Genealogy Blog

Remembering Our Veterans

11 Nov 2014

Today is Veterans Day in the United States. Originally a day to commemorate the end of World War I (which occurred at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918), it now includes all those who have served or continue to serve in our armed forces.  One of the most important ways we can honor our veterans for their service is to tell their stories so that they are remembered. Never has this been more important than today. With less and less emphasis being placed on history in our schools, our youth don’t remember as much as they should about our veterans. Here are three stories from World War I through Vietnam whose stories should be remembered.

There was a time when every American knew the name Alvin York. Sergeant York was born in Tennessee in 1887. He was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War I despite his opposition. The conscientious objector went on to become one of the most decorated American soldiers of the entire war. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (where my great-great uncle made the ultimate sacrifice), York led an attack on a German machine gun nest. The raid resulted in the deaths of 28 German soldiers, and the capture of 132 others (as well as 32 machine guns).  He would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor amongst others. In 1941 Gary Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Sergeant York in the eponymous film story of his life, yet the average American today would be hard-pressed to name him, let alone discuss his service. Today his service is remembered and promulgated by the Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation.

During World War II, women served in a wide variety of positions to help the United States and the allied forces. One group in particular whose dedicated service is not recognized enough is the Women Airforce Service Pilots. During the war, more than a thousand women joined an Army Air Corps program. They became the first female pilots in our history. They flew aircraft between bases in non-combat situations. This freed male pilots to serve in the front lines. WASP pilots flew more than 60 million miles during the war, and 38 of them made the ultimate sacrifice. Today the libraries at Texas Woman’s University hold the official WASP archives.


Leonard Matlovich's gravestone in the Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C., from Wikimedia Commons.

Leonard Matlovich’s gravestone in the Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C., from Wikimedia Commons.


Technical Sergeant Leonard Matlovich was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. He was the only son of his career Air Force father. Leonard followed in his father’s footsteps, enlisting in the Air Force in 1963. He served in Vietnam for several years, earning the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. In the early 1970s he ran very successful at training members of the Air Force in race relations, coaching other instructors around the country. Realizing that discrimination against gays and lesbians serving in the military was also wrong, he became the first gay man to sue the United States for the right to serve after he came out and was discharged. The Air Force lost the suit, but convinced Matlovich to take a monetary settlement instead of being reinstated to service, threatening to find other reasons to discharge him again. After he died from complications of AIDS in 1988, he was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. His headstone inscription contains a phrase that also appeared in his Time magazine interview years earlier: “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one.” Five years later, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was instituted. It would take until 2010 before GLBT men and women would be allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military. For more information about his story, visit

These are just some examples of the bravery and heroism shown by the men and women who have fought to defend our country and what it stands for. By telling their stories, we remind ourselves and the next generation of their service, and express our eternal gratitude for it. Without them, we would not be the country we are today. Take the time to tell your family members the stories of your ancestors who have served through the generations.

3 Choices for the Fate of Your Collection

10 Nov 2014


Last week the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article about estate planning. In An Estate Plan for Your Treasures (subscription required to read the article), Veronica Dagher wrote about the decisions facing people about what to do with items that they have collected through the years. No matter whether you have a collection of mass-produced dolls, or (as one individual in the article has) a multitude of poker chips from Las Vegas casinos that have operated over the last century, none of us lives forever and there comes a time when you must decide what to do with it.

This same situation faces every genealogist as well. Through the years we tend to accumulate piles of original records, documents, and photographs (not to mention the large number of photocopies and digital copies of materials). Even after writing up your family history and sharing it with your family, you must still decide what to do with this trove of materials, or face having all of your work end up in online auctions or in a dumpster. Veronica’s decisions for collectors are pretty much the same for genealogists. there are three choices for you.

1. Passing it On

Talk to family members. Is there another genealogist to whom you could leave your materials? If not, is there anyone who has a budding interest who might be thrilled to receive it? One might think that the most challenging situation would be to have nobody interested. I would say, however, that the most difficult situation is one in which you have multiple people interested. How do you choose which one to give it to? In that event, my suggestion would be to split the collection (being certain to keep materials that came together in their original groups). Make copies of everything, and include copies of whichever originals someone doesn’t get with the originals that they do receive. Also, make a notation as to where the other originals went, in the event that they ever need to be located again.

