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.

Marriage Dispensations in the Catholic Church

When working with French-Canadian Catholic church records, it is very common to come across ancestors who needed a dispensation. This was an approval granted by the bishop or cardinal to suspend the usual rules for Catholics that would prevent the marriage from occurring. Dispensations come in two types: dispensation of banns or dispensation for consanguinity. These dispensations provide great clues to genealogists for further research.



In order to be married in the Catholic church, couples were required to have their intention to marry announced at the parish mass three times prior to the marriage. If the bride and groom were from different parishes, the announcement needed to be made in both parishes. This was a safety precaution so that if one member of the couple was already married, or too young, or any other reason why the marriage would not be valid in the eyes of the church, the couples’ neighbors, family, or friends could bring the issue to the priest ahead of time. The banns are still part of the church today, although they are often printed in the bulletin in addition to or instead of being announced during the mass.

Dispensations on the banns could be made for a number of reasons. Usually. these were granted because there was a need or desire for the marriage to take place quickly. It is very common for those who are about to emigrate to have the banns dispensed with. This is especially common when one of the parties (usually the husband) has already emigrated and returned for the sole purpose of getting married. Such individuals may not be able to remain in Quebec for long. Another reason, of course, is that the first child is already on the way. If you see a dispensation for banns, be certain to look for a child born fewer than nine months later.

Dispensations were given for one or two of the banns, but never for all three. This is because the third bann is part of the marriage ceremony. Perhaps you may be familiar with the words “If anyone can show just cause why these two should not be married, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.” (or words to that effect).



Dispensations for consanguinity were made for a different reason; one that is far more valuable to genealogists. These dispensations were made because the bride and groom were related by blood. The degree of consanguinity is measured by the difference to the common ancestor.


Degree Relationship Common Ancestors
First Siblings Parents
Second First Cousins Grandparents
Third Second Cousins Great-Grandparents
Fourth Third Cousins Great-Great-Grandparents


Dispensations are never give for the first degree of consanguinity. They are not required for the fourth degree or higher. The only time a dispensation is required is for the second or third degree. There may be records where the fourth degree of consanguinity is stated, but a dispensation was not required by the church.

These dispensations are frequently found in smaller parishes. After a generation or two, it is not surprising to find intermarriage of relatives. My maternal ancestry leads back to the parish of Gentilly in Nicolet. I have both Rivard and Poisson ancestry whose lines are constantly intermarrying. This record from the parish of St. Edouard shows the marriage of my fourth-great grandparents, Alexis Rivard dit Lavigne and Julie Poisson, on 9 October 1821. After the naming of the bride and groom and their parents, the record goes on to say that no impediment to the marriage was found, other than the third degree of consanguinity, and a dispensation was issued by the vicar general on the 21st of September. The vicar general is the highest official in the diocese after the bishop. He is usually responsible for executing administrative authority in the diocese. Alexis and Julie were both great-grandchildren of François Rivard dit Lanouette dit Lavigne; Alexis from the first wife and Julie from the second.

Dit Names and Databases

This post was inspired by a message my friend Marian Pierre-Louis posted on Facebook. She is experiencing French-Canadian for the first time in helping a friend with her research. the question posed was “How do I handle dit names in genealogy programs or online trees?!!”


Dit names are sobriquets; nicknames to differentiate individuals who bear the same surname. (The word dit literally translates to called in English.) This practice was carried over from France to the New World, and was especially important in New France. The number of immigrants was quite small, and in a very short time it was necessary to tell the difference between all these people bearing the same or similar names. Dit names came about in a variety of different ways: personality (Jolicoeur), hair color (Leblanc or Leblonde), where the individual lived (Lamontagne or Larivière), or many other ways.


This multiple surname scenario causes issues with genealogy database programs and online trees. As a rule, they force you to choose a single surname as the standard surname, allowing you to attach other surnames for an individual. This is not the way these surnames were used. They were alternative but equivalent surnames, and used interchangeably. Sometimes they use dthe wor dit to connect them, sometimes it was a hyphen, sometimes nothing at all to link them. Individuals might use the original name in one record, the dit name only in another record, go back to the original surname, then use both in the next. In some families, the original name was eventually dropped in favor of the dit name as the surname. This is what happened in my family, as the name Houde went through multiple transitions to become Leclerc.


