Genealogy Blog

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.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, June 27, 2014

27 Jun 2014

This week’s roundup of stories starts with the Legal Genealogist’s tale of a soldier scholar followed by a piece by Randy Seaver about WikiTree’s new DNA service. We then find a story about billionth image at FamilySearch, current world leaders’ family ties to World War I, and singer Demi Lovato’s grandfather.

We start with a story from Judy G. Russell, the Legal Genealogist. We sometimes forget that even acts of the United States Congress can mention individuals by name. She found a 1912 act that allowed José Pasos Diaz of Nicaragua to attend West Point. Why was a foreigner going the U.S. Military Academy? And was he the only one? Find out more in Alien Admission.

WikiTree does not do DNA testing, but in recognition of the significant roll it is playing in some aspects of genealogy, the team there as developed a new product. The DNA Ancestor Confirmation Aid will help  users with even distant ancestral connections collaborate. Randy Seaver tested it and writes about his experience using it in WikiTree DNA Confirmation Aid Results.


FamilySearch Spiders


This month FamilySearch announced reaching the milestone of one billion images of records from around the world. Deseret News ran an interesting story this week about some of the records that have recently been added. Included in this is the story of the spider in the Catholic church records from Oaxaca, Mexico. Find out more about the spider in Ancestors, Actors, and Arachnids: Interesting Things in 1 Billion Historic Images.

World leaders will gather this week in Belgium to memorialize the start of World War 1 a century ago. Although it may seem like a long time ago, this is a war that saw the participation of many relatives of these leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron. grandfathers, great-grandfathers, uncles, great-uncles, and more were all actively involved in the war. Some survived, and many did not. Read more in the Washington Post in Obama, Putin, Merkel: WWI is Family History.

Finally, we conclude with another family story. Singer Demi Lovato spoke openly about her grandfather for the first time this week on a television show honoring trailblazers in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community. He was a brave man, who told his family he was gay in the 1960s, a time where many lived in silence. It is by sharing stories like Demi’s that we can honor our GLBT ancestors. Read more in the Huffington Post in Demi Lovato Opens Up About Her Gay Family History.

News and Blog Posts for Genealogists, June 20, 2014

20 Jun 2014

Our weekly roundup of stories has some fascinating topics this week. We start with the top five questions about Irish genealogy, then move to the identification of a prolificly photographed mystery man, a new organization called GRANDMA, some wonderful resources via the Legal Genealogist, and an incredible map of the Mississippi.

We start with a piece from IrishCentral. They recently held a Q&A session on their Facebook page, and saw a huge number of inquiries. The team compiled a list of the five most commonly asked questions and answered them. Included in these questions are: Where do I start? Where in Ireland did my family come from? When did my family come to America? How do I get back further? and What does my surname mean? Get the answers in The Top Five Questions About Irish Genealogy.

Back in 2012 photo historian Donald Lokuta came across a set of silver gelatin prints, all thank in photo booths, and taken between the 1930s and the 1960s. He located collectors that had other images that matched his. Hundreds of photos were eventually uncovered. The joined collections were part of an exhibit at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. This led to online coverage, which led to identification of the mystery man. Read about it on Gizmodo in The Mystery Man in Those 445 Photobooth Pics Has Finally Been Identified.

Dick Eastman reported this week on the creation of a new genealogy resource. The California Mennonite Historical Society has created a valuable database of more than a million individuals in eastern Europe. The new Genealogy Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry is called by the acronym GRANDMA. Read more from Dick in GRANDMA: the Genealogical Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry.

The Legal Genealogist, Judy G. Russell, has given us a treasure trove this week. Between Monday and Thursday, she each day highlighted a different source of images that are free to use. Some of these images are quite amazing. And on Friday, she gave us a bonus post about how to do safer searches for images on Google and Bing. Read all five posts at The Legal Genealogist.

The Vault is the history blog published by Slate. Recently Rebecca Onion, who runs the blog, talked about a nineteenth-century map of the Mississippi River. By the 1860s the river was filled with steamboats. The original map is eleven feet long and was sold to tourists. The map is incredibly detailed, down to listing the names of landowners along the river. It starts in Minnesota, with the lakes and rivers that are the source of the great river, and traces it down to the head of the river at New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. Read more and see the entire map in Scroll Down the Mid-19th-Century Mississippi River Using This Super-Long Map.

