Genealogy Blog

British Soldiers’ Wills Now Available Online

29 Aug 2013

Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has embarked on a massive digitisation project. Working in conjunction with Iron Mountain, they today released a database of the wills of soldiers who died in World War I.

During the war, soldiers were required to write a will when enlisting. The will was to be kept in their pocket service books, along with other documents, and carried on their person throughout the war.

In addition to the wills, there are often letters addressed to girlfriends, wives, and other family members left at home. All of these documents are stored at Iron Mountain in 1,300 cardboard boxes. HMCTS started the digitisation project  to have the records available in time for the 100th anniversary of the start of the war next year. (Americans, please remember that the war started three years before our participation began in 1917!)


UK Soldier Wills


These wills represent the final wishes of more than 230,000 soldiers who went off to battle but never returned home. The wills mention family and friends. They also discuss the final disposition of property, both real and personal.

In addition to the wills, soldiers also often tucked letters in the pocket book. These were often written to wives and girlfriends, but they might also be addressed to parents, children, or other family or friends. Unfortunately, these letters often mentioned confidential information, such as the soldier’s place of station or plans to be moved. Because of this, the letters were often never turned over to family members and addressees. They were, however, filed with the wills. Whilst this is sad for the family, it is fortunate for us as researchers, as the letters are also part of the digitisation project.

Searching the database is simple. You need only the surname of the soldier and the year of death. The results show the soldier’s surname, first name, regimental number, and date of death. This information should be enough for you to pinpoint your ancestor.

Wills are £6.00. It may take up to ten days before you can access some of the wills. Once accessible, you can look at it for 31 days. You need to register in advance, providing your email address and creating a password. This email will be how you access the records. You can request multiple documents in a single order.

A huge number of British families had members who fought in the war. And many never returned home. This new database is a wonderful new way to access information about them. Better news is that this is part of a larger effort by HMCTS to  digitise more than a century of soldiers’ wills, from 1850 to 1986. Visit the government website and get started searching right away.

News From FamilySearch

28 Aug 2013

Last week was a whirlwind at the Federation of Genealogical Societies conference in Fort Wayne. While I was there, I had the pleasure of joining other bloggers at a dinner hosted by FamilySearch. They discussed a lot of things, but I was most impressed by changes at the Family History Library and FamilySearch Centers.


Family History Library


The biggest announcement was the appointment of Diane C. Loosle as the new director of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Diane has been with the library for almost two decades. She has the privilege of being the first female director of the library.

Diane started as a research consultant and has worked in recent years on projects to increase patron engagement. One of the exciting changes she has planned for the library has been testing for a bit. They will be creating collaborative areas where researchers can work together at the library. The collaboration areas will include microfilm readers, research tables, computers, printers, and more, grouped together so that researchers can work together. The areas where they have tested this so far have proved quite successful. As someone who often goes to the library with groups of friends, I am looking forward to seeing how this is implemented.

FamilySearch also announced a new feature coming to FamilySearch Centers around the world. Oral history recording studios have already been installed in a few locations. These studios sound similar to the ones run by StoryCorps. People can go in, alone or in small groups, and record stories of their lives. At the end of the session, they are provided with a flash drive with the recording on it. Currently, the library does not keep a copy of the recording. There are plans to offer an option in the future for people to leave a copy with FamilySearch if they so desire.

Another interesting announcement is the introduction of Family History Discovery Centers. These are designed for an introductory experience for those unfamiliar with genealogy. They will include exhibits, interactive activities, and computers for people to discover more about family history. The centers will be located in high-traffic tourist centers. Three to five of these are slated to be opened around the world this year.

TED Talks: Help for Genealogists

27 Aug 2013

Almost thirty years ago, people from the fields of Technology, Entertainment, and Design, joined together for the first conference about “Ideas Worth Spreading.” Since then, TED has grown into a 501(c)3 dedicated to these ideas. It now runs the TED and TEDGlobal conferences, the Open Translation Project, Ted Conversations, TED Fellos, TEDx, the annual TED Prize and the TED Talks video website.




