Saturday, 28 June 2014


Are we really who we think we are? This question we can ask ourselves on many different levels. For genealogy the question is how much of our family tree really matches our true genetic makeup. Family trees are based on written documentary evidence, pieces of paper that record what our ancestors said. They say who the parents of a child were; who the children of two parents are. They are not necessarily true. Sometimes mistakes happen and sometimes ancestors lie.
We all have within us a mixture of genes from different countries and different races. Human history has many examples of one group of people displacing another. When boatloads of British colonists arrived in Port Jackson New South Wales in 1788 the native Eora people, of the Sydney basin, and their culture were wiped out. Or were they?  Have the genes of the displaced people been destroyed or absorbed into the bodies of the group of people who displaced them. Is there an Eora person inside of you looking out and reading this?
White Australians, who have an ancestry that goes back to the beginnings of settlement, often have an Aboriginal ancestor that they don’t know they have. This is also true for white Americans , Canadians and New Zealanders. It’s hard to estimate how many do. For Americans that could be an African or Native American ‘Indian’ ancestor. I read a study recently that estimated that 30% of white Americans have a ‘black’ ancestor. The reason that the other 70% don’t is because their ancestors arrived in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of the Americans who can trace their ancestry back to the 1600s, many do have a ‘black’ ancestor.  I can say I am one of them.

1860 US census Plymouth Vermont

My G, G, G, G, Grandfather was Levi Webster (abt 1782-after 1870), a farmer who in 1870 was living in Plymouth, Vermont. On the 1860 US census form Levi and his wife Rebecca have a ‘B’ in the box next to their names indicating they were ‘black’. There are other members of the Webster family in this census. Levi’s son, and my ancestor Nathaniel (Handel) Webster also a farmer living in Plymouth has an ‘M’ next to his name, as do his wife and four children indicating they were mulatto or mixed race. Levi’s son Sheridan Webster and his wife Mary, also farmers in Plymouth have a ‘B’ next to their names as does Isabelle Webster who lived next door.
What is interesting about this is that on no other document at any time are any of the Webster family marked as being ‘black’ or ‘mulatto’. Levi Webster appears on many census forms from 1820 to 1870. His son Nathaniel Webster appears on census forms from 1850 to 1880.

1860 US census Plymouth Vermont

The 1850 US census was the first to list every free person in a household and a first (the first, or one of the first) to record a person’s race. In 1860 slavery and race were issues that were on everyone’s mind. The US civil war was to begin in 1861. The written instructions that the census enumerators received in 1860 were as follows:
9. Color.-- Under heading 6, entitled "Color," in all cases where the person is white leave the space blank; in all cases where the person is black without admixture insert the letter "B;"if a mulatto, or of mixed blood, write "M;"if an Indian, write "Ind." It is very desirable to have these directions carefully observed.
Our family only has one photo of one member of the Webster family, Adeline Webster who was Levi’s granddaughter through his son Nathaniel. She was married at the time and living nearby in Mendon Vermont. She is ‘white’ on the census form. It was done by a different enumerator. Is Adeline ‘mulatto’ like the rest of her siblings and parents or is she white. Judge for yourself.

Adeline Webster (1840-1915)

In the United States to be a ‘black’ person meant that you had all or some African ancestry. There was, what was colloquially called ‘The One Drop Rule’. If you had one drop of African blood you were not white. You were a person of colour. You were ‘black’. There were no genetic tests back then so it really meant if you looked as if you had ‘One Drop’ of African blood in you, you were ‘black’. If today’s genetic tests had been available back then, by the One Drop Rule, a huge number of ‘white’ Americans should have been slaves.
Why were the Webster family recorded as being people ‘of colour’ in the 1860 census but nowhere else? Could this have been the result of a grudge the enumerator had towards the Websters? Or possibly overzealousness by someone who, living in Vermont, had probably not seen many ‘black’ people. There must have been something there that that enumerator saw. What was he seeing? One drop, or more?

