Genealogy Blog

“All in the Valley of Death Rode the Six Hundred”

21 Oct 2014

This Sunday marks the 160th Anniversary of one of the most well-known and deadly battles in modern military history. Today the Crimean Peninsula is in the lower part of Ukraine, and once again the site of military unrest. In 1854, it was in the crossfire between the forces of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire fighting to prevent Russian incursion into Europe. At the Battle of Balaclava, 670 British soldiers took on 5,240 Russian soldiers in the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Because of a miscommunication amongst the officers, the Light Brigade (composed of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, the 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, took on a pointless endeavor. Completely surrounded and hopelessly outgunned, they never had a chance of beating the Russians. At the end of the charge, they had suffered 127 wounded, 118 killed, and an additional 60 taken prisoner. 335 horses were also killed during the action, leaving less than a third of the original forces still capable of fighting. The charge was immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that begins:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Conditions for injured soldiers during the Crimean War were amongst the worst in history. The war involved about 1 million troops of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and their allies against the 710,000 troops of Russia and her allies. Britain and her allies suffered a mortality rate of more than 35%, while Russia suffered even more, with more than 55% of her troops dying.

Health conditions were appalling. Sanitary conditions were practically nonexistent. Far more men who initially survived their injuries would die as a result of infection and disease. Cholera and Typhus were rampant.


Florence Nightingale from Wikimedia Commons.

Florence Nightingale from Wikimedia Commons.


It was about the time of the Charge of the Light Brigade that 34-year-old Florence Nightingale arrived in Scutari in Turkey where many of the wounded were sent to hospitals there. She brought with her thirty-eight nurses: ten Roman Catholic nuns, eight Anglican nuns, nd twenty nurses from various hospitals. Within weeks this small group had brought some order to the chaos of the hospitals there.

By early 1855, Florence the death rate rose to 42%, including three of the nurses and seven of the doctors tending to the patients. In May, Florence visited the hospitals in and around Balaclava, tending to survivors of the Light Brigade amongst others. While there she fell ill with “Crimean Fever” (today identified as brucellosis). She became dangerously ill, but survived and return to Scutari, although she would return to Balaclava a year later. In August of 1856 she finally returned home.

A month after her return, she had an audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, discussing the need for health reform, especially in the military. Florence worked the rest of her life for increased health care, and recruiting women to work as nurses. Indeed, the next time you are in a doctor’s office or hospital and are being tended to by a female nurse, you can thank Florence for their gracious care.

In efforts were made to shed light on the poverty-stricken circumstances of many of the survivors of the charge. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, read his entire poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” for a recording on a wax cylinder by representatives of Thomas Edison. Martin Landfried/Landrey was a young trumpeter who survived the Charge. In 1890, he recorded the charge he and others sounded that fateful day, playing on a bugle that was used on the field at the Battle of Waterloo.


What Will You Tell the Future?

18 Oct 2014

We’ve had some excitement here in Boston over the last few weeks. The Old State House is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city. When Boston’s original Town House, built in the 1650s, burned in 1711, officials chose to rebuild on the same site. In 1713 the new building was erected to house the official offices of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was the seat of the Royal Government, housing the Royal Governor’s offices, the Massachusetts Assembly, and the courts of Suffolk County. At the peak of the roof on the side of the building facing the harbor were placed statues of a lion and a unicorn as symbols of the Royal authority.

From a balcony just beneath these statues official proclamations were read. It was just under this balcony that the Boston Massacre occurred in 1770. In July of 1776, the townspeople of Boston listened for the first time to the words of the Declaration of Independence as it was read from the balcony. Shortly thereafter the lion and the unicorn were torn from their perches and burned. During restoration work on the building in 1882, new statues of the lion and unicorn were placed where the originals once stood.