Mississippi River Map

I’ll Drink to That

18 Jun 2014

Alcohol has been part of the American experience from the very beginning. Christopher Columbus actually brought sherry with him on his voyages in the fifteenth century. When the Mayflower headed to the New World, she was loaded with more beer than water.

During the colonial period, alcohol was made from many things: carrots, tomatoes, onions, beets, celery, dandelions, and more. From earliest times there were laws to regulate the sale of spirits. New England was practically built on the triangle trade, which relied on their distillation of molasses into rum.

Colonists who lived in rural areas had access to relatively clean water. But in the more populated areas, especially the cities, the waterways were filthy. They were far more commonly used as sewers than a source of drinking water. The water they did drink was put in bottles and casks at cleaner sources and brought into the cities. And alcohol, also packaged in bottles and casks, was also readily available.

During the Revolutionary War, Americans were looking for a replacement for rum made from molasses brought in from other British colonies. This paved the way for the creation of bourbon. It did not take long for whiskey and bourbon to supersede rum as the beverage of choice.

By 1790 the per capita consumption of the equivalent of 90 proof alcohol was 3.5 gallons per year. By 1830 this had risen to 4 gallons. This was twice the level it is now (in 2007 the level was 2 gallons).

Remember that these numbers are per capita, which includes every man, woman, and child in America. In reality, while children consumed some (very watered down) alcohol, and women drank a share, the vast majority of this was consumed by men. That puts the consumption among those who actually did drink much, much higher.


Alcohol in Early American Republic


To find out more about America’s love affair with alcohol (and discover some very interesting facts), read Alcohol and Drinking in American Life and Culture from SUNY/Potsdam. You can also watch a C-SPAN video by history professor Alan Taylor at the University of California/Davis as he teaches his students about Alcohol Use in the Early American Republic.

A Question of Geography

17 Jun 2014

Two-hundred thirty-nine years ago today, one of the pre-eminent battles in American history took place. And one of the biggest misnomers in American history started.


Bunker HIll Monument


In June 1775, Boston was held by British troops. At that time, Boston was on a peninsula, with only a small neck of land connecting it to the mainland at Roxbury. The neck was fortified for defense from the very beginning.  In 1774, General Gage created heavier fortifications and added a ditch that filled with water at high tide, effectively turning Boston into an island.

Hills in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Charlestown overlooked Boston. By June 1775, British officers were about to send troops to these hills for additional protection. On June 13 colonial leaders learned of the plans and created a defense plan.

The village of Charlestown was located on another peninsula, which protruded into Boston Harbor on the north side of Boston. On the night of June 16, 1,200 troops under the command of William Prescott crept into Charlestown to fortify Bunker Hill, overlooking Boston.

Once the initial work started on Bunker Hill, Prescott and other officers, including engineer Richard Gridley decided that it made more sense to locate the fortifications on nearby Breed’s Hill. Breed’s Hill was closer to Boston than Bunker Hill. They built a large redoubt there during the night.

Their work was noticed by the British just before dawn. General Clinton urged an early attack via Charlestown Neck that would allow them to starve out the Colonials and cut off their avenue of retreat. But the remaining generals, including Burgoyne, Gage, and Howe were determined that the Colonials were no match for British regulars, and that a direct attack would be quick and easy.

The British assault started at 3 p.m. By 5 p.m., the colonists had retreated across the neck, and the British controlled the hill. But the victory was Pyrrhic at best. The retreat was orderly and in control, not a wild flight by the Colonials. In fact, Colonial forces ensured that the British could not surround them, allowing fleeing forces to escape.

That day, 2,400 Colonial forces met more than 3,000 British regulars. The Colonials suffered losses of 115 killed, 305 wounded, and 30 captures (20 of whom later died). British forces, however, were decimated. Among the 226 killed were 19 officers. And 828 were wounded, including 62 officers. Colonials casualties were only 19%, while more than a third of British troops were killed or injured, including a large number of officers. Even though they lost that day, overall victory went to the Colonials. The fact that they inflicted far more damage than they themselves suffered galvanized the colonies and gave them confidence that the British forces were not infallible.

But forevermore that battle would be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. On the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, in 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette laid the cornerstone for a monument to the battle. Geographically, however,  the Bunker Hill Monument even today stands on Breed’s Hill, perpetuating one of the greatest misnomers in American history.

A Rose By Any Other Name

09 Jun 2014

Last Tuesday I wrote about a piece that Nate Silver did concerning first names. This made me wonder, who has studied surnames? Interesting enough, at the same time I was wondering this, a friend posted a story from PBS that originally ran back in 2001, but is totally on point.

