Genealogy Blog

Resources for African-American Genealogy

07 Jan 2015

Recently I received a question about resources for African-American research. I am familiar with the basics of this kind of research. But, more importantly, I know where to go to find the information I need. Here are three resources to help you with  finding your African-American ancestors.

1. African-American Historical and Genealogical Society
AAHGS was founded in 1977 by a group of historians and genealogists, including the noted genealogist James Dent Walker. Since it was founded, the organization has grown nationwide, and has twenty state chapters spread across the country. Each October the organization holds a conference specifically about African-American research. The 2015 conference will be held in Richmond, Virginia.


African American Archaeology


2. African-American Archaeology, History, and Cultures

One of the important parts of genealogy is understanding the cultural and sociological aspects of the societies in which your family lived. This website, created by Christopher C. Fennell, a member of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign, provides “convenient access to online presentations and resources concerning the subjects of African-American archaeology, history and cultures, and broader subjects of African diaspora archaeology.” The site covers a wide geographic area, including Asia, Britain, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, and South America, in addition to the United States.

3. Cyndi’s List

Cyndi Ingle runs the biggest and most valuable resource list on the web. Those researching their African-American ancestors will find valuable resources in more than two dozen categories. The “how-to” section alone has more than a dozen references to help you with your research. Other categories include immigration, emigration, and migration; medical and DNA; people and families; publications, software and supplies; slavery; military; newspapers; and much, much more.

African-American genealogical research can be very different from other kinds of genealogy. It is critically important to get off on the right foot, and understand where you are headed. These three

Chilling Ghost Stories + A Halloween Special Treat

31 Oct 2014


Halloween is here, bringing with it a haunting chill in the air, full of ghoulish creatures and frightening tales. Believe it or not, many of our ancestors wrote about their own unexplained encounters with the paranormal, often scribbling down their stories in their personal memoirs. Discover the accounts of strange ghostly figures and haunted houses in our collection of more than 240,000 historical books.

Browse our Historical Book Collection

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To help you get into the Halloween spirit here are some of our favorite ghost stories from the Mocavo collection.

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We Asked and You Answered! When did your ancestors immigrate to the United States?

20 Sep 2014

Last week we asked the Mocavo Community to share when their ancestors immigrated to the United States. Here is what you said!

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Danger in the Graveyard

05 Aug 2014

Dick Eastman ran a very tragic story last week about a Tennessee cemetery. An individual had used a wire brush to “clean” gravestones. He wanted to photograph the stones to add them to the Find A Grave website. In his ignorance, he did extensive damage to the stones, rendering some of the inscriptions totally illegible. Some of these damaged stones date back to the late-eighteenth century (the church was founded in 1780). Even more remarkably, he did so without the permission of the church to whom the cemetery belonged.

There are all sorts of purported methods for cleaning grave markers. Included in these are:

  • Ammonia
  • Baking Soda
  • Bleach
  •  Cornstarch

None of these should ever be used under any circumstances. Nor should you ever use any kind of abrasive, tools, or anything with a firm pressure. They can all cause permanent damage, potentially destroying the very inscriptions you are trying preserve.

In addition to cleaning, individuals try all sorts of methods for reading inscriptions on grave markers that might be eroded and difficult to read. Among the items people use:

  • Chalk
  • Flour
  • Shaving Cream

None of these should ever be used. The chemicals in shaving cream can do serious damage to a gravestone. In addition to using chalk directly on a grave marker, some people use chalk and paper to create rubbings of the original stone. Be aware that this can also cause damage the stones. In some localities, such as Massachusetts, it is now illegal to make gravestone rubbings.

The two best friends you have for reading gravestones are water, and a reflective surface, such as a mirror. I routinely bring a couple of bottles of water in my bag when I visit a cemetery. often the simple act of putting some water on the stone makes some of the etched words easier to read. I’ve even brought out letters and numbers that were completely illegible.

A mirror or other highly reflective surface works well also. This tool is best used on a bright, sunny day. Use the mirror to reflect light across the face of the stone. The shadows it creates may illuminated the illegible inscription. I’ve also used photographer’s reflectors to achieve the same effect. They are flexible and as they are not made of glass, there is no risk or dangerous breakage if you drop them. You can get them inexpensively through photo supply stores or Amazon.

The man who damaged those gravestones is now facing possible criminal charges, a Class E felony carrying a prison term of not less than one year and up to six years, plus financial penalties up to $3,000. Think twice before you make his mistake. For more information about working with cemeteries and gravestones, visit the Association for Gravestone Studies.

Gravestone Studies

Have you used any nonpopulation census schedules in your research?

28 Jun 2014

Preserving the Past Using Techniques from the Past

21 May 2014

In the seventeenth century, two settlements in Massachusetts grew up right next to each other. Cambridge and Boston were separated, however, by the Charles River. For more than a century and a half, the two towns were connected only by ferry service. It was not until 1793 that the first bridge was constructed to link them.

