Genealogy Blog

Preserve the Pensions Fun Walk Contest

26 Aug 2014

One of the biggest projects in the genealogical community at the moment is the Preserve the Pensions project. A joint effort of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Archives and Records Administration, Fold3, and, the project will eventually capture 7.2 million images of documents from more than 180,000 files.

This week at the FGS conference, there will be a special event for Preserve the Pensions. This Saturday, August 30, on the last day of the conference, the Federation is having a Fun Walk. Four well-known genealogists will walk from the convention center to the Alamo and back, as a fundraiser for the Preserve the Pensions project.


Preserve the Pensions Fun Walk


Judy G. Russell of The Legal Genealogist blog, Ed Donakey from FamilySearch, and D. Joshua Taylor and Kenyatta Berry from the Genealogy Roadshow will take the one-mile walk. They will be competing to see who can raise the most money for the project.

If you are at the conference, you can be there to see them off at 6:30 a.m. All of the money raised will go for digitizing records. Not only that, but your dollar will go much further than usual. Every dollar raised will be matched by the Federation. Then, will match the doubled amount dollar for dollar. So a $25 sponsorship will turn into $100 towards the project. This amount will fund almost 450 images!

If you are attending the conference, you can pay in person at the Preserve the Pension booth. But you don’t have to be there to donate! Everyone can contribute by visiting the Preserve the Pensions donation page. Be sure to check off one of the four genealogists walking in the “Honors and Tributes” section. And remember, the four of them are having a contest, so choose wisely!

Solving Your Genealogy Problems Like Magic

23 Aug 2014

David Kwong is an amazing young man. He gets to make his living doing things he loves and feels passionate about.  He is both a magician and a cruciverbalist. In fact, he received a degree from Harvard University in the history of magic. And he has something to teach us about genealogy problem solving.

He was fortunate to work at DreamWorks, in the animation story department. He then went on to found The Misdirectors Guild. The guild is “an elite group of magicians who are specialists in all areas of subterfuge, including stage illusion, sleight of hand, puzzles, and heists.” The guild consults with television and motion picture creators to help them with illusion and deception in their shows and films, including last year’s Now You See Me.

David is also a cruciverbalist: one who excels at crossword puzzles. In fact, he is so good at them that he is now regularly creates crossword puzzles for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications nationwide.


Magic and Crosswords


David presented an official talk at the Ted Conference in 2014., in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first crossword puzzle. In his excellent presentation, David discusses why he believes that magic and puzzles are the same: “because they both key in to one of the most important human drives: the urge to solve. Human beings are wired to solve; to make order out of chaos.”

He then goes on to tell the story of how he arrived at this conclusion over time. He quotes research studies that show that human beings have a primitive urge to solve. It is intrinsic to who we are, as basic as eating and sleeping.

This could partially explain our urge to do genealogy. After all, what is family history research but a giant puzzle waiting to be explored and mapped out, filled with problem after problem and challenge after challenge. Often the answers to our research questions are simple. But frequently, we are presented with a chaotic mass of conflicting information and arbitrary or missing data that we must sift through to come up with our solutions.

Now, in his presentation he does an incredible trick. He shows how we as humans are so driven to solve problems and create order out of chaos that it often happens in our minds without our realizing it. I won’t give away the trick and the solution, because it is truly amazing.  And just when you think it is over, he unveils another twist.

But once you watch it, think about how this works in your genealogical research. Sometimes you don’t even realize how your mind is working in the background, and all of a sudden the answer jumps out at you, right? Now you know why. Watch David’s talk  Two Nerdy Obsessions Meet — And It’s Magic. Prepare to be amazed.


Why Your Brain Makes Typos

19 Aug 2014

I admit to being a bit of a nerd. One of the ways I satisfy my nerd impulses is to read magazines like Condé Nast’s Wired. There are always so many interesting stories, like a recent one on The Strange Blowpipe 19th Century Minuers Used to Analyze Ore.

As a writer, I was particularly intrigued by a story that ran last week about spelling errors. Nick Stockton is a technology and nature writer and has written for The Atlantic as well as Wired and numerous other publications. Last week Wired published his piece “What’s UP with That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos.”


