Genealogy Blog

New Collaboration Results in Joint Publication

18 Feb 2015

One of the favorite things about the mail is receiving the many historical and genealogical journals to which I subscribe. Today’s post brought a pleasant surprise. The January issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (PMHB) is a very special issue. It was published in collaboration with Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies (PHJMS).


PMHB Cover


PMHB is the journal of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Located in Philadelphia, HSP is one of the oldest historical societies in America. It was founded in 1824, and now contains 600,000 printed works and more than 21 million manuscript and graphic items. PMHB is HSP’s scholarly journal, published quarterly since 1877. It publishes “original research or interpretation concerning the social, cultural, political, economic, and ethnic history of Pennsylvania, or work situating Pennsylvania history within comparative regional or international contexts.”

PHJMS is a publication of the Pennsylvania Historical Association (PHA), published in conjunction with the Pennsylvania State University Press. PHA was founded as a group for all historians interested in Pennsylvania, independent of any geographic or institutional affiliations. PHJMS publishes current scholarship on the history of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region, including annotated documents.

Several years ago, the editors of the journals had the idea to do a joint publication. The PHJMS editor, Bill Pencak, quickly suggested that the focus be on teaching Pennsylvania history. PMHB editor Tamara Gaskell agreed, and the project was set in motion. This joint issue contains six very special articles by leading historians:

  • “A Century of Teaching with Pennsylvania’s Historic Places” by Seth C. Bruggeman
  • “Three Miles, Two Creeks: Local Pennsylvania History in the Classroom” by Edward Slavisbak
  • “Pennsylvania’s Past from a Unique Perspective: Oral History” by Mary Carroll Johansen
  • “Teaching the Religious History of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia” by R. Scott Hanson
  • “An Authentic Archival Experience for the College Classroom in the Digital Age” by Kathryn Shively Meier and Kristen Yarmey
  • “The Blood Demonstration: Teaching the History of the PHiladelphia Welfare Rights Organization” by Kim Gallon

This collaboration is an excellent idea. Not only does it promote excellent scholarship, it provides exposure of each organization’s membership to the benefits of the other. This may lead to increased membership for both groups.

Think about the organizations you belong to or know of. Are there any possibilities of a similar collaboration? Perhaps such a publication could promote greater awareness for both groups, but a greater understanding between the fields of history and genealogy.

Dealing with the Ancestral Black Sheep

07 Feb 2015

We all have black sheep in our families. The cause of their being an outcast varies from simple things, such as those who left the family over petty squabbles or for other reasons. Sometimes they committed white collar crimes such as fraud. Other times their misdeeds may be darker. What do you do when your family was associated with some of the darkest crimes in the history of humanity?

Rainer Hoess was born in the 1960s. When growing up, he didn’t know much about his father’s family. They were never discussed. But the answers started coming one day when he found a book in the family’s library: Commandant of Auschwitz, the autobiography of Rudolf Hoess.

Hoess joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and became a member of Hitler’s SS in 1933. In 1934 he was attached to the Dachau concentration camp. In 1938 he became the adjutant at Sachenhausen before being appointed commander of the new camp at Auschwitz in 1940. In 1943 he was appointed chief inspector of all concentration camps. During his service he specialized in developing new methods of killing. In 1945 he fled and went into hiding. He was captured in Germany in 1946, and was hanged on a gallows at Auschwitz in 1947. Rainer’s father was one of Rudolf’s sons. Suddenly Rainer had to deal with the knowledge that his grandfather was one of the most notorious murderers in human history.

Rainer is part of the next generations that have had to deal with what their parents and grandparents did. Those that committed the atrocities are now mostly deceased. But they have left a legacy that is difficult to deal with. As Rainer Hoess says “I know my heritage. I can’t change it.” But he, like many others, is moving to create a new world.

Manfred Rommel was the son of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. He became mayor of the city of Stuttgart. During his tenure he fully supported the rights of immigrants in Germany among many other accomplishments. He earned many awards for his distinguished public service, including Commander of the British Empire.

Martin Pollock’s father was an officer in the SS and the Gestapo. His research uncovered the ruthlessness of his father, who often ordered his men to kill Jews. Although he himself feels no guilt, he does feel responsibility to be certain the stories are told so they are never forgotten.


Black Sheep


These people have to live every day of their lives being associated with brutal atrocities. They, also, unfortunately, are judged by the actions of their family members. But is it fair to judge individuals for the actions of their ancestors?

Rainer Hoess now works to spread the word about the Nazi atrocities. He wants to be certain that they are never forgotten. And, more importantly, that they are not repeated. He has long spoken out against the kind of religious extremism that is now spreading across Europe, the Middle East, and even the United States.