The West Boston Bridge was built by private investors who were chartered by the Commonwealth. They recovered their expenses and made a profit by the tolls charged to use the bridge, which remained in place until 1858. The bridge left Boston at the foot of the West End, near the present-day site of the Massachusetts General Hospital. It connected to the eastern part of Cambridge, which was very sparsely inhabited. After construction of the bridge, however, there was a building boom connecting Main Street to the bridge. Swamp land around the river was reclaimed to feed the building boom.

In 1898 the Cambridge Bridge Commission was formed to plan and build a new bridge. In addition to foot and vehicular traffic, the new bridge would need to accommodate trains from the Boston Elevated Railway Company. State and national rules and regulations required that the bridge be a drawbridge, although that would make it more expensive. It literally took an act of Congress to permit the building of a less-expensive and better-looking bridge. Construction took six years, and it was finally opened to traffic in 1906.

After more than a century of use, the bridge was in dire need of repairs, and is now in the middle of a $215 million project to replace structural elements and restore much of the historic character that has been lost over the years. The construction companies working on the bridge, however, are having quite the adventure. Because of the historic nature of the bridge, the project requires that all of the work must be done exactly as it was done when the bridge was first constructed.

There are multiple issues surrounding a construction project like this. The first, and most major, is that bridges are made differently now than they were a century ago. Late-nineteenth-century construction manuals have had to be studied to determine how the bridge was built so that it can be repaired properly.

One of the biggest changes: metalwork. In the early part of the twentieth century, the metalwork of buildings and bridges was fastened using rivets. Heated to thousands of degrees, and inserted into holes in the metal where, as they cooled, the metal would expand and hold the pieces together. Nowadays, this process is achieved using nuts and bolts. Construction workers have had to go to school to learn this outdated process.

Another problem is the granite used in the bridge. Rockport granite has not been quarried in more than 80 years, but it must be used in the bridge. First, it must match the granite already in the bridge. Second, the bridge’s nickname is the Salt and Pepper Bridge. This comes partially from the parapets on the bridge that look like salt and pepper shakers, and partially from the black and white flecks in the granite that look like salt and pepper. Fortunately, they were able to find a source.


Longfellow Bridge


It is nice to see building project such as these, that maintain the historical accuracy of monuments, buildings, and bridges, keeping them as close as possible to how they were when our ancestors walked over them. In 1927, the bridge was officially renamed the Longfellow Bridge. In 1845, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about the original bridge, called “The Bridge.” Part of it reads:

Yet whenever I cross the river

On its bridge with wooden piers,

Like the odor of brine from the ocean

Comes the thought of other years.


And I think how many thousands

Of care-encumbered men,

Each bearing his burden of sorrow,

Have crossed the bridge since then.


I see the long procession

Still passing to and fro,

The young heart hot and restless,

And the old subdued and slow!


3 Tips for Overcoming Spelling Variations

02 Apr 2014


Variations in spelling are one of the major challenges of genealogical research. Because standardized spelling is a twentieth-century concept, there can be all kinds of ways to spell words. This includes names, which can make researching very challenging. Many online search engines can account for some spelling variations, but there are always twists that can confuse things (such as having the wrong first letter in a name, which totally throws off the entire soundex system). Here are some tips to get past spelling variations.

1. Phonetic
Think about how the names are pronounced. Are there different  ways to spell the same sound? For example, a letter c, ch, and ck might all be pronounced with the hard “k” sound. The same goes for the letter f and gh (think rough and tough). Consider variations such as these when searching.

2. Sound Shifts
Watch out for sound shifts, which can throw off even phonetic spellings. Names that are pronounced the same are not always spelled the same. And names that are spelled the same are not always pronounced the same. Regional and national dialects and accents can have a major affect on the way words are spelled. A perfect example comes to us from England, Connecticut, and North Carolina. Hertford is the shire town of Hertfordshire, England. The city of Hartford (capital of Connecticut) was named for it. The spelling changed because the English pronounce the “e” in Hertford similar to an “ah,” thus it sounds like “Hahrtford” to an American. The town of Hertford, North Carolina, was also named for the English town. It retained the English spelling, but the pronunciation has changed to “Hurtford.”  The same sounds and spelling shifts can happen in your family’s names (both given names and surnames).

3. Enlist Your Friends
One great way to get spelling variations is to hand friends a piece of paper and a pencil and ask them to write down the name you are looking for. Just tell them the name, don’t spell it for them. If they themselves are uncertain of how to spell it, ask them to write down every variation they can think of. By asking several friends to do this, you will undoubtedly find a few spelling variations you hadn’t thought of. This works best with someone who is unfamiliar with the name you are searching for. Indeed, asking non-genealogists is a great way to get variations because they don’t come with the same set of assumptions that family historians do. There may be more than one way to pronounce the name, for example Beaufort, North Carolina (pronounced Bowfort) and Beaufort, South Carolina (pronounced Bewfort).