The TED Talks video website is fascinating. There are more than 1,500 videos on a wide variety of subjects, among them:

  • Archaeology
  • Architecture
  • Business
  • Education
  • Food
  • Global Issues
  • Internet
  • Music
  • Plants
  • Thinking
  • Writing

Now you might wonder what TED talks have to do with genealogy. As genealogists, we are interested not only in family history, but social history and world history. All of these work together to give us the best picture of our ancestors.

If your ancestors lived in New York City at any time, you might enjoy Eric Sanderson’s talk New York —Before the City. He used computer technology and an eighteenth-century map to create a 3D image of what Manhattan looked like in 1609. Jean-Baptiste Michel is a Fellow at Harvard University and a visiting faculty member at Google. He specializes in using large quantities of data to understand our history and cultures. In The Mathematics of History he explains how technology is helping to reveal bigger patterns and themes in history. You might also like David Christian’s The History of Our World in 18 Minutes.

Some of the talks figure directly into genealogy. For example, Sarah Kaminsky is an actress and author from France. In 2011 she recorded My Father the Forger, a video about her father’s work during World War II to save lives. If you like to do oral interviews of your family, you might get some tips from Marc Pachter in The Art of the Interview. Over more than three decades at the Smithsonian Institution he has specialized in preserving the lives of great Americans. You might also appreciate a talk by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo called Capturing Memories in Video Art. He discusses how he memorialized his friends in a very unique way.

Those of you who are interested in DNA and genealogy would likely enjoy A Family Tree for Humanity. This talk is given by Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project at National Geographic. He explains the goals of the project and the DNA work that they are doing in plain English. Genealogists who use the Internet Archive as much as I do might enjoy A Free Digital Library, presented by Brewster Kahle who founded it.

If you enjoy a particular subject, you might appreciate the curated playlists. Those who enjoy reading and writing, for example, might enjoy the playlist Words, Words, Words. It has ten talks from various presenters on a wide variety of subjects.

Take the time to explore the TED Talks website. Not only will you find interesting and informative topics, you will discover a number of them that will just fill you with inspiration in general.

Man Fathers Almost 500 Children

24 Aug 2013

Just  few weeks ago, on July 25, Louise Brown celebrated her 35th birthday. What’s so special about that? Well, when she was born on July 25, 1978, to John and Lesley Brown of Bristol, England, Louise was the world’s first test tube baby.  Her birth ushered in the era of in vitro fertilization that is today so common. We tend to think of things like sperm donation, test-tube babies, and 60-year-old women giving birth as technological marvels. But some of these things have been around longer than you might think. Let’s take the case of Dr. Helena Wright and her sperm donor, “Derek.”

At the turn of the twentieth century, Helena was already a “challenge the norm” kind of woman by virtue of her being a doctor. She received fame and notoriety when she published The Sex Factor in Marriage: A Book For Those Who are or are About to be Married. She operated two clinics in London, one in Knightsbridge for wealthy women and one in Notting Hill for poor women.

World War I had a devastating effect on British men. A million soldiers were killed between 1914 and 1918. Thousands and thousands more were gassed, or suffered from “shell shock” (which today we call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The losses left few eligible men for the newly-widowed women, not to mention the single women who had not yet married. By 1921, almost two million women were part of the “mateless multitude.”

In addition to these women were those whose husbands returned from the war unable to perform sexually because of the physical and psychological injuries of the war. Many of these men and women still wanted to have families. Dr. Wright started looking for a man who could help these unfortunate couples.

She had an unconventional morality that was ahead of its time. A chance introduction to a nurse’s fiancé in 1919 lead to a perfect opportunity. The fiancé, “Derek,” was a young man from an upper-class English family. His brother had been killed during the war, and he felt a need to do something in his memory to help other victims.

Dr. Wright proposed an arrangement, and after approval from his fiancé, they moved forward. Interested women paid £10 into a trust fund and signed a pledge of secrecy. After identifying the woman’s optimal dates for ovulation, “Derek” would visit and spend the night with her. There was no contact between he and the women prior to or after this single visit.

Derek fathered four illegitimate children in Malaya when he was there as a young man. He and his wife had three children. After her death, he fathered two more with a woman who had been his father’s mistress. Over the course of 32 years of his work with Dr. Wright, it is estimated that “Derek” fathered an additional 487 children, bringing the total to nearly 500.


