History’s Mysteries: Building a Family Tree

By Emilie Haertsch, Publications

The protagonist of my favorite mystery novel series, Maisie Dobbs, creates a map of each case she works on. A London detective in the 1930s, she pins down a large piece of paper and writes down every bit of information she discovers, drawing lines to connect the pieces as the case evolves. Recently the staff of the Society’s Publications Department took a page out of Maisie Dobbs’s book and created a “map” to solve our own mystery regarding family connections and progeny.

Ondine LeBlanc Building the Shattuck Family Tree on a White Board in the publications officeWe are working on a book to coincide with the Society’s upcoming exhibition on mourning jewelry. The book, titled In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, features mourning jewels from the Society’s collection and from the private collection of the author, Sarah Nehama.

Several mourning jewels used in the book were donated to the Society by Dr. George Cheever Shattuck in 1971, and although some of the people those jewels honored shared last names, we could not initially discern how they were all related. Many prominent families in 18th- and 19th- century Boston intermarried and used the same names throughout generations, making it difficult to differentiate mothers, sisters, and cousins. Many parents also named their children after close family friends, confounding things further for any genealogist.

With one woman in particular we struggled – Elizabeth Cheever. The inscription on her mourning ring had been transcribed as “Elizabeth Cheever obt. 28 June 1814 Aet 72,” indicating that she was 72 and died on June 28, 1814. Even with these details we could not find biographical information on her anywhere. That is, until we had the help of a great MHS volunteer. Kathleen Fox, who is assisting with this project, discovered that the date of death we had for Elizabeth Cheever had been transcribed incorrectly. Rather than 1814, it was 1802! With this new date we were able to find Elizabeth Cheever using the Town Vital Records Collections of Massachusetts on Ancestry.com. Formerly Elizabeth Edwards, she was born in 1730 and married William Downes Cheever.

From this new information we were able to link Elizabeth Cheever to Mary Cheever (her sister-in-law), William Cheever (her son), and so on. We created a family tree, researching each family member until we had connected seven generations of Cheevers, Davises, and Shattucks. The family tree includes those commemorated by all of the jewels Dr. George Cheever Shattuck contributed to the MHS. No mean feat. But we’re not done yet. We still need one confirmation on a Hannah Davis. The mapping – and mystery – continues. Sometimes working at a historical society is just like being a detective.

For more information on the Cheever, Davis, and Shattuck families, read this earlier post on the discovery of Elizabeth Cheever (Davis) Shattuck’s travel diary. She appears in the family tree, and In Death Lamented features a mourning ring commemorating her.