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Lawrence G. Robbins: Family Researcher to Author, Part V

Lawrence G. Robbins' recounts more of his genealogical journey in Part V of our blog series.

Julie: In our last installment you spoke about the invaluable information and manuscripts you obtained on microfilm from LDS Family History Library. Was your research focused exclusively on the Robbins family after that?

Lawrence: In the late 1990s it was hard to stay focused on the Robbins. Having access to the LDS Family History Library records via microfilm opened the door to research on all of my ancestors. My younger brother Steve had a computer in those days and we began to compile and create computer files of family group records for as many of our ancestors as we could find, especially those who had originally settled in New England, New York and Pennsylvania. That would later lead me to field research in all of those States and to further library research at NEHGS Library in Boston, the Mayflower Society Library in Plymouth, Massachusetts and to each of the State Libraries in New England, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and numerous local libraries throughout those regions. One of the more remarkable discoveries during these years was the fact that both my wife’s surname family, the Harris family, along with my Robbins family, had immigrated from England to Massachusetts in the 1630s and that both of our Harris and Robbins family branches had migrated to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia in 1762. That discovery was soon followed by a two week vacation to New England and Nova Scotia to celebrate and investigate our roots.

Julie: What an interesting connection between the histories of your and your wife's families. The immigrants of the 1600s have such a vast number of descendants considering the hardships they encountered during their lives. Did this discovery have anything to do with your decision to write The Nicholas Robbins Family?

It’s hard to pinpoint a time when a decision was made to write a book on Nicholas Robbins and his descendants. By the millennium I had made a first pass through the Family History Library microfilms that focused on that topic as well as microfilmed series of several other Robbins/Robins families who had immigrated to early New England. I had become familiar with several theories about their immigration, where they had come from in England and how they might be related to one another via a common ancestor in England. In addition to George Brown’s speculation that Nicholas may have come from the Channel Islands, another popular theory was that he had come from Theddingworth, Leicestershire, England along with three brothers: John of Connecticut and Thomas and Samuel of Massachusetts. This theory seems to have come from a biographical sketch of one those brothers, John Robbins, who settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut around 1640. Recent DNA testing by their modern-day descendants indicates that Nicholas and John were unrelated. Thomas and Samuel had no descendants. William Alfred Robbins, a well-regarded Robbins family historian, speculated that Nicholas Robbins may have been the son of Thomas Robbins of Wappenham, Northamptonshire. Another theory found in the Family History Library archives had Nicholas as the first born son of Nicholas and Elizabeth Robbins of Cuckfield, Sussex. I tried to weigh the merits of each of these theories along with several others found during my review of various microfilmed English parish records but I was never able to connect the Nicholas Robbins of Old England with the Nicholas Robbins of New England with any degree of certainly.

A very important influence on the way I viewed Nicholas Robbins and his descendants was William Alfred Robbins. I first encountered reference to him in a microfilmed copy of a letter from the President of the Robbins Genealogical Society in Salt Lake City to his members requesting their assistance in a major record compilation. Around 1950, shortly before he died, Mr. Robbins had donated his collection of Robbins family histories, vital records and family group sheets to the Robbins Genealogical Society with the proviso that they be combined with other records then in the Society’s possession and compiled into a comprehensive history of the Robbins families in America. While no book ever resulted from this proposition, the records themselves were eventually microfilmed and now form the basis of the Family History Library collections on the Robbins families, particularly those descended from the early Robbins immigrants to New England. The research of William Alfred Robbins cut across a lot of lines. He was a probate attorney by profession so there was a lot of attention given to that topic as well as land transactions in several of his manuscripts, particularly a draft of our family history through the first three generations. He also compiled hundreds of family group records for various descendants of Nicholas Robbins. Great care in documenting the sources of his information was characteristic of his work.

Along with all the good information I found in the Family History Library microfilms, I also adopted a record-keeping style that would prove very important when I later decided to write the book: the family group record. Using this format, the compiler is able to fill in the vital statistics, including the dates and places for births, baptisms, marriage intentions (also known as banns or engagement notices), marriages, deaths and burials for each member of a particular family. At the bottom of the page there is sufficient room for footnotes indicating the source of each piece of information. On the back of the form and/or on attached sheets, the compiler may add as much anecdotal information, deeds and probate records, cemetery information, census forms, maps, etc. as they deem important to profile the family. Nowadays I see this format in general use on the internet but back in the late 1990s, when my work was all done by hand, this format became the key to my record-keeping. Another form in common use then as well as now is the pedigree chart. It takes the paternal and maternal lines of a particular individual back through four or more generations. Variations of this form can be used in conjunction with the family group sheets to create a family history of a particular individual. The “family tree” is a variation of this format. The third form is a lineage chart, which takes the individual back in time to a particular ancestor along a particular line, establishing the necessary “proofs” of relationship between child and parent in each successive generation back to the ancestor. The lineage format is in widespread use by such groups as the Mayflower Society and the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution (DAR and SAR).

