Genealogy Blog

O, Captain, My Captain!

12 Aug 2014

The world is a lot less funny today. It seems like only yesterday that I was watching a crazy man in a red jumpsuit wander in Milwaukee and get into a contest with Arthur Fonzarelli. Robin Williams was absolutely hilarious, and it was the beginning of an incredible love affair between Robin and the public. And his untimely death is a reminder to us all.

Robin was an incredible talent. While initially famous for his comedic abilities, he also was an amazing dramatic actor. For me, one of his most seminal films came in 1989, Dead Poets Society. His character was John Keating, an English professor at a private school, who taught his students not only to read poetry, but to live life. In his initial scene, he enters the room whistling Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. He takes his students into the hallway, and asks one of them to read Robert Herrick’s poem To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may; Old time is still a-flying: And this ame flower that smiles to-day; To-morrow will be dying.”

He has them look at pictures of former students from the nineteenth century. He points out that the one thing that all those students have in common is that they are now “food for worms.” He encourages his students with the words Carpe Diem (Seize the Day). He wants each of them to live an extraordinary life.


Robin Williams Dead Poets Society


Nobody knows better than genealogists how fleeting life can be. Or what each of us lives with on a day to day basis. We take bits and pieces of information to put together a version of our ancestors’ lives, but often we are missing the significant details.

Many think that living an extraordinary life means that we must be rich or famous. This is not true. We, each of us, get to define what extraordinary means to us. But we all too often forget, and get caught up in the drift of life. As we move through the stages of life, we sometimes get complacent and lose track of what we really want. To have an extraordinary life, we simply need to look back on what we want, and work to get it (which is not to say we don’t modify our desires and goals along the way).

When Dead Poets Society was released, I was not long out of college and trying to determine what I wanted to be. I decided that it was time to try same crazy new things, so I quit my job and moved to the big city of Boston. Since then, I’ve marched for civil rights on the streets of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. I’ve worked to get laws and other protections in place to prevent bullying and youth suicide. I’ve performed with incredibly talented people, across the country and around the world to audiences of up to hundreds of thousands of people. I even got to sing on stage at Carnegie Hall. I’ve visited almost every state, and sixteen countries on three continents. And I make my living by helping people find their family stories, to help them discover where they come from.

In the movie, Keating quotes Walt Whitman: “the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” He then turns to his students and asks “What will your verse be?” The movie ends with Keating leaving the school, and his students climbing onto their desks, promising to look at life from a different angle, and calling him “O, Captain, My Captain!). Robin Williams left not only a verse, but an entire musical arrangement. And now I ask you “What will YOUR verse be?” Whatever it is, write it down. Be certain that future generations know the things that were important to you, and what was not. Let them know what your extraordinary life was like for you.

How Noah’s Skeleton Can Help Your Research

09 Aug 2014

This week the Penn Museum in Philadelphia reported an extraordinary find. The Penn Museum, affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, is dedicated to archaeology. The museum has initiated a project to digitize records from a joint expedition to what is today Iraq with the British Museum that took place between 1922 and 1934.

During the course of the expedition, Sir Leonard Woolley led an exaction at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. The team discovered the skeleton about 40 feet down, in a layer of silt. The skeleton was shipped back to the Penn around 1930, where it was put into storage in the basement. And there is has remained for almost 85 years, completely forgotten.

Thanks to the digitization project, the remains were recently relocated. They belong to a well-muscled man, about 5’10” tall, who was about age 50 when he died. The museum has named him Noah. Modern technology, unavailable at the time of the original expedition, leave scholars hopeful that they will be able to gain a great deal of information about humans in that time period. Noah dates to about 4500 B.C.E., about 2,000 years earlier than other surviving remains from that area. You can read more about Noah at Discovery News.


Penn Museum Noah Skeleton


Now you may be wondering, to yourself “What does a 6,500-year-old body have to do with genealogy? Isn’t that a bit far back in the ahnentafel?” It is not the skeleton itself, but the events surrounding it that are very applicable to genealogy.

Often we get so caught up in the thrill of research that we don’t spend time enough time processing our findings. Think about how many electronic files and pieces of paper you have with your genealogy materials. And how easy it is to misplace something. Have you ever gone through your materials and occasionally found something you hadn’t seen in ages? And this rediscovery can lead to major new avenues of research.

One way speed up this rediscovery is to periodically review your files. Is everything organized properly? Anything misplaced? And regularly process your backlog of files, both electronic and paper. Start by taking everything you are waiting to deal with and putting it all in a single place: a file folder, an archive box, a special folder on your computer.

