Genealogy Blog

5 Nineteenth-Century Women Are Still Alive

04 Mar 2015

March 5, 1898, was a Saturday. The port of New York welcomed 495 aliens at Ellis Island. The men on board the S.Y. Beligica, an expedition from Belgium to Antarctica, were trapped in the ice. Victoria sat on the throne of Great Britain. The front page of the New York Times discussed a court of inquiry that left the previous evening for Havana to investigate the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor there two weeks previously. And in the city of Osaka, Japan, a Kimono maker’s wife gave birth to a little girl named Misao. Little did the girl’s parents know that she would make history — simply by living. Today, 5 nineteenth-century women are still alive and well.


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Misao Okawa is currently the oldest person in the world, with a documented birth date of March 5, 1898. She has been a widow for 84 years, after her 12-year marriage ended with the death of her husband. Two of her three children are still living in their 90s. But Misao is not the only person to have the distinction of living in three centuries.

There are currently five individuals alive who can document their birth prior to the year 1900, all of them women. Interestingly three of the five are from the United States, and all three were born in the South.

Gertrude Weaver was born just months after Misao, on the Fourth of July 1898, in Arkansas. She was married 100 years ago and had four children, only one of whom is still living. She still lives in Arkansas, in the small city of Camden in the southern part of the state.

Jeralean Talley was born in the tiny town of Montrose in central Georgia on May 23, 1899. In 1935 she moved to the Detroit suburb of Inkster where she married and had a single child. She and her husband were married for more than 50 years when he died in 1988. Her family now includes three grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren. She lives with her daughter, and continues to be active, still bowling when she was 104, mowing the law at 105, and still goes on an annual fishing trip with friends.

Susan Mushatt Jones was born in Alabama July 6, 1899. She graduated from a private boarding school there, and was accepted to the Turkeegee Institute, but her parents could not afford to pay the tuition. Instead, she moved to New York City in 1923, lured by the Harlem Renaissance. With no children of her own, she helped to put four of her nieces through college. Her personal splurge is high-end lace lingerie, which took her doctor by surprise.

Emma Morano is the oldest living person in Europe. She was born in Italy in the waning days of the nineteenth century, on November 29, 1899. She married in 1926. Her only child was born in 1937 and died six months later. The following year she and her husband separated, but they were never officially divorced.

While others around the world claim to be born in the nineteenth century, these are the only five who have documentation to prove it. These women are all quite used to being asked variations on the question “What’s the secret to living so long?” My favorite response is Gertrude’s, who told Time magazine: “Treat people right and be nice to other people the way you want them to be nice to you.” USA Today profiled each of these women Yes, 5 People Born in the 1800s are Still With Us.

Protecting Your Donated Collections

02 Mar 2015

Genealogists spend years and decades building our collections. We have records about our ancestors, mostly copies but many originals. We often acquire papers and objects from other family members, as they know that we are the family historian. Genealogists are often voracious readers as well, and we often amass great numbers of books. I know genealogists who have actually put an addition onto their home simply to have more space for the genealogical materials. The question is, how to ensure your materials are preserved, and protecting your donated collections.

Private residences are not the best places to ensure the long-term survival of your materials. One of the biggest dangers is fire, as few homes are equipped with fire suppression systems. Accidents happen, many beyond the control of the homeowner, and all of your precious items can be gone in only a few minutes. Private homes are also, for the most part, equipped with archival atmospheric conditions. Rare is the home that remains at a constant temperature throughout the year, and even those that do tend to be warmer than the optimal preservation conditions for documents.

The best way to ensure that your collections will be preserved and made available to future generations is to donate them to a repository. These are libraries, archives, museums, and other organizations that will take the proper steps to properly preserve your collections and make them available to future generations. When making a donation, families will often make a financial donation as well. This can help to cover the costs of processing the materials to make them available so that researchers can access them more quickly.

When you make a donation, you can do so with restrictions. For example, some people donate materials with the restriction that information about living people cannot be accessed for 50 years. Restrictions can also be placed on financial donations as well. You can donate funds and delineate exactly what they can (and cannot) be used for.

It is important to know, however, that institutions are more and more frequently disregarding these restrictions. They are choosing to intentionally disregard the restrictions in favor of their own plans. Sometimes they will even go to court to have restrictions removed. The Boston Globe recently ran a story on Gordon College, a Christian school here in Massachusetts, that is trying to see part of a collection that was intended to remain intact. They have had many difficulties in the last year, and this latest controversy is only adding to them.


