Genealogy Blog

Historic Discovery in Harvard Library: Signatures of Revolutionary-Era Bostonians

18 Jul 2013

Librarians and archivists can be in charge of anywhere from hundreds to thousands or even millions of documents in their collections. It can be challenging under the best of circumstances to keep track of all of those moving pieces. Older facilities have to contend with even more issues. Through the years, multiple cataloging systems were likely used. And every time materials are recataloged, they have to be arranged on the shelves according to the new system. There is no repository anywhere that hasn’t lost track of items through the year because of miscataloging or mis-shelving.

Even as august an institution as Harvard University, with its vast financial resources, is not immune from these problems. Members of the cataloging team at Houghton Library made a major discovery on the shelves recently. Historians had long known that a meeting of townspeople in 1767 had Bostonians creating a non-importation agreement, where they would not purchase imported goods. This was in response to the Townsend Acts which levied heavy tariffs on British goods in the colonies.

What the Houghton catalogers found was a set of eight sheets that delineated the agreement not to purchase imported items. It was dated at Boston October 26, 1767. The list of items that would not be purchased included dozens of items, including hats, gloves, cloths, cordage, watches, silversmiths and jewelers wares, silk, cotton, velvet, thread, lace, snuff, mustard, malt liquors, household furniture, chaises, coaches, anchors, and more. The agreement was to take effect December 31, 1767.

The best part is that these eight pre-printed pages are filled with the signatures of hundreds of Bostonians. The document contains the names of well-known Bostonians such as Paul Revere, who clearly was the first singer, with a large signature and flourishes a la fellow Bostonian John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence nine years later. His riding partner William Dawes also signed the document. But it is important to note that not all of the signatories were the rebellious type. The names of a number of loyalists also appear. A number of the signers attached notes, such as “for one year,” to their names. Perhaps most notable are the names of women, interleaved among the men. These women were signing independently of their husbands or fathers, of their own volition.

The town of Boston had an adult population of about 7,000 individuals at the time. More than 650 people signed the document. That is almost 10% of the adults in the town. When you consider that the vast majority of the adults were married to each other, this may represent as many as 15 to 20% of all the families in the town.


Elizabeth Franklin Signature


The pages are filled with well known Boston family surnames, such as Berry, Brattle, Call, Emmons, Farmer, Gibson, Gill, Greenough, Kneeland, Nowell, Pierce, Pool, and Williams. I, of course, looked for the names of member of Benjamin Franklin’s family who still resided in Boston at the time, and found a number of them among the signers, including Thomas Dawes, Jr., Samuel Emmons, William Homes, Jr., and Barnabas Webb. Interestingly, on the last page of the document is the signature of a woman named Elizabeth Franklin. To the left, in pencil, is written “sister of B.F.” with a hand-drawn finger pointing to Elizabeth’s name. This is patently incorrect. Franklin’s sister Elizabeth died in 1759, and her surname was Douse at the time of her death. While Franklin had two sisters-in-law named Elizabeth, these women would have been about 70 years old by 1767, and the crisp and clear signature appears to belong to a much younger woman.

The staff at Houghton has digitized the pages and made them available online to the public. You can view them on the Harvard University Library website.

A New Genealogy Research Tool: Hack Genealogy

17 Jul 2013

Thomas MacEntee is one of the busiest genealogists in America. He speaks across the country and around the world, in person and via webinars. And he does wonders working with bloggers in the genealogical community. And now he is up to something new and different.

Today Thomas launched his new website, Hack Genealogy. A hack is a solution for a problem.  A life hack is a technique for solving everyday problems. So what is Hack Genealogy? According to Thomas, “Hack Genealogy is about ‘re-purposing today’s technology for tomorrow’s genealogy’ and a little bit more. Hack Genealogy is more than just a list of resources. Hack Genealogy provides information on emerging technology inside and outside the genealogy industry. Hack Genealogy wants readers to understand how others succeed in genealogy.”

  • The  Cool GenStuff section is updated daily. There are three areas of this section:
  • Genealogy and Technology News
  • New Apps, Programs, and Websites – Oh My!
  • Technology for Genealogy Group on Facebook


Hack Genealogy


The Resources section provides links to websites with information about helpful products, services, apps, and more. These are divided into subcategories such as Apps, Death Records, Expense and Finance Management, Gadgets, Maps, Project and Task Management, Search, Scanning, and much more. The list can be sorted by link, category, or the date added.

