Genealogy Blog

Medical Technology Changing the Rules of Genealogy

24 Jan 2015

Humans have always lived in an ever-changing world. From the time our ancient ancestors hunted wooly mammoths, we have adapted to fit our environments. But at no other time in human history have things never moved so quickly. When my grandparents were born, the United States had not yet gotten embroiled in Word War I.  The average life expectancy for men was 52 and for men, 55. Horse-drawn carts still brought groceries, milk, and other wares through the streets. Houses were heated with coal, and cast-iron stoves were used for cooking. By the time my grandparents died in the early years of this century, science fiction had become a fact of life. We use microwave ovens to cook our food. We carry around our own personal communication devices that look just like communicators from Star Trek.

Modern medicine has created many miracles. We can cure, or at least treat, dangerous diseases that in the not too distant past had no treatments at all. And we can now help people achieve things that were previously not possible, due to age or physical conditions. These changes in medical technology now require us to change some of our basic research methodology. I was reminded of this recently when reading the AARP Bulletin.

One article talked about women having children later in life; much later than we have experienced in the past. One of the women interviewed was Sarajean Grainson. She and her husband David have quite the family. Sarajean already had three children from a previous marriage, and now they are also raising their 8-year-old son Luke and two 5-year-olds, Matthew and David. The twist? Sarajean is 59 years old. She was 51 when she gave birth to Luke, and 54 when she gave birth to the twins. And this is becoming more and more common.

 

Older Women Having Babies

 

As a rule, Anglo women rarely have given birth later than their early forties. And even women in other cultures who might remain fertile longer rarely had children after their late forties. Now, thanks to in vitro fertilization, age is becoming less of a restriction. The oldest known birth mother to date is Rajo Devi Lohan of India (as far as we know, she is not related to Lindsay) who was 69 years old when she gave birth.

All of the rules we used to follow now have to be reevaluated. We can no longer rule out older women as mothers. In the old days, when we saw a 74-year-old woman as the mother of a five-year-old, we knew it was a mistake. Such is no longer the case.

Advances in medicine and technology mean that genealogist will now have to re-evaluate many of our standing guidelines. And as things change more and more, we shall have to keep re-evaluating them. For example, it is no longer uncommon to see someone living to be more than 110 years old, either.

Another can of worms for genealogists is opened up by in vitro fertilization. Donor eggs and donor sperm are now frequently used to help couples have children. In the future, “non-paternal events” will become more common. But the reasons behind them will be less scurrilous. And how will people know the difference, unless it is well-documented by the parents.

As technology continues to bring changes to our lives, it is important to remember how they impact our genealogical research. Long-standing rules of research need to be re-evaluated in light of these changes. And extra care must be used to prove kinship connections going forward.

Blog Posts for Genealogists, January 23, 3015

23 Jan 2015

This week’s interesting genealogy news come from some great genealogical and historical blog posts. Elizabeth Shown Mills warns us of census perils, Randy Seaver discusses his method for organizing digital files, Paula Stuart-Warren talks about the danger in sharing in genealogy, Polly Kimmett discusses the lost child from Mount Wachusett, and Peter Muise tells us about an eighteenth-century witchcraft trial.

We start with the inimitable Elizabeth Shown Mills. In the Evidence Explained blog this week she talks about math problems in the census. Specifically, the issue is around calculating dates of birth. When looking at ages in the census, researchers must take into account the census day when calculating a year of birth. Get her advice in Analyzing Census Records: Math Matters!

Genealogists’ paper files have been supplanted in many ways by digital files. This has just moved the organization problem from the physical world to the digital. Randy Seaver gives some great advice and explains the system he uses, which you may wish to adopt. Get the details in My Genealogy Digital File Folder Organization.

Paula Stuart-Warren has created a new, updated blog, Genealogy By Paula. And recently she wrote a very interesting piece about sharing. Genealogists love to share, but there is a drawback to it as well.  In her words, “Often the answer that helped you may mislead someone researching a different person, time frame, locality, or even nationality.” This is not a minor detail. It is very important. Read the full story in Helpful? Or Not? We Shouldn’t Share Genealogy Guesses.