Donation Changes


So be aware that in the end, your restrictions may not count for much. Of course, you could always try inserting language into your donation agreement that states that any attempt by the institution to make changes to your donations will result in the donation being revoked and the materials and finances removed to another institution of your choice. One of the best ways to ensure that your intentions are known is to incorporate them into your will. This ensures that a copy of your wishes goes on permanent file where it can always be accessed, and make it more difficult for institutions to ignore your wishes.

Blog Posts and News for Genealogists, February 27, 2015

27 Feb 2015

This week’s genealogy news combines news from genealogists as well as non-genealogists. Paula Stuart-Warren warns us about shortchanging ourselves in our research. Leland Meitzler tells us of the discovery of a 700-year-old document. We find out how an amateur researcher has identified the bodies of two War of 1812 casualties. We also learn how historical fiction, although it is fiction, can still help us in our research. And finally, we get some advice on moving past family secrets from the host of Finding Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Paula Stuart-Warren has some great advice for genealogists this week. Have you checked to be certain you are adding the correct name to your tree? Have you transcribed yoru documents? Do you know the origins of the materials in your files? Do you say you have brick wall problem even though your only research has been online, ignoring the vast resources not available on the Internet that could answer your questions? Get more suggestions in Attention Genealogists? Are you Shortchanging Your Family History?

Leland Meitzler had a very interesting story recently that dates back 700 years! Back in the 19th century a Victorian official at the British Museum pasted a document a into a scrapbook. The catch? The document was an copy of the Magna Carta that was created less than a hundred years after the original. Read more and get a link to the original story in Original Copy of the Magna Carta Dating to 1300 Found in Scrapbook.


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William Krecji works at the Perry International Memorial, which highlights the battles led by Oliver Hazard Perry during the war of 1812, especially the Battle of Lake Erie. Not long after the battle, the bodies of two men washed up on the Ohio shore. They had no identification, so were buried without names. Two hundred years later, Krecji believes he has identified the two men. Discover more details in Mystery Solved of Two American Seamen’s Bodies Washed Ashore to Ohio from War of 1812: My Ohio.

Susan Doak of the Southwest Nebraska Genealogical Society wrote an interesting piece this week for the McCook Gazette. Like many genealogists she is a voracious reader, and she talks about using this to her advantage in her genealogical research. While many of us might be quick to dismiss historical fiction as not helpful because of its fictional nature, Susan shows us how some if can actually be quite valuable, if used properly. Find out how in Using Historical Novels in Genealogy Research.

Finally this week is a piece by Meaghan Siekman from the New England Historic Genealogical Society, working with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. They answer a letter written to Professor Gates by a college student at Clarion University She has a class assignment to create a family tree, but is having difficulty because of family secrets. Her grandfather never talked about his family, and ended up abandoning her brandmother and their children, although they never divorced. With a life that is a complete mystery, she wonders how to get further back. They give her some advice on how to search a little bit differently to find some answers. Get their advice in Help! I Can’t Fill Out My Family Tree Because of Family Secrets.

Guide to New York Genealogical Research Now Available

24 Feb 2015

One of the great pleasures of attending conferences is going to the exhibit halls where vendors cram their stands with the latest in books, software, services, organization memberships, and other products. Unfortunately, our stand in the hall was so busy that I barely had a chance to leave this time, so I did not get to explore as much as I usually do. But I know that one of the biggest successes in the exhibit hall was the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society’s new guide to New York genealogical research.

Awhile back I wrote about the book as it was going off to the printer. The printed books have now arrived, and the NYG&B completely sold out the stock they brought with them to Roots Tech. Three years in the making, this book is the Bible for researching your family anywhere in the state of New York. Whether your family was part of the early Dutch settlers, migrated to or through New York from New England after the American Revolution, or lived in New York City after migrating from Europe, this book will help your research.

The New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer is truly a collaborative effort. The project has included the work of more than 100 individuals as authors, editors, contributors, reviewers, and production people. The result is an 840-page masterwork (including a 30-page index) that provides everything you need to know about researching in the Empire State. Included in this group is Ruth A. Carr (former head of the Milstein Research Division at the New York Public Library), Laura Murphy Degrazia, Karen Jones, Henry Hoff, Terry Koch-Bostic, Anita Lustenberger, Suzanne McVetty, and Jane Wilcox. [note.: I also served as a reviewer and contributor on the book, but I would be equally excited about it had I never participated in the project.] The historians for every county provided assistance in verifying information for their areas. The single most significant contributor, however is Harry Macy, Jr. Former editor of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Harry is widely recognized as the dean of New York genealogical research. He edited and reviewed the book multiple times as it was being compiled.


