Genealogy Blog

Happy New Year!

28 Dec 2013

2013 is winding to an end, and what  a year it has been.  Another amazing year, with many ups and downs. But, all things considered, I have moved forward with many things over the last twelve months.

Back in February I presented at the RootsTech Conference in Salt Lake City. I also got to spend a few extra days with friends doing research before the conference started. From there, it was off to London for the Who Do You Think You Are? Live! show. This year I was one of the presenters in a main theatre, discussing the English relations of Benjamin Franklin.

Thanks to my wonderful colleague, Alex, a got a great deal on a hotel in Grosvenor Square, next to the American Embassy, for a week. Despite being the victim of credit card fraud and having to deal with that from overseas, it was a wonderful trip. I got to see Berkley Square (they lied, no nightingales singing). And I ventured up to the city of Northampton to visit the Northamptonshire Record Office, where I made some wonderful discoveries!

Michael speaking in the Celebrity Theatre at Who Do You Think You Are? Live! in London. (from the collection of the author, used with permission)

Michael speaking in the Celebrity Theatre at Who Do You Think You Are? Live! in London. (from the collection of the author, used with permission)

Unfortunately, I got sick in England, and with my intense travel schedule, I couldn’t shake it for months. It caused me to miss the NGS conference in Las Vegas, which would have added another new state visited for me. Fortunately, I was doing better to attend the Institute for Genealogical and Historical Research in Birmingham in June. And in August I visited Michigan for the first time. A NASCAR race at the Michigan Speedway that caused my friend Kim Harrison and I into a detour that felt like a ride through the set of Deliverance, but eventually we made it to the FGS conference in Fort Wayne. The best part was getting to spend time with my good friends researching in the library. And Cyndi Ingle was finally able to join us, which made it even more fun! And this year’s holiday season was made extra special by a visit from my dear friend Audrey Collins in London just before Christmas.

2013 was an excellent year at Mocavo also. We launched thousands of new databases to help you with your research. And we added other new features for propelling your family history work. One of the most popular is our bi-weekly Fireside Chats, where I talk with leading genealogists about various topics in genealogy and family history. And, very exciting, we gave you a little preview of the work we have been doing with handwriting recognition. More details about that will be coming in 2014.

I hope your 2013 was filled with great progress in your genealogical research. Take a few moments to review everything you got done this past year. And I hope that 2014 will be filled with much more progress in your research. On Thursday we will discuss goal-setting for the coming year, so be certain to check out that column! In the meantime, Happy New Year!


How far back can you trace your family history?

28 Dec 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked how far back you could trace your family history. A majority of our Mocavo community members were able to get back to at least the 17th century! Don’t forget to check out our bi-monthly newsletter or Facebook page to take our next poll: “Are you going to make any New Years resolutions?



2013 In Review: Top News and Blog Posts

27 Dec 2013


Each Friday I write a roundup of news stories and blog posts that are of interest to genealogists. Many of these stories are extremely popular. Some discuss news in the genealogical community, while others are simply human interest or historical interest. And some are just plain fun! This week, as we come to the end of 2013, I would like to share with you and remind you of some of the most popular stories of the year.

1) Freedom of Information: Residents Only

Back in May the Supreme Court issued a decision of tremendous importance to genealogists, and one that was flying under the radar. In the case of McBurney vs.

Young, SCOTUS decided that the states have no obligation to fulfill Freedom of Information requests for individuals not resident in that state. This decision has a tremendous access on our ability as genealogists to access records. Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist, as usual, was able to break down the story for us and explain it in plain English.

2) Surprising Ancestral Origins Revealed by DNA Testing

DNA and genealogy was much in the news this year. In July I posted about one of the more interesting articles I had come across. Lee Rimmer wrote in the Abroad in the Yard blog about some fascinating discoveries from DNA testing. Among the more interesting findings were a group of Chinese villagers with DNA from a lost Roman legion; African DNA in Yorkshire, England; and how y-DNA testing of Hitler’s grand-nephew reveals possible Jewish ancestry.