At the turn of the century, additional restoration work was done. When the lion was returned to its perch in 1901, it included something new. A time capsule had been placed inside the crown, a gift to the future. Flash forward to 2014. Restoration work is once again being performed. While reviewing the work done during the 1901 restoration, a reference from a 1901 newspaper is discovered that discusses the time capsule. The company doing the restoration work looked, and discovered that yes, indeed, the time capsule was there.


Boston Time Capsule


After spending time determining how best to remove the capsule without damaging the statue, it finally taken from its hiding place last week. During a ceremony on October 9, the capsule was officially opened and the items contained within it saw the light of day for the first time in more than a century. The capsule was filled with newspapers, cabinet cards, photographs, buttons from the 1900 presidential campaign, a GAR button and badge, wood from inside the lion placed in 1882, and much more. The city is now working on developing a list of items to be placed in a new time capsule that will be implanted into the lion’s crown to detail current life in Boston. Only two items are definitely being included: a photograph of Marty Walsh, the current mayor, and a medal from the running of the 2013 Boston Marathon, to remind the future of the horror of terrorism.

Reading all of this made think that a great idea for today’s genealogists is to create your own personal time capsule. What items would you include for the future to know what life was like for your family? When you are choosing items, remember to keep a few things in mind.

  • Use paper as well as digital formats. Who knows if the media on which you store your digital items will still be readable in a century? It may physically degrade, or it could simply be a matter of technology that is so old in a century that there will no longer be any machines capable of reading it.
  • Include black and white as well as color dyes. As anyone with forty-year-old photographs knows, the dyes in color photographs fade over time. Black and white fade at a much slower rate, and can still be easily seen a century or more later.
  • Write a letter by hand. There is much to be said for the joy in reading the handwriting of an ancestor. It brings a feeling of personal connection. Remember to use acid-free ink on archival paper, to improve the odds for survival.
  • Choose an environment proof container. And be careful of what you put into it. Modern materials are often manufactured using chemicals and plastics that can provide off-gasses that could be harmful in the long term to items contained in capsule.
  • Choose whom to leave the time capsule with. Charging a specific family member/members with preserving it is a great step. Include information about that in your will, so future generations will know of its existence. Another great way to preserve it is to put it on deposit at a library or archive, with directions that it is not to be opened until a certain date (e.g., in 100 years, 40 years after my decease, 10 years after the decease of my last surviving child [or grandchild], etc.). This vastly improves the odds that the capsule will not be accidentally lost to fire or theft, as it might be in private hands.

Tell your story and make sure it is heard by future generations. A time capsule is a different way to do this. To find out more about the Old State House time capsule in Boston, read Here’s What’s Inside the Old State House Time Capsule From 1901 in Boston Magazine.


A Millennial Census

15 Oct 2014

Genealogists are used to using census records in their research. There are all different kinds and types of enumerations. Recently, National Public Radio decided to take its own census.

For decades we have heard about the Baby Boomers This includes those born in the post-World War II years, staring in 1946, through the year 1964. This time period say a huge increase in the annual number of births in then U.S., which dropped precipitously after this time. As the largest group in America, it has often gotten a great deal of press, and we therefore have much information about them as a whole.

NPR is currently running a series on the New Boom. This generation is called the Millenials, and they were born between 1980 and 1996. They now outnumber the Baby Boomers, and their influence is being felt in society as a whole. This generation has no idea what an areal antenna is, what a party line is, what a rotary telephone is, or even what it is like to have television itself off for several hours each night. They’ve never heard of Groucho Marx, Gilligan, or Casablanca. But their influence is increasing as the Baby Boomers die off, and they move in to take the place of the older generation.

As part of this series on the Millenials, NPR is taking a census of them. The goal is to put a face on them, both figuratively and literally (despite the fact that many Millennials don’t know the difference between those two words and how to use them properly!). To do this, NPR is employing the latest in social media.


NPR Millenial Census


NPR asked those born in the Millenial era to take a selfie and post it to Twitter, Instagram, and/or Pinterest. They are to tag the images with the hashtag #NPRCensus. In addition to their face, participants were asked to include in the image the answers to three standard U.S. Census questions: race, ethnic origin, and sex (meaning gender). They were also allowed to include any other “check boxes” they desired.

