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A charitable, nonprofit educational institution, NEHGS is located at 99–101 Newbury Street, in Boston, Massachusetts, in an eight-story archive and research center. Today it has over 25,000 members worldwide and a 50-person staff. Its mission is to "collect, preserve, and interpret materials to document and make accessible the histories of families in America."
In 2010, NEHGS announced a broader identity and relaunched its quarterly magazine as American Ancestors: New England, New York, and Beyond to better reflect its national scope and leadership position among genealogical nonprofit organizations.
NEHGS maintains a large web site with more than 100 million names in its databases, the largest such online collection of any genealogical society. It includes vital records, compiled genealogies, and a suite of scholarly journals, such as The New England Historical and Genealogical Register and The American Genealogist, the leading independent journal in American genealogy. In addition to American Ancestors (formerly New England Ancestors), NEHGS publishes other periodicals: The Register, the flagship journal of American genealogy, American Ancestors Journal, an annual supplement to The Register, and The Great Migration Newsletter, a quarterly publication of the Great Migration Study Project.
NEHGS' library catalog is available online and lists more than 200,000 genealogical books and other resources. The R. Stanton Avery Special Collections features over twenty million manuscript items, with an emphasis on the period of the 17th century to the present, covering New England and other regions.
The first genealogical society established in the United States, NEHGS was founded in 1845 by a group of five Bostonians: Charles Ewer (1790–1853), Lemuel Shattuck (1793–1859), Samuel Gardner Drake (1798–1875), John Wingate Thornton (1818–1878), and William Henry Montague (1804–1889). Initially, the founders debated the nature of the organization they would establish. Among their decisions was whether to focus on genealogy, heraldry, or history, or some combination of these disciplines. Genealogy and history were favored and plans were made to incorporate as the New England Historical Genealogical Society. Opposition to the use of the word “historical” was brought by Charles Francis Adams of the Massachusetts Historical Society and, as a compromise, the institution’s name was altered to the New England Historic Genealogical Society. This change did not please everyone and one or two of the founders regarded the new name as cumbersome. On March 18, 1845 the General Court of Massachusetts approved the Society’s petition for incorporation.
The impulse to formalize genealogical study in the first half of the 19th century found its earliest roots in the folkways of men and women of the region who, since at least the late 18th century, actively kept private family records to document their families and lineages. These records or registers were often executed in pen-and-ink or in needlework and were more ornate counterparts to similar printed forms found in Bibles. Later, in the mid-19th century, decorative family register prints were made widely available to the public by lithographers such as Nathaniel Currier.
The founders of NEHGS also acted to make permanent the systematic work of the first generation of genealogical researchers, especially as led by John Farmer (1789–1838). Before Farmer's efforts, tracing one's ancestry was seen by some as an attempt by colonists to social standing within the British Empire, an aim that was counter to the new republic's egalitarian, future-oriented ethos. As Fourth of July celebrations commemorating the Founding Fathers and heroes of the American Revolutionary War became increasingly popular, however, the pursuit of 'antiquarianism,' which focused on local history, became increasingly a way to honor the achievements of early Americans. Farmer capitalized on the increasing acceptability of antiquarianism to frame genealogy within the early republic's ideological framework of pride in one's American ancestors. In the 1820s, Farmer corresponded with various antiquarians in New England and became a coordinator, booster, and contributor to this burgeoning movement, which gradually gained a devoted American audience. Though Farmer died in 1839, his efforts in part led to the creation of NEGHS. A group of its members founded a similar organization in New York two decades later in 1869.
In the early 20th century, NEHGS undertook the important project of transcribing and publishing the vital records of Massachusetts towns, which provided a valuable contribution to the genealogical field as this series was expanded over the next forty years. Many of these records were saved from destruction.
For more than a century, NEHGS was directly administered by its officers and board of trustees. In 1962, NEHGS appointed its first professional director, Edgar Packard Dean, a former editor of Foreign Affairs and past director of the Associated Harvard University Clubs. Dean oversaw the Society’s move from Beacon Hill to its present location in the Back Bay and retired in 1972. Dean was succeeded by Richard Donald Pierce, a Unitarian minister, librarian and formerly dean (and for a while acting president) of Emerson College, who died in office six months after his appointment.
