Genealogy Blog

Which states in New England do you have interest in?

23 Mar 2013

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked which states in New England are you interested 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.


Book Review: Marriage Law for Genealogists: The Definitive Guide

21 Mar 2013

Understanding the law of the time and place in which you are researching will help you tremendously as a genealogist. Rebecca Probert is a genealogist. She is also Professor of Law at Warwick University in England. She is the leading authority on the history of marriage laws in England and Wales. After writing a number of scholarly works on the subject, she realized that a book on the subject written specifically for a genealogical perspective would be very helpful for researchers. Last year she published Marriage Law for Genealogists: the Definitive Guide.



I picked up a copy at Who Do You Think You Are? Live! a few weeks ago. The modest-sized book (156 pages), it is jam-packed with incredibly important information.  Now, there are many research guides for genealogists that touch on marriage records, so why do we need this new book?

Probert started having doubts about the accuracy of many of the claims about informal marriage arrangements and other tales of marriage and family. Ten years ago she decided to start researching to see what she could discover. She poured through statutes and case law, as well as literature. Like any good genealogist, she then dove in headfirst, examining records across the entirety of England and Wales, researching families and analyzing data.

The results of her research “have overturned many long-standing myths about how our ancestors were married. The simple but very clear findings are that the overwhelming majority of couples married in the Church of England, cohabitation was vanishingly rare, and informal marriage practices non-existent. This disproves man of the claims of a previous generation of historians . . . on which guidebooks for family historians have relied.” (p. 14)

Over the course of the past decade, she has published numerous academic papers on her findings. “But this book has a far broader remit than simply distilling my earlier research. The need for a completely new book on marriage law for family historians became apparent when I looked at the existing resources. Not to put to fine a point on it, I was consistently disappointed (and occasionally flabbergasted) by the inaccuracy of existing accounts of marriage law: even the best genealogy books and websites repeat basic errors of law; mistakes are unintentionally compounded as one author repeats and then builds upon another’s conclusions without consulting the primary sources; inevitably, minor misconceptions have snowballed into outright falsehoods, leading the poor genealogists who rely on them into a thoroughly erroneous understanding of their ancestors’ marital customs and their beliefs and motivations in this most personal and universal of areas.” (p. 14)

Probert conducted a great deal of her research via working with original records and microfilm, but it was the modern-day digital databases and record images that allowed her to easily conduct a massive study that was untenable for earlier generations of historians. I had the please of conversing with her for a bit at Who Do You Think You Are? Live! in London a few weeks ago. She clearly knows her subject well, and is very passionate about it.

Marriage Law for Genealogists: the Definitive Guide is a necessary work for anyone researching their ancestors in England and/or Wales. It is available from Amazon for $14.99 (US) or £9.99 (UK).

New! Announcing the Mocavo Learning Center

21 Mar 2013

Whether you are new to genealogy or have been studying your family history for years, we want to help. We are excited to introduce the Mocavo Learning Center, a resource that provides expert advice and best practices to aid you in your research. The Mocavo Learning Center includes instructional articles and tools – like forms and questionnaires – that will help you record and organize your research.

The Mocavo Learning Center contains the following helpful categories:

  • Getting Started: Are you new to genealogy and don’t know where to start? Let us help you get on the right track with detailed guides that walk you through each step of the family history research process.
  • What’s New on Mocavo: Discover new record collections as they are added to the Mocavo Community.
  • Resources and Records: Gain insight into many popular as well as lesser-known records and resources that bring you closer to discovering your heritage.
  • Resources by Location: Learn about multiple records and resources you will use when your research leads you to different areas of the world.
  • Tips & Tricks: Uncover little secrets that help make discoveries and break through your brick walls.
  • Family History Toolkit: View and print multiple genealogy forms that help you record and organize your research.

There is something helpful for every genealogist! Visit the Mocavo Learning Center today to learn how to get even closer to discovering your family’s story.


Engage a Professional to Propel Your Genealogy Research

19 Mar 2013

Sometimes in our research, the best path is to get some professional help. Now by this I don’t necessarily mean psychological counseling, I am referring to assistance from a professional genealogist. As part of my trip to Salt Lake City this week (which will culminate in the RootsTech conference on Thursday and Friday) I attended board meetings of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG). This is my second term on the board, having initially served a decade ago.