1860 US census Plymouth Vermont

Why were Levi and his wife Rebecca both recorded as ‘black’ when one of their children was ‘mulatto’? You would think that a ‘mulatto’ child would not have had two ‘black’ parents .  If the enumerator had recorded a mixed race couple would he have been recording a crime? Most US states had laws preventing interracial marriage. Vermont was though one of the few that didn’t.
In 1924 the State of Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act which required every child to be recorded at birth as either white or coloured and prohibited marriage between these two groups. This act classed Native American ‘Indians’ as people of colour. The problem with this Act which formalised the One Drop Rule, was that many prominent white Virginian families could trace their ancestry back to a Native American. That is none other than Pocahontas, the daughter of an ‘Indian’ chief.

Pocahontas was an important historical figure. She was legally married to a white settler and went on a well-documented trip to England to meet the Queen. Her descendants were also well-documented, many of them were prominent Virginians. This couldn’t be hidden or denied. The Racial Integrity Act was amended. The amendment was colloquially called the ‘Pocahontas Exception’.
I can imagine a group of old Virginian white men sitting on the verandah of their antebellum mansion, sipping their mint juleps, on a warm evening as the moon lit up the fields of tobacco plants nearby. The only sound to be heard would be of a cat walking across a hot tin roof nearby.  One would say, “Hey, Billy Ray, has anyone ever told you that you have a fairly dark and swarthy complexion? Why would that be Billy Ray?”, ‘I guess that would be because of Pocahontas, Big Daddy.’ ‘Sure enough, I guess there’s a bit of Pocahontas in all of us.’ chuckle, chuckle, chuckle.
The removal of the last laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the remaining 16 US states that had them came on June 12th 1967. The anniversary of this event is celebrated annually on Loving Day. A day named for both what we hope is the true basis of a marriage and for the interracial couple who took the State of Virginia to the Supreme Court and had the miscegenation laws overturned, Mildred and Richard Loving.
Richard and Mildred Loving
Do I, like so many other ‘white’ people, have a black ancestor without looking like I do?? I think it’s likely. The only way to be sure is by genetic testing. The problem is that even if the test says I have that ‘One Drop’ it won’t tell me with any certainty where that one drop comes from in my family tree. I won’t know if it was the Websters or if another ancestor was lying.

Friday, 20 June 2014


The notorious Thomas Blood (1618-1680)
My Grandfather’s Grandmother was Louisa Blood (1841-). Louisa Blood’s G G G G G Grandfather was  Robert Blood whose great nephew was the notorious Thomas Blood  (1618-1680) one of the most audacious rogues in history. His most outrageous act was, while disguised as a parson, stealing the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671.
'The grille was removed from in front of the jewels and the crown, orb and sceptre were taken out. The crown was flattened with the mallet and stuffed into a bag, and the orb stuffed down Blood's breeches. The sceptre was too long to go into the bag so Blood's brother-in-law Hunt tried to saw it in half!'
'At that point Edwards regained consciousness and began to
shout "Murder, Treason!". Blood and his accomplices
dropped the sceptre and attempted to get away but Blood
was arrested as he tried to leave the Tower by the Iron-
Gate, after unsuccessfully trying to shoot one of the guards.'
By Ben Johnson from the Historic UK blog
The most amazing part of this story is that not only did King Charles II pardon the rogue Thomas Blood for what he did he granted him Irish lands worth 500 pounds a year.
Most of us have family stories that are handed down to us from past generations. They often define who we are. Our family were common people, our family were superior to others, our family were persecuted. It’s the stories of our ancestors that shape this in our minds often influencing our decisions in the present. But stories are stories. Even when all the facts are known and verifiable they can be interpreted in different ways. A subtle change in emphasis can completely change a story and its meaning. We live our lives within stories without fully appreciating just how fluid they really are.
Many people grow up with an exciting story of a famous ancestor which is passed around the family from generation to generation. It’s a conversation starter; a colourful piece of our history. When we start our family history journey this is often the story that we want to research first.  
My family has a family tree drawn up in 1898 by Sidney York Sykes. It was given to my Great Grandfather Walter Guy Ball on a trip Sykes did from Edgbaston, Birmingham in 1902. Walter Ball would have been a  member of the Art Students League of New York at the time. Sidney Sykes and my grandfather were first cousins. They were both young men. Sidney called the tree ‘Pedigree of the Bloods’.  This is a bit of a treasure in my family and has been handed down over the years.

