Genealogy Blog

Tune Up Your Engine with New Search Tuners

02 Apr 2014

When you run a search on Mocavo, our search engine factors in a host of variables to determine which results to place at the top. We worked tirelessly to tweak the search algorithm so that the most relevant results rise to the top, but sometimes, given your particular search terms or the nature of the document, a hidden piece of your family’s puzzle may fall to the bottom of the results.

Now you have the power to change the search engine’s preferences. That’s right, we’re giving you not just one batch of search results, but ten! Each search tuner will serve you a different set of results that will help you make sure you don’t miss out on a hidden clue.

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Get Ready to Tune Up Your Engine
This Mocavo Gold feature is in a “beta” stage, and while we’re working to identify the perfect application for each of these new search algorithms, we didn’t think it would be fair to keep this technology under lock and key when it could help someone uncover a hidden piece of their story.. We can’t wait to hear your feedback so we can continue to improve these features for the entire community.

More Records, Fewer Books: Are you looking specifically for a record index database versus a book? Select “more records, fewer books” to change up your results to reveal actual records and record indexes instead of book pages.

Books with Long Pages: This tuner is great if you’re looking for your ancestor in databases that often contain larger pages such as newspapers or city directories.

Books with Short Pages: Interested in uncovering a hidden tale or note regarding an ancestor? This tuner will prioritize books that often have smaller pages such as diaries or letters.

Dense Matches: Select this tuner if you would like to see multiple occurrences of your search terms very close to each on a results page.

Sparse Matches: If you would rather look at only a few search terms on each page, select sparse hits.

Quantity and Quality: This tuner is a perfect combination of the amount of times your search term appears in a record, and how relevant the record page is to your search.

Terms Near Front of Book: Your search terms will appear closer to the front of the book such as in the table of contents.

Terms Near Back of Book: You search terms will appear closer to the back of the book such as in the index.

Short and Small Books: This tuner will only reveal results that pertain to short pages and smaller books such as stationary pages or diaries.

Give it a try and please let us know what you think. And if you have ideas on how we could improve our algorithms, let us know and we’ll try to add it in the next few weeks.

New Feature: Individual Database Search Field Hints

02 Apr 2014

As a Mocavo Basic, Silver, or Gold member, you can browse all of our content for free and search for your ancestors in any individual database. Previously, when searching an individual database, you filled in search fields based on your knowledge of the subject, which could be limited. If you happened to guess the wrong spelling or abbreviation for a certain search field, your results could be irrelevant or limited.

We know how frustrating this experience can be, which is why we’ve developed Search Field Hints. Now you can take the guesswork out of your research by selecting search terms specific to an individual database from a dropdown or autofill menu. These menus standardize how each search parameter is written, helping you create accurate and relevant searches.

For example, if you’re searching for an ancestor in the following Chester County, Pennsylvania Civil War record, you will see a variety of search fields to help you craft a search.

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If the search box is gray and has clickable arrow on right side of the box, then the search field has a dropdown menu. Within this particular database, the search fields “company,” “rank,” “year,” and “record” all have dropdown menus from which you can select a search term.

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If a search field has the autocomplete function, you will see a gray icon in the right side of the search field that looks like this: 

Within this database, the search parameters “First Name,” “Middle Name,” “Residence/To,” “Age,” “Regiment/Unit,” “Folder,” and “See/Page” all have autocomplete menus. Start typing a letter or word and you will see a list of relevant search terms that you can select.

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We hope you enjoy using this new feature with your individual database searches and please let us know if you have any feedback, we’d be happy to hear it!

3 Tips for Overcoming Spelling Variations

02 Apr 2014


Variations in spelling are one of the major challenges of genealogical research. Because standardized spelling is a twentieth-century concept, there can be all kinds of ways to spell words. This includes names, which can make researching very challenging. Many online search engines can account for some spelling variations, but there are always twists that can confuse things (such as having the wrong first letter in a name, which totally throws off the entire soundex system). Here are some tips to get past spelling variations.

1. Phonetic
Think about how the names are pronounced. Are there different  ways to spell the same sound? For example, a letter c, ch, and ck might all be pronounced with the hard “k” sound. The same goes for the letter f and gh (think rough and tough). Consider variations such as these when searching.

