Genealogy Blog

The Louisiana Purchase

30 Apr 2013

Today is the 210th Anniversary of the largest territorial acquisition in U.S. history: the Louisiana Purchase. A highly controversial move in the United States, Jefferson’s acquisition doubled the size of the nascent country overnight. It set the stage for the nineteenth century theory of Manifest Destiny, that the U.S. would come to control the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The territory of the Louisiana Purchase has a long and storied history. The first European settlement in this area was La Nouvelle-Orlèans, today the city of New Orlans. It was founded in 1718 and named for the Duke of Orlèans, Regent of France. Settlements continued up the river and spread down from what is today Quebec, Michigan, and Illinois. All of this territory was considered part of the colony of New France.



In 1762, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau. France had lost Canada to the British. This was part of the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War in North America. The agreement covered the territory of Louisiana, which spread from the Appalachians to the Rockies.

The following year, Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain, officially ended the Seven Years’ War with the Peace of Paris. Also called the Treaty of Paris, the agreement was signed 10 February 1763. As part of the agreement, France ceded Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Tobago to Britain, as well as all of Louisiana east of the Mississippi, except for New Orleans. Under the Treaty of Fontainebleau, the western part of Louisiana and New Orleans were ceded to Spain.

This left France with no holdings in mainland North America. They did preserve fishing rights off of Newfoundland, and retained the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River as a place to cure the fish before transporting it. Those two islands remain part of France today.

Under the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso, Spain returned the Louisiana Territory to France in 1800. In 1801, Napoleon sent a military force to secure New Orleans. In 1803, Napoleon offered the territory to the U.S. for the sum of $15 million. This is equivalent to more than $306 million in 2013.

The American Revolution had shown the strategic importance of the port of New Orleans. Thomas Jefferson’s representatives quickly agreed to the purchase, realizing its potential significance to the United States. The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed 30 April 1803.

Unfortunately, there was great opposition to the purchase at home. Many were worried about alienating Britain, which whom the French were at war. Others thought it was unconstitutional, because the U.S. Constitution did not provide for the U.S. to purchase additional territory. Still others were concerned about granting U.S. citizenship to the French and Spanish “foreigners” who lived in the territory. There were also questions as to whether or not France even had the right to sell the territory to the U.S. under the terms of its agreement with Spain.

In the end, everything worked out. The U.S. acquired the territory, and Jefferson immediately sent out three parties to survey the territory. Among these was the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. Today, the land of the Louisiana Purchase is part of fourteen states: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. This area opened up extensive settlement for Americans in the 19th century, and its availability no doubt changed the course of U.S. history.

Confederate Memorial Day

29 Apr 2013

Today is Memorial Day. I know what you are thinking. “Memorial Day isn’t until the end of May, dope!” Well, today is a very special Memorial Day. In the state of Mississippi, today is celebrated as Confederate Memorial Day. Today, thirteen states have some sort of commemoration for Confederate soldiers.

Ladies Memorial Associations started appearing all over the South after the end of the Civil War. In the spring of 1866, the Columbus, Georgia, group decided that it would be good to set aside a day to honor those who had fallen for the Confederacy. They wrote letters to other groups in the South to suggest they follow suit.

One of the members chose April 26 as the date they would commemorate the soldiers. She chose that day because it was the first anniversary of General Joseph Johnson’s surrender to William Tecumseh Sherman at Bennett Place in Durham, North Carolina. On April 26, 1865, Johnson signed terms of surrender which disbanded the Confederate troops in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. This accounted for almost 90,000 troops, and was the largest surrender of the war. Many Southerners marked this as the effective end of the Civil War, which would not officially end for two more weeks.

Today the eleven states of the Confederacy (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia,  Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia)have a time to honor Confederate soldiers. In addition, two border states that did not secede also have a day to honor fallen Confederates: Kentucky and Maryland. The dates of observance vary from state to state. Commemoration dates include the Jefferson Davis’ birthday and Robert E. Lee’s birthday in addition to the Johnson surrender. In some it is a fixed date, while in others it is moveable.



No matter what side your ancestors fought for during the war, it is important to remember that all of the soldiers, both North and South, were fighting for a cause they sincerely believed in. And many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. There is a memorial for Confederate soldiers in the Arlington National Cemetery. An inscription on the monument reads:


Not for fame or reward

Not for place or for rank

Not lured by ambition

Or goaded by necessity

But in simple

Obedience to duty

As they understood it

These men suffered all

Sacrificed all

Dared all—and died.