The importance of genealogy to people of the upper  classes back then was always to justify their privileges and as proof of their ‘racial purity’. My Great Grandfather, who designed stain glass windows for a living, would have been of the aspirational middle class. Always looking for how he could improve his social standing. I imagine the two young men would have had a lot of enjoyment discussing this family tree. There would have been a feeling of pride about their ancestry and interest in some of the stories contained within this tree, including that of the audacious rogue Thomas Blood.
I have to confess that the exciting family story that we have been telling people for generations, that Thomas Blood is in our family tree, is not verifiable. We know now that the connection between the Anglo Irish Bloods (which include ‘the rogue’) and the Bloods of Tamworth, Staffordshire is dubious. I can’t claim Thomas Blood as one of my own.
Sidney Sykes was a popular member of our family. Shortly after visiting Walter Guy Ball he went on a trip to Maine where he committed suicide. Death came from a gunshot wound. I know how well loved he must have been because not only did my Great Grandfather name his first born son Sidney, 7 years after his cousin's death in 1909, but other members of the Sykes family named their sons Sidney as well. I have been in contact with distant relatives on the Sykes side of my tree, through the website, who still have the first name Sidney. Sidney is a family first name that they have been using for generations, for men and for women. The ripple effects of the death of a loved one.

Sidney York Sykes (1876-1902)
The Pedigree of the Bloods isn’t a completely inaccurate family tree. Walter Guy Ball gave his next child to be born, my grandfather, the same middle name that his mother had given him.. ‘Guy’. This name came from someone who is definitely in this tree; Sir Thomas Guy the founder of Guy’s hospital in London. Sir Thomas Guy was the first cousin of my G G G G G G G Grandfather John Blood (1668-1744).

Not only was Sir Thomas Guy a better human being (nicer guy) than Thomas Blood he had a much cooler hairdo too. So now my family has a much more positive family story to tell.
Sir Thomas Guy (1644-1724)
Sir Thomas Guy (1644-1724) came from a reasonably humble background but in his lifetime he amassed a fortune. He did this from his bookselling business and from stock market speculation. He famously sold all his shares before the South Sea Bubble burst (a famous stock market crash in London).  He was a parliamentarian and philanthropist who in 1721 founded Guy’s Hospital in London. When he died, never having married, his fortune was bequeathed to various people including his cousins. My ancestor John Blood received an annuity of a thousand pounds a year. I’m still waiting to see how much of that I’ll be inheriting.
Pedigree for the aspirational middle classes and upper classes, back then, was very important. Whether or not the name ‘Guy’ was given to my Great Grandfather as a tribute to a philanthropic man or as a way of asserting a superior ancestry we’ll never know. Fortunately the interest in someone’s pedigree today has totally disappeared for everyone unless it’s for the British Royal Family or race horses or contemporary Rock and Roll musicians.

Sunday, 15 June 2014


Hearth Tax Record 1670
Often when I have attended our North Sydney Genealogy Help Desk at Stanton Library people will tell me how uninteresting their ancestors are. Often they will say this apologetically. Does it come from people’s natural modesty or from a deep seated conviction about their own ordinariness? ‘There is no one interesting in my family tree’. I find though that it’s always the people who are at the beginning of their family history research journey that say this. People don’t realise just what they will find and how much there is out there to find. The further back in time you research the more ancestors you have and the more chance you will find someone of note. But I write this article not about the interesting ancestors but about the ordinary ones, who I believe are just as interesting.
I think of Robert Ball my G, G, G, G, G, G, G, Grandfather. All I know about him is that he was living on a tiny piece of land called Hides Pasture in Warwickshire, England in 1670 and he had one hearth in his home. I know this from one document. This is a Hearth Tax record from 1670. All it says is Rob Ball. Number of hearths=1. I can find his name mentioned in a couple of subsequent Hearth Tax records but nowhere else.
Of course if all you can find is an ancestor’s name and maybe a common occupation it doesn’t tell you much about them. For women ancestors you typically find less than this. But to me just seeing the name Rob Ball written on such an ancient document by hand in a flowing ‘flowery’ script is magic. He has my surname which has been carried to me through the centuries. All the documented connections I made in my genealogical research from parent to child lead me back to this one name. My surname carried through the centuries.


