Genealogy Blog

The History of Passports

06 Feb 2013

The modern passport traces its origins to Louis XIV, the Sun King, of France (reigned 1641–1715). The King issued letters to his favorites in the court, planning on travelling. These letters requested safe passage for the bearer through the ports, in French “passe port.”

By the start of the nineteenth century, virtually every country in Europe had instituted a passport system. Visas were also required from the countries that were to be visited.  The development of the railroad system in Europe by mid-century created such an increase in tourist travelling that the passport system experienced a complete breakdown. France abolished their system in 1861, and others followed suit until most of Europe had abolished their passport requirements by the start of World War I.

Passports were issued in the United States during the Revolutionary War. Consular offices continued to issue passports to travellers throughout the nineteenth century, but they were not required until the start of the Civil War. Before 1862, Canadians, as British subjects, were required to obtain passports for travel in Europe from the Foreign Office in London.

During this period, passports were usually a single sheet of paper, folded. Sometimes it would be folded and embedded into a purse for protection. The document would include a physical description of the bearer along with the letter requesting safe passage.

During World War I, national security issues moved to the forefront and passports and visas were once again required. This continued through about 1920, when in the passport requirements were once again dropped in the U.S. This continued until 1941, when World War II once again brought up national security issues. Passports have been required ever since.




International conferences held in 1920, 1926, and 1947 led to the development of the modern passport. It was suggested that all countries adopt a booklet style passport, with pages for visas as well as entry and departure stamps. Another recommendation was that all passports be written in two languages, one of which was to be French. Many Americans don’t realize that French was considered the international language and used in diplomacy and travel. The legacy remains today, with the international distress call. While Anglos use “Mayday! Mayday!” as the international sign of distress, it is actually “M’aider! M’aider!” which is French for “Help me, Help me!”

Until the twenty-first century, Americans did not need a passport to travel in the Caribbean and Canada. The events of September 11, 2001, however, surfaced national security concerns where passports are now required. Those traveling only to Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico, however, can obtain a U.S. Passport Card. It is not a full passport, but allows for all but air travel in those areas. Today’s passports now contain biometric information encoded on a computer chip within the passport itself.

Passports can give you a great deal of information. You may find them in libraries and among family papers. Government also kept copies at various times, and you may find those copies in various archives.

It is surprising how few Americans have passports in comparison with the citizens of other countries. In 2011 a map of the U.S. was created showing the percentage of U.S. passport owners by state. Mississippi was the lowest (with 19.86% of residents having a passport). The highest was New Jersey (with 68.36% of residents having one). Saturday, March 9, 2013, is Passport Day in the United States. On that day U.S. citizens can apply for or renew their passport at U.S. passport agencies around the country without the advance appointment that is usually required. For more information, visit the State Department website. For more information on the history of passports, see:

Lloyd, Martin. The Passport: The History of Man’s Most Travelled Document (2nd ed.). (Canterbury: Queen Anne’s Fan, 2008)

Torpey, John C. The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State. Cambridge studies in law and society (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Passport information can be very helpful when we are conducting an ancestry search. However, if you aren’t having any luck with passports, try searching for your ancestors in the Social Security Death Index.

Stuff You Missed in History Class

05 Feb 2013

History is  a critical part of ancestry research. If you don’t understand the history of the area you are researching, you will miss significant clues and record sets. What do the following have in common:

  • 5 Historical Hoaxes
  • The Bone Wars (Parts 1 and 2)
  • The Halifax Explosion
  • The Sisters Fox: They Talked to Dead People
  • The Great Stink of 1858

These are just some of the more than 300 titles of episodes in the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast from Discovery. Twice a week, Deblina Chakraborty and Sarah Dowdey bring you a new perspective on interesting stories from history.



Podcasts run the gamut from biographical pieces, to period history, to unique stories. “The Bombardment of Baltimore” delves into the War of 1812 battle that lead to the Star Spangled Banner. They also discuss more modern historical events, such as “Who Wore the Pink Triangle?” which discussed the loss of German gays in the Nazi concentration camps.

Some of these stories, such as  ”What Really Happened in Salem?” in which the duo separates fact from fiction regarding the events of 1692, may apply directly to your ancestors. Others, such as “The Great Stink of 1858,” may help give you historical context for the lives of your ancestors. Still others, such as Lizze Borden and Her Axe, may just be interesting historical lessons in general.

The best part about the podcast is that it is totally free. It is one of the offerings in iTunes University from the iTunes store. You can download individual episodes dating back to 2010, or just listen to them online. You can also subscribe so that new episodes will be sent to you as they are made available twice a week.