Once you have everything accumulated, the next step is to look at your calendar. Schedule some time to review the files on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter if it is once a week, once a month, or once a quarter. The important thing is to go through the materials regularly, process them, and put them in their permanent places. This is the best way to minimize problems with lost items, and keep you from repeating the mistakes of the Penn Museum and Noah.

We Asked and You Answered!

09 Aug 2014

Last week we asked if you had ever found a valuable family keepsake at an antique fair or eBay. Here’s what you said!

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Five Things Star Trek Taught Me About Genealogy

07 Aug 2014


I have always been a bit of a nerd, preferring to spend my time reading and challenging my mind than playing sports. Since I was a young boy I have loved Gene Roddenberry’s  Star Trek universe. Now, many people think that the show was trite, but it has always carried a deeper, metaphorical message. It broke many barriers, with an interracial cast, a lack of cigarette smoking, and other harbingers of the future that have arrived already. And how many television shows can you name that have these accomplishments:

Many of the lessons imparted by captains Kirk, Picard, Sisco, Janeway, Archer, and all the crews of  Star Trek are quite applicable to genealogy.

1. Technology

The communicators from the original featured a screen that flipped up. In the 1990s and early 2000s, they came to life in the flip-phone style of mobile phones at the time. Just as Star Trek foretold the future, genealogists are often early adapters of new technology. And we love to find new and creative uses for it. Take, for example, the Flip Pal scanner, designed with genealogists in mind. It has now become ubiquitous for many of us in our research, scanning images and documents. Be aware of what technological advances you might be able to use in your research, and don’t wait to take advantage of them.

2. Time Travel

Many of Star Trek’s adventures involve time travel (including The City on the Edge of Forever, widely considered to be the best episode of the original series). Sometimes it was accidental, and other times it was intentional, a necessary thing to accomplish the mission. As genealogists, we must employ time travel regularly. One of the most important tenets of genealogy is understanding the time and place in which your ancestors lived. It is only by doing so that you can truly accomplish the best research. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to place our twenty-first century experiences and values on those who lived in a different era.

3. Testing Theories

The mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise and her crew was “to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before. . .” Venturing into new territory left the crew uncertain in many situations. They would come up with a plan, test it, and adapt it based on results. This is exactly how genealogical research is conducted. After we come up with theories, we conduct research, evaluate evidence, and weigh our conclusions, constantly testing them and adapting them as we accumulate additional evidence.

4. Teamwork

Starfleet captains understand that individual crew members have different talents. The best results come with utilizing the various talents of different individuals to complete the mission. As genealogists, we are constantly venturing into new territory. Even professionals consult each other constantly when covering new territory. Work with your friends, read articles, take classes, and consult with professionals to have the greatest success in your research.

5. Tenacious

Starfleet crews work together and when it comes to a mission, they never give up. Even when a crewmember was lost, they never left him or her behind (although not so successful with rescuing the red shirts). Genealogists follow their lead. Always look for a new lead, a new angle, or new evidence. Shift your approach to the problem. In 1999, a film spoof of Star Trek appeared in cinemas. Galaxy Quest was a total parody, and had a motto that is totally suitable for genealogists: “Never give up . . .  Never surrender!”

Chasing National Boundaries on the European Map

06 Aug 2014

One of the difficulties in tracing your ancestors back across the pond is discovering exactly where they originated. In America, places of origin for foreign-born individuals most commonly mention the country of origin. On occasion you might get the name of a county or region. While this helps, it still is often not enough.

A major problem with discovering the origins of your European ancestors is the changing map of the continent. While Great Britain and Ireland have been around for awhile, other European countries have a different background. In 1800, for example, Scandinavia was comprised of two nations: Sweden as well as Denmark and Norway (a single country at the time). The French Empire extended down into what is today northern Italy. Sardinia was a separate country. The Ottoman Empire extended north to Hungary. The area that is today Germany and Italy was composed of hundreds of small kingdoms and fiefdoms in loose alliances.

After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the map was considerable different. France had lost considerable territory to the Swiss Confederation and the independent areas that are now Northern Italy. The Austro-Hungarian Empire came into existence. Russia controlled much of the territory on the Baltic Sea. The German Confederation had loosely started. Denmark ceded the area of Norway to Sweden, which had, in turn, lost the area of Finland, which became a Grand Duchy of the Tsar of Russia.

The map continues to change throughout the nineteenth century, especially in the 1870s. It is then that the German Confederation and other nearby territories form what we know of today as Germany. The same is true on the Mediterranean, where modern-day Italy was formed (with the Vatican remaining an independent nation, greatly reduced from its original size as the Sates of the church, where it extended as far north as Bologna and Ferrara).