My seventh-great grandfather, Gabriel Houde, married Jeanne Petitclerc at Ste. Foye on 21 November 1713. They went on to have six children over the next decade, one of whom died in infancy. Of the five who lived to adulthood, three were boys and two were girls. Gabriel and the children sometimes used the dit name Houle. The two daughters continued to use the surnames Houde and Houle. The eldest son, Augustin, used Houde dit Clair. The next son, Claude (my sixth-great grandfather) and the youngest, Alexis, used Houde, Houle, Clair, and Clair Houde.

Burial Record of Antoine Claire Houle in the parish at La Baie du Febvre.

As they got older, they and their children would often appear in records as simply Clair Houde. Claude’s son Antoine used Houde, Houle, Clair, Claire, Clair Houde, Claire Houde, Clair Houle, and Claire Houle. Antoine’s great-grandson, Abraham, was born in 1862 as Abraham Clair Houde. He was my great-great grandfather, and brought his young family to Rhode Island in the 1890s. From that point forward, the family name was Leclerc.


This is one of the many reasons why I only use genealogy database programs for data management. For genealogical purposes, information is written up in word documents. That way, each record statement contains the version of the surname that was used in that record, something the database programs do not currently allow. The best of all worlds, however, would allow us to print all the names our ancestor used on consecutive lines in the same box.


The use of dit names was ubiquitous for more than two centuries. Despite the Quebec Act’s protections of French-Canadian culture, by the 1870s Anglo officials pressured them to “pick a surname and stick with it.” The practice of dit names dropped precipitously in Quebec, and those who migrated to the U.S. were also forced to pick a single name.


Land Ownership in Canada

Our French-Canadian ancestors had a far different system of land ownership than we, their Franco-American descendants, are used to. The seigneurial system, born out of feudal France, requires we think of researching their property records in different ways.

In the earliest days of the settlement, the crown granted large swaths of land to the Company of New France (also known as the Company of One Hundred Associates), various branches of the church, and to a limited number of individuals. These grants were called seigneuries. Individuals who received the grants were called seigneurs. The church and the company acted as the seigneur for their grants.

The seigneurs would then give their own grants to individuals, who would pay a cens (a small annual cash payment) and rent, much larger and usually a combination of cash, crops, and farm animals. These were the habitants who cleared the land and created farms. They were usually referred to in official documents as censitaires.

Waterways were the primary method of travel in New France, thus everyone wanted easy access to them. Seigneuries usually had a certain amount of frontage on the river, with the land extending deep back from there. The seigneuries would then be further subdivided with each censitaire receiving a certain amount of frontage, with the rest of the land going back from there.

Censitaires were able to assign their property to others. They could buy or sell rights to property, or leave their property to their children through a will, division of estate, or other method. As censitaires distributed their land to their children, the property would be further subdivided. Eventually the land would become a series of tiny strips moving away from the water.

Once the seigneury was divided and no further frontage was available, the land would be subdivided into ranges (pronounced like rang in the phrase “rang the bell”). A second range of subdivisions would be created by the first. In some cases, a third or fourth (or more) range might eventually be created. These were seldom neat, straight lines. Natural occurrences (such as marsh/swamp land, ravines, and more) might impact the way the land was granted. The lower the range, the greater the likelihood that your ancestor might have been more economically successful.

The seigneurial system of land tenure continued even after the Conquest. It continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century until the passage of the Feudal Abolition Act of 1854. It was not until well into the twentieth century, however, that the seigneuries were all finally totally gone.

Records of these rentals, as well as sales and purchases of individuals’ rights to property, are found in the notarial records. Remember that not all transactions were handled locally, and the notaire in the seigneurie may not by the one who handled all the legal contracts surrounding the property of your ancestors.

