Genealogy Blog

News and Blog Posts for Genealogists, June 20, 2014

20 Jun 2014

Our weekly roundup of stories has some fascinating topics this week. We start with the top five questions about Irish genealogy, then move to the identification of a prolificly photographed mystery man, a new organization called GRANDMA, some wonderful resources via the Legal Genealogist, and an incredible map of the Mississippi.

We start with a piece from IrishCentral. They recently held a Q&A session on their Facebook page, and saw a huge number of inquiries. The team compiled a list of the five most commonly asked questions and answered them. Included in these questions are: Where do I start? Where in Ireland did my family come from? When did my family come to America? How do I get back further? and What does my surname mean? Get the answers in The Top Five Questions About Irish Genealogy.

Back in 2012 photo historian Donald Lokuta came across a set of silver gelatin prints, all thank in photo booths, and taken between the 1930s and the 1960s. He located collectors that had other images that matched his. Hundreds of photos were eventually uncovered. The joined collections were part of an exhibit at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. This led to online coverage, which led to identification of the mystery man. Read about it on Gizmodo in The Mystery Man in Those 445 Photobooth Pics Has Finally Been Identified.

Dick Eastman reported this week on the creation of a new genealogy resource. The California Mennonite Historical Society has created a valuable database of more than a million individuals in eastern Europe. The new Genealogy Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry is called by the acronym GRANDMA. Read more from Dick in GRANDMA: the Genealogical Registry and Database of Mennonite Ancestry.

The Legal Genealogist, Judy G. Russell, has given us a treasure trove this week. Between Monday and Thursday, she each day highlighted a different source of images that are free to use. Some of these images are quite amazing. And on Friday, she gave us a bonus post about how to do safer searches for images on Google and Bing. Read all five posts at The Legal Genealogist.

The Vault is the history blog published by Slate. Recently Rebecca Onion, who runs the blog, talked about a nineteenth-century map of the Mississippi River. By the 1860s the river was filled with steamboats. The original map is eleven feet long and was sold to tourists. The map is incredibly detailed, down to listing the names of landowners along the river. It starts in Minnesota, with the lakes and rivers that are the source of the great river, and traces it down to the head of the river at New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. Read more and see the entire map in Scroll Down the Mid-19th-Century Mississippi River Using This Super-Long Map.

Mississippi River Map

I’ll Drink to That

18 Jun 2014

Alcohol has been part of the American experience from the very beginning. Christopher Columbus actually brought sherry with him on his voyages in the fifteenth century. When the Mayflower headed to the New World, she was loaded with more beer than water.

During the colonial period, alcohol was made from many things: carrots, tomatoes, onions, beets, celery, dandelions, and more. From earliest times there were laws to regulate the sale of spirits. New England was practically built on the triangle trade, which relied on their distillation of molasses into rum.

Colonists who lived in rural areas had access to relatively clean water. But in the more populated areas, especially the cities, the waterways were filthy. They were far more commonly used as sewers than a source of drinking water. The water they did drink was put in bottles and casks at cleaner sources and brought into the cities. And alcohol, also packaged in bottles and casks, was also readily available.

During the Revolutionary War, Americans were looking for a replacement for rum made from molasses brought in from other British colonies. This paved the way for the creation of bourbon. It did not take long for whiskey and bourbon to supersede rum as the beverage of choice.

By 1790 the per capita consumption of the equivalent of 90 proof alcohol was 3.5 gallons per year. By 1830 this had risen to 4 gallons. This was twice the level it is now (in 2007 the level was 2 gallons).

Remember that these numbers are per capita, which includes every man, woman, and child in America. In reality, while children consumed some (very watered down) alcohol, and women drank a share, the vast majority of this was consumed by men. That puts the consumption among those who actually did drink much, much higher.


Alcohol in Early American Republic


To find out more about America’s love affair with alcohol (and discover some very interesting facts), read Alcohol and Drinking in American Life and Culture from SUNY/Potsdam. You can also watch a C-SPAN video by history professor Alan Taylor at the University of California/Davis as he teaches his students about Alcohol Use in the Early American Republic.