Catch Typos


We all hate typos in our work. Whether it is a Facebook post, an email, a text message, or when writing your family history, spelling errors drive us crazy. In Stockton’s words:

“Typos suck. They are saboteurs, undermining your intent, causing your resume to land in the “pass” pile, or providing sustenance for an army of pedantic critics. Frustratingly, they are usually words you know how to spell, but somehow skimmed over in your rounds of editing. If we are our own harshest critics, why do we miss those annoying little details?”

The truth is that it has nothing to do with how smart we are. It has to do with how our brains work. When we are writing, our brains takes the simple parts like pushing keys to make words and sentences, and automates them so that they can focus on the more complicated tasks of conveying our ideas in the overall work of sentences and paragraphs. Thus, it is fairly easy to accidentally type the wrong letters.

This is the same reason why we cannot edit ourselves. When you proof your own writing, your brain already knows what you were trying to say. Because of this, we may see things that aren’t really there, and we can easily miss typographical errors and worse.

This is why editors and proofreaders exist. To review our work and help us from putting anything out with a big mistake in it. One of the suggestions Stockton received from an expert is that if you want to try to catch your mistakes, to make it look very different by changing fonts or background colors to make it more challenging for your brain. The best way, however, is to have someone else review your work for you. That way you won’t have to trick your brain. Read the entire piece for more information.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, August 15, 2014

15 Aug 2014

This week’s roundup of stories comes to us courtesy of Facebook. Many of my friends post interesting (as well as humorous) links, so for this week’s collection I browsed over Facebook to see what had interested my friends. I hope you find these stories as interesting as I do.

The first story, posted on Feedbox, was posted by my friend Thomas MacEntee. Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, painted in 1796, was commissioned as a gift for the William Petty FitzMaurice, the Marquess of Lansdowne, who was British Prime Minister during the final years of the American Revolution. Today known as the Lansdowne Portrait, it was saved by Dolly Madison during the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. Today it hangs in the East Room of the White House. And it contains a rather drastic error in it. Find out what the error is and why it is there in One of the Most Famous Paintings in the White House Has a Huge Spelling Error.


Lansdowne Portrait from Wikimedia Commons.

Lansdowne Portrait from Wikimedia Commons.


Thomas posted another interesting story this week about how technology has changed the way people interact. Children today now spend almost 7.5 hours staring at computers. And 87% of teachers report that they now are more easily distracted and have short attention spans. Alok Deshpande, founder of Umenta/StoryCall (a company that help families preserve and capture their stories), wrote an interesting post providing five suggestions for the best ways to reach younger generations with your stories. Read more in Bridging the Generation Gap.

Elizabeth Shown Mills shared an interesting post this week written by Rita J. King and shared on LinkedIn. King is a cofounder of Science House, an organization that helps organizations foster collaboration. She shared five very valuable tips for writers. They apply whether you are writing fiction or your family history. Discover more in Kill Your Darlings: Five Rules for Writers.

My friend Mark Andrew Davis provided a link to a post in the New York Times blog, The Upshot. Gregor Aisch, Robert Gebeloff, and Kevin Quealy took census information from the University of Minnesota Population Center to create some very interesting graphic charts. State by state, they chart the places of birth of the population and how it changed from 1900 to 2012. Each chart has a sliding bar to show you what the numbers were in any given census year. Check out your states of interest in Where We Came From, State by State.

Finally comes a post from my friend and former NEHGS colleague, Chris Child. This week the world suffered an incredible loss with the death of comedian Robin Williams. Chris enjoys researching famous individuals and public figures. Chris has done some interesting work that shows Robin was a cousin of three United States presidents through their common descent from William Armistead of Virginia. Get the details at Notes on Robin Williams’s Ancestry.

Average Men Changing the Course of History: The Port Chicago 50

04 Aug 2014

World War II had a major impact on so many American families. Most often we hear the stories of the soldiers who went overseas, only to lose their lives in battlefields on foreign soil. But there were, on occasion, accidents and other events on domestic soil that also left families bereft. One of those occurred 70 years ago.

When the war started in 1942, a base was built about 30 miles north of San Francisco to deal with munitions headed to the Pacific. During this time, the American armed forces were still segregated. About 1,400 African-American were assigned to Port Chicago. As you can imagine, hauling munitions is dangerous and challenging work. As might be expected, this work was delegated to those units. The troops were ill-trained for this work. And because of the pressing needs of the war, officers pressed them with astronomically high production goals.