APG is one of the best resources around to help you find professionals who can provide much needed assistance. Everyone from beginners to researchers with decades of experience can benefit from such help. There are many routes that this can take.

First, and foremost, you can hire a professional to do work for you. One of the most popular reasons for hiring a professional is to do onsite research in a location that is not easily accessible to you. As many records as there are available online and on microfilm, there are many times more records that exist only in the original in government and private repositories. It can often be less expensive to hire a professional to go to the repository and research for you.

But professionals can be of more assistance than that. Many professionals speak at conferences and teach at workshops and institutes around the country. Attending a presentation or taking a class from one of them can give you the tools you need to do better research. And you will often (but not always) have the opportunity to ask them some questions that pertain to your personal research.

If you can’t attend a lecture or presentation, another option is often available to you. You can hire a professional for a private consultation. This will give you an opportunity to spend some targeted time in a one-on-one situation with the professional. This will give you time to go back and forth and ask lots of questions and advice. The consultation can be about a specific research problem that you have. Or perhaps you needs some general advice. Consultations can be done in person, over the phone, or even via online video chat.

Another reason to hire a professional is to have them help you to write a book about your family. This collaboration can range from reviewing your text to co-authoring the work with you to taking your research and writing the book themselves.

Professional genealogists can also be found that provide highly specialized services. Some can trace the history of your house. Perhaps you need someone to organize and/or guide you on a research or heritage tour of your ancestral home area. Perhaps you need someone to prepare the paperwork for you to join a lineage society, such as the Sons of the American Revolution or the Society of Mayflower Descendants.

When engaging the services of a professional genealogist, it is best to hire one who is involved in a professional organization. Members of the Association of Professional Genealogists (the largest organization for family history professionals) sign an ethics code that covers their services when working for you. Members of the Board for Certification of Genealogists and the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists have had their research skills tested. Take advantage of the services of a professional to help boost your research.

What’s the Difference Between Holland and the Netherlands?

18 Mar 2013

Finding out that your ancestors were Dutch would be a great breakthrough, wouldn’t it? After all you would know where in Europe your ancestors came from, right? Would you believe that perhaps you wouldn’t? And perhaps, they weren’t from Europe at all?

The first problem we run into is whether your ancestors might have come from the Netherlands or from Germany. Those that come from the Netherlands are Dutch. Germany’s name in German is Deutschland. Her citizens are Deutsch. When Germans came to the mid-Atlantic, they became known as the Pennsylvania Deutsch, which morphed into the Pennsylvania Dutch. I did some research on a friend’s family awhile back. His great-grandfather’s nickname was Dutch, and he claimed to be of German descent. Other family members claimed that they were from Holland. My suspicions were that they were actually Dutch and not Deutsch (the first clue was that the family name begins with “Van der”), and I was eventually proven correct.

The next problem was to figure out exactly where in the Netherlands the family came from. Because, while we presume that the country is in Europe, the Kingdom of the Netherlands is composed of twelve provinces in northwestern Europe and as well as islands in the Caribbean. The provinces are: Drenthe, Flevoland, Friesland, Gedlerland, Groningen, Limburg, North Brabant, North Holland, Overijssel, Utrecht, Zeeland, and South Holland. The islands include Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten.



When researching my friend’s family, I determined that they came to upstate New York from Holland, Michigan. And from there, they came from the Netherlands. Many people confuse Holland with the Netherlands. As seen above, North Holland and South Holland are provinces within the kingdom. Saying that someone is from the country of Holland is like saying that they come from the country of Arkansas.

Knowing geography is critically important in genealogical research. The smallest of details can make a crucial difference in finding your answers. In the instance of my friend, knowing that the family was from Holland restricted my research to only two of the twelve provinces. This made it far easier to locate their village of origin.

C.G.P. Grey is a physics teacher in England. He has produced a number of videos explaining different subjects. Among them is the highly entertaining The Difference Between Holland and the Netherlands.