The wide variety of information included in the responses is incredible. And even the answers to the standard questions are from the traditional answers of the past. The responses to gender, for example, reflect our current understanding  that far from being a black and white choice between two options (as it has been considered in the past), gender is actually a wide spectrum. And this generation will not be put back into an outmoded box that reflects antiquated ideas. One young person, for example, responded to the question of gender with the answer “ever-changing.” This person’s lower face and upper chest are block by the arms and camera, so as to eliminate any visual clues that older individuals might wish to use to push this person into the outmoded visions of earlier generations. The number of men who described themselves as feminists was very encouraging, as were the great number of straight individuals (including self-described Christians and conservatives) who support equal rights for GLBT persons.

So far men are being far outnumbered in their response. NPR hopes that more will contribute to the census as time goes on. To see a sample of those who have already responded, and their self-described categories, visit These Are Your Millenials, America.

3 Tips for Using FamilySearch in Your Research

13 Oct 2014


I’m off in Salt Lake City for a few days of research at the Family History Library. For almost twenty years now, I have made this journey several times a year. Back when I started, I would return home with reams of paper, photocopies made from microfilm and books. Over the years technology has changed dramatically. I return home now with a few photocopies, but far more images are stored on camera memory cards and flash drives. And many materials are now available online. FamilySearch now offers a variety of ways to help you with your research.


1. Family History Library

The Genealogical Society of Utah was founded in 1894 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and started collecting research materials. In 1938, GSU started an active program of microfilming records. Over the course of the past 75 years, almost 2.5 million reels of microfilm have been created, with records coming from all over the world. In addition to microfilm, the are thousands of books, also from all corners of the globe, containing transcriptions, abstractions, local histories, family histories, research methodology, atlases and gazetteers, and much more. All of these are housed in the five-story research facility across from Temple Square, free and available to the public. And despite an active digitization program, many records are available only at the Family History Library and its regional centers around the world.

2. FamilySearch Records

The FamilySearch website now provides us with access to a wide variety of digitized copies of original records. The microfilming program begun in 1938 has now morphed into a scanning problem, with digital cameras deployed around the globe. And staff members are actively working to digitize the records that were originally microfilmed. Tens of thousands of volunteers are donating time to index these records to make them even more accessible. Image databases on the FamilySearch website include both indexed images, and browse-only images. Unfortunately, recent upgrades have made accessing these materials more complicated than it was in the past, and you will have to dig further to get to individuals databases. The default forces uses into global searches which return many irrelevant results.

3. Other Online Resources

Over the last year or so, FamilySearch has moved away from an emphasis on research and focused more on sharing. While continuing to upload records, they have added a number of features to make it easier to share family stories with others. You can upload your family tree, audio files, photos, documents, and other items. Many of these are searchable separately from the databases. One thing to be aware of, however, is that once you upload items to FamilySearch you cannot take them down, and you grant a perpetual unlimited license to FamilySearch to use them in any way they wish. Judy G. Russell, the Legal Genealogist, wrote a piece about their terms of use last year.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, October 10, 2014

10 Oct 2014

This week’s news roundup includes the Legal Genealogist discussing poverty-stricken ancestors, a modern dance based on family history, Leland Meitzler discussing a new genealogy television show, Iceland’s fascination with genealogy and how it is helping us with medical research, and a techie look at family history in the future.

Judy G. Russell, the Legal Genealogist had an interesting post this week that applies to so many of us. Many of our ancestors were quite poor. And the poor were always susceptible to being caught in a financial morass that left them unable to pay their bills. This week Judy dedicated a post to these individuals, and why they would sometimes work to be declared insolvent (hint: it has something to do with prison). Read more in Broke By Any Other Name.