Thomas has included some educational videos as well. His “explorinars” are done from the perspective of the viewer watching over his shoulder. He has plans to add other webinars and educational guides in the near future.

Other future sections include:

  • Discussions and Issues
  • GenBiz Buzz
  • How Do You Hack Genealgy? Interviews
  • Product Reviews

Thomas is very knowledgeable and popular. He is one of the smartest and savviest people in the field. I’m certain he will have much success with this new endeavor. Check it out at

Going to the Chapel: Tips for Finding Marriage Records

16 Jul 2013

Marriage records are a great resource for genealogists. These records played an interesting role in my weekend. Last Saturday I had honor of conducting the wedding of my friends Mike and Joseph. It combined elements of various traditions from an American Buddhist and a Chinese Christian. On Sunday I went with friends to Brimfield, Massachusetts, to a very large antiques show. One of my deals was an 1817 English marriage certificate from St. Martin in the Fields, Westminster.

Civil registration of marriage records can contain a lot of helpful genealogical information. But in many localities, it isn’t enough. For example, not all jurisdictions ask for the names of the parents or the birthplaces of the bride and groom. Fortunately there is quite often a church  marriage record for the couple that might provide more information.


Wedding Officiants


Unfortunately, there is often no direct correlation between the information in the record and a specific church. But you can use that information to locate additional records of the marriage. The place to look is the officiant. In addition to the name of the person conducting the ceremony, there is often a title or acronym for a title. For example you might see:

  • Justice of the Peace or J.P.
  • Minister of the Gospel or M.G.
  • Priest
  • Rabbi
  • Clergyman

The use of the title rabbi would pretty clearly indicate that the couple was Jewish. By the same token, the title minister of the gospel is a clear indicator of a Protestant denomination. Unfortunately it does not necessarily indicate a particular denomination. The same is true of the title clergyman.

When people see the word priest they immediately think of Catholics. While Catholic clergy are called priest, it is not the only denomination to do so. Episcopalians for example, also use the term priest. In this instance the title is insufficient to determine which church the marriage took place in.

One way you can find the church is to take the name of the officiant and look for him or her in a city directory. Look for the name in the alphabetical listing first. If there is no indication of the denomination there, look for a listing of churches in the business section. The church listings often include the clergy assigned to that church. You can also take the street address of the clergyperson (from the marriage record or the alphabetical part of the directory) and match that to one of the churches.

Of course, sometimes weddings are not conducted by any type of clergy. If the officiant was a justice of the peace, for example, there will be no church record as there was no church service. The only official record of the marriage will be the civil registration.  You might, however, look for the personal papers of the justice of the peace. He or she might have kept a personal record of the marriages he or she conducted.

I fall under none of the above categories. I received a special license from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to conduct the wedding. The civil registration is the only record there will be of the marriage.

Genealogy and Ethics: Play Nice and Don’t Plagiarize

13 Jul 2013

The blogs have been lighting up this week with stories about copyright violations and plagiarism. These issues have always been a problem, but the easy communication of the internet has exacerbated the issue, making it ever more easy to take the work of others and claim it for your own.

First, lets clear up some confusion. The facts concerning your ancestor are not copyrightable. Anyone can write about your ancestor and post information about their dates and places of birth, marriage, and death, and so on. But the words you use to put your ancestor into context are your work.




The same thing goes for research practices and methodology. There are many presenters, authors, and bloggers out there in the genealogy world. And genealogical resources are genealogical resources. There are only so many ideas about how to use a census. The census fields are the same. But each of us writes in a slightly different way about it. And our words belong to us, and others cannot use them without our permission.

It is permissible to use excerpts of another person’s work conditionally. It is important to set off the text so that it is clearly a quotation of someone else’s work. It is equally important to cite the source of the quote, including the author’s name and where it was published.

Failing to do this shows indicates to the world that you are well aware that what you are doing is wrong. It is probably illegal and most definitely unethical. It shows that you are not a person to be trusted and certainly not one who should ever be listened to.

