Genealogy Blog

Just in Time for Thanksgiving, Your Holiday Genealogy Survival Kit!

22 Nov 2013

happy-holidays

The holiday season is upon us! As families gather to enjoy each other’s company this holiday season, we want to help you make the most out of your time with your loved ones. Family gatherings offer great opportunities to discover, celebrate, and preserve the stories of your ancestors. With the help of Chief Genealogist, Michael J. Leclerc, we have crafted a Holiday Genealogy Survival Kit to help keep the stress out of your family history research this season.

Click Here to Download your Holiday Genealogy Survival Kit Now »
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Also, be sure to check your email for a special holiday surprise!

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“A man may die. . . but an idea lives on.”

21 Nov 2013

Tomorrow marks a significant anniversary in American history. Those over the age of sixty will always remember where they were that fateful day when John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Few under thirty have any idea exactly how significant that date was.

 

Portrait of John Fitzgerald Kennedy from Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of John Fitzgerald Kennedy from Wikimedia Commons.

 

My parents were newlyweds at the time. I was not born until eight and a half months after the assassination. The 35th president was of my grandparents’ generation, but as the youngest man ever elected president, I think in some ways he meant even more to my parents’ generation.

Over the last few decades, the public has learned more about who he was as a man. He was human. He made mistakes and errors in judgment. Despite this, his legacy has hardly been tarnished. In many ways the history of our country, and the world, was changed by (and because of) this one man.

How many men, women, and children, have had their lives changed because of the Peace Corps? How many families were able to get homes because of his policies eliminating discrimination in loans? It was his successor who got us deeply into the war in Vietnam. How many families’ lives would be different had Kennedy lived and kept us out of the war, preventing the death of so many of their sons and husbands?

Aside from the Kennedy family, perhaps the person most impacted by the assassination was a young Russian immigrant, Marina Prusakova . Her husband, Lee Harvey Oswald, was accused of murdering the president. She has spent the last half-century protecting her children from the invasive press and public.

World-shattering events such as the Kennedy assassination have happened before. And they impacted our ancestors’ lives. When researching your family, put them into a timeline. Then look to see how the actions of and reactions to these events affected your ancestors on a personal level. Don’t just say that your ancestor was alive when Garfield was assassinated. Talk about how it was easier for your great-uncle to get a federal job because of the changes brought about through the Pendleton Act, passed in reaction to Garfield’s death.

If you are old enough to remember those terrible November days of 1963, take some time to write down your memories and feelings about what happened. Then talk to your children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews about that time and what you went through. And while you are at it, record the discussion so your descendants can hear about it directly from you.

Those who are interested may wish to visit the CBS website.  Starting on Friday, November 22, 2013, the website will begin a special four-day anniversary video stream. The stream will feature the minute-by-minute broadcasts as they occurred, starting at 1:40 p.m. when the nation was first notified that shots had been fired in Dallas and continuing through the president’s funeral four days later. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum here in Boston will also have a special webcast on Friday, from 1:30 p.m. to 2:15 p.m. The webcast will be a musical tribute with James Taylor, Paul Winter and the Paul Winter Sextet, and the United States Naval Academy Women’s Glee Club performing selections from the State Funeral.

A little something we’ve been working on…

20 Nov 2013

A little over a year ago, Mocavo acquired ReadyMicro and the incredible mind known as Matt Garner. One of Matt’s lifelong passions and curiosities is to enable computers to read historical handwritten documents to bring genealogy search to the next level. It’s well known in the genealogy industry that historical handwriting recognition is the Holy Grail – the single largest technological advancement that would enable more content to become accessible online (except for maybe the invention of the Web). For the past year, we’ve joined with Matt to tackle this very hard problem, and have finally made enough progress that we can begin to report on it.

Let me start by explaining the problem. Ask a computer to read the page below and it will stumble all over place.

page1-808x1024

OCR (optical character recognition) technology could read some of the typewritten text – but would be confused by the handwriting (and invent typewritten letters that it thinks it sees inside handwritten text). To make matters worse, this page has multiple typewritten font types, including one that looks like cursive handwriting.

The first process we had to develop was a way to perfectly separate handwriting from typewritten text. If we could do this, the OCR could read the typewritten text, and Matt’s code could attempt to read the handwritten text. We call this process Handwriting Detection, and we figured that if the system couldn’t detect the presence of handwriting, how on Earth would we hope to decipher the marks into words? In the example below, you can see how our system marks typewritten text in green and handwritten text in red – with blue to denote what it believes are graphics or images. It’s not 100% perfect, but hopefully you agree that it’s headed in the right direction.

