Some people consider themselves OFD (Originally From Dorchester), others DBC (Dorchester By Choice) and still others DBM (Dorchester By Marriage). The truth is, you may be connected to Dorchester more than you think. The Dorchester Descendants Project is reconnecting people with their very “originally from” Dorchester heritage.
Beginning with the discovery of one person’s family ties to the community, the Project aims to link interested descendants with their ancestors who established Dorchester, a small agricultural town that grew into a streetcar suburb and eventually into the multicultural urban hub it is today.
The Project stemmed from collaboration between Elizabeth “Bettina” Blake, the last survivor of prominent resident James Blake’s immediate family, historian Faith Ferguson and others, as they began work in 2008 to piece together the Blake family history. In her retirement from a dedicated and successful career in the higher education realm, Blake connected with the Dorchester Historical Society (DHS) and learned about the James Blake House on Columbia Road for the first time. Thrilled with her ties to Boston’s largest neighborhood, she developed a strong interest in helping other people trace their roots back to Dorchester.
Described as a “firecracker,” founding member Blake set the project in motion. Historian Ferguson serves as the director and has already launched a website and plans to publish a book, in collaboration with the DHS, that includes illustrations and photos of artifacts. Outreach, through genealogy websites and in person, is both a blessing and a curse: the word is getting out, but slowly.
In order to find descendants, Ferguson and the DHS started small and quite locally. A small list of Dorchester descendants was formed, beginning with the DHS members. Past censuses have been used as resources as well and the list continues to increase from there. Through research, more information has been discovered and the list now includes Dorchester natives of African descent during the Revolution and onward, making it clear that Dorchester was a vibrant and diverse community early on. The Project hopes to find those with Native American ancestry as well in order to know more about the original Dorchester occupants.
Once Dorchester was established in 1630, it wasn’t long before the English settlers branched out and started communities elsewhere.
“People began coming and going from Dorchester very early,” Ferguson says. By 1635, those settlers had established Windsor, Connecticut while Northampton (known as the town of Nonotuck at the time) was settled as an extension of Dorchester in 1654. Another cluster settled in Ohio and yet another in South Carolina, naming the town Dorchester that would later become abandoned.
Back in the original settlement of Dorchester, James Blake built a house for his wife Elizabeth Clap and their three children in 1661. The building is the oldest surviving frame house in the city of Boston and second oldest house in Massachusetts (the Fairbanks House in Dedham was built circa 1637 and is also the oldest wood frame house in North America). The house itself is “an architectural gem,” Ferguson says, and contains family documents and furniture, donated to the DHS by Bettina Blake. Some of the furniture is made from fruitwood since Dorchester was home to many fruit farmers. According to the dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, conducted when the house was restored in 2007, some of the trees that were felled for the house’s beams were starting to grow around 1490; to put things in perspective, remember that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Like Bettina, John Goff, president of Salem Preservation, Inc., was led to a familial discovery of his own through the Blake House. Goff, the restoration’s preservation architect, is descended from the Clap family.
“I was kind of tickled by that discovery,” he laughs, noting that he is descended from a sister of Roger Clap, who was 21-years-old when he disembarked from the Mary and John and helped to settle early Dorchester.
Clap later served as second commander of the fort at Castle Island.
Of researching old houses such as the Blake, Goff says, “The things that turn up, you just never know.”
“I’m living in an artifact,” says Ellen Berkland, resident curator of the Blake House. “I absolutely love it.”
Over time, she has met many Blakes, all having traced their roots back to the area. Berkland has been the live-in caretaker for 10 years, guiding visitors through the first floor museum filled with historical treasures and the attic where guests and architectural students alike marvel at the building’s framework. Recently, an elderly couple driving by the house commented that it was “too beautiful to look old.” Berkland gladly explained the historical significance to the couple, keeping its history alive and accessible.
Next year marks the 350th anniversary of the building of the Blake House. The Project will host a weekend of family-friendly activities, tours of the Blake, William Clapp and Lemuel Clap Houses and a celebratory dinner to encourage connection between residents and Dorchester’s history. Ferguson finds it wonderful that the once agricultural, now urban community has saved such an important piece of architectural heritage.
Earl Taylor, director of the DHS, is a self-proclaimed Dorchester “transplant” but he, along with other DHS members, Ferguson, Blake and others, still work for a common purpose.
“It just shows you how people who aren’t from that place can be interested in the history of the place,” Taylor said. All of them continue to work hard to give people “a virtual homecoming,” as Ferguson says, showing them that a family connection is still alive. You may be so OFD that your ancestors established the place!
If you want to share information about your Dorchester heritage and find out more about the 350th anniversary celebration of the Blake House, visit dorchesterdescendants.org. To connect with the DHS, visit dorchesterhistoricalsociety.org.