Genealogy Blog

Making a Difference for Genealogy

10 Oct 2013

Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day.  As GLBT people, we  are one of the few minorities that is invisible unless we speak up. In honor of the day, I thought it might be interesting to talk today with some of my friends and fellow genealogy professionals who also happen to be gay. I am often asked about the Gay Mafia in genealogy. The truth is that there is no such thing. There are a number of professional genealogists out there who are openly gay. We serve on the boards of local, state, and national genealogical organizations. I think part of this is that as members of a minority community, we are used to donating our time to organizations. It is natural that this transfers over to our professional work as well.

The three people I talked to are of different ages and from different parts of the country. Three of us make our livings solely from genealogy, while one is a full-time university librarian and a professional genealogist. One of us is married, one is in a long-term relationship, one is in a new relationship, and one is single.

Thomas MacEntee, from Chicago, prefers to refer to himself as a genealogy professional instead of a professional genealogist, as he does not take clients. He focuses on education, writing, and lecturing, with some consulting services as well. His newest venture is the Hack Genealogy website. His research interests include New York, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Huguenots. Drew Smith of Tampa, Florida, (one of the Genealogy Guys) focuses on genealogy and technology, DNA, and social media also. His ancestry is mostly southern, with a bit of Yankee thrown in. Nick Gombash, from suburban Illinois, says that “My absolute passion is anything related to Hungary, but particularly nobility research.”

I was surprised to discover that I am the old-timer when it comes to research. I started 25 years ago, Thomas and Drew about 20 years ago, and Nick started 13 years ago. Each of us has spent many hours volunteering in various capacities. I couldn’t begin to list all of the activities each of us has been involved in, but one thing Thomas, Drew, and I have in common is that we have each served on the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies. And in 2010 Nick founded the Hungary Exchange as a means of providing free access to indexes and records for researchers. It now has more than 600 members.


Thomas MacEntee

Thomas MacEntee

Thomas has also been asked about the “gay genealogy mafia.” When I asked him how being gay might have influenced his work in genealogy, he said:

“To me, it makes sense that there would be many gay men and women in the field since, for the most part, our demographic has the availability of more disposable income and more personal time to commit to a hobby like genealogy since many of us opt not to raise children. While my being gay – and self-identified as gay – has not always been easy, for the most part, there has been general acceptance from the genealogy community and, what might surprise some, strong support from my LDS friend. I have had some vendors refuse to work with me because of the “gay issue” but I figured that was their loss and besides, it is a free country and if that is why you don’t want to work with someone, that’s your choice. Same thing goes with acquaintances – if you can’t be friends or socialize with me because of my sexual orientation, that is your loss.”


Drew Smith

Drew Smith


Drew’s response was:

“Because I don’t have children of my own, genealogy has represented to me a way that I can give back to my family. One of the things that I like best about being involved with the genealogical community is that it is an interest that I can share with my husband, George G. Morgan, who is a passionate genealogist.  We enjoy researching, writing, presenting, and volunteering with genealogical societies together.  I think the listeners to our Genealogy Guys Podcast can tell that we have a lot of fun doing it together.”


Nick Gombash

Nick Gombash


Nick replied that “I don’t believe being gay has had any effect on my interest in genealogy. However, since beginning researching my family tree, I have developed a strong circle of fellow gay Hungarian genealogist friends with whom I am extremely close to. It’s through them that I’ve not only been able to talk about our mutual interest in Hungarian genealogy, but we’ve also been able to be a support system for one another.”

For myself, I think that being gay has impacted my genealogy. For one thing, I went into research knowing that one should never assume anything. You never know that secrets may be hiding, in the closet or elsewhere.

When I first got the idea for this piece, I thought I would talk to both men and women. But as I moved forward, I realized that I couldn’t think of any openly lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered women who are professional genealogists. I turned to several of my friends and colleagues, and none of them had heard of any either. In a field that is dominated by women participants, I find it very telling.

