Genealogy Blog

A Daring Adventure. . .

27 Aug 2015

When I left the New England Historic Genealogical Society in July 2011, I had some ideas of things I wanted to accomplish, and knew that it was time to move on. Six months later, in January 2012, I joined my friend Cliff Shaw and the Mocavo team. Over the past three and a half years, we have had quite the adventure. And now, it is time for more new adventures. Today is the last day of my journey with Mocavo.

One of the reasons I joined the team was their excitement and desire to bring change to the delivery of important resources to genealogists. And that we did. Through the years we had many exciting brainstorming sessions, and bringing those ideas to life has been quite a trip. You know you are doing something right when the big players in the industry start copying your features, and that has certainly happened on more than one occasion.

Our decision to make all of the data on our site free to use for everyone was certainly groundbreaking. No for-profit genealogy group had ever done that before. It was, and remains, perhaps my favorite of all of our accomplishments.

One of my greatest pleasures has been literally travelling around the world to teach genealogists how to research, and to show them how Mocavo can help them in their work. From California to the Caribbean, from London to Los Angeles, I have been fortunate to be able to meet so many of you in person and help you in the task of finding your family. From small local programs, to Who Do You Think You Are? Live!, it has been so enjoyable to meet with you , teach you, listen to your problems and questions, and help you get on the road to solving your brick walls.

Those of you who have known or read my posts for awhile know of my work on the family of Benjamin Franklin. One of his favorite sayings was “Never put off to tomorrow that which you can do today.” Over the last decade or so, this has become even more true for me, as I’ve reached the point in life where there are more days behind than there are ahead. (Not that I plan on going anytime soon, but unless I outlive every ancestor who has ever come before me, I’m definitely past the halfway mark.) To all of my Mocavo colleagues and to you, our readers, let me say this. Genealogists know exactly how brief that dash can be. We have filled it for far too many people where the birth and death years are far too close together. Get out there and live. Find your family. Share their stories. Make sure that they will be remembered. But at the same time, make sure you live your life so that when the time comes, you will leave an amazing story behind.

Fear not, I have no plans to leave the field of genealogy. My exact new adventures are still being developed. But thanks to the wonders of technology, a quick Google Search, or checking my professional Facebook Profile and LinkedIn Profile will alert you to what I am doing.

Finally, let me leave you with these words. Helen Keller said it best: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  Thanks for sharing a bit of the adventure with me.

Copyright 2015 Michael J. Leclerc. Used with permission for Daring Adventure post.

Copyright 2015 Michael J. Leclerc. Used with permission for Daring Adventure post.


Don’t Let Your Work Become a Lost Time Capsule!

07 Aug 2015

This weekend the Wall Street Journal ran a very interesting story about time capsules. Trying to Capture a Moment, Many Lose Track of Time discusses a major problem with these holders of memories of the past. Over time, their location, and even knowledge of their very existence, is often lost. During construction of the Houston Astrodome in 1963, a time capsule was buried on the site. Unfortunately, over time, it was forgotten. When a county administrator ran across a 1963 photo of the capsule being buried, nobody on staff even knew the capsule existed. Even professionals with extensive search equipment could not find it. Eventually it was determined that the capsule likely lies underneath one of the major support pillars, and trying to locate it could result in major damage to the structure. Genealogists often face a similar problem. We spend a great deal of time and effort to put together our family history. But we don’t often give enough thought to what will happen to our materials after we are gone. Don’t let your work become a lost time capsule!

In today’s digital age, it is tempting to think that putting a family tree up online will ensure the knowledge remains available forever. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It will be online for as long as the company that is hosting it stays in business. It will require constant upgrading. And there are no still no guarantees. If you want to be certain that your descendants will be able to use your research and discover your family stories, it is important to have them in a form that will be accessible.

Start by writing up your research. In addition to the dates and places, add some stories about their lives. Once you have the stories and information written up, add some illustrations. Usually the first things people think of are pictures of family members. That is a fine place to start. But think outside the box. Do you have pictures of the home they lived in? If not, can you get photographs of the home today (if it is still standing). I recently visited my childhood home and took some photographs. Quite frankly, it hasn’t changed much at all since we moved out almost forty years ago.


The house at 14 Barberry Hill Road where I grew up. (from the collection of the author, used with permission)

The house at 14 Barberry Hill Road where I grew up. (from the collection of the author, used with permission)


Do you have any family documents, such as letters, diaries, wedding invitations, funeral cards, etc? Take some pictures of them and include them as illustrations as well. If you have letters or diaries, be certain to include some quotes from them in the stories. Once you have that put together, use a self-publishing service to print some books to give away to family members. You can also use the service for extended family members to purchase their own copies. I also suggest you donate copies to historical and genealogical societies and libraries where your family lived.