Genealogy Myths: Coats of Arms

15 Mar 2013

Isn’t it surprising how quickly a week can pass? Here were are on Friday, and it is time for the last in our series on genealogy myths. I saved for the finale one of the most heinous travesties imposed on the public: family crests and coats of arms.

We’ve all seen them. In shopping malls and airports. Online. In magazines. Companies that are willing to sell you a copy of your family crest or coat of arms. You can have it emblazoned on a wall plaque, on a flag, on t-shirts and polo shirts, on coffee mugs and keychains, and a thousand other products. All yours for a low fee: the Smith Family coat of arms. There’s only one problem: there’s no such thing.

Coats of arms is a misnomer. It is actually a heraldic design. They were originally used in the Middle Ages by knights to help identify them. The designs were worn on cloth coats that went over suits of armour (thus, coat of arms). They were also painted onto shields and escutcheons. This helped to identify individual soldiers on the field of battle.


Arms from the Fenwick Roll, created during the times of Henry V and Henry VI, from the College of Arms in London.


Control of these heraldic designs is tightly controlled by official organizations, such as the College of Arms for England and Wales or the Chief Herald in Ireland. These designs were granted to individuals and institutions or governments. They were NEVER granted to a family. Fathers could leave their arms to their sons (usually the eldest). Wives and daughters could also bear arms. These would be an offshoot of the arms belonging to their husband or father.

Arms can only belong to one individual at a time. Other descendants could bear their own arms. These would be a variation of the original arms. Usually a major color was switched and another major change or two was initiated. If both parents were armigerous, the descendants might include elements from both arms in their new design.

All of those family crests and coats of arms you see in the stores were created for an individual, and they are the legal property of the descendants to whom they passed. It is a myth that they belong to an entire family. Just because a crest or coat of arms belonged to someone with the same surname as you, it does not mean it belongs to you.

There is no official system of creating arms in the United States. You can, however, have arms created for you. This would be done in a country that still recognizes arms and has a Chief Herald or the equivalent. The cost, however, can run into the tens of thousands of dollars or more, so be certain you really want it.

Don’t waste your money in the store on those arms. They are not legally yours or your family’s. Educate yourself. If you discover that an ancestor had arms, realize that they do not automatically belong to you, and you do not have the legal right to use them.

With this we come to the close of our genealogy myths week. I hope you found these pieces interesting and informative. And I hope you are not too disillusioned with your family and all of the things you thought you knew about them.




Genealogy Myths: The Indian in the Family

14 Mar 2013

Genealogical myth week continues with the story of the Indian in the family. Sometimes it is just a generic Indian, sometimes it is an “Indian Princess” or, more specifically, a “Cherokee Princess.” Now, let’s leave aside the fact that Native Americans did not have crown heads of state, and therefore had no royal princesses (why let facts muddy the waters of mythology?), these tales just don’t pan out.


Cover of the Japanese Version of Cher’s hit song Half-Breed. Cher purportedly has Cherokee ancestors.


I remember an interaction many years ago when I was working in the microtext department at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. A patron came in and needed help finding her Indian ancestor. One of her great-great grandmothers was an Indian from northern Maine. We asked her the name of the person she was looking for, which she gave to us. We quickly found her death record in Maine, and census records stretching back from 1900 to 1850. Her death record and all of the later censuses agreed that she was born in Maine and her parents were born in Massachusetts. All of the records showed that she was white. The woman argued with us that this couldn’t be her ancestor (even though she was married to the proper man, lived in the same small town, and all succeeding family records gave this woman as the wife and mother).  It could be right because she wasn’t an Indian. I asked her how she knew this woman was an Indian. Her response: “My psychic told me.” Well that settled it. Why bother with records and impartial original sources when you have a psychic on your side.

By the nineteenth century, Native Americans in the United States had been pushed back to just a few limited areas, predominately in the west. If you had ancestors in places like Oklahoma in the late-nineteenth century, it is possible that you may have Native American ancestors. The primary thing to do, however, is to look at the records of your people.

Not that America discriminates, but it has done so since before the Mayflower arrived in 1620, and continues to do so today. As a result of this discrimination, you will eventually find evidence of your native ancestors if there actually are any in your family tree. They are treated differently in government records, and in the early days even church records and other sources will label Native Americans as such (using a variety of terminology) in their records.

