Genealogy Blog

Watchmen and Patrolmen: Researching Your Law Enforcement Ancestors

20 Jan 2015

Do you have ancestors who worked for the police department or other law enforcement agencies? You might be surprised. Sometimes police departments were preceded by other organizations that may have left records that you might not expect to find. My hometown is a good example of what you may discover.

Boston was founded on the Shawmut Peninsula in 1630. The Puritans who settled there set up a night watch in 1631. In 1636 it was institutionalized in the Town Meeting. The watch, in various forms, protected the town for the next two hundred years. The town became a city in 1822. By the 1830s it became apparent that the city had now outgrown the watch, and a new system had become necessary. In 1838 six men were hired as the first members of the Day Police, reporting to a city marshall. The much larger night watch of 120 men continued to operate until 1854.

In that year the Boston Police Department entirely replaced the watch. It was expanded to 250 men. In the years following the Civil War, a number of towns were annexed to Boston, including Alston, Brighton, Dorchester, Roxbury, and West Roxbury. By the end of the century, the BPD included 1,000 patrolmen. Today the BPD employs more than 2,000 officers and almost 1,000 civilians.


Boston Police Department


Through the years, the members of the BPD have dealt with tragic events large and small (the Molasses Flood, the Coconut Grove fire, anti-war protests, forced busing, and in 2013 the events of the Marathon Bombing).

In December 1825, sixty-one-year-old Jonathan Houghton was on patrol as a member of the watch. He was attacked ay an axe-wielding man and died a week later, the first person to be killed on duty. At 5:15 a.m. on October 18, 1857, officer Ezekiel W. Hodsdon was on patrol in East Boston when he tried to arrest two people suspected of burglary. During the ensuing struggle, Ezekiel was shot in the head and died 5 hours later. He was the first of seventy-five members of the watch and the BPD who have died of injuries received on duty.

Just last month, descendants of Jonathan Houghton were present when the BPD added his name to the Wall of Honor remembering the departments fallen membrs, along with those of seven others: David Estes (the second Watch Officer to die in the line of duty, died 1848), Michael Brennan (died 1918), John Condon (died 1927), John Lynch (died 1944), and Walter Harris (died 1906).

These are not the only stories of the brave men and women who have served in the Boston Police Department. The BPD operates an archives that maintains information on records dating back to the earliest days of the department. The staff there does a wonderful job, not only in preserving the records, but working to make sure the stories are told.

If you come across ancestors whose occupations were watch, patrolman, police officer, or any of a number of other terms, check with the police department in the area. Find out if they maintain an archive, or if the records are at some other repository. And remember, as demonstrated with Boston, sometimes the police department may extend back years or decades (or even centuries) earlier than you think, albeit in a different form. You might be surprised at the treasured stories you might find.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, January 16, 2015

16 Jan 2015


This week we have some promising blog posts for you, as well as some heartwarming news stories. We start with Judy G. Russell talking about some good and bad news for DNA and genealogy, author Christine Kenneally discusses why genealogy matters to history, Rafael Bernal writes about a new DVD on New York City’s ‘Little Spain,’ the Houston Chronicle ran a piece about a nineteenth-century home that is still in the hands of descendants, and finally, a heartwarming piece about volunteers from the Sons of the American Revolution and injured soldiers.


Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, gives us some news from the world of DNA. It is a mix of good and bad news. The good news: a committee of genetic genealogists has released a preliminary ethical code for integrating DNA with genealogy. The bad news: will not include a way to examine the raw data from any DNA test you do with them. Get the details in DNA: Good News, Bad News.


Christine Kenneally is the author of The Invisible History of the Human Race. She recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about her research, and the negativity expressed towards genealogy. The post discusses the Eugenics programs in the United States and in Germany, the destruction of Chinese family histories under Mao Tse-tung, and, most importantly, why genealogy matters. Read The Invisible History of the Human Race.


Rafael Bernal is an editorial consultant at United Press International. This week he wrote about a new documentary that discusses the immigration of Spanish-speaking people to New York City. The area of Chelsea  around 14th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues was known as “Little Spain.” Immigrants flocked in from around the globe were attracted here by the common language of Spanish. A new documentary discusses this immigrant group. You can read more in ‘Little Spain’ a Valuable Addition to New York’s Immigration History.


Last week the Houston Chronicle ran a piece I’d like to see more of. It discusses Wayne and Mary Jane Windle, who now reside in the same house in the town of Seguin that his great-great grandparents built in 1877. They recently renovated the house to preserve it for future generations. Read more about the house, and the television mini series that was made from a book about some of the former residents in Restored 1887 Texas Home Represents Colorful Family History.