This week’s Telegram in Montreal carried an interesting story. The Festival of New Dance this week had an interesting dance piece that was part theater and part dance: a cross-pollination of many elements. The really interesting part of Peter Trosztmer’s “EESTI: Myths and Machines” is that it included parts of his family history. Find out how he incorporated his Estonian grandfather’s story into the piece in Dance Piece Starts as Personal Family History Research.

Leland Meitzler from the Genealogy Blog wrote an interesting post this week about a new genealogy television show. Roots: Our Journeys Home traces the families of a dozen CNN news anchors. It starts this Sunday with a primetime special and segments will air each day for the following week, culminating in a two-hour primetime special. Get the details in “Roots: Our Journeys Home” Debuts Sunday, October 12, on CNN with 2 Hour Primetime Showing.

It is well known in genealogical circles that Iceland has a very inbred population. People are so related multiple times that an app was even created to tell people exactly how closely they are related, to prevent pairings that are too closely related. Back in 1997, neurologist Kári Stefánsson created a digital version of the “Book of Icelanders” that traces their family history back for almost a millennium. This has allowed for tremendous scientific breakthroughs in the history of genetic traits as well as inherited disease. Discover the fascinating story in How Iceland’s Genealogy Obsession Leads to Scientific Brekathroughs.

And finally, for the techies among us, comes a story from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Lincoln Cannon, a philosopher and professional software engineer postulates about a future where we are able to run “family history simulations,” watching our ancestors act out their lives. Which raises some important philosophical questions. Follow this techie but interesting story in Are We Living in a Family History Simulation?


Family History Simulation



Extreme Genes Genealogy Radio

08 Oct 2014

Last week I had the pleasure of being a guest on the Extreme Genes radio show. Fisher, the host of Extreme Genes, is a native New Englander. He has been in broadcasting since he was a young man. And not he has turned his passion for genealogy into a radio show.

Fisher calls himself “Your Radio Roots Sleuth.” Each week, he hosts a show of about 45 minutes. The good news is that with today’s technology, you do not need to be within one of the broadcast areas that airs the show. Because each week after the show airs, it is turned into a podcast, archives on his website, iTunes, and libsyn.


Extreme Genes


Each episode has one or two guests covering a topic of interest to genealogists. On the episode I appeared on, Blaine Bettinger was also a guest, discussing DNA. Other guests have included Anna Swayne and Mathew Deighton of, Chris Tomlinson, and my old friend David Allen Lamber from the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. Topics have included:


  • DNA
  • Orphan Trains
  • Colonial Wars
  • 19th Century Photography
  • Who Do You Think You Are?
  • and much, much more!


At the end of the show, Tom Perry shares some technology tips. Recently he has discussed taking care of CDs/DVDs, the proper way to use USB drives, and how to shoot video.

Check out Fisher’s show, and listen to podcast versions of back episodes, at You can find my interview on episode 60: DNA Testong: A Different Animal for Revealing Family Secrets?


Scrolling Through History

07 Oct 2014

Scholars at Harvard University have been working on a very special project.  A cross-department cooperative effort between students in a course from the Committee on Medieval Studies and Harvard Divinity School  and those in a course at the Program in General Education has produced some intriguing analysis as well as records preservation.

Harvard’s libraries have many incredible items in their collection, some dating back millennia. Among their collections are scrolls from the Middle Ages.  The students got together to work on some of these scrolls.

The students from “Scrolls in the Middle Ages” and “Making the Middle Ages” met with the Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts to examine and select a scroll to research. Digital images of the scrolls were taken for the students to use. According to a story in the Harvard Gazette, Library Technology Services  is working with HarvardX (a group dedicated to implementing new technology at Harvard) to crate better image viewing and annotation tools.

“Next-generation digital images are made using archive-quality, high-resolution photography that precisely reproduces the color of the original object on-screen. The images show close detail, such as brushstrokes and texture. They are presented as panoramic, stitched-together graphics, rather than pages, so that students can focus on particular areas but also see the larger context of a piece.”


