Genealogy Blog

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.”

5 Great History Podcasts

23 Oct 2014


Podcasts are a wonderful way to learn. They can fun as well as informative. And what a great way to pass the time while commuting – or while doing your chores around the house. I listen to a number of podcasts. Some of them are just for fun (like Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!), while others are informative (such as Grammar Girl’s podcast). Here are five history podcasts that I think you might enjoy.

1. Journal of American History Podcast

The Journal of American History is the official quarterly publication of the Organization of American Historians. In 2008, they started an official podcast that now appears bi-monthly. Among the topics covered are “The Last of the Doughboys, The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War;” “Citizens of Nowhere: Fugitive Slaves and Free African Americans in Mexico, 1833–1857;” and “’Moving Byond Rags to Riches,’ New York’s Famine Irish Immigrants and Their Surprising Savings Accounts.”

2. Past & Present Podcast

In 2005, Colonial Williamsburg started a podcast to talk about the living history museum. The podcasts feature the men and women who work as interpreters, chefs, tradesmen, musicians, historians, librarians, curators, and so on. The podcast airs weekly, and you can listen, download, or read a transcript for each of the episodes. Some of the topics that you might find interesting include “The Bloody Battlefield,” about the life and duties of a military surgeon; “Spies in the Library,” about materials concerning 18th-century spies; and “George Washington Sneezed Here,” about colonial treatments for the common cold.

3. Stuff You Missed in History Class

This fascinating podcast comes to us from the folks at How Stuff Works. The subject matters vary greatly, from history mysteries, and hoaxes, legal history, and military history, to pirates, royalty, and shipwrecks.  Several new episodes come out each month, and an accompanying blog covers the topics of the podcasts. Recent topics of interest include the two-part “Ethan Allen” (about the Revolutionary War hero); “The Lady Juliana” (about women colonizing Australia); and “The Heathen School” (about the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut).

4. The History Chicks

Beckett Graham and Susan Volledweider are the History Chicks. They take an oftentimes humorous view at history, with a focus on the roles women have played. They have told the stories of Agatha Christie, Sybil Ludington, Carrie Nation, and life in Elizabethan times.

5. Rex Factor

This British podcast is a takeoff on the X Factor. It has been described as “a two-blokes-in-a-pub, light-hearted format marking all England’s monarchs and deciding if they have the Rex Factor or not. But actually the work behind it is impressive.” Over the past four years, the duo of Graham Duke and Ali Hood has covered all of England’s monarchs from the Saxon Alfred the Great through the current monarch from the house of Windsor, Elizabeth II. They are now preparing to start a series on the monarchs of Scotland.

Living Memories from the Greatest Generation

22 Oct 2014

Stephen Ambrose was a historian and author, biographer of presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. In 1989, while a professor at the University of New Orleans, he started the Eisenhower Center. The center’s mission focuses on national security policy for the U.S. and the twentieth-century use of force as a policy.

As part of the Eisenhower center, he worked a great deal with D-Day veterans. This prompted him to found the National D-Day Museum in 2000, also in New Orleans. Ambrose died in 2002, and the following year Congress designated the museum as the official National WWII Museum for the United States.

The museum holds a large collection of physical items. And an active education program. But one area that will be of tremendous interest to family historians is the digital collections. These are in two parts: digital photographs, and oral histories.

The museum currently has about 100,000 print photographs from World War II. Many of these are official photographs and other images captured by the U.S. military and other official agencies. There are also a large number of photographs that have been donated by individuals and their families that were taken with personal cameras during the war. These are being digitized and made available online.

The second part is the oral histories project. Members of “The Greatest Generation” are quickly dying off. Museum staff travel the country to record interviews with veterans. The interviews are then processed and uploaded to the museum’s website. More than 7,000 interviews have so far been taken.


WWII Museum


Realizing the value of transcriptions, but knowing how difficult and time consuming creating them may be, the museum has made a compromise. In an initial effort using 150 entries, staff have created “summations.” These annotations allow for indexing to make it easier for researchers to access appropriate interviews.