2. Sound Shifts
Watch out for sound shifts, which can throw off even phonetic spellings. Names that are pronounced the same are not always spelled the same. And names that are spelled the same are not always pronounced the same. Regional and national dialects and accents can have a major affect on the way words are spelled. A perfect example comes to us from England, Connecticut, and North Carolina. Hertford is the shire town of Hertfordshire, England. The city of Hartford (capital of Connecticut) was named for it. The spelling changed because the English pronounce the “e” in Hertford similar to an “ah,” thus it sounds like “Hahrtford” to an American. The town of Hertford, North Carolina, was also named for the English town. It retained the English spelling, but the pronunciation has changed to “Hurtford.”  The same sounds and spelling shifts can happen in your family’s names (both given names and surnames).

3. Enlist Your Friends
One great way to get spelling variations is to hand friends a piece of paper and a pencil and ask them to write down the name you are looking for. Just tell them the name, don’t spell it for them. If they themselves are uncertain of how to spell it, ask them to write down every variation they can think of. By asking several friends to do this, you will undoubtedly find a few spelling variations you hadn’t thought of. This works best with someone who is unfamiliar with the name you are searching for. Indeed, asking non-genealogists is a great way to get variations because they don’t come with the same set of assumptions that family historians do. There may be more than one way to pronounce the name, for example Beaufort, North Carolina (pronounced Bowfort) and Beaufort, South Carolina (pronounced Bewfort).

Did Pneumonia Kill the President?

01 Apr 2014

We use all types of records in our research to find out about the deaths of our ancestors. Modern death certificates usually include a cause of death. Obituaries can also shed light on how an ancestor died. Usually we just accept this as fact, but what happens if a mistake was made?

We all learned in history class about the many distinctions of President William Henry Harrison. He gave the longest inaugural address in history, 8,445 words. He held office for the shortest period of time, just one month. He was the first president to die in office, on April 4, 1841. And we all remember the story. He presented that longest inaugural address in freezing cold, wet weather with no coat, hat, or gloves, which gave him pneumonia.

Philip A. Mackowiak, M.D., has taken a new look at the Harrison’s death. He has examined the evidence about Harrison’s death in light of modern knowledge about public health and disease. And what he discovered was quite interesting.

First, remember that Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp. Not too far from the White House was a marsh formed by an outflow of sewage. The water supply for the building was only a few blocks from sewage. Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, was followed into the presidency by James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, both of whom reported developing gastroenteritis while living in the White House. Taylor actually died from the stomach illness.

Early-nineteenth century medical care was still sub-par in many ways. While the President’s doctor did not bleed him, he did give him opium among other medications. One of Opium’s side effects is to prohibit the body’s ability to eliminate microbes from the system, and actually makes it easier for them to get into the blood.

On his deathbed, physicians reported that Harrison’s pulse was dropping, and his extremities were cold and turning blue. Mackowiak explains that these are traditional symptoms of sepsis – an infection of the bloodstream. Given all the evidence, he explains that Harrison’s death was likely due to enteric fever. Pneumonia was only a secondary issue.


Diagnosing Giants


Harrison’s story is one of those included in a book by Mackowiak: Diagnoising Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the World. You can also read more details about Harrison’s story in a piece he co-authored for the New York Times: What Really Killed William Henry Harrison?

This story is a great warning to us as genealogists. Just because you find a cause of death on a death certificate, it may not necessarily be true. A little more digging might reveal more details that shed light on what really happened.

Pass On Your Passwords

31 Mar 2014

The end is coming. And none of us know when. As genealogists, we spend a great deal of time dealing with the dash (the en-dash that separates the years of birth and death [e.g., 1912–2000]). But, like many other aspects of modern society, technology has changed even that.

I have numerous items handed down in my family. I have letters, documents, cabinets made by my grandfather. I’ve got photographs of many members of the family. My high school yearbooks sit on a shelf in one of the bookshelf cabinets my grandfather made.

But now we have fewer and fewer of these tangible objects to pass down. Our photographs are digital images. Instead of writing in diaries, we post on blogs. And the way things are changing so quickly, I wonder if, in the future, my nieces will be able to listen to the two 33 1/3 rpm albums and ten CDs of music on which I have performed over the past thirty years.

Facebook posts, Google mail, Twitter tweets, Instagram photos, and more are probably part of your digital presence. With so much of our lives going digital, have you prepared for how you will handle passing down your digital assets? Have you even researched which assets you can pass down, and which you cannot?

Facebook, at the request of your family, will delete your page. Or, it can be left up as a memorial to you. Facebook does not check to see if you are still alive. Twitter deletes the files of deceased users, but will provide a copy of your public tweets to your heirs. Instagram, however, will delete all of your files upon being notified of your death.




