Which of Your Ancestors Would You Invite to Your Family Reunion?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary fantasizes about being able to invite some of her famous ancestors—including flight pioneers the Wright brothers—to a family reunion.

I’ve got a number of friends who get excited about fantasy football.

Whereas this is quite a snoozer for me, I see their point. They love to discuss and theorize about favorite football players—which is not unlike family historians when they get together, who assert their knowledge about favorite genealogical finds. And genealogists love to discuss their favorite ancestors!

Nobody can really speak for their ancestors, of course, but you can—in a round-about way—introduce them at your next family reunion. Someone could present a written report on their favorite ancestor, or the more theatrical members at your reunion could re-enact times and events surrounding your more noteworthy (or notorious) ancestors.

So if you could invite any relation (direct or otherwise) to your next family reunion, who would it be?

The Wright Brothers

One of my choices would be my latest cousin discovery: aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright, who share Edmund Freeman (1737-1813) and Martha Otis (1737-1790) as mutual ancestors.

I’d love to ask the Wright brothers if they were apprehensive about their flying machine when it first took flight. I’ve read the patents and various reports about their incredible aviation invention, but it would be wonderful to get their first-hand accounts.

Patent No. 821, 393 of 2 May 1906 (available for viewing at Google Patents):

To all whom it may concern:

Be it known that we, ORVILLE WRIGHT and WILBUR WRIGHT, citizens of the United States, residing in the city of Dayton, county of Montgomery, and State of Ohio, have invented certain new and useful Improvements, in Flying-Machines, of which the following is a specification.

Our invention relates to that class of flying-machines in which the weight is sustained by the reactions resulting when one or more aeroplanes are moved through the air edgewise at a small angle of incidence, either by the application of mechanical power or by the utilization of the force of gravity.

This old newspaper article from 1903 reports that the Wright brothers’ flying machine flew three miles against the wind.

A Flying Machine Goes Three Miles against the Wind, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article, 18 December 1903

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 18 December 1903, page 1

If Orville Wright were alive, I’d love to see him fly his hydro-aero-boat invention. This 1913 newspaper article describes him, not as an aviator, but as a “noted birdman,” and reports that Wilbur Wright had been stricken with scarlet fever. What fun that Orville’s flying boat was tested on “Mad River”!

Orville Wright Perfects New Flying Boat, Evening Times newspaper article 5 December 1913

Evening Times (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 5 December 1913, page 10

Accused Witch Lydia Gilbert

Another on my list of ancestors I’d invite to my family reunion would be accused witch Lydia, wife of Thomas Gilbert. This travesty occurred in October of 1651, reportedly in Hartford, Connecticut (not Salem, Massachusetts). At the time, Lydia and her husband were living in the household of Henry Stiles. A neighbor, Thomas Allyn, was present when a gun discharged, slaying Stiles. Allyn was found guilty of “homicide by misadventure” but three years later, Lydia and others were accused at a Court of Oyer and Terminer of having caused the deed by witchcraft.

Poor Lydia. Wouldn’t you love to hear from her and to reassure her that witchcraft trials were finally put to rest when Governor Phils dissolved this particular Court on 29 October 1692. (Note: that didn’t put an end to all Courts of Oyer and Terminer, a term easily searchable in GenealogyBank. Such courts were authorized to oversee certain criminal cases.)

GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives don’t date to 1651 (although they do contain the first newspaper published in America, Publick Occurrences, in 1690), but there are various references to witch trials contained in the old newspapers, including this photo of the Old Witch House taken in 1914.

Oldest Building in Salem, Mass., Anaconda Standard newspaper article 26 June 1914

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 26 June 1914, page 1

Oyster Cracker Inventor Adam Exton and Wife Elizabeth Aspden

Although not household names today, British immigrants Adam Exton (1823-1887) and wife Elizabeth Aspden (1821-1894) were well known in Trenton, New Jersey, during their lifetime. Adam Exton was the inventor of the oyster cracker, a recipe which became immensely popular. I’d love to invite both of them to my family reunion as well.

I’d like to inquire why Adam Exton didn’t patent this particular invention, as it was soon stolen—and to this day some still disclaim him as the inventor of the delicious invention. However, this piece of family provenance is substantiated in a 1917 newspaper article written by his nephew, also named Adam Exton, who worked in the cracker factory and knew his uncle personally.

Life History of Oyster Crackers, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 31 May 1917

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 31 May 1917, page 4

If you’d like to know more about this topic, search the Web for “Adam Exton’s cracker factory.” The factory still exists and has been renovated into condominiums, known as the Trenton Lofts.