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Now that we’ve detected where the handwriting is, we can start having some fun. Let’s go back 130 years and change the ink from black to blue.

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Now, this is just handwriting detection (where we don’t understand what’s written – we just know that handwriting is there).

Let’s talk recognition.

Historical handwriting recognition is one of the toughest technical challenges to solve. First, penmanship is entirely unique to the individual. Second, because it’s historical handwriting, it’s in cursive. All the letters run together, adding another layer of complexity. Third, the way we wrote cursive in the 1700′s is different than the cursive we write now. There are even variations between decades. Our mind has an incredible capability of seeing through incomplete sets of data (a missing character stroke, poor handwriting, an A that sort of looks like an O, etc). Our brains do all of this for us and we don’t even notice it. When you think about how to describe this to a computer, you begin to lose your mind! I believe some of the greatest problems mankind can solve are those that someone would never have started if they had known how hard the challenge was ahead of time. Matt fooled himself just enough to start on the problem and now he’s making real progress from which we are all going to benefit.

Here’s the exciting part: Our recognition technology is starting to work. With limited vocabularies (potential answers), we’re achieving 90-95% accuracy. Sometimes, the technology is able to read things we’re convinced are unreadable (but after getting the answer back from the computer, you realize what was actually written). We grow closer to the Holy Grail every day and can’t wait until we can use the technology to bring more content online, free forever.

Matt and I will keep you updated on our progress over the coming weeks and months, which should hopefully make for some exciting news in genealogy.

Rules of Thumb, and One for the Record Books

18 Nov 2013

When researching, there are a number of rules of thumb we go by. For example

  • Men usually get married for the first time around 24.
  • Women don’t give birth after age 44.
  • People usually marry someone who lives relatively close to them geographically.
  • A generation is usually about 25-35 years.

The important thing to remember about these rules of thumb is that they are not concrete, and they are not correct 100% of the time. They are only rough guidelines.

One example is the icon of motherhood to a generation of Americans, Carol Brady. Actress Florence Henderson was born in Indiana on Valentine’s Day, 1934, youngest of the ten children of Joseph Roberts and Elizabeth Pauline (Elder) Henderson. Joseph was a tobacco sharecropper from Kentucky. Elizabeth was 37 years old when Florence was born. Joseph, however, was far older than his wife. Born about 1870, he was 64 years old when his youngest daughter was born.

Now Joseph was the second-eldest of his parents’ eight children. His father, Thomas, was 28 when Joseph was born. At Thomas’ birth sometime around 1842–1844, there were only 26 states, and John Tyler was the president.

John Tyler was the tenth president of the United States. In 1840 he was elected vice-president on the ticket with William Henry Harrison. Harrison was only in office for a month when he caught a cold, which quickly turned into pneumonia. On April 4, 1841, Harrison became the first of our presidents to die in office and Tyler became the first man to become president who was not elected to that office.

This was not the only distinction that Tyler would hold in the history books. A native Virginian, he was elected as a strict states-rights Whig. In 1861, when the first states were starting to secede, he tried to broker a compromise that would preserve the Union. Unfortunately, his efforts failed, and he went on to become one of the architects of the Confederacy. He was a member of the House of Representatives of the Confederate States of America at the time of his death in 1862, giving him the distinction of being the only American president to be part of the Confederate government.

 

President John Tyler, from Wikimedia Commons.

President John Tyler, from Wikimedia Commons.

 

John Tyler holds another distinction in the history books as well. He was born in 1790, and in 1853 fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler with his second wife. Lyon would also go on to marry twice. At the age of 71, with his second wife, he fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. and at 75, Ruffin Tyler. 89-year-old Lyon, Jr., and his 85-year-old brother Ruffin are still with us and going strong, 223 years after their grandfather was born. Lyon recently made a presentation about his family to the DAR chapter in Dyersburg, Tennessee. He started by talking about his grandfather’s father, who was the roommate of Thomas Jefferson at the College of William and Mary. You can read more about his visit in the Dyersburg State Gazette.

Remember that it is important to follow rules of thumb in your research. But it is important not to make them so hard and fast that you miss the truth. The real story may be far more interesting.

Have You Discovered Any Skeletons in Your Family’s Closet?

