Genealogy Blog

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

04 Aug 2014

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

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

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

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

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


Port Chicago


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

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

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

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

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

5 Tips for Using a Professional to Overcome Your Brick Walls

26 Jul 2014


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

1. What can a professional do for me?

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

2. Why can’t I just do it myself?

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

3. Why won’t a professional guarantee results?

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

4. What should I do before hiring a professional?

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

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

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


How Our DNA Affects Our Relationships

26 Jul 2014

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

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


Instant Chemistry



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


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


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

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

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

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

26 Jul 2014

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

Have you contributed to GenForum or other discussion forums?

26 Jul 2014

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


Your Ancestors’ Headlines: Unlock Mocavo’s Newspaper Archive

24 Jul 2014


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

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


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Seeking Michigan Ancestors

21 Jul 2014

I’ve just returned from several days at the Archives of Michigan in Lansing. I was the featured speaker for the annual Abrams Foundation Family History Seminar. There were a number of other speakers, and a great turnout.  While I was there, I got to explore the archives and the Library of Michigan, which are both parts of the Michigan Historical Center in downtown Lansing. If you have Michigan ancestors, a visit here (at least virtually, if not in person) is a must.

The library’s collection focuses on printed sources. They have an extensive collection of local and country histories, and transcriptions of records (cemeteries, etc.) from all over Michigan. Many of these were small print runs or typescripts that might be difficult to find elsewhere. There is also a large collection of city directories.

One of my favorite parts of my day at the library was working with the extensive collection of newspapers. So many older newspapers are available online now, but there is still a giant hole between the start of the twentieth century and the 1990s when newspapers started going online. I found a large number of obituaries in this time period that has helped me identify and located modern-day Franklin descendants. Unfortunately the library is a bit behind the times. The only microfilm scanner produced images that were so bad that I ended up printing out the obituaries because they were so much better.


Archives of Michigan


The Archives of Michigan is on the other side of the building from the library. In contrast to the library, the archives has taken steps to implement technology to improve the customer experience. Starting with registration, where you are assigned a photo identification card with a bar code, which allows you to be processed in and out of the facility very quickly. They have a state-of-the-art scanner for microfilm. Even more interesting is their setup for digital images of manuscript items. They have an iPad on a flexible stand holds it above the items at whatever distance you like. When you are done photographing the manuscripts, a PDF file is created which can be downloaded to a flash drive or emailed to you (your choice).

A few years ago the Abrams Foundation Historical Collection was transferred from the library to the archives. Over the past thirty years, the Talbert and Leota Abrams Foundation has donated more then $2 million for the collection and for creating resources for genealogists, including the annual seminar.

Over the last few years, the archives has been actively working to provide resources to genealogists through a new website, Seeking Michigan. In addition to advice on getting started, there are dozens of guides to help with many different types of records in the collection. They are also working to digitize records and make them available online, such as Michigan death records and the Michigan state census.

If your ancestors spent any time at all in Michigan, spend some time with the library and the archives. You will find a plethora of records to assist you in your search.

Our Thank You Gift to You

19 Jul 2014


As we join forces with Findmypast, we could not be more thankful for the positive feedback we continue to receive from the genealogy community. Our commitment to bring all of the world’s historical content online grows stronger by the day and we’re excited to bring you exciting new features and content in the future.

To thank you for all of your support, we want to do something special for the Mocavo Community. For this weekend only, you can enjoy your first month of Mocavo Gold for only 99 cents. That means for less than $1.00 you can now access all of the advanced technology and automated features that will help take your research to the next level.

  • Make Discoveries Faster Than Ever with Mocavo Gold
  • Search more than 8 billion names from one convenient location
  • Narrow down your results with advanced search fields and Search Sliders
  • Customize your result preferences with Search Tuners 
  • Get new discoveries automatically sent via email
  • See every detail with high definition documents
  • Enjoy over $75 in savings with exclusive partner discounts
  • And many more!

Make sure you take advantage of this exclusive offer by Monday, July 21 at 11:00PM EST.


Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, July 18, 2014

18 Jul 2014

This week’s stories range from George Washington and Henry Knox to Twitter and the Digital Public Library of America. I hope you find them as interesting and informative as I do.

We start with a post from Myra Vanderpool Gormley’s blog, Shaking Family Trees. As part of a project to write about her research subjects at least once each week (known as the 52 Ancestors project among bloggers), she recently wrote about the husband of Mary Vanderpoel, Joseph-Louis, Chevalier d’Anterroches. Documentation of their courtship and marriage comes from a letter written by Henry Knox to his old boss, George Washington. It seems Washington received a letter from the Chevalier’s mother, and asked Knox to find out more about him. Read more of the story in #28-52ancestors: d’Anterroches-Vanderpoel: Surprising French Connection.