NY Research Guide


Part One has seventeen chapters on researching: Colonial Era; Vital Records; Census Records; Immigration, Migration, and Naturalization; Court Records; Probate Records; Land Records and Maps; Military Records; Cemetery Records; Business, Institutional, Organizational Records; City Directories and Other Directories; Newspapers and Periodicals; Tax Records; Peoples of New York; Religious Records of New York; National and Statewide Repositories & Resources; and Reference Shelf for New York Research.

Part Two contains guides to every county in the state. For each county there is:

  • A cover page with maps of the county
  • Gazetteer of past and present place names
  • Repositories and resources for that county
  • Selected bibliography and further reading
  • Online resources

The counties are listed in alphabetical order, with the exception of the New York City counties. Because the five counties from the city are so intrinsically linked to each other, Bronx, Kings, New York, Queens, and Richmond counties are grouped together at the end of the county section. There is also a separate section for resources specific to Long Island. The thirty-page index cross-references all of the place names listed in the county gazetteers.

The book is now available from the NYG&B at three price levels. Members of the society can purchase the book for $65. Libraries and societies can purchase it for $75. Non-members can purchase it fro $85. Keep in mind that the member discount covers almost 30% of an annual membership. You might consider joining the society for a year to explore other valuable membership benefits. Get more information and order the book at

5 Free Resources for Identifying Locations

21 Feb 2015


One of the most important parts of researching your ancestors is locating them. Knowing where they lived is the critical first part. Without this, it is impossible to find other records. Here are five free resources for identifying locations your ancestors may have lived.

Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names
The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has a mission “to further knowledge and to advance understanding of the visual arts.” As part of their work, the institute has created a database of names from around the world. Although the purpose is to aid art historians and catalogers in their work, it is available online for anyone to use.

Geographic Names Information System
The GNIS was created by the United States Geological Survey and the United States Board on Geographic Names. It contains information about current and historical “physical and cultural geographic features” in the United States. Locations are defined by state, county, USGS topographic map, and geographic coordinates.

USGS Historical Topgraphic Map Explorer
This is another great project of the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS creates the official topographic maps for the entire nation. They have taken historical maps through current maps and loaded them onto a website. Simply enter a location, then select a map year from the timeline. Maps date back to 1890.

USMA Library Digital Collections
The United States Military Academy has a long history at West Point dating back to 1802. The library has extensive collections of maps, many predating the founding of the academy. Now many of these are available for free to use as part of the library’s digital collections effort. The viewer allows users to zoom in to examine the maps in great detail in a very legible manner.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center
The Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library has extensive cartographic holdings dating back to the 15th century. The center holds 5,000 atlases and 200,000 historical maps. As part of preservation efforts, many of these maps are being digitized and made available online.

More Genealogy Copyright Issues

20 Feb 2015


Copyright issues are a major problem in the genealogical community. Genealogical speakers are the backbone of learning in our field. We traverse the country giving presentations that help people learn the methods and techniques for researching their family history. Often we barely cover our costs for all of this. We do it not because we are getting wealthy, but because of the pleasure we feel when we see the light turning on in someone’s eyes as they finally understand a concept. And it continually astounds me to see the number of people who try to steal our work.

Last fall I was giving a presentation at a location not to be mentioned (in order to protect the guilty). A woman in the audience kept standing up to take pictures of the images on the screen. I asked her, politely, not to do it anymore. She then continued to take photographs while sitting. I had to stop the presentation again, and remind her that I had asked her to stop, and I would not continue until I saw her put the camera down on the floor.

She was not happy with me, and couldn’t understand why I asked her to stop. I explained that, personal use or not, she was violating my copyright. Even if the information itself was in the public domain, the way I presented it, the words I used, the design of the slide on the screen, are all protected.

I rarely give permission to have my presentations video recorded. I do allow professional companies brought in by societies to record their programs. These recordings are also protected by copyright, and the distributors are aware of that and put protections in place to protect my rights.

Many think that because they are in attendance, they can record or photograph anything they like. This is not true. Likewise, attendees are not free to do what they will with any handouts given to them during seminars and conferences. Also not true.

Judy Russell had similar frustrating experiences last week at the FGS/RootsTech conference. She wrote two posts this week to clarify things for genealogists. Copyright and the Genealogy Lecture explains the ethical and legal issues involved. And the follow-up  Credit and Copyright answers the questions of whether or not it is acceptable to use materials as long as credit it given to the author.

