J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

More Delightful Digital Databases

A while back I wrote about two fine online resources for researching Revolutionary America. Here are three more databases specific to Boston that come in CD-ROM form. They all have their baffling limitations, but compared to leafing through hundreds of pages of rare newspapers or city reports, searching these disks is delightfully user-friendly.

Annie Haven Thwing (1851-1940) was an upper-class Bostonian who set out to create a database (or, as it was called then, a "card file") covering every inhabitant of pre-Revolutionary Boston. She gathered information mostly from city reports and real estate records. Thwing didn't achieve her initial goal, but she left behind a book titled The Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston and over 125,000 index cards at the Massachusetts Historical Society, a resource usually called the "Thwing File." This century, the MHS and New England Historic Genealogical Society transcribed those two items and combined them on a single CD-ROM. The "Thwing Index" is a secondary source that contains errors, but it's largely reliable and an excellent pointer for further research. Plus, it's just fun to say "Thwing." Len Travers wrote a profile of Thwing for the Massachusetts Historical Review. Ancestry.com offers a review of the disk.

The baptism, marriage, and death records of Boston's meeting-houses and churches have been published piecemeal over the years: by the city itself, by churches, by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, &c. Robert J. Dunkle and Ann S. Lainhart transcribed all the available material into a single electronic file for the Records of the Churches of Boston CD-ROM, published by the NEHGS. It contains data from sixteen of Boston's twenty-one active churches from 1630 to 1810, along with three congregations from Roxbury. Again, here's the Ancestry.com review. As with the Thwing disk, the program works on Windows and Mac OS 9, but not Mac OS X except in emulation mode (I use Virtual PC).

Heritage Books published Andrew W. Pollock's index of advertisements in the Boston News-Letter, often officially called the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter. This newspaper appeared weekly from 1704 to 1776. This CD-ROM holds a searchable PDF file over three thousand pages long. It doesn't contain the complete texts of the advertisements, but keyword searching in this database is more reliable than in the online newspaper database I wrote about before. After locating the right ads with this file, you can find them fast in the newspaper database (should you have access to that).

I bought my copy of the News-Letter index from the Boxers and Books store on eBay, which also stocks the Churches CD and many other genealogical resources. These databases helped me piece together information about the families of Christopher Seider, Pvt. John Moies, Capt. Thomas Morton, and others.

So Thwing! Thwing! Thwing!

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