Genealogy Blog

5 More Genealogy Lessons I Learned in Marching Band

16 Sep 2013

Three years ago, on a crisp fall day, I was walking to my office at the New England Historic Genealogical Society when I received a text message that shook me to my core. George N. Parks, my college band director (and only ten years my senior), had died. He intrinsically believed in the power of people to succeed. In the thirty-three years he was director of the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band inspired thousands of students, and thousand more through his Drum Major Academy and his drum corps activities.



His “starred thoughts” taught us many valuable lessons about life. Back in 2010, I wrote a column about how I applied my lessons from marching band to genealogy. Today, I’d like to share five more lessons about what I learned about genealogy in marching band.

1.  “Anyone can make a mistake.”

When we are researching, we can only do the best we can. Sometimes there is insufficient information. Or sometimes, we make a mistake when we are researching. A record is misread or misinterpreted. Our scholarly journals are filled with articles correcting previously published information because mistakes were made. The important thing to know is that we do the best we can with the information we currently have available to us.

2. “When things get tough, never give up.”

Brick walls can be aggravating and annoying to say the least. Often they can drive us to the point of being convinced that certain ancestors were transplanted here by aliens. Now, never giving up does not mean “continue to beat your head against a wall.” Sometimes it is best to lay down some research for awhile and focus on a different line. But remember to continue coming back to those brick walls. New resources can become available. And sometimes coming at things with a fresh eye gives helps you try a new approach that might help you break down that brick wall.

3. “You become the people you hang around.”

Find yourself some genealogy friends. Join your local genealogical society. You can go to repositories and research together. You can bounce ideas off of each other. And best of all, you can learn from each other. Surround yourself with great researchers, and you will become one yourself.

4. “One of the smartest things you can do is analyze a good teacher.”

There are many expert genealogists out there who teach us research techniques, resources, and other aspects of family history research. They do this not only by making presentations, but by writing how-to articles and publishing their work in scholarly journals and elsewhere. You can learn much from them, and not just be reading the article directly. Examine how they are approaching a problem, what resources, they use, etc. Then you can use these same techniques yourself.

5. “There are three stages in life: You believe in Santa Claus; You don’t believe in Santa Claus; You become Santa Claus.”

When we are first learning about how to research, we tend to be extremely excited. We look at other researchers and say to ourselves “How did they figure that out?” Then the day comes when we become experienced and research finds become a bit old hat. But the best time comes after that. When you share your knowledge with others, and get to see their eyes light up because they are finding more ancestors because of what you taught them.

The day after George died, he was at the top of all Google searches worldwide. His influence and impact on so many people was incredible. Out of all the things he taught us, the most important, and one I have tried to live my life by is this: “It is never too late to be what you might have become.”

News Stories for Genealogists, September 13, 2013

13 Sep 2013

This week we have some interesting stories, from America’s Latest Obsession to two different takes on obituaries that descendants will love to read. I hope you find them as interesting as I do.

Genealogy was in the news last week on the Huffington Post. Doug Bremner is a self-published author, and he wrote an article about how he got involved in it. The bit where he gets a telephone call from his bank about suspicious charges on his card is one that will probably sound very familiar to experienced genealogists. Read about it in Genealogy — America’s Latest Obsession.

Sarah Engler also contributed a story to Real Simple magazine about getting involved in genealogy. As she puts it, she is “a typical mutt (German, English, Scottish, Norwegian), and I had always figured that my ancestors ate hoecake in sod houses.” She spoke with Corey Oieson from the Association of Professional Genealogists about a wide variety of genealogy websites, and what they are useful for. You can read the full story in Finding Your Roots.

KOMO news in Seattle, Washington, aired an interesting story out of the nearby town of Arlington. When the Smoke family moved out of their farm, they found a 150-year old diary written by a Union soldier from Kentucky. They passed it to a neighbor who was active in the local genealogical society, and the society found a good home for the diary. You can read more of the story and watch a short video in Civil War Diary Turns Up in Arlington Home.

Funk i Consulting  is a consulting company in the Ukraine. They have some interesting inspirational parts of their website. The recently posted an interesting infographic of world religions. It starts with the origins of Chinese Folk Taoism about 2000 BCE and brings them up to the present day, showing the various major offshoots through the years, including how modern Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all had their origins with the Ancient Israelites. Although the site is in Russian, the infographic is labeled in English, and you can see it at The World Religions Tree Infographics.