In addition to your funeral arrangements and will, be sure you include instructions for your digital assets. Create a list of websites  that  you have accounts with. You also need to pass on your passwords (and I’m not talking about your recordings of the Allen Ludden game show you copied from the Game Show Network)  so that your executor (or other designated individual) can access them. You may also leave directions for what is to be done with the files and data on each site.

There are subscription sites that you can join that will administer this password process for you. PasswordBox, for example offers both free and paid accounts. A free account stores 25 passwords. For $11.99 a year you can store unlimited passwords. After your death, your designated contacted gets in touch with them, provides proof that you are deceased, and gets access to all of the passwords. PassMyWill is a different kind of site. It is connected to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. The site then monitors your postings and tweets. When it thinks your are deceased, your designated contact gets a “Dead Man’s Switch” email.

It is important, however, that you understand the terms of use for your websites. Yahoo, for example, expressly forbids transferring usernames and passwords. If your designated individual were to log in to your account after your death, he or she would technically be committed a crime. Seven states have passed laws that supercede those rules. Unfortunately, my home state of Massachusetts is not one of them.

Find Fascinating Photos & Prioritize Your Search Notifications

29 Mar 2014

We hope you are enjoying the weekend and spending some time on your family history research! To help inspire you, we’d like to share some fun updates and reminders about the exciting new features you can now access on Mocavo.

Bring Your Family History to Life with the New Photo Detection Tool

A couple of weeks ago, we developed a proprietary photo detection algorithm that allows us to extract photographs and other images from our historical books and read the associated caption.

Notice the red in the outlines below:




Using this technology, we’ve found some delightful, surprising, and sometimes hilarious historical images and we couldn’t wait to give you a peek at what we’ve found. We hope you’ll have as much fun as we have finding the gems hidden in these books, so take your time browsing through the pages, or enter a keyword in to the search box to find captions that match that term. It’s not yet 100% polished, and we currently have limited results, but we thought you might get a kick out of playing around with it.

Here’s an example of some images we captured:

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Test Drive the Photo Detection Tool Now

Take Five Minutes to Prioritize Your Search Notifications

Prioritizing your search notifications has never been easier. Simply select your favorite search terms and we’ll email you results based on those priorities, helping you make discoveries faster than ever.

Watch a quick tutorial video


Prioritize Your Search Notifications in Five Easy Steps

  1. After logging into your Mocavo account, click on your search notifications tab. You will see a list of all of your past search terms.
  2. Select your “favorite search terms” by clicking on the star next to each term. You will receive search notifications via email for each of your favorite search queries once every week. 
  3. Remove a search term from your favorites, simply by clicking the star and it will move out of your favorites list into your “active list”. 
  4. Organize your search terms by order of importance by dragging each term up or down with your mouse, or click the up/down arrows found on the right side of each search term.
  5. Deactivate a search term by clicking on the trash icon found at the right of your search term. Once deactivated, you will no longer receive search notifications for that specific query. You can always reactivate it by dragging the item back up to your active list.

Prioritize Your Search Notifications Now

I hope you enjoy test driving these new features this weekend. If you have any questions or feedback, please don’t hesitate to let me know!

News and Blog Posts for Genealogists, March 28, 2014

28 Mar 2014

This week’s roundup of news stories and blog posts, as usual, covers a wide variety of subject matters. From the seventeenth century, to the turn of the twentieth century, to modern-day concerns, we have some interesting topics for you.

We start off with the leading expert on seventeenth-century immigrants, Robert Charles Anderson. Head of the Great Migration Study Project at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Last week he wrote a post in the society’s Vita Brevis blog about different groups who emigrated during this period. I especially liked his comment about the Leiden Pilgrims who came to Plymouth. “With no more than about 250 immigrants during the 1620s, the examination of this group has consumed more paper and ink than any other even in the history of the settlement of early seventeenth-century New England. Read the full post in Assorted populations of the Great Migration.

This week saw an interesting discussion on Yahoo! Shine about a compelling Reddit post. Reddit user Mike Delgado is the owner of a letter penned by Rose Aéélie Icard. What was so interesting about the letter is the subject. It contains Icard’s memories of surviving the sinking of the Titanic. In seeking a fuller translation of the letter, written in Icard’s native French, he decided that the best place to get assistance would be Reddit. And boy did he stir up interest. Read more in Titanic Survivor’s Revealing Letter Sparks Interest on Reddit.