For more information on the history of land and property in Quebec, see:

Harris, Richard Colebrook. The Seigneurial System in Early Canada Madison, Wisc.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

Munro, William Bennett. Documents Relating to the Seigneurial Tenure in Canada, 1598–1854 New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1968. First published 1908 by the Champlain Society.

Evaluating Online Trees

Online family trees can be very helpful for clues to your research. Over time, they have gotten better with the ability to attach documents, to help support the data in the tree. Unfortunately, for the most part, there is no place for creators of trees to explain their methodology in creating the tree. It is incumbent upon us to dig a little deeper for information that might be there, but does not make itself readily apparent.


On Ancestry, for example, a preview pops up on the search results. In this example, we can see that this tree has information for Frederic S. French, with exact dates and places of birth, marriage, and death.The preview shows that there are 5 records attached to this tree. Unfortunately, Frederic’s parents are not known. Looking further, however, reveals a different story.


Clicking through to the tree itself shows us that the parents’ names are “Unknown.” Among the five attached records, however, are the marriage record for Frederic and his wife Mabel E. White, and Frederic’s death record.



Frederic married Mabel, twenty-one years his junior, 28 July 1913. The record clearly states that Frederic’s parents were Benjamin H. French and Esther M. “Crummitt”, both born  at Somerville, Maine, and living in the village of Windsorville [a village in Somerville]. It is curious that the information on Frederic’s parents, clearly available on the form, is not included in the family tree. 


Their daughter Muriel was born seven months later. Tragically, Benjamin died of heart failure just over a year after her birth, on 29 April 1915. The death record clearly states that Frederic’s parents were “Benj.” French and Esther “Crummett,” both born at Somerville.

It is difficult to understand how this situation can occur. We might be tempted to cast disparaging assumptions upon the creator of the tree. After all, how could the creator have possibly missed this information in the records that were attached to the tree? Since the dates and places of birth, death, and marriage are included in the tree, the creator clearly examined them. Looking a little more closely, however, the answer seems to present itself.


The title of the tree shows that this tree is called the “Pridham/Vannah Tree.” Mabel’s mother was Jennie Vannah. The tree likely follows the full information only for direct descendants of the Vannah family. Examining the records of Mabel’s parents, Elmer E. White and Jennie Vannah shows an identical situation to that of the French Family.


Their tree shows no parents for Elmer. He and Jennie married at Boston in 1885. The marriage record is attached to the tree. The index and the actual record show that Elmer’s parents were George White and his wife Sophronia. But it, too, was not included in the online tree. This would seem to validate the theory that only the information pertinent to Vannah descendants was included in the online tree.



These same decisions are made for articles and published books all the time. But for some reason, when it comes to online trees, we sometimes make rash judgements. We may think that the tree was created by a newbie or a name collector who is omitting valuable information. In truth, it may be someone who is working on a specific project, and including only the information applicable to the project. Like any resource, you should take the time to do some extra looking at the bigger picture before evaluating the entire tree.

Postal Abbreviations for Genealogists

Today we are quite used to addressing our mail with a two-capital-letter abbreviation for the U.S. state or Canadian province/territory. These codes, however, have not been around forever. They have not even been around for the entire existence of living people. It was not until 1963 the the U.S. Post Office required the use of uppercase-two-letter abbreviations. Prior to that time, abbreviations were longer and of mixed case.

In the early Federal period, states and territories were given one- or two-letter abbreviations, based on their names. States and territories with two-word names were given two-letter abbreviations, usually the first letter of each word. New York, for example was N.Y., and S.C. stood for South Carolina. States with one word might have a single letter abbreviation. In instances where there would be no confusion, a single uppercase letter was used: Ohio, for example, was O., and Pennsylvania was P. But in some cases there were letters that started the names of multiple states. These locations were given two-letter abbreviations, an uppercase letter followed by a lowercase letter. Examples include Va. for Virgnia and Vt. for Vermont.

