Genealogy Blog

Gettysburg Warrior Receives Medal of Honor 151 Years Later

06 Nov 2014

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

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

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

 

Alonzo Cushing

 

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

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

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

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

New Resource for Colonial Laws

04 Nov 2014

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

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

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

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

 

BGSU Colonial Laws

 

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

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

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

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

Preserving Historic Cemeteries

01 Nov 2014

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

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

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

 

Danvers Cemetery

 

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

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

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

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

Chilling Ghost Stories + A Halloween Special Treat

31 Oct 2014

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Halloween is here, bringing with it a haunting chill in the air, full of ghoulish creatures and frightening tales. Believe it or not, many of our ancestors wrote about their own unexplained encounters with the paranormal, often scribbling down their stories in their personal memoirs. Discover the accounts of strange ghostly figures and haunted houses in our collection of more than 240,000 historical books.

Browse our Historical Book Collection

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To help you get into the Halloween spirit here are some of our favorite ghost stories from the Mocavo collection.

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The Witchfinder General

29 Oct 2014

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

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

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

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

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

 

Discovery of Witches

 

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

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

 

Easily Obtaining Non-Digitized Records From a Distance

28 Oct 2014

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

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

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

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

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

 

Centre for Bucks Studies

 

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Get Caught Writing Historical Fiction

27 Oct 2014

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

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

 

 

Image of Teddy Roosevelt from Wikimedia Commons.

Image of Teddy Roosevelt from Wikimedia Commons.

 

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

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

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

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

5 Great History Podcasts

23 Oct 2014

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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.