Genealogy Blog

Honoring the Future With a Gift from the Past: The Balanchine Plant

25 Nov 2014

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the New York City ballet. George Balanchine is considered the father of American ballet. He was one of the most prolific choreographers of the twentieth century, co-founding the New York City Ballet and serving as balletmaster for more than 35 years.

Before he passed away in 1983, he gifted a rubber plant to one of the NYCB dancers, Karin von Aroldingen. Her apartment today is filled with a dozen plants made from cuttings propagated from the original plant Balanchine gave her. And she presents these to individuals she feels have made a significant contribution to ballet.

Receiving a cutting from the plant is considered to be a great honor. It celebrates the spirit of Balanchine himself. Those who receive them feel great pressure to care for and preserve the plants. Fortunately, rubber plants are easy to care for and grow quite well. They are simple to propagate, and some who have received plants have created new cuttings to pass on to others. It is possible that the plant will be able to be passed on for generations through these many cuttings, something not likely to happen with other types of plants. You can read more about the tradition of the plant in Forget Bouquets: In Ballet, It’s All About the ‘Balanchine Plant.’


Part of the Balanchine Plant.

Part of the Balanchine Plant.


Genealogists face a similar responsibility. As we collect information on our ancestral families, we feel the pressure to be certain they are not forgotten. We put together pieces of information gathered from long-forgotten records. Using that information, we are able to pull together stories of their lives. And by doing so, we are able to bring them to life again.

Knowing these stories can have a big impact on our lives. Understanding where we came from can certainly give us a greater understanding of our immediate family, as well as greater insight into ourselves. This is a great gift that we can also give to future generations.

By caring for these stories, preserving them, and passing them on to family members, we can help our descendants to know themselves better. And we can make sure that the stories of our ancestors are not lost for future generations.

Much like the Balanchine Plant cuttings, it is a great honor to not only receive the stories of our ancestors, but to pass them on as well. Thirty years after his death, Balanchine is still having an impact. Sharing your family’s story is one way to ensure that decades after you have passed, your descendants will still know their history.

State Historical Commissions Help Genealogists

24 Nov 2014

State historical commissions and other groups have a serious duty to preserve our history. They can also be valuable resources for genealogists. As an example, lets look at the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), a part of the secretary of state’s office. The MHC has an incredible job to do, as one can imagine, dealing with a state that has one of the longest histories in the country. The seventeen-member group oversees a large number of state and federal preservation programs whose goal is to protect the “irreplaceable historic and cultural resources of Massachusetts.”

As part of its mission, the MHC provides a lot of information not only to government agencies, but to private groups and individuals. Many people do not understand the difference between local historic districts and national register districts. And there is quite a difference. The first local historic districts were created on Beacon Hill in Boston in 1955, and over the last six decades have grown to number more than 200 around the state. They are the first line of defense in saving important historic buildings, from homes to businesses, from being altered inappropriately or even destroyed. These are created on a local level by a vote of the city council or town meeting.

National Register districts is designated by the federal government. They place “buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts” into the National Register of Historic Places. The NRHP  recognizes the historical importance of the area and allows revenue-generating property some tax incentives for preservation and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, however, protection is only limited to those projects involving federal funds. The NRHP  started in 1966 in today contains more than 900 National Register Districts in Massachusetts.

The MHC has created valuable online resource called the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS). It is a work in progress, and does not currently contain information on all historic properties and areas, nor does it necessarily include all of the information available for any given property.

If you are trying to find a home where your ancestor lived, MACRIS is a great place to start. You can narrow a search by a specific street address, or just look town by town. One of the resources that MHC staff are working to upload inventories of historic properties. Many date back to the 1970s, and include information on the construction, history, and location of buildings.


The Squire Lake House where I lived during high school, from the inventory submitted to the MHC and available on MACRIS.

The Squire Lake House where I lived during high school, from the inventory submitted to the MHC and available on MACRIS.


I found the inventory form for a house that I lived in as a teenager. The inventory is good, but not entirely accurate. It original claimed the house was constructed around 1840, later corrected to 1800. However, it was likely built even earlier than that. Just reading about it brought back many wonderful memories for me.

Check the states where your ancestors lived for the historical commission (by whatever name it is known in that state). You may be surprised at the information you can find. You may even get lucky enough to find pictures of your ancestral homes.