Kings of England Scroll

Closeup of scroll MS Typ II, a genealogy of the ancient Kings of England, worked on by Emerson Morgan.


The end result of the students’ work was twofold. First, an exhibit of scrolls was prepared for display at Houghton Library. One of the students, Emerson Morgan, is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in historical musicology. He worked with a scroll that details the genealogy of ancient Kings of England. Part of his work was to prepare the scroll for display. Unfortunately, the scroll is too long to fit  in the case if completely unrolled. This meant that he had to decide which sections to display. He said that the process “ . . . raised interesting questions about stories and how they are chopped or parsed.”

Those same questions often face genealogists. When we are telling our family stories, we must sift through all of the information we have accumulated. Which land transactions to we include? Do I include this part of the story, or omit it for something more (or less) provocative?  And how will those decisions impact others’ views of our ancestors?

The second result of the students’ work is online versions of the scrolls that are free to access. Some are available in on online Museum exhibit. Others are available through the Page Delivery Service offered by Harvard Libraries. You can read more about he students’ work and the scrolls in Scrolls and Scrolling: Digital Tools Key to Projects in Medieval Studies.

Aunt Mary Joins the Greek Gods and Changes Genealogy

04 Oct 2014

Daniel Ruth, a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, wrote an interesting piece last month.  A few years ago, his wife’s Aunt Mary asked her, when the time came, to travel to Mount Olympus in Greece to spread her ashes. When the time came, Ruth and his wife faced an intense challenge.

First they needed to deal with all of the paperwork involved in carrying cremated remains out of our country and into another. Mountains of bureaucratic red tape needed to be climbed and processed in order to obtain the appropriate permission from both governments.

Then there was the tiny detail of climbing the mountain, an activity not exactly in their daily exercise regime. Getting to the top of the mountain is no mean feat for anyone. It is frequently dangerous. In fact, just days after they made the trek, another climber died in a 600-foot fall.

And, upon their arrival at Litohoro, a final surprising challenge met them. The weather changed their plans. There would be no rest. If they wanted to hike the mountain, it would need to be immediately. Ultimately, they were able to scale the mountain and spread Mary’s ashes over a ridge. In Ruth’s words: “A gentle breeze carried Aunt Mary into eternity, into the embrace of the Greek gods.” You can read more of their adventure in Aunt Mary Joines the Greek Gods for Eternity.




Stories like Aunt Mary’s are becoming more and more common. For a variety of reasons, people are no longer going the traditional route for their post mortem plans. And it will change the way genealogists in the future research.

I’m not referring to cremation. That has been common for a century at this point. It is what happens to those cremains that has changed. In days past, cremains would be buried in cemeteries. Sometimes they are buried in family graves alongside coffins. Many cemeteries have a special area for cremated remains called a columbarium, or they might have an urn garden.

But today, many people are opting to have their ashes spread elsewhere, in places that have some sort of significance to them. The remains of John F. Kennedy, Jr., for example, were spread at sea. The ashes of comedian Robin Williams who died this summer were scattered in San Francisco Bay.

Many eco-conscious people are now opting to have a “green burial” or “natural burial.” The remains are not embalmed, and buried in biodegradable containers. Usually the graves are unmarked.

How is this changing genealogy? One of our major resources for research are grave markers. Many cemeteries have seen their inscriptions transcribed and published over the years. And website like FindAGrave and BillionGraves have made it even easier to view grave markers and transcriptions of the inscriptions. Often these inscriptions are the only records of death that we have.

These new forms of burial leave no markers. Not only will there be inscription to transcribe, but genealogists will be robbed of another wonderful experience. During my research I have visited the final resting places of countless individuals. Each time I am able to pause and reflect on who they were and what they accomplished in life. The feeling will not be the same for those whose remains are spread to the winds or the water, like Aunt Mary; JFK, Jr.; and Robin Williams. Our research, and our experiences, will never be the same.