When it comes to your own ancestors, remember first that you should not judge. Unless you walked in their shoes, you have no idea what motivated them to do things. And, unless you personally are doing the same things, they are no reflection on you. You cannot change your ancestors and their actions. You cannot directly change your descendants and their actions. The best you can do is to live as the best example you can of the people you would like them to be. Remember to tell your stories, and your ancestors’ stories, including the ones that you find distasteful. It is only by including those stories that the fullest possible picture of your family can be known.

Help the Smithsonian Make Their Collections More Accessible

04 Feb 2015

The Smithsonian Institution was created in 1846 under the will of James Smithson, a British scientist to create “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” It has operated ever since, free to the public. The complex in Washington includes nineteen museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo, and is the largest of its kind in the world. And in the 21st century, the Smithsonian is moving into the virtual world. Over almost 170 years, the Smithsonian has collected 137 million items. And now the staff would like you to help the Smithsonian make their collections items more accessible to the public. Part of the effort to digitize is recruiting ordinary individuals like you and I to assist them.


Smithsonian Transcription Service


The Smithsonian has invested heavily in creating an online transcription center to allow interested individuals to contribute to making materials available. This is a massive project, with contributions from across the institution, including:

  • Anacostia Community Museum Archivs
  • National Anthropological Archives
  • National Museum of American History
  • National Museum of Natural History
  • Smithsonian Institution Archives
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries

The site provides access to digital images that volunteers can transcribe. Each page is transcribed by two volunteers in a double-verification process. Collection experts from the Smithsonian then review the transcription before making it available to the public. Millions of pages have so far been digitized, and they are making their way through the system for transcribing.

Signing up is a simple process. Simply create a username, enter your email address, and verify you are not a robot. Then you get to work. You can browse projects by repository, or by a half-dozen categories:

  • American Experience
  • Biodiverse Planet
  • Civil War Era
  • Field Book Project
  • Mysteries of the Universe
  • World Cultures.

Among the fascinating subprojects are letters of Mary Cassatt, George Catlin, Winslow Homer, William de Kooning, and Grandma Moses.

If you are looking for a new volunteer project, the Smithsonian Institution is a great place to invest your time. Not only will you be helping yourself and other genealogists, but historians present and future will also be the beneficiaries of your work when they study all aspects of American history and culture. Check out the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers website  and browse the available projects for more information.


Solving the Problems of Adoptees: Non-Paternal Events and DNA Testing

02 Feb 2015

As genealogists have incorporated DNA testing into the research process over the last few years, amazing strides have been made. Increased precision in testing as well as an increase in the variety of tests available have produced many new clues for research. But in addition to breaking down brick walls, DNA can introduce new possibilities for the research. And sometimes these can be very challenging.

By now we are all familiar with the term “Non-paternal Event.” This is the term used when an individual’s surname does not match the y-DNA. It means that somewhere along the way, the man presumed to be the father of a son did not actually father that child.

Unfortunately, researchers are too often quick to look to the mother as the source of the problem. She is often thought to have cheated on her husband. While did happen, it is not the only possibility, and we must be careful to include other possibilities as well. Among the other reasons for a non-paternal event are:

  • Mother was pregnant by another man at the time of the marriage.
  • Child took the surname of a maternal relative to honor him and perpetuate a surname that was about to disappear.
  • An apprentice, orphan, or other child was adopted into the family.
  • Child was the product of a rape.

Part of the challenge in answering the question is in the extensive testing that must take place to determine in which generation the event occurred. Starting with the person tested, and going back to the immigrant ancestor, the break could enter at any point. The only way to know for certain is to test multiple individuals at every generation until the break is found.


DNA and Adoptees


There is another way of looking at these events, however. Adoptees often have a difficult time determining their origins. Laws prohibit access to information on birth parents, leaving adoptees and their descendants with many questions. DNA testing companies, however, are offering a way around these laws.  Combining with online family trees, many adoptees are able to find their birth family. The Washington Times recently ran a story on this subject.

Whether the adoption was today, or two hundred years ago, DNA can help you identify the birth lineage of your ancestors. If you have this type of problem, start mapping out a plan for testing to combine with traditional resources to identify your true ancestors. And realize that you may never know the true circumstances behind the non-paternal event, so do not judge your ancestors so hastily.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, January 30, 2015

30 Jan 2015

This week’s roundup of genealogy news includes copyright, online family trees, British newspapers, a genealogy butler, and a century-old mystery.