Finally, gather up your original materials (the aforementioned documents, diaries, letters, etc.) and donate them to a library or archives. They will professionally process your materials and have them preserved and conserved so that future generations of the family will be able to find them and see them. These steps will ensure that all of your hard work on your family history do not turn into a lost time capsule.

Colonial Quandary: A Catholic in an Anglican Church

31 Jul 2015

Every schoolchild in America grows up hearing the story of the Jamestown Colony. For most of us it may bring back memories of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, or perhaps the “starving time” winter of 1609–1610 when 80% of the members of the colony died.

The site of the colony is now co-managed by Preservation Virginia and the U.S. National Parks Service. Over the last twenty years they have worked to discover more about the history of Jamestown. Part of this is an active archaeology program. Over the last twenty years teams have made dozens of major discoveries. Research conducted as part of one of these excavations has presented us with a quandary for colonial times: the presence of a Catholic in an Anglican church.

Back in 2010, the site of the first church was discovered. Archaeologists discovered four bodies buried where the chancel of the Anglican church was. Those buried in this area of a church were usually upper-echelon members of the community. There was nothing immediately available that specifically identified the individuals, however.

Some clues were found during the dig. One body had a silk sash with silver sequins. Another had part of a military officer’s staff. The same grave turned up the most intriguing find, however: a small silver box.

Everything was packed up and shipped to a laboratory where forensic anthropologists started examinations. Meanwhile, researchers started attacking records in the U.S. and in England. All looking for clues that would help them identify these four individuals. The small box, however, proved to be the most intriguing.

This box turned out to be made of silver. CT scans showed that inside the silver box was a small lead capsule containing bone fragments. It was a Catholic reliquary. The bone fragments would have belonged to a saint in the Roman Catholic church. To find such a thing buried in the chancel of an Anglican church in an English colony is very curious. The Church of England had split from Rome in 1534, about 75 years before the burials. During this period, Anglicans did not get along with Roman Catholics.

After five years of research, the bodies have been tentatively identified: Rev. Robert Hunt, first past of the colony; Capt William West; Sir Ferdinando Wainman; and Capt. Gabriel Archer. It is Archer who was the Roman Catholic. All four were less than forty yeas old.

There is still more research to do. Questions such as “How did a Catholic come to be buried in the chancel of an Anglican church?” and “Under what circumstances did they die?” amongst others remain to be answered. And these answers may shed more light on on early English settlers in North America. You can read more about this project on NPR or The Atlantic.

Jamestown Bodies

5 Genealogy Blogs You Should be Reading

24 Jul 2015


There are many blogs out there. It can be difficult to find one to read that is informative and pertinent for you. Here are five genealogy blogs you should be reading that I have found interesting, and I think you will too.

  1. Rootsmithing: Genealogy, Methodology, and Technology

Drew Smith is an Assistant Library at the USF Tampa Library. He is also one half of the Genealogy Guys podcast, and a noted expert on genealogy and technology (he serves as chair of the Family History Information Standards Organisation). He posts periodically on his blog about a wide variety of subjects. Recent posts include A Few Tech/Genealogy Words You May be Typing/Using Incorrectly and In Support of Wikipedia.


  1. No Story Too Small

Amy Johnson Crow is a longtime professional genealogist. In her blog, she focuses on motivating people to tell the stories of family members. In 2014 she issued a challenge which she has continued to this year. 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenges individuals to wrote once a story once each week, choosing a different ancestor this week. This can be a great motivation for those trying to write more from their research.


  1. Kate’s Kin-nections

This is another example to help you write about your family. This is an example rather than a how-to. Kate Lowrie is a former president of the New England chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists. She writes this blog about her family specifically for family members. It is a great example of how easily you can put together a blog to share research with your family members.


  1. Elyse’s Genealogy Blog: On a Journey to Find My Roots

Elyse is a wonderful young lady from Southern California. A full-time teacher, she is a part-time professional genealogist. Her blog is a mix of travelogue, stories, and research tips. I enjoy reading it, especially since it brings a fresh young perspective. She has not been around enough to be jaded or stuck in a rut as we often can when we’ve been doing the same thing for decades. She only posts periodically, but they are interesting. Recent posts include Tracking “Maybe Ancestors” in OneNote and Why Researching Your Ancestors’ FAN Club is Important.