The English Hearth Tax was levied from 1662 to 1689. It was a tax imposed by parliament to support the household of Charles II. One shilling tax for one fireplace paid twice a year by every household. There was an element of fairness about it in that richer households had more hearths and they could afford to pay more. It was still very unpopular.  (what tax isn’t). The tax collectors could march into people’s private homes and have a look around…for fireplaces. There were corrupt tax collectors, some people would try to hide their fireplaces (there were incidents of people burning their houses down) etc. Finally at the end the Glorious Revolution in 1688 the new rulers, William and Mary, abolished the tax.
The great things about Hearth tax records are that they are the earliest written record which covered every household in England (except for maybe the Doomsday Book?) and that so many of these records have survived to the present day. There is a website devoted to their study that is a great source of family history information.
I actually know quite a bit more about Rob Ball than I’ve told you, but only because I know a lot about his descendants.  There were generations of them living in that same place for hundreds of years. It’s so small that I know anyone named Ball in Hides Pasture was one of my ancestors.  Because I have his son Robert Ball’s will I also know they were all graziers on that land and Yeomen (they owned the land too).  Robert’s will also reveals many things about the Ball family that I won’t detail here. Including that they were very unimaginative at thinking up their children’s names. Robert’s son was named Robert too.
Will of Robert Ball 1730

You might say that all I’ve shown is that an ordinary ancestor is only interesting if it is your own ancestor. Maybe that’s true but we all have ordinary ancestors….and if you research yours I guarantee they will be just as interesting to you as mine are to me!

Monday, 9 June 2014


The White Family outside 6 Napier St North Sydney
The North Sydney Heritage Centre of Stanton Library has an enormous number of historic photographs in it’s collection.  Over 8,500 of these images are viewable online through the ‘Face of North Sydney’ database. These can be of many subjects; the landscape, both built and natural, or of local inhabitants, among other things. They are often an amazing source of family history information.
I remember once, in my job as a local history librarian at Stanton Library, finding a photo for an elderly man who came in to see our image collection. It was a photo of his grandmother. Not only had this man not ever seen that photo, he had never seen a photo of his grandmother. He was so moved that it brought him to tears.  A moment I will never forget.
Most people researching their own family’s history often don’t realise that there might be images of their ancestors that they can access online through the database of a public library. These will not come up by doing a basic Google search.  The photo database can only be found through the website of the local Council’s library where your ancestor lived.
To search for these photos first find what local Council area your ancestor lived in. Then find that Council’s website and see if there is an image database on that website. It might be connected to the part of the website devoted to that Council’s library or local history. If there is one then search by the ancestor’s name, place of residence etc.  Not every library has their photos online but most do. 
Public libraries throughout Australia are increasingly making their image collections available for anyone to see anywhere in the world. As internet download speeds increase and the costs of creating and hosting an image database become more economical, making photos available for viewing online is becoming a more attractive way to display them.
Through the National Library’s Trove website you can search a number of photo collections from public libraries around Australia as well as the National Library’s own collection. This includes Stanton Library’s Face of North Sydney database. There are also other great image collections online which the State Libraries of each Australian state have. Sometimes museums will also have great image collections online as well. I think of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney in particular.
You can access the Face of North Sydney database through the North Sydney Council’s website. It is one of the Heritage Databases on that site. 

H G Kent's Crows Nest blacksmith shop

Wednesday, 4 June 2014


It’s a sad story. Bradbury Ferguson (1801-1853) a hatter from Exeter, New Hampshire was my Grandfather’s Great Grandfather. Not much is known about his origins but it was known that he had a tendency to drink ardent spirits to excess. In the early hours of the 1st October 1840 in his New Hampshire home after a night of drinking he shot and mortally wounded his wife, Elizabeth Ann, who died shortly after.  He was arrested and spent the rest of his life in the New Hampshire State Penitentiary where he eventually died.
We know a lot about the details of this murder because it happened at a time when there was a lot of debate in the USA as to whether or not capital punishment was a deterrent to crime. The entire court case was published into a book in 1841 and is still in print in a textbook for law students.  This book is also available to view free online.
In 1837 the New Hampshire State Legislature passed a bill defining what type of murder required the death penalty (murder in the first degree) and gave jury members the right to opt out of jury duty if they conscientiously objected to sentencing someone to death.  The ‘anti gallows movement’ was nationwide in the US at this time. The Reverend Arthur Caverno gave a sermon in New Hampshire in 1835 calling for the abolition of capital punishment arguing that it was not a deterrent to crime, innocent people were occasionally mistakenly executed and it was morally wrong for a Christian to condemn other person to death.

