Interview by Emily Levine
I recently sat down with local historian and Boston Athenæum member Katherine Dimancescu to discuss New England history writing, research, and preservation. Ms. Dimancescu elaborates on the search for her seventeenth-century maternal ancestors whom she brings to life for a modern-day audience in her books The Forgotten Chapters: My Journey into the Past and Denizens: A Narrative of Captain George Denison and his New England Contemporaries.
Q: I understand you are originally from Concord?
A: I grew up in Lincoln, not far from Concord, a very small, historic agricultural community with roots going right back to the seventeenth century. That’s where I grew up, and all of my roots are Mass Bay Colony. My mom was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, and my dad was born and raised overseas. Before my parents decided to stay here in the 70s, our family hadn't lived here since the 16 or 1700s, so we are returning to our roots, literally, by settling here in the East.
Q: And you also lived abroad for a little while?
A: Yes, in England, and I thought I was going to go back. I have a master in European studies from The University of Westminster, London and a second master in the history of international relations from The London School of Economics and Political Science. I truly thought when I came back to the US from graduate school that I would spend one year living here and then would be out of here to live abroad, but that did not pan out. I love England and I loved living in London. Anyways, I came home, and got a job as a managing editor.
A: For a small company where I live in West Concord that no longer exists. I was working as a managing editor for an international newsletter. I got to handle the work for the former Soviet Union, countries like Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and I was responsible for putting together a monthly newsletter. It proved a challenge because a lot of those countries are and were going through very tumultuous times; you’re asking people to supply materials for a newsletter but they have far more diabolical things going on. It was never a dull moment. It was basically, 'Excuse me, I know you have to evacuate, but can I have a moment of your time?' I did both that kind of work and also produced the company’s reports. Both tasks totally called upon everything I had learned with my international relations degree. I loved it, I really did. And when the company was sold to Thomson Reuters I could have stayed, but I decided to switch gears.
Q: Is that when you decided to turn to history?
A: Yes. When I was 14, I went to see an ancestor's home in Connecticut. I didn’t even know that we had an ancestral home in Connecticut up until that point. This was a private residence, the first part built around 1725 at the very end of First Period architecture. I was 14 and was in eighth grade, and my dad and I decided to pay a visit. We were amazed to find that the house was still standing, happily occupied by an older couple who bought it in the 50s. This was 1995 and there were no cell phones so we gave no warning, we just pulled up and said 'Hi, my ancestors lived here.' I walked into the house and I tell you, it was one of those moments that you know you are going to do something. It was a light bulb moment: 'This is it,' I thought, 'I know that I am going to write a book. I am going to write this book about my family heritage. I know it’s going to be a while, but I am going to write this book.' So in 2009, when I switched gears from being a managing editor to an author, I knew I was going to write about my ancestors in Connecticut. So that’s what got the ball rolling for what became The Forgotten Chapters, my first book.
Q: Had you undertaken any primary source research related to your family prior to that?
A: Yes, yes I had bits and pieces. My great grandmother had joined the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1923, so I had a very basic genealogy going back to our patriot ancestors who fought in the American Revolution. My starting point was the research my great grandmother did, and then I built upon that. I went to places like the Connecticut Historical Society and to the Connecticut State Library in Hartford, but some of the best things I found were in smaller local historical societies. The local societies were sometimes teeny tiny rooms usually in a library, and many act as repositories for generations of people and their subsequent materials. Local historical societies have been phenomenal for my purposes. They usually just give you a box and say 'This is what we have for this particular family name, have at it.' These local materials opened so many doors for me, including the fact that my ancestors owned slaves. I had no idea that my family owned slaves. They were just farmers in Connecticut, and the fact that my ancestors had slaves never came up in my family narrative. When I went to the Connecticut State Library, I saw ancestral wills with values assigned to slaves giving them to their children when people pass away. Actually, according to a family account at the historical society, my ancestors were buried near their slaves in the same burial ground but then later generations removed the slaves and buried them elsewhere in an unknown location. That was a lot for me to take in, and more than a little disturbing. You can't deny the fact that your ancestors owned slaves when the evidence is that black and white. That took a lot to come to terms with. Here in the Northeast we say that slavery was a southern problem. We don’t really talk about slavery as much, but in this day and age it has become more commonplace.
Q: Have you had any follow-up from these discoveries in order to contextualize past slavery in the twenty-first century?
A: The huge blessing of all of this is that I have been able to meet descendants of people who were owned by my ancestors, and there is no animosity from them. They just say, 'It was what it was, and we aren't judging you.' That, to me, has been incredible. To have a dialogue with them and hear their stories has been remarkable. I get to learn about my ancestors through the stories of their slaves, which is not something that I ever expected.
Q: I understand your first book is a family history, so is your second book an extension of that?