When I think about the contributions to genealogy made just by this small group of four men, it makes me proud. Proud that we have made, and continue to make a difference. By writing, by teaching, by giving advice, by researching, by providing access to materials. By moving us all forward. And there are many more of us out there. I am extremely proud to be a member of this group, and extremely grateful to be able to call each of them not only a colleague, but a friend.


Dum-da-dum-dum: “All We Want Are The Facts, Ma’am”

08 Oct 2013

In another of our continuing series on learning genealogy methodology from detectives, this week we explore the advice of the great Los Angeles Police Department detective, Sergeant Joe Friday.


Jack Webb as Joe Friday, from Wikimedia Commons.

Jack Webb as Joe Friday, from Wikimedia Commons.


Joe Friday is one of the most well-known fictional members of the LAPD ever. Created by actor-producer Jack Webb, Joe Friday started life on the radio with Dragnet in 1949. Two years later, it made the transition to television, running for eight years. Dragnet returned in 1967 and ran until 1970. Generations of American instantly recognize the introductory music and the phrases that started each episode.

“The story you are about to see is true, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

This was included because to the viewers, some of the stories they saw stretched credulity. As genealogists, we run into this situation continually. But just because something stretches believability there is no reason to instantaneously dismiss it. The proper way to treat possibilities for solutions is to rate them from most probable to least likely. Saying that a scenario is least likely is not the same as dismissing it. You should continue to research and look for more evidence. As you find more information, you will likely slide different hypothesis around on the scale.

“This is the city. Los Angeles, California.”

The big three of real estate: location, location, location! One of the reasons that producers explained where Dragnet took place was so that viewers would understand why some of the stories unraveled they way they did, or why some of them even occurred at all. It is important to be aware of where you are researching. Then, understand the resources and records that are available for research in this location.

“My name is Friday — I carry a badge.”

In genealogy, knowing who you are looking for, and what they do for a living, is critical. Occupation is one way to differentiate your ancestor from another person with the same name. If you are fortunate, they will follow different professions. This will give you the opportunity to know which records pertain to your ancestor, and which pertain to another individual of the same name.

Far beyond these words, however, the most instantaneously recognizable phrase associated with Joe Friday is:

“Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Now, there are two reasons why this phrase is pertinent to genealogy. First, obviously, is that we are obsessed with facts. We use facts from records to prove or disprove our theories. Our research is filled with a search for facts.

But more importantly, this phrase is the perfect example of how we must be very careful in our research. Just because someone said something, it is not necessarily true. The truth is, Joe Friday never uttered that phrase. It actually comes from a parody by satirist Stan Freberg. What Joe Friday really said was “All we want are the facts, Ma’am,” or the slight variation “All we know are the facts, Ma’am.”

Happy GLBT History Month!

05 Oct 2013

This week I wrote about October being Family History Month. But that is not the only thing being honored this month. October is also Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender History Month. Because of the way we have been suppressed for so long, it is important for us to remember our history, and teach it to others.

In my own lifetime the course of history has changed so dramatically that younger GLBTs have no idea what it was like growing up in a pre-Will-and-Grace world. I grew up in an era when things weren’t discussed in public, except in condemning terms. There were no positive role models for me on television. In the late seventies Jodie Dallas on Soap became the first openly gay character, and he was eventually made straight. The newspapers were filled with the work of Harvey Milk in San Francisco, the first openly gay member of their Board of supervisors. Unfortunately, he was killed relatively young, and who knows what else he could have achieved?


A friend of mine and I at the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.

A friend of mine and I at the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. From the collection of the author, used with permission.



Gay, lesbian, and non-gender-normative individuals have always been around, and many of them played significant roles in history. From Deborah Sampson and Ann Bailey, who fought as men in the colonial armies of the American Revolution, to Alan Turing, who broke Nazi secret codes and was one of the people most singly responsible for the Allied victory in World War II. From cross-dressing seventeenth-century Puritans to the drag queens of today. All of our stories are important.

