Genealogy Blog

Using Historical Fiction and Non-Fiction in Genealogy

05 Jun 2015

Like many genealogists, I am a voracious reader. I still have my Hardy Boys books from when I was a young boy, and a collection of Star Trek books acquired over three decades. Agatha Christie’s many detective and Sherlock Holmes kept me company on many an evening. And as far back as I can remember, I have loved reading historical fiction and non-fiction. While these can be helpful, one must be careful when using them for genealogical research.

One of my favorite authors when I was a teenager was John Jakes. His eight-volume saga The Kent Family Chronicles that took the family of Philippe Charbonneau from mid-eighteenth-century France to early-twentieth century America got me hooked. Not surprising for a budding genealogist. When I was a bit older, I got hooked on the works of William Martin. He is a Massachusetts author of a number of works of historical fiction, many in the form of mysteries.

John Jakes

These authors represent the best of those who write historical fiction. They spend countless hours researching events, places, and people to put their works in the proper context. They mix real people with fictional characters. It is important to remember, however, that even the characters based on real people are participating in fictional events, in fictional ways. Even when the setting is events that actually happened, most of the specific accounts are fictional. One must be careful about incorporating this information into family history research.

While this may not be surprising, it may surprise you to learn that you must also be careful about incorporating non-fiction historical works. While dates and places of historical events are usually without question, other information is often subject to interpretation. Remember that in most cases, the victor gets to write the history. But in reality, there are often multiple versions of history.

For example, for my French-Canadian ancestors, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was critical to every aspect of their life. At the end, France ceded Canada to Britain. This one battle changed the course of history on the entire North American continent. I have histories of this event that were published in the United States, Canada, and England. Each of them tells a different part of the story.

In addition, with the passage of time, new evidence often comes to light that changes the interpretation of events. Time and distance also can make a difference. It is often easier to view events with more impartiality. So be certain to read a wide variety of historical discourses before adding information to your family history.

Join us at Global Family Reunion this Saturday

31 May 2015

A message from A.J. Jacobs and our Global Family Reunion friends –

You’re invited to a one-of-a-kind event, that the New York Times called an “ancestry Lollapallooza” and has been featured on NPR, CNN, People, Good Morning America and many more.

As a Mocavo Community member, you can enjoy 25% off your Global Family Reunion ticket.

Take advantage of this exclusive offer now

Come join us in New York on Saturday, June 6th to enjoy the following events and much, much more!

  • Get to meet Mocavo and Findmypast staff and get a crash course in the newest exciting features.
  • Get to meet cousins you never knew you had
  • Hear from more than 30 family history all-stars, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Josh Taylor of Genealogy Roadshow and Findmypast, DNA experts such as CeCe Moore and George Church of Harvard.
  • Be entertained by celebrities including David Blaine, humorist Andy Borowitz, the Daily Show’s Hasan Minhaj, Dr. Oz, Marilu Henner, Lisa Loeb and Sister Sledge (of “We Are Family” fame).
  • Break world records for biggest gathering of related people and most people to sing “We Are Family”
  • Get the new Cousins app from Findmypast, which allows you to quickly figure out how you are cousins with other people who own the app.
  • Enjoy over 400 activities and exhibits for all ages, including scavenger hunts, mini-golf trivia, sports and a kids area by Big City Moms. Plus all the facilities of one of the top 10 science museums in the world, the New York Hall of Science.
  • Sample food from all over the globe, including Italian, Korean, Indian, Thai, Columbian and Greek.
  • Do it for a good cause: All proceeds go to battling Alzheimer’s

Remember, you can take advantage of our exclusive discount here –

We hope to see you there!

The Chinese-Jamaican-American: Our Multiracial Roots

29 May 2015

Americans are known for judging a book by its cover. Genealogists, however, know how dangerous this can be. Interracial marriage and multiracial offspring are becoming more and more common. Watching a dark-skinned woman walking down the street, it would be easy to presume she has African ancestry at some point. But would you see a Chinese woman? This is the story of Paula Williams Madison’s life.