During World War I, the map changed tremendously again. By the end of the war, Poland and the Baltic states were ceded into independent nations. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was gone. Austria and Hungary were independent countries. The new nations of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia came into existence.


Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog from Wikimedia Commons.

Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog from Wikimedia Commons.


Even today, there are some remnants of these border changes. NPR recently had a story about the towns of Baarle-Hertog in Belgium, and Baarle-Nassau in the Netherlands. The Belgian population is 2,306, while the Dutch population is 6,668. But the towns are not composed of contiguous land, and each has pieces of the other contained within its boundaries. Buildings, including private homes, are often located in both towns, which, of course, means that they are located in two different countries.

Over the course of a century, the area where your ancestor came from may have changed hands multiple times. And the question “Where were you born?” may have received a different response each time it was asked because of it. This is why it is so critical to get down as close as you can to the name of the city, town, or village where your ancestor was born. This can help you get back past the brick walls caused by changes to the geopolitical boundaries where they lived.

Discover your WWI Ancestors in Thousands of Free Military Collections

06 Aug 2014


World War I ushered in a new era of armed conflict with modern machines that caused unprecedented casualties. This month marks a century since the start of the conflict in Europe and one of the best ways to pay tribute to your family’s military heroes is to discover and share their story. As a Mocavo Community member, you can learn about the lives of your ancestors who served in WWI in thousands of military records – all available for free.

Start exploring the lives of your ancestors now.

View Military Collections

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Danger in the Graveyard

05 Aug 2014

Dick Eastman ran a very tragic story last week about a Tennessee cemetery. An individual had used a wire brush to “clean” gravestones. He wanted to photograph the stones to add them to the Find A Grave website. In his ignorance, he did extensive damage to the stones, rendering some of the inscriptions totally illegible. Some of these damaged stones date back to the late-eighteenth century (the church was founded in 1780). Even more remarkably, he did so without the permission of the church to whom the cemetery belonged.

There are all sorts of purported methods for cleaning grave markers. Included in these are:

  • Ammonia
  • Baking Soda
  • Bleach
  •  Cornstarch

None of these should ever be used under any circumstances. Nor should you ever use any kind of abrasive, tools, or anything with a firm pressure. They can all cause permanent damage, potentially destroying the very inscriptions you are trying preserve.

In addition to cleaning, individuals try all sorts of methods for reading inscriptions on grave markers that might be eroded and difficult to read. Among the items people use:

  • Chalk
  • Flour
  • Shaving Cream

None of these should ever be used. The chemicals in shaving cream can do serious damage to a gravestone. In addition to using chalk directly on a grave marker, some people use chalk and paper to create rubbings of the original stone. Be aware that this can also cause damage the stones. In some localities, such as Massachusetts, it is now illegal to make gravestone rubbings.

The two best friends you have for reading gravestones are water, and a reflective surface, such as a mirror. I routinely bring a couple of bottles of water in my bag when I visit a cemetery. often the simple act of putting some water on the stone makes some of the etched words easier to read. I’ve even brought out letters and numbers that were completely illegible.

A mirror or other highly reflective surface works well also. This tool is best used on a bright, sunny day. Use the mirror to reflect light across the face of the stone. The shadows it creates may illuminated the illegible inscription. I’ve also used photographer’s reflectors to achieve the same effect. They are flexible and as they are not made of glass, there is no risk or dangerous breakage if you drop them. You can get them inexpensively through photo supply stores or Amazon.

The man who damaged those gravestones is now facing possible criminal charges, a Class E felony carrying a prison term of not less than one year and up to six years, plus financial penalties up to $3,000. Think twice before you make his mistake. For more information about working with cemeteries and gravestones, visit the Association for Gravestone Studies.

Gravestone Studies

Average Men Changing the Course of History: The Port Chicago 50

04 Aug 2014

World War II had a major impact on so many American families. Most often we hear the stories of the soldiers who went overseas, only to lose their lives in battlefields on foreign soil. But there were, on occasion, accidents and other events on domestic soil that also left families bereft. One of those occurred 70 years ago.

When the war started in 1942, a base was built about 30 miles north of San Francisco to deal with munitions headed to the Pacific. During this time, the American armed forces were still segregated. About 1,400 African-American were assigned to Port Chicago. As you can imagine, hauling munitions is dangerous and challenging work. As might be expected, this work was delegated to those units. The troops were ill-trained for this work. And because of the pressing needs of the war, officers pressed them with astronomically high production goals.

The night of July 17 was an average one. Two brand new cargo ships were at the pier. The S.S. E.A. Brian was docked at the inboard, landward side of the pier, while the S.S. Quinault Victory was docked on the outboard side. Workers had filled the hold of the Brian with 4,400 tons of munitions, and at 10:18 p.m. On the pier and ships, 320 men were preparing the Quinault Victory for loading.