Genealogy News and Blog Posts, November 21, 2014

21 Nov 2014

This week’s roundup of stories starts with a Medieval cat story, takes us to the Civil War, a discussion of taphophiles, and award-winning county clerk, and the different languages spoken in the United States. I hope you find them as interesting and informative as I do.

We all know that the Internet was created just so everyone can share cat pictures and videos, and an entire industry could popup around Grumpy Cat. Back in July 2011 a researcher at the University of Sarajevo was working with a fifteenth-century manuscript. As he moved through the volume, he came upon something quite surprising. A cat had clearly walked through ink and then stepped onto the pages, leaving its pawprints behind. He snapped an image, which has recently started making the online rounds. Read more of the story in Curious Cat Walks Over Medieval Manuscript.


Medieval Cat


USA Today recently ran an interesting piece on families connecting themselves back to the Civil War. Gloria Ramsaur has conducted guided tours of the McGavock Confederate Cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee. Many of those who fell at the Battle of Franklin are buried there, but she had no idea that her great-great uncle was killed at the battle. 97-year-old Maurice Johnson remembers as a young boy the many times he walked down to the general store. His mission was to collection the pension that was still being paid out for his grandfather’s service during the war; service which included the Battle of Franklin. Read more in Families Uncover Civil War Drama, 150 Years Later.

New York Newsday ran a terrific piece this week about “taphophiles.” These are individuals who love and appreciate cemeteries for their beauty, and promote them as destinations. This is especially important as older cemeteries, even the large ones, are filling up. They must find new ways to bring in revenue, and taphophiles are helping them. Read more in History, Landscaping, Architecture: Tales Told in NYC’s Cemeteries.

The McKinney Courier-Gazette reported this week on a remarkable achievement for the clerk’s office in Collin County, Texas. In an age where we are used to clerks making access difficult for researchers, the clerk and her staff were presented with the 2014 Best Practices Award from the national Association of County Recorders, Elections Officials and Clerks. They received the award for a project which provides online research tools for those search for their family in Collin County. Read more in Collin County Clerk Office’s ‘Genealogy Corner’ Gets National Recognition.

Slate published some interesting maps awhile back that show the languages spoken in each of the states. With the exception of seven states, the most popular language in every state was Spanish. In Hawaii, it is Tagalog; in Alaska, Yupik; In North Dakota, German; and in Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, it is French. It gets much more interesting when one discounts both English and Spanish. Check out these maps and more in What Language Does Your State Speak?

Nineteenth Century Facial Hair Fashions

19 Nov 2014

November has come to be known in recent years as Movember, a month where men grow moustaches and other facial hair to raise money to promote awareness of men’s health issues. It started in Australia in 2003 with a group of 30 individuals, and over the last decade has grown into a worldwide movement that has seen more than 4 million participants raising almost US $560 million. Even with the availability of razors, trends of being clean-shaven and wearing facial hair have changed through the years.

Straight razors have been around for millennia. Researchers have identified Egyptian razors from 4,000 BCE and from India around 3,000 BCE. Roman razors daring from around the first millennia BCE were the first to straight razors. Archaeologists have found foldable straight razors as far back as the 15th century. The so-called “cut throat” razor is still in use today. Not only does the James Bond character use them, but so does my barbershop, where the barbers finish every man’s haircut by using a straight razor to shave the back of his neck.

Jean Jacque Perret created the first razor designed to minimize injury. He placed a razor blade in a wooden sleeve (like a carpenter’s plane) to reduce the risk of cutting one’s self while shaving. What we think of as today’s “safety razor” came about in 1875. This led to King Gillette developing and selling the first razor at the turn of the 20th century.

The current fashion of men growing enormous beards is reminiscent of a similar fashion that occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. It all started in Britain with the British Army’s participation in the Crimean War. Prior to this conflict, men in the British Army were required to be clean-shaven. But the conditions during the war required the rules to change. When these soldiers returned home, their beards were seen as the mark of their bravery and service. It did not take long for them to become the fashion for all men in Victorian Britain.

Americans have long taken their fashion cues from Europe, especially from Britain. When American men saw images of the whiskers adorning the faces of their British compatriots, the trend took off here as well.


President Rutherford B. Hayes, a perfect example of the nineteenth-century beard craze. From Wikimedia Commons.

President Rutherford B. Hayes, a perfect example of the nineteenth-century beard craze. From Wikimedia Commons.