2. Selling It

To me this is, of course, the last route that a genealogist wants to take. But, if you have no other choice, you might consider this. Remember that only original documents are likely to have any interest, and the older the materials the greater that interest might be. Online auction sites are filled with materials that close family members no longer have any interest in. Just this week I purchased a document to use as an example in a presentation. It was rather innocuous, a certificate of completion for agricultural work done for a club run by a school in the 1930s. Included with the document was a note from the seller informing me that the individual was the seller’s great-uncle, and he had military papers, letters, and deeds dating back to the nineteenth century for this person if I were interested in purchasing them.

3. Donating It

For me, this is far and away a better solution than selling your materials. There are many places to look to donate your materials. Libraries, private archives, museums, historical societies, and more, are always looking to add to their collections. Be certain to check with them first to ensure that your materials wit with their collection policies. And ask the staff what their processing backlog is, so you can know how long it will be before people can access the materials. If this is an important consideration for you, get that in writing as part of the deed of gift when you donate. Otherwise it could be decades before family members and researchers are able to access the materials. If the repository does not follow through with their promise, your executors and heirs can have the collection removed and given to another repository that actually will process the materials for you.


Findmypast Free Access Weekend – Discover 2 Billion Records Now

07 Nov 2014


We are delighted to share some very exciting news from our Findmypast family! For the first time ever, Findmypast is offering unlimited free access to their unique collection of more than two billion records. That means from now until 7 A.M. Monday, November 10th (EST), you will have free access to all of the Findmypast historical collections, including:

  • Global record sets such as census, birth, marriage, and death records from the 1600s to the present.
  • Millions of local newspaper pages from around the globe spanning 1710 to 2014.
  • The largest collection of local records from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland dating back to 1500.
  • Military records dating from 1760, encompassing the U.S. Civil War, World War I and World War II.
  • Passenger lists and naturalizations, covering the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, and beyond.
  • Local histories, genealogies, and exclusive access to PERSI (the PERiodical Source Index)
  • And much, much more!


To take advantage of this exclusive opportunity, please register for a free Findmypast account at

In addition, you can tune in to the Findmypast Live Broadcast at 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 8th (EST), where some of our family history experts will be giving you advice to help you make the most of your research.

To find out more about this free access and the Live Broadcast, visit the Findmypast Free Weekend page today.

We wish you a wonderful weekend full of new discoveries.

Gettysburg Warrior Receives Medal of Honor 151 Years Later

06 Nov 2014

Today was a very special day in Washington, D.C. It was one of those rare days where everyone came together to do the right thing and remedy an old wrong. The Medal of Honor was finally presented to a most-deserving soldier. One who died more than a century and a half ago.

It was a hot and humid July day in 1863 in southern Pennsylvania, on the third day of what would turn out to be the bloodiest and most memorable battles of the war. The sun was shining, but the sky was filled with the smoke of cannon fire. Alonzo Cushing was a 22-year-old lieutenant from Wisconsin. A graduate of West Point, he served at many of the more well-known battles, including Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg.

Cushing was leading an artillery battery for the Union on that fateful day in Gettysburg. The Confederate charge was particularly brutal, with more than 10,000 infantrymen involved. He never gave up, continuing to urge his men to keep firing even after being wounded in the shoulder and in the abdomen. He used his own thumb to block a gun vent, eventually burning it off before he was felled by Confederate gunfire while still at his post. Today we know this incident as Pickett’s Charge, and recognize it as a turning point in the war.


Alonzo Cushing


The Medal of Honor was created in 1861 to honor those who have committed personal acts of valor and bravery above and beyond the call of duty, and to express the eternal gratitude of a grateful nation. Since it was first awarded in December 1861 almost 3,500 medals have been awarded. Nineteen individuals have been awarded two Medals of Honor for distinct incidents.

For whatever reason, Alonzo Cushing never received the Medal of Honor, which is often awarded posthumously. Because of time limits for nominations for the award, it took a special act of congress to have the award granted to him now.  Margaret Zerwekh is a ninety-four-year-old amateur historian who today lives on the original Cushing family farm in Wisconsin. For three decades she has been fighting to get Cushing the proper recognition.