New Hampshire State Penitentiary c.1860

My ancestor’s murder provided a test case for these new laws. The jury found Bradbury Ferguson guilty of murder in the second degree and he was sentenced to solitary confinement for 2 years and hard labour in the State penitentiary for the rest of his natural life.
The deliberations by the prosecution, the defence and the judge in the court transcript are interesting to read and provide a great summary of the arguments for and against capital punishment. The arguments seem as relevant today as they were in 1840.
We can only imagine how this all affected his 6 children. The two eldest boys John 13 yrs and William 11 yrs were mentioned in the trial and John was called to give testimony. There had been many years of domestic violence in this family before that fateful night. Some of the details mentioned in the court transcript were truly awful. The younger children like George who was only four at the time probably had no memory of what happened?  George’s census forms show differing birthplaces over the years (Maine, Massachusetts, New York). Even his obituary wrongly said his birthplace was Boston. Was he hiding his past or was he not told the full story?
After the trial the children were given new surnames by the New Hampshire legislature. They all took their mother’s maiden name Frothingham to protect their privacy and they were found new homes. John, my ancestor, went straight to boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy nearby. William, George , Eliza and Ann, and I assume Mary, were shipped off to Gray Maine where most of them are found living with a farmer named Nathan Foster and his wife Betsey in the 1850 census.

George Edward Frothingham

George Edward Frothingham (1836-1900) went to Phillips Andover Academy and later graduated from the University of Michigan eventually becoming a renown opthamologist in the US based in Detroit.
William Augustus Frothingham (1829-1896) became co-owner of a shoe manufactory in South Paris Maine, William A.  Frothingham & Co. and a leading businessman and selectman of that town.

John Bradbury Frothingham

John Bradbury Frothingham (1828-1881), my ancestor, was trained as an engineer. During the American Civil War he enlisted as a major in Ohio and shortly after was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel , additional Aide De Camp by General George E Wool whose last act before he retired in 1863 was to quell the ‘draft riots’ in New York City. This was a particularly dark event in US history as you might know. John was mainly associated with the West Virginian 6th infantry. There is a lot more of his story yet to be discovered.
John resigned 5 weeks prior to Robert E Lee’s surrender in 1865. Shortly after the war he was an aid to Congressman James Monroe Ashley and accompanied him on a couple of visits to Utah to meet Brigham Young (Head of the Morman Church). Ashley was Chairman of of the House Committee on Territories and Utah was still a territory then. There is an account of the second visit, hand written by John Frothingham, which is viewable online.
John was the eldest child who had confronted his father on the night of his mother’s murder asked him what he had done and went to his neighbours for help. It was young John’s hunting rifle, loaded for killing squirrels and rabbits that was used as the murder weapon.  It’s not sure how the trauma of this night affected him but his life was a troubled one.  After serving as with distinction as an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War, He worked as a civil engineer and lawyer and at one time nominated for appraiser of the Port of New York. In 1881 he was arrested for intoxication on the streets of Brooklyn and he died in police cells that same night from disease of the heart induced by alcoholism.  He had been estranged from his wife and daughter (my grandfather’s mother) for a short time before that. My family owns a letter of reference from a Christian Minister vouching that he ‘is not addicted to the use of spirituous liquors’. To me illustrating how much his drinking had become a problem.

New York Times 13 Apr 1881

Of the three daughters Eliza Ann married a farmer Bradbury Whittier from Gray, Maine, Mary Caroline married a day labourer Thomas Folsom in New Hampshire, who was killed in the Civil War, and I can find no record of what happened to Ann Matilda Frothingham.