Genealogy Blog

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

06 Dec 2013

Following are some blog posts and news stories that I’ve found interesting and informative. I hope you enjoy them as well.

Jim Beidler always has interesting pieces in his “Roots and Branches” column in the Lebanon Daily News. Recently he wrote about a case of double-serendipity. A dinner in memory of our late friend John Humphrey led him to a discussion with a fellow genealogist who had found a Bible from an ancestor while perusing an antique store. More serendipity occurred when Jim discovered that the owner of the Bible was also related to him. Read more in A Case of ‘Second-hand Serendipity.

Heather Wilkinson Rojo writes the Nutfield Genealogy blog about New England and other places. She recently wrote a compelling story about her husband’s family in Spain. His grandfather was one of dozens of people from the area of the village of Aranda de Duero executed by the forces of Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Recently the bodies were disinterred from their mass grave and reinterred in the local cemetery. Read more of the story in An Emotional Turn of Events.

A different, and sadder, case of serendipity occurred in the United Kingdom. A married couple had felt an “inevitable attraction” to each other from the moment they first met. Both were adopted and neither had any idea who their birth parents were. The couple married. Unfortunately, they later discovered that they were actually twins who were separated after birth when they were put up for adoption. The case has caused Parliament to start changes in adoption regulations to prevent such tragedies from occurring again. Read more in Married Couple in the UK Discover They Are Actually Twins Separated at Birth.

We are so used to hearing about horrible stories about old cemeteries being lost to the ravages of time and development or vandalized by thugs, it is nice to be able to present a story with a happy ending for a change. Two genealogists were recently looking for their Revolutionary War ancestor’s grave in Washington County, New York.  They found it in a neglected family cemetery on a local farm. Fortunately, the farmer agreed to having the cemetery preserved. Read more in History Plowed Under: Descendants Discover Revolutionary War-era Graves on Farm.


Lone Ranger


Finally, we have a story that will be interesting for those who grew up in the mid-twentieth century with the words “Hi, ho, Silver!” The television show was the successor to the Lone Ranger radio series. It all started with a 1915 Zane Gray novel. But how many know the real-life man whose story inspired the legend of the Lone Ranger? Born into slavery in 1838, Bass Reeves became the first African-American Deputy U.S. Marshall in Arkansas and the Indian Territory. His story is fascinating. You can read more in The REAL Lone Ranger.

The End of Prohibition

05 Dec 2013

Seventy-one years ago today, on December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, officially ending Prohibition. The only attempt in our nation’s history to legislate morality, the 18th Amendment, prohibiting alcohol consumption, was a dismal failure on all fronts. No only did it not end alcohol consumption in the United States, it cost the Federal and state governments billions of dollars while it was in effect. The experiment officially ended at 5:32 p.m. EST on December 5, 1933 when the state of Utah voted for repeal. Many of our ancestors were involved in Prohibition, including those in the Temperance Movement that lead up to it, and those who made moonshine and became “rumrunners” while it was in effect. Here are some interesting facts and figures about Prohibition.

America's Hangover 


Ways to Give Back This Holiday Season

03 Dec 2013

With all the excitement of Black Friday and holiday shopping, it’s easy to forget one of the most important tenets of the season ­— giving back to the community. Luckily, it’s easier than ever to find a way to give back this December.

In an effort to create a national day of giving to kick off the holiday season, organizations and individuals around the world are taking part in a movement known as GivingTuesday. The campaign was created last year to celebrate and encourage charitable activities that support non-profit organizations. In their words, “It’s time to ‘get out the give,’ and put ‘giving’ into the giving season.” Very similar to the way that retailers take part in Black Friday, the founders of GivingTuesday encourage the community to come together to give back during the holidays.

They have some great ideas for giving back:

1. Bring the family together to find some nonperishable foods in your cabinets. Then, bring your donation to your local food pantry.

2. Look in your closets at home and collect any extra items such as towels, blankets, etc. Donate your items to a program that sets up families in new homes.

3. At the beginning of a new season, think of one item that is needed. Then do a collection in your neighborhood for that one item and donate it to a local charity.

Check out the GivingTuesday website for more ways you can give back to the community this year.

We also can’t forget our own community! As genealogists, many of us could use some extra help breaking through our brick walls this holiday season. Inspired by the mission of GivingTuesday, we wanted to spread the word and share ideas for some of the many ways that folks can give back to the genealogy community this year.

Mocavo was founded with the belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to discover his or her family’s story. It was with this mission in mind that we created multiple free resources to empower members of the genealogy community to help one another discover his or her story.

Three Ways You Can Give Back to the Genealogy Community this Season

1. Volunteer for Genealogy Karma 

Modeled after Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, we created Genealogy Karma to connect researchers all around the country. If you’re looking for information about an ancestor who lived far away, we will connect you with family history volunteers who can do this research for you in other cities. If you have some time to spare this season, try fulfilling a request for a fellow genealogist. See all requests, or become a volunteer here.

