Skip to content

another instant heirloom

Earlier I wrote about a 260-year-old will, signed and sealed by one of my ancestral uncles, which made its way into my possession, as an ‘instant heirloom’, through an extremely narrow form of directed marketing: a dealer in old manuscripts had researched the author of this will online, which led him to my book on the testator’s family, following which he offered to sell it (and I accepted). But there’s another way to get an instant heirloom: the sudden provision of a provenance for something which has always been around in your possession, but which hadn’t been noticed for what it was.

In the front parlor of my wife’s family’s village house in East Washington, New Hampshire, an old painted wooden box has sat on a bookcase for as long as I’ve known it — near 25 years:

Today my son was fiddling with it, observing that the key didn’t seem to work, and he couldn’t get it open. I took it in hand, worked gently with the key, and opened the box, (Continued)

of wars and rumours of wars

They’ve been somewhat eclipsed by the eighteenth-century documents, but there is a large pile of newspapers that have come out of the floors and walls of the Allin house, mostly between layers of floors — a squeak preventative? There are a few sheets from Providence papers from the 1880s, and several full or nearly complete issues of the Saturday Evening Post from 1915. I haven’t read through them all — this will reward my leisure time if I ever have any again. They are quite supple and fresh, and will be easy to read.

But now, as I monitor the flow to the dumpster, occasional bits stuck to wood catch my eye. This one is a scrap spanning two planks of beadboard:

women and children
being sent away from
the Verdun district.
The city of Verdun was
evacuated by the en-
tire civil population …
February, whe[n the]
attack began, and
now a mass …

A little scrap speaking of one of the costliest battles in human history, the grim stretch of World War I which was the drawn-out fight over Verdun from February to December of 1916. My grandfather was in later action around Verdun (there’s a medal to show for it), but that was in 1918, once the Americans had finally arrived. By then the heroic and costly defense of 1916 was a distant memory.

I’m sorry I don’t know where this came from. Wainscoting? Subfloor?

excavated pilaster

Here is a ‘during’ shot from the Allin House: the Georgian fireplace surround from the ‘southwest great chamber’, partially buried in a later wall, has now been uncovered with the wall’s removal.

The revealed corner of this pilaster and crown shows the thickness of the encrustation of paint, with peeks at earlier cream and blue colors, though we are sticking, for now, with a modern latex gloss white. (Continued)

Allin pedigree

With kids out of school for the summer my opportunities for further deed research on the house are curtailed, but I did compile a full agnatic pedigree of the Barrington Allins, based on the deeds and wills, extant Barrington church records, the gravestones in the Allin Burying ground, and not least the 1947 typescript by Devere Allen, Some Prudence Island Allens. Click the image for a full-size pdf.

a house describes itself

OK, here’s an amazing find, as selective demolition peels back layers of the Allin House. I have already blogged some of the scrap papers — farm accounts, legal memoranda, navigational trigonometry, surveying — pasted down to the vertical plank walls which survived in the ‘West Garret’ in our attic. This week, removal of the modern lath & plaster in the one finished attic room which unfortunately unseated the remaining vertical planks which had been reused as studs, also uncovered several other papers pasted down to vertical planks. The most spectacular find is this (sorry for the size):

This is bizarrely self-referential: it is a page of the original tax assessment schedules for the town of Barrington (Rhode Island), compiled for the direct federal tax of October 1, 1798. This page lists this house: Owner Thomas Allin, one dwelling, two outhouses, 255 acres.

A finding aid at the Rhode Island Historical Society tell us that these assessments do not survive for most of Rhode Island: only one page of one schedule for Barrington (listing slaves held by four property owners) survives.

The whole page (click the above for a full-size photo) is unfortunately too abraded to show the valuation of the property, or most of the words of its the textual description. And I can’t tell whether this was the top of a sheet which might have listed other properties, or merely a draft for this house alone. And how on earth did it end up as wallpaper in the garret?

