Genealogy Blog

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24 Jul 2015


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Problems in Finding Towns of Origin

22 Jul 2015 ran an interesting story yesterday about town names called “25 Massachusetts Town Names That are Hard to Pronounce.” It showed how the names of some of our towns (many with Native American origins) are properly pronounced by locals. This reminded me of an issue that perpetually plagues genealogists, the problems in finding towns of origin.

For the most part, we are tracing families who migrated from one place to another. If you are lucky, your ancestors may have stayed in the same place for long periods of time. But for the vast majority of Americans, our ancestors moved multiple times through the generations. This results in having to identify numerous places where they lived.

One of the problems we have is that most often the records we use were not created in the original location. People are born in one place, marry in another, and die in a third. And in between they can live in countless other locations. Often we are looking at information about place of birth on a death record. The death could have been recorded hundreds of miles away or more, by people who had never heard of the places.

Another problem that genealogists run into is the accent issue. Usually when we discuss accents, the mind immediately jumps to non-English speaking immigrants from other countries. Letters are often pronounced differently, such as the v/w reversal between German and English. This can result in oddly-spelled versions of town names. Many of these individuals may not even be able to spell the name of the place where they came from.

In addition to these issues of foreign-born immigrants, we have the issue of internal migration. As the United States expanded from the east coast to the west coast, people moved from location to location. And regional accents became mixed. These accents can cause communication issues. A New York native living in Indiana and speaking with someone originally from the deep South may easily misinterpret the words he or she is hearing.

Another complicating factor is that information is often provided by a third party. This is especially true for death records, where information can be provided by children or grandchildren who themselves may never have seen the names of places of origin spelled out, only heard spoken.


Word Pronounciation


There is also another problem that the story illustrates. The final town, Worcester, is supposedly pronounced (wuh-stir). While some people call it that, many New Englanders pronounce it with a short letter i in the first syllable. And the regional propensity to drop the letter r at the end of the word results in a pronounciation similar to (wĭh-sta). So even in a particular region, pronounciation can be different.

Add these issues the propensity for Anglo record keepers for not being overly stringent in identifying these earlier origins and the genealogist’s job to identify origins can be quite challenging.


Celebrate Summer with a Free Access Weekend!

17 Jul 2015

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Five Essential Resources for New England Research

14 Jul 2015


Those who have ancestry in the New England states are blessed with many great resources. And the New England Historic Genealogical Society has been at the forefront of publishing research guides to help genealogists for more than a century. Here are five essential resources for New England research that we all should have, all brought to you courtesy of NEHGS.


  1. Genealogical Handbook for New England Research
    This guide has been the Bible for researching in New England for decades. Editing the fifth edition of this essential guide was my last project when I worked at NEHGS (ed: I did this as an employee, and make no money from sales of the book). Each of the six New England states has a chapter detailing the organization of basic records (vital, church, land, probate, etc.). It also provides lists of towns (existing and extinct), maps, contact information for vital, land, and probate records, and more.


  1. New England Marriages Prior to 1700
    Clarence Almon Torrey spent years poring over published materials on New England families to compile a 12-volume manuscript. The manuscript contains references to couples who lived in New England who were married in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. While Torrey’s manuscript has been published before, this is the first version to include all of his source references, allowing users to go back and review them for themselves.


  1. New Englanders in the 1600s, Expanded Edition
    First published in 2006, this work by Martin Hollick originally referenced sixteenth- and seventeenth-century individuals who appeared in compiled genealogies and scholarly journals between 1980 and 2005. In 2012, the work was updated and expanded to include material published through 2010. It is the best reference work for the most recent scholarship available on these early inviduals. It is extremely helpful for sorting out the problems in genealogists published earlier (many of which are easily available online) that have a great deal of incorrect information. Many of the problems have been corrected in the last 35 years, but not always easily available online. This is where Hollick’s book becomes indispensable.


  1. The Great Migration Directory
    For more than twenty years, The Great Migration Study Project at NEHGS has produced the highest-quality research on those who emigrated during the period from 1620 ­­­to 1640. Ten volumes have already been published, with detailed profiles of immigrants who arrived by 1635. The most complete list of immigrants for the entire twenty-year period has just been published in The Great Migration Directory. Immigrants are listed by the name of the head of household and includes the English or European origin (if known), date of migration, principal residences in New England, and the best available sources of information for the subject.


  1. Elements of Genealogical Analysis
    As head of the Great Migration Study Project, Robert Charles Anderson has developed a process for producing a genealogy sketch. In this new book, he shares the research process with us so we can learn how to conduct the best possible research. He shows us how to carefully examine our sources and records to ensure that we have clearly proven each linkage.

