Genealogy Blog

You Can’t Go Home Again – Especially Online

20 Jun 2015

Although I am now a Bostonian (and have been for a quarter-century), I was raised in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. The vast majority of the last three generations of my family has been focused in this area. Unlike many of my friends, who lived in a single house, my family moved a bit. Earlier this week, while down in Rhode Island for my cousin’s funeral, we took a side trip to drive by the house were I was spent my young childhood.

 

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)

 

In looking for additional information about the house online, I was reminded of the many dangers of doing online property research, and why it cannot be relied upon.

 

  1. The property where I lived from ages 5 to 12 is in the town of Cumberland, Rhode Island. Like many small jurisdictions, the government does not have a lot of money. As such, there are no official records available online. This immediately is cause for concern. While not always 100% accurate, government records are a much better place to start.
  2. Since I had the exact address I did a Google search. At first I wasn’t certain I had the same place. Then I realized that the name of the road had changed. Not only that, but it was much longer. We built the house, and it was only the sixth one on the street. One more was built shortly before we moved. Today, there are more than a dozen. Fortunately the name of the street hadn’t changed much. And the house number had not changed. From drive-bys in the 1990s, I knew that they put small additions on the master bedroom and the kitchen, and installed an inground pool. These were visible on Google Maps.
  3. I found an online valuation company, Certified Revaluation Company, that showed the history of the home’s ownership back to my parents, the first owners. May parents sold the house in March of 1977, too far back to show the sale price online. The couple that purchased it owned it for 28 years, selling it only in 2005 to Paul Parks, Jr. and Et Ux Jean Russo-Parks. But the major problem is that the pool was said to be built in 1965. This is off by a factor of almost 20 years.
  4. I looked at Zillow and Trulia, two popular property valuation sites. Trulia states that the house was built in 1965, and is 1,968 square feet. Zillow also says that it was built in 1965, that it is 2,016 square feet, with a finished basement that is 1,864 square feet. That would leave 152 square feet for the entire main floor. Even if I didn’t know the house, I could tell that this is a mistake. They are also both incorrect about the year of construction. It was build over the winter of 1968/69.
  5. Even small, but important, details can be wrong. Other Google results took me to a website called LocateFamily.com. This listed Jean Russo-Parks as a male and a religious leader at the Wesley United Methodist Church in the town of Lincoln. But the valuation site said that Paul Parks, Jr. and Jean Russo-Parks were married. Since same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Rhode Island in 2005, there is a conflict. A quick search found an obituary for Jean in 2011, confirming that she was indeed a woman.

 

When doing online property research, it is very important to follow up with research in original records at government repositories. So much of the information can be wrong. You can have the details completely wrong.

240 Years Ago Today, the Bloodiest Battle of the Revolution

17 Jun 2015

Today is the 240th anniversary of one of the seminal battles of the American Revolution. Schoolchildren across the country learn about the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the important role they played in the history of our country. Bunker Hill was a seminal conflict, and the bloodiest battle of the entire Revolution.

After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the American militia men returned home. The British were pinned up in Boston, on the Shawmut Peninsula. After a two-month standoff, the Americans headed for Charlestown, which at the time was a small town on a peninsula across Boston Harbor from Boston.

Charlestown was very strategic at that point because of its proximity to the British forces locked up in Boston. On the night of June 16, more than a thousand soldiers left Cambridge carrying tools to carve out fortifications. They were to create the redoubts on the farm owned by the Bunker family. The property included a large hill that overlooked Boston. Unfortunately there was disagreement concerning their orders.

The troops were led by Israel Putnam and William Prescott, and the fortifications were being overseen by engineer Richard Gridley. They disagreed with the where the fortifications should be built. Although work started on Bunker Hill, it was felt that nearby Breed’s Hill provided a better opportunity because, although lower than Bunker Hill, it is located much closer to Boston and it was thought to be more defensible. So the fortifications were built there.

By morning the British were noticing the work of the militia, and by afternoon, British troops landed at Charlestown to engage them. By 3 p.m. the British were headed for the redoubt. After three assaults, the redcoats overtook the colonials and in a rout they were headed back over the Charlestown Peninsula by 5 p.m. But it was a Pyrrhic victory.