3) 22 Maps That Show How Americans Speak English Totally Different From One Another

In June, Business Insider published this interesting story by Walter Hickey (a BI reporter, not the retired archivist from the National Archives and Records Administration. Professors Bert Vaux and Scott Golder conducted a study on how words are pronounced by Americans. Ph.D. student Joshua Katz took their findings and made some incredible graphic representations of these differences.

4) My Kind of Town, Stink Onions: The Literal Meanings of Places in the U.S., Mapped

Also in June was an interesting piece in Slate. Who knew that I live in St. Heraldwolf’s Stone in the Land of the Little Big Hills? Or that one of my best friends hails from Adders Falls in the Southern Land of Friends? Cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust, That’s who! They have researched the meansing of the names of cities, town, states, and provinces across North America, from Canada down to Northern Mexico, and have created a map that shows these names intead of the modern ones we are used to. FYI: I live in Boston, Massachusetts, and my friend Jeremy is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And Stink Onions is the meaning of Chicago.

5) Scathing Obituary Goes Viral, Reveals Abuse, Neglect and This Woman’s Obituary is the Best Thing You’ll Read Today

In September I made a post about two obituaries that couldn’t have been more contrasting. The obituary of Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick screamed across the internet. Her children clearly had nothing but painful memories of her, saying that she “is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible.” Many newspapers, including USA Today, reported on it. You can read the full obituary in the Reno Gazette-Journal.  In contrast, the children of Mary Agnes “Pink” Mullaney, couldn’t have had better things to say about their mom in her obituary. They say that “we were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: Never throw away used panty hose . . . “

2013 in Review: Top Mocavo Blog Posts

26 Dec 2013



As the year winds down, I wanted to share with you again some of our most popular blog posts from 2013. While not necessarily the top five, these posts represent some of the most-viewed posts of the year. I hope you find them interesting again.


1. Genealogy and Ethics: Play Nice and Don’t Plagiarize

The blogs have been lighting up this week with stories about copyright violations and plagiarism. These issues have always been a problem, but the easy communication of the internet has exacerbated the issue, making it ever more easy to take the work of others and claim it for your own.

2. 5 Reasons Why You Can’t Find Your Person Online

Sometimes when we are searching for our ancestors in online databases, we just can’t find them. No matter how hard we look, or what databases we search, they just won’t appear. There are many reasons why this might happen. Here are a few.

3. Read All About It: Five Newspaper Databases to Help Your Research

Newspapers are a valuable resource for genealogists. They, of course, provide access to marriage records, birth announcements, and obituaries. But beyond that, newspapers can provide information about your ancestors’ social activities. They can also help provide context for your ancestors. Looking at the advertisements, for example, can give you a sense of what the cost of living in the time and place where they lived. Here are five websites that can provide access to newspapers for your research. The vast majority of the newspapers in these databases are unique to each site.

4. Four Common Pitfalls to Avoid

As you begin your research, there are a few genealogical pitfalls that you will want to avoid in order to help make your search successful. Be on the lookout for circumstances that can potentially hinder your search or send you down the wrong path in the future. Many of these situations center on an important point: the broader you make your search, the more success you may have. If your search is too specific, then you limit yourself to far fewer results to evaluate. This, in turn, leads you to far fewer paths for investigation in the future. Keep these pitfalls in mind so as to avoid any unnecessary confusion or frustration throughout your research.

5. Five Must-Read Blogs

There are many genealogy blogs out there on the interwebs. Trying to keep track of all of them ban be challenging. Here are five blogs that I consider to be among the best reading in the field. They cover various aspects of genealogy, and will give you great help.

The Many Faces of Santa Claus

23 Dec 2013

Perhaps one of the most iconic images of Christmas in America is Santa Claus. A round, cherubic man with a long white beard and a hearty laugh. Accompanied by his six (or sometimes seven) reindeer, he travels the world delivering presents to good little girls and boys. But such was not always the case.