These interviews tell a wide variety of tales. Veterans describe their experiences in battles, on ships, in training, and more. In addition to the veterans, there are interviews with others who suffered during the war. For example, Eva Aigner, a Jewish woman born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, talks about her family’s experience, from leaving their home, to losing her father in a camp, to her escape with her mother, and more.

The museum has active fundraising campaigns to widen its reach and programming. Copies of images and videos can be purchased. All funds go to support the museum. Check the videos and images out. If you find them interesting and helpful, please consider making a donation to help them in their exemplary work.

“All in the Valley of Death Rode the Six Hundred”

21 Oct 2014

This Sunday marks the 160th Anniversary of one of the most well-known and deadly battles in modern military history. Today the Crimean Peninsula is in the lower part of Ukraine, and once again the site of military unrest. In 1854, it was in the crossfire between the forces of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire fighting to prevent Russian incursion into Europe. At the Battle of Balaclava, 670 British soldiers took on 5,240 Russian soldiers in the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Because of a miscommunication amongst the officers, the Light Brigade (composed of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, the 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, took on a pointless endeavor. Completely surrounded and hopelessly outgunned, they never had a chance of beating the Russians. At the end of the charge, they had suffered 127 wounded, 118 killed, and an additional 60 taken prisoner. 335 horses were also killed during the action, leaving less than a third of the original forces still capable of fighting. The charge was immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that begins:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Conditions for injured soldiers during the Crimean War were amongst the worst in history. The war involved about 1 million troops of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and their allies against the 710,000 troops of Russia and her allies. Britain and her allies suffered a mortality rate of more than 35%, while Russia suffered even more, with more than 55% of her troops dying.

Health conditions were appalling. Sanitary conditions were practically nonexistent. Far more men who initially survived their injuries would die as a result of infection and disease. Cholera and Typhus were rampant.


Florence Nightingale from Wikimedia Commons.

Florence Nightingale from Wikimedia Commons.


It was about the time of the Charge of the Light Brigade that 34-year-old Florence Nightingale arrived in Scutari in Turkey where many of the wounded were sent to hospitals there. She brought with her thirty-eight nurses: ten Roman Catholic nuns, eight Anglican nuns, nd twenty nurses from various hospitals. Within weeks this small group had brought some order to the chaos of the hospitals there.

By early 1855, Florence the death rate rose to 42%, including three of the nurses and seven of the doctors tending to the patients. In May, Florence visited the hospitals in and around Balaclava, tending to survivors of the Light Brigade amongst others. While there she fell ill with “Crimean Fever” (today identified as brucellosis). She became dangerously ill, but survived and return to Scutari, although she would return to Balaclava a year later. In August of 1856 she finally returned home.

A month after her return, she had an audience with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, discussing the need for health reform, especially in the military. Florence worked the rest of her life for increased health care, and recruiting women to work as nurses. Indeed, the next time you are in a doctor’s office or hospital and are being tended to by a female nurse, you can thank Florence for their gracious care.

In efforts were made to shed light on the poverty-stricken circumstances of many of the survivors of the charge. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, read his entire poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” for a recording on a wax cylinder by representatives of Thomas Edison. Martin Landfried/Landrey was a young trumpeter who survived the Charge. In 1890, he recorded the charge he and others sounded that fateful day, playing on a bugle that was used on the field at the Battle of Waterloo.


What Will You Tell the Future?

18 Oct 2014

We’ve had some excitement here in Boston over the last few weeks. The Old State House is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city. When Boston’s original Town House, built in the 1650s, burned in 1711, officials chose to rebuild on the same site. In 1713 the new building was erected to house the official offices of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was the seat of the Royal Government, housing the Royal Governor’s offices, the Massachusetts Assembly, and the courts of Suffolk County. At the peak of the roof on the side of the building facing the harbor were placed statues of a lion and a unicorn as symbols of the Royal authority.

From a balcony just beneath these statues official proclamations were read. It was just under this balcony that the Boston Massacre occurred in 1770. In July of 1776, the townspeople of Boston listened for the first time to the words of the Declaration of Independence as it was read from the balcony. Shortly thereafter the lion and the unicorn were torn from their perches and burned. During restoration work on the building in 1882, new statues of the lion and unicorn were placed where the originals once stood.