High cheekbones are not a sign of Indian ancestry. There are plenty of Europeans with high cheekbones. Photographs of ancestors on reservations are not evidence of Indian ancestry. They could just as easily be Christian missionaries. Photographs of ancestors in Native American garb are not evidence either. How many times have you been to a fair or carnival where there is a booth for you to dress up in period clothing to have your photograph taken. That is not a twentieth-century invention, let me assure you.

French-Canadian families are filled with the tale of an Indian in the ancestry. My paternal grandfather used to tell us how his grandmother was descended from Indians. I did my best to disprove the story, but was unable to unequivocally do so before he died, but his grandmother’s great-grandfather was illegitimate. The thought of a white European girl bearing the child of a Native American man (in a location where the Native Americans no longer lived) and have it go unrecorded seems quite a bit far-fetched. Multiple DNA tests have revealed not a shred of Native American ancestry in my genes.

I wrote an article about this a few years ago, and it was the cover story of American Ancestors magazine. My mother was in the hospital for heart surgery at the time, and I brought her a copy to read in the hospital. She proudly told her cardiologist about this while I was there the next day. The cardiologist informed me that she herself had a great-grandmother who was a Cherokee princess. I asked where the great-grandmother was from (praying that she would say Oklahoma). She said with a completely straight face “Hoboken.” I determined that since my mother had not yet had her surgery, I would refrain from saying anything so as not to annoy the doctor before the surgery.

Genealogy Myths: The Family Treasure

13 Mar 2013

This week we are running a series on genealogical myths. Yesterday I wrote about the myth of the three brothers (or two brothers or four brothers, etc.). It is amazing how many people have such a story in their family. Today, we move onto another interesting tale that is often passed down: the family treasure.


Treasure of Villena.


Many families have a story that the family left behind valuables before emigrating. This is especially common with families whose origins are in Europe. The story is not at all unusual, and usually comes in one of several different permutations.

The first version is that the immigrant was a member of the aristocracy or royalty. As such, they were due to take part in the family fortune. Now let’s just address this situation from a realistic point of view. If you were from such a wealthy family, would you leave to live a working-class life or one of abject poverty? In older times, would you leave a civilized world to live in the wilderness? In royal families, only one individual can inherit the crown. The descendants of the lesser royals became nobles. Again, since only one descendant can inherit the title, the lesser nobles became members of the landed gentry. Eventually, the lesser gentry became commoners. It was these commoners and their descendants who emigrated, not their wealthier relatives.

A second version of this story involves property. It seems that the immigrant was a member of a family with great property holdings, and the family was unable to locate him/her when the patriarch/matriarch died. Once again, this is a highly unlikely scenario. Those who were better off financially migrated in far fewer numbers. And, for the most part, they kept in touch with their relatives back in Europe. Very few of them “disappeared.”

Part of these traditions may arise from unscrupulous individuals in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The same individuals who manufactured and published false genealogies (many of which are freely available online now, by the way, because they are out of copyright) would sometimes make up stories of family wealth back in the old country. For a fee, they would work to prove this to the powers at be in the old country to get the American heirs their “rightful inheritance.”  These were frauds perpetuated to obtain money from gullible individuals who were later told a sob story about why things didn’t work out.

Even in the rare instance that an immigrant was the heir to a fortunate back in their homeland, this would mean nothing for descendants in practical terms. When probating an estate, either testate or intestate, the administrator/executor worked to identify and locate all rightful heirs. After a certain point, if rightful heirs could not be located, the probate judge delivered a final decree for the distribution of the estate. The likelihood of any judge reopening the settlement of an estate after centuries (or even decades) have passed is highly doubtful. So when you come across these stories in your family history, just smile, acknowledge them, and move on.

Genealogy Myths: All the Records Burned in a Fire

12 Mar 2013

And genealogy myth week continues here at Mocavo. We are working to educate you and break down some of the biggest myths and misconceptions in genealogical research. Today’s myth is a biggie, and it can greatly lead you astray. Today we discuss the great “All of the records were destroyed when the courthouse/town hall/other repository burned down.”