O Canada: How Her History Affects Recordkeeping

25 Apr 2013

Canada has had an interesting history. Parts of it have belonged at different times to France and to England. As a result, the kinds of records available vary from providen to province. It is critical to have a basic understanding of Canadian history before you undertake research there so you can understand what records are—and are not—available.

The area of Newfoundland and Labrador was founded as a England’s first territory in the New World in 1583. It was settled first by English, later joined by a large number of Irish. This area followed a British system of recordkeeping. It did not join Confederation until 1949.




The area that is today the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, was originally settled by the French. Knows as Acadia, this territory has a great deal of fertile farmland, as well as the large fishing industry. Acadia was ceded by France to Great Britain in 1710. After that, the legal system changed from the French system to English common law. If you are researching your French ancestors in the Maritimes, you will likely need to be familiar with both sets of records.

France continued to hold a large territory in North America even after ceding Acadia. The largest settled part of this territory was the area that is today the province of Quebec. In 1759 the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was fought near the city of Quebec, and the French forces lost to the British. Quebec was officially ceded to Britain by the terms of the Peace of Paris in 1763.

Britain was now faced with a problem. British North America now stretched from Hudson’s Bay down to Georgia. But it was not a settled and peaceful area. France and England had been at war for so long that each considered the other a mortal enemy. The Acadians who remained behind were still bitter over their loss to Britain. And the French-Canadians of Quebec were a recently conquered people.

On top of these problems the “southern colonies” stretching from New England to Georgia were experiencing widespread political unrest. Britain may have had the greatest army on the earth, but her leaders knew that if the entire continent broke out in rebellion, they would never be able to be victorious everywhere. Indeed, their forces could be stretched so thinly that they would face defeat everywhere.

Parliament decided to try to ameliorate some of these problem by pacifying the French-Canadians. In 1774, the Quebec Act was past. Among its terms, it allowed the French Canadians to pay their tithe to the Catholic curch instead of the Anglican church. It also implemented a dual legal system. Criminal law would henceforce be under the English system. But civil law, which impacted far more people on a day-to-day basis than criminal law, would continue to follow the “coutume de Paris” (the custom of Paris). These legal systems applied to all inhabitants in the colony, whether of French origin, English, or other.

The Quebec Act did achieve the desired result of pacifying the French Canadians who did not pick up arms against the British. Unfortunately, it was considered one of the Intolerable Acts by those southern colonies, and led directly to the start of the American Revolution two years later. The Coutume de Paris was followed in Quebec until 1866 when it was replaced by a version of the Napoleonic Code, still in French tradition and not English. When Confederation occurred in 1867, the other provinces (Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick) followed English law. This remained true for the other provinces as they joined Confederation.

Knowing just a small bit of Canadian history will benefit you greatly in your genealogical research. Knowing the timeline of the province in which your ancestor lived will alert you to different record sets that might be available. It may also alert you to the fact that you have to learn a foreign set of records (such as Quebec’s notarial records) in order to find more information about your people.

Vital Records in the United States

24 Apr 2013

Registration of vital records in America dates back to the seventeenth century. It was an outgrowth of a sixteenth-century requirement that Anglican churches keep records of the baptisms, marriages, and burials that took place in their parishes. The first known law in the colonies on this matter was passed by a Grand Assembly held at James City (now Jamestown), Virginia, in 1632. This law provided that each parish would send either a minister or warden to court each year on June 1 to present a record of the christenings, marriages, and burials that occurred during the precending year.



The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first to acknowledge the difference between church marriage, baptisms, and burials and civil marriages, births, and deaths. In 1639 they required the town clerks of the colony to make a record of civil marriages, births, and deaths that occurred in the town each year. Other colonies in New England quickly followed this path.

Unfortunately, none of the above laws was wildly successful. Despite establishing legislative carrots (registration fees payable to the clerk) and penalties (for clerks who did not comply), recordkeeping was nowhere near complete. This is not terribly surprising, giving the intense population movements that were occurring in the early years. Huge numbers of individuals spend short amounts of time passing through towns and cities on their way to “greener pastures.”

It was not until the nineteenth century that compliance was greater, with the passage of new laws. The great concern was public health. Proponents argued that accurate statistics were required to address issues of disease. After a great cholera epidemic in 1831–32, England and Wales started requiring civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths in 1837.