Titanic Letter


Rob Nix recently purchased an old wardrobe at the Community Furniture Store in the town of Selby, Yorkshire. As he was installing the wardrobe at home, he was hit by a small metal tin. To his surprise, the tin included a 1908 birth certificate and 1932 marriage certificate. You can read more about his efforts to find descendants in Family History Treasures are Uncovered in Antique Wardrobe.

We are used to hearing about the troubles of libraries in today’s digital age. Recenty, however, the Brooklyn Public Library reported that the number of library queries rose last year to more than three million requests. Although the questions covered a wide range of topics (including “Did an elephant really swim from Brooklyn to Staten Island?”), officials report that much of the increase is due to genealogists. Read more (and get the answer to the elephant question)  in Brooklyn Public Library Researchers Answered 3.5 Million Questions in 2013, Records Show.

Finally this week is a post from the Legal Genealogist, Judy G. Russell. Many of us have used yearbooks from our schooldays for genealogical research. The question is, are there copyright issues when it comes to using those yearbooks. The answer, as any good lawyer will tell you, is “It depends.” Find out more about potential issues in Copyright and the School Yearbook.

Celebrating 300,000 Databases with New Features

27 Mar 2014

Thanks to your support, free genealogy continues to gain a significant foothold in the family history community. One database at a time, we’ve brought more than 300,000 databases online to help you discover your story for free. As a way to say thank you, we want to share some exciting new features to help you break through your brick walls and customize your Mocavo experience.

Prioritize Your Search Notifications

It often feels like there aren’t enough hours in a day to dedicate to family history research. We know this problem all too well, which is why our search engine works day and night to find your ancestors among the thousands of new databases. Every week, we rerun some of your past searches to help you make new discoveries. We use a combination of factors to find the most relevant and exciting matches based on your search history. But so far we’ve been using our best guess and we know we can do better!

Today, I’m excited to announce that you now have the power to prioritize your search notifications. Simply select your favorite search terms and we’ll email you results based on those priorities, helping you make discoveries faster than ever.

Customize Your Search Notifications in Five Easy Steps

  1. After logging into your Mocavo account, click on your search notifications tab. You will see a list of all of your past search terms.
  2. Select your “favorite search terms” by clicking on the star next to each term. You will receive search notifications via email for each of your favorite search queries once every week.
  3. Remove a search term from your favorites, simply by clicking the star and it will move out of your favorites list into your “active list”.
  4. Organize your search terms by order of importance by dragging each term up or down with your mouse, or click the up/down arrows found on the right side of each search term.
  5. Deactivate a search term by clicking on the trash icon found at the right of your search term. Once deactivated, you will no longer receive search notifications for that specific query. You can always reactivate it by dragging the item back up to your active list.

Watch a quick tutorial video

Discover More Ways to View Your Results

As we continue to add millions of potential matches to our search engine, we want to provide different ways to quickly browse your results. Exclusively for Mocavo Gold members, you can find new search result displays under the Results & Summary Search Tabs. With so many new displays to choose from, making new discoveries has never been easier!

An Entirely New “Results Tab”

In the past, a search results page would only show you an excerpt of the content and an image preview with the matching word highlighted in yellow. Now you can uncover two more ways to easily scan your search results featured under the “Results Tab.” These new views will enhance your document viewing experience by revealing the important contextual details of a record page.

Full Image View

With Full Image View, you’ll see the full image of each record on your results page. You can view up to ten results and we will highlight your search terms so you can easily identify where they appear within the image.

Tile View

Don’t have time to view the entire page, but still want some contextual info? Try out the new Tile View. Revealing a smaller image than the full page view, you’ll be able to quickly browse all results without losing any necessary contextual details.

New Summary Search View

Summary Search View allows you to group your results by category and database title, making it a breeze to target the databases that spark your interest, and quickly avoid those that are irrelevant to your research.

You can select multiple filters in the sidebar to narrow the scope of your search and start making even more discoveries!

I thank you again for your support. I hope you like these new features and they help to make Mocavo even more helpful.  If you do have any other suggestions or feedback about these tools, I’d love to hear from you!

Hope for Hart Island

25 Mar 2014

Last fall I wrote about Hart Island in New York City, the largest potter’s field in the world. The island is under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Corrections. Prisoners from Ryker’s Island perform 1,500 burials each year of indigent and unknown individuals. Melinda Hunt has been pushing the city for some time to make it more accessible. Currently, visitors can only go as far as a gazebo by the docks. They cannot visit the graves of family members.

