Genealogy Blog

We Are Still Boston Strong

15 Apr 2014

Imagine what your ancestors though when they gathered to hear the Declaration of Independence read in public for the first time. Or when they heard the news of Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War. Or the start of World War I “The War to End All Wars.” Or the start of World War II, the war after that. Or when they heard of the sinking of the Titanic. Some of you remember where you were when you heard the news that President Kennedy was shot (For others it may be your parents or grandparents). For my generation, each of us remembers that bitter cold day in January 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded less than two minutes into flight.

The entire world knows the date of 9/11 and how our lives changed after it. For some, they lived it, while for others it is history. But in Boston, the date of April 15, 2013, will always be remembered. It was a typical April day, cool and perfect weather for running the Boston Marathon. Several friends of mine were running, and another friend from out of town asked me to join her at the finish line to wait. Unfortunately I had too much work to do that afternoon.

I had the television on while I was working, showing the runners come in and hoping I might catch a glimpse of a friend, when the explosions occurred. The first one at the finish line itself; the second only a block away. At first there was the thought that it was a gas explosion from inside a building. Then, slowly, the truth became evident. Boston had been attacked.

In the initial hours, there was confusion as the search for answers began. Trying to locate friends to be certain they were okay. This task was made more difficult as the BPD asked people not to use mobile phones in that section of the city, for fear of setting off additional bombs.

As the hours turned to days, the questions remained. Who had set off the bombs? Where were they? The biggest question: Were there any other devices planted in the city ready to explode? Would major tourist attractions like Quincy Market be next? Would a packed subway car be destroyed underground?

Personally, I had to make a decision. I was to speak at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference up in New Hampshire. Like all Bostonians, I was quite shaken. And we still had no answers. I decided to go, and  was in Manchester when the Shelter in Place order was given, and worried for the safety of my friends back home. My genealogy family, however, was there as always with love and support.

In the end, four people were dead, including eight-year-old Martin Richard. More than 260 people suffered injuries ranging from the minor to the 16 people who lost limbs. Nobody who lives in Boston was unaffected personally. While I was fortunate not to have any close family or friends injured, a chorus friend was the next-door neighbor and close friend of Martin Richard. For weeks, there was a physical scar running through the heart of the city as investigators closed down several city blocks, looking for clues. Then there was the grisly task of cleaning up the area. For months, people from all over the world dropped flowers, shoes, t-shirts, signs, and other items in a makeshift memorial that has now been preserved at the City of Boston Archives.


Boston Marathon Survivors


As our ancestors did before us, we stand up and move on in the face of violence. Today is a day of mourning and tribute in Boston. On Monday we will see the Boston Marathon running again, with more runners than ever before in history. There will also likely be more spectators than ever before. There will definitely be more police and security officials than ever before. But we will be there. And we will run. And we will watch. And we will not be cowed by hate. We are Boston Strong.

Copyright Free Maps from the New York Public Library

14 Apr 2014

The New York Public Library is filled with so many treasures for researchers. Every visit I find new materials to work with. But not everyone is lucky enough to be able to get to Manhattan to research on a regular basis. The NYPL has been working to digitize some of their collections to make it easier for people to access materials.

A couple of weeks ago, the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division made a huge announcement. The division announced the release of “more than 20,000 cartographic works as high-resolution downloads.” But the best part of the announcement was what came next: “We believe thiese maps to have no known US copyright restrictions.” That’s right, these maps are copyright-free.

The division has been scanning maps for 15 years. Much of this digitizing was done through grants from organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities. Among these maps are:

  • 10,300 property, topographic, zoning, and insurance maps for New York City from 1852 to 1922
  • 2,800 maps from state, county, and city atlases (mostly New York and New Jersey)
  • 1,100 maps of the Mid-Atlantic cities and states form the16th to the 19th centuries
  • more than 1,000 maps of New York City boroughs and neighborhoods from 1660 to 1922
  • more than 700 topographic maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created between 18777 and 1914

While many of the images are black and white or grayscale, a very large number of them are full-color. Even some of the oldest maps are in color. You can browse through or search for maps on keywords. You can send a url to share with friends, or you can purchase a high-resolution digital image. You can also purchase high-resolution prints of the maps. You can also print out a copy difrectly from your browser.

When you look at an image, not only will you see the map, but you will see other information as well:

  • Names (of cartographers, etc.)
  • Name of the collection it comes from
  • Date of publication and publisher
  • Library Location where you will find the original
  • Subject classifications (called Topics)
  • Notes about the map/image
  • Identifiers, including the NYPL Catalog number and the RLIN/OCLC number


One of the map pages from the New York Public Library's Digital Collections.