The Separatists of Plymouth Colony and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony abhorred Christmas. They viewed it as a vestige of the Anglican Church they were trying to leave behind or change. This is typical of non-conformist churches in Britain, such as the Baptists, Congregationalists, Prebyterians, and Quakers. Anglicans and Lutherans, however, followed practices similar to the Catholic church. One of the major complaints of the Puritans and Separatists was that Christmas was too papist.

This attitude prevailed throughout the northeast until the nineteenth century, but in the south it was different. Unlike the northeast, the Anglican church was predominant. Holiday celebrations were festive events with decorations in homes and churches. The season was filled with music, singing, and dancing. Many of the songs would be unrecognizable today. But the carol Joy to the World, by Englishman Isaac Watts dates back to 1719 and was often sung.

By the nineteenth century we start to see a number of traditions from different parts of the world come together into the image of Santa Claus that we see today. Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop whose passion was caring for and giving gifts to the poor. By the Middle Ages, children were given presents on his feast day, December 5.

The Christkindl was promulgated by Martin Luther as a replacement for St. Nicholas. In many Germanic countries of Europe the Christkindl represented the Christ child, bringing presents to children each December 24. This practice was brought to America by German immigrants, but the English speakers heard this pronounced differently, and by the nineteenth century we have Kris Kringle appearing.

In England, Father Christmas dates back to the days of Henry VIII. A large man in green and scarlet-red fur-lined robes, he was the representation of the good cheer and festivities of Christmas. Since England no longer celebrated St. Nicholas’ feast day, the appearance of Father Christmas moved to December 25.

In France, it was Pére Noël who brought presents. Children left their shoes by the fireplace with carrots or other food for his reindeer. Pére Fouettard travels with Pére Noël, reminding him of how well-behaved a child was during the past year.

In the low countries of the Netherlands and Belgium, it is  “De Goede Sint” (the Good Saint), Sinterklaas, who represents the season. Dressed in the red and white robes of a bishop, a red mitre, and a gold crosier, the white-bearded Sinterklaas oversees the giving of presents. He is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who carries Sinterklass’ book.

It is the more well-known Clement Moore who penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823 who brought us the sleigh and flying reindeer landing on the roof, as well as the image of Santa Claus that we have today. The nineteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Nash brought Santa Claus to life in Harper’s Weekly.

As the nineteenth and twentieth centuries progressed, bits of each of these traditions combined to become the image we have today. Father Christmas’ hefty size and scarlet robes that became brighter red. Sinterklass’ red mitre became a pointy, fur-trimmed hat. Pére Noël’s shoes became stockings. And Clement Moore’s reinder, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder (now Donner), and Blixem (now Blitzen), still ferry him around the world.


Charles W. Howard made a lifetime career out of playing Santa Claus. Starting with his 4th-grade portrayal at the turn of the century, he became a popular portrayer of Santa in stores, parades, and other events. From 1948 to 1965 he was the official Santa Claus for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 1937, he founded the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School to teach others how to best portray this beloved character. The school is still in operation today, in Midland, Michigan.

175,000+ New Databases in less than 3 Months

20 Dec 2013

It’s been almost three months since we announced our Free Forever mission. We’re excited to share that our total database count has quickly zoomed to more than 175,000 databases and we’ve got even more surprises planned for January.

New Search Slider for Mocavo Gold Members
Search Sliders enable you to customize your search results to better find the information you seek. We’ve already received wonderful feedback from many of you regarding the first two search sliders that we announced last month: Freshness and Keyword Appearance. Today we are excited to announce the third search slider called Dataset Size. With this slider, you will be able to sort your results depending on the size of the database. If you would prefer to search for your ancestors in smaller databases, such as the Orange County, Texas Birth Index, slide the bar to the left. If you would rather search for your ancestor in bigger databases such as the Social Security Death Index, slide the bar to the right. Use all three of the search sliders to customize your search results to discover your ancestors even faster with less effort.