500 Children


“Derek” died in 1974. Sperm donation no longer carries the stigma it did in the early twentieth century. Dr. Wright practiced medicine for 64 years, retiring only a little more than a year before her death at the age of 94 in 1982. You can read more about them in a recent story in the Daily Mail. Together they made hundreds of men and women happy by giving them families. One wonders, however, how many of those hundreds of children know the true circumstances of their birth. And how many of them (or their descendants) will become genealogists who might perform DNA tests that will reveal the “non-paternal event” that occurred?

Have You Used DNA In Your Research?

24 Aug 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked if you had used any DNA in your research. 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 Stories for Genealogists, August 23, 2013

23 Aug 2013

This week’s roundup is pure Bedlam, from a real War Horse to the longest-living human ever. I hope you find these stories as interesting and informative as I do.

Last year Broadway was all atwitter with the fascinating play War Horse, later turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg. During the Korean War, Staff Sgt. Reckless braved enemy fire, enjoyed scrambled eggs and coffee for breakfast and drinking beer with the boys. She was also a horse. You can read more about her story and watch a video in The Real War Horse: The Life and Legend of the Marine Corps’ 4-Legged Staff Sergeant.

Andrew Janes is an archivist working with maps at The National Archives in Kew. He has come up with the perfect elevator pitch to explain what he does: “I’m a physical and moral defender of your heritage.” In his recent blog post A Physical and Moral Defence, he write about how twentieth-century British archival theorist Sir Hilary Jenkinson wrote that archivists “believe that preserving the intellectual properties of records and their relationships with one another — which Jenkinson rather grandly terms a moral defence — is just as important as looking after the records physically.”

Burials on the family farm have been happening for hundreds of years in America. But in recent years, two states, California and Washington, have created regulations that make it all but impossible to be buried outside of an officially sanctioned cemetery. One man sued Mendocino County, California, and the county agreed with him and did not object. The judge granted his request, giving him the right to honor his wife’s wishes and bury her on their property. You can read more in Judge Oks Home Burial for Mendocino County Supervisor’s Wife. It is likely that these laws will be tested more and more in the coming years.


Bedlam Burial Ground


Bethlem Hospital was located near the present-day Liverpool Street train station in London. It was an insane asylum dating back to the Middle Ages and more popularly known as Bedlam. Archaeologists have been working on the location of the original building (from 1247 to 1676) and the burial ground. Beneath the site of Bedlam lie the remains of a Roman road to York. And beneath that was found a site where Londoners made tools 9,000 years ago in the Mesolithic Era. Read more in Europe’s Oldest Insane Asylum Yields Buried Treasure.

Finally this week we have an interesting story out of Bolivia. Records there have shown that Carmelo Flores Laura is the longest-living person ever to have documented proof. The records show that he was born July 16, 1890, making him more than 123 years old. Laura lives in a small village in the mountains near Lake Titicaca and has never travelled more than 50 miles from there. Read more, and watch a video, at Bolivia Records: Aymara Herder is 123 Years Old.

Happy Holidays: Time to Get Working on Your Gifts For This Year

22 Aug 2013

How quickly time flies. It seems like only yesterday that we were raising champagne toasts to the New Year. And this Christmas is only 124 days (just 4 months) away. Even worse, Hanukkah is only 96 days away (only 3 months)! Now, before you slap me, realize that I have very good reasons for bringing this up. How many times have you thought “Wouldn’t it be great to give the family some of our genealogy as a holiday gift this year?” And how many times have you quickly realized that by the time you had this idea, it was too late to actually do something about it for this year’s holidays? And on New Year’s Eve, you resolved to start earlier this time, only to fall into the same rut again.

This year, be different! Start working NOW so you can have something real put together by the time the holidays hit in November and December.  After all, realistically, if you are planning for Christmas, you have the same deadline as those targeting Hanukkah, since you likely won’t get tons done after Thanksgiving. Start now with these easy steps and you will be much more at ease in December.