The night of July 17 was an average one. Two brand new cargo ships were at the pier. The S.S. E.A. Brian was docked at the inboard, landward side of the pier, while the S.S. Quinault Victory was docked on the outboard side. Workers had filled the hold of the Brian with 4,400 tons of munitions, and at 10:18 p.m. On the pier and ships, 320 men were preparing the Quinault Victory for loading.

Witnesses reported hearing the clash of metal on metal, and the sound of splintering wood, followed by an incredible blast. This was followed six seconds later by an explosion even more powerful than the first. White-hot metal was flying through air filled with fire and smoke. The blast was so powerful that it registered as a 3.4 seismic event on the Richter scale, and was felt as far away as Nevada.

The Brian and a nearby locomotive were completely obliterated. The 7,600-ton Quinault Victory was lifted out of the water and flung 500 feet, landing in pieces. All 320 men were instantly killed in the blast, and almost 400 more suffered serious injuries. Two-thirds of those killed were African-American troops.


Port Chicago


A Navy court of inquiry laid the blame at the feet of the African-American stevadores, without acknowledging that the white officers did not train them properly and pushed them too hard. The surviving stevadores were not given leave, and were ordered back to work immediately at nearby port. Hundreds of them were told to start loading ordnance again. 258 (about 80%) refused. It was the only order that they refused to obey.

The men were placed under guard on a prison barge. Admiral Carleton Wright warned them that their actions constituted an act of mutiny — which, during this time of war, carried the death penalty. All but 50 of the men returned to work.

The remaining men were put on trial for mutiny, the largest such trial in the history of the U.S. Navy. After six weeks, the men were found guilty, and sentenced with 8 to 15 years of hard labor.

A young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall witnessed the end of the hearings, and accused the Navy of framing the sailors. He appealed the decision to the Judge Advocate General, but it was denied. But the public fervor was against them. The Navy was forced to release the men, and in January 1946 became the first branch of the armed forces to become fully integrated. But the men were only given clemency, and never officially exonerated. More than half a century later, the men received an official pardon from President Bill Clinton.

The Port Chicago accident accounted for 15% of the total deaths of African-American military personnel during the entire war. During their lives, the “Port Chicago 50” actively avoided obtaining a pardon. In the words of one,  “That means, ‘You’re guilty but we forgive you.’ We want the decisions set aside.”

How Our DNA Affects Our Relationships

26 Jul 2014

We have been using DNA testing in the genealogical community now for a number of years. We have made great strides in breaking down brick walls, first using y-DNA and mtDNA, and now using autosomal DNA. It has also been used to help us with our family medical health history. But now DNA has new uses.

Toronto-based Instant Chemistry has done research to show that there is a biological as well as psychological component to human relationships. It appears that DNA has been influencing our love lives all along.


Instant Chemistry



Studies have shown that couples in long-term relationships often have very different immune systems from each other. They find each other more attractive, enjoy more satisfying sex lives, have increased fertility rates, and have greater marital stability. Children of these relationships are able to more successfully  defend against a wider variety of infections.


It is the genes that comprise the immune system that are responsible for this. More specifically, it is the genes that are part of the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) system. These are the genes responsible for identifying foreign bodies that can cause infections and other problems. They also contribute to the natural body scent that is unique to each of us. Research shows that we can subconsciously detect these scents, and they are responsible for our attraction to each other and choosing our partners.


Genetics can also now assist in predicting potential problems the might develop in relationships. For example, the serotonin transporter gene is responsible for moderating positive and negative emotional behavior. Short versions, for example, can mean higher negative and lower positive emotional behavior and declines in marital satisfaction over time.  Knowing this in advance, couples can get counseling to obtain tools to overcome these potential issues.

Instant Chemistry  will do genetic testing to help determine how your genes might influence your relationship. You and partner do the familiar spit test, and the company will evaluate you and inform you of any potential issues. The company has also partnered with matchmakers and online dating services to offer the testing in advance, to help match you with someone who may be more compatible genetically. Currently the test is only available for heterosexual couples, but they are currently testing gay and lesbian spouses to determine if the science is true for same-sex relationships as well.

Discovering this makes me wonder if there could be genealogical applications for this technology. Could the tests be done on our ancestors? Could we find out more information about their relationships? This could potentially shed new light onto our ancestral families.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, July 18, 2014

18 Jul 2014

This week’s stories range from George Washington and Henry Knox to Twitter and the Digital Public Library of America. I hope you find them as interesting and informative as I do.