By the year 2002 I had compiled a nice collection of family group records on the various descendants of Nicholas Robbins along with a lot of supplemental materials from regional, local and family histories. In addition to George Brown’s genealogy on the Robbins families who settled in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, I had also found two separate genealogies covering the descendants of Lemuel Robbins, a great-grandson of Nicholas Robbins, and another genealogy focused on the descendants of Nicholas Robbins, who remained in Massachusetts into the late 19th century. The raw data from all these sources was transferred onto family group records, then numbered according to generation and order of birth in each family within that generation. Once organized, I had the basic structure of a book. The next step involved finding a primary record such as a town or church register, a state birth, marriage or death certificate, a census record or any other form of contemporaneous record-keeping to confirm the accuracy of the raw data. A lot of this type of work was done during visits to the NEHGS Library in Boston and the Mayflower Society Library in Plymouth, which both had outstanding vital records collections for the New England states. Additionally I gained confidence in the LDS Family History collections as I went along, especially when I recognized that the family history records were often thoroughly scrutinized by the LDS officials responsible for approving records submitted by church members as part of their membership process.

I had been in touch with “cousins” throughout my research, even back when I was trying to figure out who Prince Robbins was and where he had come from before he landed in central Michigan. Those contacts increased as I found new “cousins” during my research. Nowadays with the Internet and various social media websites, finding cousins and setting up regular contact with them is fairly easily done. But back in that day, written correspondence was the norm and letters take time. Eventually I bought a portable email device and that helped speed up the process. Contacting “cousins” was a great joy, especially when they found out what kind of a project I was working on. Along with their help I was able to find out quite a bit about lines of our family that I was never able to track down in previous records I had found. “Cousins” also became the source of quite a bit of memorabilia, photos, family records and other published and unpublished items which helped immensely with the narrative portion of the book. I was also developing a nice mailing list. So, if you were to ask me when I thought I had a book to write, the answer would be, when I realized that most of the branches and families had been identified, the corresponding research was underway or had been completed and a hundred “cousins” or so had expressed interest in the final product.

Beginning in 1999, my wife and I became “snowbirds” during the late fall and winter months. We had an RV and combined our travel with visits to sites which had meaning to the histories of both our families. For most of the years the book was in progress, say 1999 to 2005, we always made sure we left at least three months for fun in the sun during the middle of winter. But going to and from Texas and California from our home in New Jersey, we had some wonderful experiences visiting family members and finding out about their lives, customs, traditions and accomplishments and becoming familiar with the cities, towns and villages where they lived. As I look back on those experiences now, the happiest moments were not when we saw the book in print; it was all the great people we met and all the great times we had along the way.

Julie: Immense thanks to you, Lawrence, for sharing your experiences with us. You’ve touched on so many interesting aspects of your research process and the essential components of supporting documentation and organization. I assuredly feel this series serves as a testament to the extensive work but profound rewards that may be gained from researching one’s family history.

Lawrence: The origins of my interest in our family history would not be complete without the mention of a few Robbins family researchers and mentors who have helped me along the way, especially with the formulation and research that went into The Nicholas Robbins Family. When I began the “green book” (some of my Yarmouth cousins like to call The Nicholas Robbins Family by that name and it has stuck) in the late 1990s, one of the first Robbins family researchers I encountered was Eugene W. Robbins of the Austin, Texas area. Gene had spent a lifetime gathering data on various Robbins families around the U.S., especially those in Texas and New England. He had compiled much of his information in a “Robbins Genealogical Collection” and much of it found its way into four or five books he published beginning in the 1990s. He was always very encouraging and provided me with a basic understanding of the original Robbins/Robins families who migrated from England to the Massachusetts and Virginia colonies.

William Alfred Robbins was also a great inspiration to me. He was a Nicholas Robbins descendant himself and he thoroughly researched our Robbins family from the time of its arrival in New England through the beginning of the migration of various branches out of Massachusetts. From that point, say around 1740, he focused on the family branches which remained in New England. Many of the family group sheets in the Nicholas Robbins family archives at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, were developed by William Alfred Robbins and his wife, Winnifred, also a Nicholas Robbins descendant. Two brothers, Henry T. Robbins and Eugene H. Robbins, both of Massachusetts, compiled a genealogy of the descendants of Lemuel Robbins, a great-grandson of Nicholas Robbins and the first of our family to leave Massachusetts. The migration of Lemuel’s descendants eventually took family branches into Connecticut, Vermont, New York and on into the Midwest by 1875 when their genealogy was published. That book was a basic primer for me on that branch of the family. My brother, Stephen J. M. Robbins, was immensely helpful as a sounding board on Nicholas Robbins and his family after their arrival in Cambridge, the political and religious dynamics of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony and all the Mayflower connections to our Robbins family in early Massachusetts and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Finally, and this is something of a post script, I have been influenced by and I am indebted to Christopher Robbins for his outstanding research which has provided us with a documented history of our family in Dover, England prior to its migration, and by Clark Robbins, who has developed an expertise in our Robbins family DNA, which supports what we have found via traditional research and which will continue to supply us with a scientific basis for connecting with cousins around the world who are descended from the ancestors of Nicholas Robbins. Last but not least, I am and we all should be, grateful to Julie Callahan, our managing editor, for all of her great skill, dedication and effort to make The Nicholas Robbins Family website such a wonderful forum to share our family stories. She confirms my ongoing interest in genealogy.

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