Genealogy Blog

Beyond the Christmas Cow: More Holiday Gifts for Genealogists

13 Dec 2014


The holidays are here. Still wondering what to get your genealogist friends and family? Is your significant other still asking you what you want for the holiday? Not certain what to ask for? Last year I wrote about Christmas Cows and other potential holiday gifts. Here are some different ideas that you can give for the genealogist in your life (or ask for from your own loved ones). While some won’t arrive in time for the holidays, the anticipation will be wonderful!

1. Professional Assistance
Everyone needs a little help now and then. Professional researchers are experts in their areas. Having them do some research for you may help you break down those brick walls. If you prefer to do the work yourself, you can still avail yourself of professional assistance. Many professionals, in addition to research, offer consulting services. You can get an hour or two of consultation time to help propel your research. Check the Association of Professional Genealogists for people who can help you out.

2. Subscribe to a Journal
Many people think that journals are not just for scholars and professionals. We can all benefit from reading them. Even if the articles are not about your ancestors, you can learn a great deal about resources useful to your research by seeing how authors solved their genealogical puzzles. One great journal is The American Genealogist, and independent journal founded by Donald Lines Jacobus.

3. Professional Video Creators
What better way to honor your family than to take your documents, photographs, and other images and turn them into a video? While there is lots of software out there to help you do it on your own, a professional can bring a level of design experience that most of us just do not have. There are many websites where you can find information on video professionals, while others have video editors bid on your project.

4. Heritage/Research Tour
There are many organizations out there that run heritage tours. These can give you a great look at the places your ancestors lived. Walk the very streets that they walked. See the churches where they were baptized and married. You might even be able to see cemeteries where your ancestors are buried. You can even throw in some research time at a repository or two. Collude with another family member so that your non-genealogy significant others can keep each other company as well!

5. One word: Etsy
If you’ve never heard of Etsy, now is the time to visit. It is a great place where creative people sell their wares. These individauls have their own “shops”, selling all manner of items, including many that are handmade and custom made. You can find a wide variety of items here that are of interest to genealogists. For example, a graphic designer from New York operates the Modern Trees shop, where you can order some very modern 5-, 6-, or 7-generation pedigrees. Look around and you are sure to find some interesting objects.

New Must-Have New York Genealogy Research Guide

09 Dec 2014

Looking for the perfect holiday gift? Well, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society has just the right thing for you. A groundbreaking event in New York genealogical research, the NYGB is now taking pre-orders for the first all-encompassing  New York genealogy research guide.

I remember being part of a group discussion three years ago at the society’s offices when the subject of the book came up. McKelden Smith, the president of the NYGB, though it was a wonderful idea, and has done an amazing job with his team to bring this vision to fruition. It has been a long road since that first meeting, but this work sets a high bar for others to follow. And now, after countless of hours of research by many, many individuals, the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer is finally read for publication!


NY Research Guide


This massive work is the first all-encompassing resource for those researching their family history anywhere in the states. The guide includes:

  • Chapters on major record groups and research resources
  • Information on major ethnic and religious groups that have lived in New York
  • Gazetteers, maps, and research guides to each of New York’s  sixty-two counties
  • A timeline of key events in New York history 1609–1945 that impact genealogical research
  • An index of place names past and present

I was one of more than 100 leading experts that contributed to the work and reviewed the contents. County historians from around the state reviewed not only the factual information, but also the lists of resources for those areas.

If you or a genealogist you love has New York ancestors, this is a must-have book for your reference shelf. The only drawback to ordering this book now is that it will not be delivered in time for the holidays. That said, if you purchase it as a gift, the NYGB will be pleased to send a gift card in your name to the recipient.

The New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer is a softcover book, 8.5×11. It has 800 pages plus an index. The book will normally sell for $85, but you can get it now on a pre-publication discount for $75. NYGB members can get it for an even bigger discount price of $60. If you are not a member yet, consider joining the society as well! Find out more details about the book (and read some quotes about it from Henry Louis Gates and David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States) on the NYGB website.


Bonds Forged from Disaster: The Halifax Explosion

08 Dec 2014

The connections between New England and eastern Canada date back generations to the eighteenth century. Differences between the governments of Great Britain and France (and later America) lead to tense relations at times in the early years, but since the end of the War of 1812, relations between the United States and Canada have overall been quite cordial.