Genealogy Standards: A Must-Read Resource

18 Feb 2014

Back in 2000, the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) published the Millenium Edition of their Standards Manual. Fourteen years later, in honor of their half-century as  credentialing organization, BCG has a issued a new version: Genealogy Standards, 50th Anniversary Edition.


Genealogy Standards


At one hundred nineteen 8.5×11” pages plus a five-page index, the manual was a brilliant help to genealogists everywhere, not just those who were certified or even seeking certification. The first thirty-five pages dealt with Research Standard, Teaching Standards, and Genealogical Development Standards. These were followed by eighty pages of examples. The examples were subdivided into seven appendixes with samples of all kinds of work.

For this edition, the standards have been updated and reorganized. As editor Tom Jones explains in the introduction:

“The number of standards has increased from seventy-two to eighty-three. The increase, however, reflects reorganization more than added material. Sections of multipart standards now appear separately.”(p. xv)

These new standards have been organized in a way that places similar subjects together:

  • Standards for Documenting
  • Standards for Researching
  • Standards for Writing
  • Standards for Genealogical Educators
  • Standards for Continuing Education

While the last two sections don’t apply to all genealogists, the first three certainly do. Each standards chapter is further subdivided into sections. For example, the chapter on researching has three subdivisions:

  • Planning Research
  • Collecting Data
  • Reasoning from Evidence

Each of these subdivisions has between ten and eighteen standards. Each standard is defined by one to five words. This is followed by a more detailed description of the standard. Most of these are fairly easy to understand, but some of them took reading through a couple of times for me to exactly understand them.

The large section of examples has been removed to accommodate a smaller 6×9” size for the book. They are now available to all for free on the BCG website. A few appendixes remain, including a glossary of terms used in the standards.

One very nice addition is the Evidence Analysis research process map that appears at the end of the book. It is reproduced from Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills, and is an excellent overview of the steps we take in genealogical research.

One glaring omission is the index. The absence of an index makes it more difficult to find subjects in the book. One must read through the titles of the standards and hope one can find what one is looking for.

There is another area where I think the book misses an opportunity. One common problem for genealogists is knowing what to do when they feel there is nothing left to do to solve a research problem that still has no solution. Standard 18, Terminating the Plan, provides reasons for terminating a research plan, but it does not provide any assistance on alternatives to terminating, or how to make the final decision to terminate (by alan at dh tech).  Even Appendix C, which includes references to other sources and resources, does not appear to address this issue.

Genealogy Standards is an excellent resource for all genealogists, not just those seeking certification. By following these standards,  you will be able to  be more certain that the people you have discovered in your research actually are your ancestors, instead of simply people with the same name. The book is available from Maia’s Books. The pre-pub sale price of $11.95 is still showing on the website, so take advantage of it quickly before it returns to $14.95.

News Stories and Blog Posts for Genealogists, December 20, 2013

20 Dec 2013

This week we have some intriguing blog posts for genealogists from the internet. From the Event to DNA to paper sons and daughters,  this recent crop of stories covers a wide variety of topics. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

First up is a post by English blogger Tony Proctor. He provides a very interesting discussion of the research process. He asserts that we would benefit from event-based thinking, as many events involve multiple individuals, some of whom may or may not be critical to the event in and of itself. I found it a fascinating conversation. You can read more in Eventful Genealogy.

The Irish Times recently ran a story about recent happenings in Irish genealogy written by the noted genealogist John Grenham. He updates us on what’s happening at the Irish Genealogical Research Society, RootsIreland, a major new National Archives of Ireland venture, and This last is the most exciting, as they will soon be launching a new version of the indexes to vital records in Ireland. Read more in What’s On the Horizon?

Legal Genealogist Judy Russell brings us another DNA discussion. This time she Talks about some new features available from Family Tree DNA and 23andMe. 23andMe has adjusted their calculations for Ancestry Composition, which may change some of your percentages. And Family Tree DNA has released the Matrix: a new tool for comparing results. Read more in Updated DNA Tools.

Diane Webb wrote an interesting piece this week in the Newnan, Georgia, Times-Herald. She has been working on some cemeteries with the Coweta County Genealogical Society. One is a pauper cemetery where they are trying to identify burials. The other is a cemetery with some destroyed markers trying to identify family members to approve erecting new ones. She also points out the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery. Read more in Genealogy: Paupers’ Cemetery Being Researched.

Chinese Paper Sons

The Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 was repealed 70 years ago this week. But for sixty years, Chinese laborers were barred from entering the country. Many Chinese families are paper sons and daughters. These were immigrants with falsified documents declaring them to be related to Chinese-Americans already here, thus being allowed to enter the country as an exception to the ban. The result is thousands of families with made-up surnames. Find out more from National Public Radio in Chinese-American Descendants Uncover Forged Family Histories.

Have you visited or otherwise used resources from the Family History Library?

02 Nov 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked if you had visited or otherwise used resources from the Family History Library. Most of you have at least visited your local family history center or accessed materials on FamilySearch. Don’t forget to check out our bi-monthly newsletter or Facebook page to take our next poll.