Finally this week comes a heartwarming story in the Fort Hood Herald. It talks about volunteers from the Sons of the American Revolution and a new program they are running called Operation Ancestor Search. These volunteers are working with soldiers who are wounded, injured, or ill. They are teaching soldiers how to do family history research as a way of putting positive activities into the lives of the soldiers at such a difficult time. Read more in Soldiers Learn How to Search for Family History.


How Events Impacted Your Ancestors: The Great Molasses Flood

15 Jan 2015

When looking at our ancestors’ lives, we often see the day-to-day occurrences in diaries and journals. But there are also major events that can impact your ancestors’ lives. The Johnstown Flood, for example, had widespread impact, not only in Johnstown, but in every location where those in Johnstown that day were from. Here in Boston, today marks the ninety-sixth anniversary of one of those major tragedies.

January 15, 1919, was relatively mild winter day in Boston. The harbor was full of ships. Just the day before, a freighter had delivered more than half a million gallons of Cuban molasses to a storage tank belonging to the United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIAC), bringing the contents up to 2.3 million gallons.

The North End was bustling by midday. Many were strolling the streets, enjoying the sunny day. Children were heading back to school after their lunch break. Horse-drawn carts pulled lumber and other goods through the streets. Suddenly, an ominous deep rumbling sounded. In an instant, the almost inch-thick steel walls of the storage tank broke apart with such part that they ripped into the tracks of the L (the elevated railway that ran through Boston), completely destroying more than 100 yards of track. Millions of pounds of thick, sticky molasses were now on the loose.

With a noise as loud as the engine of a locomotive, a 30-foot-high tidal wave coursed down the hill. When the tide ran into the brick buildings at the bottom of the hill, it changed direction and headed straight for Boston Harbor. Anything in its way was dragged along with it.

Delivery carts with their teams of horses still attached were dragged away. Tenement houses were dragged hundreds of feet off their foundations and torn to bits. Any living thing caught in the morass was doomed. The molasses was so viscous it immediately blocked nostrils and mouths, leaving the victims to asphyxiate. Many who didn’t die that way lost their lives when the wave swept them into the waters of the harbor.



Boston Globe Molasses Coverage


In the end, twenty-one people were reported dead, the youngest a ten-year-old Italian schoolboy and the eldest a seventy-six-year-old Blacksmith. Another one-hundred fifty individuals suffered injuries, many of them quite serious and life-changing. USIAC tried to blame the tank’s failure on saboteurs, but after a three-year trial they were finally found guilty and forced to pay reparations.

Originally the court determined that the rivets were to blame, being insufficient to hold the steel plates together. Others blamed a buildup of carbon dioxide in the tank from fermentation. But the exact cause could not be determined at the time. A Waltham engineer, however has studied the tragedy for years. His findings indicate that several design flaws led to the disaster, including the use of steel too thin to handle the stress from millions of gallons of molasses.

Damage was estimated at about $500,000, or more than $7 million is today’s dollars. From those who were injured or lost a loved one, to the rescue workers, to the hospital staffs who aided those caught in the disaster, to those who worked to rebuild that section of the city after the catastrophe (and all of their families and friends), few in Boston were not impacted by the disaster. When you are researching your family history, be certain to check the newspapers to see what events happened locally that might have impacted your family.

Even today, on some very hot summer days, one can occasionally smell the molasses in the air in the North End. You can read more about the disaster and the recent findings of the engineer’s study in the Boston Globe.

Peppy, Posh, and Stash: Words as Clues in Your Genealogical Research

13 Jan 2015

One of the pitfalls of genealogy is learning not to impart modern meanings on our ancestors. Nowhere is this more key than in working with original documents. The language in documents can be key in identifying them. Using words as clues in your genealogical research can be a tremendous help to you.

Words come and go from our lexicon. And often they stay, but meanings changing. One example of this comes from the past year, where the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has now added a second definition of the word “literally.” Because of the excessive use of this term by ill-informed and undereducated individuals, it now also means exactly the opposite, figuratively.

Words can also be very helpful. If you have undated documents you are trying to identify, examining the language can help you. Knowing when words entered common use can assist you. It will not be possible to narrow it to a specific date, but certainly can get you into an approximate time period.

A couple of weeks ago the Boston Globe ran an interesting piece about words. Instead of the typical year-end review of words that had entered the dictionary in the past year, the piece looked back at words that entered the lexicon in 1914. Some of these are still used today, but others have already come and gone.