Chart of postal abbreviations. (Table of the Post Offices in the United States, 1831)

It is important to remember, however, that not all abbreviations are necessarily recognizable to modern researchers. It is critically important when researching in old documents, especially letters, to look at the time period in which the source was created, and to research the history of that time. One should also look in old postal directories to determine the meaning of the abbreviation. Confusion can creep in when we are unfamiliar with the history or the place names of the time. For example, those unfamiliar with history might think that O.T. is the abbreviation for Ohio Territory. In reality, that area was the Ohio Country or the Northwest Territory. It was never the Ohio Territory. The use of O.T. in the early nineteenth century referred to the Orleans Territory, part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the same year that Ohio became a state. Confusion can also creep in when looking at old-style abbreviations that are the same as modern day abbreviations. Today, the abbreviation MS stands for Mississippi, but in days past, Ms. was the abbreviation for Massachusetts.

The 1811 postal guide shows many these early abbreviations, but it was not until 1831 that the post office printed a separate chart just for the abbreviations. In 1874, the USPO published a list of abbreviations that remained relatively stable for the next 90 years, until the introduction of zip codes and two-uppercase-letter abbreviations in 1963.

It is important for genealogists to be aware of these old-style abbreviations not only for research, but for writing as well. We do not use the modern abbreviations in genealogical writing because they are harsh, and in the internet age the equivalent of shouting. They interrupt the train of thought of the reader. So we use the old-style abbreviations to make it easier for the reader to focus on the text. One exception to this is in footnotes. Some journals follow the Chicago Manual of Style, which states that the modern abbreviation can be used for sources. Many genealogical journals, however, continue to use the old-style abbreviation to make it easier on the eye for the reader. Following is a list of the old-style abbreviations used in genealogical writing:

United States








Neb. or Nebr.







New Hampshire



Cal. or Calif.

New Jersey



Col. or Colo.

New Mexico




New York




North Carolina




North Dakota













Ore. or Oreg.




Pa., Penn., or Penna.



Rhode Island




South Carolina




South Dakota





















Va. or Vir.







West Virginia

W.Va. or W.Vir.




Wis.or Wisc.











British Columbia






Prince Edward Island


New Brunswick








Northwest Territories


Yukon Territory

Yuk. or Y.T.

Nova Scotia


5 Alternative Sources for Death Information

The Social Security Death Index used to be the go-to place for genealogists to find information on those who have died recently. Unfortunately, Congress has now removed our access for the most recent three years, providing us with major problems in trying to find deaths in this time period. Indexes to death records are not always available online. And obituaries are not published as frequently as they used to be.

I was recently contacted by a friend. He had seen posts on Facebook indicating that the wife of his ex might have passed away, but he wanted to be certain before sending condolences. Since the death would have been in New York City last year, accessing a death record was out. No obituary could be found. So, the question became “Where to look next?” Here are five resources I checked, ultimately leading to confirmation of the death.

1. Funeral Homes
As newspapers charge more and more to publish obituaries, funeral homes and mortuaries are taking their place as publishers of these notices. While most have websites that leave this information open to search engines, not all do. Look for funeral homes in the area where your subject lived, and check for obituaries and death notices there.

2. Probate Records
When someone dies owning property, a record of the estate is usually created in the probate courts. Many localities have made indexes for modern records available online. Check these to see if a person’s estate has been entered into probate. When dealing with common names, one has to be very careful to use more evidence to confirm that the person is the subject of the search. You might need to view the probate record to determine if the identification is correct.

3. Land Records
Nowadays, many people create trusts to minimize tax penalties on estates. Unfortunately, these trusts can escape registration in the probate system, removing that as a resource for us. However, if your subject owned real estate, you may be able to find information there. Many localities are making not only their deed indexes accessible online, but also images of the records themselves. Look for information in these transactions. Often a surviving spouse will sell the property, and there will be a notation that the other spouse is deceased. Survivors will also often take out a mortgage, or refinance an existing mortgage, on the property. This can give you evidence of the death of one of the property owners.

4. Find a Grave/Billion Graves
More and more, contributors are adding information to these sites about recent burials. These are not always accompanied by photographs, but often have at least bare bones information on them. Some comes from death notices in small community newspapers that might run death notices or news items that are more difficult to find in the massive results of a search engine.