One man in American history can be given credit for the system of vital records registration that we have in the United States today: Lemuel Shattuck. The Massachusetts merchant was a great believer in public health issues. He used the English civil registration law to create model legislation for a civil registration law in Massachusetts, which went into effect in 1841. Even then, compliance wasn’t complete until the General Court enacted stiffer legislation a decade later to ensure that every locale in the state would be in compliance.

In 1849 the federal government brought Shattuck to Washington to help design the 1850 census. Thus was born some of the major census improvements, such as the listing the names of every individual in the household. This was also the first census to collect information on deaths in the past year in a special mortality schedule.

In 1855 the American Medical Association called upon its members to encourage each state to start collecting vital records. In 1879 Congress established the National Board of Health. The U.S. Public Health Service determined when a state had reached 90% completeness with vital records registration. Massachusetts and New Jersey achieved instance compliance for death registration in 1880. It took the longest for states to achieve compliance with registration of births. South Dakota was the last of the continental U.S. to achieve this status, in 1932 (Alaska was dead last, not achieving compliance until 1950).

Today, each state determines rules of access to these records. Access varies widely from state to state, and researchers need to be careful to research to discover exactly which records they will, and will not, have access to.

A Rose by Any Other Name: 5 Tips for Using Onomastics in Your Research

23 Apr 2013


Sometimes when researching our ancestors we need to rely on onomastic evidence. Naming patterns can be very helpful in proving relationships. Unfortunately, many of the so-called “rules” of naming children are not hard and fast rules.

1. In New England, it is often said that in colonial times, the rule for naming one’s children goes as follows:

  • First son for husband’s father
  • First daughter for wife’s mother
  • Next son for wife’s father
  • Next daughter for husband’s mother
  • Next son for husband
  • Next daughter for wife

Other children would be named for the siblings of the husband or wife, etc. While this is a lovely fantasy, it is far from true. Sometimes people named their children in this pattern. But just as often it is completely random. If you have no idea who the parents of a couple are, the names of the children can be used as clues. However, do not use the “rule of naming” as a hard and fast rule. It is at least equally likely that the third or fourth son might be named for the husband’s father.

2. In addition to familial names, children were often given the name of a strong Biblical figure, such as Josiah or Samuel. Puritans often named their children after virtues such as Temperance.

3. Those with Catholic ancestors know that the church has some rules. The current Catholic Catechism says:

“In Baptism, the Christian receives his name in the Church. Parents, godparents, and the pastor are to see that he be given a Christian name. The patron saint provides a model of charity and the assurance of his prayer.”

In addition to saints, names from the Old Testament are often used. Take note of the name used, and look of the history of that saint or Biblical figure. This often

4. While middle names are uncommon among American Protestants until the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Catholics often carried multiple first names even back in the sixteenth century.

5. Those researching their French-Canadian ancestors will notice a pattern in naming practices. First is that almost everyone is baptized with multiple first names. The one that appeared closest to the surname is the one that, for the most part, they used in everyday life. The first name given in baptism was almost always Joseph for boys and Marie for girls (for the parents of Jesus). Then other names would follow.

For example, my paternal grandfather was Joseph Alfred Leclerc. He went by Fred or Freddie his entire life. Unfortunately, at the end of his life, a new priest was assigned to the parish. At his funeral, most of us knew that Fred was probably about to burst up through the coffin and smack the priest. The priest kept talking about what a good guy old Joe was and how much we would miss him. My grandfather absolutely hated the name Joe.

In addition to Joseph and Marie, the child would often take the name of the godparent (godfather for boys, godmother for girls). The grandparents would often serve as godparents for the first child (or later children). One nice thing is that any familial relationship between the child and the godparents is usually given in the record.

Keep these tips in mind when using onomastics for researching your ancestors. While they can be used as additional evidence, there are no hard and fast, unbreakable rules.



For Future Generations, Say What You Need to Say

20 Apr 2013

As someone who has been involved in instrumental and choral music since I was a teenager, I enjoy Glee. This week’s episode was a particularly powerful one. It was the first time a show geared towards teenagers dealt with the issue of school shootings. No spoilers here, but the episode ends with the kids together on the stage singing Say What You Need to Say.

This made me think even more about how times have changed. When I was in high school, the worst thing I had to worry about was getting shoved into a locker. Or trying to fit in with the other kids. My nieces, however, have to worry about crazy people carrying guns in and shooting people. It is a fact of life for them.