These make great listening when you are commuting by car or on the subway. They also work well when doing your housecleaning. Imagine how your family will feel when you have A Jewish Pirate’s Live For Me! blaring through the speakers as you are dusting the living room.

New! Send Messages to Mocavo Community Members

04 Feb 2013

We’ve asked for feedback from our Mocavo Community and we heard you loud and clear. One of the big requests we kept receiving was the ability to contact other Mocavo community members so, ask and you shall receive!


Where can I find this new feature?

When you find a public tree that contains an ancestor you’re looking for, the tree will say “Uploaded by Jeanie the Genealogist” then you can click on Jeanie’s name and be taken to her profile page. From there you can click “Contact” and send her an E-Mail via Mocavo.


How do I turn on messages through Mocavo?

When you log in to Mocavo, you’ll see a small box at the top of your screen asking if you’d like to allow Mocavo Community Members to connect with you via E-Mail. If you click “Yes”, any time a Mocavo member sends you a message, it will go right to your E-mail inbox. No one will be able to see your E-mail address until you reply to them via E-mail. Your account is defaulted to the “No” setting until you answer “Yes”. Share stories, research tips and findings through us; you can help someone who’s stuck or reach out for help if you’re bewildered.

What if I’ve already clicked Yes/No but want to change my answer?

If you’ve already clicked Yes or No in the message box when you log in to Mocavo but wish to change your response, you can go to Account >E-Mail Preferences then check or uncheck Allow Mocavo Customers to Contact Me.


Try it out and as always, let us know what you think at


Win a Free Genealogy Consultation!

02 Feb 2013

Are there any love stories in your ancestors’ pasts that really pull at your heart strings? We’d like to celebrate Valentine’s Day by inviting you to participate in Mocavo’s Romances from the Past Contest. The first place winner will be awarded a hour long research consultation with Chief Genealogist Michael J. Leclerc (a $200 value). Feel free to submit as many stories and photos that you would like.

To enter the contest:

1. Go to and select upload document

2. Select your photo from your computer

4. Name your file, select type, and but sure to include in your description “Romances from the Past Contest” and add a story here if you’d like.

5. Don’t forget to share your story with your friends and family through Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Google Plus, and Email (not required)


If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact our support team at


Happy Valentine’s Day from Mocavo!

Blogs for Genealogists, February 1

01 Feb 2013

Following are some recent posts in genealogy and history blogs that I found interesting and informative. I want to share them with you.

Judy Russell discusses some very important news about the SSDI, and not all of it is good. New legislation has already been introduced that could close access for the most recent three years. The head of the House committee that oversees Social Security, however, is an avowed enemy of genealogists and wants to see it closed forever. There is some potentially good news, however. Read more in News from the SSDI Front.

Jeremiah Moss writes Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York A.K.A. The Book of Lamentations: A Bitterly Nostalgic Look at A City in the Process of Going Extinct, a blog dedicated to New York City. Last week he discussed the very sad news of the destruction of the research library at the main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan. I have researched there many times, and this is a very sad day indeed. For seven stories below ground, the book collections of the library are stored and sent up to the reading rooms via “dumbwaiter and a complicated Rube Goldbergy conveyor system of lifts and chutes.” The stacks and the delivery system are set to be demolished and the books sent into storage in New Jersey, limiting access by researchers.

The Library of Congress blog, however, gives us some good news. On January 30, LOC joined with twelve other government agencies and non-governmental organizations signed a Declaration of Learning. The document was ceremonially signed on the Treaty of Paris desk (on which was signed the peace declaring the end of the American Revolution) in the presence of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Declaration is an agreement between the organizations to use historic objects to create digital learning opportunities for everyone from children to lifelong learners.

Leiland Meitzler reports on a big announcement from Family Search. In OCLC & FamilySearch Partnership Will Combine Resources, he talks about an announcement this week that OCLC will include data from the Family History Library Catalog into WorldCat, and entries from WorldCat will appear in search results on the FamilySearch website. This collaboration will sure be a boon to researchers.



Finally, we sometimes think that social networking is a thing of the Facebook generation, but A Blog About History reminds us that such is not the case. In Ancient Social Networking in Pompeii, Sevaan Franks tells us about a recent story discussing studies of graffiti in Pompeii, frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It brings new meaning to “writing on someone’s wall!”

Finding Wills

31 Jan 2013

When looking for probate records, we know to go looking at the courthouse to find the wills of our ancestors. More frequently we use microfilm of these records at the archives or through the Family History Library. Care must be taken when using these records, for there will often be multiple copies. To understand why, we need to take a look at the process.