The Americans lost 115 of their number during the battle. Another 305 were wounded, and 30 were captured (20 of whom died as prisoners). The British troops, however, suffered 236 death (19 of whom were officers). Another 832 were wounded, 62 of whom were officers. The British lost more than twice as many as the Americans. And it was the bloodiest engagement of the entire war, which would last another eight years.

 

Bunker Hill

 

Although the great battle is still remembered today, we don’t always remember it accurately. Many believe that it took place in Boston, but Charlestown was not annexed to the city until 1873. And it has gone down in history as the Battle of Bunker Hill despite that it took place on Breed’s Hill. A couple of years ago historian Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a book which discusses the misinformation about the battle. The Smithsonian interviewed him for a story about the book, and the battle, which you can read in The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Filling in the Dash – And Much More

16 Jun 2015

Genealogists spend vast amounts of time fiiling in the dash of their ancestors. By dash, of course, I mean the en-dash that separates the dates of birth and death for an individual. While it can be exciting to be able to do this for our ancestors from times past, it is a sad duty to have to do it in the present.

Last week, my cousin Andrew passed away after a brave fight with cancer, brought on by chemicals he worked with when he was young. He is the second of the eighteen cousins on my mother’s side of the family to go, both far younger than they should have. I have just returned from the wake and funeral. While it was a time of great sadness, there were also great moments of reconnecting with family members whom we don’t get to see often enough.

It didn’t take long for the genealogist to pop out once I arrived. Andrew’s brother-in-law was standing in the hallway and we started talking. His son came over to say hello. I hadn’t seen him in many years. He is now thirty years old and lives not far from me in Boston. He is interested in his paternal heritage, which is Armenian. His grandmother’s side were survivors of the Armenian Genocide, whilst his grandfather’s side has been in the U.S. since the 1880s. We had an enjoyable discussion of resources, etc.

It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to all of the relatives in the room. He had questions about who people were, and how we are all related. It was nice to see a younger family member be so interested. I also told him many stories of his great-grandparents (my grandparents) who both died before he was born. He was also astounded when I explained the age range in my generation spans more than forty years. His eldest uncle (and my eldest first cousin), Raymond, is sixty-three years old. He is two years older than our uncle, Roger, who is sixty-one. Roger’s twin daughters only just turned twenty years old a couple of weeks ago.

For me, it was a great opportunity to catch up on the younger generations. Three of my cousins are grandparents themselves. I was able to collect more information on these new additions to the family. It was also amazing to see the family resemblances. My cousins asked me to put together a video with pictures of their late brother, which I gladly did. They sent me the photographs, and as I was sorting them, I saw a Christmas picture from the early 1970s, and said to myself “What is my mother doing there?” Then I looked again and realized it couldn’t be my mother. It was actually my grandmother.

Wakes and funerals are difficult times. They are very frequently a mixed bag of emotions. Sadness is combined with the joy of seeing family members one hasn’t seen in awhile. I wouldn’t suggest breaking out a notebook and writing things down (although a simple reminder note or two has been known to make their way into my phone), but use the time to set definite plans to get together again in person soon. Then you can really get some genealogy done.

 

The picture of my cousins taken a few years ago (from the collection o the author, used with permission).

The picture of my cousins and I, taken a few years ago. (from the collection o the author, used with permission)

 

A few years ago, the first of my generation of cousins passed away. After the funeral, his brother hosted a get-together for the family. We laughed and cried some more, and talked. And I brought my camera. I got a photograph of my mother with her sister and brothers (probably the last one that will ever be taken of them). Then I got all of the children who were there into the picture as well (twelve out of the seventeen surviving cousins). I had copies made of both photographs for all of the cousins.

This time around, my cousin’s son and I will soon be getting together for dinner and researching into his Armenian roots. My mother’s cousin and I will be getting together soon so I can share information with her, and she can show me the wedding portrait of my great-great-grandparents back in the 1870s.