Two weeks ago, the New York City Council took the first step to rectify this situation. Five members of the council introduced legislation to transfer custody of Hart Island. Instead of being overseen by the Department of Corrections, the island would now be supervised by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Additional legislation would provide for regular ferry service for visitors. The goal is to return to the days when people visited cemeteries regularly, as places to celebrate the lives of those interred there.

By the early nineteenth century there were almost a hundred graveyards in Manhattan. As the island got more cramped, public health issues (as well as the desire to reclaim valuable real estate on the island) caused officials to relocate burial grounds to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. But many areas that were originally burial grounds still have bodies buried there. Some of the old burial grounds are still parks. Famous landmarks, such as Bryant Park (next to the New York Public Library) and Washington Square Park, started out as burying grounds.

Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn are large garden cemeteries built in the mid-nineteenth century. They are home not only to New York’s elite, but also to every-day citizens. Even today, these cemeteries host tours, concerts, and other events for the public. They are beautiful and awe-inspiring.


Cenotaph for Augustus Lafayette Cowdrey, a lawyer and volunteer fireman killed during the great fire of 1845.

Cenotaph for Augustus Lafayette Cowdrey, a lawyer and volunteer fireman killed during the great fire of 1845. Private collection of the author, used with permission.


It is heartening to see a government work to preserve a burial ground in such a way. Not only do they seek to preserve it, but member of the New York City Council seek create a public space that will encourage people to visit and create recreational areas for people to enjoy.

This is a great change from many other stories that we see and hear about, where cemeteries are just plowed over or buried under concrete as development encroaches upon them. The New York Times is very supportive of this move by the city council. Last week they ran a piece on the opinion page that talks about the Hart Island situation. You can read it in The Graves of Forgotten New Yorkers.


5 Valuable Websites for British Research

22 Mar 2014



There are many resources available for researching your English ancestors. In addition to the obvious large websites, there are some lesser-known ones that you should keep in mind to help move your research along. Here are five that I often use.

This website is a joint project of S & N Genealogy, a large commercial genealogy website in the U.K., and The National Archives (TNA). Registers for Church of England parishes are kept separately from other registers. Other denominations are called non-conformist or non-parochial.  This site provides access to material from more than a dozen record groups at TNA for non-Anglican individuals. This is a pay-per-view website. Credits cost 50p each (about  US $.82). You must purchase 10, 20, or 40 credits at a time. Searching is free. You can search by forename and/or surname. You can use wildcards and/or fuzzy search. You can limit your search to an event type. The advance search costs 1 credit and allows you to limit the search to a single record group, and add a place name and/or year for the event.


The Association of British Counties

This group is a “society dedicated to promoting awareness of the continuing inmportance of the 92 historic (or traditional) Counties of the United Kingdom.” The website offers a great deal of information, but the most valuable to genealogists is the Gazetteer of British Place Names. The gazeteer contains more than 50,000 names of places of all size. Results provide the historic county name, the administrative county name, the district, police area, and U.K. country. There is also a link to a modern map showing the town with the historical county boundaries overlaid on it.


Deceased Online

Unlike other websites that have user-contributed cemetery information on it, Deceased Online contains data from statutory burial and cremation registers. The database includes the names of millions of people buried or cremated in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The searchable database is linked to images of the original registers.  Not only will you find information about the deceased, but details on the grave owner, other burials in the grave, pictures of some graves and memorials, and maps showing the locations of graves and memorials. Records date from 1850 to modern times. Searching is free, but you must purchase vouchers to view results. It costs between £1.50–2.00 (about US $2.50–3.30). The site recently launched an annual unlimited-access subscription for £89 (about US $147).


Society of Genealogists

Many may think that SOG is only good if you can go there in person. Not true. For example, if you can’t get to the library in person, you can utilize the society’s Search and Copy Service to have documents copied and sent to you. You can check indexes to their documents and pedigree collections to see if there is any information on surnames you are interested in. The Society is also digitizing many of their collections and making them available online for members.  Among the valuable data online are marriage licences, Boyd’s indexes, local histories, parish registers, monumental inscriptions, poll books, will extracts and indexes, apprenticeships and more. Membership is £50 or £32 (about US $53) for overseas members.


Richard Heaton’s Index to Digitalised British and Irish Newspapers Online

Mr. Heaton has been using newspapers in his research for thirty years. He has compiled this index from twenty-three online archives. The index is divided geographically into England (except London), London, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. Each section is subdivided by city/town name and country name. It provides the publication title (and any variant titles), the name of the online collection where it can be found (with direct llinks to many of them, the format, whether it was free or pay, as well as the start and end dates. Some of the entries include additional comments.