We start with a post from Myra Vanderpool Gormley’s blog, Shaking Family Trees. As part of a project to write about her research subjects at least once each week (known as the 52 Ancestors project among bloggers), she recently wrote about the husband of Mary Vanderpoel, Joseph-Louis, Chevalier d’Anterroches. Documentation of their courtship and marriage comes from a letter written by Henry Knox to his old boss, George Washington. It seems Washington received a letter from the Chevalier’s mother, and asked Knox to find out more about him. Read more of the story in #28-52ancestors: d’Anterroches-Vanderpoel: Surprising French Connection.

WBAY in Green Bay, Wisconsin, reported on an interesting story out of the town of Eureka. The Wagoner family, doing renovations on the kitchen of a farmhouse, found a ledger in the ceiling. This was not just any ledger, however, it dated from 1865 and contained a roster of Civil War soldiers from the 42nd Regiment of the Wisconsin volunteer Infantry. Read more, and watch a video story, in Civil War Ledger Found in Eureka.


Civil War Ledger


Patrick Allan wrote a moving piece yesterday for Lifehacker. A few years ago, Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher participated in a Twitter chat question and answer session. What made this chat so special? Both Herbert and Zelmyra were centenarians. They were the longest-married couple in history. They were married for 87 years before Herbert passed away at the age of 105 in 2011. Allan wrote about some of the answer they gave about married life. Read more in Marriage Advice from the World’s Longest Married Couple.

Chrisopher Mims writes for the Digits blog for the Wall Street Journal. This week he wrote about cybersecurity. He had a conversation with cybersecurity consultant Michael B. Williams so he could become part of the 1% — “that one in 100 people whose online life is secure enough that hackers just can’t be bothered to try to break into their accounts.” Read more, and get his tips in Commentary: What I learned, and What You Should Know, After I Published my Twitter Password.

The Digital Public Library of America is a non-profit project to take materials from libraries, archive, and museums around the country and make them available to the public around the world. Larry Kaukam is retired from the Central Library Rochester and Monroe County, New York, where one of his responsibilities was  family history. He recently wrote a piece for their news section to discuss how DPLA can be useful to genealogists, including a discussion of a curated exhibition, Leaving Europe, about those who came to America in the 19th century. Read more in Finding Family Information Through DPLA.


Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, July 11, 2014

11 Jul 2014

This week’s news roundup takes us on a quite a journey. We start with a discussion about DNA and genealogy, then Judy Russell explains to us what a prothonotary is, and then learn about good news for those looking at the family history of adoptees in Illinois. We finish up with two stories about people finding interesting stories in their family history.

The Scientist is a magazine for life science professionals. This week an article was published that discusses the boom of DNA testing in the field of family history. One of the interviewed experts states “We have a generally low genetic literacy in the U.S. and elsewhere. . . If someone misunderstands what a test means, or is unhappy with the service, oftentimes it is the result of not understanding what they’re buying.” You can read more in DNA Ancestry for All.

Judy Russell is one of the most helpful genealogy bloggers out there. This week she helps us understand another term: the prothonotary. She starts with an apocryphal story about Harry Truman. “The story is told of President Harry Truman being introduced to a prothonotary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and, in typical Trumanesque fashion, asking the question. ‘What the hell is a prothonotary?’” Find out exactly what a prothonotary is in Of Clerks and Fences.

Adoptees and their descendants just got great news from the state of Illinois. Recognizing the importance to those who were adopted of understanding their family history, especially in terms of medical issues, the governor of Illinois this week signed a new law that will allow them access to the original birth certificates, which have heretofore been closed. Find out more on the story from WLS in Chicago in New Law Helps Illinois Adoptees Seeking Family History.


Mission Local Cleery Family


Mission Local is a project of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California/Berkeley. Elizabeth Creely relocated to San Francisco twenty-three years ago, settling in the Mission district. Little did she know that her new home was within a block of where her great-great-grandparents lived. She has since learned of the great contributions these Irish immigrants and their descendants have made. Read more about their story in The Irish Mission: A Family History.

Like most American schoolchildren, thirty-seven-year-old Trent Megill learned the story of the most well-known feud in American history: the Hatfields and the McCoys. A few months ago, during the course of researching his family history, he discovered that his ancestors were involved in their own feud in Florida; one between the Whitehurst and Stevenson families that cost more than a dozen lives. Read more in Genealogy Research Reveals Blood Feud Between Local Families.