5. Church Notices
This is the record that actually lead to the confirmation of my subject’s death. Funerals rarely get notices in church bulletins because they usually happen too quickly. Depending on the denomination, however, there might be a later scheduled memorial service. In the Catholic church that my subject was a member of, a mass was said in her memory. While it does not confirm the exact date of death, it does show that she was deceased by the time the mass was said. Another clue can be the date of such memorial masses, which often occur near to the anniversary of the death.

The Money of New France

Part of researching our ancestors’ lives is looking at their economic situation. How much real estate did they own? What did it cost? What personal property did they have and what was its value? Part of determining this information is having an understanding of the currency of the period and what the value of that currency is.

In the colony of New France, the monetary system is a bit complicated. The system was based on the livre. Just as British currency was divided into pounds, shillings, and pence, the livre was subdivided into sols and deniers. The major difference between the two currencies was that there was no livre coin. There were twelve deniers in a sol, and twenty sols in a livre. When written out, it was often abbreviated. Instead of saying 10 livres, 5 sols, and 3 deniers, it would be written as 10ll.8s.9d.

These denominations were the same in France as they were in the French colonies, such as New France and Saint Domingue. But the value of the money was different. Until 1717, the monnaie du pays or argent du Canada was worth less than the monnaie de France or argent de France. The value was lessened and reduced by one quarter. It was not until 1717 that the monies were equalized in value.

During this time there was no paper currency, only coinage. And coins were not minted in New France. They were brought into the colony by the King’s ships. This would cause shortages if a ship was delayed, especially if the next ship could not come until the following Spring.

In the late 17th century, The intendant Demeulle used playing cards as a form of paper currency. He signed  cards, declaring them to worth varying amounts of money. This did not cause inflation, as it was not meant to increase the amount of money in circulation, only as a temporary way of paying the government’s bills. When the next ship arrived, the cards were turned in for coins. This system was used until 1714, but in 1729 French-Canadian merchants demanded a return to the system in order to keep the economy moving. Some of this card money is still in private hands, and very collectible. This card was expected to sell at auction for $8,000.

To find out more about French-Canadian currency, see “The French Colonies and the Exchange on Paris” in John J. McCusker Money and Exchange in Europe and America, 1600­–1775 (Williamsburg, Va.: Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1978 (280–90) and “Economic Life” in Marcel Trudel Introduction to New France (Pawtucket, R.I.: Quintin Publications, 1997) 184–89.

Five Reasons Why Cyndi’s List is Better than Google

In today’s world, Google has replaced many things. Instead of turning to a dictionary or encyclopedia, we often first turn on our computer and hop on a search engine (most frequently Google). While this can be helpful, it isn’t always necessarily the best and easiest way to find what we are seeking quickly. For genealogical purposes, Cyndi’s List is always at the top of my list (even higher than Google). Here are five reasons why.

1. The Google Algorithm
Google and other search engines base your results on specific search algorithms. These include information from your previous searches to that Google can determine what you are searching for. Anyone who has seen strange search results appear (or bizarre advertisements show up on your Facebook page) knows how inaccurate these algorithms can often be. You never have to worry about that with Cyndi’s List.

2. Which Would You Rather Navigate?
I did a Google search for the term “Massachusetts genealogy” which returned more than 662,000 hits. With ten hits per page, that is more than 66,000 pages of results that need to be sifted through. There is no apparent order to the results. The top ten results were:

  • the Family Search wiki page for Massachusetts
  • the Massachusetts State Archives genealogy page
  • a Massachusetts research guide on the NEHGS website
  • links to Massachusetts resources on AccessGenealogy
  • Massachusetts GenWeb,
  • Massachusetts records on
  • a search page on for Massachusetts
  • the Massachusetts Genealogical Council
  • an outdated Massachusetts vital records website
  • Research guide on Massachusetts vital records at the University of Massachusetts library

On Cyndi’s List, however, I navigated to the Massachusetts page in two clicks and had results grouped in more than 30 categories, making it easy for me to look for resources that would be helpful to me for a specific question. And if you don’t want to navigate through the easily-browsed pages, you can also search Cyndi’s entire list.