World Religions


Finally this week we have two obituaries that couldn’t be more different. The children of Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick clearly have nothing but painful memories of their mother. The obituary starts off by saying that she “is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible.” The obituary has been posted all over the internet, and even made the news on USA Today in Scathing Obituary Goes Viral, Reveals Abuse, Neglect. You can read the full text of the original obituary in the Reno Gazette-Journal. The children of Mary Agnes “Pink” Mullaney, however, had much better things to say about their mom. They say that “we were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: Never throw away used panty hose. . .” The rest of the obituary is filled with wonderful things she taught them. You can read it in This Woman’s Obituary is the Best Thing You’ll Read Today. Each of these obituaries is far from humdrum, although for different reasons, and generations to come will certainly appreciate reading them.

The Great Migration Newsletter: An Essential Resource

12 Sep 2013

Twenty-five years ago the New England Historic Genealogical Society embarked on a massive endeavor. The Great Migration Study Project was to be a major, scholarly study of the earliest immigrants to New England. More than two decades later, the project has produced some of the best work ever published on the topic.

While people focus tremendously on the published sketches of immigrants, they often miss another valuable contribution: The Great Migration Newsletter. The newsletter has been published quarterly since 1990. While the sketches focus on individuals, the newsletter is focused more on general and social history for the immigrants, the places they settled, and the records they left behind. It was also to be used to provide updates on the status of the books of sketches being published.

The newsletter has maintained the same format since the very beginning. Each issue was eight pages, and includes:

  • One or two feature articles
  • Editor’s Effusions column from project director Robert Charles Anderson
  • Review of recent published literature on the subject
  • Focus section that discusses one of the towns settled by the immigrants, a specific records, or a group of records

Here are a couple of examples of past issues of the newsletter. In the October–December 1998 (Vol. 7, No. 4), the feature article was the last in a four-part section on the passenger ships that arrived in 1635, the Editor’s Effusions column discussed how new technology meant that hand-copied transcriptions of records was no longer required. The Focus section was devoted to the town of Hingham, Massachusetts. And the recent literature included articles from ten  individuals, many of them Fellows of the American Society of Genealogists.

In the April–June 2003 issue (Vol. 12, No. 2), the feature article discussed the office of town constable (part of a series on town offices). The Editor’s Effusions discussed the upcoming book about to be published. The Focus section discussed correspondence, including the Winthrop Papers, the Pynchon Papers, and the correspondence of Roger Williams and John Cotton amongst others. The recent literature section includes seven journal articles and a compiled genealogy by Elaine Forman Crane.




You can read subscribe to either an online version of the newsletter ($10/yr) or print version ($20/yr).  NEHGS has also published the first twenty years in a single volume with a comprehensive index. The Great Migration Newsletter, Volumes 1–20 is available for $27.95 from their online store. If you have early-seventeenth century ancestors in New England, this is a collection you cannot do without. You can find out more about The entire project, or subscribe to the newsletter, at

The Largest Potter’s Field in the World: Hart Island

11 Sep 2013

Hart Island, about a mile long and a quarter mile wide, lies at the western end of Long Island Sound. Purchased by the city of New York in 1869, it is the easternmost part of the Bronx. The origins of its name are shrouded in history, with numerous versions being promulgated.

In 1865, the island was used as a prison for Confederate soldiers. More than two-hundred of them died and were buried there. Their remains, along with those of some Union soldiers buried on the island, were later transferred to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Over the years the island has been the home of a convalescent home, city prison, lunatic asylum, boy’s workhouse, tubercularium, home for delinquent boys, and drug rehab center among others. It has been uninhabited since 1976.

The city started using it as a potter’s field shortly after it purchased the island in 1869. Since 24-year-old Louisa Van Slyke, the first person buried there, as many as one million burials have taken place. The 101-acre cemetery is now the largest publicly-funded burying ground in the world.

One-third of all burials are infants and stillborn babies. Until 1913 babies and adults were buried together in mass graves. That practice has now changed. Because many individuals are now identified after burial (through fingerprints, medical records, DNA, etc.), unidentified individuals are buried in single graves. This allows for easier disinterment if the individual is later identified. Those individuals whose names are known are buried in common graves. Prisoners from the Rykers Island Prison Complex bury the dead.