The POV series on PBS airs documentaries with a “Point of View.” In 2001, the series broadcast The Sweetest Sound, from filmmaker Alan Berliner. His goal in making the film was to explore identity through our names. He examines the historical origins of names and their roles in society.

The film is a personal look at what his name means to him. But as he takes that journey, he shares a lot of interesting information with viewers. And he discusses concepts and ideas that we all have thought of. Such as being confused with someone else of the same name. In the end, he states that “I can’t separate it from who I am, or what I do. And one day, it will be impossible to separate it from who I was, and what I did.” As he makes this statement, images flash on screen. Gravestones and squares from the AIDS Quilt. And it transitions to the New England Holocaust Memorial, with its millions of numbers of those who died at the hands of the Nazis.

One of my favorite parts of the film is when he visits the National Archives and talks with Marian Smith from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service and Barry Moreno, a librarian at Ellis Island National Monument. They explode the greatest myth in American history: that any name was ever changed at Ellis Island. I have written about this before, and it is one of my big pet peeves. It never happened, and to date, not a single person has been able to provide documentary evidence contrary. He goes into detail about the problem, starting with the statement that “this could be the subject of an entire film.”

In the closing credits, he took pity on people whose names always appear in the middle or the end of the alphabet. So, when he presented his “Thank You” list, he had the names scroll by in reverse alphabetical order, from Z to A. Among the genealogists who appeared on the list were Eileen Polakoff and Gary Mokatoff.


Sweetest Sound


As part of the airing, PBS created an interesting database.  Extracting data from the 1990 and 2000 U.S. censuses, they created a database of the most popular surnames. The Census Bureau published two lists, one from each census, that contained the surnames that occurred 100 or more times.. The list from 1990 contained 88,799 names while the one from 2000 had 151,671. Interestingly, the number from 2000 includes about 90 percent of the population. But it only covered about 3 percent of the surnames! The official tally contained more than 6 million surnames, of which about 65 percent were listed for only one person. Thus, 97 percent of surnames in the U.S. did not appear on this list.

I searched the How Popular is Your Last Name? database for my surname and discovered that in 1990, it was ranked number 6,074, but by 2000 it had dropped to 10,639.  You can search the database for your own surname the on the PBS website. And you can watch The Sweetest Sound on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, June 6, 2014

06 Jun 2014

From the gravely serious to the lighthearted, this week’s collection of news stories and blog posts will keep you thinking. We have the story of a Civil War soldier’s remains, photographs of D-Day, the Legal Genealogist defining “exit,” and using DNA to give us a picture of our ancestors, the Nintendo family tree.

First comes a story from Maryland that my friend Amy Crow posted to Facebook. A human skull sat in the basement of a family’s house for the past sixty-five years, until recently, when they tried to auction it off. The auction was stopped because the house is located in Gettysburg, and more specifically, it was the site of a military hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg.  Read the more of the story in Auction of Civil War Soldier’s Remains Sparks Outrage, Bidding Canceled.


Civil War Soldier Auction


This week marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasions of Normandy that was the beginning of the end of World War II. Operation Overlord was the largest invasion by sea in military history, involving more than 156,000 Allied troops. Photographer Peter Macdiarmid has taken modern photographs of locations in France and England to match archival images of the days leading up to, during, and immediately following the invasion. Truly remarkable visions. The Guardian has a weekly Then and Now series, and featured Macdiarmid’s photos this week in D-Day Landing Scenes in 1944 and Now.

Judy G. Russell, the Legal Genealogist, regularly reports on terminology we may be unfamiliar with. This week she discusses the word Exit. Not, of course, the way out of a building. She is referring to the legal term exit. So what does the word refer to in legal terms? Find out by reading Exit Here.

The BBC reported on an interesting development in genetic genealogy. American Mark Shriver and Belgian Peter Claes have made major progress and a very interesting project for genealogists. They are working to take genetic and physical data from living people, and determining what their ancestors looked like. Read more and watch a video in Genetic Genealogy: Looking for the Faces of Our Ancestors in DNA.

Finally this week, a bit of fun. Freelance graphic designer Vin Lauria loves both history and Nintendo. So he decided to put all of his talents together. After all, Nintendo has been around for 125 years, long before modern video games. So what did he do? He created the Nintendo Family Tree. Starting with early arcade games, he traced the evolution of eight generations of Nintendo games. So if you want to know who the grandfather of Super Mario Brothers is, visit Ninentendo’s Familiy Tree is Massive.