One of the map pages from the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections, showing a seventeenth-century map of New York, New England, and Canada.


You can check out the maps by visiting the NYPL’s Digital Collections area. You can use these maps under a Creative Commons license from the NYPL, but as they warn you, you must be careful about any maps that are restricted because of a right of privacy or other restrictions.

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

11 Apr 2014

This week’s roundup of stories ranges from the serious to the very fun. From the institutional to the personal, they represent a wide range of sources, and a geographic area that spreads from the United States to the United Kingdom to Sweden.

We start with an admonition from Harold Henderson. In a conversation originally started on Facebook by Dave McDonald (former president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists), Harold discusses the importance of sorting through your genealogical materials (a dilemma faced by all too many of us). Read the full story in Cleanup in Aisles 1–1,000.

Six months ago, The National Archives of the United Kingdom released the first redesigned website pages. Last week, new pages for the Education and Information Management sections released beta versions of those new pages. The Education area is of special interest to genealogists. You can read more about what the team has been up to, what they’ve learned, and future plans in Beta Release of New Web Pages.

Terry Koch is a music teacher in Washington. For Christmas his children presented he and his wife with albums to fill out for their granddaughters, telling the tales of their lives. As he is about to enter the world of retirement, he is starting to think of genealogy, a tale that many of us are very familiar with. He wrote a wonderful piece about his story in the Walla-Walla Union Bulletin, Retirement Gives Chance to Reflect on Family History.

In a Toronto neighborhood sits a house that was built in the 1940s. The 96-year-old owner has resided in it since 1942. After 72 years, she has decided to sell her home. What makes the story even more interesting is that the house has not been redecorated since the 1950s. It is a perfect time capsule of that period. See the pictures on in 96 Year Old is Selling Amazing 1950s Time Capsule.


Swedish Gravestone


We wrap up this week with another decorating story. The Nilsson family of the town of Fuglie in southern Sweden was renovating their living room when they made an amazing discovery. Under the floor of the room was embedded a very large 200-year-old gravestone. And this is the second time in less than a year that a gravestone has been found in the area. Read more in Swedes Find 200-Year-Old Gravestone in Living Room.

The Death of Expertise

05 Apr 2014

Death of Expertise


Social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols published an interesting piece in the Federalist  a couple of months  ago called “The Death of Expertise.” Although talking generally about society, I think that much of what he said is applicable to what we’ve been experiencing in genealogy over the last few years.  Nichols writes:

“Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing mor than fallacious ‘appeals to authority,’ sure signs of dreadful ‘elitism,’ and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a ‘real’ democracy.”

He goes on to say that:

“I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise:’ a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death ofactual expertise. . . Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live. This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes . . . But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen. . .”

The Internet age has brought us many benefits. Our access to images of original records has never been greater. And we have many more ways to share information than we ever have before.  But in many ways, we have taken steps backwards.

Throughout the twentieth century, genealogists worked to move away from the unstructured and undocumented compiled genealogies that had been published with little to no documentation, and many made up out of whole cloth. They worked to educate people to understand how easy it is to make mistakes and link individuals into families incorrectly. We developed peer-reviewed journals like the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The American Genealogist, and many others, to provide high-quality documented genealogies. This was not only to make such work available, but to show others how to properly research.

For all they have done to help us, computers have also worked against us. In some ways, the ability of computers to process large amounts of information quickly has become a problem. Instead of trying to find out ancestors, many people are in a competition to build the largest database of names. Little attention is paid to things like proof and documentation.

We’re also losing the ability to understand the basics of research and how to really find our ancestors. One of my colleagues recently had a conversation in an online forum with individuals who didn’t understand the difference between an index and an original record.  One individual was quite adamant that my colleague was simply being too difficult and elitist because the colleague tried to explain the importance of examining original records.

The major issue, though, is that folks like that now have a public forum for their views. They can create a website or a blog and get followers who are even less experienced than they are, and mislead these beginners. And anyone who dares to speak against them is simply elitist.

This is not to say that all bloggers are inexperienced or uninformed. To the contrary, many are quite knowledgeable and experienced. And having these folks share their experience and knowledge is quite helpful. But newer and less experienced genealogists would have no basis to be able to determine the difference between those with true expertise and those promoting inferior “knowledge.”

Worse still is that many of these individuals are actively working against the promotion of quality research. They attack anyone would dare to question inferior research techniques as “elitist.” By the same token, many experts are too quick to denigrate anyone who questions anything new and different. We must find a balance, and do our best to promote quality research techniques so that even beginners can understand how to be confident in their research findings.