So what does this have to do with genealogy? Plenty. Genealogists spend so much time researching our ancestors. After you find the details of birth, marriage, and death, you move on. You dig through resource after resource to build a picture of your ancestors’ lives. And then you bump into a nagging professional like me, who reminds you to gather all your research and share it with the family. You want your ancestors’ life stories to be remembered.



If you are lucky, in your research you will come across family letters, diaries, journals, or other personal papers that give you direct insight into your ancestors’ lives. You can hear first-hand they felt and thought, what their experiences were as they travelled through life and what it meant to them. Unfortunately, many of us do not have those resources available to us. And without those personal insights, it is difficult to know what really happened.

But how often do you think of your own life story? Do you keep a diary or journal? Have you written down vignettes from your life. What was it like for you as a child in your family? How did things change for you as an adult? Was there a “black sheep” in the family? If so, why was he or she considered to be that?

Personally, I think it is important to share these stories. I want family members not yet born to know what it was like for me growing up knowing I was different from everyone else. What was it like as a gay kid in an era when it was considered wrong and shameful? There is no doubt in my mind that within another generation, people will look back at that as we look on the proponents of racism and slavery, and family members in the future won’t have first-hand experience with it anymore.

I want them to know why I am the only family member to not appear in my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary photograph. I want them to understand the good times and the bad my family has gone through dealing with my brother’s degenerative disease that will cut his life short. I want them to know what it is like to have a sister who stopped speaking to me years ago because of her prejudices. I want them to know how grateful I am to have parents who support their children so strongly.

Sometimes talking about ourselves and our own lives is something we are afraid to do. We worry too much about what other people think. The reality is that your story is your story, your truth is your truth. No one can better explain what your life was like than you. If you are afraid that living people will be hurt or angry with you, that’s fine. You don’t have to share those stories today if you don’t want to. But you can write them down or record them. Then give them to a repository. You can even restrict access to them until after a certain time period has passed (such as 75 years after your death, when most people old enough to care now will also be gone).

It is so important to share your stories with the future. Think of you feel when you read a diary or journal from someone long dead. It gives you insights into them that you cannot get otherwise.  And your family’s descendants will love you for having left a record of them. None of us knows how much time we have here, but we do know that it is always a finite amount. So say what you need to say, and leave it for posterity.

This week we would like to know what, if any, South-Atlantic states you have any interest in.

20 Apr 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked which, if any, South-Atlantic states you have any interest in. Don’t forget to check out our bi-monthly newsletter or Facebook page to take the next poll and see how you compare with your fellow genealogists.

Bethany Children’s Home Awarded Mocavo Community Digitization Grant

20 Apr 2013

In November of last year we announced the first ever Mocavo Community Digitization Grant.  We committed to provide up to $25,000 in digitization services to preserve historical records and make them available for free access. Today we are delighted to announce the recipient of the Mocavo Community Digitization Grant is the Bethany Children’s Home.

Bethany Children’s home is a regional ministry serving over 300 youth and their families, every year, in Eastern Pennsylvania.  The home began in 1862 as one man’s dream. On a trip home from Norfolk to Philadelphia, Rev. Emmanuel Boehringer passed through the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, where 25,000 men lay scattered across the countryside dead or wounded. As he stopped to help bandage their wounds, many of the men asked: “What will become of my children?” And thus Rev. Boehringer’s dream for an orphans’ home was born.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, he began taking orphans into his own home at 702 Morris Street. On September 21, 1863, the home’s first resident, six year-old Caroline Engel, arrived at the Boehringer home. Originally called “The Orphans Home of the Shepherd of the Lambs,” the organization began to grow and by 1871 it had found a new home in Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania, where the name was officially changed to Bethany Children’s Home.

A previous resident of Bethany from 1937-1952, Carl Bloss, initially returned seeking genealogical clues and answers regarding his paternal family, but found that Bethany had no archival program in place. In 2009, Carl began volunteering to organize and properly preserve their significant collections, which include photographs, 16mm motion picture film, scrapbooks, documents, and registers.  This past January, Mr. Bloss submitted a very unique proposal to Mocavo to digitize two ledger books containing information about the children who were residents of the home between 1863-1990. The ledger books contain a wealth of information including pictures of the children that resided in the home, their birth date, baptism and christening information, details about their birth parents, adoption records, and much more. After reviewing the many worthy submissions that we received, we knew that Bethany Children’s House would be the perfect recipient of the Mocavo Community Digitization Grant.