The Doctor Rudy Wells of the World War I Generation

09 Jul 2014

For people of a certain age, the words “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” conjures memories of Saturday evenings in front of the television watching The Six Million Dollar Man (although in my case, it also brings up memories of my parents having to switch off every other Saturday night because while my brother loved Steve Austin, I was a die-hard fan of Emergency!). For those too young to know, the premise was that Austin was an astronaut who suffered severe injuries in an experimental plane crash. The government spent six million dollars to outfit him with bionic legs as well as an eye and an arm in a project headed by Dr. Rudy Wells.

Many people were subject to horrific injuries during the nineteenth century that caused them to lose limbs or subjected them to disfiguring scarring or worse. The vast majority of these injuries occurred during wars. Unfortunately, too little was known about medicine at the time. Most who suffered catastrophic injuries died of infections and gangrene. But with the advent of the twentieth century, medical treatment was vastly improved.

World War I saw millions of casualties. Tens of thousands of these were injured so badly that limbs needed to be amputated. With medical advances, many people who previously would have died now survived. This prompted incredible advances in prosthetics in both Germany and America. Enter William T. Carnes.


William T. Carnes

William T. Carnes


Carnes was a 26-year-old working as a machinist in Pittsburgh in 1902 when his right arm was caught in a milling machine. He was injured so badly that his arm needed to be amputated. He searched everywhere for an artificial limb, but found none that met his needs for form and function.

Thus a man with minimal education started down a path that would eventually help thousands. He became an engineer par excellence, examining even the tiniest movements of human hands and arms to develop mechanisms that would respond to the part of the living arm that remained. He eventually started creating new limbs not only for himself, but for others.

In 1908, Kansas City businessman J.P. Prescott met with an accident at his warehouse that resulted in the amputation of both legs and his left arm. Hearing about Carnes’ success, he ordered a limb from him.  He was so impressed that he offered to back Carnes in starting a manufacturing business. He moved to Kansas City and thus was born the Carnes Artificial Limb Company.

Carnes became the leading manufacturer of artificial limbs in the country. His designs were so effective that even today people use limbs based on his patents. He died in Vernon County, Missouri, in 1958, leaving his wife and son. His work changed not only his own life, but the lives of countless others. You can read more about him in The Mother of Invention’s Long Arm. You can read more about those injured in World War I in The ‘Bionic Men’ of World War I.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, July 3, 2014

03 Jul 2014

This week’s news roundup is coming a day early because of the Independence Day holiday here in the United States. This week’s stories include a review of seven apps you can use for your home library, a new crop of online law dictionaries, a family celebrating more than a century and a half in the same town, eight sensational female murderers, and the anniversary of an infamous fire in Irish history.

Emily VanBuren is going for a PhD in history at Northwestern University. She wrote a post for Gradhacker recently that genealogists will find very interesting. Family historians love their books. The problem is, once you reach a certain point, how do you remember whether or not you have a book on your shelf already when you are in the shelves of a used bookstore miles away from home? Emily reviews 7 Apps for Cataloguing Your Home Library.

The Legal Genealogist, Judy G. Russell, brings us an incredibly useful new resource. This week she wrote about a new project at the Georgetown University Law Library down in Washington, D. C. The staff there are working to digitize 87 titles and upload them for the public to use for free at Digital Dictionaries, 1481–1891. Read more in A Defining Moment.

Henry Brown was born in Scotland in 1834. Twenty years later he traversed the Atlantic Ocean to settle in Battle Creek, Michigan, seeking a better life. Over the past century and a half, six generations of the family have continued to contribute to the social fabric of Battle Creek, and the family is working to ensure that future generations remember their contributions. Read more about Henry Brown and his descendants in Living History: Brown Family Celebrating 160 Years in Battle Creek.

We all have black sheep in the family. Unfortunately, even the black sheep are better documented when they are men rather than women. This week Mental Floss ran an interesting piece of some of our female black sheep. The author detailed the stories of women who committed the worst of crimes: killing. But she does show that women’s stories can be recreated. Read more in 7 Sensational Murderers from History.


Four Courts Fire Dublin 1922


Lastly, Irish Central ran a report this week about an important anniversary. It was June 30, 1922, one of the worst days in Irish history. By the end of the day, Four Courts was ablaze and records detailing millennia were destroyed. Read more in Irish Family History: Ashes to Archives.