1. What do you want the gift to be?

  • There are so many different things you can do, now is the time to decide what your project will be so you can focus on it. Here are some suggestions:
  • A small book of genealogical sketches, or a compiled genealogy with several generations of a line or two.
  • A book with images from your family photograph collection.
  • A slide show of your family photographs.
  • A video of interviews with family members.


2. Define the Steps

What steps will you need to take to create your gift? Don’t worry about putting them in order yet. Just do a mind dump and figure out everything that needs to be done. It is easier to get started if you know what needs to be done. Let’s take a small book or booklet on your family. For that you need to:

  • Write the sketches.
  • Research.
  • Complete writing.
  • Have sketches proofread and edited.
  • Format.
  • Select printer.
  • Have books printed and bound.


3. Create a Timeline

Now is the time to put your list from above in order. Figure out when each piece has to be done, and estimate how long it will take do it. Remember that some things you may be working on concurrently. For example, you may be looking at possible printers while you are writing. Also, really look to be certain you are doing things in the correct order. You might be tempted to “complete the research” before you start writing. It is actually better to write first. This will show you where the holes are where more research needs to be done.


4. Get moving!

Once you have the timeline, get to work. Figure that you only have twelve or so good weeks to get your project done for the holidays. That will give you enough time to have the final product, wrap it, and put it under the tree or next to the menorah.

And to put you in a festive mood to get started here are a couple of my favorite holiday songs: The Chanukah Song (We Are Lights) by Stephen Schwartz, and Happy Holidays, sung by Andy Williams and his brothers along with the Osmond brothers in 1966 (check out how young Donnie is!).

Andy Williams Osmond Brothers

Sources and Information and Evidence, Oh My!

20 Aug 2013

When getting started in genealogy, one quickly gets surrounded by tons of terminology. Some of it can get quite confusing. Even researchers with a bit of experience can quickly become confused. Nowhere can terminology become more confusing than in the area of sources.

As researchers, we are dependent on our sources, but many of us get confused about what sources really are seven important concepts for you to understand. Once you have grasped these, you will more easily be able to communicate you work to others. There are three important terms that we use: sources, information, and evidence to do this.

Sources are the actual materials we work with. Books, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, recordings, databases, online images, etc. Sources are put into one of two categories: original or derivative. Original sources are those that are in the condition in which they were created. For example, if you go to the county courthouse and examine deeds, those are original records. If you consulted a published book that contained abstracts or transcriptions of the deeds, you would be using a derivative source.

Derivative sources are those that have been created from original materials and presented in a different format. This includes abstractions, transcriptions, indexes, etc. Keep in mind that not derivative does not mean bad, it just means that it is not the original source, and any time sources are manipulated, problems can creep in. Some derivative sources, in fact, can be as good as the original, such as a database of images of original records.

There is a major difference between sources and the information contained within them. Information is the data that you get from the source. The information itself is considered either primary or secondary. Primary information comes from someone who had firsthand knowledge of the data being recorded. The mother of a child, for example, recording the birth of her baby. Secondary information comes from someone who has secondhand (or thirdhand, fourthand, etc.) knowledge of the data being recorded. Family tradition, for example, is secondary information.

Evidence is the interpretation of information. One can get three different types of evidence form information: direct, indirect, and negative. Direct evidence answers your research question directly. It does not matter if the evidence confirms your theory or proves it wrong, it is still direct evidence. Indirect evidence adds information, but does not conclusively answer the question by itself. The third type is negative evidence — what we can infer from the fact that there was no information at all relevant to the research question in the source consulted.


Proof Flowchart


From the primary and secondary information contained in original and derivative sources, researchers obtain direct, indirect, or negative evidence to help them answer research questions and prove or disprove theories. Without all three, we would not get far in our research.

Know Your Sources

19 Aug 2013

Knowing and understanding your sources is a very important part of genealogy research. And different versions of the same source can provide different pieces of information. It is critical to know what you are working with, and to be certain to cite it properly. Not only that, if you are looking at a source citation in an article or book, be certain when you go looking for the original that you examine exactly the version that the author did, otherwise the information may differ greatly. As an example of this, I would like to discuss a valuable resource called New England Marriage Prior to 1700.