Many Americans in the northern states that border Canada often have ancestry that traces back through Canada. In a great deal of instances one finds the ancestry going back into Canada, then leading back into the United States, following paths of immigration. Many New Englanders, for example, left to settle in Canada in the 1760s, followed by many more who were Loyalists once the American Revolution was over. As the Industrial Revolution progressed in the 19th and early-20th centuries, many descendants of these individuals immigrated down to America looking for work.

The city of Boston, however, probably has the closest ties of anyplace in the United States to her Canadian cousins. A horrible tragedy brought close relations even closer during World War I.

On December 3, 1917, the SS Imo out of Norway arrived at the harbor in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was on her way to New York City to load relief supplies destined for Belgium. Her departure, scheduled for two days later, was delayed because the coal she used for fuel was delayed in arrival.

The war caused Nova Scotia to lift a ban on munitions in the harbor, or what happened  next may have been avoided. The SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship, arrived at Halifax on December 5. She was fully loaded with all kinds of explosives, there to join a convoy headed to Europe.

On the morning of the next day, the Imo, travelling too quickly and in the wrong side of the channel, rammed the Mont-Blanc at 8:45 a.m. This started a fire that quickly got out of control. Realizing the danger, the captain ordered all hands to abandon ship. She was only 40 yards from shore.  Unfortunately, she drifted closer and came to rest against a pier. Just after 9:04 am, less than twenty minutes after the collision, Mont-Blanc exploded.

The explosion was the largest in history to that time, and would only be superseded by the detonation of atomic bombs in World War II. Parts of the ship landed more than three miles away from the blast. A tsunami was created  when the water around the ship vaporized. More than 12,000 buildings in a mile and a half radius were destroyed.  More than 1,600 people died instantly, and hundreds more later died of their injuries. 9,0000 people suffered injuries.

Halifax Explosion

News of the explosion reached Boston by telegraph the morning of the explosion. The Massachusetts Public Safety Committee and the Boston Red Cross immediately sent a train fully-loaded with relief supplies to Halifax. In 1918, the city of Halifax sent a Christmas Tree to the city of Boston in thanks for the assistance. Today, the provincial government continues to supply a tree each year to the city. Last Thursday, our new mayor lit the annual present from our neighbors to the north for the first time, and enduring symbol of friendship between the two. The CBC has a website where you can learn a great deal more about the Halifax Explosion.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, December 5, 2014

05 Dec 2014

This week we bring you some stories from around the world. I hope that you find them as interesting and informative as I do.

We start this week’s roundup with a research tip from Michael John Neil I wrote about him last week in a list of blogs you should be reading. This week, one of his tips of the day discusses the importance of noting whether or not you have captured an entire document. Read more of the tip in Do You Have the Back of That Digital Image?

Next we have a cemetery story that ran in the Boston Globe last week. The story discusses a problem that is becoming more and more common in New England (and elsewhere). In Hartland, Vermont, a man moved into town and became quite successful. He bought a property to build a large home on it, but doing so would require moving a cemetery. He followed every rule, defended himself in lawsuits, and eventually succeeded in moving the cemetery. Now he may never build the home after all. Read more in Dream of a Manse on a Vermont Hilltop Runs Into Tradition, Suspicion.

Another, but more hopeful, cemetery story ran in the New York Times last week. An adovacy group, Mental Health America, is working with volunteers to help change laws in New York state that prevent people from placing names on the graves of those buried in mental health facilities, graves that were originally marked only with numbers.  Read more about their efforts in Restoring Lost Names, Recapturing Lost Diginity.

We close this week with two history-related stories. First, Dick Eastman noted a celebrated American. Mark Twain was born 179 years ago this week. While there are many photographs of Samuel Clemens, only one motion picture is known to exist. The cameraman is also as well-known as Mark Twain. His name was Thomas Alva Edison.  Dick as a link to the video in View the Only Video fo Mark Twain in Existence.


Shakespeare First Folio


And finally we close with a story that is known all too well by genealogists. How many times have we as genealogists come across items missing from repository shelves, or items that the staff themselves were unaware that they had? A library in Saint Omer, France, recently discovered a seventeenth-century book that had been hidden among its holdings for centuries. This was not just any book, however. It is a William Shakespeare First Folio. Published in 1623, only 230 are believed to still exist. Read more of this story in Shakespeare First Folio Found in French Library.