  1. Thinking Genealogically

Dave McDonald is a recognized expert in many areas. His blog is written in a folksy, easy-to-read style. He discusses his own adventures in researching his family’s stories. It is also an  mix of stories and research tips. Among his recent posts are There May be More, Ode to the Cell Phone, and Other Records in the Vault.

Problems in Finding Towns of Origin

22 Jul 2015 ran an interesting story yesterday about town names called “25 Massachusetts Town Names That are Hard to Pronounce.” It showed how the names of some of our towns (many with Native American origins) are properly pronounced by locals. This reminded me of an issue that perpetually plagues genealogists, the problems in finding towns of origin.

For the most part, we are tracing families who migrated from one place to another. If you are lucky, your ancestors may have stayed in the same place for long periods of time. But for the vast majority of Americans, our ancestors moved multiple times through the generations. This results in having to identify numerous places where they lived.

One of the problems we have is that most often the records we use were not created in the original location. People are born in one place, marry in another, and die in a third. And in between they can live in countless other locations. Often we are looking at information about place of birth on a death record. The death could have been recorded hundreds of miles away or more, by people who had never heard of the places.

Another problem that genealogists run into is the accent issue. Usually when we discuss accents, the mind immediately jumps to non-English speaking immigrants from other countries. Letters are often pronounced differently, such as the v/w reversal between German and English. This can result in oddly-spelled versions of town names. Many of these individuals may not even be able to spell the name of the place where they came from.

In addition to these issues of foreign-born immigrants, we have the issue of internal migration. As the United States expanded from the east coast to the west coast, people moved from location to location. And regional accents became mixed. These accents can cause communication issues. A New York native living in Indiana and speaking with someone originally from the deep South may easily misinterpret the words he or she is hearing.

Another complicating factor is that information is often provided by a third party. This is especially true for death records, where information can be provided by children or grandchildren who themselves may never have seen the names of places of origin spelled out, only heard spoken.


Word Pronounciation


There is also another problem that the story illustrates. The final town, Worcester, is supposedly pronounced (wuh-stir). While some people call it that, many New Englanders pronounce it with a short letter i in the first syllable. And the regional propensity to drop the letter r at the end of the word results in a pronounciation similar to (wĭh-sta). So even in a particular region, pronounciation can be different.

Add these issues the propensity for Anglo record keepers for not being overly stringent in identifying these earlier origins and the genealogist’s job to identify origins can be quite challenging.


Five Essential Resources for New England Research

14 Jul 2015


Those who have ancestry in the New England states are blessed with many great resources. And the New England Historic Genealogical Society has been at the forefront of publishing research guides to help genealogists for more than a century. Here are five essential resources for New England research that we all should have, all brought to you courtesy of NEHGS.


  1. Genealogical Handbook for New England Research
    This guide has been the Bible for researching in New England for decades. Editing the fifth edition of this essential guide was my last project when I worked at NEHGS (ed: I did this as an employee, and make no money from sales of the book). Each of the six New England states has a chapter detailing the organization of basic records (vital, church, land, probate, etc.). It also provides lists of towns (existing and extinct), maps, contact information for vital, land, and probate records, and more.


  1. New England Marriages Prior to 1700
    Clarence Almon Torrey spent years poring over published materials on New England families to compile a 12-volume manuscript. The manuscript contains references to couples who lived in New England who were married in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. While Torrey’s manuscript has been published before, this is the first version to include all of his source references, allowing users to go back and review them for themselves.


  1. New Englanders in the 1600s, Expanded Edition
    First published in 2006, this work by Martin Hollick originally referenced sixteenth- and seventeenth-century individuals who appeared in compiled genealogies and scholarly journals between 1980 and 2005. In 2012, the work was updated and expanded to include material published through 2010. It is the best reference work for the most recent scholarship available on these early inviduals. It is extremely helpful for sorting out the problems in genealogists published earlier (many of which are easily available online) that have a great deal of incorrect information. Many of the problems have been corrected in the last 35 years, but not always easily available online. This is where Hollick’s book becomes indispensable.


  1. The Great Migration Directory
    For more than twenty years, The Great Migration Study Project at NEHGS has produced the highest-quality research on those who emigrated during the period from 1620 ­­­to 1640. Ten volumes have already been published, with detailed profiles of immigrants who arrived by 1635. The most complete list of immigrants for the entire twenty-year period has just been published in The Great Migration Directory. Immigrants are listed by the name of the head of household and includes the English or European origin (if known), date of migration, principal residences in New England, and the best available sources of information for the subject.


