Genealogy Blog

100 Years of Countless Bad Hairdos, Prom Queens, and Priceless Memories

18 Aug 2014


It’s that time of year when summer vacation ends and children across the country return to their classrooms for another school year. Mocavo wants to help you celebrate with our Back to School Week, highlighting some of the community’s favorite yearbook collections and pictures. Throughout the week, make sure to check out our Facebook page to see what some of your favorite celebrities looked like during their awkward years.

And don’t forget, as a Mocavo community member, you have access to the largest free online collection of yearbooks. That’s free access to more than 8.3 million pages of cheesy grins, bad hairdos, and heart-warming memories. See what your ancestors looked like, what their passions were, and what they dreamed for the future.

Browse Yearbooks Now

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Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, August 15, 2014

15 Aug 2014

This week’s roundup of stories comes to us courtesy of Facebook. Many of my friends post interesting (as well as humorous) links, so for this week’s collection I browsed over Facebook to see what had interested my friends. I hope you find these stories as interesting as I do.

The first story, posted on Feedbox, was posted by my friend Thomas MacEntee. Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, painted in 1796, was commissioned as a gift for the William Petty FitzMaurice, the Marquess of Lansdowne, who was British Prime Minister during the final years of the American Revolution. Today known as the Lansdowne Portrait, it was saved by Dolly Madison during the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. Today it hangs in the East Room of the White House. And it contains a rather drastic error in it. Find out what the error is and why it is there in One of the Most Famous Paintings in the White House Has a Huge Spelling Error.


Lansdowne Portrait from Wikimedia Commons.

Lansdowne Portrait from Wikimedia Commons.


Thomas posted another interesting story this week about how technology has changed the way people interact. Children today now spend almost 7.5 hours staring at computers. And 87% of teachers report that they now are more easily distracted and have short attention spans. Alok Deshpande, founder of Umenta/StoryCall (a company that help families preserve and capture their stories), wrote an interesting post providing five suggestions for the best ways to reach younger generations with your stories. Read more in Bridging the Generation Gap.

Elizabeth Shown Mills shared an interesting post this week written by Rita J. King and shared on LinkedIn. King is a cofounder of Science House, an organization that helps organizations foster collaboration. She shared five very valuable tips for writers. They apply whether you are writing fiction or your family history. Discover more in Kill Your Darlings: Five Rules for Writers.

My friend Mark Andrew Davis provided a link to a post in the New York Times blog, The Upshot. Gregor Aisch, Robert Gebeloff, and Kevin Quealy took census information from the University of Minnesota Population Center to create some very interesting graphic charts. State by state, they chart the places of birth of the population and how it changed from 1900 to 2012. Each chart has a sliding bar to show you what the numbers were in any given census year. Check out your states of interest in Where We Came From, State by State.

Finally comes a post from my friend and former NEHGS colleague, Chris Child. This week the world suffered an incredible loss with the death of comedian Robin Williams. Chris enjoys researching famous individuals and public figures. Chris has done some interesting work that shows Robin was a cousin of three United States presidents through their common descent from William Armistead of Virginia. Get the details at Notes on Robin Williams’s Ancestry.

Mark the Milestones in Your Ancestors’ Lives

14 Aug 2014


Vital records are a crucial piece of family history research. These important records reveal details about the significant milestones in your ancestors’ lives including births, marriages, and deaths. You can discover an ancestor’s full name, date, place of an event, and much more.

Start exploring your ancestors’ milestones now.

View Birth Records, Marriage Records, or Death Records

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Creating Your Legacy

13 Aug 2014

My friend Nick Gombash is a professional genealogist who specializes in Hungarian and German research. He is extremely well-informed, and has helped me on more than one occasion. Once he helped me with a friend’s ancestry. I gave him the names of a couple married in Bohemia in the mid-nineteenth century. He found the marriage record in a small village within an hour (a task that would have taken me considerably longer no doubt).

Back in 2010 he wanted to find a way to help others who were researching their Hungarian ancestors. His solution was to found the Hungary Exchange. The exchange is a place for these researchers to come together and collaborate on information. More than 1,500 people are now part of the Hungary Exchange forum on Facebook.

