We learned how to make origami creatures (how nice!) and supported each other in a myriad ways.
Returning home was difficult. Two of the planes had departed from Logan International Airport. Several of my friends were flight attendants for American and United, and it took days to find out that they were safe. Nobody I knew was more than two degrees separated from someone who died, either in the planes or in the towers. The manager of a store across the street from NEHGS was on Flight 11. Several of my friends knew Mark Bingham, a gay rugby player who was one of the heroes of Flight 93. We have a memorial to the New England victims here in the Public Garden in Boston.

I’ve been to the memorial for the victims in Manhattan, but have not yet been able to bring myself to go into the museum.
The best memorials to those who died that day, however, fall to each of us. To remember them and their stories. To fight terrorism everywhere. To fight the racism and xenophobia that tries to take control, understanding that diversity is America’s greatest strength. To live our best lives, and not let these forces of adversity win.

Know Your History

Sometimes we think we have the knowledge we need to research in a location. But beware the hidden surprises lurking in history that can cause problems in your research. One example of this is the history of Norfolk County, Massachusetts.

Those researching their Massachusetts ancestors know that Norfolk County was created in 1793 from Suffolk County. So what happens when you find a reference to your ancestor living in Norfolk County . . . in 1670?

In 1643, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was split into four shires:1

  • Suffolk: Boston, Braintree, Dedham, Dorchester, Hingham, Nantasket, Roxbury, and Weymouth
  • Middlesex: Cambridge, Charlestown, Concord, Lynn Village (today Reading), Medford, Sudbury, Watertown, and Woburn
  • Norfolk: Dover, Exeter, Haverill, Hampton, Salisbury, and Strawberry Bank (today Portsmouth, N.H.)
  • Essex: Cochichawick (today Andover), Enon (today Wenham), Glocester, Ipswich, Lynn, Newbury, Rowley, and Salem

This county was in existence for more than 35 years. It gained an additional town in in 1668 when the town of Amesbury was formed from Salisbury.

On 22 January 1679/80 New Hampshire became a royal province. The four northern settlements, Dover, Exeter, Hampton, and Strawberry Bank, became part of that colony.2 This left only three towns in Norfolk County, all north of the Merrimack River. In the session of 4 February 1679/80, the General Court (the Massachusetts legislature) passed the following act:

This Court, being sencible of the great inconvenienc & charge that it will be to Salisbury, Hauerill, & Amesbury to continue their County Court, now some of the tounes of Norfolke are taken of, and consideringthat those tounes did formerly belong to Essex county, and attended at Essex Courts, doe order, tht those tounes that are left to be againe joyned to Essex, and attend publick buriness at Essex Courts, there to implead and be impleaded as occasion shallbe; their records of lands being still to be kept in some one of their oune tounes on the north of Merrimack; and all persons, according to course of law, are to attend in Essex county.3

For an excellent review of the county’s records, see David Curtis Dearborn “The Old Norfolk County Records” The Essex Genealogist 3 (1983): 194–96.

From this point on, Norfolk County effectively ceased to exist. The name, however, was resurrected more than a century later. In January 1792, the General Court ceded all towns in Suffolk County outside of Boston and Chelsea to the new county of Norfolk, with Dedham as the shire town “till otherwise ordered by the General Court.” 236 years later, Dedham is still the shire town.


  1. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: Press of William White, 1853) 2:38.
  2. “Old Norfolk County Records” The Essex Antiquarian 1 (1897):20.
  3. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: Press of William White, 1854) 5:264.