Zerwekh managed to do something that few others have been able to in the last few years. She brought members of both parties in Congress to pass the necessary law to allow the medal to be awarded. Her meticulous research over the years was able to show them how richly Alonzo Cushing deserved this honor.

The Army Past Conflict Repatriation Branch worked overtime the last few weeks to identify living relatives for the ceremony. Neither Alonzo nor any of his brothers left any children, but they were able to a first cousin twice removed, 85-year-old Helen Loring Ensign from California. In a White House ceremony today, she received the much-belated thanks of a very grateful nation, and the highest military honor this country bestows for her cousin’s service.  You can read more in Lt. Alonzo Cushing, Hero of Gettysburg, Awarded Medal of Honor from NPR.

New Resource for Colonial Laws

04 Nov 2014

We use many kinds of government records in genealogical research. Many of these are obvious, but some less so. One of the most important sets of records to use is the laws passed by colonial and state legislatures.

Often we think that laws are dry and boring. Certainly the language in which they are written can be a bit stiff. But working with the laws can make a huge difference in your success. By knowing and understanding the laws of the time and place in which your ancestors lived, you can determine a great deal more information from the records are you dealing with.

For example, if you know that copies of records were supposed to be kept in multiple places, you can find leads on where to find additional sources of information. If you discover that wills needed to be entered into administration within a certain time after death, you can narrow down the date of death.

In addition to this, in early years, you may actually find records of your ancestors. Up to the early Federal period, many people petitioned the legislature for redress or other issues. One area where this is very common is in military service. Those who served in colonial militias often petitioned for assistance after their service was over. This continued through the Revolutionary War, where many served in the state militias as well as the Continental forces.


BGSU Colonial Laws


My friend Joan Peake  posted about a new resource to help you find information on early laws. The libraries at Bowling Green State University in Ohio have created a free finding aid to help you locate the laws in each of the original thirteen colonies (Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia).

The guide was created by Carol A. Singer, a professor in the Library Teaching and Learning Department at the university. Each colony gets its own page. The page lists resources available from the BGSU libraries or the OhioLink system. It also provides links to online versions of laws, some of which were published in multiple ways.

The Massachusets page, for example, includes links to published volumes  of the lws passed by the General Court (the Massachusetts legislature) between 1692 and 1780 that are available on HathiTrust, Internet Archive, and Google Books. It also links to a database created by the State Library of Massachusetts. It is browseable or searchable, with links to PDF files of the original publication.

Check out this valuable guide on the website for the libraries of Bowling Green State University.

Preserving Historic Cemeteries

01 Nov 2014

Danvers in many ways is a typical Massachusetts town. It is on the larger size in population (ranking 70th out of the 351 cities and towns in the commonwealth). It does, however, have a more infamous pedigree than most towns. Originally it was Salem Village, part of the town of Salem and the location of the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century. It rarely gets the publicity, however, and tourists still flock to the town of Salem each Halloween, even though it was not the location of the trials. Today the town is facing a problem that is starting to come before many towns and counties throughout the United States: preserving historic burying grounds.

In New England most towns had a cemetery near the village common, often associated with a church. Family cemeteries are less common, but for a variety of reasons individuals and small groups did often create their own burial grounds. Danvers resident Samuel Holten was a judge, a member of the Massachusetts legislature, and an ardent voice in the Sons of Liberty. He served in the Continental Congress and was a signature of the Articles of Confederation. When he died in 1814, his will dictated that part of his property be set aside as a “burying pasture” for his family and others that lived in the area.

For two hundred years residents of the town served on in the cemetery association. Many of the leading families gratefully served. These members created an endowment by selling plots in the cemetery, hundreds of them. Through the years, veterans of Americas wars from the American Revolution through the Vietnam conflict were buried there. It was well cared for. Flowers and other mementos were often left at graves.


Danvers Cemetery


Unfortunately, in recent years, things have changed dramatically. The cemetery ran out of space. All spaces were sold and revenues dried up. It became more difficult to get people to serve in the association. The cemetery is in need of major repairs, not only to burial plots, but to retaining walls and other structures.