At the turn of the century, additional restoration work was done. When the lion was returned to its perch in 1901, it included something new. A time capsule had been placed inside the crown, a gift to the future. Flash forward to 2014. Restoration work is once again being performed. While reviewing the work done during the 1901 restoration, a reference from a 1901 newspaper is discovered that discusses the time capsule. The company doing the restoration work looked, and discovered that yes, indeed, the time capsule was there.


Boston Time Capsule


After spending time determining how best to remove the capsule without damaging the statue, it finally taken from its hiding place last week. During a ceremony on October 9, the capsule was officially opened and the items contained within it saw the light of day for the first time in more than a century. The capsule was filled with newspapers, cabinet cards, photographs, buttons from the 1900 presidential campaign, a GAR button and badge, wood from inside the lion placed in 1882, and much more. The city is now working on developing a list of items to be placed in a new time capsule that will be implanted into the lion’s crown to detail current life in Boston. Only two items are definitely being included: a photograph of Marty Walsh, the current mayor, and a medal from the running of the 2013 Boston Marathon, to remind the future of the horror of terrorism.

Reading all of this made think that a great idea for today’s genealogists is to create your own personal time capsule. What items would you include for the future to know what life was like for your family? When you are choosing items, remember to keep a few things in mind.

  • Use paper as well as digital formats. Who knows if the media on which you store your digital items will still be readable in a century? It may physically degrade, or it could simply be a matter of technology that is so old in a century that there will no longer be any machines capable of reading it.
  • Include black and white as well as color dyes. As anyone with forty-year-old photographs knows, the dyes in color photographs fade over time. Black and white fade at a much slower rate, and can still be easily seen a century or more later.
  • Write a letter by hand. There is much to be said for the joy in reading the handwriting of an ancestor. It brings a feeling of personal connection. Remember to use acid-free ink on archival paper, to improve the odds for survival.
  • Choose an environment proof container. And be careful of what you put into it. Modern materials are often manufactured using chemicals and plastics that can provide off-gasses that could be harmful in the long term to items contained in capsule.
  • Choose whom to leave the time capsule with. Charging a specific family member/members with preserving it is a great step. Include information about that in your will, so future generations will know of its existence. Another great way to preserve it is to put it on deposit at a library or archive, with directions that it is not to be opened until a certain date (e.g., in 100 years, 40 years after my decease, 10 years after the decease of my last surviving child [or grandchild], etc.). This vastly improves the odds that the capsule will not be accidentally lost to fire or theft, as it might be in private hands.

Tell your story and make sure it is heard by future generations. A time capsule is a different way to do this. To find out more about the Old State House time capsule in Boston, read Here’s What’s Inside the Old State House Time Capsule From 1901 in Boston Magazine.


Celebrate Family History Month with an Open Access Weekend

16 Oct 2014


What better way to celebrate Family History Month than with an Open Access Weekend? From now until Monday at 11:00PM ET, you can enjoy complimentary access to all Mocavo Gold search features and the brand new Mocavo Census Viewer! Customarily you need to be a Mocavo Gold member to search all of our fascinating content at once, but for this weekend only, you can search more than 420,000 databases to your heart’s content. Simply log in to your Mocavo account and discover an easier way to research your family history.


A Millennial Census

15 Oct 2014

Genealogists are used to using census records in their research. There are all different kinds and types of enumerations. Recently, National Public Radio decided to take its own census.

For decades we have heard about the Baby Boomers This includes those born in the post-World War II years, staring in 1946, through the year 1964. This time period say a huge increase in the annual number of births in then U.S., which dropped precipitously after this time. As the largest group in America, it has often gotten a great deal of press, and we therefore have much information about them as a whole.

NPR is currently running a series on the New Boom. This generation is called the Millenials, and they were born between 1980 and 1996. They now outnumber the Baby Boomers, and their influence is being felt in society as a whole. This generation has no idea what an areal antenna is, what a party line is, what a rotary telephone is, or even what it is like to have television itself off for several hours each night. They’ve never heard of Groucho Marx, Gilligan, or Casablanca. But their influence is increasing as the Baby Boomers die off, and they move in to take the place of the older generation.