Most people don’t realize that if it were not for a lone gay man, the United States would not exist today. By the summer of 1777, the Continental forces were a shambles. George Washington was in charge of a ragtag group of farmers and artisans, young and old, who had never received formal military training. The British Army was the model military force in the world at the time. Enter the Prussian Freidrich Wilhelm von Steuben. He trained a group of model soldiers. They went on to train others, who went on to train others, until the entire army was properly trained. He created a drill manual that was the standard for the Army for 40 years, and many of his rules (such as how to set up a camp) were still being used well into the twentieth century. One of the reasons he came to the help Washington was to escape being prosecuted in Baden for his homosexuality.

Author James Baldwin wrote many works concerning racial, sexual, and class issues in mid-twentieth-century America. I remember reading and learning about his Notes of a Native Son in my high school English class. His novel Giovanni’s Room deals with an expat American in Paris and his relationships with other men. This book was published in 1956, long before the GLBT civil rights movement hit full force after the Stonewall riots in 1969.

GLBT History Month had its roots in 1996 with a history teacher in Missouri, who believed that a month should be set aside to teach our history. For more than a decade and a half now, October has been a time for teaching others about our history. If you are interested in finding out more:

Most importantly, you can ask your GLBT friends and family members what their life has been like. And, if you are GLBT, do your part to find out more about our collective history, and spread the stories around.

Blog Posts for Genealogists, October 4, 2013

04 Oct 2013


This week brings us an eclectic mix of blog posts from the American Revolution to Reynolds Aluminum recycling to grandparents and DNA testing. I hope you find them as interesting and informative as I do.

We start with an article from the Journal of the American Revolution ( In 1897, artist Howard Pyle painted an iconic portrait of the battle. Unfortunately, as Don N. Hagist points out in a recent article, Pyle made some major errors. As Hagist says “. . . it’s a nice enough painting, as long as you’re not using it to get a good impression of the Battle of Bunker Hill.” Read about it in The Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle.


All Things Liberty Bunker Hill


Published by the American Antiquarian SocietyCommon-Place is a “common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine. . .” Kacy Tillman, an assistant professor of English and writing at the University of Tampa, wrote an piece about a very underserved topic: women. Specifically, her piece deals with female Loyalists during the American Revolution. In What Is a Female Loyalist? She summarizes her discussion by saying that “To answer such questions, we have to think beyond the typical modes of civic engagement that were available only to free, white, property-owning men.”

The Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell, is very big on DNA testing. But this week she issued a major warning to grandparents about the subject. It is, in no uncertain terms, quite illegal for grandparents to take samples for DNA testing from their grandchildren without the permission of the grandchildren’s parents. As Judy puts it, “swab the grandkids” is a really bad game to play. Read more about it in Games Grandparents Play.

The Virginia Historical Society’s blog talked about the U.S. Foil Company, founded in 1919. Today, that company is better known as the Reynolds Metals Company, and their most famous product, Reynolds Aluminum Foil, is a standard in most households. The company is also responsible for the aluminum beverage can as well. What is lesser known is their history of promoting recycling, which began with a test project in Miami in 1967. One of the major reasons we have such active recycling programs today is because of the work of David P. Reynolds more than forty years ago. Read more in It’s the Cans!

My friend Peter Muise writes the New England Folklore blog. He always has interesting stories, and this week was no exception. We are now entering the Fall season, and in New England, apples are a bumper crop at this time of year. He was able to find apple pie in the first cookbook published in America: American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796. There was actually more than one apple pie recipe in the book, and it is amazing how little the basic recipe has changed through the centuries. Find out more in America’s Oldest Apple Pie Recipe, Plus Some Strange Apple Stories.

Social Security Old-Style: Tontines

02 Oct 2013

In 1653, a banker from Naples named Lorenzo Tonti started an annuity scheme. The idea was that subscribers paid a set fee join. Each received a regular dividend from the money raised by investing the capital. As each subscriber died, their portion was divided amongst the survivors. The last survivor received all of the dividends. When the last survivor died, all of the original capital was turned over to the state. This scheme had much success, and made its way into England, where they became known as tontines.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, six tontines were run by the state, three by England and three by Ireland. The English State Tontines ran in 1693, 1766, and 1789. The Irish State Tontines ran in 1773, 1775, and 1777. In exchange for putting money into the scheme, a given individual nominated by an investor received a guaranteed annual income for life. Each investor was allowed to nominate an individual to receive the benefits.