Many of you have signed up for Mocavo Gold in support of our cause, and enjoy searching 175,000 databases at the same time. As always, Mocavo Basic users can search these databases individually for free. Mocavo Gold offers you automated searching, the ability to run global searches across all of our databases, and a number of other great features.

Interested in giving Mocavo Gold a test run?

Try Mocavo Gold for free for 7 days.

This is a special time of the year when we often get to spend more time with family and loved ones. From the Mocavo family to yours, we wish you Happy Holidays!

Cliff Shaw

News Stories and Blog Posts for Genealogists, December 20, 2013

20 Dec 2013

This week we have some intriguing blog posts for genealogists from the internet. From the Event to DNA to paper sons and daughters,  this recent crop of stories covers a wide variety of topics. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

First up is a post by English blogger Tony Proctor. He provides a very interesting discussion of the research process. He asserts that we would benefit from event-based thinking, as many events involve multiple individuals, some of whom may or may not be critical to the event in and of itself. I found it a fascinating conversation. You can read more in Eventful Genealogy.

The Irish Times recently ran a story about recent happenings in Irish genealogy written by the noted genealogist John Grenham. He updates us on what’s happening at the Irish Genealogical Research Society, RootsIreland, a major new National Archives of Ireland venture, and This last is the most exciting, as they will soon be launching a new version of the indexes to vital records in Ireland. Read more in What’s On the Horizon?

Legal Genealogist Judy Russell brings us another DNA discussion. This time she Talks about some new features available from Family Tree DNA and 23andMe. 23andMe has adjusted their calculations for Ancestry Composition, which may change some of your percentages. And Family Tree DNA has released the Matrix: a new tool for comparing results. Read more in Updated DNA Tools.

Diane Webb wrote an interesting piece this week in the Newnan, Georgia, Times-Herald. She has been working on some cemeteries with the Coweta County Genealogical Society. One is a pauper cemetery where they are trying to identify burials. The other is a cemetery with some destroyed markers trying to identify family members to approve erecting new ones. She also points out the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery. Read more in Genealogy: Paupers’ Cemetery Being Researched.

Chinese Paper Sons

The Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 was repealed 70 years ago this week. But for sixty years, Chinese laborers were barred from entering the country. Many Chinese families are paper sons and daughters. These were immigrants with falsified documents declaring them to be related to Chinese-Americans already here, thus being allowed to enter the country as an exception to the ban. The result is thousands of families with made-up surnames. Find out more from National Public Radio in Chinese-American Descendants Uncover Forged Family Histories.

Help us make Mocavo better and you could win a $100 Amazon shopping spree

19 Dec 2013

At Mocavo we are working hard to create a genealogy resource that is helpful and relevant to you. Please help us make Mocavo better by taking the time to answer our short survey. Today we will be asking you questions about pricing and transcription tools.

As a token of our appreciation, once you complete this survey, you will be entered into our sweepstakes for the chance to win a $100 Amazon shopping spree! Winners will be contacted through email by December 30.


Thank you for your feedback,
-The Mocavo Team

Size Matters: Questioning Everything

18 Dec 2013

Not everything is as it appears. As genealogists, we know this. We question our sources and do the research. We look for conflicting evidence. And at the end, we balance the evidence and reach our conclusions. Or do we?

Sometimes we make assumptions based on what we think we know. These are most often subconscious. They are based on things we have “known” for years; sometimes all of our lives. But how often do we step back and actually questions these things that we “know?”

I remember a scene from an episode of the West Wing a dozen years ago that illustrates this point very well.  We all remember in our geography classes learning about the Mercator projection map of the world. Developed by a Flemish geographer in 1569, this map is wonderful for navigation. It turns latitude and longitude into flat square lines. This kind of map is extremely useful for navigation, which explains its widespread use and popularity.