People who are ready to arrange for the disposition of their property after their death prepare their will and testament. Originally, these were two different documents. The will was used to handle real property (land, buildings, etc). The testament dealt with personal property, sometimes called “moveables” (clothing, furniture, tools, etc.). Over time these merged into a single document.

Since so many people were illiterate, they would often employ a scribe to write their wishes down. In addition to people who earned their living as scribes, attorneys and members of the clergy often served in this roll for the last will and testament. Once it was written, it would be signed by the testator in the presence of witnesses.


The Will of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel prizes.


Once the testator died, it was the responsibility of the executor appointed by the probate court to present the will to the court, and to execute the wishes of the testator. The witnesses would appear in court to testify to the signing.

The court clerk would then record the will into ledger books kept as an official record. The original will would be kept in a docket folder along with all of the other original paperwork as the estate continued its way through the probate process. These papers are sometimes referred to as estate files.

When records were microfilmed, quite often it was the books that were filmed instead of the papers. Books were easy to manipulate. The docket folders/estate papers required a lot of manual labor. Each file needed to be opened, and all of the papers inside unfolded and flattened for filming. This was very labor intensive. Books could be placed on the stand and pages easily turned. In some localities, both were filmed; in others, only one. Be aware that if only one was filmed, the other may still exist in the original and be able to substitute illegible or damaged pages.

Another thing to remember is that people might prepare more than one will and testament over time. This is why the one filed with the court is called the “last will and testament.” The one prepared last (i.e., closest to the date of death) supersedes all previous ones. But what happens to the earlier wills? Sometimes they survive, in an individual’s papers or in the papers of an attorney. These may have made their way into archives and libraries, so look for them in manuscript collections.

In addition to these earlier wills, sometimes multiple copies of a will might be prepared for one reason or another. These duplicates also appear in manuscript collections. In addition, for one reason or another wills sometimes went unrecorded. Some courthouses have collections of these documents and sometimes you can find them in libraries and archives.

5 Little-Used Records for Genealogical Research

30 Jan 2013

1. Consulate Records

Many of us have ancestors who spent at least some time abroad. Perhaps they were seamen, sailing from port to port to deliver goods to foreign ports and bring others back to America. Perhaps they were serving as missionaries in far-off lands. Whatever the reason, you may find information about them, including records of birth, marriage, and death, in the records of the State Department. These records are housed at the National Archives. In order to find this information, you will need to know the date and place where your ancestor was. With that, you can discover the consulate or embassy that served that location.


2. Local Censuses

We often use federal and state censuses as part of our research. But how about local censuses? In Massachusetts, for example, the cities and towns (except for Boston) are required to “annually in January or February visit or communicate with the residents of each building in their respective cities and towns and, after diligent inquiry, shall make true lists containing, as nearly as they can ascertain, the name, date of birth, occupation, veteran status, nationality, if not a citizen of the United States, and residence on January 1 of the preceding year and the current year, of each person three years of age or older residing in their respective cities and towns.” Accessing those records at town hall could provide a gold mine of information.


3. Fraternal/Benefit Organizations

These can be a rich source of information, even more so when dealing with immigrants. In the days prior to the widespread availability of insurance, many organizations were founded as mutual aid/mutual benefit societies to provide assistance in time of need. Many of these were founded by immigrant groups (such as the Irish and the Catholic Order for Foresters), and their records may provide information on the immigrant’s origins. The same can be true of other groups, such as the masons, who recorded the lodge where incoming members first joined, and other lodges he had been a member of. This valuable information can help you track the movements of your ancestors.


4. Ear or Cattle Marks

In many times and places, livestock was allowed to wander in communal areas. This mandated that people be able to identify their own livestock from that of others. Marks were made in different ways. Sometimes a pattern of cuts would be made in the ear. Other times, brands were used in the animal’s hide. This allowed owners to cull their livestock from a communal herd. The marks were proprietary, and were often passed from father to son. They could also be sold as part of a person’s estate.


Pet license information from the city of Milton, Washington.


5. Dog Licenses

Dogs have been the pets of humans for centuries. By the nineteenth century, licensing was often required in populated areas. How can dog licenses help you genealogically? Think of them as a specialized form of tax list. Dog licenses can provide evidence of where a person lived. They might even provide you with an exact address, which is especially helpful in areas where city directories were sparse. And, of course, you can learn more about the family pet as well.

The Hunley and the Genealogist

29 Jan 2013

The H.L. Hunley was a submarine built by Horace L. Hunely for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Although it was only a small piece of the war, the Hunley changed the history of naval warfare. She was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship.