In addition to the forum, volunteers have created a number of databases that people can search for free. First is a surname database to facilitate collaboration between individuals researching the same families or the same locations. Additional databases include extracted information from census and taxation records, civil registrations, parish records, and nobility records among others. The databases are organized by county. There are also some databases for places in the U.S. where Hungarians settled in larger numbers, such as Illinois, Michigan, and Pensylvania.

There are also a number of research aids and guides to help researchers:

  • A Guide to Hungarian Parish Registers
  • Digital Books
  • Given Names in Hungarian, English and Latin
  • Hungarian Surname Meanings

There are also links to a large number of resources available online for researching Hungarian resources.


Hungary Exchange


Nick is a very resourceful man, and has worked hard to build the Hungary Exchange into a valuable resource, and this week he had a new idea. This is one that all genealogists should consider.

A good friend of Nick’s was a genealogist for many years. She passed recently and left her library of books to him. After selecting a few volumes for his own personal library, he decided to sell the rest to raise money to support the Hungary Exchange.

This is a not insignificant collection, either; it includes hundreds of volumes. And not all of the books deal with Hungarian research. Many deal with Illinois, Indiana, New England, and other American localities. Some are historical in nature, and some are general genealogical methodology. He researched the titles through online booksellers to get an idea of the value, and created a list, which he posted online for all to see. Proceeds will go to support the work of the exchange. Any books that remain unsold will be donated.

What a great idea. What will you do with your own personal library when the time comes? Think about following Nick’s lead. You can leave them to a Society, or have your executor sell them and donate the money to organizations you want to support. What a terrific way to continue your legacy. I’m very proud of Nick and his work, and all that he has accomplished. He is only in his twenties now; I can’t wait to see what other new ideas he comes up with in the future. And if you’re in the market for a book, check out the list and see if any titles interest you.

O, Captain, My Captain!

12 Aug 2014

The world is a lot less funny today. It seems like only yesterday that I was watching a crazy man in a red jumpsuit wander in Milwaukee and get into a contest with Arthur Fonzarelli. Robin Williams was absolutely hilarious, and it was the beginning of an incredible love affair between Robin and the public. And his untimely death is a reminder to us all.

Robin was an incredible talent. While initially famous for his comedic abilities, he also was an amazing dramatic actor. For me, one of his most seminal films came in 1989, Dead Poets Society. His character was John Keating, an English professor at a private school, who taught his students not only to read poetry, but to live life. In his initial scene, he enters the room whistling Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. He takes his students into the hallway, and asks one of them to read Robert Herrick’s poem To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may; Old time is still a-flying: And this ame flower that smiles to-day; To-morrow will be dying.”

He has them look at pictures of former students from the nineteenth century. He points out that the one thing that all those students have in common is that they are now “food for worms.” He encourages his students with the words Carpe Diem (Seize the Day). He wants each of them to live an extraordinary life.


Robin Williams Dead Poets Society


Nobody knows better than genealogists how fleeting life can be. Or what each of us lives with on a day to day basis. We take bits and pieces of information to put together a version of our ancestors’ lives, but often we are missing the significant details.

Many think that living an extraordinary life means that we must be rich or famous. This is not true. We, each of us, get to define what extraordinary means to us. But we all too often forget, and get caught up in the drift of life. As we move through the stages of life, we sometimes get complacent and lose track of what we really want. To have an extraordinary life, we simply need to look back on what we want, and work to get it (which is not to say we don’t modify our desires and goals along the way).

When Dead Poets Society was released, I was not long out of college and trying to determine what I wanted to be. I decided that it was time to try same crazy new things, so I quit my job and moved to the big city of Boston. Since then, I’ve marched for civil rights on the streets of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. I’ve worked to get laws and other protections in place to prevent bullying and youth suicide. I’ve performed with incredibly talented people, across the country and around the world to audiences of up to hundreds of thousands of people. I even got to sing on stage at Carnegie Hall. I’ve visited almost every state, and sixteen countries on three continents. And I make my living by helping people find their family stories, to help them discover where they come from.