So as family reunion season approaches, consider inviting a few “virtual” ancestors to the party, and don’t forget to search GenealogyBank’s historical archives for the family trivia. You might even uncover a news report of a previous family reunion. When I input “family reunion” into GenealogyBank’s search box, almost 100,000 matches return! Many of these old news articles include old family reunion photos that show the whole family the way they were in the past. What great find to share with the rising generation at your next family get-together so that the young ones can see their ancestors’ faces.

GenealogyBank search box for "family reunion"

GenealogyBank search box for “family reunion”

So which ancestors would you place on your “fantasy ancestral team”? Please share your more extraordinary ancestral finds with us!

In Search of Our Early American Ancestors’ Patents on Inventions

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains that some of your ancestors may have patented inventions—and finding the government records or newspaper descriptions of these inventions may fill in some gaps in your family history.

When we think of patented inventions (not to be confused with land patents), the more famous inventors—such as Thomas Edison (inventor of the phonograph and 1000+ other inventions)—overshadow lesser-known American inventors.

But take a moment to reflect on life before the Industrial Revolution, when our early American ancestors were left to their own ingenuity. The family stories may have become lost over the years, but perhaps some of your ancestors invented unique tools or machines—and finding information about their patented inventions may fill in some gaps in your family history.

Necessity was the driving force behind many of these historical inventions, creating devices to deal with problems that don’t concern us today.

Peter Zacharie’s Mud-Moving Machine

For example, mud was a large problem in the late 18th century. When you cleared a swamp, it was a back-breaking, labor-intensive chore, and undoubtedly the inspiration for Peter Zacharie’s (of Baltimore) mud-moving device, which is described in this 1792 newspaper article.

Peter Zacharie's patent, Spooner's Vermont Journal newspaper article 14 February 1792

Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont), 14 February 1792, page 2

His device allowed a person to walk in a hollow wheel and raise, with what must have been a large spoon, a ton of mud. As the first one went up, a corresponding spoon simultaneously went down to get another load, thereby allowing a single man to empty it in a minute. What a fantastic labor-saving invention!

Although no drawing has been located of Zacharie’s machine, List of Patents for Inventions and Designs Issued by the United States from 1790 to 1847 (Edmund Burke, Commissioner of Patents, 1847) on Google Books, described it as an “Excavator, mud machine.” I imagine it more as an early elliptical machine—as this would undoubtedly have kept the farmer in shape!

Obadiah Herbert’s Spinning Wheel

That same 1792 newspaper reported that Obadiah Herbert (of Mount Pleasant) had created a spinning wheel that could eliminate the need for a second person. As noted, “the advantages of such a machine were evident.”

Obadiah Herbert's patent, Spooner's Vermont Journal newspaper article 14 February 1792

Spooner’s Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont), 14 February 1792, page 2

Miss E. A. Judkins Lace Loom

You’ll find descriptions of other lesser-known American inventions in early newspapers, such as this one by Miss E. A. Judkins (of Portland), who invented a loom to weave lace, fringes, etc., eliminating the need for tatting and crocheting.

E. A. Judkins's patent, National Gazette newspaper article 2 July 1839

National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 July 1839, page 1

Patent Protection in Early America

These early inventions received patent protection under the “Act to Promote the Progress of Useful Arts” of 10 April 1790. Protection under this act was granted:

“to such persons or petitioners, his, her or their heirs, administrators or assigns for any term not exceeding fourteen years, the sole and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using and vending to others to be used, the said invention or discovery.”

1790 Patent Act, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

There were various other stipulations, and the act included a statement that the issued patent “would be prima facia evidence that the said patentee or patentees, was or were the first and true inventor or inventors, discover or discovers of the thing so specified.” Filing fees were specified, which totaled $3.85:

    • 50¢ to receive and file the petition
    • 10¢ per copy-sheet containing one hundred words
    • $2.00 for making out the patent
    • $1.00 for affixing the great seal
    • 25¢ to endorse the day of delivering the same to the patentee
1790 Patent Act, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 13 April 1790

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 13 April 1790, page 2

Where to Find These Historical U.S. Patents?

Unfortunately for family historians searching government records, about 10,000 of the earliest patent documents were destroyed in an 1836 fire at the Post Office building. Luckily, many American patentees kept copies of their prized patents.

Known as the “X-Patents,” less than 1/3 of the documents destroyed in that fire have been restored to the United States Patent Office—mostly from personal collections or archives. One of the surviving early documents was Eli Whitney’s patent for the cotton gin.

drawing of Eli Whitney's cotton gin

Credit: Wikipedia Commons image

If you find one of the missing X-Patents in your family archives, be sure to contact the U.S. Patent Office. They’ll be appreciative you contacted them so that they can save more of these missing historical patents.