Pierce was succeeded by James Brugler Bell, who obtained an advanced degree in history from Balliol College, Oxford, and who was a past lecturer at Ohio State University and a former candidate for the United States Congress in Minnesota. After a tenure of nine years, Bell left NEHGS in 1982. The Society’s finances and morale were at a low point, and it fell to Bell’s successor, Ralph J. Crandall, former editor of The Register and graduate of the University of Southern California where he obtained his doctorate, to rebuild the Society’s endowment over the following twenty-three years. Crandall left briefly in 1987 and the directorship was filled by John Winthrop Sears, a former city councilor of Boston and Republican nominee for governor of Massachusetts in 1982. Crandall returned to NEHGS in 1988 and continued to expand the organization. In 2005, Crandall stepped down to became executive director emeritus and concentrate on special projects. He was succeeded by D. Brenton Simons, an author, former Chief Operating Officer and Director of Education at NEHGS, and graduate of Boston University, who joined the staff in 1993 and initiated its magazine, website, and special publications imprint. In 2006 the position of Executive Director was changed to president and CEO and in 2009 Simons announced a gift pledge of $7.5 million from an anonymous donor, the largest charitable gift ever made in the field of American genealogy. Today, NEHGS has a 22-person Board of Trustees that sets governance policies for the organization at quarterly meetings. A larger Council meets annually and, together with the Board, forms the Council of the Corporation, the statutory voting body of the organization.
Scholars associated with NEHGS in the 20th century included:
Noted scholars currently associated with NEHGS include:
Current staff members include Thomas R. Wilcox, Jr. formerly executive director of the Maine Maritime Museum, and genealogical authors David Allen Lambert, Christopher C. Child, Rhonda M. McClure, and Scott C. Steward.
Many notable figures, including numerous presidents, have been elected members of NEHGS. An original member was John Quincy Adams, elected on February 20, 1845, just prior to the Society’s incorporation. Others elected, by year, include:
Horatio Alger, John Albion Andrew, and Rutherford B. Hayes all served at various times as officers of NEHGS.
The NEHGS website www.AmericanAncestors.org is one of the most widely used online genealogical resources in the country.[vague] More than 15,000 members research on the website every day and an additional 15,000 non-members visit daily. It features nearly 3,000 unique searchable databases containing information on over 113 million people. The extensive NEHGS Library catalog is also fully searchable on the Society’s website. Popular databases are Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850, Massachusetts Vital Records 1841-1915, Massachusetts Vital Records 1911-1915, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, The American Genealogist, Social Security Death Index, Cemetery Transcriptions, Great Migration Begins: 1620-1633, and Abstracts of Wills in NY State 1787-1835.
The Society’s website, in addition to searchable record content, also offers a variety of other resources such as online seminars, the Online Genealogist, and online exhibits featuring unique items from the Society’s manuscript collection.
In addition to the main website, NEHGS supports a number of other websites providing access to the Society’s expansive collections and expertise across many different time periods and ethnic groups. Other NEHGS websites include:
NEHGS launched its first website, www.NEHGS.org in 1996; one of the first non-profit genealogical societies to have an online presence. NEHGS' first website consisted of 38 pages with information about NEHGS services and programs. In 1999, with the introduction of a new magazine New England Ancestors, NEHGS changed its URL to www.NewEnglandAncestors.org, adding important[to whom?] genealogical articles to the website for use by members and the public. In 2001, NEHGS redesigned its website to include data rich content, new articles, and member forums. The most popular database was a full name searchable database of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register.
NEHGS is headquartered at 99–101 Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. NEHGS moved here in 1964 and this is the seventh location for the organization. Prior headquarters included the City Building, Court Square, Room 9 during the years 1846 and 1847; the Massachusetts Block, Court Square for 1847 to 1851; 5 Tremont Street, 3rd floor for 1851 through 1858; 17 Bromfield Street, 3rd floor from 1858 to 1871; 18 Somerset Street – 1871 to 1913; 9 Ashburton Place from 1913 to 1964.
The first three floors of NEHGS' present location were built as a branch of the New England Trust Company in 1928, designed by Ralph Coolidge Henry and Henry P. Richmond, successors to noted American architect Guy Lowell. (Lowell, a member of a prominent Boston family, designed the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the New York State Supreme Court building in New York and many other educational and residential commissions, including many fine gardens. Henry and Richmond finished many projects begun by Guy Lowell, this building being one; the Grosse Point Yacht Club being another. They completed many commissions on their own, including buildings at Colby College, Pine Manor, and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.)