Ruminations on Our Ancestors’ Journeys

11 Jul 2015

I have just returned from an 11-day trip to the Middle East with my chorus. We performed for more than 6,000 people throughout Israel and Turkey. We saw many beautiful sights, and met wonderful people. We also saw humanity when it gets ugly. And there were many times during the tour when I was reminded of why so many of our ancestors came to America, whether during the 17th century, or the 20th.

There were 120 of us travelling overseas on this tour. This included more than 100 singers, plus our staff and supporters. The first travel day involved two flights and a bus ride that would have us travelling a total of sixteen hours to arrive at our first destination. The first plane ride was a red-eye lasting for almost ten hours.

Economy class seating on airlines is not known for its spacious accommodations for passengers. Quarters are very cramped, and movement is restricted. We are constantly invading each others’ personal space, either by reclining the seat or by climbing over each other to get to the restroom. It occurred to me in the middle of the night, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, that this is the modern-day equivalent of our ancestors travelling in steerage to get to new opportunities in America. Of course their trip lasted far longer than ours did, going on for days or weeks (depending on the time frame in which they travelled). Whether travelling alone or in a family group, the space was very close quarters. One shared space with total strangers.

It is very difficult for me to sleep on planes, although travelling with friends made it slightly easier. Because I sat next to one of my close friends, we were able to literally lean on each other to get some rest during the night, similar to the way families travelling together would share their space to make it easier for the entire family to cope.

While in Israel we visited the Dead Sea, Masada, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. We saw where people have been living next to each other for centuries. And it certainly gives one a new perspective on old rivalries in the area. But it was our visit to Turkey that really hit home why people would pack up and leave the only life they’ve ever known.

During the last elections the head of the Turkish government sought to increase his power. Instead, the population dealt him a resounding defeat. Desperately trying to form a government, he started pandering to ultra-right wing groups. We lost our performance space because our message was considered evil. Fortunately, a local university stepped in and invited us to move our performance there. The effort to stop our performance and dampen our message of peace and civil rights totally backfired. We received much press attention, and the new venue allowed for almost twice the number of audience members as the original. Crowd estimates put the audience at more than 3,000 people

We were invited to join in a peaceful demonstration the next day, and annual tradition that has brought upwards of 100,000 for the past few years. That afternoon, as we moved to join in we were stopped by police forces two blocks from our hotel. We were ordered to disperse, and told that if we continued we faced arrest. The U.S. consul’s office recommended that we return to our hotel, as they could not guarantee our safety. As we moved back towards the hotel, our mobile phones started beeping with notices. Worldwide press (including the U.S.) were covering the event. Permits which had been granted for the event were pulled at the last moment by the government.  Government officials then ordered police to attack the peaceful marchers, which they did. They utilized pepper spray, tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets. A number of members of our group slipped up as individuals to witness the atrocities. Turkish citizens have few rights.


After hours of demonstrations, water still runs in the streets from water cannon (courtesy of the author, used with permission).

After hours of demonstrations in Istanbul, water still runs in the streets from water cannon (courtesy of the author, used with permission).


It is because of situations like this that many of our ancestors left for a new world in the United States. Although our government has many problems and issues, in the United States I am allowed by our Constitution to stand up and say so. We are allowed to gather in peaceful groups to protest treatment by our government and by others. These are rights that many in other countries do not enjoy. And these are reasons why our ancestors came here. For a better life, more peaceful and unfettered than they had before. Don’t ever take for granted the rights you have as an American, rights that our Ancestors came here for so that we could have a better life.


Journals for Genealogists

09 Jul 2015

Genealogical journals have been the bedrock of our research for more than a century. Since the New England Historic Genealogical Society started publishing the New England Historical and Genealogical Register in 1847, our journals have stood for the highest quality research. In recent years, some have moved away from them, finding them boring or stuffy. Yet this does not change that they are one of the single most import secondary source of information for our research.

The advent of the internet age has made access to journals much easier over the last few years. Since many journals have been published since the turn of the century or earlier (not just the Register, but the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record among others), it is often possible to find early issue for free on internet search engines, and many can be found on Mocavo.

Ironically, while genealogists find these archived journals to be filled with valuable information, they find current issues less so. Unlike previous generations, they often do not see how individual issues of any journal could be of any use to them if their own family is not included in it. This is far from the truth.

Any given current issue of a journal is an amazing font of information to genealogists. First off, articles in scholarly journals are peer reviewed by some of the gest genealogists in the country. You can be certain if an article appears in a journal, it has been examined multiple times for logic and accuracy.