3 Tips for Becoming a Genealogy Professional

03 Dec 2014

ThreeI’m often asked about being a professional genealogist. Some people are just curious about how one gets to do that. I will admit that when I am in non-genealogy-related social situations, I will sometimes obfuscate a bit. Giving out my profession inevitably results in an extended conversation. It usually begins with clarify that I do not work with rocks, nor do I work on women’s health issues. Then they start becoming interested. They will often start telling me about their own family history, which results in my having to bite my tongue strongly when I hear classically false stories such as the Native American in the family, the three brothers who immigrated together and separated upon arrival, or the family’s name being changed at Ellis Island.

But then there are those who are genuinely interested in how one becomes a professional in a field of amateurs. Often it is because they are considering such a transition themselves, and would like to know how to accomplish it. Here are three things to think about if you are considering becoming a professional genealogist.

1. Practice, Practice, Practice
I am very lucky. I’ve made my living as a professional genealogist for twenty-five years now (I started when I was 5. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.). I do not have a degree in genealogy. In fact, in one of the big ironies of my life, I wanted to be a history major in college, but felt I would not be able to get a job where a history major would be useful.

That said, education is very important to being a professional. The best professionals have a certain area in which they are experts. But they also have a basic working knowledge of a wide variety of subjects. And how long does it take to become an expert? The standard developed by Malcolm Gladwell is 10,000 hours. This is not just 10,000 hours of repetition. It means 10,000 hours of working at something, learning, and adjusting your approach until becomes finely-honed. Not only do you end up with an extensive knowledge about a subject, but you also end up with a great knowledge of where to go to find answers for subjects you don’t know. The longer you have been a genealogist, the greater your chances for becoming successful as a professional.

2. Education
As part of this process, a great deal of education is necessary. We must learn all we can about genealogical research and methodology. We also need to learn about business: budgeting, finance, marketing, etc. Will we work for a company or as a private contractor? Think of these when moving through this stage:

  • Who can help me in my education process as a teacher, mentor, or even a compatriot?
  • What resources are out there, not only for genealogy, but also for becoming a professional?
  • When will I be ready to become a professional?
  • Where do I go to find resources to help me become a professional?3. Resources

3. Resources
There are a number of resources available to those interested in becoming a professional. The Association of Professional Genealogists is open to anyone who works in the field of genealogy, or those interested in working in the field. Joining will allow you access to educational opportunities. Even more importantly, it will provide you with networking opportunities to get to know other professionals.  You can also join a ProGen Study Group. These groups meet virtually and use the Professional Genealogy text edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills as a forum for developing professional-level skills. Certainly having your skillset tested by the Board for Certification of Genealogists and/or the International Commission for the Accreditation of Genealogists  will tell you if you are ready to make the leap. Marian Pierre Louis also runs an interesting podcast called the Genealogy Professional, which can give you many ideas.

Is the British Royal Family Having DNA Problems?

02 Dec 2014

At the beginning of this year, it was proven that a body discovered in a car park in Leicester, England, actually was that of King Richard III. Mitochondrial DNA was compared with living descendants to confirm the identification of the remains. News agencies around the world today are reporting on new DNA findings, and of course, they are focusing on the sensationalistic.

The problem is that the y-chromosome DNA (passed down from father to son), does not match. Somewhere along the line, the father of one of the children was not the husband of the mother. This is what is known as a “non-paternal event.”

Unfortunately, sensationalists in the media are now wondering what this means for Queen Elizabeth II and the current royal family. Does she have the right to sit on the throne? No matter what the sensationlists say, the reality is that it is far more likely to be yes than no.

Because Richard III left no descendants, testing was done on modern-day individuals descended from his second-great-grandfather, Edward III. All of the living people tested are descended from Henry Somerset, the 5th Duke of Beaufort.  Unfortunately, their y-DNA does not match that of Richard III. Both Somerset and the current royal family share a common ancestor in John of Gaunt, the brother of Richard III’s great-grandfather, Edmund, Duke of York. Both of these men were sons of Edward III.

The issue of the non-paternal event is: where did it fall? The reality is that there are so many possibilities that the vast majority of them would not impact the royal family at all. It is also likely that the answer will never be known because it is so complex.

In the line of Richard III, for example, we have Richard III; his father Richard, Duke of York; grandfather Richard, Earl of Cambridge; and great-grandfather, Edmund, Duke of York. Any of these could be the non-paternal event.

How we have John of Gaunt, the common ancestor with the royal family. If John of Gaunt were not the biological son of Edward III, a case could be made that the Tudors were not entitled to sit on the throne, leading to questions about the sitting monarch.