When NEHGS moved into its new headquarters in 1964, it added five floors on top of the New England Trust Company building. Today, the floors are used as follows:
The NEHGS research library collections are national in scope and contain significant materials for the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Canada. The library is open five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, and its stacks and microtext are “open” except for rare books and manuscripts. NEHGS collections include 200,000 bound volumes; 5,000+ linear feet of original manuscripts; and 100,000 rolls of microfilm. NEHGS has an extensive fine arts collection including noted works on canvas or paper by Joseph Badger, John Singleton Copley, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Jonathan Mason, Jr., Rembandt Peale, and John Ritto Penniman. Items from its collection of American furniture were featured in Antiques Magazine.
In line with the Society’s mission, NEHGS publishes books on families, genealogists, and historians, including authoritative guides, source record compilations, compiled genealogies, and family histories — all with an aim to preserve, interpret, and communicate reliable genealogical data. The Newbury Street Press imprint is America’s leading publisher of privately sponsored family histories. Working in direct consultation with NEHGS members, professional researchers, and quality printers, the goal of Newbury Street Press is to publish books of lasting value to families, genealogists, and historians.
Among the Society’s recent additions to the genealogical canon are Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century, New Englanders in the 1600s, A Guide to Massachusetts Cemeteries, Ancestors of American Presidents: 2009 edition, The Descendants of Henry Sewall, and Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts.
Published quarterly since 1847, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register is the flagship journal of American genealogy and the oldest in the field. A wide variety of genealogies and source material have been published in the Register for over 160 years, with an emphasis on New England. Authoritative compiled genealogies have always been a primary focus of the Register. Thousands of New England families have been treated in the pages of the journal, and many more are referred to incidentally. Typically, these articles solve a genealogical problem, identify immigrant origins, or present a full-scale treatment of multiple generations. Henry B. Hoff was appointed editor of the Register in 2001. In October 2009, an annual supplement to the Register, American Ancestors Journal, was introduced.
The aim of the Great Migration Study Project is to compile comprehensive genealogical and biographical accounts of every person who settled in New England between 1620 and 1640. Between these years about twenty thousand English men, women, and children crossed the Atlantic to settle New England. (the Puritan great migration). Initiated in 1988 and directed by Robert Charles Anderson, the project is an ongoing initiative of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
Publications of the Great Migration Study Project:
NEHGS provides various educational opportunities relating to genealogy and family history. Most of educational programs are led and/or taught by members of the NEHGS staff, though some include invited guests. NEHGS offers a series of research tours, lectures, seminars, and other events throughout the year. For over thirty years, NEHGS has conducted a week-long tour to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and frequently offers opportunities to research and visit in Ireland, Scotland, Washington D.C., England, Quebec, and other areas of the world. For more than twenty years, NEHGS has sponsored a week-long summer “Come Home to New England” program in Boston.
The Society has also developed online seminars many of which are taught by their staff genealogists on a wide variety of topics such as Internet searching, beginning genealogical research, organizing, preparing lineage society applications, and others.
NEHGS offers annual and lifetime membership options, several Premium membership levels, and a membership designed specifically for families. The most popular level of membership is the Research level. Membership includes subscriptions to two NEHGS publications, American Ancestors magazine and The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Members enjoy full access to the Society’s website, www.NewEnglandAncestors.org, as well as unlimited use of the Society’s research library in Boston. Certain Premium membership dues are partially tax-deductible.
NEHGS news stories on the genealogies of public figures have frequently appeared in the media.
In January 2010, NEHGS announced that President Barack Obama is a 10th cousin to then newly elected Republican Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. The two share a common ancestor named Richard Singletary who died in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1687.
In October 2009, the Society announced that Hollywood actors and friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are related to each other. They are 10th cousins, once removed through a common ancestor named William Knowlton of Ipswich, Massachusetts, who died in 1655.
In April 2008, NEHGS released a story on interesting kinships of the then three remaining presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain. Barack Obama was shown as a 9th cousin to actor Brad Pitt while Hillary Clinton was noted as a 9th cousin twice removed of Pitt’s wife, actress Angelina Jolie. Genealogists also confirmed that Obama is related to seven former U.S. Presidents, including George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Lyndon B. Johnson, Harry S. Truman, and James Madison.
In March 2008, it was announced that NEHGS discovered in its collections the earliest known photograph of Helen Keller with her teacher Anne Sullivan. The photo, taken in July 1888, shows 8-year old Keller holding a doll. “Doll” was the first word Sullivan taught Keller in sign language. It is also the only known photograph of Keller with a doll.
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