Clarence Almon Torrey was a noted genealogist, contributing editor of The American Genealogist (TAG) and a fellow of the American Society of Genealogists. He spent decades in the library of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), combing through books and journals in the collections for mention of any couple in New England who was married prior to 1700. Starting by taking notes onto scraps of paper. Eventually he copied the information onto sheets of paper, listing couples alphabetically by the groom’s surname, include the names of bride and groom, dates and places of marriage (when known), names of parents or family members when known, places of origin when known, and the sources for that information. He put the sheets into post-bound volumes. By the time of his death, it would comprise twelve volumes with more than 500 pages in each volume. These volumes were left to NEHGS at his death.

In 1985, NEHGS and the Genealogical Publishing Company published the first print version of Torrey. For space purposes, the source information was left out. The listing of just the names, dates, and places still took 848 pages. To this was added an index to the names of the brides and grooms. The index was more than 160 pages long. It was reprinted six times between 1985 and 1997. The introduction was updated in 1992, and minor corrections were made in each reprinting.

One of the detriments of Torrey’s work is that it he stopped working on it in 1960 (he died in 1962). Nothing published after that time is included. Noted genealogist Melinde Lutz Sanborn, herself now a fellow of the American Society of Genealogists and co-editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, published the first Supplement to Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700 with GPC in 1991. This 62-page supplement included source citations, a bibliography, and an index. Melinde and GPC published the Second Supplement to Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700 in 1995.


Torrey CD


In 2001, I oversaw publication of the first digital version of Torrey. It was published on CD-ROM, and was the first version to include the source citations and bibliography of sources that he had consulted. This CD-ROM contained only Torrey’s work itself, not the supplements. In 2003, Melinde and GPC published a Third Supplement to Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700. This 286-page supplement also incorporated the information in the first and second supplements.

In 2011, NEHGS published the first complete print version of Torrey’s original New England Marriages Prior to 1700. This version (published in both hardcover and softcover) contains a complete transcription of the information in his manuscript, the source citations, a bibliography of all of the sources consulted, and a complete index to every name in the manuscript. All together, the three volumes comprise more than 2,300 pages. In 2012, NEHGS published this version as one of their online databases.

Needless to say, it is absolutely critical to look at the same version of Torrey and its supplements that an author cites. Otherwise, you run the risk of missing critical information that can at the least delay and possibly mislead your research.

News and Blog Posts for Genealogists, August 16, 2013

16 Aug 2013

This week we have some interesting

We start out with breaking news this morning about the remains of Richard III. The BBC is reporting that a British court has allowed for a judicial review of the plans to re-inter the bones at Leicester Cathedral. The Cathedral has already started a £1 million construction project for a tomb, and the city of Leicester is working on a £4 million visitor center. But the Plantagenet Alliance filed suit saying that the remains should be interred in York Minster because that is what Richard wanted. Read more in Richard III: King’s Reburial Row Goes to Judicial Review.


Bath Abbey Bodies BBC


Dick Eastman posted another story out of Britain this week. Bath Abbey, itself dating back to 1499, was constructed on the remains of a Norman cathedral. Over the course of the past three centuries, it is estimated that up to 6,000 bodies have been interred under the stone floors of the abbey. This is cause major structural problems that threaten the future of the building. Even worse, they discovered that Victorian-era construction uncovered the problem more than a century ago. Their solution: churn the graves to break them up and make it easier to lay down a new floor. Read more in Thousands of Bodies Under Bath Abbey Threaten Its Stability.

The U.S. National Archives (NARA) has been holding an annual genealogy fair since 2005. After eight years, NARA is conducting its first Virtual Genealogy Fair. This two-day event will feature genealogy experts from NARA as well as from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service. Check the NARA website for more details.

Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, has an interesting piece this week about divorce records. Specifically she uses an example from Amelia County, Virginia, to discuss the decree nisi. This is a provisional decision. It will take effect unless something happens. Find out more about this in The Decree Nisi.

Finally this week we have a video post from Thomas MacEntee and his new Hack Genealogy website. This week he had a very interesting piece about passwords. Specifically, he has a trick for creating a different password for every website you need. You can do it on the spot, and always remember the password. Find out his technique in New Video: The Password Trick.