 

Lucy Keyes

 

Polly Kimmett brings us the first of two folklore stories this week. In 1751, Robert and Martha (Bowker) Keyes moved their family from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, to the nearby town of Princeton, which was at that time on the frontier. Their farm lay on the side of Mount Wachusett. In 1755, their four-year-old daughter followed her older sisters to a nearby pond, where they were fetching sand for the house. Unfortunately, she never returned. A neighbor confessed on his deathbed to murdering the child, but did he really? Find out more, and get a link to the answer, in Lucy Keyes, the Lost Child of Wachusett Mountain.

Finally this week comes a story from Peter Muise’s New England Folklore blog. He talks about the John Brown family of Lynn, Massachusetts. In late 1692, John’s wife made him an Indian pudding (a type of sausage). Although the ingredients were appropriately white upon entering the pot, when removed it was dark red, like a blood pudding. Brown accused his neighbor, Sarah Cole, of witchcraft. They were brought before the magistrates in Salem soon thereafter, at the height of the witchcraft hysteria. Find out Sarah’s fate in The Proof is in the Pudding – Proof of Satan!

5 Essential Reference Books for British Genealogy

22 Jan 2015

5

Researching your ancestors in Britain is far different researching your ancestors in America or Canada. If you have British ancestry, you need familiarize yourself with records and resources. Here are five books that everyone researching their British ancestry will find helpful.

1. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History, Second Edition

This edition is a few years old now, published in 2006, but it remains a good foundation work. Thirty chapters and eleven appendixes fill this 800-page work full of all manner of information on the records and resources available for genealogists. It also includes an extensive bibliography with additional references. It was published in association with the Society of Genealogists in London, the leading genealogical society in the United Kingdom.

2. Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The Website and Beyond, Seventh Revised Edition

Another terrific publication from 2006, this was first published in 1986. It is published by The National Archives at Kew (TNA). At 500 pages it is another comprehensive work. While there is some overlap with the previous book, this one focuses only on materials held by TNA. And it does go into more detail on some of these. There is a great deal of discussion about materials available on the website. This is where its age is most apparent. The TNA website has changed a great deal since this book was published, and much of that material should be ignored. But still, it is a very valuable guide to TNA’s holdings.

3. Marriage Law for Genealogists: The Definitive Guide

Rebecca Probert is a leading expert on the history of marriage laws in England and Wales. You will be surprised at how many things you believe are correct (or assume are correct), are really mistakes. At 158 pages, it is easy to read and digest. It is really a must have for every family historian researching their English ancestry.

4. Pauper Ancestors: A Guide to the Records Created by the Poor Laws in England and Wales

Many of us have ancestors who were among the less affluent members of society. Poor Laws have been around for more than 400 years, and the records they generated are invaluable for genealogical research. This book contains descriptions of many records. While these descriptions are rather thin, it also includes many examples of original records, along with transcriptions and images of the records. These can make it much easier for you to understand the records and how to use them.

5. Understanding Documents for Genealogy and Family History

Bruce Durie is the former director of the Genealogical, Heraldic and Palaeographic Studies Programme at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Last year the History Press published his seminal work on reading old documents. The first section concerns palaeography, terms, Latin, and more. The second section includes examples of many different kinds of documents  from England, Scotland, and Wales. A great resource for helping you work with original records.

An Excellent New Genealogy Blog: The Advancing Genealogist

21 Jan 2015

One of the great pleasures of working in the genealogy industry is the fantastic people I get to work with. From the hobbyist to the professional, there are so many wonderful, interesting, and knowledgeable people to learn from. And another talented individual is now sharing her extensive knowledge with a new blog.

 

Advancing Genealogist

 

Debbie Mieszala is a multi-talented genealogist based in Illinois. She is a certified genealogist, and serves as a trustee of the Board for Certification of Genealogists. She is a forensic genealogist, specializing in twentieth-century research, adoption, and heir tracing. Debbie is a popular speaker, having taught at the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh, the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research, and the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She has done great work with the military in trying to identify and repatriate the remains of MIA soldiers.