Built in Mobile, Alabama, the Fish Boat was shipped to Charleston, South Carolina on August 12, 1863. She sank for the first time on August 29, killing five crew members. She was raised and repaired. Six weeks later she sank again, killing all eight of her crew (including her builder). She was raised again, rechristened the H.L. Hunley and relaunched. On February 17, 1864, she made her first, and only attack.

The U.S.S. Housatonic was stationed at the entrance to the Charleston harbor as part of the Union blockade of the city. Hunley was outfitted with a spar torpedo, a a copper cylinder filled with 90 pounds of powder. This was attached a 22-foot wooden spar mounted on her bow. The barbed point of the torpedo stuck into the side of Housatonic when she was rammed by Hunley, and detonated when she retreated. Housatonic sank within five minutes.

After the battle, Hunley failed to return to base. She was never heard from again. Sailors from the Housatonic indicated that Hunley was only about 100 feet from their ship at the point of detonation, even though the armament was designed to be detonated from 150 feet away. Various theories were put forth as to her fate.

It would be a century before anything was seen of the Hunley again. An underwater archaeologist identified her location in 1970. An underwater diver physically found her in 1995. She was found only one hundred yards from Housatonic, under several feet of silt. She was raised in 2000, her crew still in their seats, and conservation began. In June 2011 she was rotated upright for the first time since she went down.




Yesterday, researchers announced that they have the final clues to solve the mystery of the Hunley. It appears that she was less than 20 feet from Housatonic when the torpedo detonated, and that the torpedo was still attached to the spar at detonation. This indicates that the crew may have been knocked unconscious by the blast and may have run out of air before awakening. Scientists are now removing the material encrusted on the spar and the hull that should provide the remaining evidence. (The Huffington Post has an interesting story on this)

The work of the scientists and historians is much like that of genealogists. Taking evidence and advancing theories based on current knowledge. The important thing to note, is that with each piece of new evidence, a new theory has been put forth. Being willing to drop preconceived notions in the face of changing evidence is critical for scientists, and just as critical for genealogists.

All too often, I have seen researchers who are more attached to family stories or their previous theories than they are to facts. When new evidence arises, they just don’t want to let go. Flexibility is one of the most important assets of a genealogist. Be willing to let go, and you will be far more successful in your research, and will be far more likely to find people who actually are your ancestors!


Copyright and Ethics

26 Jan 2013

There has been a tremendous amount of discussion on the genealogy blogs lately about copyright. Part of this has been precipitated by greater awareness of the issue, as well as an ongoing legal action regarding a potential copyright violation  appropriating information from a well-used genealogy website.

Copyright is a very serious issue, and one that all genealogists should be aware of. As researchers, it is critically important to cite your sources for information. This is even more important when you use text that someone else has already created. Quotation marks and references to the source are essential if you don’t want a lawsuit on your hands.

In addition to copyright, however, there are also ethical considerations. Appropriating someone else’s ideas may not be illegal, but it can certainly be unethical. At the very least, it can say a great deal about your character.

If someone tells you they are working on something, don’t pick it up and run away with it and claim the work as your own. If it is a subject you know a great deal about, consider a collaboration. Or, if you have already been working on the same idea and are further along, you at least owe the person a conversation about it.

Now sometimes a number of people come up with similar ideas at the same time. Different researchers, for example, might come across the same clue and start researching on their own with the intent of publishing an article or book. This is an unfortunately fact of life, and if nobody knows you are working on it, you can’t blame someone else if they found the solution and published before you.

As part of the research and writing process, we look for previously published information. This search usually reveals whether something is already in print. Thus you can see whether you have anything new to contribute to the conversation while referencing the previously published information.

On occasion, it may be possible to miss something. This happened to me recently in preparing an article. A colleague did a slightly different search on a CD version of the PERSI database and found an article published 50 years ago that I had not found. Examination of that piece allowed me to see that the original author did not follow the entire chain of evidence on all individuals named in the document, and left several identifications out, allowing me to continue working on my own article.

If, however, you discover that you have published something that is almost identical to someone else’s work, it behooves you to make a reference to that work, even if it is after the fact. The is very easy for electronic publications, such as blogs and websites, where changes can easily be made. Scholarly journals and magazines publish errata and corrections all the time.

Acknowledging that someone else has done similar work shows that you are an ethical researcher and author. We all miss things and make mistakes. Acknowledging them will enhance, not detract, from our reputations. And we will all be the better for it.

Which regions and divisions of the United States do you have genealogical interest in?

26 Jan 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked which regions and divisions of the United States do you have genealogical interest in (according to the U.S. Census Bureau). 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.