Copyright is a serious issue for genealogists. Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, discusses it often. This week she announced a valuable new reference. The third edition of the Compendium of U. S. Copyright Practices has been released by the U.S. Copyright office. As Judy says, “anyone who uses writings or photographs or other copyrightable materials would be well-advised to grab a copy as well.” Find out why Judy says this in The Compendium.

Debbie Mieszala had a great discussion this week on the Advancing Genealogist. Debbie discusses some of the pitfalls and problems of online family trees. In particular, she focuses on “smash and grab genealogy.” These are genealogists who want to take information without either researching or evaluating what they have found. Find out more in Smash and Grab Genealogy, or Deciding Whether to Post an Online Tree.

Dick Eastman shared a very important announcement with us this week. The British Library has been working on a very special addition. This week the BL announced the opening of a very special new location in West Yorkshire. This state-of-the art building offers some very modern preservation features while providing access to 60 million newspapers. Check out the details in British Library Opens National Newspaper Building.

The Los Angeles Times ran a story recently about Helen Kelly. Kelly offers a special tour for those researching their roots in Ireland. Kelly bills herself as a genealogy butler, and works to help your trip to be as successful as possible. Read more in Ireland: Trace Your Roots with a Genealogy Butler.

Finally this week comes a story from Everett, Washington, about a family mystery. Elton Erford was born in Nebraska in 1897, and died in 1949. Throughout his life, which traversed two world wars and the great depression, he carried a $10 bill printed in 1880. In 1880, that would have been worth almost $1,000 in today’s money. The big mystery is why did he carry it? Read more in Family History, Mystery in 1880 $10 Bill.

Ten Dollar Mystery


Epigenetics at Work: the Blizzard of ’78 and the French Toast Alert System

27 Jan 2015

When I think of my ancestors living through winters in French-Canada, I realize how strong those men and women must have been. Challenging enough to live on the frontier, but to think of them doing it without modern tools, heat, food, etc., it is truly incredible. The northeast is currently getting by a blizzard of historic proportions. The last storm of this size recorded in Boston was in 2013, but the one that gets the most press, and lives strongest in our memory, is the great Blizzard of ’78. For those of us who lived through it, it was scary yet exciting; and very, very challenging. And a great example of epigenetics.

The severity of the storm was due to a confluence of circumstances that rarely occurs. The initial forecasts called for a typical nor’easter. For those who do not live in New England, a nor’easter is strong storm with very heavy precipitation and hurricane-force winds, and blizzard conditions (severe winds causing blowing snow that creates low-to-zero visibility lasting more than three hours). The names comes from the fact that the storm rides up the coast and the bands of wind and precipitation come circling around on land from the northeast. The storm was supposed to hit on Monday and last for a day.

The nor’easter reached hurricane-force winds of more than 85 miles per hour (with gusts going more than 110). It reached New England on February the evening of February 6. This was the night of a new moon, when tides are at their highest. The storm started inflicting devastating damage on coastal towns. A normal nor’easter lasts for six to twelve hours before dissipating. But this storm was anything but  normal. A high pressure system had worked its way down from Canada. It trapped the storm over New England for three days. An unprecedented thirty-three hours of precipitation hammered New England. In addition, a rare vertical formation of storm clouds resulted in thundersnow, with thunder and lightning across Long Island and Southern New England, where I lived.

It hit so fast and with so little warning that many people were trapped on highways trying to get home. Cars were abandoned everywhere as people sought shelter. At times during the storm, snow was falling at a rate of 4 inches per hour. By the time it was finished, more than 27 inches fell across New England.

The cleanup took days. Roadways blocked with snow and abandoned vehicles made the work slow and difficult. Some people did not get home for days. Although the storm ended on Wednesday, it took through the rest of the week to get things cleaned up in the aftermath. I remember walking through my neighborhood, a fairly typical suburban area. Snow was piled at the corners in drifts more than 10 feet high. There was simply no place to put it.

Fortunately, nowadays weather forecasting has gotten much better. We have warnings and are able to prepare. But the effects of the storm are still felt here in New England. It is certainly a great example of epigenetics at work. People tend to overreact to storms here now. Nobody really believes that the storms will be that short. They descend on supermarkets in hoards to stock up on food as if they will be locked up for weeks. And this happens even to people who were even born in 1978, as well as those who lived nowhere near New England during that year.

This has given rise to a standing joke that is now spreading to other areas of the country: the French Toast Alert System. The joke arose because for whatever reason, the three things that get cleaned out first at the supermarket are bread, eggs, and milk (a.k.a., the ingredients one needs to make French toast).  It even has its own Twitter account and Facebook page. FYI, the French Toast Alert System is supposed to remain at the Severe level through Wednesday morning. I hope you stocked up!