A Question of Geography

17 Jun 2014

Two-hundred thirty-nine years ago today, one of the pre-eminent battles in American history took place. And one of the biggest misnomers in American history started.


Bunker HIll Monument


In June 1775, Boston was held by British troops. At that time, Boston was on a peninsula, with only a small neck of land connecting it to the mainland at Roxbury. The neck was fortified for defense from the very beginning.  In 1774, General Gage created heavier fortifications and added a ditch that filled with water at high tide, effectively turning Boston into an island.

Hills in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Charlestown overlooked Boston. By June 1775, British officers were about to send troops to these hills for additional protection. On June 13 colonial leaders learned of the plans and created a defense plan.

The village of Charlestown was located on another peninsula, which protruded into Boston Harbor on the north side of Boston. On the night of June 16, 1,200 troops under the command of William Prescott crept into Charlestown to fortify Bunker Hill, overlooking Boston.

Once the initial work started on Bunker Hill, Prescott and other officers, including engineer Richard Gridley decided that it made more sense to locate the fortifications on nearby Breed’s Hill. Breed’s Hill was closer to Boston than Bunker Hill. They built a large redoubt there during the night.

Their work was noticed by the British just before dawn. General Clinton urged an early attack via Charlestown Neck that would allow them to starve out the Colonials and cut off their avenue of retreat. But the remaining generals, including Burgoyne, Gage, and Howe were determined that the Colonials were no match for British regulars, and that a direct attack would be quick and easy.

The British assault started at 3 p.m. By 5 p.m., the colonists had retreated across the neck, and the British controlled the hill. But the victory was Pyrrhic at best. The retreat was orderly and in control, not a wild flight by the Colonials. In fact, Colonial forces ensured that the British could not surround them, allowing fleeing forces to escape.

That day, 2,400 Colonial forces met more than 3,000 British regulars. The Colonials suffered losses of 115 killed, 305 wounded, and 30 captures (20 of whom later died). British forces, however, were decimated. Among the 226 killed were 19 officers. And 828 were wounded, including 62 officers. Colonials casualties were only 19%, while more than a third of British troops were killed or injured, including a large number of officers. Even though they lost that day, overall victory went to the Colonials. The fact that they inflicted far more damage than they themselves suffered galvanized the colonies and gave them confidence that the British forces were not infallible.

But forevermore that battle would be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. On the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, in 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette laid the cornerstone for a monument to the battle. Geographically, however,  the Bunker Hill Monument even today stands on Breed’s Hill, perpetuating one of the greatest misnomers in American history.

What Happens When the DNA Lies?

14 Jun 2014

DNA Helix


DNA has become very important to genealogical research. We use it to determine new leads for brick walls, to identify cousins, to identify the maiden names of women, to identify “non-paternal events,” and more. All of this evidence is predicated on the fact that, aside from identical twins, every person’s DNA is unique, and that Y-DNA and mtDNA are passed from parent to child. But what if there is more to the story? What if there are other possibilities? What if there are problems with the DNA that provide false results?

Lydia Fairchild was 26 years old, living in Washington state. She was unemployed, and applied for public aid. In order to prevent fraud, the state of Washington requires all applicants and their families to submit to a DNA test. Shortly after taking the test, Lydia was summoned to the Department of Social Services.

The DNA test showed that while the children were related to each other, and her boyfriend was proven to be the father, she had no genetic connection to the children. Not only was she denied assistance, but she was now liable to charges of welfare fraud, and having her children taken away from her.

Despite the plethora of evidence to show her pregnancy and birth certificates for the children, DSS didn’t care. She even had her gynecologist testify on her behalf. None of it was accepted, as DNA was considered infallible.  Another round of DNA tests was ordered using different labs. The results were the same: she was not genetically related to her children.

She didn’t know at the time, but across the country, here in Boston, Karen Keegan was in need of a kidney transplant. Her family members had blood tests to see if they could donate a kidney. Her doctor called her and told her that her DNA did not match that of her children. DNA samples were taken from all over her body, and finally they were on the road to solving the mystery.