When reading a journal article, I read it first for the content. I read it straight through without looking at the footnotes. When I’m done, I go back and review it again, this time examining the footnotes. Footnotes reveal sources used, and often I find new resources, or those that are new to me. Footnote also include additional analysis that can help me learn more about analyzing information.

Another interesting exercise is to take an article and, using the footnotes, examine the original sources for yourself to see how the author came to his, her, or their conclusions. This is an excellent way of learning not only how to research, but how to write. And learning how to write is at least as important as learning how to research in genealogy. Many times we focus entirely on our research, but forget that communicating it to others is just as important. If we don’t tell people what we find, that information will be lost forever! And articles in genealogical journals are perfect examples of how to clearly communicate your findings.

Major New Source for Irish Research

08 Jul 2015

Today is an important day for those with Catholic ancestors who came from Ireland. The National Library of Ireland (NLI) has finally launched a long-awaited genealogy project. The microfilm collection of Catholic parish registers has been digitized and made available online.

Back in 1939, the NLI and the Bishop of Limerick started discussions about preserving the information in the church’s parish registers. Every parish agreed to have their records microfilmed. Civil registration began in 1864, but like many efforts around the world, it took several years for every jurisdiction to comply. Because of this, the decision was made to microfilm registers up through 1880.

It took more than a decade before microfilming began. Registers were brought to NLI, filmed, then returned to the parish. It took another twenty years to finish microfilming. In the end, more than 3,500 registers from 1,086 parishes were filmed.

In 2010 the 550 reels of microfilm were converted to digital images. About 373,000 digital images of pages from the registers were created. Last year, the NLI moved forward with the process of making the images available online. Noted Irish genealogist John Grenham provided assistance throughout these stages of the project.


NLI Catholic Parish Register


Now, as with all resources, there is good news and bad news when it comes to these registers. The best news is that there is a website dedicated just to the registers, and it is completely free for everyone to access. The bad news is that the registers are not searchable. One must navigate to the parish, then browse through the registers to get to the information. Unfortunately, this means that users must know the exact Catholic parish (not the civil parish) where their ancestors lived.

One can search for a parish, or locate it through a map. Variant forms of parish names are cross-referenced. And for each parish, you will find a list of available microfilmed records. Clicking on the film brings you to a viewer with images of the register pages. You can scroll through the entire film, or narrow the images by record type, year, and/or month. There are also a number of options for brightness, contrast, inverting, downloading, and printing the images.

If you have Irish Catholic ancestors, visit the National Library of Ireland’s Catholic Parish Registers website today.

Social History for Genealogists

06 Jul 2015

Understanding social history is as critical to genealogy as family history. Without the former, the latter is impossible. We might miss significant clues. Or worse, come to false conclusions. We also can miss out on getting a fuller picture of our ancestors’ lives. Being uninformed can be a major problem in genealogical research.

Prior to the twentieth century, history predominantly focused on the actions of famous individuals (mostly men), and their impact on society and the world. The main focus was political, economic, and international history. Then a new movement started called “new social history.”  This movement grew tremendously in the 1960s and 1970s, and brought a new focus to historiography. The focus is on the lives, actions, and experiences of ordinary individuals.

Social history is extremely valuable for genealogists. For example, a friend of mine recommended an excellent book to me many years ago: Inheritance in America: From Colonial Times to the Present. Based on a 1982 study at Rutgers University, this work helped me to have a greater understanding of the probate process. It is one thing to know the probate laws in the time and place in which you are researching. It is another to see a discussion of how these laws were implemented, and how the various cultural influences around the country impacted the laws and how they were implemented. This is exceedingly valuable information for a genealogist to know and understand.

Often we presume that our female ancestors were not allowed to own property, which is why deeds are always in their husband’s name. In reality, this was not always the case. Another book, Women and the Law of Property, which dates back to 1986, provides greater understanding. It details the circumstances under which women could and could not own property in America through the early nineteenth century. Knowing the laws that were in place at the time, combined with this information, one can often interpolate a great deal of additional information from records of the family.

There are many places to get works on social history. My favorite is Maia’s Books. Owner Martha crosses the country displaying a wide variety of books for genealogists, including a large number of social histories. In fact, both books I mentioned above I purchased from Maia’s Books. Check out her website for a large collection of social histories of all different kinds to help you in your research.


You Can’t Go Home Again – Especially Online

20 Jun 2015

Although I am now a Bostonian (and have been for a quarter-century), I was raised in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. The vast majority of the last three generations of my family has been focused in this area. Unlike many of my friends, who lived in a single house, my family moved a bit. Earlier this week, while down in Rhode Island for my cousin’s funeral, we took a side trip to drive by the house were I was spent my young childhood.