However, between John of Gaunt and Henry Somerset, 5th Duke of Beaufort (the common ancestor of those living descendants who were tested), there are 14 generations. That leaves fourteen additional possibilities. In other words, out of the nineteen possibilities for a non-paternal event, only one would have the possibility of impacting Queen Elizabeth II.

Trying to prove this would require massive testing of living male descendants of each branch in each of the fourteen generations from John of Gaunt just to see if the break possibly occurred there. But even then there are still are four other possibilities on the Richard III branch. It will be interesting to see if anyone would care to undertake such an endeavor. You can read more about this story in reports from the BBC and the Telegraph. The Telegraph story has an interesting chart that makes it easier to understand the lines of descent and where the problems might be.

Richard III Non Paternal Event




5 Blogs You Should Be Reading

29 Nov 2014

Like many of you, I am a voracious reader. Fiction or non-fiction matters little. I enjoy escaping into the pages of a book to enjoy a good story. I also enjoy learning, and love finding new tips and tricks for research, or just everyday life. This is one reason I enjoy reading blogs. Here are five genealogy related blogs that I enjoy, and think that you will find interesting and informative as well. These may or may not be as well known as folks like the Legal Genealogist Judy G. Russell, but they are every bit as informative.

1. Prologue: Pieces of History
Prologue is the official journal of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. The title comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, where Antonio says “What’s past is prologue.” It means that our history impacts our present, and our future. It is engraved into the base of the statue of Future on one corner of the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. This blog continues the magazine’s tradition into the online environment. Posts come from staff at all NARA branches and presidential libraries, not just the staff at Archives I. They contain very interesting and informative stories about items and collections held around the country.


Prologue Pieces of History


2. Historic House Blog
This is an interesting blog run by Michael J. Emmons, Jr., a research assistant at the Center for Historic Architecture and Design at the University of Delaware. Since 2008, he has discussed a wide variety of historic buildings from around the country. Some, such as a saltbox home built in 1720 in my hometown, are in danger of being destroyed. Others simply have interesting stories. While he does not post frequently, the stories are always interesting, and if you appreciate history and old homes, you will enjoy this blog. I suggest adding this to your RSS feed so when he does make a new contribution you will be notified.

3. New England Folklore
If you have New England ancestors, you will enjoy this blog immensely. I have known author Peter Muise for many years, having gone to high school with his husband Tony. Peter is a native New Englander, and he is fascinated by folklore. He writes about all kinds of interesting topics from all around New England, with an interesting story telling style. Recent posts have included stories on The History of Cranberry Sauce, The Devil Builds a Barn, and Have You Seen a Fairy? Tell the Fairy Investigation Society!

4. Genealogy Tip of the Day
Likewise, I have known Michael John Neil for a number of years. We served together on the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies a number of years ago.  He writes several blogs, but Genealogy Tip of the Day is one I recommend to everyone. Each day he writes a brief post that will point you to resources or give you advice for researching that you will find extremely valuable.

5. Hoosier Daddy?
My friend and colleague Michael Lacopo has been speaking around the country for years. Earlier this year he decided to try his hand at a blog. He wanted to use his story of the search for his mother’s birth parents as a way to help people understand how to use DNA for genealogical research. Somewhere along the way, however, he got caught up in the thrill of the chase. His writing style is superb, and I guarantee will have you enthralled within a few posts. He was quite rightfully developed a large following. The twists and turns of the story leave everyone enthralled, and he is the King of the Cliffhanger. Every time he finishes a post, his fans fill his Facebook page clamoring for more. He writes in a way that captures the thoughts of everyone, and we can all identify with the frustrations of the convolutions the trail has taken. Use it as a perfect example of how you can tell your own story. Just do yourself a favor, and start reading from the beginning.

Let Family Photographs Guide Your Family Storytelling this Holiday Season

27 Nov 2014


The holidays are the perfect time of year to gather your loved ones around a cozy fire and take a glimpse into the lives of your family members. One of our favorite holiday pastimes is sharing family photographs that have been passed down from generation to generation. Photographs breathe life into the stories of our ancestors, helping us imagine their courageous journeys and unique experiences. Some wonderful resources that are full of photographs include yearbooks and Navy cruise books.




Browse All Mocavo Databases

As a Mocavo Community member you have access to the largest free online collection of yearbooks and more than 1,000 Navy cruise books. That’s free access to more than 8 million pages full of delightful photographs that give life to our family members’ stories. See what your grandparents looked like, what their passions were, and what they dreamed for the future. Then, don’t forget to share their stories with your family this holiday season.