For some reason we in the genealogical community have failed to do our part to protect ourselves and each other. Lawsuits are expensive, and quite often the unscrupulous person manages to escape punishment. But certainly we can do more to point out the problems when they occur.

If you suspect that someone is “borrowing” the words of others, do a little bit of checking. One easy way to see if someone is using the words of others that are already online is to use a search engine. Copy a stretch of text and do a search for it. The only exact hit should be the person whose work you read. If you get others in the top few hits that are word for word the same (or almost entirely word for word), a problem clearly exists.

The best way to deal with this problem is not to throw accusations around. Contact both authors and request an explanation as to why the wording is identical. Perhaps they collaborated on the piece, and agreed that each could use the wording in their work. Include the date and time that you viewed each piece, and if there is a date of publication, include that as well.

If plagiarism is uncovered, do your best to help the person or group who has been victimized. Be willing to back the victim up. If you believe that someone has plagiarized you, you might find some recourse at the Association of Professional Genealogists or the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Members of those organizations are bound by ethics agreements. Some people purposely do not join those groups specifically so they cannot be held accountable to the ethics agreements, so be especially wary of those types of individuals.

Most importantly, if you suspect plagiarism, don’t just sit idly by and do nothing. Talk to the people involved and bring it to peoples’ attention. But do not throw accusations around directly without proof. Working together this way, we can help keep the plagiarists and cheaters out of genealogy.

Which Mid-Atlantic States do you have an interest in?

13 Jul 2013

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



News and Blog Posts for Genealogists, July 12, 2013

12 Jul 2013

Here is this week’s roundup of blog posts and news stories for genealogists. I hope you find them interesting and informative.

Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, was a sleepy village in the Eastern Townships until last week’s devastating train derailment. If you haven’t heard yet, an unmanned oil train slid town into the town, derailing and setting off an explosion that killed 50 people. Now comes news of the infrastructure destruction. Sadly, one of the buildings completely destroyed in the fireball was the town’s library and archives. The Star has the full story in Lac-Mégantic Casualties Include Quebec Town’s History.

Six months after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Dutch were set to free 30,000 slaves on the tiny island of Suriname in the Caribbean. The planters in Suriname were very nervous about the effect the freedom would have on the economy of the island. Recently papers have come to light showing exactly how far the Dutch government went to try to get American freedmen to come to the island to settle. Read more in Holland’s Plan for America’s Slaves in the New York Times.


Royal Family Tree USA Today


The world is watching and waiting for the birth of the latest heir to the British throne. Any day know, the child of Will and Kate will make an entrance into the world. USA Today has put together an interesting little family tree on the Royal Family, showing all the descendants of King George VI (1895–1952) and Queen Elizabeth, formerly Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, mother of the current monarch (1900–2002). You can check it out at All In the Royal Family.

Judy Russell is always a font of information. This week the Legal Genealogist introduced us to some terms from a legal document that might be misleading. The first is stone boat, which is not made of stone and not a boat. The second is whiffletree, which is not a tree and has nothing to do with whiffleball. Find out what these terms mean in Stone Boats and Whiffletrees.

We started this week with a fire, and we are ending with a fire. Today is the fortieth anniversary of the great fire at the National Archives’ National Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. The first firefighters to arrive were forced to retreat because their facemasks were melting in the heat. The fire burned out of control for more than 22 hours, and it would take five days from the time of the first alarm until the last units went out of service. 381 men from 42 different fire departments battled the blaze over those five days. The destruction was severe, with the records of many WWI and WWII soldiers destroyed. Read more about the fire in the National Archives blog at One Fire, 5 Days, and 381 Men.

Rover, Spot, and . . . Nosewise?

11 Jul 2013

Our household pets are part of the family. We take care of them and feed them, oftentimes better than we feed ourselves. We play with them and they with us, and they are an integral part of our families. But this is nothing new. People have been keeping pets for centuries.

There was an interesting post recently on that talked about pet names in Medieval times. We often have images of animals being used in task such as hunting and guarding, but it appears that there is plenty of evidence to show that they were also treated as affectionately as we treat our pets today. And not matter their use, they did have interesting names.