I’m certain that the average person does not mean to violate a speaker’s copyright, but that doesn’t make it correct. And others who think it is fair to take recordings and handouts and share them with their friends are quite mistaken. Realize that breaking the law makes a person open to a lawsuit, and who wants to deal with that? Respect the rights of speakers so that they can continue to provide excellent, high-quality education for everyone.

New Collaboration Results in Joint Publication

18 Feb 2015

One of the favorite things about the mail is receiving the many historical and genealogical journals to which I subscribe. Today’s post brought a pleasant surprise. The January issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (PMHB) is a very special issue. It was published in collaboration with Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies (PHJMS).


PMHB Cover


PMHB is the journal of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Located in Philadelphia, HSP is one of the oldest historical societies in America. It was founded in 1824, and now contains 600,000 printed works and more than 21 million manuscript and graphic items. PMHB is HSP’s scholarly journal, published quarterly since 1877. It publishes “original research or interpretation concerning the social, cultural, political, economic, and ethnic history of Pennsylvania, or work situating Pennsylvania history within comparative regional or international contexts.”

PHJMS is a publication of the Pennsylvania Historical Association (PHA), published in conjunction with the Pennsylvania State University Press. PHA was founded as a group for all historians interested in Pennsylvania, independent of any geographic or institutional affiliations. PHJMS publishes current scholarship on the history of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region, including annotated documents.

Several years ago, the editors of the journals had the idea to do a joint publication. The PHJMS editor, Bill Pencak, quickly suggested that the focus be on teaching Pennsylvania history. PMHB editor Tamara Gaskell agreed, and the project was set in motion. This joint issue contains six very special articles by leading historians:

  • “A Century of Teaching with Pennsylvania’s Historic Places” by Seth C. Bruggeman
  • “Three Miles, Two Creeks: Local Pennsylvania History in the Classroom” by Edward Slavisbak
  • “Pennsylvania’s Past from a Unique Perspective: Oral History” by Mary Carroll Johansen
  • “Teaching the Religious History of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia” by R. Scott Hanson
  • “An Authentic Archival Experience for the College Classroom in the Digital Age” by Kathryn Shively Meier and Kristen Yarmey
  • “The Blood Demonstration: Teaching the History of the PHiladelphia Welfare Rights Organization” by Kim Gallon

This collaboration is an excellent idea. Not only does it promote excellent scholarship, it provides exposure of each organization’s membership to the benefits of the other. This may lead to increased membership for both groups.

Think about the organizations you belong to or know of. Are there any possibilities of a similar collaboration? Perhaps such a publication could promote greater awareness for both groups, but a greater understanding between the fields of history and genealogy.

Dealing with the Ancestral Black Sheep

07 Feb 2015

We all have black sheep in our families. The cause of their being an outcast varies from simple things, such as those who left the family over petty squabbles or for other reasons. Sometimes they committed white collar crimes such as fraud. Other times their misdeeds may be darker. What do you do when your family was associated with some of the darkest crimes in the history of humanity?

Rainer Hoess was born in the 1960s. When growing up, he didn’t know much about his father’s family. They were never discussed. But the answers started coming one day when he found a book in the family’s library: Commandant of Auschwitz, the autobiography of Rudolf Hoess.

Hoess joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and became a member of Hitler’s SS in 1933. In 1934 he was attached to the Dachau concentration camp. In 1938 he became the adjutant at Sachenhausen before being appointed commander of the new camp at Auschwitz in 1940. In 1943 he was appointed chief inspector of all concentration camps. During his service he specialized in developing new methods of killing. In 1945 he fled and went into hiding. He was captured in Germany in 1946, and was hanged on a gallows at Auschwitz in 1947. Rainer’s father was one of Rudolf’s sons. Suddenly Rainer had to deal with the knowledge that his grandfather was one of the most notorious murderers in human history.

Rainer is part of the next generations that have had to deal with what their parents and grandparents did. Those that committed the atrocities are now mostly deceased. But they have left a legacy that is difficult to deal with. As Rainer Hoess says “I know my heritage. I can’t change it.” But he, like many others, is moving to create a new world.

Manfred Rommel was the son of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. He became mayor of the city of Stuttgart. During his tenure he fully supported the rights of immigrants in Germany among many other accomplishments. He earned many awards for his distinguished public service, including Commander of the British Empire.

Martin Pollock’s father was an officer in the SS and the Gestapo. His research uncovered the ruthlessness of his father, who often ordered his men to kill Jews. Although he himself feels no guilt, he does feel responsibility to be certain the stories are told so they are never forgotten.


Black Sheep


These people have to live every day of their lives being associated with brutal atrocities. They, also, unfortunately, are judged by the actions of their family members. But is it fair to judge individuals for the actions of their ancestors?