In December, the last member of the association informed the town that she could no longer manage things. The endowment was down to $18,000, and she saw no way to raise funds for more without burial plots to sell. She asked the town to take over managing the cemetery.

The town, however, is not obligated to do so. It is a private burying ground. After the major repairs are done, annual maintenance costs are estimated to be $14,000. There is dissent amongst citizens of the town as to whether or not the cemetery should be taken over by the town, supporting it with taxes. But there is an overwhelming feeling that the cemetery does need to be cared for, especially given its historic nature.

This situation is becoming more and more common all the time. Historic cemeteries have run out of ideas to raise money for care. Towns and counties are being faced with having to take them over or destroy the final resting place of hundreds or thousands of residents. We must find creative ways to help these burying grounds survive, or face a tragedy of irreplaceable loss. You can read more about the story of Holten’s cemetery in Historic Danvers Cemetery Orphaned, Neglected.

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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The Witchfinder General

29 Oct 2014

‘Tis the season of witches, ghouls, and goblins. As we prepare for Halloween, our thoughts turn to these subjects. Here in Massachusetts, of course, our thoughts turn to Salem, where the infamous witch trials of 1692 started. But this was not the start of rumors of witchcraft. It started in England.

The Witchcraft Act of 1536 made it illegal to be a witch, but it was with the Witchcraft Act of 1604 that it became a serious crime. Witchfinders became very popular during this time. None was more infamous, however, than Matthew Hopkins.

Hopkins is shrouded in mystery. He is thought to be a son of a Puritan minister, born around in Suffolk around 1640, but no baptismal or birth record has been found for him. During the English Civil War, he anointed himself “Witchfinder General” and  staged a reign of terror over East Anglia.

He used numerous methods of torture against his victims. Among the most common were sleep deprivation, making accused witches march around night and day without rest. He used knives with retractable blades, allowing him to “insert” the blade into an accused witch without them feeling anything, a true sign of witchcraft. He also had the accused tied up and thrown into water. If they floated, they were witches. If they sank, it showed their innocence (albeit posthumous proof).

Hopkins started his interrogations in Manningtree and Mistely, and the trials were held at the assizes in Chelmsford. In his first trial he managed to have 28 women convicted. Four died in prison, but the rest were hanged. At one point during his terror spree, he saw 19 women hanged in a single day.


Discovery of Witches


The Salem Witch Trials here in America resulted in some 200 people being accused of witchcraft over an eighteen-month period. Twenty of these were put to death. Hopkins’ reign of terror also lasted eighteen months, but just the number of executed stands at 300. He penned a book entitled The Discovery of Witches was published in 1647. And all of this he accomplished while in his mid-twenties.

While his reign as “Witchfinder General” was brief, so was his life. He died at home in Manningtree, Essex, on 12 August 1647. While rumors were rampant about his death being caused by vengeful mobs, the reality is that he likely died of tuberculous. You can read more about him from the BBC in Matthew Hopkins, ‘Witchfinder General’ of East Anglia.


Easily Obtaining Non-Digitized Records From a Distance

28 Oct 2014

Often when helping researchers, we run to the end of the line with what is directly available online through images and databases. Even local library resources may be finite. It is at this point that records which have not been digitized must be examined. They may not even be available in microform.

All too often, when meeting up with this situation, researchers give up. The most common response I hear is “My ancestors lived in [insert name of location hundreds or thousands of miles away here]. It is too expensive and I cannot afford to visit there.”

Let us put aside for the moment the fact that many people simply assume that it will be too expensive and never actually investigate the possibility. Now let me tell you a story of how quickly, and relatively inexpensively, I discovered records not available in the United States and obtained copies of them.

In preparing for a research trip to England, I have been searching catalogs and finding aids from the Northamptonshire Record Office and the Oxfordshire History Centre. I am creating lists of materials I wish to examine on my research trip. As part of that preparation, I found entries that referenced some seventeenth-century letters as part of a collection of family papers located at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury. The family owned property in both Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, which is why the records were cross-referenced.