2. Post information in Mocavo Surname Groups

Mocavo’s Surname Groups help family history researchers tap into the collective knowledge of thousands of other genealogists. If you have information about a particular surname, share your findings by posting a message on the group’s surname page. Your information may help someone make a breakthrough in his or her own research (You can also, of course, post questions about a surname for others to respond to).

3. Preserve Your Story and Help Solve a Mystery with Mocavo Free Scanning 

Do you have piles of research laying around? Old books gathering dust? Historical documents sitting in boxes? Now is the time to take advantage of Mocavo Free Scaninng. We scan books, documents and any standard-size paper sheets to bring them online for you and the rest of the Mocavo Community. Your dusty pile of documents could hold the clue to solve another genealogist’s riddle. Let us help you tell your story to the world.

There are many ways to give back during the holidays. Whether you give back to your local community, or the genealogy community, be sure to donate some time this December to help others in the spirit of the holiday season.


Doctor, Doctor! Thinking Outside the Box in Your Research

30 Nov 2013

Last week I was one of millions of people participating in an event that has been officially entered into the Guinness Book of World Records: the largest simulcast of a television drama. The event, of course, was The Day of the Doctor, the 50th Anniversary special of Doctor Who. For those unfamiliar with the show, the Doctor can regenerate, at which time his appearance and personality undergo a change. This has allowed the Doctor to be played by successive actors since 1963. To me and to millions of other fans, the Doctor will always be Tom Baker, whose portrayal from 1974 to 1981 is the longest incarnation of the Doctor ever.


Doctor Who 50th


Doctor Who is a Time Lord, and travels in his craft, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which resembles a 1950s-era English police call box. He has been everywhere from the Big Bang to the end of the Universe and everywhere in between. And he has a particular affinity for Earth history. He accompanied on his travels by his companions (each incarnation having his own companions).

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be able to spend awhile with the Doctor. The places I would ask him to take me. As a good genealogist, of course, I have quite the list. Starting with the village of Sorel, Quebec, in 1731. I have a bone to pick with my eighth-great grandmother, Thérèse Lavallée. I want to talk to that 27-year-old girl and ask her who the father of her illegitimate son is! Next stop would be Philadelphia in July 1766. I want to attend the funeral of Benjamin Franklin’s brother Peter and talk to his daughter. I need to find out who she married!

Unfortunately, as big a fan of Doctor Who as I am, I’m afraid that Matt Smith (the current Doctor) will not be arriving at my doorstep in a blue police call box anytime soon to give me a lift. Whilst this leaves me disappointed, there are other things I can do to answer these genealogical questions.

As to the illegitimate child born in 1731, the modern wonders of DNA testing may yet assist me.  Nine generations separate me from Thérèse’s son. Eight of those generations are men. Unfortunately, my great-great-grandmother Célina Lavallée breaks that chain of y-chromosome DNA that would be helpful. Fortunately, there are other routes. Célina was one of 13 children, and five of them were sons. One of those sons, Charles, had no known children. But hopefully his brothers Pierre, Joseph, Michael, and Louis left a few male descendants who might have living male descendants. These men would carry the necessary y-chromosome DNA to identify the father of that child.

As to Peter Franklin, he is a great mystery. He was a merchant and shipmaster at Newport, Rhode Island, before being appointed postmaster at Philadelphia in 1766. We know that he had a daughter Sarah, who had two sons, but we do not know the name of Sarah’s husband. Records at Newport have many holes in them, and his occupation means that he could have easily travelled to get married, have children, etc. His daughter could have even married at quite a distance from Newport. One nephew even ended up leaving Newport for Nova Scotia. But more careful analysis of existing records for additional clues may yet reveal a solution to the mystery. And information about an adopted son of Peter may also assist in the search.

The point is that we do not always need a dashing man in a TARDIS to come by and take us back in time and space to answer our genealogical problems. Sometimes the answers may be there waiting for us. We just need to adjust our thinking, and break outside the box in our research. The answer will not come from the single push of a button on a computer, but through careful sifting of original records and analysis of the clues they leave behind. Eventually, if that doesn’t work, perhaps I shall write to David Tennant (the tenth Doctor) and Matt Smith (the eleventh Doctor) and ask them to give me a lift!

In honor of Veteran’s Day this week, have your ancestors served in the military? (click all that apply)

30 Nov 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked if you had any ancestors who served in the military. Over 30% of the Mocavo community poll takers have ancestors who served in the Army, and over 20% have ancestors that served in the Navy. Don’t forget to check out our bi-monthly newsletter or Facebook page to take our next poll: “Do you plan on giving any genealogy related gifts this holiday season? (click all that apply)

Veteran's Day

Mayflower Myths

27 Nov 2013

As home to the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the nation’s attention focuses on Massachusetts, the Mayflower, and the Pilgrims. The perennial holiday is one of the most popular, but it is filled with misconceptions.