The house at 14 Barberry Hill Road where I grew up. (from the collection of the author, used with permission)

The house at 14 Barberry Hill Road where I grew up. (from the collection of the author, used with permission)


In looking for additional information about the house online, I was reminded of the many dangers of doing online property research, and why it cannot be relied upon.


  1. The property where I lived from ages 5 to 12 is in the town of Cumberland, Rhode Island. Like many small jurisdictions, the government does not have a lot of money. As such, there are no official records available online. This immediately is cause for concern. While not always 100% accurate, government records are a much better place to start.
  2. Since I had the exact address I did a Google search. At first I wasn’t certain I had the same place. Then I realized that the name of the road had changed. Not only that, but it was much longer. We built the house, and it was only the sixth one on the street. One more was built shortly before we moved. Today, there are more than a dozen. Fortunately the name of the street hadn’t changed much. And the house number had not changed. From drive-bys in the 1990s, I knew that they put small additions on the master bedroom and the kitchen, and installed an inground pool. These were visible on Google Maps.
  3. I found an online valuation company, Certified Revaluation Company, that showed the history of the home’s ownership back to my parents, the first owners. May parents sold the house in March of 1977, too far back to show the sale price online. The couple that purchased it owned it for 28 years, selling it only in 2005 to Paul Parks, Jr. and Et Ux Jean Russo-Parks. But the major problem is that the pool was said to be built in 1965. This is off by a factor of almost 20 years.
  4. I looked at Zillow and Trulia, two popular property valuation sites. Trulia states that the house was built in 1965, and is 1,968 square feet. Zillow also says that it was built in 1965, that it is 2,016 square feet, with a finished basement that is 1,864 square feet. That would leave 152 square feet for the entire main floor. Even if I didn’t know the house, I could tell that this is a mistake. They are also both incorrect about the year of construction. It was build over the winter of 1968/69.
  5. Even small, but important, details can be wrong. Other Google results took me to a website called This listed Jean Russo-Parks as a male and a religious leader at the Wesley United Methodist Church in the town of Lincoln. But the valuation site said that Paul Parks, Jr. and Jean Russo-Parks were married. Since same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Rhode Island in 2005, there is a conflict. A quick search found an obituary for Jean in 2011, confirming that she was indeed a woman.


When doing online property research, it is very important to follow up with research in original records at government repositories. So much of the information can be wrong. You can have the details completely wrong.

240 Years Ago Today, the Bloodiest Battle of the Revolution

17 Jun 2015

Today is the 240th anniversary of one of the seminal battles of the American Revolution. Schoolchildren across the country learn about the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the important role they played in the history of our country. Bunker Hill was a seminal conflict, and the bloodiest battle of the entire Revolution.

After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the American militia men returned home. The British were pinned up in Boston, on the Shawmut Peninsula. After a two-month standoff, the Americans headed for Charlestown, which at the time was a small town on a peninsula across Boston Harbor from Boston.

Charlestown was very strategic at that point because of its proximity to the British forces locked up in Boston. On the night of June 16, more than a thousand soldiers left Cambridge carrying tools to carve out fortifications. They were to create the redoubts on the farm owned by the Bunker family. The property included a large hill that overlooked Boston. Unfortunately there was disagreement concerning their orders.

The troops were led by Israel Putnam and William Prescott, and the fortifications were being overseen by engineer Richard Gridley. They disagreed with the where the fortifications should be built. Although work started on Bunker Hill, it was felt that nearby Breed’s Hill provided a better opportunity because, although lower than Bunker Hill, it is located much closer to Boston and it was thought to be more defensible. So the fortifications were built there.

By morning the British were noticing the work of the militia, and by afternoon, British troops landed at Charlestown to engage them. By 3 p.m. the British were headed for the redoubt. After three assaults, the redcoats overtook the colonials and in a rout they were headed back over the Charlestown Peninsula by 5 p.m. But it was a Pyrrhic victory.

The Americans lost 115 of their number during the battle. Another 305 were wounded, and 30 were captured (20 of whom died as prisoners). The British troops, however, suffered 236 death (19 of whom were officers). Another 832 were wounded, 62 of whom were officers. The British lost more than twice as many as the Americans. And it was the bloodiest engagement of the entire war, which would last another eight years.


Bunker Hill


Although the great battle is still remembered today, we don’t always remember it accurately. Many believe that it took place in Boston, but Charlestown was not annexed to the city until 1873. And it has gone down in history as the Battle of Bunker Hill despite that it took place on Breed’s Hill. A couple of years ago historian Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a book which discusses the misinformation about the battle. The Smithsonian interviewed him for a story about the book, and the battle, which you can read in The True Story of the Battle of Bunker Hill.