1914 Words


The start of World War I brought us a number of words we commonly use today. Some make sense, such as air raid (bombs dropped from aircraft), trench coat (a waterproof coat worn by the military in the trenches), and even Balkanization (dividing a region into separate units).  Another commonly used word whose origins you may not know: doohickey (military slang for a small, nondescript object, especially a mechanical one).

Other words that entered the language that year include Gesundheit, oy vey, shish kebab, and Tochus. Each of these came into the English language from another (German, Yiddish, Turkish, and Yiddish respectively). Other words that came in 1914: backpack, big screen, crossword, peppy, posh, stash, and sociopath. Many of these are words that one might think had been around much longer. It is important to study the language in a document to help date it. Never assume when words came into common use. The tunnel under the English Channel connecting England and France was completed in 1994. It is called the Chunnel, leading one to believe it is a contemporary word, but it actually entered common use in 1914.

Some words that entered that year are no longer in use. These include billiken (a small, elf-like doll; deratization (the expulsion of rats), and scrutty (dusty, scruffy).  Examining when words like this entered and left common usage can assist you in dating a document.

The most dangerous words for genealogists, however, are those whose meanings have changed over time. For example jake was used as an adjective to mean good or okay. Today it is use to mean a fireman. Scat was a slang term for whiskey. Today it is a musical style (or something much more base). And seeing the word Roscoe in a letter might lead you to believe that you are looking for a person, while back in 1914 it was a slang term for a handgun.

When reading documents one must be careful.  This is especially important when dealing with correspondence, journals, and diaries, which are much more personal and therefore prone to nicknames and slang terminology. Making assumptions just might send you down the wrong trail.

The Great Family Share Challenge

10 Jan 2015

We talked the other day about some tasks that every genealogist can do in 2015. But now I would like to throw out a challenge to you. If there is one area where genealogists often fall flat it is with sharing the results of their research. We often spend years finding out all sorts of interesting things about our family, without ever compiling the information and sharing it with our living family members. We often hear the stories of genealogists who have left tremendous amounts of information behind, only to have it thrown out by family members who didn’t know (or didn’t care) about what was contained in the files.

So for this year, I am issuing the Great Family Share Challenge. Spend 2015 sharing your family story. I would like everyone to consider taking this on in a way that is meaningful to you. But not in a way that will overburden you, or make you feel pressured.

For the challenge, you should pick at least twelve ancestors or ancestral couples. The goal is to research and share at least one story a month. Bring your ancestors to life so that other family members can discover their roots.

Sharing can take many forms. Don’t limit yourself. And you don’t have to use the same format for all of the sharing. One of the traditional ways you can share is to write a journal article. Many people are terrified of this idea, but really, there is no need for it. The editors of journals appreciate hearing from potential authors. You don’t have to go straight to the larger journals (such as the New England Historical and Genealogical Register or the National Genealogical Society Quarterly). Start with one of the smaller state journals, then work your way up. The editors will work with you to help shape your article for publication.

You could decide to create a book for your family. Start by writing individuals monographs for the families you select. At the end of the year you can combine the monographs into a single volume. You could trace a single line back for twelve generations. But you could also write about your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, which would involve eleven families.


Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 10.39.24 AM


Another option is to create slideshows or videos of your family. Use oral histories to narrate them, or write and record your own audio to use as the narration. Be certain to incorporate images of old documents as well as images of your ancestors.

You can also create a blog to make it easier to share all of these things. This may seem like a scary thing to some of you, especially those who are more technically challenged. But you would be surprised at how easy it can be. There are a wide variety of opportunities for you to create a blog. There you can share your written stories, videos, slideshows, pictures, and more. can offer you some advice on how to start a blog.

Once you have taken up the challenge, come back to this post. Tell us in the comments field how you have shared. Keep returning through the year to tell us how your are progressing. If you have created a blog, or other online presence, be sure to share the url with us so that we can visit and give you some support. Imagine how much you will have shared by the end of the year! Your family will be eternally grateful.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, January 9, 2015

09 Jan 2015

This week’s genealogy news roundup is a nice mix of blog posts and news stories. We start with a discussion of researching in newspapers, user comments about online family trees, the last of the nineteenth-century births, the fallacy of name changes at Ellis Island, and the opening of the oldest time capsule in America.

We start with a post from a relatively new blogger, Debbie Mieszela, the Advancing Genealogist. This week Debbie wrote about researching in newspapers. She especially emphasizes why you want to conduct a complete search, and why you should not limit yourself only to online databases. Get more information in Newspaper Research: The Importance of Being Thorough.