New Help Finding Images You Can Use Online

03 Apr 2014

Copyright protection has been an issue forever, but the coming of the internet age has exacerbated the issues surrounding copyright. Among others, Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist, regularly discusses copyright issues. Nowhere do these appear more frequently than with images.

We often find images online that help us with our research. They may be pictures of our ancestors, or photographs of places where our family lived. You might find maps of their hometowns. Or there might locate images of records involving your ancestors.

Unfortunately these images are often protected by copyright. You may be able to use them for your personal research, but nothing else. That means no posting on your blog or website to share with your family. No including them in a book your publishing about your research. This is true even if it is “just for the family.”

Locating images that are pertinent to your research can be challenging enough. But once you find them, you have the added task of discovering what you can and cannot do with the image.

Google now has a new tool to help you with this task. Using the Advanced Image Search on Google gives you extra tools to help you with your search. In addition to the usual Boolean options for searching, you can also look by any combination of

  • Image Size
  • Aspect Ratio
  • Colors in the Image (including black and white)
  • Type of Image (face, line drawing, clip art, etc.)
  • Region of the World
  • File Type

You can also search a single site by entering the URL into a separate field.


Usage Rights Google Search


But the newest addition to the search functionality is Usage Rights. You can look for images based on the usage rights. You can filter your search results by the following options:

  • not filtered by license
  • free to use or share
  • free to use or share, even commercially
  • free to share or modify
  • free to sue, share or modify, even commercially

Your first thought might be that as an individual, you might not need to worry about the commercial use options. But remember, there are many things that could have your blog or website viewed as a commercial venture. For example, if you have ads or participate in affiliate programs on your website, you might be considered commercial, even if you don’t charge for access to your site. Try these options to help you get the images you want and need for your research. Just be certain to verify the terms of reuse for images that you use.

Did Pneumonia Kill the President?

01 Apr 2014

We use all types of records in our research to find out about the deaths of our ancestors. Modern death certificates usually include a cause of death. Obituaries can also shed light on how an ancestor died. Usually we just accept this as fact, but what happens if a mistake was made?

We all learned in history class about the many distinctions of President William Henry Harrison. He gave the longest inaugural address in history, 8,445 words. He held office for the shortest period of time, just one month. He was the first president to die in office, on April 4, 1841. And we all remember the story. He presented that longest inaugural address in freezing cold, wet weather with no coat, hat, or gloves, which gave him pneumonia.

Philip A. Mackowiak, M.D., has taken a new look at the Harrison’s death. He has examined the evidence about Harrison’s death in light of modern knowledge about public health and disease. And what he discovered was quite interesting.

First, remember that Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp. Not too far from the White House was a marsh formed by an outflow of sewage. The water supply for the building was only a few blocks from sewage. Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, was followed into the presidency by James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, both of whom reported developing gastroenteritis while living in the White House. Taylor actually died from the stomach illness.

Early-nineteenth century medical care was still sub-par in many ways. While the President’s doctor did not bleed him, he did give him opium among other medications. One of Opium’s side effects is to prohibit the body’s ability to eliminate microbes from the system, and actually makes it easier for them to get into the blood.

On his deathbed, physicians reported that Harrison’s pulse was dropping, and his extremities were cold and turning blue. Mackowiak explains that these are traditional symptoms of sepsis – an infection of the bloodstream. Given all the evidence, he explains that Harrison’s death was likely due to enteric fever. Pneumonia was only a secondary issue.


Diagnosing Giants


Harrison’s story is one of those included in a book by Mackowiak: Diagnoising Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the World. You can also read more details about Harrison’s story in a piece he co-authored for the New York Times: What Really Killed William Henry Harrison?

This story is a great warning to us as genealogists. Just because you find a cause of death on a death certificate, it may not necessarily be true. A little more digging might reveal more details that shed light on what really happened.

Pass On Your Passwords

31 Mar 2014

The end is coming. And none of us know when. As genealogists, we spend a great deal of time dealing with the dash (the en-dash that separates the years of birth and death [e.g., 1912–2000]). But, like many other aspects of modern society, technology has changed even that.

I have numerous items handed down in my family. I have letters, documents, cabinets made by my grandfather. I’ve got photographs of many members of the family. My high school yearbooks sit on a shelf in one of the bookshelf cabinets my grandfather made.

But now we have fewer and fewer of these tangible objects to pass down. Our photographs are digital images. Instead of writing in diaries, we post on blogs. And the way things are changing so quickly, I wonder if, in the future, my nieces will be able to listen to the two 33 1/3 rpm albums and ten CDs of music on which I have performed over the past thirty years.