  1. Elements of Genealogical Analysis
    As head of the Great Migration Study Project, Robert Charles Anderson has developed a process for producing a genealogy sketch. In this new book, he shares the research process with us so we can learn how to conduct the best possible research. He shows us how to carefully examine our sources and records to ensure that we have clearly proven each linkage.

Ruminations on Our Ancestors’ Journeys

11 Jul 2015

I have just returned from an 11-day trip to the Middle East with my chorus. We performed for more than 6,000 people throughout Israel and Turkey. We saw many beautiful sights, and met wonderful people. We also saw humanity when it gets ugly. And there were many times during the tour when I was reminded of why so many of our ancestors came to America, whether during the 17th century, or the 20th.

There were 120 of us travelling overseas on this tour. This included more than 100 singers, plus our staff and supporters. The first travel day involved two flights and a bus ride that would have us travelling a total of sixteen hours to arrive at our first destination. The first plane ride was a red-eye lasting for almost ten hours.

Economy class seating on airlines is not known for its spacious accommodations for passengers. Quarters are very cramped, and movement is restricted. We are constantly invading each others’ personal space, either by reclining the seat or by climbing over each other to get to the restroom. It occurred to me in the middle of the night, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, that this is the modern-day equivalent of our ancestors travelling in steerage to get to new opportunities in America. Of course their trip lasted far longer than ours did, going on for days or weeks (depending on the time frame in which they travelled). Whether travelling alone or in a family group, the space was very close quarters. One shared space with total strangers.

It is very difficult for me to sleep on planes, although travelling with friends made it slightly easier. Because I sat next to one of my close friends, we were able to literally lean on each other to get some rest during the night, similar to the way families travelling together would share their space to make it easier for the entire family to cope.

While in Israel we visited the Dead Sea, Masada, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. We saw where people have been living next to each other for centuries. And it certainly gives one a new perspective on old rivalries in the area. But it was our visit to Turkey that really hit home why people would pack up and leave the only life they’ve ever known.

During the last elections the head of the Turkish government sought to increase his power. Instead, the population dealt him a resounding defeat. Desperately trying to form a government, he started pandering to ultra-right wing groups. We lost our performance space because our message was considered evil. Fortunately, a local university stepped in and invited us to move our performance there. The effort to stop our performance and dampen our message of peace and civil rights totally backfired. We received much press attention, and the new venue allowed for almost twice the number of audience members as the original. Crowd estimates put the audience at more than 3,000 people

We were invited to join in a peaceful demonstration the next day, and annual tradition that has brought upwards of 100,000 for the past few years. That afternoon, as we moved to join in we were stopped by police forces two blocks from our hotel. We were ordered to disperse, and told that if we continued we faced arrest. The U.S. consul’s office recommended that we return to our hotel, as they could not guarantee our safety. As we moved back towards the hotel, our mobile phones started beeping with notices. Worldwide press (including the U.S.) were covering the event. Permits which had been granted for the event were pulled at the last moment by the government.  Government officials then ordered police to attack the peaceful marchers, which they did. They utilized pepper spray, tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets. A number of members of our group slipped up as individuals to witness the atrocities. Turkish citizens have few rights.


After hours of demonstrations, water still runs in the streets from water cannon (courtesy of the author, used with permission).

After hours of demonstrations in Istanbul, water still runs in the streets from water cannon (courtesy of the author, used with permission).


It is because of situations like this that many of our ancestors left for a new world in the United States. Although our government has many problems and issues, in the United States I am allowed by our Constitution to stand up and say so. We are allowed to gather in peaceful groups to protest treatment by our government and by others. These are rights that many in other countries do not enjoy. And these are reasons why our ancestors came here. For a better life, more peaceful and unfettered than they had before. Don’t ever take for granted the rights you have as an American, rights that our Ancestors came here for so that we could have a better life.


Journals for Genealogists

09 Jul 2015

Genealogical journals have been the bedrock of our research for more than a century. Since the New England Historic Genealogical Society started publishing the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1847, our journals have stood for the highest quality research. In recent years, some have moved away from them, finding them boring or stuffy. Yet this does not change that they are one of the single most import secondary source of information for our research.

The advent of the internet age has made access to journals much easier over the last few years. Since many journals have been published since the turn of the century or earlier (not just the Register, but the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record among others), it is often possible to find early issue for free on internet search engines, and many can be found on Mocavo.

Ironically, while genealogists find these archived journals to be filled with valuable information, they find current issues less so. Unlike previous generations, they often do not see how individual issues of any journal could be of any use to them if their own family is not included in it. This is far from the truth.