Randy Seaver at Geneamusings had a very interesting post this week. He wrote about the FamilySearch Family Tree and asked his readers why they weren’t using it more. The comments are very illuminating, and include a general discussion of online family trees. You can read these interesting comments in Why Aren’t Researchers Using the FamilySearch Family Tree?

My former colleague David Lambert at the New England Historic Genealogical Society wrote with sad news this week on the Vita Brevis blog. Bernice Marina (Emerson) Madigan was born in West Springfield, Massachusetts on 24 July 1899. After a life that was anything but brief, Bernice passed away last Saturday, 3 January 2015, at the age of 115. She was the fifth-oldest person in the world, and the last person left who was born in New England prior to 1900. Find out more, and who is left, in The End of an Era.

Those who know me know that one of my pet peeves concerns immigration. More specifically, the biggest myth in American history: that any name was ever changed at Ellis Island. Not a single immigrant ever had their name changed there. It never happened. Arika Okren wrote a good piece in Mental Floss discussing this myth. Read more in Why Your Family Name Did Not Come From a Mistake at Ellis Island.


Sam Adams Time Capsule


Finally this week we have a story out of my hometown of Boston. This week conservators at the Museum of Fine Arts opened a time capsule that was discovered on December 11. The capsule was discovered by workers doing renovations to the state house. It is believed to be the oldest time capsule in America. How old is it? It was originally put in place by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere when George Washington was president of the U.S. Placed into the cornerstone in 1795, it was temporarily removed during renovations in 1855, but put back into place with the original contents. Discover what was in the capsule in MFA Opens the Paul Revere, Sam Adams Time Capsule.

Happy Anniversary to Mocavo Fireside Chats – Watch All Videos Now

09 Jan 2015


We are thrilled to celebrate the one year anniversary of our Fireside Chat online video series! One year ago, in support of our Free Forever mission, we decided to offer our Fireside Chats to the entire genealogy community for free, forever. Throughout the past year, we’ve enjoyed hosting many delightful guests who shared expert advice about their own family history experiences and insightful research tips.

To celebrate our one year anniversary, we are sharing the five most watched Fireside Chat videos of 2014. So, we invite you to grab your popcorn and notepads, find a comfy chair, and catch up on your favorite episodes now!

Watch All Episodes Now

1. Get the Inside Scoop on DNA with Special Guest Blaine Bettinger – Watch Now

2. Find out how the law can impact your genealogical research with The Legal Genealogist, Judy G. Russell – Watch Now

3. Identify how technology can make your research easier with top genealogy blogger Dick Eastman – Watch Now

4. Discover the history behind Cyndi’s List and more with founder Cyndi Ingle – Watch Now

5. Uncover your ancestors in railroad records with Paula Stuart-Warren – Watch Now

5 Things Every Genealogist Should Do This Year

08 Jan 2015


5 Things Every Genealogist Should Do in 2015

A new year has arrived. Time to set some goals for the year. Here are five things that every genealogist should do this year. And the best part is that they are all easily accomplished.

1. Take a Class

One thing that is certain about genealogy: as you progress with your research you will eventually arrive in a new location. This will require you to learn new resources and research techniques. There are many avenues open to you for learning now. One of the best places to learn are genealogical societies. Your local society can help with genealogy methodology. And societies that specialize in particular groups, or represent locations your ancestors lived in, can assist you with more specific learning.

2. Review Past Research

From time to time it is important to go back and review research you have already done. New records are becoming available with increasing frequency. Are there newly-available materials that support your research findings? Or, are there resources that now contradict your conclusions? Or, perhaps, you can add to the story you already have. Sometimes you can see things you missed before, especially with work you haven’t looked at in awhile. So pick up some of your old lines and review them.

3. Attack a Challenging Problem

Sometimes as we research we stumble across challenges. Perhaps it is a brick wall line, or one with conflicting answers. Sometimes the problem is that there may be sensitive information involved, an intricate conversation that we are not prepared to have. Make 2015 the year you decide to tackle one of these problems and bring it to a resolution.

4. Share Your Research

Whether you’ve been researching for years, or just a few months, you have probably gathered a bit of information. All too often, we sit on this information, waiting until we are “finished researching” before we share the stories with our family members. Unfortunately, there is no way to know when you will be “finished.” And frequently, we are finished before our research is. Don’t let your findings get lost. Take the time to share what you find with your family. And don’t just do it once. Come up with several times this year you will share your findings and put it in your schedule to get it done.