Facebook posts, Google mail, Twitter tweets, Instagram photos, and more are probably part of your digital presence. With so much of our lives going digital, have you prepared for how you will handle passing down your digital assets? Have you even researched which assets you can pass down, and which you cannot?

Facebook, at the request of your family, will delete your page. Or, it can be left up as a memorial to you. Facebook does not check to see if you are still alive. Twitter deletes the files of deceased users, but will provide a copy of your public tweets to your heirs. Instagram, however, will delete all of your files upon being notified of your death.




In addition to your funeral arrangements and will, be sure you include instructions for your digital assets. Create a list of websites  that  you have accounts with. You also need to pass on your passwords (and I’m not talking about your recordings of the Allen Ludden game show you copied from the Game Show Network)  so that your executor (or other designated individual) can access them. You may also leave directions for what is to be done with the files and data on each site.

There are subscription sites that you can join that will administer this password process for you. PasswordBox, for example offers both free and paid accounts. A free account stores 25 passwords. For $11.99 a year you can store unlimited passwords. After your death, your designated contacted gets in touch with them, provides proof that you are deceased, and gets access to all of the passwords. PassMyWill is a different kind of site. It is connected to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. The site then monitors your postings and tweets. When it thinks your are deceased, your designated contact gets a “Dead Man’s Switch” email.

It is important, however, that you understand the terms of use for your websites. Yahoo, for example, expressly forbids transferring usernames and passwords. If your designated individual were to log in to your account after your death, he or she would technically be committed a crime. Seven states have passed laws that supercede those rules. Unfortunately, my home state of Massachusetts is not one of them.

News and Blog Posts for Genealogists, March 28, 2014

28 Mar 2014

This week’s roundup of news stories and blog posts, as usual, covers a wide variety of subject matters. From the seventeenth century, to the turn of the twentieth century, to modern-day concerns, we have some interesting topics for you.

We start off with the leading expert on seventeenth-century immigrants, Robert Charles Anderson. Head of the Great Migration Study Project at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Last week he wrote a post in the society’s Vita Brevis blog about different groups who emigrated during this period. I especially liked his comment about the Leiden Pilgrims who came to Plymouth. “With no more than about 250 immigrants during the 1620s, the examination of this group has consumed more paper and ink than any other even in the history of the settlement of early seventeenth-century New England. Read the full post in Assorted populations of the Great Migration.

This week saw an interesting discussion on Yahoo! Shine about a compelling Reddit post. Reddit user Mike Delgado is the owner of a letter penned by Rose Aéélie Icard. What was so interesting about the letter is the subject. It contains Icard’s memories of surviving the sinking of the Titanic. In seeking a fuller translation of the letter, written in Icard’s native French, he decided that the best place to get assistance would be Reddit. And boy did he stir up interest. Read more in Titanic Survivor’s Revealing Letter Sparks Interest on Reddit.


Titanic Letter


Rob Nix recently purchased an old wardrobe at the Community Furniture Store in the town of Selby, Yorkshire. As he was installing the wardrobe at home, he was hit by a small metal tin. To his surprise, the tin included a 1908 birth certificate and 1932 marriage certificate. You can read more about his efforts to find descendants in Family History Treasures are Uncovered in Antique Wardrobe.

We are used to hearing about the troubles of libraries in today’s digital age. Recenty, however, the Brooklyn Public Library reported that the number of library queries rose last year to more than three million requests. Although the questions covered a wide range of topics (including “Did an elephant really swim from Brooklyn to Staten Island?”), officials report that much of the increase is due to genealogists. Read more (and get the answer to the elephant question)  in Brooklyn Public Library Researchers Answered 3.5 Million Questions in 2013, Records Show.

Finally this week is a post from the Legal Genealogist, Judy G. Russell. Many of us have used yearbooks from our schooldays for genealogical research. The question is, are there copyright issues when it comes to using those yearbooks. The answer, as any good lawyer will tell you, is “It depends.” Find out more about potential issues in Copyright and the School Yearbook.

Hope for Hart Island

25 Mar 2014

Last fall I wrote about Hart Island in New York City, the largest potter’s field in the world. The island is under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Corrections. Prisoners from Ryker’s Island perform 1,500 burials each year of indigent and unknown individuals. Melinda Hunt has been pushing the city for some time to make it more accessible. Currently, visitors can only go as far as a gazebo by the docks. They cannot visit the graves of family members.