We are inspired by the work that the volunteers at Bethany Children’s Home have done to preserve this information, and are excited to help bring this valuable content online for the rest of the world to experience.  We have begun work on digitizing these records and will make them available for free at later this summer.

If you have any questions about this story, or about the Mocavo Community Digitization Grant, please feel free to contact us at

The New England Regional Genealogical Conference

18 Apr 2013

I’m on the road again. Up in Manchester, New Hampshire, for the twelfth New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC). The conference regularly attracts hundreds of attendees. There are many reasons that this is one of the well-liked large conferences in the country.

NERGC was started more than twenty years ago. The six New England states are a very compact territory compared to other areas of the country. But even within this area, New Englanders tend to have a very localized mentality. I was born in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the Union. There is a mentality there among many that if you have to drive for two hours, it should be a weekend trip.



In addition to the statewide societies, there are many small organizations throughout the region. These small groups with tiny budgets do not have the resources to put together large events. The thought was that if they banded together, they would be able to bring in national-level, high-quality speakers to the region.

The first NERGC was held April 25 and 26, 1992 in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. The next was held in 1994 in Manchester, New Hampshire. One of the tenets of the group was that the conference would move around with each state taking a turn hosting the conference. This worked well for awhile, but the conference has now grown so large that there are no facilities in Vermont large enough to accommodate it.

I have attended every conference since the third in Burlington, Vermont, in 1995. For awhile I had the pleasure of serving on the planning committee. It definitely has a different vibe and feeling than other similarly-sized events. And, conference after conference, it is increasingly successful.

I have lost track of the number of doomsayers over the last few years prophesying the “end of the conference as we know it.” Frankly, I’ve been listening to such talk for well over decade. Yet attendance at NERGC continues to grow. Attendance at the last conference in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 2011, grew 14% over the previous one. And the totals for this year’s conference are already higher than Springfield, with two more days of walk-ins to be added.

One of the major reasons for the success of the conference is the teamwork. There is no doubt that it can be challenging sometimes to organize things with dozens of organizations involved. However, so many groups having a vested interest in the success of the program makes a major difference. And the program is very carried and interesting, with topics and speakers not often heard elsewhere.

Attendees come from all over the country for this fantastic opportunity. If you have New England roots, you should consider attending the 2015 conference. It will be held in April 2015 in Providence, Rhode Island. I will definitely be there.

U.S. Federal Census Records Quirks: Part II

17 Apr 2013

Yesterday started a two-part series on U.S. Census records. They are one of the basic building blocks of genealogical research. Abstractions, transcriptions, and even images of original records abound on the internet. These tips can help you understand the records and use them better in your research.

When researching census records, we primarily think of the population schedules. These are the lists of families and their personal information that we most often use. However, there are a number of other schedules that might be available. In the U.S. federal census, for example, the non-population schedules started in 1810 with the census of manufacturers. Later censuses included agricultural mortality, social statistics, and the seven schedules in 1880 that covered the Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent classes (known colloquially as the Triple Ds), Unfortunately, not all of these records survived for all locations. Many of those that did survive are not at the National Archives, but at state archives and libraries or other repositories.



Once you have found your ancestors in the record, it is important that you be able to find them again at some point in the future, especially if conflicting evidence arises (as it is wont to do). When citing your source, be certain to include the traditional identifying information (i.e., type of census; census year; town, county, and state; enumeration district (if applicable); dwelling and family numbers (if applicable); line number (if applicable); and page number). Images of original census records are getting easier and easier to find onlinee, and that information will allow you to easily find the record again, even if it is no longer available on the website on which you originally examined it.

Sometimes you may have difficulty reading the digital or microfilm image of the census record, and you may wish to examine the original. This is especially true for the 1910 census, the microfilm of which was very poorly done, leaving thousands of pages illegible. The surviving official copies of the federal censuses from 1790 to 1870 are on file at the National Archives. The 1880 schedules were returned to the states. The 1890 census was almost completely destroyed by fire and subsequent water damage. In 1956, facing a massive storage problem, Congress authorized the destruction of the original schedules for the censuses from 1900 through 1940. The problem with the 1910 microfilm masters was not discovered until after the destruction of the original records, leaving us with massive problems for that year.

Census records can be very helpful in your research. Understanding the various quirks about them will be critical to your success. Knowing what is there and what is missing will help you know where to turn to next.