A couple of months ago she started a new blog: the Advancing Genealogist. In her introduction, Debbie gives her reason for starting the blog: “I want this to be a friendly place to stop, pick up a bit of news or learn of a great resource, and for all of us to grow as genealogists.” What better reason could you have?

Over the last few months, she has composed a wide variety of interesting and informative posts. The categories include:

  • adoption
  • books
  • Chicago
  • DNA
  • education
  • family research
  • Illinois
  • institutes
  • law
  • Midwest
  • military
  • repositories

Some of the posts I have found particularly interesting are

Debbie does not publish on a specific schedule, but each week usually brings at least one new post.

In addition to her blog, Debbie also does work for hire. So, if you need some help with your brickwall problems in the Midwest, check her out. She has a section on her blog that discusses her specialties and repositories that she researches in frequently. She also maintains a calendar, so you can check opportunities to see her and learn from her in person.

Every genealogist can learn a little something by checking out this blog. And those who are professional or transitional genealogists will especially appreciate this excellent example of a blog from a knowledgeable professional in the field.

Watchmen and Patrolmen: Researching Your Law Enforcement Ancestors

20 Jan 2015

Do you have ancestors who worked for the police department or other law enforcement agencies? You might be surprised. Sometimes police departments were preceded by other organizations that may have left records that you might not expect to find. My hometown is a good example of what you may discover.

Boston was founded on the Shawmut Peninsula in 1630. The Puritans who settled there set up a night watch in 1631. In 1636 it was institutionalized in the Town Meeting. The watch, in various forms, protected the town for the next two hundred years. The town became a city in 1822. By the 1830s it became apparent that the city had now outgrown the watch, and a new system had become necessary. In 1838 six men were hired as the first members of the Day Police, reporting to a city marshall. The much larger night watch of 120 men continued to operate until 1854.

In that year the Boston Police Department entirely replaced the watch. It was expanded to 250 men. In the years following the Civil War, a number of towns were annexed to Boston, including Alston, Brighton, Dorchester, Roxbury, and West Roxbury. By the end of the century, the BPD included 1,000 patrolmen. Today the BPD employs more than 2,000 officers and almost 1,000 civilians.

 

Boston Police Department

 

Through the years, the members of the BPD have dealt with tragic events large and small (the Molasses Flood, the Coconut Grove fire, anti-war protests, forced busing, and in 2013 the events of the Marathon Bombing).

In December 1825, sixty-one-year-old Jonathan Houghton was on patrol as a member of the watch. He was attacked ay an axe-wielding man and died a week later, the first person to be killed on duty. At 5:15 a.m. on October 18, 1857, officer Ezekiel W. Hodsdon was on patrol in East Boston when he tried to arrest two people suspected of burglary. During the ensuing struggle, Ezekiel was shot in the head and died 5 hours later. He was the first of seventy-five members of the watch and the BPD who have died of injuries received on duty.

Just last month, descendants of Jonathan Houghton were present when the BPD added his name to the Wall of Honor remembering the departments fallen membrs, along with those of seven others: David Estes (the second Watch Officer to die in the line of duty, died 1848), Michael Brennan (died 1918), John Condon (died 1927), John Lynch (died 1944), and Walter Harris (died 1906).

These are not the only stories of the brave men and women who have served in the Boston Police Department. The BPD operates an archives that maintains information on records dating back to the earliest days of the department. The staff there does a wonderful job, not only in preserving the records, but working to make sure the stories are told.

If you come across ancestors whose occupations were watch, patrolman, police officer, or any of a number of other terms, check with the police department in the area. Find out if they maintain an archive, or if the records are at some other repository. And remember, as demonstrated with Boston, sometimes the police department may extend back years or decades (or even centuries) earlier than you think, albeit in a different form. You might be surprised at the treasured stories you might find.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, January 16, 2015

16 Jan 2015

 

This week we have some promising blog posts for you, as well as some heartwarming news stories. We start with Judy G. Russell talking about some good and bad news for DNA and genealogy, author Christine Kenneally discusses why genealogy matters to history, Rafael Bernal writes about a new DVD on New York City’s ‘Little Spain,’ the Houston Chronicle ran a piece about a nineteenth-century home that is still in the hands of descendants, and finally, a heartwarming piece about volunteers from the Sons of the American Revolution and injured soldiers.