Finding Our Gay and Lesbian Ancestors

12 Jun 2015

June is a special month for many of us. Each year gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people around the world celebrate Pride, commemorating the Stonewall Riots of 1969, where GLBT people stood up for themselves and their civil rights. Many of us have GLBT ancestors. In the United States, records dating back to the Plymouth Colony document people living in same-sex relationships. But these relationships have usually, but not always, been hidden. Finding our gay and lesbian ancestors can be difficult, but it is not impossible.

Two of my friends are gay brothers. They come from a long line of families of men and women who either never married, or married late in life and had no children. While not every unmarried individual or those who married late in life was gay or lesbian, these are common signs.

Another sign is someone who remains single and relocates far away from the family. Many did this to escape family pressures. There were also those who wanted to live with others like themselves. My great-uncle fit this profile, leaving his family in Rhode Island to live in Boston, and specifically in a section of town where GLBT people lived at the time (although I don’t believe his family knew that at the time).

Do you have photographs of ancestors with unidentified individuals in them? Are there numerous images of the same two individuals of the same gender, only one of whom can be identified? You may be looking at a same-sex couple.

Be careful when reading nineteenth-century correspondence. The Victorian era was a different time. People were far more effusive with their language and their feelings. It does not always indicate a same-sex relationship. Look for euphemisms: androphile, batty boy, dandy, gentleman of the back door, nancy boy, uranian, close companion, finger artist, lavender menace, member of the lodge, and romantic friend are just some of the euphemisms that have been used over time.

Bryant Drake

Sometimes, when you are lucky, you don’t need to look that hard. The evidence is right there. Two centuries ago, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake lived as a married couple in the small town of Weybridge, Vermont. 29-year-old Charity was visting 22-year-old Sylvia’s sister. They fell in love, and lived together as a couple, without hiding the nature of their relationship. They left a great deal of documentation in both public and private records, to show that they were for all intents and purposes a married couple. Their relationship lasted until Charity’s death in 1851, forty-four years together as a couple, spanning the first half of the nineteenth century. They are buried together in Weybridge, with a single stone for the two of them. You can read more about them in the Washington Post.

When researching your family history, keep an eye out for those whose stories aren’t quite the same as others. You my find GLBT family members in those records. And it is just as important to tell their stories as accurately, as it is to tell our own. And to all of my GLBT friends and colleagues in the genealogical community, a Happy Pride!

Using Historical Fiction and Non-Fiction in Genealogy

05 Jun 2015

Like many genealogists, I am a voracious reader. I still have my Hardy Boys books from when I was a young boy, and a collection of Star Trek books acquired over three decades. Agatha Christie’s many detective and Sherlock Holmes kept me company on many an evening. And as far back as I can remember, I have loved reading historical fiction and non-fiction. While these can be helpful, one must be careful when using them for genealogical research.

One of my favorite authors when I was a teenager was John Jakes. His eight-volume saga The Kent Family Chronicles that took the family of Philippe Charbonneau from mid-eighteenth-century France to early-twentieth century America got me hooked. Not surprising for a budding genealogist. When I was a bit older, I got hooked on the works of William Martin. He is a Massachusetts author of a number of works of historical fiction, many in the form of mysteries.

John Jakes

These authors represent the best of those who write historical fiction. They spend countless hours researching events, places, and people to put their works in the proper context. They mix real people with fictional characters. It is important to remember, however, that even the characters based on real people are participating in fictional events, in fictional ways. Even when the setting is events that actually happened, most of the specific accounts are fictional. One must be careful about incorporating this information into family history research.

While this may not be surprising, it may surprise you to learn that you must also be careful about incorporating non-fiction historical works. While dates and places of historical events are usually without question, other information is often subject to interpretation. Remember that in most cases, the victor gets to write the history. But in reality, there are often multiple versions of history.

For example, for my French-Canadian ancestors, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was critical to every aspect of their life. At the end, France ceded Canada to Britain. This one battle changed the course of history on the entire North American continent. I have histories of this event that were published in the United States, Canada, and England. Each of them tells a different part of the story.