Rainer Hoess now works to spread the word about the Nazi atrocities. He wants to be certain that they are never forgotten. And, more importantly, that they are not repeated. He has long spoken out against the kind of religious extremism that is now spreading across Europe, the Middle East, and even the United States.

When it comes to your own ancestors, remember first that you should not judge. Unless you walked in their shoes, you have no idea what motivated them to do things. And, unless you personally are doing the same things, they are no reflection on you. You cannot change your ancestors and their actions. You cannot directly change your descendants and their actions. The best you can do is to live as the best example you can of the people you would like them to be. Remember to tell your stories, and your ancestors’ stories, including the ones that you find distasteful. It is only by including those stories that the fullest possible picture of your family can be known.

Help the Smithsonian Make Their Collections More Accessible

04 Feb 2015

The Smithsonian Institution was created in 1846 under the will of James Smithson, a British scientist to create “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” It has operated ever since, free to the public. The complex in Washington includes nineteen museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo, and is the largest of its kind in the world. And in the 21st century, the Smithsonian is moving into the virtual world. Over almost 170 years, the Smithsonian has collected 137 million items. And now the staff would like you to help the Smithsonian make their collections items more accessible to the public. Part of the effort to digitize is recruiting ordinary individuals like you and I to assist them.


Smithsonian Transcription Service


The Smithsonian has invested heavily in creating an online transcription center to allow interested individuals to contribute to making materials available. This is a massive project, with contributions from across the institution, including:

  • Anacostia Community Museum Archivs
  • National Anthropological Archives
  • National Museum of American History
  • National Museum of Natural History
  • Smithsonian Institution Archives
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries

The site provides access to digital images that volunteers can transcribe. Each page is transcribed by two volunteers in a double-verification process. Collection experts from the Smithsonian then review the transcription before making it available to the public. Millions of pages have so far been digitized, and they are making their way through the system for transcribing.

Signing up is a simple process. Simply create a username, enter your email address, and verify you are not a robot. Then you get to work. You can browse projects by repository, or by a half-dozen categories:

  • American Experience
  • Biodiverse Planet
  • Civil War Era
  • Field Book Project
  • Mysteries of the Universe
  • World Cultures.

Among the fascinating subprojects are letters of Mary Cassatt, George Catlin, Winslow Homer, William de Kooning, and Grandma Moses.

If you are looking for a new volunteer project, the Smithsonian Institution is a great place to invest your time. Not only will you be helping yourself and other genealogists, but historians present and future will also be the beneficiaries of your work when they study all aspects of American history and culture. Check out the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers website  and browse the available projects for more information.


Solving the Problems of Adoptees: Non-Paternal Events and DNA Testing

02 Feb 2015

As genealogists have incorporated DNA testing into the research process over the last few years, amazing strides have been made. Increased precision in testing as well as an increase in the variety of tests available have produced many new clues for research. But in addition to breaking down brick walls, DNA can introduce new possibilities for the research. And sometimes these can be very challenging.

By now we are all familiar with the term “Non-paternal Event.” This is the term used when an individual’s surname does not match the y-DNA. It means that somewhere along the way, the man presumed to be the father of a son did not actually father that child.

Unfortunately, researchers are too often quick to look to the mother as the source of the problem. She is often thought to have cheated on her husband. While did happen, it is not the only possibility, and we must be careful to include other possibilities as well. Among the other reasons for a non-paternal event are:

  • Mother was pregnant by another man at the time of the marriage.
  • Child took the surname of a maternal relative to honor him and perpetuate a surname that was about to disappear.
  • An apprentice, orphan, or other child was adopted into the family.
  • Child was the product of a rape.

Part of the challenge in answering the question is in the extensive testing that must take place to determine in which generation the event occurred. Starting with the person tested, and going back to the immigrant ancestor, the break could enter at any point. The only way to know for certain is to test multiple individuals at every generation until the break is found.


DNA and Adoptees


There is another way of looking at these events, however. Adoptees often have a difficult time determining their origins. Laws prohibit access to information on birth parents, leaving adoptees and their descendants with many questions. DNA testing companies, however, are offering a way around these laws.  Combining with online family trees, many adoptees are able to find their birth family. The Washington Times recently ran a story on this subject.

Whether the adoption was today, or two hundred years ago, DNA can help you identify the birth lineage of your ancestors. If you have this type of problem, start mapping out a plan for testing to combine with traditional resources to identify your true ancestors. And realize that you may never know the true circumstances behind the non-paternal event, so do not judge your ancestors so hastily.