As with all things fashion, the trend did not last forever. It was around for about twenty years before starting to fall.  The downfall was brought on by two things. First, younger men began to see the fashion as belong to the previous generation and looked for a way to create a more modern look. Second, the availability of safety razors made the job of shaving much simpler.

You can find out more about razors in Waremakers’ Guide to Razors. And the BBC recently ran a piece on The Great Victorian Beard Craze that discusses the nineteenth-century fashion trend in more detail.

Genealogy Holiday Gifts Check-In

18 Nov 2014

Back at the end of September, I wrote about suggestions for sharing your family history research with your family for the holidays this year. With Thanksgiving upon us, this is a wonderful time to check in to see how much progress you are making creating your genealogy holiday gifts.

If you are working on a family calendar, you should at least be reviewing all of the special dates you want to include. Not all vendors allow you to customize dates, but plenty do, so be certain to select one that will allow you to insert all of your family’s important dates. Also shop around so you can get the best price.

Are you working on a decorative family tree to give as a gift? Hopefully you’ve been reviewing your data to have the charts created. Have you done your homework, though to find someone to make the charts for you? There are a number of places you can go. One of the best resources you can look at is Cyndi’s List, where Cyndi has created a section just for charts and forms (and it is three pages long!).


Cyndis List Charts


How is your book project coming along? Your draft should be well along at this point. If you haven’t started, it isn’t too late to start. As we discussed last time, it is not necessary to include your entire ancestry. Just pick a single line, or even just a single ancestral family. Focus on telling that story. And be certain to have someone review your work afterwards. Local colleges and universities are a fantastic place to find help. Hire an English major to proofread and lightly edit your work. It can be less expensive than hiring a professional, yet still give you quality work.

Have you decided to put together a multimedia presentation? By now you should be working on selecting images and video for your presentation. If you have old videotapes or films, you should be looking at converting them. You can invest in equipment to do it yourself, or get it to a vendor who can get them digitized for you quickly. Then you can focus the rest of your time on having fun playing with the presentation!

Finally, the last suggestion was to create a collage. This one takes much less time, and if you have not yet started you can certainly pick this one up any time in the next couple of weeks. Sift through your images to create the story you want to tell about your family. The sales coming up for the holiday season are the perfect time to look for just the right frames to put them in!

A Genealogical Research Lesson from Laura Ingalls Wilder

15 Nov 2014

Those of us of a certain age remember Monday evenings starting with four notes from a French horn and the Melissas (Gilbert and Sue Anderson) running down a hill of daisies with their baby sister.  For the next hour, the nineteenth-century adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family played out across our television screens in Little House on the Prairie.

We all knew at the time that the show came from the Little House series of books penned by Laura (Ingalls) Wilder later in life. The nine books told the story of her family from her parents coming together in Little House in the Big Woods to the early period of her marriage to Almonzo, in The First Four Years.


The real Laura Ingalls Wilder, ca. 1894, from Wikimedia Commons.

The real Laura Ingalls Wilder, ca. 1894, from Wikimedia Commons.


For the first years, the series followed pretty closely the stories in the books, including sister Mary’s blindness. Then it departed from the books by having Mary meet a man and marry him. It moved even further astray by introducing an adopted son, Albert Ingalls, who never appeared in the books. In the books, and in real life, we knew that Mary died unmarried and the Wilder family never adopted any children.

What many do not know is that Laura’s first book was an autobiography entitled Pioneer Girl. At the time she wrote it no publisher was interested in it, so it never saw print. Many of the stories included in the autobiography were later adapted into storylines in the Little House books.

An updated version of the book, edited by Laura Ingalls Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill, is about to be published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Hill has done a tremendous amount of additional research, annotating the original manuscript with a great deal of new information.  We learn a great deal of new things about Laura and the Little House series.

Many of the stories originally in Pioneer Girl never appeared in the books. Laura’s father Charles, for example, once snuck out of town with his family in the dark of night because he could come to terms about rent with the “rich old skinflint” landlord. One shocker that will come to fans of the television series as well as the books: Nellie Olson never existed. She was an amalgamation of several people Laura grew up with.