The graves are not marked (save for the first child buried there who died of AIDS). Visiting the island must be approved by the Department of Correction. Visits are restricted to once a month, and visitors can only go as far as a gazebo near the dock.

A small nonprofit organization called the Hart Island Project is working to get more public access to the cemetery. Using Freedom of Information Act requests, they have put together a database of burials there. Unfortunately, a fire on the island destroyed many of the earlier burial records in 1977. Surviving records from 1883 to 1961 are at the Municipal Archives. Their database  (available by subscription that supports the group’s work) currently has more than 60,000 burials that have taken place since 1980. The city’s Department of Correction has followed their lead, and now has a database of burials on its own website, available for free.


Hart Island


The group is also working to get greater physical access to the island for the public. This, of course, is complicated by the fact that burials are conducted by prisoners from Rykers. If you have ancestors who disappeared in New York City, they may have ended up at Hart Island. The Kingston Lounge, self-described as being dedicated to “Guerrilla preservation and urban archaeology. Brooklyn and beyond,” visited the island in 2008 and posted some images from the visit on the Kingston Lounge blog.

Vincent Van Gogh and the Genealogists

10 Sep 2013

When I was growing up, like many other kids my age, I was enthralled with the British television show Doctor Who (on PBS of course, no BBC America or Netflix back then). Tom Baker is forever enshrined in my mind as the Doctor. I decided to catch up on the activities of the new Doctors, thanks to Netflix.

Last night I watched an episode where the Doctor (Matt Smith incarnation) visited Vincent Van Gogh about year before his suicide. At the end of the episode, the Doctor and his companion Amy Pond bring Vincent to the present to visit the Van Gogh exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay. There, he hears the curator describe him as the greatest painter ever, and one of the greatest men who ever lived. Coming back to the present after returning Vincent to his home, Amy is convinced that their visit changed history and postponed Vincent’s death. She runs into the exhibit, expecting to see hundreds of new paintings, but is disappointed to see that Vincent committed suicide just as he had before.

The story reminded me a bit of genealogical research. There are surprises for us around every corner. We never know what we will find. Vincent Van Gogh did not start painting until he was in his late twenties, but he left an extensive body of work. From then until he died at the age of 37, he created 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 drawings, prints, sketches, and watercolors. Yet at the time of his death in 1890, he and his work were mostly unknown.

Just like Vincent, any given ancestor can leave a vast number of records. But until researchers locate them, our ancestors remain fairly unkown. And as we peel back the layers, examining record after record, we have no idea where the trail leads. How many other records are out there? And with every new record, we are able to come up with a stronger picture of that ancestor and his/her life.




And just like Vincent, no matter how much time passes, you never know when a new record will become available. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam holds the largest collection of Vincent’s works. Yesterday afternoon the museum director and senior researcher made a major announcement. After extensive research, an 1888 painting entitled “Sunset at Montmajour” has now been shown to be Vincent’s work. This is the first new work to be identified in the entire history of the museum.

The same can be said for genealogy. One can research for years or decades and suddenly a new record appears. Unsuspected and out of the blue, you are suddenly confronted with new evidence to blend in with the other research you have already put together. But it takes a lot of looking, and a lot of research, to prove that you have the proper conclusion.

Build Your Brains: Learn Cursive

07 Sep 2013



One of the most important things about genealogy is the ability to read the records. If you can’t read the original records, you cannot be guaranteed that you have the correct ancestors. Genealogical journals are filled with articles correcting previously published lineages because the original author misread an original document.

Because of this, genealogists, historians, and others have looked with alarm at the news stories of the last few years. Cursive handwriting, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is now being dropped left and right from school curricula. The reasoning is that computers have taken over and younger generations do not “need” cursive handwriting.

This, of course, strikes horror in our hearts. How can people learn about history, genealogy, and other areas without knowing cursive handwriting. Think about what it was like when you first tried to read a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century document. You could make out some of the letters and words, but needed to do a lot of work to learn how the letters were made. Now, imagine what it would be like if you didn’t even have a history of cursive writing to start with?