Madison is a former executive vice-president at NBC. Her maternal grandmother was a black Jamaican woman. But her maternal grandfather was Chinese. And that Chinese heritage continued to permeate the family, even though he left when Paula’s mother was only three years old.

Even Madison’s generation was raised with Chinese culture. Her mother, having grown up with the heritage, passed it on to her children.  She knew how to eat with chopsticks from a young age. And her mother spoke Hakka, the Chinese language spoken by her ancestors in Southern China.

From the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, the United States saw a huge influx in migration. Great numbers of immigrants, primarily from European countries, poured onto our shores. As these families settled here and became integrated into American culture, they lost some of their original cultural identity. And various ethnic groups started to intermarry.

As the twentieth century progressed, worldwide migrations increased. Members of many different racial groups started living together in the same areas. As with the ethnic groups before them, these immigrants started assimilating culturally, although individuals also often maintained a strong sense of their cultural heritage. I remember as a child in the 70s, interracial marriage was a hot topic. The Jeffersons included a biracial woman who married the son of African-Americans George and Louise. It was a daring concept at the time, but is a common occurrence today.

As more generations pass, time can sometimes erase heritage. Some families, such as Paula’s, maintain a semblance of their ancestry. Some families, however, lose that heritage to time. Sometimes this is occasional. Interracial marriages date back to colonial times, but in days past, lighter-colored individuals would often pass for white, and intermarrying with Caucasians made each successive generation lighter, making it easier for them to pass. When my colleague Frank Dorman was researching his book Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts, he often found living individuals who refused to believe that they had African-American ancestry, even when shown the documentary proof.

As time passes, more and more genealogists will be faced with unknown interracial roots. It is important to examine all the evidence, and follow where the path leads, even if it brings you down roads that you feel are uncomfortable. But you never know what exciting paths your research will take you through.

Paula Madison wrote a book about her adventure in family history: Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem. The book has now been turned into an autobiographical documentary with a similar title: Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China. She recently did an interview with AARP about the process. I especially enjoyed her discussion of working with an editor on the book who changed dialogue and phrasing, which she had to change back to maintain the integrity of her mother’s experience: “We grew up with a Jamaican accent, a New York accent, and a Chinese overlay accent.”

Madison AARP Interview

U.S. Federal Census Images & Viewer Now Free For Everyone Forever

22 May 2015


Today, we are thrilled to announce that for the first time anywhere, the indexes and images for all United States Federal Census are now available for free to everyone.

Search the Census Now

Thanks to the support of loyal community members like you, our promise to make more content available online for free remains as strong as ever.

We’re continuing the fight to bring billions of records, stories, and images to the world, and today’s announcement is a big one for us and – we hope – the community we care so much about.

Search the Census here and explore the images using our Census Viewer for free.

If you are interested in supporting our mission further, sign up for Mocavo Gold, and for a limited time only, get Mocavo Gold for 6 months for only $6.

If you have any questions, we’re happy to help. Simply call us at 1-866-279-4013.

We hope you have a lovely weekend full of discoveries!
-The Mocavo Team

Five Tips for Finding Those Who Died in Military Service

22 May 2015


This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day. This is the day we reserve to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in service to their country. Since the American Revolution started in 1775, it is estimated that the United States has lost almost 665,000 men and women in military conflicts. Here are some tips to help you find information about your ancestors who died in military conflicts.

1. Pension Files

One great place to look for information about soldiers and sailors who died in service is through the pension files. Widows often applied for pensions for themselves and their dependent children. In the case of someone who died unmarried, one can often find pension applications from the parents. These files will usually contain information about the circumstances of the death, although the amount of detail can vary widely.

2. Service Records

Service records usually won’t contain too many details about someone who was killed in service. That said, there should be at least a mention of the date of the termination of service, which would be the day the person died. Armed with that information, one can go looking for more details. Looking for unit histories or official documents about the movements of the unit on the date in question can shed immense light and provide additional clues. Depending on the time period, service records can be found at the National Archives or at state archives. For pre-twentieth-century conflicts one can often find published works as well.