To learn more about patented early American inventions search GenealogyBank’s Newspaper Archives, along with Google Books and Google Patents. You’ll also find a number of accounts and related reference material in GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection.

photo of an 1871 advertising card for Scientific American, Munn & Co., patent attorneys

Scientific American, Munn & Co., patent attorneys advertising card, 1 January 1871

Also visit the United States Patent and Trademark Office. There you’ll learn that protection for patented inventions is not much longer than it was in 1790, but fees now run into thousands of dollars!

From their website:

“How long does patent protection last?

“For applications filed on or after June 8, 1995, utility and plant patents are granted for a term which begins with the date of the grant and usually ends 20 years from the date you first applied for the patent subject to the payment of appropriate maintenance fees. Design patents last 14 years from the date you are granted the patent. No maintenance fees are required for design patents.”

Recommended reading from the newspaper archives:

Do you have any American inventors in your family tree? Share with us in the comments!

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition Celebrated 100 Years of American Freedom

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition that celebrated 100 years of American independence.

Do you remember the American Bicentennial? In 1976 Americans celebrated our shared history and our fight for freedom. Visual reminders of the early history of America were everywhere. My school picture that year had a background of an American flag, and as I stood against that background my arm rested on a faux chair that had a small eagle painted in gold. For those who were around in 1976, it is easy to date that image.

Did you have ancestors living in the United States in 1876? Just as you may have participated in bicentennial celebrations, they participated in centennial activities to celebrate 100 years of American independence. Maybe they even attended the biggest celebration of America’s freedom: the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the first time an official World’s Fair was held in the U.S. From May to November 1876 in Fairmount Park, the city of Philadelphia provided Americans the opportunity to see history, experience the newest technologies and innovations, and show patriotism just 11 years after the Civil War ended.

Philadelphia International Exhibition souvenir ribbon, 1876, from the Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library

Philadelphia International Exhibition Souvenir Ribbon, 1876, from the Cornell University Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library

Approximately 10 million visitors strolled the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition’s 285 acres and saw exhibits in more than 200 buildings. The Exhibition of 1876 offered everything from historical and technological exhibits to food. Most states participated as well as over 30 nations. Patriotism was a big part of the great Centennial Exhibition but so too were the machines and exhibits that touted America’s innovation.

Many of the top American inventors of the day presented their newest creations at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. This was the international event where attendees from around the world were introduced to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention he called the telephone, and Thomas Edison was there showcasing some of his new ideas. Many everyday household items that we now take for granted were either exhibited or introduced at the Exhibition including typewriters, sewing machines and even Heinz 57 Tomato Ketchup. The largest steam engine ever built, weighing a staggering 56 tons, was at the Exhibition and powered the Machinery Hall.

Even Lady Liberty was there—well, part of her arm and torch to be precise. This section of the Statue of Liberty was displayed at the Centennial Exhibition as part of a fundraising effort to raise the money needed to build a base for the permanent statue.

colossal hand and torch “Liberty,” from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Colossal hand and torch “Liberty,” from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

All good things must come to an end and so did the Centennial Exhibition. On November 10th President U.S. Grant, with a wave of his hand and the words “I declare the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 closed,” marked the official end of the Exhibition. For ten days after that official declaration the Exhibition continued to stay open and allowed people to visit the exhibits until they were removed.

The International Exposition of 1876 Formally Closed, Critic-Record newspaper article, 11 November 1876

Critic-Record (Washington, D.C.), 11 November 1876, page 3

Today, all that is left of that 1876 event is Memorial Hall, the Ohio House (which now houses a café), and two smaller buildings.*

The Free Library of Philadelphia has an online exhibit, The Centennial Exhibition, where you can learn more about the fate of the buildings and machinery at the legendary Exhibition and about the event itself. Fairmount Park, the park that hosted the Exhibition, has an archival collection available to researchers by appointment.

Want to learn more about the 1876 Centennial Exhibition? The original guides to the Exhibition are available on Google Books. For a look at the history and images from the Exhibition see the “Images of America” book Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition by Linda P. Gross and Theresa R. Snyder (Arcadia Publishing, 2005).

If your ancestors were alive in 1876, perhaps they went to see the Centennial Exhibition themselves—about 20% of the American public did. Even if your ancestors did not actually visit the Exhibition, it was a big event during their lifetime that they most likely talked about in their homes and communities. You can peruse GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives to read thousands of news articles containing the original coverage on the Centennial Exhibition. GenealogyBank’s online newspaper archives are a great place to learn about your ancestors’ lives and the times they lived in—from 1690 to the present.

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*Whatever Happened to: Buildings. Centennial Exhibition Digital Collection. Free Library of Philadelphia. http://libwww.library.phila.gov/CenCol/what-bldgs.htm. Accessed 21 October 2012.