French Toast Alert System

Medical Technology Changing the Rules of Genealogy

24 Jan 2015

Humans have always lived in an ever-changing world. From the time our ancient ancestors hunted wooly mammoths, we have adapted to fit our environments. But at no other time in human history have things never moved so quickly. When my grandparents were born, the United States had not yet gotten embroiled in Word War I.  The average life expectancy for men was 52 and for men, 55. Horse-drawn carts still brought groceries, milk, and other wares through the streets. Houses were heated with coal, and cast-iron stoves were used for cooking. By the time my grandparents died in the early years of this century, science fiction had become a fact of life. We use microwave ovens to cook our food. We carry around our own personal communication devices that look just like communicators from Star Trek.

Modern medicine has created many miracles. We can cure, or at least treat, dangerous diseases that in the not too distant past had no treatments at all. And we can now help people achieve things that were previously not possible, due to age or physical conditions. These changes in medical technology now require us to change some of our basic research methodology. I was reminded of this recently when reading the AARP Bulletin.

One article talked about women having children later in life; much later than we have experienced in the past. One of the women interviewed was Sarajean Grainson. She and her husband David have quite the family. Sarajean already had three children from a previous marriage, and now they are also raising their 8-year-old son Luke and two 5-year-olds, Matthew and David. The twist? Sarajean is 59 years old. She was 51 when she gave birth to Luke, and 54 when she gave birth to the twins. And this is becoming more and more common.


Older Women Having Babies


As a rule, Anglo women rarely have given birth later than their early forties. And even women in other cultures who might remain fertile longer rarely had children after their late forties. Now, thanks to in vitro fertilization, age is becoming less of a restriction. The oldest known birth mother to date is Rajo Devi Lohan of India (as far as we know, she is not related to Lindsay) who was 69 years old when she gave birth.

All of the rules we used to follow now have to be reevaluated. We can no longer rule out older women as mothers. In the old days, when we saw a 74-year-old woman as the mother of a five-year-old, we knew it was a mistake. Such is no longer the case.

Advances in medicine and technology mean that genealogist will now have to re-evaluate many of our standing guidelines. And as things change more and more, we shall have to keep re-evaluating them. For example, it is no longer uncommon to see someone living to be more than 110 years old, either.

Another can of worms for genealogists is opened up by in vitro fertilization. Donor eggs and donor sperm are now frequently used to help couples have children. In the future, “non-paternal events” will become more common. But the reasons behind them will be less scurrilous. And how will people know the difference, unless it is well-documented by the parents.

As technology continues to bring changes to our lives, it is important to remember how they impact our genealogical research. Long-standing rules of research need to be re-evaluated in light of these changes. And extra care must be used to prove kinship connections going forward.

Blog Posts for Genealogists, January 23, 3015

23 Jan 2015

This week’s interesting genealogy news come from some great genealogical and historical blog posts. Elizabeth Shown Mills warns us of census perils, Randy Seaver discusses his method for organizing digital files, Paula Stuart-Warren talks about the danger in sharing in genealogy, Polly Kimmett discusses the lost child from Mount Wachusett, and Peter Muise tells us about an eighteenth-century witchcraft trial.

We start with the inimitable Elizabeth Shown Mills. In the Evidence Explained blog this week she talks about math problems in the census. Specifically, the issue is around calculating dates of birth. When looking at ages in the census, researchers must take into account the census day when calculating a year of birth. Get her advice in Analyzing Census Records: Math Matters!

Genealogists’ paper files have been supplanted in many ways by digital files. This has just moved the organization problem from the physical world to the digital. Randy Seaver gives some great advice and explains the system he uses, which you may wish to adopt. Get the details in My Genealogy Digital File Folder Organization.

Paula Stuart-Warren has created a new, updated blog, Genealogy By Paula. And recently she wrote a very interesting piece about sharing. Genealogists love to share, but there is a drawback to it as well.  In her words, “Often the answer that helped you may mislead someone researching a different person, time frame, locality, or even nationality.” This is not a minor detail. It is very important. Read the full story in Helpful? Or Not? We Shouldn’t Share Genealogy Guesses.


Lucy Keyes


Polly Kimmett brings us the first of two folklore stories this week. In 1751, Robert and Martha (Bowker) Keyes moved their family from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, to the nearby town of Princeton, which was at that time on the frontier. Their farm lay on the side of Mount Wachusett. In 1755, their four-year-old daughter followed her older sisters to a nearby pond, where they were fetching sand for the house. Unfortunately, she never returned. A neighbor confessed on his deathbed to murdering the child, but did he really? Find out more, and get a link to the answer, in Lucy Keyes, the Lost Child of Wachusett Mountain.