Last Sunday there was a great article about cursive handwriting by psychologist Charles Zanor in the Boston Globe. He writes about how he started reading letters written by a native Texan living in Connecticut during the Great Depression. He says “Or perhaps I should say that I began trying to read them, because deciphering the letters at first seemed like a hopeless task.” And that was twentieth-century handwriting!

Zanor discovered a study about to be published that discusses how cursive writing affects our ability to read. During the study, printed and cursive words were rotated 90 degrees clockwise and counterclockwise, then had subjects read the words. When presented in traditional horizontal form, printed words were misread less than 5% of the time, but cursive words were misread almost 16% of the time. When rotated, the printed word error increased to only 9%, but the cursive error grew to 53%.

The study illustrated how learning to read cursive involves developing “a complex set of cognitive and motor skills.” Clearly, we will be losing far more than the ability to read if we allow cursive to fall by the wayside. You can read Zanor’s full article on


What genealogy events have you participated in this year?

07 Sep 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked how many of you were able to attend genealogy events this year. We are happy to report that 83% of you have attended some sort of genealogy event this year and 24% of you have been able to take advantage of events hosted by your local societies.


Don’t forget to check out our bi-weekly newsletter or Facebook page to take the next poll and see how you compare with your fellow genealogists.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, September 6, 2013

06 Sep 2013

This week’s collection of stories and blog posts contains some fun stories, as well as an opportunity for those of Irish descent to make a great contribution to Irish genealogy. I hope you find them as interesting and informative as I did.

Opening up this week’s stories is a call for participation in the Irish DNA Atlas. It started two years ago as a collaboration between the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Genealogical Society of Ireland. They are attempting to identify genetic markers for certain areas of Ireland. The project is free to join for those who have eight Irish great-grandparents. Find out more in the Irish Times at Irish Roots: The Irish DNA Atlas — Mapping Our Genealogy.

America of today includes many people with blended heritage. Pam Jackson of Hesperia, California, finds herself in the same position as many others, with an interesting combination of ancestors. She attends meetings of the Daughters of Union Veterans to research her ancestor who fought in blue. She is also president of the Bonnie Blue Flag Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, researching her three ancestors who wore grey. Read more in A Family History on Both Sides of the Civil War.

Most family histories are of interest only to members of the family themselves. But sometimes a family comes along that has a much wider audience. Jean Davidson and her cousin Jon Davidson Oeflien have gotten together to write a book about their ancestors. Her grandfather William Davidson, his great-grandfather, Walter Davidson, joined with their other brother Arthur in partnering with their best friend William Harley to form Harley-Davidson. Find out more from Milwaukee’s WTMJ.




Mental Floss magazine is known for running some pretty interesting stories. This week, they got to the bottom of a question that has been plaguing us for centuries: Why is it that pirates love to wear eye patches? The real reason makes complete sense, and is actually endorsed by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration today. Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with missing an eye. Give up? Find the answer in Why Did Pirates Wear Patches?

Finally this week we get a genealogy lesson from none other than Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners. One of her gentle readers wrote in to talk about her young niece who discovered that a number of generations ago, their immigrant ancestor came from France to America. He was part of a prominent French family whose descendants are leaders in business and government today. The niece has decided to go to France so she can “look up” and meet her cousins. She is also telling everyone that she is related to French royalty because she discovered a French castle bearing the same surname.  Find out  Miss Manners’ advice to the reader on how to handle the frustrating situation by reading her column. (I especially like the possibility that Miss Manners points out when the cousins learn of the castle story.)

“The Memories of Men Are Too Frail . . . “

05 Sep 2013

“The memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from” ~ John Still

John Still’s quote is just as applicable to family history as it is to social history. As genealogists, we do our research with many different types of sources. Official records, diaries, journals, compiled family histories, oral histories, and more are the building blocks of remembering our family’s past. But where does that information come from? It all comes from memory.

Diaries and journals are filled with memories. They include everything from the most mundane day-to-day tasks to the most exciting events in a person’s life. You can find out what the weather was like, what clothes a person wore, who came to visit, etc. You might also read about how they felt on a date, or the day they were married, or when their first child was born.



Image of Auguste Rodin’s “Le Penseur” (“The Thinker”) from Wikimedia Commons.