For example, there were no Puritans at the first Thanksgiving. Plymouth was settled by the Separatists, a different group. Today we call them the Pilgrims. The Puritans felt that the Anglican Church could be changed from within. They came directly to America from England. The Separatists felt that the Church of England could not be changed, and wanted to form their own church. They went to Leiden, Holland, before coming to America. The Puritans came later and settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston and surrounding communities. Eventually the two colonies merged. The Puritans and the Separatists are the forerunners of the Congregational Church, today the United Church of Christ.

We tend to think of Pilgrims as wearing plain clothing of black and white, with large brass buckles on their hats and shoes as well as belts. In truth, their clothing was quite bright and colorful. Their wardrobes were filled with blues, reds, browns, dark greens, and more. And buckles did not come into style until the late seventeenth century.

The Mayflower group was part of the Virginia Company, whose territory was quite vast. It was not headed to the state of Virginia as we know it today, but to the area of the Hudson River. Bad weather prevented them from going that far south, so the ship headed further north. They made first landfall at what is today Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the tip of Cape Cod. It soon moved up to what is today Plymouth, but it did not land at Plymouth Rock, nor any other rock. William Bradford’s history of the colony actually makes no special mention of their landing place in Plymouth. His wife Dorothea drowned in Provincetown Harbor when she fell overboard.

You would be surprised how much misinformation there is out there about Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims. For more information, check out Sail1620, the website of the Pennsylvania Society of Mayflower Descendants. You can also visit the website of Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the early Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth. Visits there are almost a requirement for all Massachusetts schoolchildren. And visiting as an adult is fun as well. You can tour the village  and speak to actors dressed as the Pilgrims. Don’t try to break them genealogically, though, they are used to that and very well trained! I had the pleasure of sitting down to an authentic multi-course 1627 dinner with some of the Pilgrims. It was a very interesting experience. Did you know that the fork wasn’t used in America until well into the eighteenth century?


23andMe and the FDA

26 Nov 2013

Yesterday I saw the news break about the noted DNA testing company 23andMe. I first read about it in a Gizmodo article posted by Thomas MacEntee. 23andMe has long been in negotiations with the Food and Drug Administration about the health aspects of its testing. Yesterday, the FDA ordered 23andMe to stop selling their testing kits.

The story is picking up steam, even appearing on today’s . The crux of the issue is regulation of the part of the testing dealing with health issues, not the genealogical side. The concern is purported to be about the quality of the testing for medical conditions, and whether this will cause problems for people in their medical treatment.

Now, I completely understand the concern. People need to educate themselves. But, quite frankly, anyone who goes and has a double-mastectomy based on $99 take-at-home test without consulting with their physician has serious problems (not to mention the problems of a surgeon who would conduct such a procedure without doing additional testing!).

Slate had a good article about the situation yesterday, The FDA’s Battle with 23andMe Won’t Matter in the Long Run by Razib Khan. He states:

“You can frame this as an “old economy” vs. “new economy” clash. Medical testing firms are well-established sectors of the American economy, and they expect relatively tight regulatory oversight because of the nature of what they are selling. Tech companies, in contrast, are governed with a looser hand, and they sink or swim without much oversight in their first years. Based out of Silicon Valley (not to mention co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, the reportedly estranged wife of Google’s Sergey Brin), 23andMe has the blood of a tech company coursing through its veins, but it’s entering a domain which has traditionally been governed by numerous regulations.”

He goes on to comment:

“This brings us to the fact that 23andMe is just part of a broader movement toward the democratization of health information. This incident highlights the tension between the paternalistic medical establishment that arose to deal with the dangers of 19th-century quack medicine, and a ‘techno-populist’ element of American society pioneering personal health assessment and decision-making by leveraging new information technologies. Caught between them is the general public, which trusts institutions but is obviously intrigued by the offerings of consumer medicine, as judged by units sold of 23andMe’s kits.”

I agree with what Khan has to say. This is clearly a conflict of “old” vs. “new.” An additional problem is the power and influence of the established medical testing firms who resent upstarts moving past them (and cutting into their profits).

Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist, weighted in on the matter today in Fooling with FDA23andMEI must say I completely agree with her conclusions. First off, the FDA will not shut down 23andMe. They are trying to force them into addressing these problems, which the company has been dragging its feet on for more than a year. And second, the FDA is not going to get involved in genetic testing for genealogy purposes. It is the other side of 23andMe’s business that is causing the problem.

In the meantime, if you are a 23andMe customer, do as Judy suggests. Download your data using all methods possible, to guard against any access issues, just in case this becomes a messier issue.  Then we will all need to sit back and see what happens next.

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

22 Nov 2013


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 »
(1.2 mb)

Also, be sure to check your email for a special holiday surprise!

Want to receive emails from Mocavo? Sign up for a free Mocavo Basic account to be the first to know about discounts and features exclusive to the Mocavo community.

“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.


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.


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.


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.