Medieval Pet Names


In the early fifteenth century, Edward, Duke of York, wrote The Master of Game, which dealt with dogs and hunting. It included a list of 1,100 dog names, including: Amiable, Bragge, Clenche, Holdfast, and Nosewise. There is an extant list of dogs that participated in a shooting festival in 1504. The most popular name? Furst, which is Prince in English. Some of the dogs apparently took their names from the occupation of their owner, such as Hemmerli (Little Hammer) who belonged to a locksmith, and Speichli (Little Spoke), who belonged to a wagoner.

There is also some discussion of the thirteenth-century saint dog. Peasants near the city of Lyons, France, reported that Guinefort was performing miracles. He apparently was very generous with performing miracles for infants.

And lest you cat owners think you were left out, they were there also. Gyb, a shorter version of Gilbert, was a popular name for cats in England as well as the generic name for domestic cats. Tibert was their name in France. A number of Irish texts identify cats names such as Cruibne (Little Paws) and Glas Nenta (nettle grey). There is even a ninth-century poem  about a monk and his cat Pangur Bán.

You can read more about this subject, including the story of Guinefort the dog and the Pangur Bán poem in Medieval Pet Names.

3 Tips for Locating Marriage Records

10 Jul 2013

Elius Jacques  and Atelia Michel are a great example of a couple that will mess with the minds of future genealogists. They started dating in 1951 in their native Haiti. Sixty-two years later they are still a couple. Between the 1950s and the 1970s they had nineteen children.

Several of their children are already deceased. Three of their children still live in the U.S., while the rest live in Haiti. Atelia came to the U.S. in 1996, but it took until 2010 for Elius to join him.




Over the past 62 years they have survived the demands of making a living, raising their large family, and the loss of children. Like parents everywhere, they put the needs of their family above their personal ones. With all of this going on, it seems the couple never got around to one thing: getting married.

Their friends at Sant Belvi, the Haitian Adult Day Health Center in the Mattapan section of Boston have been encouraging them to remedy that situation. They raised money for the wedding and put together a party and yesterday, 88-year-old Elius and 83-year-old Atelia finally married.  You can get more about their story from CBS Boston.

Imagine their descendants in the future looking for the marriage record. How many of you would look for a marriage record six decades after the birth of the couple’s first child, thousands of miles away in another country?

Many may be inclined to dismiss this is a rare situation of modern times. But let me tell you, there is nothing new under the sun. This kind of thing has been going on for a long time. Couples living as man and wife were not often asked to produce proof of their marriage. Genealogies are filled with children of parents for whom no marriage record has yet been found.

Thinking outside the box is important. Here are three tips to help you find missing marriage records:

1. Expand Your Search Geographically
I have several instances from a family in Provincetown where there is no marriage record in the town for them. It takes hours to drive from Boston down to the tip of Cape Cod where Provincetown is located. Yet there are many marriage records for Provincetown residents in Boston. The reason is simple. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, Provincetown was a major shipping port. It is quite easy to sail across Cape Cod Bay and Massachusetts Bay into Boston harbor. This made it quite simple for couples to be married in Boston, far away from where one would be looking for them.

2. Expand Your Search Chronologically
The marriage may not have taken place when you think it did. They may have married earlier. Perhaps there was an earlier child that died young that is throwing off your estimated date of marriage. It is equally possible that they did not marry until years later. If you find another couple with the same names being married in the right location, take a look at that second couple. Perhaps it really is the people you are looking for.

3. Expand Your Search Both Geographically and Chronologically
Suppose you have a couple who have children, but everyone in town thinks that they are already married. Then the couple decides that for whatever reason, perhaps they actually should be legally married. They may take a trip to a distant place and be married there, thus minimizing the chance that family and friends back home will discover the truth. Expanding your timeframe while increasing the geographic area of you research may reveal the missing record.


R.I.P. Meldon J. Wolfgang (1945-2013)

09 Jul 2013

The genealogy community got a bit smaller today. Some people make a huge difference. Meldon J. Wolfgang was one of those people. For more than half a century he has been a valuable member of our community, and he will be missed greatly.