Official records are full of memories as well. Parents went to the town or county clerk and reported births of children. People travelling overseas report their dates and places of birth and the addresses of loved ones. Families provide all sorts of information to census takers when they arrive at the door.

Therein lies the paradox of genealogical research. In order to research our families, we must rely on the memories of others. Yet human memory is notoriously unreliable. So how do we move forward?

The important thing is to weigh each and every piece of information you come across very carefully. Examine it. Question it. Compare it with other information you have. And create proof argument that accounts for all of the information you have.

Some of the questions you need to ask yourself include:

How close to the time of the actual event was the record created?
The closer in time to an event that something is recorded, greater is the chance that it will be accurate. I once had a student look at the year of immigration on a census record. More than three decades had elapsed between the year of arrival and the date the census was enumerated. The student was frustrated because she could not find a passenger arrival record for that year. I then asked her to remember, exactly to the year, something that she had done three decades ago. Was it 31 years ago? Or did it happen only 28 years ago? Our ancestors measured time much differently than we do today. If we, who are so time focused, cannot remember exactly when something happened, how can we expect our ancestors to?

Does the individual consistently report the same information through years?
When looking at census records, it is not unusual to find years of birth vary widely. This could be due to faulty memory. It could be due to different informants. Or it could be the result of the aforementioned difference in tracking time.

Could the informant’s memory be impaired?
Those of us who have experienced “senior moments” on occasion can understand this problem. How many times do you struggle to remember the details about something? Do you think your ancestors were any different?

When researching your ancestors, take note of the way memory might have impacted the information in the records. Carefully weigh and balance all of the data coming from various sources. Then you can come up with the best proof argument for your ancestors, and rebuild their lives.

5 Tips for Finding Used Books

04 Sep 2013

One of my favorite parts of genealogy conferences and seminars has always been wandering through the booths filled with used books. Treasures large and small are always there to be found. It is with great sadness that I have watched the number of these booths diminish so dramatically over the last few years. But treasures can still be found. Here are some places were you can find these treasures.




Used Book Stores
One of the most fun things about professional genealogists has been visiting Weller’s used book store. It never failed that many of use shipped our clothes home via UPS so we could carry our books home on the plane. Weller’s has now moved to Trolley Square, but it is still there, a fountain of new and used books. Many other long-treasured used book stores are still around, such as Commonealth Books here in Boston or Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. Visit your local used book store often and get to know those who run it. As a regular customer, they will probably take pains to look for materials that would be of interest to you, and let you know of new items on your next visit into the store.

Historical Societies
Whether large or small, historical societies are often publishers as well. They will often hold sales on old titles to eliminate backstock. The Indiana Historical Society was at FGS, and they had tremendous discounts on books. I picked up a wonderful little book that was published by the Society twenty years ago. It contains a discussion of Catholic ecclesiastical records, and how they can assist your research. The discussion is written by Monsignor John J. Doyle, who was archivist and historian of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis at the time. There is also a discussion of Irish and Protestant church records in Ireland by Donna Hotaling. The 30-page work is rounded out by a bibliography of source materials for using Catholic records. All of this, for the princely sum of one dollar. I also got an three-CD-set of amazing Cole Porter music for only $3. I made out like a bandit that day.

Trade With Friends
As genealogists, we are natural collectors. Nowhere is this more evident than in our book collections. But our homes have limits, and eventually we must start to thin out the collection to make room for new resources. One way to do this is to get together with friends with books that you might be interested in getting rid of. You can trade them among yourselves, or sell them if you like.

Public Libraries and Genealogical Societies
Another great thing you can do with books your friends don’t want is to donate them to local public libraries or genealogical societies. If the library or society does not already have a copy of the book, it will be added to the collection. In the event that the book already resides on the collection, it will often be relegated to the used book sale. This provides a great opportunity for you. Not only do you get a copy of  a book you desire, but the money you pay for it will usually go to preserve the collection or to purchase new books for the organization.  Many local public libraries will often do this through a large annual or semi-annual book sale.

Used Book Websites
The first website people often think of is eBay. While eBay is certainly a great resource, it is far from the only one. There are a number of websites that are dedicated to books. There are a number of these books, such as alibris and Thriftbooks. One of my personal favorites is AbeBooks. Not only can you buy new and used books, but they also sell inexpensive ebooks of many old, out-of-print titles.