16 Nov 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked if you had discovered any skeletons in your family’s closet. It turns out that over 70% of us have found skeletons in our closet! At least we aren’t alone :) Don’t forget to check out our bi-monthly newsletter or Facebook page to take our next poll: “In honor of Veteran’s Day this week, have your ancestors served in the military? (click all that apply)”

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30,000+ New Databases & Exclusive New Features

15 Nov 2013

Today we celebrate just one month since we announced our Free Forever mission. We’ve put more than 30,000 new databases online in just 30 days. Our total database count has quickly zoomed to more than 138,000 and we’ve got so much more planned.

Introducing Search Sliders for Mocavo Gold Members
Search Sliders enable you to customize our search algorithms to better find the information you seek. There are two sliders we’re announcing today, but there are more in the works. The first slider, called Freshness, allows you to filter your results to only items added to Mocavo in the past year, 6 months, 3 months, month, week, and day. This is great, if you want to focus your search on only recently-added content. The second slider, called Keyword Appearance, allows you to limit your search to just titles or just content. A title-only search might be good to try if you want more direct hits for your name. A content-only search is great, if you think your search will appear deep inside the content – and maybe the titles are throwing that off a bit. We have 3 more sliders that we’re working on that we’ll announce in the next few weeks.

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Improved Search Result Previews
When you search on Mocavo, book results return a small search result preview with your search terms highlighted. Sometimes, we found that it was zooming in on the wrong areas (if you searched for John Carter, it would zoom in on another Carter, even though John Carter did appear somewhere else on the page). We’ve greatly improved the algorithms that decide where to zoom in. We hope this will speed up your ancestry search!

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Special Announcement on November 20th
You heard it here first. On November 20th, we’ve got a very special announcement that we believe will delight genealogists everywhere. We’re secretly cooking up some fascinating new stuff for our users, and we’re almost ready to reveal it. Stay tuned!

Many of you have signed up for Mocavo Gold in support of our cause, and enjoy searching 138,664 databases at the same time. As always, Mocavo Basic users can search these databases individually for free. Mocavo Gold offers you automated searching, the ability to run global searches across all of our databases, and a number of other great features.

Killing History Featured in Huffington Post

14 Nov 2013

This week was an exciting one for us here at Mocavo. On Wednesday I had my first byline in the Huffington Post. I wrote about the dangers of not teaching our children to read and write in cursive.  It was published in the HuffPo ”Impact” section, where you can “discover worthy causes, find ways to take action, and read truly inspiring stories. Hear from social good experts and share how you can make an impact.” Read Killing Cursive is Killing History. If you like it, or even if you disagree with it, please leave a comment. Let’s see if we can start a discussion about the impact of cursive writing on our history, and our future!

n088256

 

Learn The Address

13 Nov 2013

Next Tuesday is a significant anniversary in the history of our country. It is the sesquicentennial of one of the most famous speeches ever delivered in American history. On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln stood and delivered a brief speech at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The major speech of the day was a two-hour oration by Edward Everett, former Congressman, Senator, Governor of Massachusetts, and Ambassador to Great Britain. But it was Lincoln’s simple, and brief, statement that has gone down in history as the Gettysburg Address.

The speech was a master work of genius. In only ten sentences, he managed to summarize the meaning of the entire war. In a case of “understatement of the century,” Lincoln stated that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” It turns out that the world did not remember Everett’s words (indeed, the average American could not even tell you that Everett spoke there). But the sacrifices at Gettysburg are known by every schoolchild in America. And the preamble of “Four score and seven years ago. . . “can be recited by almost every American. The full text reads:

 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

 

Learn The Address

 

Ken Burns is filming a PBS documentary on a school in Vermont that requires all of its students to memorize and deliver the address each year. He has also issued a challenge to all Americans to learn the words to the address in time for the 150th anniversary next week. He has filmed famous people giving the address, from Rita Moreno and Whoopi Goldberg to all living U.S. presidents. He is also encouraging everyday American to film themselves delivering the address. The recordings will be added to his Learn the Address website along with those of the presidents and others. What a fantastic way to honor the sacrifices made by our ancestors during the Civil War!

Five Must-Read Blogs

12 Nov 2013

Five

 

There are many genealogy blogs out there on the interwebs. Trying to keep track of all of them can be challenging. Here are five blogs that I consider to be among the best reading in the field. They cover various aspects of genealogy, and will give you great help.