 

Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, gives us some news from the world of DNA. It is a mix of good and bad news. The good news: a committee of genetic genealogists has released a preliminary ethical code for integrating DNA with genealogy. The bad news: Ancestry.com will not include a way to examine the raw data from any DNA test you do with them. Get the details in DNA: Good News, Bad News.

 

Christine Kenneally is the author of The Invisible History of the Human Race. She recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about her research, and the negativity expressed towards genealogy. The post discusses the Eugenics programs in the United States and in Germany, the destruction of Chinese family histories under Mao Tse-tung, and, most importantly, why genealogy matters. Read The Invisible History of the Human Race.

 

Rafael Bernal is an editorial consultant at United Press International. This week he wrote about a new documentary that discusses the immigration of Spanish-speaking people to New York City. The area of Chelsea  around 14th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues was known as “Little Spain.” Immigrants flocked in from around the globe were attracted here by the common language of Spanish. A new documentary discusses this immigrant group. You can read more in ‘Little Spain’ a Valuable Addition to New York’s Immigration History.

 

Last week the Houston Chronicle ran a piece I’d like to see more of. It discusses Wayne and Mary Jane Windle, who now reside in the same house in the town of Seguin that his great-great grandparents built in 1877. They recently renovated the house to preserve it for future generations. Read more about the house, and the television mini series that was made from a book about some of the former residents in Restored 1887 Texas Home Represents Colorful Family History.

SAR

 

 

 

Finally this week comes a heartwarming story in the Fort Hood Herald. It talks about volunteers from the Sons of the American Revolution and a new program they are running called Operation Ancestor Search. These volunteers are working with soldiers who are wounded, injured, or ill. They are teaching soldiers how to do family history research as a way of putting positive activities into the lives of the soldiers at such a difficult time. Read more in Soldiers Learn How to Search for Family History.

 

How Events Impacted Your Ancestors: The Great Molasses Flood

15 Jan 2015

When looking at our ancestors’ lives, we often see the day-to-day occurrences in diaries and journals. But there are also major events that can impact your ancestors’ lives. The Jonestown Flood, for example, had widespread impact, not only in Jonestown, but in every location where those in Jonestown that day were from. Here in Boston, today marks the ninety-sixth anniversary of one of those major tragedies.

January 15, 1919, was relatively mild winter day in Boston. The harbor was full of ships. Just the day before, a freighter had delivered more than half a million gallons of Cuban molasses to a storage tank belonging to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIAC), bringing the contents up to 2.3 million gallons.

The North End was bustling by midday. Many were strolling the streets, enjoying the sunny day. Children were heading back to school after their lunch break. Horse-drawn carts pulled lumber and other goods through the streets. Suddenly, an ominous deep rumbling sounded. In an instant, the almost inch-thick steel walls of the storage tank broke apart with such part that they ripped into the tracks of the L (the elevated railway that ran through Boston), completely destroying more than 100 yards of track. Millions of pounds of thick, sticky molasses were now on the loose.

With a noise as loud as the engine of a locomotive, a 30-foot-high tidal wave coursed down the hill. When the tide ran into the brick buildings at the bottom of the hill, it changed direction and headed straight for Boston Harbor. Anything in its way was dragged along with it.

Delivery carts with their teams of horses still attached were dragged away. Tenement houses were dragged hundreds of feet off their foundations and torn to bits. Any living thing caught in the morass was doomed. The molasses was so viscous it immediately blocked nostrils and mouths, leaving the victims to asphyxiate. Many who didn’t die that way lost their lives when the wave swept them into the waters of the harbor.

 

 

Boston Globe Molasses Coverage

 

In the end, twenty-one people were reported dead, the youngest a ten-year-old Italian schoolboy and the eldest a seventy-six-year-old Blacksmith. Another one-hundred fifty individuals suffered injuries, many of them quite serious and life-changing. USIAC tried to blame the tank’s failure on saboteurs, but after a three-year trial they were finally found guilty and forced to pay reparations.