Mel Wolfgang


Mel, with his wife Pat, was the proprietor of Jonathan Sheppard Books. In addition to their store, they travelled the country to genealogical conferences. They always had a huge booth. It was crammed to the gills with new and used books, maps, and ephemera. I first met Mel and Pat at a New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC) twenty years ago.

Mel went to college at McGill University in Montreal. Through the years he became very active in genealogy and history. He was very active as a member or trustee of New York’s Tricentennial Commission, the Albany County Historical Society, Albany City-County Archives, New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, and the Association of Professional Genealogists. In 2011 he was named a Fellow of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society.

Mel loved to share his knowledge with people. He was a popular speaker at genealogical conferences for many years. Back in 2009 I had a very special opportunity. One of the speakers at NERGC had to cancel at the last minute, leaving the chairs with a big hole. They came to Mel and I and asked if we could cover the lectures. Mel took one, I took one, and we co-presented at the third. We had a single day to put together our presentation. We talked for a bit, and came up with a concept. The next morning we checked in with each other and that afternoon delivered our talk to a ballroom packed with hundreds of people expecting another speaker. The plan was for Mel to present first, then me, then we would finish together. Talk about pressure. Mel was a great speaker, and having to follow him left me a bit nervous about making sure I would measure up. At the end the audience loved us both and gave us rave reviews. I wish I’d had more opportunities to work with him like that.

I always looked forward to seeing Mel and Pat. Living in the state next door, I was fortunate to have many opportunities. He always had a smile and a laugh, and a story to tell. Whenever he was talking, whether it was in front of a group of people or one-on-one, he would illustrate his points with stories.

Mel was always happy to share his opinion. He was a wonderful voice for exhibitors with conference planners. He explained their concerns and offered valuable suggestions about how to resolve issues. He was always happy to offer that advice, even if it wasn’t always what people wanted to hear (even if it was what they needed to hear).

Mel taught me a great deal about many things. He was always there to listen and give advice. When I first started considering leaving the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 2009, he was one of the people I confided in. As I formulated my future plans and developed ideas of what I wanted to do, Mel and I chatted about them often and he gave me great advice.

In 2010 he started a blog, Mnemosyne’s Magic Mirror. Mnemosyne (pronounced Nem-MAAS-sin-nee) was the mother of the muses, and the guardian of the Sacred Pool of Memory in Hades. Those who drank from her pool remembered the people and events of their past. His posts there were always quite interesting and informative.

Thank you for your counsel and your friendship. Thanks to Mnemosyne we have many cherished memories of you. Safe home, my friend.

Snooping Through George Washington’s Letters

08 Jul 2013

A few weeks backed I posted about the Founders Online project that was finally about to launch. The project, an initiative of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) started in 2000, has finally gone live. NHPRC is part of the National Archives.


Founders Online


This new website represents a collaborative effort to bring the papers of major figures in American history online: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. For more than half a century, NHPRC has supported editorial projects by the American Philosophical Society, Columbia University, Massachusetts Historical Society, Princeton University, Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, University of Chicago, The University of Virginia, and Yale University.

The website contains transcriptions of thousands of original documents from repositories and archives not only in the United States, but around the world. In addition, many of them are in private collections. While many of them have been previously published in print volumes, a large number have not yet been published.

The search function is versatile. It provides you with a number of options to hone you search. Not only that, but you also can change the way your results display. Thre are three options to display the records compact, description, and tab. You can also choose from a number of ways to order the results. You can also choose the number of results to display on each page.

The actual results show an annotated transcription of the document. The footnotes are hotlinked so you can easily switch back and forth between the text and the citation. There is also a complete reference citation to use if you are citing the document in a publication.

Now some of you may ask why genealogists would be interested in these papers. Remember that the documents often stretch over a long period of time. Papers of those who served as presidents can cover periods before and after as well as during their presidency. Others were powerful and influential people. Yes, much of the correspondence is about major national events of historical import. But you may also find letters from family, friends, and total strangers. They may be looking for favors or assistance with troubles and problems. It is here that you may find information that is genealogically significant to you.

Founders Online is a great example of the government working in collaboration with private partners to produce works for the public good. In addition to NHPRC and the publishers, major funding was contributed by more than a dozen large non-profit organizations as well as private individuals. It is completely free for all to use. Try it out today at