The problem is that flattening everything out distorts proportions and size: the larger the objects, the greater the distortion. Thus the continents appear all out of whack relative to each other. Add to that the cultural bias towards European countries at the time, and our perspectives on the world are filled with errors and problems. The Gail-Peters projection map of the world is quite different. The ratio formula is different, and maintains a more accurate view of the continents with less distortion. Compare the two:



Mercator Projection Map

Mercator Projection Map



Gail-Peters Projection Map

Gail-Peters Projection Map


While cartographers have always been aware of the deficiencies of the Mercator map, how many of you knew about this problem? We tend not to think about these things. Even the placement of north at the top of a map and south at the bottom is a totally arbitrary decision. Early maps often had north at the bottom and south at the top. If you are interested, you can watch the West Wing clip for a more detailed conversation about the maps.

The same problems occur to us in our research. If there is something we have seen continually over and over again, we may start to think of it as true and accurate without question. We may not give it the careful scrutiny that we should. Make sure you question everything as you move through your research. Assume nothing. It takes stringent discipline, but in the end your research will be on much more solid ground.

Changing the Rules by Living Longer

17 Dec 2013

Jesse and Elizabeth (Goodell) Sawyer of Belvidere, Illinois, were married 11 February 1819 in Watertown, Jefferson County, New York. He was twenty-three and she twenty-five when they were married. On 11 February 1869, their family and friends gathered with them in Belvidere, Illinois, to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. It was such a rare occasion that a pamphlet was published telling their story, and tracing their family back to the earliest New England settlers: Fiftieth Anniversary of the Marriage of Jesse Sawyer and Elizabeth Goodell (Utica, N.Y.: Roberts, Book and Job Printer, 1869).

Their son Joel read a speech that said, in part “ In behalf of your children and more remote relatives and other friends, I congratulate you on this hopeful beginning of the second half century of your married life. You have now reached a point that few of us can ever hope to reach. You have passed a period of life, that few individually and fewer still in pairs, can hope to pass. . .” (p. 8)

Now we think nothing of people living well into their 70s and 80s. Even the 90s are not hugely unusual, and centenarians are not as rare as they once were, although it is still a remarkable achievement. My paternal grandparents were married for 68 years before my grandfather, Joseph Alfred Leclerc, died in 2000. My grandmother, Marie Laura Dube, was just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday when she passed away. Today marks 102 years since she was born. At the time she was born in 1911, the average life expectancy of a woman in America was 54 years. She lived almost twice that.


Joseph Alfred and Marie Laura (Dube) Leclerc at their 60th Anniversary in 1992, with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. (From the collection of the author, used with permission)

Joseph Alfred and Marie Laura (Dube) Leclerc at their 60th Anniversary in 1992, with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. (From the collection of the author, used with permission)


As we live longer and longer, these stories are becoming more and more frequent. Marshall Kuykendall was twenty years old when he eloped with nineteen-year-old Winnie MacNab and got married before a justice of the peace on February 14, 1929. In 2012 they celebrated their 83rd wedding anniversary. Their daughter, herself, celebrated 56 years of marriage last year as well. The Catholic News Agency reported on their long marriage in 2011.

In addition to increased stories of people married for longer and longer, increased life expectancy means another change in genealogical research. We have to keep our eyes open for marriages that occur much later in life than they used to.

Ted Parsons’ wife Linda passed away in the early 1980s. One of his friends, Jean Reed, was a staunch support for him. Eventually they fell in love. They have lived together ever since, and finally married recently in New Malden, Surrey, in England. This is a fairly common story, but what makes it more interesting is that Ted and Linda were married for 50 years before she died. And Ted is now 98, while his never-before-married blushing bride Jean is 90. Their combined age is 188 years. You can read about them in the Mirror.

As amazing as that sounds, they do not hold the record for the couple with the largest combined age to marry. That distinction was awarded last year to Americans Allan Marks and Lillian Hartley of Palm Springs, California. He was 98 and she 95 when they married last year on February 29; a combined age of 193 years. You can read their story in USA Today.