Blog Posts for Genealogists, October 3, 2014

03 Oct 2014

This week we have a mix of blog posts from genealogists. Dick Eastman warns us about a potential records access problem, Randy Seaver writes about a new free genealogy database search engine, Diane Boumenot shows how to break down brick walls, Lisa Louise Cooke discusses “Family Tree Etiquette,” the Legal Genealogist finds a new branch on the family tree a bit close to home, and Valerie Hughes makes a plea for others not to write her obituary. I hope you enjoy them.

Connecticut has often been a problem for genealogists. Dick Eastman reported yesterday about another access proposal going before the state legislature. The bill, if it becomes law, would allow city and town clerks to require advance appointments for genealogists to research. This could have a devastating impact on records access. Read more in Genealogists Shouldn’t Need Town Hall Appointments.

Brick walls are one of the biggest curses in family history. We can spend years trying to tear them down and move past them. Diane Boumenot gives us a great lesson in how to move past your brick wall. Using the example of how she ultimately identified her third-great grandmother, and tracking her from Rhode Island to Connectict to Alabama to Missouri and back to Rhode Island. Learn some necessary techniques in How I Solved the Hannah Andrews Brick Wall.

Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems podcast is very popular. And her website provides even more information. This week she had a great post about the etiquette surrounding the use of private versus public family trees. She debates the merits of each, and provides an answer as to which is best in Family Tree Etiquette: Online Private vs. Public Trees.

Judy G. Russell, the Legal Genealogist, writes many valuable pieces for genealogists. This week, however, brought us a very special piece, and a very special reminder for all of us. When she was young, she discovered a half-brother she didn’t know she had. She eventually was able to track him down, met him, and form a relationship with him. But she came within a hair’s breadth of missing that opportunity. The takeaway is: don’t wait. You never know when you might be too late. Read the full story in Finding Evan.


Don't Write My Obituary


Finally this week we have a story from professional genealogist Valerie Hughes. She writes this week about obituaries. More specifically, she writes about how often there is such little information in an obituary. She has come up with a perfect solution. She is writing her own life story. And she is challenging each of us to do the same. Find out more in Please Don’t Write My Obituary!

Join Us at the Genealogy Event

02 Oct 2014

If you live in the New York area or the northeast, I hope you’ll consider joining me at the Genealogy Event in New York City in a couple of weeks. This is the third year for this event, and every year it builds on what has come before. This time around is no different.


Genealogy Event


The largest change is a new location and a new partner: the National Archives/New York City. Friday and Saturday will offer thirteen general sessions, each 30 to 45 minutes long.  Topics include:

  • British and Irish Records
  • Brick Walls
  • Heirloom Preservation
  • Lineage Societies
  • Military Records
  • Organization
  • Photos

There will also bet 20 advanced sessions, lasting 45 minutes to an hour. Among the subjects being discussed:

  • Cartography
  • Genealogical Proof Standard
  • German Genealogy
  • Google Images
  • Jewish Genealogy
  • Probate Research
  • Reading Old Documents

The speakers represent a variety of fields, and bring excellent knowledge and expertise. Besides myself, they include James M. Beidler, Elaine Collins, Denise Levenick, Maureen Taylor, and more.

Sunday is a special day dedicated solely to the subject of DNA. The day is divided in half. The morning is dedicated to four beginning sessions.  The afternoon, however, will cover advanced topis, including adoption, yDNA, and an ask-the-expert panel.

There will be a vendor area for you to explore genealogy products and services. I will be there with my Find My Past colleagues Elaine Collins and Brian Donovan to answer your questions about Mocavo and Find My Past.

One of the unique things about the Genealogy Event is the pricing structure. You have the option to pay for the general sessions or for individual advanced sessions. There are also VIP options that give you priority access and special benefits.

The Saturday sessions will take place at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan, the home of NARA/New York City. Sunday’s DNA Day will take place nearby at the India House Club. Find out more about this and how you can join the hundreds of people who will be there at