3. Cyndi’s Results are Already Vetted
When you are faced with the results on Google, you must look at each one to determine if it is a real resource, or a fake site looking to troll you. If it is not a real website, Cyndi won’t link to it in the first place. And if a website starts providing false or plagiarized information or other less than ethical materials, it will quickly be barred. Will Google do that for you?

4. Actual Support
Cyndi’s List has a very detailed FAQ; a number of them actually. These will well you with virtually any problem or question you might have. And, these FAQs are available from a link at the top of every page. In the rare event that you have a problem or question not addressed by the FAQs, you can send an email (although with the volume of messages she gets, it may take her awhile to get back to you.

5. Cyndi Ingle
The final reason Cyndi’s List is better than Google: Cyndi herself. Behind this list is a single individual. For more than twenty years she has worked to make this comprehensive resource available for free to everyone. She is incredibly knowledgeable, not only in genealogy, but in technology, and business as well. For any opportunity you have to use her list, or see her in a webinar or a live speaking engagement, you should run to be the first one registered for a seat and learn from her.

A couple of final notes. First, as you know, Cyndi provides access to her site free of charge, and has done so for more than twenty years. It costs a great deal of money to keep that going. Please consider supporting the list financially. You can make purchases from websites such as Abe Books, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and eBay by clicking on her affiliate links, and she will get a small remuneration for your purchase. Or you can make a donation directly. Any amount will help keep this valuable resource available for free to all.

Second, I want to acknowledge that Cyndi and I have been good friends for many, many years. This friendship has no bearing on what I wrote above. If I didn’t think it was one of the best resources around, I wouldn’t write about it. I believe in providing valuable resources to genealogists, and this is one of the best ones available anywhere.


Subscribe to our Newsletter

Trust But Verify: The Story of Dr. Benjamin Church’s Family

Family historians utilize a large number of sources for our research. This includes compilations as well as original records. We must read all of these carefully and critically in order to reach properly supported conclusions. This includes published information on major historical figures as well as average everyday people, and works by well-known individuals as well as those who are little-known. Anyone can make mistakes, or miss key pieces of information.

I have an article in the latest issue of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register that is a great illustration of this point. When one thinks of traitors of the Revolutionary War, most Americans will quickly turn to Benedict Arnold. While he is today one of the best-known traitors, there was an earlier one who was infamous in his time: Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. Originally a member of the Sons of Liberty in Boston, he served as George Washington’s surgeon general at the start of the war in 1775. That summer his treachery was discovered and he was quickly jailed.

That he had a wife and children was a well-known fact. But generations of historians and genealogists have misinterpreted documents and published materials over and over. Sometimes conflicting information was morphed away by combing the conflicting bits into a single strand of information with no source or evidence provided.

Even the best of researchers and authors can make mistakes. And sometimes the problem is not a mistake, but an evaluation and conclusion based on insufficient evidence. It is not unusual for new evidence to come to light after one has already published one’s conclusions.

All of this is to say that even work complete with source citations and written by the best of researchers must be reviewed. In the case of this article, examining original records instead of using long-published extracts provided critical evidence; evidence that while extremely significant was omitted from the abstracts. A letter from the papers of Robert Treat Paine was well known, but was misinterpreted by researchers, and the error propagated by later researchers and authors. As recently as 2014, a book on Dr. Church that continued the misinformation was published by a well-known and excellent historian.

It was only by going back to original sources and reexamining other sources based on new information that the truth began to emerge. All of these records have been freely available to researchers for centuries, but nobody ever took the time to examine everything in the context of the whole. And this case well illustrates the importance of going back to original documents to verify information in abstracts.

NEHGS members can read “The Wife and Descendants of Revolutionary War Traitor Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., of Boston” on Non-members may be able to read the article in the current issue of the Register at their local library or genealogical society,  or by obtaining a copy from their local library through interlibrary loan.