Any given current issue of a journal is an amazing font of information to genealogists. First off, articles in scholarly journals are peer reviewed by some of the gest genealogists in the country. You can be certain if an article appears in a journal, it has been examined multiple times for logic and accuracy.

When reading a journal article, I read it first for the content. I read it straight through without looking at the footnotes. When I’m done, I go back and review it again, this time examining the footnotes. Footnotes reveal sources used, and often I find new resources, or those that are new to me. Footnote also include additional analysis that can help me learn more about analyzing information.

Another interesting exercise is to take an article and, using the footnotes, examine the original sources for yourself to see how the author came to his, her, or their conclusions. This is an excellent way of learning not only how to research, but how to write. And learning how to write is at least as important as learning how to research in genealogy. Many times we focus entirely on our research, but forget that communicating it to others is just as important. If we don’t tell people what we find, that information will be lost forever! And articles in genealogical journals are perfect examples of how to clearly communicate your findings.

Major New Source for Irish Research

08 Jul 2015

Today is an important day for those with Catholic ancestors who came from Ireland. The National Library of Ireland (NLI) has finally launched a long-awaited genealogy project. The microfilm collection of Catholic parish registers has been digitized and made available online.

Back in 1939, the NLI and the Bishop of Limerick started discussions about preserving the information in the church’s parish registers. Every parish agreed to have their records microfilmed. Civil registration began in 1864, but like many efforts around the world, it took several years for every jurisdiction to comply. Because of this, the decision was made to microfilm registers up through 1880.

It took more than a decade before microfilming began. Registers were brought to NLI, filmed, then returned to the parish. It took another twenty years to finish microfilming. In the end, more than 3,500 registers from 1,086 parishes were filmed.

In 2010 the 550 reels of microfilm were converted to digital images. About 373,000 digital images of pages from the registers were created. Last year, the NLI moved forward with the process of making the images available online. Noted Irish genealogist John Grenham provided assistance throughout these stages of the project.


NLI Catholic Parish Register


Now, as with all resources, there is good news and bad news when it comes to these registers. The best news is that there is a website dedicated just to the registers, and it is completely free for everyone to access. The bad news is that the registers are not searchable. One must navigate to the parish, then browse through the registers to get to the information. Unfortunately, this means that users must know the exact Catholic parish (not the civil parish) where their ancestors lived.

One can search for a parish, or locate it through a map. Variant forms of parish names are cross-referenced. And for each parish, you will find a list of available microfilmed records. Clicking on the film brings you to a viewer with images of the register pages. You can scroll through the entire film, or narrow the images by record type, year, and/or month. There are also a number of options for brightness, contrast, inverting, downloading, and printing the images.

If you have Irish Catholic ancestors, visit the National Library of Ireland’s Catholic Parish Registers website today.

Social History for Genealogists

06 Jul 2015

Understanding social history is as critical to genealogy as family history. Without the former, the latter is impossible. We might miss significant clues. Or worse, come to false conclusions. We also can miss out on getting a fuller picture of our ancestors’ lives. Being uninformed can be a major problem in genealogical research.

Prior to the twentieth century, history predominantly focused on the actions of famous individuals (mostly men), and their impact on society and the world. The main focus was political, economic, and international history. Then a new movement started called “new social history.”  This movement grew tremendously in the 1960s and 1970s, and brought a new focus to historiography. The focus is on the lives, actions, and experiences of ordinary individuals.

Social history is extremely valuable for genealogists. For example, a friend of mine recommended an excellent book to me many years ago: Inheritance in America: From Colonial Times to the Present. Based on a 1982 study at Rutgers University, this work helped me to have a greater understanding of the probate process. It is one thing to know the probate laws in the time and place in which you are researching. It is another to see a discussion of how these laws were implemented, and how the various cultural influences around the country impacted the laws and how they were implemented. This is exceedingly valuable information for a genealogist to know and understand.

Often we presume that our female ancestors were not allowed to own property, which is why deeds are always in their husband’s name. In reality, this was not always the case. Another book, Women and the Law of Property, which dates back to 1986, provides greater understanding. It details the circumstances under which women could and could not own property in America through the early nineteenth century. Knowing the laws that were in place at the time, combined with this information, one can often interpolate a great deal of additional information from records of the family.

There are many places to get works on social history. My favorite is Maia’s Books. Owner Martha crosses the country displaying a wide variety of books for genealogists, including a large number of social histories. In fact, both books I mentioned above I purchased from Maia’s Books. Check out her website for a large collection of social histories of all different kinds to help you in your research.