Genealogy Blog

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.

Watchmen and Patrolmen: Researching Your Law Enforcement Ancestors

20 Jan 2015

Do you have ancestors who worked for the police department or other law enforcement agencies? You might be surprised. Sometimes police departments were preceded by other organizations that may have left records that you might not expect to find. My hometown is a good example of what you may discover.

Boston was founded on the Shawmut Peninsula in 1630. The Puritans who settled there set up a night watch in 1631. In 1636 it was institutionalized in the Town Meeting. The watch, in various forms, protected the town for the next two hundred years. The town became a city in 1822. By the 1830s it became apparent that the city had now outgrown the watch, and a new system had become necessary. In 1838 six men were hired as the first members of the Day Police, reporting to a city marshall. The much larger night watch of 120 men continued to operate until 1854.

In that year the Boston Police Department entirely replaced the watch. It was expanded to 250 men. In the years following the Civil War, a number of towns were annexed to Boston, including Alston, Brighton, Dorchester, Roxbury, and West Roxbury. By the end of the century, the BPD included 1,000 patrolmen. Today the BPD employs more than 2,000 officers and almost 1,000 civilians.


Boston Police Department


Through the years, the members of the BPD have dealt with tragic events large and small (the Molasses Flood, the Coconut Grove fire, anti-war protests, forced busing, and in 2013 the events of the Marathon Bombing).

In December 1825, sixty-one-year-old Jonathan Houghton was on patrol as a member of the watch. He was attacked ay an axe-wielding man and died a week later, the first person to be killed on duty. At 5:15 a.m. on October 18, 1857, officer Ezekiel W. Hodsdon was on patrol in East Boston when he tried to arrest two people suspected of burglary. During the ensuing struggle, Ezekiel was shot in the head and died 5 hours later. He was the first of seventy-five members of the watch and the BPD who have died of injuries received on duty.

Just last month, descendants of Jonathan Houghton were present when the BPD added his name to the Wall of Honor remembering the departments fallen membrs, along with those of seven others: David Estes (the second Watch Officer to die in the line of duty, died 1848), Michael Brennan (died 1918), John Condon (died 1927), John Lynch (died 1944), and Walter Harris (died 1906).

These are not the only stories of the brave men and women who have served in the Boston Police Department. The BPD operates an archives that maintains information on records dating back to the earliest days of the department. The staff there does a wonderful job, not only in preserving the records, but working to make sure the stories are told.

If you come across ancestors whose occupations were watch, patrolman, police officer, or any of a number of other terms, check with the police department in the area. Find out if they maintain an archive, or if the records are at some other repository. And remember, as demonstrated with Boston, sometimes the police department may extend back years or decades (or even centuries) earlier than you think, albeit in a different form. You might be surprised at the treasured stories you might find.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, January 16, 2015

16 Jan 2015


This week we have some promising blog posts for you, as well as some heartwarming news stories. We start with Judy G. Russell talking about some good and bad news for DNA and genealogy, author Christine Kenneally discusses why genealogy matters to history, Rafael Bernal writes about a new DVD on New York City’s ‘Little Spain,’ the Houston Chronicle ran a piece about a nineteenth-century home that is still in the hands of descendants, and finally, a heartwarming piece about volunteers from the Sons of the American Revolution and injured soldiers.


Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, gives us some news from the world of DNA. It is a mix of good and bad news. The good news: a committee of genetic genealogists has released a preliminary ethical code for integrating DNA with genealogy. The bad news: will not include a way to examine the raw data from any DNA test you do with them. Get the details in DNA: Good News, Bad News.


Christine Kenneally is the author of The Invisible History of the Human Race. She recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about her research, and the negativity expressed towards genealogy. The post discusses the Eugenics programs in the United States and in Germany, the destruction of Chinese family histories under Mao Tse-tung, and, most importantly, why genealogy matters. Read The Invisible History of the Human Race.