Originally the court determined that the rivets were to blame, being insufficient to hold the steel plates together. Others blamed a buildup of carbon dioxide in the tank from fermentation. But the exact cause could not be determined at the time. A Waltham engineer, however has studied the tragedy for years. His findings indicate that several design flaws led to the disaster, including the use of steel too thin to handle the stress from millions of gallons of molasses.

Damage was estimated at about $500,000, or more than $7 million is today’s dollars. From those who were injured or lost a loved one, to the rescue workers, to the hospital staffs who aided those caught in the disaster, to those who worked to rebuild that section of the city after the catastrophe (and all of their families and friends), few in Boston were not impacted by the disaster. When you are researching your family history, be certain to check the newspapers to see what events happened locally that might have impacted your family.

Even today, on some very hot summer days, one can occasionally smell the molasses in the air in the North End. You can read more about the disaster and the recent findings of the engineer’s study in the Boston Globe.

Peppy, Posh, and Stash: Words as Clues in Your Genealogical Research

13 Jan 2015

One of the pitfalls of genealogy is learning not to impart modern meanings on our ancestors. Nowhere is this more key than in working with original documents. The language in documents can be key in identifying them. Using words as clues in your genealogical research can be a tremendous help to you.

Words come and go from our lexicon. And often they stay, but meanings changing. One example of this comes from the past year, where the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has now added a second definition of the word “literally.” Because of the excessive use of this term by ill-informed and undereducated individuals, it now also means exactly the opposite, figuratively.

Words can also be very helpful. If you have undated documents you are trying to identify, examining the language can help you. Knowing when words entered common use can assist you. It will not be possible to narrow it to a specific date, but certainly can get you into an approximate time period.

A couple of weeks ago the Boston Globe ran an interesting piece about words. Instead of the typical year-end review of words that had entered the dictionary in the past year, the piece looked back at words that entered the lexicon in 1914. Some of these are still used today, but others have already come and gone.

 

1914 Words

 

The start of World War I brought us a number of words we commonly use today. Some make sense, such as air raid (bombs dropped from aircraft), trench coat (a waterproof coat worn by the military in the trenches), and even Balkanization (dividing a region into separate units).  Another commonly used word whose origins you may not know: doohickey (military slang for a small, nondescript object, especially a mechanical one).

Other words that entered the language that year include Gesundheit, oy vey, shish kebab, and Tochus. Each of these came into the English language from another (German, Yiddish, Turkish, and Yiddish respectively). Other words that came in 1914: backpack, big screen, crossword, peppy, posh, stash, and sociopath. Many of these are words that one might think had been around much longer. It is important to study the language in a document to help date it. Never assume when words came into common use. The tunnel under the English Channel connecting England and France was completed in 1994. It is called the Chunnel, leading one to believe it is a contemporary word, but it actually entered common use in 1914.

Some words that entered that year are no longer in use. These include billiken (a small, elf-like doll; deratization (the expulsion of rats), and scrutty (dusty, scruffy).  Examining when words like this entered and left common usage can assist you in dating a document.

The most dangerous words for genealogists, however, are those whose meanings have changed over time. For example jake was used as an adjective to mean good or okay. Today it is use to mean a fireman. Scat was a slang term for whiskey. Today it is a musical style (or something much more base). And seeing the word Roscoe in a letter might lead you to believe that you are looking for a person, while back in 1914 it was a slang term for a handgun.

When reading documents one must be careful.  This is especially important when dealing with correspondence, journals, and diaries, which are much more personal and therefore prone to nicknames and slang terminology. Making assumptions just might send you down the wrong trail.

The Great Family Share Challenge

10 Jan 2015

We talked the other day about some tasks that every genealogist can do in 2015. But now I would like to throw out a challenge to you. If there is one area where genealogists often fall flat it is with sharing the results of their research. We often spend years finding out all sorts of interesting things about our family, without ever compiling the information and sharing it with our living family members. We often hear the stories of genealogists who have left tremendous amounts of information behind, only to have it thrown out by family members who didn’t know (or didn’t care) about what was contained in the files.