In addition, with the passage of time, new evidence often comes to light that changes the interpretation of events. Time and distance also can make a difference. It is often easier to view events with more impartiality. So be certain to read a wide variety of historical discourses before adding information to your family history.

The Chinese-Jamaican-American: Our Multiracial Roots

29 May 2015

Americans are known for judging a book by its cover. Genealogists, however, know how dangerous this can be. Interracial marriage and multiracial offspring are becoming more and more common. Watching a dark-skinned woman walking down the street, it would be easy to presume she has African ancestry at some point. But would you see a Chinese woman? This is the story of Paula Williams Madison’s life.

Madison is a former executive vice-president at NBC. Her maternal grandmother was a black Jamaican woman. But her maternal grandfather was Chinese. And that Chinese heritage continued to permeate the family, even though he left when Paula’s mother was only three years old.

Even Madison’s generation was raised with Chinese culture. Her mother, having grown up with the heritage, passed it on to her children.  She knew how to eat with chopsticks from a young age. And her mother spoke Hakka, the Chinese language spoken by her ancestors in Southern China.

From the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, the United States saw a huge influx in migration. Great numbers of immigrants, primarily from European countries, poured onto our shores. As these families settled here and became integrated into American culture, they lost some of their original cultural identity. And various ethnic groups started to intermarry.

As the twentieth century progressed, worldwide migrations increased. Members of many different racial groups started living together in the same areas. As with the ethnic groups before them, these immigrants started assimilating culturally, although individuals also often maintained a strong sense of their cultural heritage. I remember as a child in the 70s, interracial marriage was a hot topic. The Jeffersons included a biracial woman who married the son of African-Americans George and Louise. It was a daring concept at the time, but is a common occurrence today.

As more generations pass, time can sometimes erase heritage. Some families, such as Paula’s, maintain a semblance of their ancestry. Some families, however, lose that heritage to time. Sometimes this is occasional. Interracial marriages date back to colonial times, but in days past, lighter-colored individuals would often pass for white, and intermarrying with Caucasians made each successive generation lighter, making it easier for them to pass. When my colleague Frank Dorman was researching his book Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts, he often found living individuals who refused to believe that they had African-American ancestry, even when shown the documentary proof.

As time passes, more and more genealogists will be faced with unknown interracial roots. It is important to examine all the evidence, and follow where the path leads, even if it brings you down roads that you feel are uncomfortable. But you never know what exciting paths your research will take you through.

Paula Madison wrote a book about her adventure in family history: Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem. The book has now been turned into an autobiographical documentary with a similar title: Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China. She recently did an interview with AARP about the process. I especially enjoyed her discussion of working with an editor on the book who changed dialogue and phrasing, which she had to change back to maintain the integrity of her mother’s experience: “We grew up with a Jamaican accent, a New York accent, and a Chinese overlay accent.”

Madison AARP Interview

Five Tips for Finding Those Who Died in Military Service

22 May 2015

Five

This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day. This is the day we reserve to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in service to their country. Since the American Revolution started in 1775, it is estimated that the United States has lost almost 665,000 men and women in military conflicts. Here are some tips to help you find information about your ancestors who died in military conflicts.

1. Pension Files

One great place to look for information about soldiers and sailors who died in service is through the pension files. Widows often applied for pensions for themselves and their dependent children. In the case of someone who died unmarried, one can often find pension applications from the parents. These files will usually contain information about the circumstances of the death, although the amount of detail can vary widely.

2. Service Records

Service records usually won’t contain too many details about someone who was killed in service. That said, there should be at least a mention of the date of the termination of service, which would be the day the person died. Armed with that information, one can go looking for more details. Looking for unit histories or official documents about the movements of the unit on the date in question can shed immense light and provide additional clues. Depending on the time period, service records can be found at the National Archives or at state archives. For pre-twentieth-century conflicts one can often find published works as well.

3. National Personnel Records Center

This branch of the National Archives holds very valuable information for men and women who served in the military, as well as in civil service to the government of the United States. Unfortunately, a 1973 fire at the facility saw massive destruction of records, with 80% of the records of Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1959 destroyed, along with 75% of the Air Force records for service between 1947 and 1963 show surnames after Hubbard. That said, there are other records that did survive. One of these record sets is information on the transport of the bodies of those killed in service back to their homes.

