Genealogy Blog

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.

Discover your WWI Ancestors in Thousands of Free Military Collections

06 Aug 2014


World War I ushered in a new era of armed conflict with modern machines that caused unprecedented casualties. This month marks a century since the start of the conflict in Europe and one of the best ways to pay tribute to your family’s military heroes is to discover and share their story. As a Mocavo Community member, you can learn about the lives of your ancestors who served in WWI in thousands of military records – all available for free.

Start exploring the lives of your ancestors now.

View Military Collections

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Danger in the Graveyard

05 Aug 2014

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

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

  • Ammonia
  • Baking Soda
  • Bleach
  •  Cornstarch

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

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

  • Chalk
  • Flour
  • Shaving Cream

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

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

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

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

Gravestone Studies

Average Men Changing the Course of History: The Port Chicago 50

04 Aug 2014

World War II had a major impact on so many American families. Most often we hear the stories of the soldiers who went overseas, only to lose their lives in battlefields on foreign soil. But there were, on occasion, accidents and other events on domestic soil that also left families bereft. One of those occurred 70 years ago.

When the war started in 1942, a base was built about 30 miles north of San Francisco to deal with munitions headed to the Pacific. During this time, the American armed forces were still segregated. About 1,400 African-American were assigned to Port Chicago. As you can imagine, hauling munitions is dangerous and challenging work. As might be expected, this work was delegated to those units. The troops were ill-trained for this work. And because of the pressing needs of the war, officers pressed them with astronomically high production goals.

The night of July 17 was an average one. Two brand new cargo ships were at the pier. The S.S. E.A. Brian was docked at the inboard, landward side of the pier, while the S.S. Quinault Victory was docked on the outboard side. Workers had filled the hold of the Brian with 4,400 tons of munitions, and at 10:18 p.m. On the pier and ships, 320 men were preparing the Quinault Victory for loading.

Witnesses reported hearing the clash of metal on metal, and the sound of splintering wood, followed by an incredible blast. This was followed six seconds later by an explosion even more powerful than the first. White-hot metal was flying through air filled with fire and smoke. The blast was so powerful that it registered as a 3.4 seismic event on the Richter scale, and was felt as far away as Nevada.

The Brian and a nearby locomotive were completely obliterated. The 7,600-ton Quinault Victory was lifted out of the water and flung 500 feet, landing in pieces. All 320 men were instantly killed in the blast, and almost 400 more suffered serious injuries. Two-thirds of those killed were African-American troops.


Port Chicago


A Navy court of inquiry laid the blame at the feet of the African-American stevadores, without acknowledging that the white officers did not train them properly and pushed them too hard. The surviving stevadores were not given leave, and were ordered back to work immediately at nearby port. Hundreds of them were told to start loading ordnance again. 258 (about 80%) refused. It was the only order that they refused to obey.

The men were placed under guard on a prison barge. Admiral Carleton Wright warned them that their actions constituted an act of mutiny — which, during this time of war, carried the death penalty. All but 50 of the men returned to work.

The remaining men were put on trial for mutiny, the largest such trial in the history of the U.S. Navy. After six weeks, the men were found guilty, and sentenced with 8 to 15 years of hard labor.

A young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall witnessed the end of the hearings, and accused the Navy of framing the sailors. He appealed the decision to the Judge Advocate General, but it was denied. But the public fervor was against them. The Navy was forced to release the men, and in January 1946 became the first branch of the armed forces to become fully integrated. But the men were only given clemency, and never officially exonerated. More than half a century later, the men received an official pardon from President Bill Clinton.

The Port Chicago accident accounted for 15% of the total deaths of African-American military personnel during the entire war. During their lives, the “Port Chicago 50” actively avoided obtaining a pardon. In the words of one,  “That means, ‘You’re guilty but we forgive you.’ We want the decisions set aside.”

5 Tips for Using a Professional to Overcome Your Brick Walls

26 Jul 2014


I am often asked what professional genealogists do. My colleagues and I are also often asked “Why should I hire a professional genealogist? And why won’t they guarantee results?” The truth is that professional genealogists can be of tremendous help to you. Here are five tips to help you work with a professional genealogist to break down your brick walls.

1. What can a professional do for me?

Professionals have extensive experience. They have spent years educating themselves, researching, and are quite knowledgeable. Their knowledge of methodology and research techniques is usually quite great. But it is not just for research only that you can hire a professional. Many of them will also do consultations for a fee, giving you assistance on where to focus your research.