3. National Personnel Records Center

This branch of the National Archives holds very valuable information for men and women who served in the military, as well as in civil service to the government of the United States. Unfortunately, a 1973 fire at the facility saw massive destruction of records, with 80% of the records of Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1959 destroyed, along with 75% of the Air Force records for service between 1947 and 1963 show surnames after Hubbard. That said, there are other records that did survive. One of these record sets is information on the transport of the bodies of those killed in service back to their homes.

4. American Battle Monuments Commission

More than 218,000 servicemembers who were killed in service overseas were never returned home. Their remains are buried or memorialized in cemeteries around the globe. The American Battle Monuments Commission overseas . There is a database online of those interred and memorialized in ABMC facilities. Where possible, it includes the rank and branch of service, the unit, place of entering service, the conflict, the date of death, and where he or she was buried. It contains the exact information needed to locate the grave within the cemetery as well. Direct family members can also order lithographs of the gravestone or memorial tablet as well.

5. Newspapers

Once you have a date of death, from family records or above sources, check the local newspapers. They often reported on the deaths of local individuals, sometimes in great detail. One other benefit is that you can often find information on survivors, and sometimes interviews with family and friends who knew the deceased. Remember that it sometimes took awhile for news of a death to reach home. And if the servicemember was returned home for burial, check around the date of the burial as well as the date of death.


Three Tips for Searching with Mocavo Basic

20 May 2015

When content goes online at Mocavo, it becomes free forever. Let’s be clear — we don’t just mean free for now. We’re making a radical departure from the status quo of how content is controlled in the genealogy industry, which is why when Mocavo brings content online, it’s free for everyone to enjoy forever.

As a Mocavo Basic member, you can search any individual database at one time. This means that you can search the Texas Death Index (or tens of thousands of other databases) to your heart’s content for free. Here are three easy steps to help you get the most out of searching with Mocavo Basic.

1. Visit to browse all of our different record collections. You can browse by category, location, or date. Select an area to start your search.

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2. Once you have chosen a particular category, browse the list of individual databases until you find one that you believe is relevant to your search. Click on the title and you will be redirected to a search page for the individual database.

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3. Now you are free to search the collection to your heart’s content. When applicable, you can select 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.

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If you run in to any trouble, do not hesitate to give us a call at 1-866-279-4013 or send us a note at Happy searching!

Using the U.S. Census

18 May 2015

The United States Constitution set forth the provision for enumerating the population of the country, directing that representation in the House of Representatives would be allocated as a result of a decennial enumeration of the population. As a result, using the U.S. census gives us a treasure-trove of information for genealogical research.

The first census was enumerated in 1790. The directions to the enumerators provided that free persons should be counted separately from others “distinguishing also the sexes and colours of free persons.” It also directed that free males of sixteen and upwards be distinguished from those under sixteen. This resulted in six questions for the first enumeration: the name of the head of household, number of free white males under 16 years of age; number of free white males of 16 years and upward; number of free white females; number of other free persons; and the number of slaves. The reason for differentiating the ages of the males is clear: to have an accurate count of men who could be put to military service for the fledgling country.

In addition to looking at the population schedules, be certain to look for non-population schedules. Information on agriculture, manufacturing, and more can be found. You can also find questions on the health and well-being of residents, such as whether or not they were blind or deaf, or had mental impairments. Sometimes these questions are buried in the population schedules. For example, the 1820 census included a question asking the number of persons (including slaves) engaged in agriculture, commerce, and manufactures. Unfortunately, many of these non-population schedules were destroyed after they were tabulated, without being microfilmed.