WBAY in Green Bay, Wisconsin, reported on an interesting story out of the town of Eureka. The Wagoner family, doing renovations on the kitchen of a farmhouse, found a ledger in the ceiling. This was not just any ledger, however, it dated from 1865 and contained a roster of Civil War soldiers from the 42nd Regiment of the Wisconsin volunteer Infantry. Read more, and watch a video story, in Civil War Ledger Found in Eureka.


Civil War Ledger


Patrick Allan wrote a moving piece yesterday for Lifehacker. A few years ago, Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher participated in a Twitter chat question and answer session. What made this chat so special? Both Herbert and Zelmyra were centenarians. They were the longest-married couple in history. They were married for 87 years before Herbert passed away at the age of 105 in 2011. Allan wrote about some of the answer they gave about married life. Read more in Marriage Advice from the World’s Longest Married Couple.

Chrisopher Mims writes for the Digits blog for the Wall Street Journal. This week he wrote about cybersecurity. He had a conversation with cybersecurity consultant Michael B. Williams so he could become part of the 1% — “that one in 100 people whose online life is secure enough that hackers just can’t be bothered to try to break into their accounts.” Read more, and get his tips in Commentary: What I learned, and What You Should Know, After I Published my Twitter Password.

The Digital Public Library of America is a non-profit project to take materials from libraries, archive, and museums around the country and make them available to the public around the world. Larry Kaukam is retired from the Central Library Rochester and Monroe County, New York, where one of his responsibilities was  family history. He recently wrote a piece for their news section to discuss how DPLA can be useful to genealogists, including a discussion of a curated exhibition, Leaving Europe, about those who came to America in the 19th century. Read more in Finding Family Information Through DPLA.


Hunting for Treasure at the Brimfield Fair

15 Jul 2014

This weekend, as part of my birthday celebration, I got to do one of my favorite things. I went to the Brimfield Fair with friends. The fair is a long-standing New England tradition. It started back in the 1950s. My mother used to do with her father when she was a girl. It is now the largest outdoor antiques show in the country. Located in the quaint town of Brimfield in western Massachusetts, the show runs along a half-mile section of Route 20. Dealers extend back hundreds of feet from either side of the road.

The stands are filled with everything from small collectibles to large pieces of furniture. Dealers come from all over the country to sell here. Tens of thousands of people walk through the fields during the course of the week. As a genealogist, I was in seventh heaven combing through the stalls.  While much of it can be junk, many valuable things can be found.

One of the first things I saw when moving through the stands was a chest of drawers, about four feet high and the same wide, with three large drawers. It was panted with high gloss black paint, two cannon were painted across the front.  On the top was the name of a captain in the Royal Navy, and the name of a ship. The date 1861 was written across the front. It was a beautiful piece, but the dealer want almost $1,000 for it, which was way out of my budget.

You my find small antiques, however, that speak to your ancestors. Kitchen furnishings, farming implements, occupational tools, and more, can show you how your ancestor lived.

Two stalls away, however, I found a beautiful, large family Bible. While it is common to find such large Bibles with family information recorded, this was practiced more by Protestants than it was by Catholics. What made this Bible special is that it was an 1844 Catholic Bible, with a two-generation family record in the section between the Old and New Testaments. I purchased it for $40, and have already traced several living descendants whom I will soon contact so as to repatriate the Bible to family members.


Title page of family Bible I found at the Brimfield Fair. (From the collection of the author, used with permission)

Title page of family Bible I found at the Brimfield Fair. (From the collection of the author, used with permission)


The best part of the show for me, however, were the dealers who had ephemera. These are loose papers and other items that were intended to be discarded once they fulfilled their original use. Among these items one might find:

  • letters and notes
  • postcards
  • invitations
  • greeting cards
  • receipts
  • checks
  • bills
  • calendars
  • appointments books

Of course, the best finds you might make are papers dealing with your own family. But you may find papers that can help you put your own family in context. For example, tax bills can show you what the rates were like in the town where they lived or school bills might show you how much they paid to educate their children.

I found a book presented by the church to a couple on their marriage day. It detailed the church’s beliefs about marriage and the rights and responsibilities of the married couple. Even if it weren’t your ancestors’ marriage record, it would help you understand more about them if they attended the same church that presented the book.

Antique shops and fairs can be wonderful resources for genealogists. When you visit places where your ancestors lived, check out the local shops for materials that might be useful to you. But don’t forget, antique stores anywhere can be very helpful. Items, especially paper, can travel very far afield. One of the items I picked up was a receipt dated November 1931 for the rent of an apartment — in Shanghai, China. So keep your eyes open where you go!