Witnesses reported hearing the clash of metal on metal, and the sound of splintering wood, followed by an incredible blast. This was followed six seconds later by an explosion even more powerful than the first. White-hot metal was flying through air filled with fire and smoke. The blast was so powerful that it registered as a 3.4 seismic event on the Richter scale, and was felt as far away as Nevada.

The Brian and a nearby locomotive were completely obliterated. The 7,600-ton Quinault Victory was lifted out of the water and flung 500 feet, landing in pieces. All 320 men were instantly killed in the blast, and almost 400 more suffered serious injuries. Two-thirds of those killed were African-American troops.


Port Chicago


A Navy court of inquiry laid the blame at the feet of the African-American stevadores, without acknowledging that the white officers did not train them properly and pushed them too hard. The surviving stevadores were not given leave, and were ordered back to work immediately at nearby port. Hundreds of them were told to start loading ordnance again. 258 (about 80%) refused. It was the only order that they refused to obey.

The men were placed under guard on a prison barge. Admiral Carleton Wright warned them that their actions constituted an act of mutiny — which, during this time of war, carried the death penalty. All but 50 of the men returned to work.

The remaining men were put on trial for mutiny, the largest such trial in the history of the U.S. Navy. After six weeks, the men were found guilty, and sentenced with 8 to 15 years of hard labor.

A young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall witnessed the end of the hearings, and accused the Navy of framing the sailors. He appealed the decision to the Judge Advocate General, but it was denied. But the public fervor was against them. The Navy was forced to release the men, and in January 1946 became the first branch of the armed forces to become fully integrated. But the men were only given clemency, and never officially exonerated. More than half a century later, the men received an official pardon from President Bill Clinton.

The Port Chicago accident accounted for 15% of the total deaths of African-American military personnel during the entire war. During their lives, the “Port Chicago 50” actively avoided obtaining a pardon. In the words of one,  “That means, ‘You’re guilty but we forgive you.’ We want the decisions set aside.”

5 Tips for Using a Professional to Overcome Your Brick Walls

26 Jul 2014


I am often asked what professional genealogists do. My colleagues and I are also often asked “Why should I hire a professional genealogist? And why won’t they guarantee results?” The truth is that professional genealogists can be of tremendous help to you. Here are five tips to help you work with a professional genealogist to break down your brick walls.

1. What can a professional do for me?

Professionals have extensive experience. They have spent years educating themselves, researching, and are quite knowledgeable. Their knowledge of methodology and research techniques is usually quite great. But it is not just for research only that you can hire a professional. Many of them will also do consultations for a fee, giving you assistance on where to focus your research.

2. Why can’t I just do it myself?

We can’t all be experts on everything. Professionals often have extensive experience, sometimes in a very narrow area. Sometimes, especially with your brick wall problems, you may have run out of ideas. Professionals with their greater expertise, may be able to find new avenues for research. They also usually have access to vast networks of colleagues with whom they can consult for even further ideas. This can be a shortcut for you, potentially saving you years of time.

3. Why won’t a professional guarantee results?

Because there is no way to know how long it will take, if ever, to find the answers you are seeking. When you hire a professional, you are paying for their expertise and their time to search. Sometimes we find the answer in a day, and sometimes it takes years, and there is no way to know in advance how long it will take. This is especially true of brick wall problems, where you have already examined the easily available resources. It took me seven years to find one marriage record in my own ancestry. The solution only arose when I saw a single, unrelated, original record, that indicated the family had moved elsewhere for a time. Not only won’t a qualified professional guarantee you results, you should run away from one who dies. They are clearly more interested in taking your money than providing you with excellent research services.

4. What should I do before hiring a professional?

Put together a succinct description of exactly what you are looking for. Send it to the professional, asking to gage their interest in the project. You should ask for an estimate of how much time, and the hourly rate. You can negotiate a certain amount of time. As a rule, it is better to authorize a minimum of 3 to 5 hours. It will take awhile for the professional to get moving, and you don’t want to cut them off if they are hot on the trail of a solution for you. Most professionals will ask for a retainer when working with a new client. Don’t be afraid to ask for references.

5. How can I find a professional to help me?

In the United States, visit the Association of Professional Genealogists. They have the largest network of genealogists. You can search the database by place of residence, as well as by areas of expertis. Members of the Board for Certification of Genealogists and the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists have undergone additional testing of their expertise. Member of all three organizations are required to agree to certain ethical standards, and you should certainly file a complain with the organizations if you feel that a professional has violated ethics in their work with you.