In the movie, Keating quotes Walt Whitman: “the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” He then turns to his students and asks “What will your verse be?” The movie ends with Keating leaving the school, and his students climbing onto their desks, promising to look at life from a different angle, and calling him “O, Captain, My Captain!). Robin Williams left not only a verse, but an entire musical arrangement. And now I ask you “What will YOUR verse be?” Whatever it is, write it down. Be certain that future generations know the things that were important to you, and what was not. Let them know what your extraordinary life was like for you.

How Noah’s Skeleton Can Help Your Research

09 Aug 2014

This week the Penn Museum in Philadelphia reported an extraordinary find. The Penn Museum, affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, is dedicated to archaeology. The museum has initiated a project to digitize records from a joint expedition to what is today Iraq with the British Museum that took place between 1922 and 1934.

During the course of the expedition, Sir Leonard Woolley led an exaction at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. The team discovered the skeleton about 40 feet down, in a layer of silt. The skeleton was shipped back to the Penn around 1930, where it was put into storage in the basement. And there is has remained for almost 85 years, completely forgotten.

Thanks to the digitization project, the remains were recently relocated. They belong to a well-muscled man, about 5’10” tall, who was about age 50 when he died. The museum has named him Noah. Modern technology, unavailable at the time of the original expedition, leave scholars hopeful that they will be able to gain a great deal of information about humans in that time period. Noah dates to about 4500 B.C.E., about 2,000 years earlier than other surviving remains from that area. You can read more about Noah at Discovery News.


Penn Museum Noah Skeleton


Now you may be wondering, to yourself “What does a 6,500-year-old body have to do with genealogy? Isn’t that a bit far back in the ahnentafel?” It is not the skeleton itself, but the events surrounding it that are very applicable to genealogy.

Often we get so caught up in the thrill of research that we don’t spend time enough time processing our findings. Think about how many electronic files and pieces of paper you have with your genealogy materials. And how easy it is to misplace something. Have you ever gone through your materials and occasionally found something you hadn’t seen in ages? And this rediscovery can lead to major new avenues of research.

One way speed up this rediscovery is to periodically review your files. Is everything organized properly? Anything misplaced? And regularly process your backlog of files, both electronic and paper. Start by taking everything you are waiting to deal with and putting it all in a single place: a file folder, an archive box, a special folder on your computer.

Once you have everything accumulated, the next step is to look at your calendar. Schedule some time to review the files on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter if it is once a week, once a month, or once a quarter. The important thing is to go through the materials regularly, process them, and put them in their permanent places. This is the best way to minimize problems with lost items, and keep you from repeating the mistakes of the Penn Museum and Noah.

We Asked and You Answered!

09 Aug 2014

Last week we asked if you had ever found a valuable family keepsake at an antique fair or eBay. Here’s what you said!

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Five Things Star Trek Taught Me About Genealogy

07 Aug 2014


I have always been a bit of a nerd, preferring to spend my time reading and challenging my mind than playing sports. Since I was a young boy I have loved Gene Roddenberry’s  Star Trek universe. Now, many people think that the show was trite, but it has always carried a deeper, metaphorical message. It broke many barriers, with an interracial cast, a lack of cigarette smoking, and other harbingers of the future that have arrived already. And how many television shows can you name that have these accomplishments:

Many of the lessons imparted by captains Kirk, Picard, Sisco, Janeway, Archer, and all the crews of  Star Trek are quite applicable to genealogy.

1. Technology

The communicators from the original featured a screen that flipped up. In the 1990s and early 2000s, they came to life in the flip-phone style of mobile phones at the time. Just as Star Trek foretold the future, genealogists are often early adapters of new technology. And we love to find new and creative uses for it. Take, for example, the Flip Pal scanner, designed with genealogists in mind. It has now become ubiquitous for many of us in our research, scanning images and documents. Be aware of what technological advances you might be able to use in your research, and don’t wait to take advantage of them.