2. Why can’t I just do it myself?

We can’t all be experts on everything. Professionals often have extensive experience, sometimes in a very narrow area. Sometimes, especially with your brick wall problems, you may have run out of ideas. Professionals with their greater expertise, may be able to find new avenues for research. They also usually have access to vast networks of colleagues with whom they can consult for even further ideas. This can be a shortcut for you, potentially saving you years of time.

3. Why won’t a professional guarantee results?

Because there is no way to know how long it will take, if ever, to find the answers you are seeking. When you hire a professional, you are paying for their expertise and their time to search. Sometimes we find the answer in a day, and sometimes it takes years, and there is no way to know in advance how long it will take. This is especially true of brick wall problems, where you have already examined the easily available resources. It took me seven years to find one marriage record in my own ancestry. The solution only arose when I saw a single, unrelated, original record, that indicated the family had moved elsewhere for a time. Not only won’t a qualified professional guarantee you results, you should run away from one who dies. They are clearly more interested in taking your money than providing you with excellent research services.

4. What should I do before hiring a professional?

Put together a succinct description of exactly what you are looking for. Send it to the professional, asking to gage their interest in the project. You should ask for an estimate of how much time, and the hourly rate. You can negotiate a certain amount of time. As a rule, it is better to authorize a minimum of 3 to 5 hours. It will take awhile for the professional to get moving, and you don’t want to cut them off if they are hot on the trail of a solution for you. Most professionals will ask for a retainer when working with a new client. Don’t be afraid to ask for references.

5. How can I find a professional to help me?

In the United States, visit the Association of Professional Genealogists. They have the largest network of genealogists. You can search the database by place of residence, as well as by areas of expertis. Members of the Board for Certification of Genealogists and the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists have undergone additional testing of their expertise. Member of all three organizations are required to agree to certain ethical standards, and you should certainly file a complain with the organizations if you feel that a professional has violated ethics in their work with you.


How Our DNA Affects Our Relationships

26 Jul 2014

We have been using DNA testing in the genealogical community now for a number of years. We have made great strides in breaking down brick walls, first using y-DNA and mtDNA, and now using autosomal DNA. It has also been used to help us with our family medical health history. But now DNA has new uses.

Toronto-based Instant Chemistry has done research to show that there is a biological as well as psychological component to human relationships. It appears that DNA has been influencing our love lives all along.


Instant Chemistry



Studies have shown that couples in long-term relationships often have very different immune systems from each other. They find each other more attractive, enjoy more satisfying sex lives, have increased fertility rates, and have greater marital stability. Children of these relationships are able to more successfully  defend against a wider variety of infections.


It is the genes that comprise the immune system that are responsible for this. More specifically, it is the genes that are part of the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) system. These are the genes responsible for identifying foreign bodies that can cause infections and other problems. They also contribute to the natural body scent that is unique to each of us. Research shows that we can subconsciously detect these scents, and they are responsible for our attraction to each other and choosing our partners.


Genetics can also now assist in predicting potential problems the might develop in relationships. For example, the serotonin transporter gene is responsible for moderating positive and negative emotional behavior. Short versions, for example, can mean higher negative and lower positive emotional behavior and declines in marital satisfaction over time.  Knowing this in advance, couples can get counseling to obtain tools to overcome these potential issues.

Instant Chemistry  will do genetic testing to help determine how your genes might influence your relationship. You and partner do the familiar spit test, and the company will evaluate you and inform you of any potential issues. The company has also partnered with matchmakers and online dating services to offer the testing in advance, to help match you with someone who may be more compatible genetically. Currently the test is only available for heterosexual couples, but they are currently testing gay and lesbian spouses to determine if the science is true for same-sex relationships as well.

Discovering this makes me wonder if there could be genealogical applications for this technology. Could the tests be done on our ancestors? Could we find out more information about their relationships? This could potentially shed new light onto our ancestral families.

Have you ever found a valuable family keepsake at an antique fair or eBay?

26 Jul 2014

This week we would love to know if you have found any treasures at antique fairs or on eBay.

Have you contributed to GenForum or other discussion forums?

26 Jul 2014

We asked and you answered! More than 30% of the Mocavo community has contributed to GenForum in the past, but not recently.


Your Ancestors’ Headlines: Unlock Mocavo’s Newspaper Archive

24 Jul 2014


Newspapers offer a wealth of information for a genealogist. Not only do they provide insights into historic events that touched the lives of our ancestors, they can also contain specific information about our family members. Published announcements can document events such as births, deaths, obituaries, engagements, and weddings; articles about social events, appointments to companies, legal notices, etc. can provide rich contextual details about your ancestors’ lives.

As a valued Community Member, you enjoy free access to more than 2 million newspaper pages at Mocavo. What are you waiting for, discover the headlines that shaped the lives of your ancestors now.


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