Occasionally things happen to fetuses in a mother’s womb. Sometimes two eggs are fertilized, which usually results in twins. But on rare occasions the eggs fuse together to create a single fetus. But that fetus carries two distinct genetic codes: one from each egg.

Because of Keegan’s story in the New England Journal of Medicine, Fairchild did not lose her children. But what about the descendants? Will this someday create problems for genetic testing? What happens if the DNA tests show no or more distant relationship?

The stories of Fairchild and Keegan were told in a recent story on ABC News (She’s Her Own Twin), but it does not mention what kind of DNA testing was performed. The NEJOM article goes into great deal about the testing, but quite frankly I don’t know enough about DNA testing to understand it, but you can read it in Disputed Maternity Leading to Identification of Tetragametic Chimerism. It certainly raises some questions about DNA testing for genealogical purposes.

We Asked and You Answered!

13 Jun 2014

Last week we asked how many genealogy education programs/conferences do you hope to attend this year. More than 60% of the community plans on attending at least one genealogy program/conference this year!




3 Tips for Sharing Stories with the Next Generation

12 Jun 2014


This week has been very busy preparing for my concerts this weekend.  Our guest artist for this show is Alex Newell who plays U’nique on Glee. He has been a joy to work with. The music tells the tales of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Civil Rights Movement through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As part of the concert, videos will be playing behind us and on either side with images from the past century.

One of the songs we are singing is That’s What Friends are For. Several of the younger members of the chorus standing near me did not understand why the image on the screen as we sing this song is of the AIDS Quilt being displayed on the Mall in Washington, D.C. I explained to them that the song was best known for the version sung by Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder that was released in 1986 as a fundraiser for AIDS research.

The fact that they did not know this reminded me of the importance of teaching the next generation about our history. The same thing goes for families. We spend a great deal of time researching, but often we do not spend enough time sharing our history with the next generation. Here are some tips to help you.

1. Talk to Family Members

Take opportunities at family gatherings to tell younger members of the family stories about their ancestors.  Be certain the stories are age appropriate, so as to retain their interest in the stories. Birthdays, funerals, weddings, and anniversaries are popular occasions for these discussions. You might consider, however, having a party for no reason other than getting the family together. Then use the opportunity for the older generations to share stories with the younger ones. This can also give you lots more new information for your research.

2. Record Your Stories

While you are having these parties, use the opportunity to video the stories everyone is telling. What better way to present the stories than to show later generations their ancestors telling stories in their own words. You can also do some special one-on-one interviews between you and a family member. You might also try recording you or other family members telling stories to only one or two of the younger generation. With today’s multimedia options, there is no end of things you can do with the recordings.

3. Write the Stories Down

Recording stories in more than one medium is important.  Some people prefer to watch videos while others might prefer to read the stories. You can also print out your collection of stories and donate them to your local public library and/or genealogical society. This will ensure that future generations will have access to them.

Southern California Jamboree Now Coming to You

11 Jun 2014

I’ve just returned from the Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree in Burbank. It was a wonderful few days, filled with lots of exciting presentations. This was the 45th annual Jamboree, and this is one group that gets it right.


Jamboree Logo

Year after year, they return to the same hotel. Among other things, this allows them to get better rates for rooms that can be passed down to the participants.  They also have formed a wonderful bond with the hotel staff, which allows them to grow and do different things every year.

The society itself has been moving into the twenty-first century, including providing webinars to their members. They have now extended this to the conference as well. Many organizations offer audio recordings of presentations. In addition to the audio recordings, the Jamboree provided DVD recordings of a number of sessions. Among the sessions recorded were:

  • Jana Sloan Broglin, Effective Use of Wills and Estates in Your Research
  • Thomas MacEntee, 7 Habits of Highly Frugal Genealogists
  • Leland Meitzler, Westward Migration Routes of Northeastern Colonial America
  • Randy Whited, Sprinkling Weather into Your Family History

You can purchase audio recordings now from the Conference Resource Media website. The video recordings have not yet been posted on the site, but should be there soon.