Adjacent to this page are two copies of blank forms used by the assessor to collect data:

Presumably these would only by lying around in the home of the tax assessor himself, a role which Thomas Allin may have played (among his other hats) in 1798.

While other documents had dates going back to the 1750s and even 1740s, these 1798 tax assessment forms give us a terminus for the papering of the garrett. I’m guessing this was done in the time just after Thomas Allin’s death in 1800, when the house was reorganized and someone like Amy Allin’s maid might have lived up here, papering the garrett with scraps from the general’s papers.

widows and spinsters and feuds (oh my!)

Over the last month I’ve continued to burrow into the history of the General Allin house. The 1930 census had showed two families living in it, and deeds going back to the 1871 plat with a division line transecting the house showed that the west wing was separately owned. Now the ownership of the house has been fleshed back from the 20th century, and forward from the division of General Allin’s estate in 1802. Meeting in the middle has delivered a surprise and further complication — on the death of widow Amy Bicknell Allin in 1827, the portion of the house and farm property she held in dower (which had for some reason not been assigned residuary legatees under the General’s own probate), were subject to dispute by the heirs. “Allin et al. v. Carpenter et al.” reached the Court of Common Pleas of Bristol County, Rhode Island, which appointed a commission to divide the dower property in the winter following Amy’s death. Barrington land evidences do not include a copy of the outcome, but the commissioners’ report and division, with beautiful plat, are engrossed in the act book of the court, now at the Rhode Island Judicial Records Center.

The upshot is that the house (which appears as the little X’d-in chunk at the left of this plat detail) was at that point divided into three legal parcels. Two-thirds of the house had been set off to General Allin’s son William Allin back in 1802, who sold it to his brother-in-law Joseph Rawson, who still held it in 1828. Widow Amy Allin’s dower, including the other one-third of the house and some eighty acres of farmland, was subdivided into over a dozen carefully apportioned shares, including two shares which included rooms in the house and strips of adjacent land. Amy’s daughter, widow Nancy (Allin) Drown, received, as part of her one-sixteenth share of the whole dower property, “the South West Great Room on the lower floor of the Mansion House and Bedroom adjoining, and all that part of the Cellar under the Front Entry and Great room, lying South of a line drawn from the South side of the West Cellar window to the South side of the foundation of the Chimney,” with an adjoining strip of land (no. 15 on the plat). Nancy’s sister, Elizabeth Allin, spinster, was given, as a part of her one-sixteenth share, “the South West Great Chamber and Bedroom adjoining, the Garret West of the Garret stairs, and that part of the Cellar under the Great room lying North of a line drawn from the South side of the West Cellar Window to the South side of the foundation of the chimney,” with a bigger adjoining bit of land (no. 16 on the plat). Elizabeth Allin would go on to recover her sister Nancy’s part of the house and adjacent strip of property, though I haven’t found the instrument for this. Elizabeth then, in the 1850s, built a new west wing onto her part of the house. There may have been a handshake by which she passed her rooms in the old part of the house to the then owner of the remaining 2/3 of the old house after she built the west wing, because it seems that the house more naturally is divided into ‘old house’ and ‘new wing’ units (separated by a single doorway on both floors). This seems to be the division which would persist until 1950, rather than a more elaborate division which reflected 2/3 and 1/3 shares within the old house itself. But the floor plan west of the chimney mass in the old house has been somewhat altered on both floors, so it is hard to tell where the property line would have been understood to go. Only this year, for example, are we finally planning to restore daughter Elizabeth’s ‘southwest great chamber’ to its original proportions. Our own daughter, who is getting that room, will hopefully appreciate the restored symmetry of the great Georgian fireplace surround, with built-in cabinets — the finest original woodwork in the house, of which Amy and Elizabeth must have been proud:

(In this photo, imagine the wall on the left removed, and the room widened to include a matching cabinet left of the fireplace, which is now buried behind a cedar closet. Feel free to imagine the ceiling fan gone too…)

Lane family papers online!