4. American Battle Monuments Commission

More than 218,000 servicemembers who were killed in service overseas were never returned home. Their remains are buried or memorialized in cemeteries around the globe. The American Battle Monuments Commission overseas . There is a database online of those interred and memorialized in ABMC facilities. Where possible, it includes the rank and branch of service, the unit, place of entering service, the conflict, the date of death, and where he or she was buried. It contains the exact information needed to locate the grave within the cemetery as well. Direct family members can also order lithographs of the gravestone or memorial tablet as well.

5. Newspapers

Once you have a date of death, from family records or above sources, check the local newspapers. They often reported on the deaths of local individuals, sometimes in great detail. One other benefit is that you can often find information on survivors, and sometimes interviews with family and friends who knew the deceased. Remember that it sometimes took awhile for news of a death to reach home. And if the servicemember was returned home for burial, check around the date of the burial as well as the date of death.

 

Using the U.S. Census

18 May 2015

The United States Constitution set forth the provision for enumerating the population of the country, directing that representation in the House of Representatives would be allocated as a result of a decennial enumeration of the population. As a result, using the U.S. census gives us a treasure-trove of information for genealogical research.

The first census was enumerated in 1790. The directions to the enumerators provided that free persons should be counted separately from others “distinguishing also the sexes and colours of free persons.” It also directed that free males of sixteen and upwards be distinguished from those under sixteen. This resulted in six questions for the first enumeration: the name of the head of household, number of free white males under 16 years of age; number of free white males of 16 years and upward; number of free white females; number of other free persons; and the number of slaves. The reason for differentiating the ages of the males is clear: to have an accurate count of men who could be put to military service for the fledgling country.

In addition to looking at the population schedules, be certain to look for non-population schedules. Information on agriculture, manufacturing, and more can be found. You can also find questions on the health and well-being of residents, such as whether or not they were blind or deaf, or had mental impairments. Sometimes these questions are buried in the population schedules. For example, the 1820 census included a question asking the number of persons (including slaves) engaged in agriculture, commerce, and manufactures. Unfortunately, many of these non-population schedules were destroyed after they were tabulated, without being microfilmed.

Sometimes when looking for people, they may not be exactly where you think they should be. One of my colleagues told me the story of one of his ancestors who lived in a town in Franklin County, Massachusetts. The land records were there, the town and vital records show he lived there, and all evidence points to his living in that town. Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear in the census there, but in the town next door, which is in Worcester County. The answer was discovered only once he visited the property. His ancestor’s farm was separated from the rest of the town by a mountain. Clearly the enumerator in Franklin County asked the Worcester County enumerator to tabulate the family so he could avoid a long trip around the mountain. If you find similar problems, look a topographical map of the area to see if your solution is also similar. And to find out more about the census, visit census.gov/history.

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Honoring Our Mothers: The Filles du Roi

10 May 2015

This weekend we in the United States celebrate Mother’s Day. As genealogists, we not only honor the women who gave birth to us, but all of the mothers in our family trees. Recently I was reminded of a very special group of my foremothers, the Filles du Roi.

Back in the 17th century, the colony of New France had a large imbalance in the population. There far more men than women in the colony. Because of this, fewer children were being born, and the population was stagnating. By 663, the population was only 2,500 inhabitants, as compared to the 80,000 who lived in the English colonies to the south.

From 1634 to 1662 the colony was under the control of the Copmagnie des Cents Associés (the Company of 100 Associates). They brought over a number of filles à marier (marriageable girls). Unfortunately, the program was not active enough. During those eighteen years, only 200 women were brought over. One of the major problems was inducing women to leave Europe and go to the Canadian wilderness for the rest of their lives.

In 1663 a new effort, the Filles de Roi program, began. Under this program, young women were given a dowry by the crown as an incentive to go to New France. The program started off slowly, but increased once Jean Talon was appointed intendant of the colony in 1665.