They also did Livestreams of a number of sessions. Among these were:

  • Judy G. Russell, Dowered or Bound Out: Records of Widows and Orphans
  • Blaine Bettinger, DNA and the Genealogical Proof Standard
  • F. Warren Bittner, Proof Arguments: How and Why?
  • Bennett Greenspan, The Future of Genetic Genealogy
  • Cyndi Ingle, The Internet: A Genealogist’s Printing Press

They also streamed a presentation I made about New England research. These videos are available to you to watch for free from now until July 5, 2014. You can see a complete list and watch the videos online.

Congratulations to the entire team that produced the conference. Special congratulations go out to Paula Johnson Hinkel and Leo Myers, who retired as chairs of the conference after years of dedicated work that has made it the successful event that it has become.

Make New Discoveries with the Social Security Death Index

10 Jun 2014


One of the major starting points for genealogical research is the Social Security Death Index. Used by the Social Security Administration for coordinating benefits, the SSDI contains a wealth of information about your family members who have died in the last forty years, including their first name, last name, age, address, and more. As a Mocavo Community Member, you can search more than 88 million death records found in the Social Security Death Index to your heart’s content for free.

Search the Social Security Death Index Now

View All Mocavo Databases

We hope you have a lovely week full of new discoveries.

A Rose By Any Other Name

09 Jun 2014

Last Tuesday I wrote about a piece that Nate Silver did concerning first names. This made me wonder, who has studied surnames? Interesting enough, at the same time I was wondering this, a friend posted a story from PBS that originally ran back in 2001, but is totally on point.

The POV series on PBS airs documentaries with a “Point of View.” In 2001, the series broadcast The Sweetest Sound, from filmmaker Alan Berliner. His goal in making the film was to explore identity through our names. He examines the historical origins of names and their roles in society.

The film is a personal look at what his name means to him. But as he takes that journey, he shares a lot of interesting information with viewers. And he discusses concepts and ideas that we all have thought of. Such as being confused with someone else of the same name. In the end, he states that “I can’t separate it from who I am, or what I do. And one day, it will be impossible to separate it from who I was, and what I did.” As he makes this statement, images flash on screen. Gravestones and squares from the AIDS Quilt. And it transitions to the New England Holocaust Memorial, with its millions of numbers of those who died at the hands of the Nazis.

One of my favorite parts of the film is when he visits the National Archives and talks with Marian Smith from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service and Barry Moreno, a librarian at Ellis Island National Monument. They explode the greatest myth in American history: that any name was ever changed at Ellis Island. I have written about this before, and it is one of my big pet peeves. It never happened, and to date, not a single person has been able to provide documentary evidence contrary. He goes into detail about the problem, starting with the statement that “this could be the subject of an entire film.”

In the closing credits, he took pity on people whose names always appear in the middle or the end of the alphabet. So, when he presented his “Thank You” list, he had the names scroll by in reverse alphabetical order, from Z to A. Among the genealogists who appeared on the list were Eileen Polakoff and Gary Mokatoff.


Sweetest Sound


As part of the airing, PBS created an interesting database.  Extracting data from the 1990 and 2000 U.S. censuses, they created a database of the most popular surnames. The Census Bureau published two lists, one from each census, that contained the surnames that occurred 100 or more times.. The list from 1990 contained 88,799 names while the one from 2000 had 151,671. Interestingly, the number from 2000 includes about 90 percent of the population. But it only covered about 3 percent of the surnames! The official tally contained more than 6 million surnames, of which about 65 percent were listed for only one person. Thus, 97 percent of surnames in the U.S. did not appear on this list.

I searched the How Popular is Your Last Name? database for my surname and discovered that in 1990, it was ranked number 6,074, but by 2000 it had dropped to 10,639.  You can search the database for your own surname the on the PBS website. And you can watch The Sweetest Sound on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video.