Recently I was delighted to find the Lane Family Papers online at the website of the Bedford [Massachusetts] Historical Society. I had known about the papers through Whitmore’s transcription of them, running serially in the New England Historical & Genealogical Register beginning back in 1857, since 2006, when I wrote a long article on a similar set of 17th-century family papers belonging Edward1 Farmer of Billerica — but the Lane papers have the added appeal, for me, of being from a family I’m descended from (Lane is middle name, inherited from my great-great-grandmother who was of this line).
Though he’s mentioned in some other documents here, there is a single document created by my direct ancestor, James1 Lane of Malden and Casco, Maine — a power of attorney made out to his brother Job1 Lane of Malden and Bedford. Here is James’s mark and (non-armorial) seal:

At the core of the Lane papers is a collection of letters relating to the brother, Job1 Lane, especially material documenting his financial interest in English lands both from Job’s wife’s family in Yorkshire (the wife he married here, in New England), and from Job’s and James’s natal family at Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. Fitts printed a photo of a house said to be the Lane ancestral farm (held as copyhold, I think, from the manor of Rickmansworth):

Looking at the ‘A2A’ online union catalogue of manuscripts in British archives, one can readily find further documents — a couple of bonds and releases by Job Lane of Malden, relating to the Rickmansworth Lanes’ land, and now held in an archive in London. The Rickmansworth church register includes at least some vital records of the Lane family which have not been published, as can be found in an extracted batch in the IGI. All this material, coupled with the Rickmansworth Lane wills already found and published back in Fitts’s Lane Genealogies, vol. 3 (1902), provides fodder for a new study of this family. These Lanes were middling (actually apparently reasonably secure) yeomen, but bringing such families into focus is more challenging than, and as much fun as, turning up a gentleman in the tree.


Another revelation about our new old house. From the discovery of the amazing fifteen occupants in 1930, I knew the house had had its west wing rented out at the time. Further deed digging gave me a new conundrum: according to the town’s deed index, the owners of the house in 1930 seem to have bought it twice! The next day I was able to get back and read the deeds. As you’d guess the lot and house were actually subdivided and had changed hands independently several times in the later 19th century and beginning of the 20th. This detail, from a plat filed in 1871, shows a line running through the lot, carving off a chunk of the SW corner:

The lot line as drawn in here actually goes around the perimeter of the house (from the back left corner to the front door), but the deeds show that this lot accompanied the west wing of the house itself, and in the deeds a bounding line is described as going through the house. Actually, some of the language describing lot boundaries on various deeds doesn’t quite match up with preceeding or succeeding deeds. I hope there’s not a thin slice of the front lawn that got left out when the puzzle pieces were reunited, and now rightly belongs to somebody’s heirs in Arizona…

fifteen people lived here…

In 1930, our new house was pretty full. The census shows that Emanuel and Maria lived there with their eight daughters. Eight daughters. And, in the west wing (which back then boasted a separate street number) Ezra and Marian, renters, lived with three more daughters.

Eleven girls. Maybe their ages & surnames were faked, and it was a bordello.

colonial recycling, on the attic walls

A couple of days ago I posted on the eighteenth-century trigonometry homework on the walls of our attic. Now I have some pictures. The trigonometry, it turns out, was for the study of navigation. There are also legal papers and accounts, and the odd scrap of printing. I should explain the context you can see in some of the pictures. The attic originally had one or more rooms set off with butted vertical boards as the walls, nailed to a footer and to a collar tie (or some other head piece for the walls parallel to the roof). Papers were pasted to the boards so that they would cover the butted cracks, providing a sort of air barrier in the unheated attic rooms. At some point, perhaps the very early 20th century, many of these boards were pulled up, but some were left or repositioned, essentially to serve as studs for new lath and plaster partition walls (and cieling) of an attic room. You can see the lath in several of these pix. These boards still have strips of the paper, but only that part of the paper which lay on a single board, so the surviving papers consist of vertical strips, each less than a whole page width. Here are a few images (more after the jump):

The navigation paper in situ.