Sometimes when looking for people, they may not be exactly where you think they should be. One of my colleagues told me the story of one of his ancestors who lived in a town in Franklin County, Massachusetts. The land records were there, the town and vital records show he lived there, and all evidence points to his living in that town. Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear in the census there, but in the town next door, which is in Worcester County. The answer was discovered only once he visited the property. His ancestor’s farm was separated from the rest of the town by a mountain. Clearly the enumerator in Franklin County asked the Worcester County enumerator to tabulate the family so he could avoid a long trip around the mountain. If you find similar problems, look a topographical map of the area to see if your solution is also similar. And to find out more about the census, visit

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Honoring Our Mothers: The Filles du Roi

10 May 2015

This weekend we in the United States celebrate Mother’s Day. As genealogists, we not only honor the women who gave birth to us, but all of the mothers in our family trees. Recently I was reminded of a very special group of my foremothers, the Filles du Roi.

Back in the 17th century, the colony of New France had a large imbalance in the population. There far more men than women in the colony. Because of this, fewer children were being born, and the population was stagnating. By 663, the population was only 2,500 inhabitants, as compared to the 80,000 who lived in the English colonies to the south.

From 1634 to 1662 the colony was under the control of the Copmagnie des Cents Associés (the Company of 100 Associates). They brought over a number of filles à marier (marriageable girls). Unfortunately, the program was not active enough. During those eighteen years, only 200 women were brought over. One of the major problems was inducing women to leave Europe and go to the Canadian wilderness for the rest of their lives.

In 1663 a new effort, the Filles de Roi program, began. Under this program, young women were given a dowry by the crown as an incentive to go to New France. The program started off slowly, but increased once Jean Talon was appointed intendant of the colony in 1665.




The women were lucky. Once they arrived, they got to choose who they would marry. This was a luxury not afforded women in France. There, they married whomever their father directed them to marry. In New France, they had their pick of men, and if they didn’t like the first one, they would move on to another. The records are filled with contracts of marriage for Filles de Roi that did not end in marriage. The women ended up marrying another man.

Each of the women had to provide a copy of their birth certificate. They also needed to provide a letter from their parish priest or the local magistrate attesting to their ability to get married. This requirement was instituted after it was discovered that several of the women who went to Canada had left husbands behind in France.

Almost 2/3 of the women had lost one or both of their parents. This was a large motivator for many, who otherwise would have had to live their lives in a convent, or marry someone with few prospects, certainly not a prospect many desired.

The program reached its peak between 1669 and 1671, when well over one hundred women immigrated each year. During the ten years that the program was in existence, 768 women went to New France. The vast majority stayed, but a few did return to France. Historians have noted that the end of the program was a major turning point in the history of Canada. Had it continued, the colony likely would have seen a much larger increase in population, allowing it to repel the English invasion in the mid-eighteenth century that resulted in the Conquest.

Almost every living descendant of the early colonists can trace their ancestry back to at least one of the Filles de Roi. In reviewing my own ancestry (which is entirely French-Canadian), I have 104 of these young women in my ancestry, many of them on my mother’s side. This Mother’s Day, I remember and thank them for taking the risk of going to a brave new land. If you have French-Canadian ancestry, check Peter J. Gagné’s book, King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers: The Filles du Roi, 1663 – 1673, for more information about the program and  list of the women who immigrated under this program.


Why Not Wikipedia?

02 May 2015


Wikipedia has become a replacement for the encyclopedias we used growing up. Filled with information about the most esoteric of subjects. But as widespread as its use is, it is still not allowed as a resource for most scholarly endeavors, and students at colleges and universities are often banned from using it as a source for their assignments. What is wrong with Wikipedia?

Wikipedia started in 2001 as a collaborative resource. There are five fundamental principles, called the Five Pillars:

  1. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.
  2. Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.
  3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute.
  4. Editors should treat each other with respect and civility.
  5. Wikipedia has no firm rules.

And right away, we start to see some of the problems with using Wikipedia.