While in many cases the investor nominated themselves, most nominated a family member. It was very common for the youngest family member to be nominated, thus stretching out the annuity payments. When the last nominee died, the remaining funds were turned over to the state. In total, about 15,000 individuals were part of these tontines. Many of the participants were people of means, but a large number of them were unwed women, wanting to provide for themselves and for family members.

In order to receive their benefits, the nominees had to provide proof of identity. Paperwork was also filed when a subscriber or nominee died, often including copies of death records, wills, probate administrations, and more. One can also often find information on marriages as well. Because so many of the nominees were young, the records continue for decades after the establishment of the tontine. For example, the last of the 1789 English Tontine’s nominees did not die until 1887—almost a century after the scheme started.

Many records of these official tontines survive at The National Archives at Kew. They can be found in the records of the National Debt Office. Most of the records for the English Tontines can be found in NDO 1 and NDO 2. The Irish Tontine materials consist of 53 volumes of records covering the period 1773 to 1871. They can be found in NDO 3.

In addition to these official schemes, private tontines were created as well. Because they were private ventures, their records are not preserved by The National Archives. Access to Archives Catalog (A2A), however, shows more than 500 references for tontine in other UK archives.


Tontine Crescent


Although popular in Europe, the tontine concept was not as popular in America. One of the best-known American tontine schemes was created by the noted architect Charles Bulfinch to create Franklin Place (also called the Tontine Crescent) in Boston. Unfortunately, The state government refused to create an official tontine for the project. Bulfinch ran a private tontine, but uncertain economic times caused him to lose all of his wealth.

Five Tips For Celebrating Family History Month

01 Oct 2013

This is the favorite time of year for genealogists. October is Family History Month. It is a time dedicated to remembering our ancestors and celebrating them. Here are a few ideas for ways you can commemorate your own family history.

1. Write Up Some Family Stories

Time to take your research and start writing it up. Look at one of your ancestral families and start writing up the research you have conducted on them. One of the reasons we do genealogical research is to preserve their memories, but all too often we get tied up in the thrill of the chase, and never share what we find. Put together a biographical sketch of the family and post it on your blog, email it to family members, or print it out and mail it to them through the postal service.




2. Tell the Story Behind a Family Photograph

We all have piles of family photographs with no identification on them. Take some time this month to go through some of your pictures and label them. And don’t just put the names of the people in the picture. Tell the story behind it. Was it taken at a wedding? At a birthday party? A family vacation or outing? Were you doint something special at the time? Knowing those stories is just as important as knowing who is in the pcictures.

3. Have a Family Get-together to Share Stories

You don’t have to have a huge, fancy party. But invite some of the aunts, uncles, and cousins to come over. It is still warm enough in many areas to have a barbecue. Have some time during the get-together to share some family stories. They can be stories of the past generations, or stories of the current ones.  And set your digital recorder to capture the stories, so you can share them with others who can’t attend.

4. Visit Cemeteries

Generations past used to visit the cemetery all the time. They would go and tend the graves. The entire community would sometimes be there. It was a festive occasion to honor family members who have passed. Nowadays we seem to be too rushed to take the time to visit. As genealogists, we may be the only ones there. But it is still important. Go and visit. Make sure the stones are still in their proper places and need no extra attention. Do some weeding. And bring the younger generation so you can not only share the experience, but share their stories.

5. Compose Part of Your Own Story

The time has come to tell your story. If you don’t tell it, who will? You are the only one who knows what you think, what you feel, how you experienced things. What do you want future generations to know about you? Sit down and start writing your life. You don’t have to write an entire novel in a month. Focus on a particular event or two in your life. Put down your memories. You don’t even have to share them right away, but knowing that you have got some of them written down ensures that someone should see them someday.