Finally this week comes a story from Peter Muise’s New England Folklore blog. He talks about the John Brown family of Lynn, Massachusetts. In late 1692, John’s wife made him an Indian pudding (a type of sausage). Although the ingredients were appropriately white upon entering the pot, when removed it was dark red, like a blood pudding. Brown accused his neighbor, Sarah Cole, of witchcraft. They were brought before the magistrates in Salem soon thereafter, at the height of the witchcraft hysteria. Find out Sarah’s fate in The Proof is in the Pudding – Proof of Satan!

5 Essential Reference Books for British Genealogy

22 Jan 2015


Researching your ancestors in Britain is far different from researching your ancestors in America or Canada. If you have British ancestry, you need familiarize yourself with records and resources. Here are five books that everyone researching their British ancestry will find helpful.

1. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History, Second Edition

This edition is a few years old now, published in 2006, but it remains a good foundation work. Thirty chapters and eleven appendixes fill this 800-page work full of all manner of information on the records and resources available for genealogists. It also includes an extensive bibliography with additional references. It was published in association with the Society of Genealogists in London, the leading genealogical society in the United Kingdom.

2. Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The Website and Beyond, Seventh Revised Edition

Another terrific publication from 2006, this was first published in 1986. It is published by The National Archives at Kew (TNA). At 500 pages it is another comprehensive work. While there is some overlap with the previous book, this one focuses only on materials held by TNA. And it does go into more detail on some of these. There is a great deal of discussion about materials available on the website. This is where its age is most apparent. The TNA website has changed a great deal since this book was published, and much of that material should be ignored. But still, it is a very valuable guide to TNA’s holdings.

3. Marriage Law for Genealogists: The Definitive Guide

Rebecca Probert is a leading expert on the history of marriage laws in England and Wales. You will be surprised at how many things you believe are correct (or assume are correct), are really mistakes. At 158 pages, it is easy to read and digest. It is really a must have for every family historian researching their English ancestry.

4. Pauper Ancestors: A Guide to the Records Created by the Poor Laws in England and Wales

Many of us have ancestors who were among the less affluent members of society. Poor Laws have been around for more than 400 years, and the records they generated are invaluable for genealogical research. This book contains descriptions of many records. While these descriptions are rather thin, it also includes many examples of original records, along with transcriptions and images of the records. These can make it much easier for you to understand the records and how to use them.

5. Understanding Documents for Genealogy and Family History

Bruce Durie is the former director of the Genealogical, Heraldic and Palaeographic Studies Programme at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Last year the History Press published his seminal work on reading old documents. The first section concerns palaeography, terms, Latin, and more. The second section includes examples of many different kinds of documents  from England, Scotland, and Wales. A great resource for helping you work with original records.

An Excellent New Genealogy Blog: The Advancing Genealogist

21 Jan 2015

One of the great pleasures of working in the genealogy industry is the fantastic people I get to work with. From the hobbyist to the professional, there are so many wonderful, interesting, and knowledgeable people to learn from. And another talented individual is now sharing her extensive knowledge with a new blog.


Advancing Genealogist


Debbie Mieszala is a multi-talented genealogist based in Illinois. She is a certified genealogist, and serves as a trustee of the Board for Certification of Genealogists. She is a forensic genealogist, specializing in twentieth-century research, adoption, and heir tracing. Debbie is a popular speaker, having taught at the Genealogical Research Institute of Pittsburgh, the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research, and the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She has done great work with the military in trying to identify and repatriate the remains of MIA soldiers.

A couple of months ago she started a new blog: the Advancing Genealogist. In her introduction, Debbie gives her reason for starting the blog: “I want this to be a friendly place to stop, pick up a bit of news or learn of a great resource, and for all of us to grow as genealogists.” What better reason could you have?

Over the last few months, she has composed a wide variety of interesting and informative posts. The categories include:

  • adoption
  • books
  • Chicago
  • DNA
  • education
  • family research
  • Illinois
  • institutes
  • law
  • Midwest
  • military
  • repositories

Some of the posts I have found particularly interesting are

Debbie does not publish on a specific schedule, but each week usually brings at least one new post.

In addition to her blog, Debbie also does work for hire. So, if you need some help with your brickwall problems in the Midwest, check her out. She has a section on her blog that discusses her specialties and repositories that she researches in frequently. She also maintains a calendar, so you can check opportunities to see her and learn from her in person.

Every genealogist can learn a little something by checking out this blog. And those who are professional or transitional genealogists will especially appreciate this excellent example of a blog from a knowledgeable professional in the field.