These letters were supposed to have been written by Thomas Franklin, an uncle of Benjamin Franklin (part of my Franklin project). He was acting as an agent for the property owner, and the letters discussed various people renting property at Ecton (where Thomas lived).


Centre for Bucks Studies


I went to the website for the Buckinghamshire County Council, of which the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies is a part. Although some records (such as copies of civil registrations, wills, and parish registers) can be ordered directly online, the letters were not listed as available. I sent a blind email through a form. I informed the recipient that I live in America, and was trying to obtain copies of the letters, and asked that the process should be. I included the reference numbers and descriptions for the letters.

I sent the message over the weekend, and first thing Monday morning I got a very friendly letter from the archivist. She information me that I could purchase either digital or paper copies, and told me what the fees were for each version. The next step would be for me to tell her my choice for receiving the documents. She would then information the accounting department for the county council. Unfortunately they are not equipped for online billing, so  paper invoice needed to be sent to me for payment.

I told her that digital images were fine with me, and I looked forward to receiving the invoice. I sent that email last Monday afternoon. On Tuesday morning another email from the archivist was waiting in my inbox. Attached to the email were digital images of the letters. She informed me that the invoice was being processed. the invoice was cut the following day, and I received it in today’s post. Fortunately, although not set up for online billing, the county is set up for online payments. I immediately logged in and payed the bill.

The images were £2.50 each. There were 9 images, for a total of £22.50 (about US $36). I now have copies of the three letters, dating to the 1670s and 80s. On opening them I realized immediately that they belonged to the correct Thomas Franklin, as he had a very distinctive signature which I recognized immediately.

The moral of this story is that whether or not you think you can visit a place in person, it pays to keep your mind open. You will not always be able to find digital images of what you need online, but they may be just a few mouse clicks and emails away. In just a few days I had images of records with valuable information, and for far less than a trip to England. But it did take a lot of digging and using catalogs. Obtaining the records, however, was quite simple and easy.

Don’t Get Caught Writing Historical Fiction

27 Oct 2014

One-hundred-fifty-six years ago today, in a four-story brownstone on East 20th Street in Manhattan, a boy was born who would one of the biggest impacts on the United States as any one individual ever has. Today, Theodore Roosevelt is most widely known for being the youngest president in history, his charge up San Juan Hill, his face on Mount Rushmore, and the phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” But he was a great deal more than that.

From his youth, Teddy Roosevelt was part of the merchant class. He was well off and well-educated. He went to Harvard, and while a sophomore there his father passed away. Soon after graduating he married Alice Hathaway Lee. She died at their New York City home on February 12, 1884, two days after the birth of their daughter Alice. Later that same day, his mother died at the same home.



Image of Teddy Roosevelt from Wikimedia Commons.

Image of Teddy Roosevelt from Wikimedia Commons.


His political career began, naturally with the Republican Party. He started as member of the New York State Assembly in 1882. After the death of his wife, he went to the Dakotas for a few years where he lived as a rancher. He returned to public life, serving as a police commissioner for New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice-President and President of the United States.

What many people today don’t know is his dedication to all people. As he moved the ranks, he would continually come into conflict with fellow Republicans. As president he often came into conflict with the party. He felt a certain responsibility to look out for average Americans. He was known as the “trust-buster” for  bringing anti-trust lawsuits that destroyed virtual and actually monopolies, including Standard Oil, the largest oil company  at the time. He was also responsible for passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug act, improving health standards for everyone. He created the U.S. Forest Service, and during his presidency he turned 230 million acres into protected public lands. Although identified as a Republican, he more and more stood for progressive issue, and went on to form the Progressive Party in 1912.

Teddy Roosevelt is a perfect example of someone who doesn’t behave in ways we might expect. His background would lead us to assume that he would be a paragon of Republican values, supporting corporate America against the working class. Instead, he turned out to be a paragon of progressiveness. Creating a middle road that would lead to success for all.  When examining our ancestors’ lives, it is tempting to create personalities for them, assumptions based on what others like him or her might have done. Before making presumptions, be certain to have empirical evidence to support your conclusions, otherwise you will be writing historical fiction.

In closing, I would like to share with you one of my favorite quotes from Teddy Roosevelt: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”