Rafael Bernal is an editorial consultant at United Press International. This week he wrote about a new documentary that discusses the immigration of Spanish-speaking people to New York City. The area of Chelsea  around 14th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues was known as “Little Spain.” Immigrants flocked in from around the globe were attracted here by the common language of Spanish. A new documentary discusses this immigrant group. You can read more in ‘Little Spain’ a Valuable Addition to New York’s Immigration History.


Last week the Houston Chronicle ran a piece I’d like to see more of. It discusses Wayne and Mary Jane Windle, who now reside in the same house in the town of Seguin that his great-great grandparents built in 1877. They recently renovated the house to preserve it for future generations. Read more about the house, and the television mini series that was made from a book about some of the former residents in Restored 1887 Texas Home Represents Colorful Family History.





Finally this week comes a heartwarming story in the Fort Hood Herald. It talks about volunteers from the Sons of the American Revolution and a new program they are running called Operation Ancestor Search. These volunteers are working with soldiers who are wounded, injured, or ill. They are teaching soldiers how to do family history research as a way of putting positive activities into the lives of the soldiers at such a difficult time. Read more in Soldiers Learn How to Search for Family History.


How Events Impacted Your Ancestors: The Great Molasses Flood

15 Jan 2015

When looking at our ancestors’ lives, we often see the day-to-day occurrences in diaries and journals. But there are also major events that can impact your ancestors’ lives. The Johnstown Flood, for example, had widespread impact, not only in Johnstown, but in every location where those in Johnstown that day were from. Here in Boston, today marks the ninety-sixth anniversary of one of those major tragedies.

January 15, 1919, was relatively mild winter day in Boston. The harbor was full of ships. Just the day before, a freighter had delivered more than half a million gallons of Cuban molasses to a storage tank belonging to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIAC), bringing the contents up to 2.3 million gallons.

The North End was bustling by midday. Many were strolling the streets, enjoying the sunny day. Children were heading back to school after their lunch break. Horse-drawn carts pulled lumber and other goods through the streets. Suddenly, an ominous deep rumbling sounded. In an instant, the almost inch-thick steel walls of the storage tank broke apart with such part that they ripped into the tracks of the L (the elevated railway that ran through Boston), completely destroying more than 100 yards of track. Millions of pounds of thick, sticky molasses were now on the loose.

With a noise as loud as the engine of a locomotive, a 30-foot-high tidal wave coursed down the hill. When the tide ran into the brick buildings at the bottom of the hill, it changed direction and headed straight for Boston Harbor. Anything in its way was dragged along with it.

Delivery carts with their teams of horses still attached were dragged away. Tenement houses were dragged hundreds of feet off their foundations and torn to bits. Any living thing caught in the morass was doomed. The molasses was so viscous it immediately blocked nostrils and mouths, leaving the victims to asphyxiate. Many who didn’t die that way lost their lives when the wave swept them into the waters of the harbor.



Boston Globe Molasses Coverage


In the end, twenty-one people were reported dead, the youngest a ten-year-old Italian schoolboy and the eldest a seventy-six-year-old Blacksmith. Another one-hundred fifty individuals suffered injuries, many of them quite serious and life-changing. USIAC tried to blame the tank’s failure on saboteurs, but after a three-year trial they were finally found guilty and forced to pay reparations.

Originally the court determined that the rivets were to blame, being insufficient to hold the steel plates together. Others blamed a buildup of carbon dioxide in the tank from fermentation. But the exact cause could not be determined at the time. A Waltham engineer, however has studied the tragedy for years. His findings indicate that several design flaws led to the disaster, including the use of steel too thin to handle the stress from millions of gallons of molasses.

Damage was estimated at about $500,000, or more than $7 million is today’s dollars. From those who were injured or lost a loved one, to the rescue workers, to the hospital staffs who aided those caught in the disaster, to those who worked to rebuild that section of the city after the catastrophe (and all of their families and friends), few in Boston were not impacted by the disaster. When you are researching your family history, be certain to check the newspapers to see what events happened locally that might have impacted your family.

Even today, on some very hot summer days, one can occasionally smell the molasses in the air in the North End. You can read more about the disaster and the recent findings of the engineer’s study in the Boston Globe.