5. Find a Genealogy Partner

One of the best parts about doing genealogical research is all the wonderful people you meet along the way. And in this case, I’m talking about the living ones, not the dead ones. I am fortunate to have many friends and colleagues to bounce ideas off of, commiserate with, and most importantly, hold my feet to the fire about things. Find yourself a partner (or two or three and make it a group effort). Your jobs will be to check in with each other frequently, talk to each other about your research and goals for the year, and make sure you get some things done. You will be surprised how much this little effort can help.

Resources for African-American Genealogy

07 Jan 2015

Recently I received a question about resources for African-American research. I am familiar with the basics of this kind of research. But, more importantly, I know where to go to find the information I need. Here are three resources to help you with  finding your African-American ancestors.

1. African-American Historical and Genealogical Society
AAHGS was founded in 1977 by a group of historians and genealogists, including the noted genealogist James Dent Walker. Since it was founded, the organization has grown nationwide, and has twenty state chapters spread across the country. Each October the organization holds a conference specifically about African-American research. The 2015 conference will be held in Richmond, Virginia.


African American Archaeology


2. African-American Archaeology, History, and Cultures

One of the important parts of genealogy is understanding the cultural and sociological aspects of the societies in which your family lived. This website, created by Christopher C. Fennell, a member of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign, provides “convenient access to online presentations and resources concerning the subjects of African-American archaeology, history and cultures, and broader subjects of African diaspora archaeology.” The site covers a wide geographic area, including Asia, Britain, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, and South America, in addition to the United States.

3. Cyndi’s List

Cyndi Ingle runs the biggest and most valuable resource list on the web. Those researching their African-American ancestors will find valuable resources in more than two dozen categories. The “how-to” section alone has more than a dozen references to help you with your research. Other categories include immigration, emigration, and migration; medical and DNA; people and families; publications, software and supplies; slavery; military; newspapers; and much, much more.

African-American genealogical research can be very different from other kinds of genealogy. It is critically important to get off on the right foot, and understand where you are headed. These three

Modern Technology Identifies Irish Famine Shipwreck Victims

06 Jan 2015

The Gaspé Penninsula stands in the northern tip of Quebec, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. It is a very remote area. In the first half of the 19th century, hundreds of ships sailed past her, carrying immigrants from the British Isles to Canada. In May 1847, at the height of the Irish Famine, it was also the site of a terrible tragedy.

The brig Carricks was transporting 167 passengers from Ireland to new homes in Canada. A difficult voyage under the best of conditions, the ship was wrecked in the Gaspé, about four miles from Cap des Rosiers. The crew suffered the lost of only one boy, but of the 167 passengers on board, only 48 survived. News of the accident was report in William Lloyd Garrison’s noted Boston-based anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, carried news of the wreck (Vol. XVII, No. 25 (Whole No. 859) p. 69, col. 4).

Many of the dead were found along the beach the day after the wreck. They were buried in a common grave nearby and fifty years later a monument was erected in their memory. More than a century later, the ship’s bell washed up shore and was enshrined next to the monument.


Light tower at Cap Des Rosier in Quebec.

Light tower at Cap Des Rosier in Quebec.


The site of the wreck and recovery now lays within Forillon National Park. A few years after the Carricks was lost a lighthouse was erected at Cap des Rosiers to help prevent further tragedies. In 2011 a passerby came across some bones on the shore near where the wreck occurred. The bones were sent to a coroner who sent the bones for analysis. Careful study has shown that the bones likely came from four or five individuals, both adults and children. Investigators believe that they may have come from the common grave. Unfortunately, while oral tradition puts the burial site under the monument, the precise location was never recorded.

Many of the survivors settled in the nearby village of Douglastown, and their descendants still live there today. These individuals are concerned that the actual resting place be discovered. If these bones did come from the common grave, they do not want any more of their ancestors’ remains to be disturbed. They would like further investigation, and relocation of the remains if they are now too close to the water.

The bones are still at a government forensics lab in Montreal. They will undergo further testing, including DNA tests. Interestingly, one of the consultants who works  in the lab is forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs. Reichs is also an author and the inspiration for Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, portrayed by Emily Deschanel in the Fox television show Bones. You can read more about this story in the original 2011 Globe and Mail story Bones Found on Gaspé Coast Could be of 1847 Shipwreck Victims, and in the update from last week, Human Bones Discovered on Gaspé Peninsula ‘Witnesses to a Tragic Event.’