A: At its inception, my second book Denizens was going to be very historical. I loved that The Forgotten Chapters became very personal, but I wanted Denizens to be the exact opposite and be very historical. My ancestor George Denison is right up there with the ancestors that I think about the most. He is an amazing guy—he fought in King Philip's War and the English Civil War, dealt with all sorts of land settlements—he is amazing. Anyway, it is 1631 and George, his parents, and two of his brothers settle in Roxbury when the Massachusetts Bay Colony is brand new. Who George later becomes is a product of what he is seeing and doing in Roxbury. What had not been done to date was a work about George’s life in Roxbury, with his family and his brothers. I really wanted to focus in on George’s Roxbury years and initially that is what Denizens was going to be: the making of George Denison the man. Over time as I began writing, Denizens broadened to become a story of my larger family roots in Roxbury through the lens of George’s story. Denizens then quickly went from being George’s book, which I had intended it to be, to the story of something far greater, larger, and interesting. I should have a shirt that says 'Made in Roxbury' because basically most of my family roots here in New England come out of Roxbury. In Denizens, I ask people to care about ancestors who are not their own. It has taken a little while to synthesize all of the material into one cohesive unit, which is why the book is taking a little longer than I had initially planned, but it's really coming together into a cohesive narrative.
Q: Denizens sounds like a departure from your first book, as far as perspective is concerned?
A: It’s funny, both of my books are very different. They are both my babies and they’re a reflection of me, but they each have their own little unique personality. It’s amazing when they go out into the world because the reactions from readers are just across the board.
Q: When you are doing research and starting a book, when do you stop research and start writing?
A: That’s the hardest thing! It is really hard to call time on research. That’s where editors come in! I have worked with a couple of pretty amazing editors. As a writer, working with a great editor is key; they let you know when you get carried away and help you not get bogged down by minutiae you might find fascinating that others might not. The largest challenge of Denizens has been keeping it under 400 pages. That being said, there will be a third book because there is so much that I just couldn’t cover in this one, so we have not seen the last of George Denison and these people of Roxbury! The editor I am working with now is based in England. She helps me focus on what material is interesting from an English perspective. Another reason why Denizens is taking its time in being published is that I am making it bigger and better for both UK and US audiences. I did not do that with The Forgotten Chapters; the language is very different in Denizens because I am approaching an English audience from an American perspective.
Q: Where did you find the covers for your books?
A: The map on the cover of The Forgotten Chapters is from the Boston Public Library, a map of the New England coastline ca. 1675. I got special permission from the BPL to use it, and that just made the book come to life. The cover image for Denizens, which is on the website, is a depiction of the Battle of Marston Moor where we know that George Denison fought. We know he was there, and he survived. I received permission to use the image from Bridgeman Images, but it was definitely a very formal procedure.
Q: I love your blog—it seems you go to a lot of different local places to make living history really accessible to a large audience.
A: Yes, that’s about right. My feeling is that people are not going to preserve history unless they see what they are preserving. Unless they experience it and enjoy it. I do not necessarily think history has to be your own to motivate people to want to save it. I encourage people to go to places like burial grounds and house museums because that's where history comes alive. Yes, you can read a book, but it is not the same as going to see where the history actually happened. That’s my goal with the blog: to help people explore their own family roots, but also to save history. I realize that not everyone wants to spend money on museum admissions, so I do my best to find places that maybe you can just walk around, or go to a park and have a picnic; it doesn’t have to be big bucks or going abroad, it can be a mini break, or half a day. History means different things to different people, and history is what you make of it; but it is so important that we save it. If we don’t save it now, there is going to be nothing. We are lucky in Boston that so much has been saved, but that awareness is not everywhere and it is a challenge to get people to care. We should work to spread awareness as much as we can. We can’t save all historic structures, but my goal is to save as many and give as many places a second chance as possible. One of the things I am focused on is how buildings have been given a second chance at life; historic places becoming homes, or even places of small business. That, to me, means people enjoying and respecting an historic place in their own right in a modern day and age. Look at Sturbridge Village—they have done a great job moving and appreciating historic buildings. I also love Ipswich, Massachusetts. Ipswich has some of the best and well preserved First Period architecture homes—you just walk around and it’s an outdoor museum! There is a lot of conserved and protected land up there and a lot of historic barns. When I visualize what my studio will look like I see an old barn. One day I will have an old barn!
Q: Thanks so much for your time, Kate—any final words on history today?
A: I think in school a lot of people do not get that feeling of living history, and they are bored. History is not boring! You do not need to jazz it up, if it is presented the right way. One tour can change your life, one home visit can create a writer.
[For more information on Kate’s books, The Forgotten Chapters: My Journey into the Past and Denizens: A Narrative of Captain George Denison and his New England Contemporaries, please visit Kate's website. You can also check out Kate’s history blog on Facebook here.]