So for this year, I am issuing the Great Family Share Challenge. Spend 2015 sharing your family story. I would like everyone to consider taking this on in a way that is meaningful to you. But not in a way that will overburden you, or make you feel pressured.

For the challenge, you should pick at least twelve ancestors or ancestral couples. The goal is to research and share at least one story a month. Bring your ancestors to life so that other family members can discover their roots.

Sharing can take many forms. Don’t limit yourself. And you don’t have to use the same format for all of the sharing. One of the traditional ways you can share is to write a journal article. Many people are terrified of this idea, but really, there is no need for it. The editors of journals appreciate hearing from potential authors. You don’t have to go straight to the larger journals (such as the New England Historical and Genealogical Register or the National Genealogical Society Quarterly). Start with one of the smaller state journals, then work your way up. The editors will work with you to help shape your article for publication.

You could decide to create a book for your family. Start by writing individuals monographs for the families you select. At the end of the year you can combine the monographs into a single volume. You could trace a single line back for twelve generations. But you could also write about your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, which would involve eleven families.

 

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 10.39.24 AM

 

Another option is to create slideshows or videos of your family. Use oral histories to narrate them, or write and record your own audio to use as the narration. Be certain to incorporate images of old documents as well as images of your ancestors.

You can also create a blog to make it easier to share all of these things. This may seem like a scary thing to some of you, especially those who are more technically challenged. But you would be surprised at how easy it can be. There are a wide variety of opportunities for you to create a blog. There you can share your written stories, videos, slideshows, pictures, and more. About.com can offer you some advice on how to start a blog.

Once you have taken up the challenge, come back to this post. Tell us in the comments field how you have shared. Keep returning through the year to tell us how your are progressing. If you have created a blog, or other online presence, be sure to share the url with us so that we can visit and give you some support. Imagine how much you will have shared by the end of the year! Your family will be eternally grateful.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, January 9, 2015

09 Jan 2015

This week’s genealogy news roundup is a nice mix of blog posts and news stories. We start with a discussion of researching in newspapers, user comments about online family trees, the last of the nineteenth-century births, the fallacy of name changes at Ellis Island, and the opening of the oldest time capsule in America.

We start with a post from a relatively new blogger, Debbie Mieszela, the Advancing Genealogist. This week Debbie wrote about researching in newspapers. She especially emphasizes why you want to conduct a complete search, and why you should not limit yourself only to online databases. Get more information in Newspaper Research: The Importance of Being Thorough.

Randy Seaver at Geneamusings had a very interesting post this week. He wrote about the FamilySearch Family Tree and asked his readers why they weren’t using it more. The comments are very illuminating, and include a general discussion of online family trees. You can read these interesting comments in Why Aren’t Researchers Using the FamilySearch Family Tree?

My former colleague David Lambert at the New England Historic Genealogical Society wrote with sad news this week on the Vita Brevis blog. Bernice Marina (Emerson) Madigan was born in West Springfield, Massachusetts on 24 July 1899. After a life that was anything but brief, Bernice passed away last Saturday, 3 January 2015, at the age of 115. She was the fifth-oldest person in the world, and the last person left who was born in New England prior to 1900. Find out more, and who is left, in The End of an Era.

Those who know me know that one of my pet peeves concerns immigration. More specifically, the biggest myth in American history: that any name was ever changed at Ellis Island. Not a single immigrant ever had their name changed there. It never happened. Arika Okren wrote a good piece in Mental Floss discussing this myth. Read more in Why Your Family Name Did Not Come From a Mistake at Ellis Island.

 

Sam Adams Time Capsule

 

Finally this week we have a story out of my hometown of Boston. This week conservators at the Museum of Fine Arts opened a time capsule that was discovered on December 11. The capsule was discovered by workers doing renovations to the state house. It is believed to be the oldest time capsule in America. How old is it? It was originally put in place by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere when George Washington was president of the U.S. Placed into the cornerstone in 1795, it was temporarily removed during renovations in 1855, but put back into place with the original contents. Discover what was in the capsule in MFA Opens the Paul Revere, Sam Adams Time Capsule.