1) News: Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter

Dick Eastman does a wonderful job of getting information out there. If something is happening in the field of genealogy, he will hear about it and let you know. You can also find great reviews of books, and software. Dick also leans on his decades of experience in the computer industry to discuss issues around technology.

2) DNA: The Genetic Genealogist

If you don’t know the difference between x, y, mt, and autosomal (and even if you do), then this blog is for you. Blaine Bettinger brings his experience in biochemistry to explain genomics to you in plain English. There is a certain level of technical language that always has to accompany scientific topics like this. But Blaine does his best to keep the dry talk to a minimum and to make it easy to comprehend for the average reader.

3) Technology: Hack Genealogy

Over the last few years Thomas MacEntee  has made quite a name for himself in incorporating technology and social media into genealogy. This year he launched Hack Genealogy, dedicated to “re-purposing today’s technology for tomorrow’s genealogy.” As Thomas describes it,  “Hack Genealogy is about sharing technology resources, discussing our personal interactions with technology, and moving the entire genealogy community forward in terms of how it embraces technology.” I recently had the pleasure of doing an interview for Thomas for the site.  You will find a great deal of technology news and advice here.

4) The Law: The Legal Genealogist

Just as scientific topics (such as DNA) can be dry and boring, discussing the law can be a major snooze. Not so whenever Judy G. Russell is involved. She makes ever topic interesting and informative. Mixed in with her discussion of legal topics are personal stories that resonate chords in any reader. This is one of the blogs I read most frequently, and I’ve obtained invaluable information from Judy’s personal, and sometimes humorous, discussions.

5) Opinion: RootDig

John Michael Neill writes multiple blogs, and it took me a moment or two for me to decide which to highlight here. But RootDig is one that I truly enjoy. Michael John calls it like it is, and takes people to task for mistakes, errors, and problems, as well as providing kudos to those who merit it. He also shares experiences from his own research that can help you with your own brick walls. One of my recent favorites was Don’t Forget to Include Why You Didn’t Include It.

Thank You For Your Service, Veterans!

11 Nov 2013

Today is Veteran’s Day.  The day has its roots in World War I, often called The Great War or The War to End All Wars. A cease fire was declared that would start at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. After the war, November 11 was celebrated as Armistice Day, a day to honor veterans of the war and promote international peace. Unfortunately, the War to End All Wars didn’t, and after World War II and Korea, the name was changed to Veterans Day, a day to honor all veterans.

My family has a long history of men who served in the U.S. armed forces. In World War I, a great-great-uncle, Éloi Morin, served as a private in the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division of the U.S. Army. He gave his life at the Battle of the Argonne, along with more than 100,00 of his comrades.

Although to the best of my knowledge neither had ever been on ships before, my grandfather and his brother both served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. During times of war, the Merchant Marine serves as an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy, helping to transport troops and supplies. Uncle Emil was a diver, going down to check for mines and other underwater hazards for the ships and troops. My grandfather was a mechanic, so as one would expect from the armed force bureaucracy, he was made a cook on a ship for the duration of the war.

My great-aunt Mary’s husband, Leo Dupre, served in the U.S. Army. Enlisting as a private, he quickly moved up the ranks to corporal, and on to staff sergeant and eventually a sergeant first class. Uncle Leo was 26 years old on April 10, 1965, when he was hiding in an abandoned farmhouse in the French countryside. Seeing German soldiers headed to the house, he sent his men out the back while he remained to delay the oncoming men. He was captured and spent three months in a prisoner of war camp before being liberated by Allied forces. My great-uncle Marcel Ruel (brother-in-law of my grandfather and Uncle Leo) also served during the war, in the U.S. Navy.

 

Newspaper notice of my Uncle Leo's capture. (from the collection of the author, used with permission)

Newspaper notice of my Uncle Leo’s capture. (from the collection of the author, used with permission)

 

My Aunt Rita’s husband, uncle Bill Smith, proudly served in the U.S. Marines.  My cousin Richard Gagne joined the U.S. Air Force. My brother served in the Air National Guard for a number of years. One of his proudest moments was guarding Air Force One when President Clinton made a visit to Rhode Island. The proud tradition of service continues today with my cousin, Eric Leclerc, who is currently serving in Aghanistan.

I am tremendously proud of all of these men in my family who stepped up to protect us, and to ensure the survival of our republic. Some of them made the supreme sacrifice, and some saw horrors that we cannot even imagine. We owe all of our veterans a great debt of gratitude, and remember their service on this Veteran’s Day.