Facebook for Genealogists

30 Sep 2013

Over the last few years, Facebook has become a great communication tool for people. I have reconnected with a large number of people from my past with whom I’ve lost touch, from junior high school to college, from former worker colleagues to distant family members. But Facebook is not just a place to see pictures of your friends’ daily meals, it is also a valuable tool for genealogy.

First, your personal genealogy page is a great way to communicate with family members. You can accumulate information from their pages to add to your genealogy, including birthdays, relationships, and more. You can also contact relatives through their Facebook page to ask them for help with locating other relatives, identifying relationships, and other genealogical questions.

You can also set up pages for individual ancestors. You can post information about the ancestor from your research. Others can comment on your research or provide helpful hints for you. Ancestor pages are a great way for people to collaborate on research, as well. You can share your findings and work together towards a solution. And having it on Facebook increases the chances that remote relatives who might have additional information can find you.

It can be very frustrating at times because Facebook does have a tendency to switch things around just when you are getting used to it. And make it a rule to keep backups of everything you post on there: images, information, etc. Even the mightiest of companies can disappear in an instant, and you don’t want to lose your valuable research if something accidentally happens to Facebook, no matter how slim the odds.


MJL Gen Facebook


I have multiple Facebook pages. I have a personal page, which I limit to my friends and family. And I have a professional page,, which anyone can like. Here I post interesting stories and news, and references to the Mocavo blog. I am frustrated by a change that Facebook made. Users used to be able to send a message when turning down a friend request. I get many friend requests on my personal Facebook page. I only accept from people whom I know and are friends in real life, not just Facebook life. My professional page is for my genealogy world. Unfortunately, now I have no way to inform people of that. Just another example of the frustrating part of Facebook.

Take advantage of the benefits of Facebook to help you propel your research. You will be amazed at how many others out there will connect with you and help you with your research.

News Stories and Blog Posts for Genealogists, September 27, 2013

27 Sep 2013

This week’s collection of blog posts and news stories comes directly from Facebook. Every day my genealogy friends post all sorts of interesting stories that come through on my news feed. This week I went through my wall looking for interesting stories and came up with a few very interesting ones.

This week starts off with a post from Thomas MacEntee about the Irish in the United States. Recent information from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the number of Irish-Americans is second only to German-Americans. And nine states have more Irish-Americans than the others. If you think New York and New Jersey are among them, you are mistaken. Find out the top nine, and more, in Nine U.S. States Have More Irish Percentage Population Than Any Others — Can You Name Them?

Joan Peake posted an interesting story about a cemetery in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. The cemetery, which dates back to the eighteenth century, has fallen on hard times. Mismanagement has put the cemetery in a bad place. It was put on the auction list for non-payment of back taxes. A solicitor saved the day by finding a nineteenth-century law showing that the cemetery should have been exempt from taxes. Read the story, and watch a brief video, in Antiquated Law Could Save Historic Cemetery.

Elizabeth Shown Mills posted a story of great interest to those researching their French ancestry. She found a post  that discusses mangled names and odd phrases you might not be familiar with, but are very important for genealogists. For example, the phrase “du deuxième lit” means “of the second marriage.” Find out more in Linguistic Oddities in French Genealogy.

Michael Lacopo posted a very moving story about a soldier from World War II. Genealogist Donna Gregory found a box with a collection of documents, clippings, and medals about John Farrell Eddington, a private in the U.S. Army during the war. He wrote a letter to his wife that included a letter to his daughter Petty, born after his departure. He died before returning home, so never met his daughter. After years of research, Donna was able to locate Peggy, and give her the letter from her dad. Read the full story in Daughter Gets WWII Medals, Letter From Father She Never Knew.

