Genealogy Blog

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

Rabble-Rousers: The Signers of the Declaration of Indepdence

03 Jul 2013

Two hundred thirty –seven years ago, during a relatively mild summer week in Philadelphia, fifty-six men got together and changed history. On July 2 they approved a document listing the grievances of the American colonies. Two days later, on July 4, that document was ratified and has come to be known as the Declaration of Independence.

The Continental Congress had representatives from each of the thirteen original colonies: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia.

These men ranged in age from the 26-year-old Edward Rutledge of South Carolina to the 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. Rhode Island had the smallest delegation, with just two men. Pennsylvania had the largest with nine. Charles Carroll of Maryland holds the distinction of being the only Catholic to sign the Declaration. When he died on November 14, 1832, at the age of 95 he also claimed the distinction of being the longest-lived as well as the last surviving member of the group of 56. John Morton of Pennsylvania was the first to die, in 1777.

We tend to think of this august assemblage as old men, but in reality, fully two-thirds of the delegates were in their 30s and 40s. Of the delegations, the members of the Massachusetts delegation are probably the most well-known today: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry (for whom the term gerrymandering is named), and John Hancock.

The first line of the preamble is one of the most-well-known sentences in the English language:

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness.

This was a radical and revolutionary concept in its time. Since then, it has become the moral standard to which not only the United States, but nations around the world strive to attain.

From the anti-slavery struggles of the nineteenth century, to the women’s rights movements of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, to the civil rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century, to the struggles of gay and lesbian people today, it is this sentence that gives hope to those suffering discrimination that the United States recognizes that all of its citizens are deserving of equal rights.

Cities and towns across the nation commemorate the signing in many different ways. The celebrations started on the very first anniversary of the signing in 1777, and continue down to today. Here in Boston, for example, the text of the Declaration is read from the same balcony in the Old State House from which it was read to the citizens of Boston in 1776. And, of course, there is the unparalleled concert by the Boston Pops on the esplenade by the Charles River followed by a majestic fireworks production. The History Place has images of the Boston State House reading. You can read the text for yourself, or listen to an audio recording of a reading of the Declaration.


Images of the Fourth of July at the Old State House in Boston from The HIstory Place.

Images of the Fourth of July at the Old State House in Boston from The HIstory Place.


Happy Birthday to the United States, and to all her people! Enjoy the holiday, and we will see you next week!

The United States of Canada?

02 Jul 2013

Yesterday was a major holiday for our neighbor to the north. Canada Day commemorates the anniversary of the day the British North America Act took effect, when three colonies joined together to form the Dominion of Canada, July 1, 1867. There were a number of reasons behind confederation.

By the mid nineteenth century, a perfect storm of circumstances combined to create the dominion. Ever since the Conquest, the French-speaking population and the English-speaking population had been at odds. They had an uneasy détente, with both sides wary and complaining of the other.

After the American Revolution, the entire face of British North America changed. The “southern” colonies, stretching from New England to Georgia were no longer part of the British Empire. The British wished to expand their holdings, and encouraged English-speaking settlers from the British Isles. This settlement increased dramatically after the American invasion during the War of 1812.

This increased immigration also caused problems. Quebec was now separated into two provinces (originally called Upper and Lower Canada, later Canada East and Canada West). Economic and governmental problems were constantly arising in both provinces. In 1837, armed rebellions occurred in each of the provinces, caused by people frustrated with government reform.

During this time, the colonies in the former French territory of Acadia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were facing their own difficulties. Being much smaller, they had fewer resources to deal with the increased infrastructure needs of the growing population. The governments’ debts were growing and the economy was suffering.

At the same time, the British Empire was so large that Parliament was looking for ways to encourage colonies to become more self-reliant. Governing them was becoming considerably more expensive and time-consuming. Self-reliance would relieve some of the burden on Parliament.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the United States was becoming a strong nation. It was also constantly looking to expand. By 1850, after the War with Mexico, the country claimed territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific, almost the entirety of today’s continental United States. Still, it was hungry for more. Forces in both the U.S. and Canada started working toward the U.S. annexing its neighbor to the north. Many Americans had migrated north during the opening of vast new lands in what is today Ontario and Quebec after the War of 1812.

Clearly, something had to give. Unfortunately for those pushing to join the United States, a much larger distraction entered the picture. The subject of slavery was coming to a head and burst forth with the breakout of the American Civil War in 1862. While the U.S. was fighting the war, they forgot all about their neighbors to the north. This allowed the forces against them to build a larger, stronger coalition.

The “Great Coalition” led by George-Étienne Cartier, George Brown, and John A. Macdonald joined together the French and English political parties in 1864, showing that they could create government reform. The Charlottetown Conference and the Quebec Conference formulated plans for the two Canadas to join together with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to form the Dominion of Canada. The London Conference, held in December 1866, finalized the plans.

After Queen Victoria approved the British North America Act, the Dominion came into existence on July 1, 1867. The annual celebration was called Dominion Day until passage of the Contitution Act of 1982 finalized the patriation of Canada’s constitution from the United Kingdom, when it was changed to Canada Day.


Canadian Flag


Without the Civil War, this may never have happened, and the Canada might today be a part of the U.S. This is a perfect illustration of the ways in which events often have greater impact than we ordinarily think about. How different would the lives of our ancestors be had Canada joined the United States? How would the entire Civil War have been different had forces combined to convince Canada to join the U.S. in the 1840s?

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago: The Battle of Gettysburg

29 Jun 2013

This week marks a very important anniversary. Of course, we celebrate the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, but that is not the commemoration of which I speak. Monday through Wednesday, July 1­­­–3, marks the sesquicentennial of one of the seminal conflicts of the Civil War: the Battle of Gettysburg.


Gettysburg Camp on the 50th Anniversary of the battle, 1913. From the Library of Congress American Memory Project.

Gettysburg Camp on the 50th Anniversary of the battle, 1913. From the Library of Congress American Memory Project.


After General Lee’s overwhelming success at Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May, 1863, he determined to conduct a second invasion of the north. He brought his army up through the Shenandoah Valley and into Pennsylvania. This was the start of the Gettysburg Campaign.

Lee’s army of 72,000 men Headed up through Virginia, into Maryland, and crossed the border into Pennsylvania in June. Joseph Hooker led the Army of the Potomac to face Lee’s forces with 94,000 men of his own. Hooker had seen conflict of his own because of his actions defending Harper’s Ferry, and ended up tendering his resignation. On the morning of June 8 George Meade was named his successor.

The first conflicts started on the morning of July 1. The course of those three days saw some of the bloodiest battles of the war. The very first altercation alone saw 22,000 Union forces engaged with 27,000 Confederate soldiers. The casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg were quite high.

There is much disagreement concerning the total losses on the Confederate side, but all agree that they were higher than the Union forces. By the end of the battle, around 50,000 men were killed, wounded or missing in action. Nearly a third of Lee’s general officers were among them. Amazingly, only a single civilian was killed.

In the hot summer sun, it was critical to get the bodies buried as quickly as possible. In August, land was acquired by the Pennsylvania governor for a soldier’s cemetery.  The bodies of more than 3,500 Union soldiers were moved to the cemetery. Confederate dead were not allowed, and they were eventually transferred to cemeteries in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

In November of that year, Abraham Lincoln arrived to attend the dedication of the cemetery. The two-minute speech he gave there has become one of the most iconic in American history. The first sentence can be recited by most American schooldchildren:


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Take a few moments this week to remember those brave men who gave their lives to preserve freedom. And what the Gettysburg Address really means.