The third pillar states that “anyone can use, edit, and distribute” any content. It goes on to say that “since all editors freely license their work to the public, no editor owns an article and any contributions can and will be mercilessly edited and redistributed.” One of the major problems for genealogists is that there is no control over who says what on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia wants editors to come to consensus, but no provision for expertise. One person with years of knowledge in a field can be overruled by two others with little to none. Or, worse, simply make up information without being contradicted. On the About Wikipedia page, it states that “People of all ages, cultures and backgrounds can add or edit article prose, references, images and other media here. What is contributed is more important than the expertise or qualifications of the contributor.” Under these circumstances, how can you tell how accurate the information is in any given article?

Many articles have sources at the bottom of the page. How often have you gone back to look up a printed source mentioned? How frequently do you click on links to online sources when reading an article? And if you do follow links, do you actually read through the source? How many times are the links broken, so you can’t even try to read them?

There are many reasons why someone might want to put false information on Wikipedia. Often, there is a deliberate attempt to misinform. Sometimes it might be a genuine mistake. Harvard’s guide for using sources for assignments includes a discussion of the problems with Wikipedia, and provides a perfect example. Several years ago, a student was writing a paper on the issues of Wikipedia. He posted a fake entry for himself that said that he was the mayor of a small town in China. Even today, if you search for mayors of towns in China (or look on the student’s name), his entry still shows.

The statistics for Wikipedia are amazing. It  includes more than 34 million articles in 285 languages. There are almost 5 million articles in English, containing more than 36 million pages of information. Almost 770 million edits have been made to these articles. The average page has been edited more than 21 times!

There is nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a starting point. But it should never be used as the sole source of information. It should be used to point you in the right direction to find credible, reliable, and authoritative information.

Five Tips for Building Your Genealogy Reference Shelf

24 Apr 2015


One of the most important tools in genealogical research is the reference shelf. Looking up names in online databases is wonderful, but if you don’t understand the records, the time and place in which they were created, the words used, etc., you will have difficulty determining your actual ancestors from others who have the same name. This is where reference works come in. They help you to understand what you are dealing with. Here are some tips for what to include as you build your genealogy reference shelf.

I have several dictionaries in my reference area, including two that my father used in high school and college. Some I use to translate between French and English. Some of them are from the 19th century. Online dictionaries often contain only modern definitions. This is especially true of online translation tools, which can make their use for genealogical purposes very dangerous. One mistranslated word can cause major problems for your research.

Geographic Resources
Online sources can help with modern geography, but it can be difficult to find historical information from them. I have numerous gazetteers and geographical dictionaries from the 19th and 20th centuries. I also have a number of atlases, such as the 1994 edition of the Historical Atlas of the United States from the National Geographic Society. Atlases like this provide a huge amount of information besides maps. For example, there are maps that show what crops were grown in the different areas of the United States, what livestock were raised, migration routes, and more.

Research Guides
General methodology works are important, especially when you are getting started. Val Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy has helped many Americans get started with their research. Although dated, it is still very helpful in understanding the basics of research.  I purchased a copy of Ancestral Trails, a detailed guide to researching British ancestors, for expanding my knowledge of British research. For example, when I first started researching, I got a copy of Guide to Genealogical research in the National Archives of the United States. Now there is a new version, called the Genealogy Tool Kit: Getting Started on Your Family History at the National Archives. I also obtained copies of books on researching ancestors in the British Army and the Royal Navy, to help with the complex system of records available there.

Social Guides
Understanding the social and legal environments around records is important. I have a number of legal and social histories to help with this. Among these are Inheritance in America From Colonial Times to the Present, which delves into the history of probate. Another is Women and the Law of Property in Early America, showing what, exactly, women’s rights were in respect to owning property.

Regional Guides
General methodology books are good, but guides that apply to your area of research are even better. For example, those who have research in the northeast will find the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research from the New England Historic Genealogical Society and the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society to be indispensible. [note: I am the editor of the New England book, and helped with the production of the New York book, but I receive no royalties, payment, or any other benefit from sales of the books. And many others will be happy to tell you how indispensible these books are.]