 

Arrival_of_the_Brides_-_Eleanor_Fortescue-Brickdale

 

The women were lucky. Once they arrived, they got to choose who they would marry. This was a luxury not afforded women in France. There, they married whomever their father directed them to marry. In New France, they had their pick of men, and if they didn’t like the first one, they would move on to another. The records are filled with contracts of marriage for Filles de Roi that did not end in marriage. The women ended up marrying another man.

Each of the women had to provide a copy of their birth certificate. They also needed to provide a letter from their parish priest or the local magistrate attesting to their ability to get married. This requirement was instituted after it was discovered that several of the women who went to Canada had left husbands behind in France.

Almost 2/3 of the women had lost one or both of their parents. This was a large motivator for many, who otherwise would have had to live their lives in a convent, or marry someone with few prospects, certainly not a prospect many desired.

The program reached its peak between 1669 and 1671, when well over one hundred women immigrated each year. During the ten years that the program was in existence, 768 women went to New France. The vast majority stayed, but a few did return to France. Historians have noted that the end of the program was a major turning point in the history of Canada. Had it continued, the colony likely would have seen a much larger increase in population, allowing it to repel the English invasion in the mid-eighteenth century that resulted in the Conquest.

Almost every living descendant of the early colonists can trace their ancestry back to at least one of the Filles de Roi. In reviewing my own ancestry (which is entirely French-Canadian), I have 104 of these young women in my ancestry, many of them on my mother’s side. This Mother’s Day, I remember and thank them for taking the risk of going to a brave new land. If you have French-Canadian ancestry, check Peter J. Gagné’s book, King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663 – 1673, for more information about the program and  list of the women who immigrated under this program.

 

Why Not Wikipedia?

02 May 2015

Wikipedia

Wikipedia has become a replacement for the encyclopedias we used growing up. Filled with information about the most esoteric of subjects. But as widespread as its use is, it is still not allowed as a resource for most scholarly endeavors, and students at colleges and universities are often banned from using it as a source for their assignments. What is wrong with Wikipedia?

Wikipedia started in 2001 as a collaborative resource. There are five fundamental principles, called the Five Pillars:

  1. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.
  2. Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.
  3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute.
  4. Editors should treat each other with respect and civility.
  5. Wikipedia has no firm rules.

And right away, we start to see some of the problems with using Wikipedia.

The third pillar states that “anyone can use, edit, and distribute” any content. It goes on to say that “since all editors freely license their work to the public, no editor owns an article and any contributions can and will be mercilessly edited and redistributed.” One of the major problems for genealogists is that there is no control over who says what on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia wants editors to come to consensus, but no provision for expertise. One person with years of knowledge in a field can be overruled by two others with little to none. Or, worse, simply make up information without being contradicted. On the About Wikipedia page, it states that “People of all ages, cultures and backgrounds can add or edit article prose, references, images and other media here. What is contributed is more important than the expertise or qualifications of the contributor.” Under these circumstances, how can you tell how accurate the information is in any given article?

Many articles have sources at the bottom of the page. How often have you gone back to look up a printed source mentioned? How frequently do you click on links to online sources when reading an article? And if you do follow links, do you actually read through the source? How many times are the links broken, so you can’t even try to read them?

There are many reasons why someone might want to put false information on Wikipedia. Often, there is a deliberate attempt to misinform. Sometimes it might be a genuine mistake. Harvard’s guide for using sources for assignments includes a discussion of the problems with Wikipedia, and provides a perfect example. Several years ago, a student was writing a paper on the issues of Wikipedia. He posted a fake entry for himself that said that he was the mayor of a small town in China. Even today, if you search for mayors of towns in China (or look on the student’s name), his entry still shows.

The statistics for Wikipedia are amazing. It  includes more than 34 million articles in 285 languages. There are almost 5 million articles in English, containing more than 36 million pages of information. Almost 770 million edits have been made to these articles. The average page has been edited more than 21 times!

There is nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a starting point. But it should never be used as the sole source of information. It should be used to point you in the right direction to find credible, reliable, and authoritative information.