2. Time Travel

Many of Star Trek’s adventures involve time travel (including The City on the Edge of Forever, widely considered to be the best episode of the original series). Sometimes it was accidental, and other times it was intentional, a necessary thing to accomplish the mission. As genealogists, we must employ time travel regularly. One of the most important tenets of genealogy is understanding the time and place in which your ancestors lived. It is only by doing so that you can truly accomplish the best research. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to place our twenty-first century experiences and values on those who lived in a different era.

3. Testing Theories

The mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise and her crew was “to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before. . .” Venturing into new territory left the crew uncertain in many situations. They would come up with a plan, test it, and adapt it based on results. This is exactly how genealogical research is conducted. After we come up with theories, we conduct research, evaluate evidence, and weigh our conclusions, constantly testing them and adapting them as we accumulate additional evidence.

4. Teamwork

Starfleet captains understand that individual crew members have different talents. The best results come with utilizing the various talents of different individuals to complete the mission. As genealogists, we are constantly venturing into new territory. Even professionals consult each other constantly when covering new territory. Work with your friends, read articles, take classes, and consult with professionals to have the greatest success in your research.

5. Tenacious

Starfleet crews work together and when it comes to a mission, they never give up. Even when a crewmember was lost, they never left him or her behind (although not so successful with rescuing the red shirts). Genealogists follow their lead. Always look for a new lead, a new angle, or new evidence. Shift your approach to the problem. In 1999, a film spoof of Star Trek appeared in cinemas. Galaxy Quest was a total parody, and had a motto that is totally suitable for genealogists: “Never give up . . .  Never surrender!”

Chasing National Boundaries on the European Map

06 Aug 2014

One of the difficulties in tracing your ancestors back across the pond is discovering exactly where they originated. In America, places of origin for foreign-born individuals most commonly mention the country of origin. On occasion you might get the name of a county or region. While this helps, it still is often not enough.

A major problem with discovering the origins of your European ancestors is the changing map of the continent. While Great Britain and Ireland have been around for awhile, other European countries have a different background. In 1800, for example, Scandinavia was comprised of two nations: Sweden as well as Denmark and Norway (a single country at the time). The French Empire extended down into what is today northern Italy. Sardinia was a separate country. The Ottoman Empire extended north to Hungary. The area that is today Germany and Italy was composed of hundreds of small kingdoms and fiefdoms in loose alliances.

After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the map was considerable different. France had lost considerable territory to the Swiss Confederation and the independent areas that are now Northern Italy. The Austro-Hungarian Empire came into existence. Russia controlled much of the territory on the Baltic Sea. The German Confederation had loosely started. Denmark ceded the area of Norway to Sweden, which had, in turn, lost the area of Finland, which became a Grand Duchy of the Tsar of Russia.

The map continues to change throughout the nineteenth century, especially in the 1870s. It is then that the German Confederation and other nearby territories form what we know of today as Germany. The same is true on the Mediterranean, where modern-day Italy was formed (with the Vatican remaining an independent nation, greatly reduced from its original size as the Sates of the church, where it extended as far north as Bologna and Ferrara).

During World War I, the map changed tremendously again. By the end of the war, Poland and the Baltic states were ceded into independent nations. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was gone. Austria and Hungary were independent countries. The new nations of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia came into existence.


Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog from Wikimedia Commons.

Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog from Wikimedia Commons.


Even today, there are some remnants of these border changes. NPR recently had a story about the towns of Baarle-Hertog in Belgium, and Baarle-Nassau in the Netherlands. The Belgian population is 2,306, while the Dutch population is 6,668. But the towns are not composed of contiguous land, and each has pieces of the other contained within its boundaries. Buildings, including private homes, are often located in both towns, which, of course, means that they are located in two different countries.

Over the course of a century, the area where your ancestor came from may have changed hands multiple times. And the question “Where were you born?” may have received a different response each time it was asked because of it. This is why it is so critical to get down as close as you can to the name of the city, town, or village where your ancestor was born. This can help you get back past the brick walls caused by changes to the geopolitical boundaries where they lived.