Finally, this week Cyndi Ingle, from Cyndi’s List, posted a great image from the Facebook page. The picture illustrates the problems with not paying attention to punctuation, and the problems it can cause:



“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad:” Records of the Railroad Retirement Board

26 Sep 2013

From the Ante-bellum era through World War II, the nation’s railroads employed huge numbers of Americans. They were one of the first industries to implement pension plans. But these plans were insufficient, and during the Great Depression, legislation was implemented to provide a safety net for these workers (as Social Security was implemented for non-railroad workers).


Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 3.50.11 PM


The records of the Railroad Retirement Board deal with employees who worked for the railroads in 1937 and later. It does not cover short-term employees, nor does it covers those who worked for local streetcars and electric railways. A person needed to be employed by the railroads for ten years, or be employed by the railroads at the time the legislation took effect in order to be eligible for benefits.

Like any government agency, a great deal of paperwork was generated in administering the benefits. Among the documents you might find in a person’s file:

  • Application for Employee Annuity Under the Railroad Retirement Act
  • Certification in Support of Employer Service for Which No Records Are Available
  • Description and Certification as to Eligibility of Evidence Submitted
  • Employee Registration
  • Employee’s Certificate of Termination of Service and Relinquishment of Rights
  • Employee’s Statement of Compensated Service Rendered
  • Record of Employee’s Prior Service

You might also find a copy of the person’s death certificate or other information about their death.

Originally one needed to contact the RRB in order to obtain copies of a family member’s file. These documents are now in the custody of the National Archives and Records administration.

That regional archives at Atlanta are now the custodians of 54,000 cubic feet of RRB Inactive Claims Folders. NARA will look for a claim file for you, but you must provide as much of the following information as possible to them:

  • Full name (first, middle, and last) of the railroad employee.
  • Railroad Retirement Board Claim Number
  • Social Security Number
  • Year of Birth
  • Year of Death

If they find a folder, they will photocopy the records for you. They will first provide you with an approximate cost estimate, based on the standard fee of seventy-five cents per page. For additional information, visit the NARA website.

The NY State Family History Conference: A Model for All

25 Sep 2013

I spent this past weekend in upstate New York, attending the first New York State Family History Conference. A partnership between the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society and the Central New York Genealogical Society, the conference was an unqualified success by any measure.

Going in we knew it would be a good conference. For this first conference, they selected venue that would hold 400 attendees, and all of the slots were sold out well in advance. Participants came from twenty-two states and Canada, which was evident the moment you pulled into the parking lot and saw the many different license plates on the cars.

To make things easier to manage, the organizers limited the program to two tracks. The presenters were a mixture of nationally-known speakers like myself, Eric Grundset, Terry Koch-Bostic, Paula Stuart-Warren, and D. Joshua Taylor combined with local speakers. We were also joined by representatives of the New York Public Library, the New York State Archives, and the New York State Library.

The vendor hall had 20 exhibitors, including the very popular Maia’s Books, and the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. The room was constantly busy, even when classes were in session. The exhibitors I spoke to had a very pleasant and successful experience.

One great thing for the participants was the price. NYGBS/CNYGS members registered for $115, all others paid $140. There was a luncheon on Friday and Saturday, and a Friday dinner that carried extra fees. Even if one chose to attend each of the meals, he or she would have been able to attend for about $500–600, including the hotel.




The organizers managed to get numerous sponsors for the event, including: findmypast, Mocavo, New England Historic Genealogical Society, New York Public Library, Office of Cultural Education/State Education Department, National Genealogical Society, and the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, and the William G. Pomeroy Foundation.

This is a fantastic model for other states. One of the secrets of such a successful program was the collaboration between societies, coupled with a number of sponsors. Multiple sponsors allowed some groups (such as NGS and NSDAR) to participate simply by providing a speaker. Appealing to interested government agencies, such as the New York State Department of Education, is an innovative way of helping to cover expenses.

Other organizations would do well to talk to NYGBS and CNYGS to discover what they did well, and to see how they could implement similar programs in their own areas. Planning is already starting for the next NYSFHC in 2015, and they are prepared for even more attendees to join them. After the fantastic buzz created last week, I have no doubt that they had better be very prepared for a huge demand.