Two weeks ago, the New York City Council took the first step to rectify this situation. Five members of the council introduced legislation to transfer custody of Hart Island. Instead of being overseen by the Department of Corrections, the island would now be supervised by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Additional legislation would provide for regular ferry service for visitors. The goal is to return to the days when people visited cemeteries regularly, as places to celebrate the lives of those interred there.

By the early nineteenth century there were almost a hundred graveyards in Manhattan. As the island got more cramped, public health issues (as well as the desire to reclaim valuable real estate on the island) caused officials to relocate burial grounds to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. But many areas that were originally burial grounds still have bodies buried there. Some of the old burial grounds are still parks. Famous landmarks, such as Bryant Park (next to the New York Public Library) and Washington Square Park, started out as burying grounds.

Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn are large garden cemeteries built in the mid-nineteenth century. They are home not only to New York’s elite, but also to every-day citizens. Even today, these cemeteries host tours, concerts, and other events for the public. They are beautiful and awe-inspiring.


Cenotaph for Augustus Lafayette Cowdrey, a lawyer and volunteer fireman killed during the great fire of 1845.

Cenotaph for Augustus Lafayette Cowdrey, a lawyer and volunteer fireman killed during the great fire of 1845. Private collection of the author, used with permission.


It is heartening to see a government work to preserve a burial ground in such a way. Not only do they seek to preserve it, but member of the New York City Council seek create a public space that will encourage people to visit and create recreational areas for people to enjoy.

This is a great change from many other stories that we see and hear about, where cemeteries are just plowed over or buried under concrete as development encroaches upon them. The New York Times is very supportive of this move by the city council. Last week they ran a piece on the opinion page that talks about the Hart Island situation. You can read it in The Graves of Forgotten New Yorkers.


5 Valuable Websites for British Research

22 Mar 2014



There are many resources available for researching your English ancestors. In addition to the obvious large websites, there are some lesser-known ones that you should keep in mind to help move your research along. Here are five that I often use.

This website is a joint project of S & N Genealogy, a large commercial genealogy website in the U.K., and The National Archives (TNA). Registers for Church of England parishes are kept separately from other registers. Other denominations are called non-conformist or non-parochial.  This site provides access to material from more than a dozen record groups at TNA for non-Anglican individuals. This is a pay-per-view website. Credits cost 50p each (about  US $.82). You must purchase 10, 20, or 40 credits at a time. Searching is free. You can search by forename and/or surname. You can use wildcards and/or fuzzy search. You can limit your search to an event type. The advance search costs 1 credit and allows you to limit the search to a single record group, and add a place name and/or year for the event.


The Association of British Counties

This group is a “society dedicated to promoting awareness of the continuing inmportance of the 92 historic (or traditional) Counties of the United Kingdom.” The website offers a great deal of information, but the most valuable to genealogists is the Gazetteer of British Place Names. The gazeteer contains more than 50,000 names of places of all size. Results provide the historic county name, the administrative county name, the district, police area, and U.K. country. There is also a link to a modern map showing the town with the historical county boundaries overlaid on it.


Deceased Online

Unlike other websites that have user-contributed cemetery information on it, Deceased Online contains data from statutory burial and cremation registers. The database includes the names of millions of people buried or cremated in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The searchable database is linked to images of the original registers.  Not only will you find information about the deceased, but details on the grave owner, other burials in the grave, pictures of some graves and memorials, and maps showing the locations of graves and memorials. Records date from 1850 to modern times. Searching is free, but you must purchase vouchers to view results. It costs between £1.50–2.00 (about US $2.50–3.30). The site recently launched an annual unlimited-access subscription for £89 (about US $147).


Society of Genealogists

Many may think that SOG is only good if you can go there in person. Not true. For example, if you can’t get to the library in person, you can utilize the society’s Search and Copy Service to have documents copied and sent to you. You can check indexes to their documents and pedigree collections to see if there is any information on surnames you are interested in. The Society is also digitizing many of their collections and making them available online for members.  Among the valuable data online are marriage licences, Boyd’s indexes, local histories, parish registers, monumental inscriptions, poll books, will extracts and indexes, apprenticeships and more. Membership is £50 or £32 (about US $53) for overseas members.


Richard Heaton’s Index to Digitalised British and Irish Newspapers Online

Mr. Heaton has been using newspapers in his research for thirty years. He has compiled this index from twenty-three online archives. The index is divided geographically into England (except London), London, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. Each section is subdivided by city/town name and country name. It provides the publication title (and any variant titles), the name of the online collection where it can be found (with direct llinks to many of them, the format, whether it was free or pay, as well as the start and end dates. Some of the entries include additional comments.