This is an important example of how careful we must be in researching our ancestry. Biographies, histories, published diaries, and more are sources we frequently use in our research. But each of these was published for a reason. And the authors, editors, and publishers made many decisions throughout the process. The stories they tell may be filled with errors of omission or commission. This was not necessarily an intentional decision to hide the truth (although often it was), but perhaps ways to move the story along. As with all information we discover in our research, take everything you find in these sources and verify it as much as possible in original records.

You can read more about the new book in stories from the Guardian (Laura Ingalls Wilder Memoir Reveals Truth Behind Little House on the Prairie) and Slate (Those Happy Golden Years: More Than 80 Years Later, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s True Story is Published). A representative of the publisher describes it best: “Wilder’s fiction, her autobiography, and her real childhood as she lived it are three distinct things, but they are closely intertwined, and readers will enjoy seeing how they reflect one another. Even more interesting, though, are the places where one story differs from another, and Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Edition explores these differences too.”

Genealogy News Stories and Blog Posts of Interest, November 14, 2014

14 Nov 2014

Welcome to our roundup of interesting genealogy news stories and blog posts. This week’s mix includes a different take on remembering veterans, supercomputing and genealogy, a warning about online trees, one man’s bit of family history at the post office, and the genealogy of wine.

This week in the United States we celebrated Veterans Day, a day set aside to honor those who have served their country in times of war and peace. But for many, there is a flip side to service. David Robison wrote a moving piece for the Globe and Mail about his grandfather, who served in World War II and spent the rest of his life dealing (or not dealing) with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Read his moving piece A Shameful Family History of War.

Geneticists have done remarkable work that is helping genealogists around the world. In addition, extensive work has been done on the ancient origins of humans. Conventional wisdom of recent times has shown tat two groups of people came together about 7–8,000 years ago as hunter-gatherers turned into an agricultural-based race. One group came from the olive-skinned hunter-gatherers who expanded north. These people were later joined by light-skinned, brown-eyed, European farmers from the Near East. Now a third group has been found: ancient northern Eurasians from what is today the area of Siberia. Find out more about their testing on bones thousands of years old, and how they found these results in Supercomputing Beyond Reveals Surprising European Ancestors.

Jim Beidler’s regular column in the Lebanon Daily News is always interesting.  This week he wrote about a topic that should be of concern to all genealogists: the dangers of online family trees. This week he focused on something he calls “carpenter trees,” with people taking information from different trees and melding it into a single tree. Discover the potential problems and dangers with this in Beware of Poorly Built Genealogy Trees.

The LeMars Daily Sentinel in Iowa offers a story of a different source for genealogy: the U.S. Post Office. Genealogist Harry Grey is the fifth-great nephew of Asher B. Durand (his grandmother was Effie (Durand) Grey). Durand was a member of the Hudson River School of artists in the nineteenth century. One of his paintings, “Summer Afternoon” was chosen to printed in a limited edition forever stamps by the post office featuring members of the Hudson River School. Read more in Stamp Offers Peek into Family History.


Closeup of chart of the genealogy of wine.

Chart of the genealogy of wine closeup.


Finally this week we have a different genealogical study. Julie R. Thomson contributed a story to the Huffington Post about the genealogy of wine. She talks about a chart created by Pop Chart Lab that shows the origins of the wide number of grapes used around the world to create wine today. Whether your preference is Merlot, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Muscat, you can find your wine here. Read more and check out the chart in The Genealogy of Wine is the Most Intimidating Family Tree We’ve Ever Seen.

Fireside Chat FGS Edition, Part 2, Now Live

12 Nov 2014

This week we have a wonderful new Fireside Chat for you. It is the second in our series of live interviews with professional genealogists from all over the country.  The interviews were recorded live at the Federation of Genealogical Societies conference in San Antonio, Texas, last August.  This weeks guests are:


  • David Mc Donald, discussing church records
  • Paul Milner, providing tips on researching your ancestors in the United Kingdom
  • Billie Stone Fogarty, telling us about tracing migrating ancestors in the south
  • Patricia Walls Stamm, giving us insight into genealogy education
  • Michael Lacopo, a repeat guest giving us tips on Pennsylvania research
  • Lisa Alzo, who talks about self-publishing your family history research
  • Judy G. Russell, another favorite repeat guest, The Legal Genealogist and I had a conversation about copyright issues in family history research


You can watch this week’s chat on the Fireside Chat page. There you will also find links to all of the previous Fireside Chats, which you can view at your leisure. Fireside Chats are free to everyone and do not require a Mocavo subscription.

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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.