Honoring the Future With a Gift from the Past: The Balanchine Plant

25 Nov 2014

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a story about the New York City ballet. George Balanchine is considered the father of American ballet. He was one of the most prolific choreographers of the twentieth century, co-founding the New York City Ballet and serving as balletmaster for more than 35 years.

Before he passed away in 1983, he gifted a rubber plant to one of the NYCB dancers, Karin von Aroldingen. Her apartment today is filled with a dozen plants made from cuttings propagated from the original plant Balanchine gave her. And she presents these to individuals she feels have made a significant contribution to ballet.

Receiving a cutting from the plant is considered to be a great honor. It celebrates the spirit of Balanchine himself. Those who receive them feel great pressure to care for and preserve the plants. Fortunately, rubber plants are easy to care for and grow quite well. They are simple to propagate, and some who have received plants have created new cuttings to pass on to others. It is possible that the plant will be able to be passed on for generations through these many cuttings, something not likely to happen with other types of plants. You can read more about the tradition of the plant in Forget Bouquets: In Ballet, It’s All About the ‘Balanchine Plant.’


Part of the Balanchine Plant.

Part of the Balanchine Plant.


Genealogists face a similar responsibility. As we collect information on our ancestral families, we feel the pressure to be certain they are not forgotten. We put together pieces of information gathered from long-forgotten records. Using that information, we are able to pull together stories of their lives. And by doing so, we are able to bring them to life again.

Knowing these stories can have a big impact on our lives. Understanding where we came from can certainly give us a greater understanding of our immediate family, as well as greater insight into ourselves. This is a great gift that we can also give to future generations.

By caring for these stories, preserving them, and passing them on to family members, we can help our descendants to know themselves better. And we can make sure that the stories of our ancestors are not lost for future generations.

Much like the Balanchine Plant cuttings, it is a great honor to not only receive the stories of our ancestors, but to pass them on as well. Thirty years after his death, Balanchine is still having an impact. Sharing your family’s story is one way to ensure that decades after you have passed, your descendants will still know their history.

State Historical Commissions Help Genealogists

24 Nov 2014

State historical commissions and other groups have a serious duty to preserve our history. They can also be valuable resources for genealogists. As an example, lets look at the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), a part of the secretary of state’s office. The MHC has an incredible job to do, as one can imagine, dealing with a state that has one of the longest histories in the country. The seventeen-member group oversees a large number of state and federal preservation programs whose goal is to protect the “irreplaceable historic and cultural resources of Massachusetts.”

As part of its mission, the MHC provides a lot of information not only to government agencies, but to private groups and individuals. Many people do not understand the difference between local historic districts and national register districts. And there is quite a difference. The first local historic districts were created on Beacon Hill in Boston in 1955, and over the last six decades have grown to number more than 200 around the state. They are the first line of defense in saving important historic buildings, from homes to businesses, from being altered inappropriately or even destroyed. These are created on a local level by a vote of the city council or town meeting.

National Register districts is designated by the federal government. They place “buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts” into the National Register of Historic Places. The NRHP  recognizes the historical importance of the area and allows revenue-generating property some tax incentives for preservation and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, however, protection is only limited to those projects involving federal funds. The NRHP  started in 1966 in today contains more than 900 National Register Districts in Massachusetts.

The MHC has created valuable online resource called the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS). It is a work in progress, and does not currently contain information on all historic properties and areas, nor does it necessarily include all of the information available for any given property.

If you are trying to find a home where your ancestor lived, MACRIS is a great place to start. You can narrow a search by a specific street address, or just look town by town. One of the resources that MHC staff are working to upload inventories of historic properties. Many date back to the 1970s, and include information on the construction, history, and location of buildings.


The Squire Lake House where I lived during high school, from the inventory submitted to the MHC and available on MACRIS.

The Squire Lake House where I lived during high school, from the inventory submitted to the MHC and available on MACRIS.


I found the inventory form for a house that I lived in as a teenager. The inventory is good, but not entirely accurate. It original claimed the house was constructed around 1840, later corrected to 1800. However, it was likely built even earlier than that. Just reading about it brought back many wonderful memories for me.

Check the states where your ancestors lived for the historical commission (by whatever name it is known in that state). You may be surprised at the information you can find. You may even get lucky enough to find pictures of your ancestral homes.