As part of this series on the Millenials, NPR is taking a census of them. The goal is to put a face on them, both figuratively and literally (despite the fact that many Millennials don’t know the difference between those two words and how to use them properly!). To do this, NPR is employing the latest in social media.


NPR Millenial Census


NPR asked those born in the Millenial era to take a selfie and post it to Twitter, Instagram, and/or Pinterest. They are to tag the images with the hashtag #NPRCensus. In addition to their face, participants were asked to include in the image the answers to three standard U.S. Census questions: race, ethnic origin, and sex (meaning gender). They were also allowed to include any other “check boxes” they desired.

The wide variety of information included in the responses is incredible. And even the answers to the standard questions are from the traditional answers of the past. The responses to gender, for example, reflect our current understanding  that far from being a black and white choice between two options (as it has been considered in the past), gender is actually a wide spectrum. And this generation will not be put back into an outmoded box that reflects antiquated ideas. One young person, for example, responded to the question of gender with the answer “ever-changing.” This person’s lower face and upper chest are block by the arms and camera, so as to eliminate any visual clues that older individuals might wish to use to push this person into the outmoded visions of earlier generations. The number of men who described themselves as feminists was very encouraging, as were the great number of straight individuals (including self-described Christians and conservatives) who support equal rights for GLBT persons.

So far men are being far outnumbered in their response. NPR hopes that more will contribute to the census as time goes on. To see a sample of those who have already responded, and their self-described categories, visit These Are Your Millenials, America.

Who Will You Discover with the New Mocavo Census Viewer?

14 Oct 2014


Census records are full of exciting surprises that can help us trace our family history. Now it’s even easier to pinpoint the ancestors who helped shape your unique story with the new interactive Mocavo Census Viewer. Premium technology will help you seamlessly navigate each census record image to capture every important detail.

As a Mocavo Gold member, you will enjoy exclusive access to the Mocavo Census Viewer and to the images of all available United States Federal Censuses. Who will you discover?

Watch a quick tutorial >>

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We could not be more thrilled with all of the positive feedback we have received from the Mocavo community. Please keep your feedback coming and let us know what we can do to make your census viewing experience even better!

3 Tips for Using FamilySearch in Your Research

13 Oct 2014


I’m off in Salt Lake City for a few days of research at the Family History Library. For almost twenty years now, I have made this journey several times a year. Back when I started, I would return home with reams of paper, photocopies made from microfilm and books. Over the years technology has changed dramatically. I return home now with a few photocopies, but far more images are stored on camera memory cards and flash drives. And many materials are now available online. FamilySearch now offers a variety of ways to help you with your research.


1. Family History Library

The Genealogical Society of Utah was founded in 1894 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and started collecting research materials. In 1938, GSU started an active program of microfilming records. Over the course of the past 75 years, almost 2.5 million reels of microfilm have been created, with records coming from all over the world. In addition to microfilm, the are thousands of books, also from all corners of the globe, containing transcriptions, abstractions, local histories, family histories, research methodology, atlases and gazetteers, and much more. All of these are housed in the five-story research facility across from Temple Square, free and available to the public. And despite an active digitization program, many records are available only at the Family History Library and its regional centers around the world.

2. FamilySearch Records

The FamilySearch website now provides us with access to a wide variety of digitized copies of original records. The microfilming program begun in 1938 has now morphed into a scanning problem, with digital cameras deployed around the globe. And staff members are actively working to digitize the records that were originally microfilmed. Tens of thousands of volunteers are donating time to index these records to make them even more accessible. Image databases on the FamilySearch website include both indexed images, and browse-only images. Unfortunately, recent upgrades have made accessing these materials more complicated than it was in the past, and you will have to dig further to get to individuals databases. The default forces uses into global searches which return many irrelevant results.

3. Other Online Resources

Over the last year or so, FamilySearch has moved away from an emphasis on research and focused more on sharing. While continuing to upload records, they have added a number of features to make it easier to share family stories with others. You can upload your family tree, audio files, photos, documents, and other items. Many of these are searchable separately from the databases. One thing to be aware of, however, is that once you upload items to FamilySearch you cannot take them down, and you grant a perpetual unlimited license to FamilySearch to use them in any way they wish. Judy G. Russell, the Legal Genealogist, wrote a piece about their terms of use last year.