Fires post a dramatic danger to records and repositories. They could be caused in any number of ways. In early times, when buildings were heated by giant fireplaces, stray cinders could easily ignite fires. Burning candles and exploding gas lamps also posed a danger. Perhaps the greatest danger, however, was lightning.

Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity led him to promote the use of lightning rods to ground buildings and keep the lightning from setting them on fire. Even after their use, lightning continued to be a problem. Of course, some of this danger was exacerbated by poor government planning.


Provincetown Town Hall, 1905, form the Provincetown Journal.


The town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, for example, built their first Town Hill in 1853. Because of the significance of the building to the town, they chose to place it in the center of the town, on High Pole Hill. Now, High Pole Hill is not only the highest point in Provincetown, it is the highest point on all of Cape Cod. From the top fof the hill, on a clear day, you can sometimes see the Boston skyline clear across Massachusetts Bay.  Now, one would think that they would have realized that the highest point around for 40 miles is probably NOT the best place to house the most valuable town records.

The building was struck by lightning twice  and caught fire. Both times the damage was repaired and it was business as usual. In 1877, the town hall was struck for a third time and burned to the ground. This time the town fathers finally realized the danger of located the building and that location, and it was moved down to the flat at the bottom of the hill. The building was opened in 1886 and still serves as the town hall. Despite the fires, the town suffered very little in the way of lost records. Quick-acting citizens and fireproof vaults helped preserve  them from the fire.

Not all locations were so lucky. Many buildings burned and huge numbers of records were destroyed. But often, even when a building burned, it did not result in the loss of ALL records. Some were lost in the fire. Some were destroyed in the efforts to extinguish the fire.  But even where there was widespread damage and loss, it was far more common that some records survived. Different departments stored records in different areas of buildings. Fire could damage one section and leave another area unscathed. Sometimes the storage in different areas allowed some records to be removed from the building before the entire building was destroyed.

When you discover that the courthouse or other repository in the area you are interested in researching was the victim of a fire, it means that it is time to expand your horizons. Perhaps the records you were looking for were destroyed, but other records may have survived. Sometimes, when the court clerk says that everything was lost in the fire, they are thinking that everything of interest to genealogists was burned. Unfortunately, court clerks are not familiar with everything that truly is of interest. And other surviving records may help you over the missing ones.

In the end, perhaps all of the records truly were destroyed. But be certain to do all your homework. Do all you can to discover what records, if any, may have survived. You may be able to find everything you need in the records that made it through the flames!

Genealogy Myths: There Were Three Brothers . . .

11 Mar 2013

This week on the Mocavo blog we are bringing to you a series on great genealogy myths. Each day we will discuss one of the largest myths in genealogical research, plucked from the legion that are out there. These are in no particular order, and I do not portend that they are necessarily the largest myths either. There are certainly others on at least equal footing. But they are ones that I come across quite frequently.

Today we will discuss the “three brothers” stories. It seems like so many families have this tradition. It doesn’t matter if the immigrants were from the seventeenth century or the twentieth century. The story goes something like this.

The three brothers were escaping something horrible. Sometimes it is described as living conditions, sometimes they were escaping military service. Sometimes they might have been escaping the law. They arrived in America, and somehow they split up. One went north, one went south, and one went west. Eventually the families lost touch, and no one knows what happened to the other brothers.


The three brothers are still traveling together. The Jonas Brothers on the road.


There are variations on these themes. Sometimes it was two brothers or four brothers.  Perhaps two of them went off in the same direction before being separated. Maybe their reasons for coming to America were different. But the underlying theme is the same.

I found this story with one of my uncle’s seventeenth-century ancestors. Three brothers supposedly came into Boston. One went north to New Hampshire, one went south to Rhode Island or Connecticut, and the other went to western Massachusetts. My uncle is descended from the one who went to New Hampshire. Despite detailed research, there is no evidence whatsoever that there were three men with the same name who entered Massachusetts at that time, let alone that there were three brothers.

The vast majority of these stories are false. Did people migrate together in family units? Absolutely. Especially internal migration once families arrived in the United States. But migrating from other countries to America, they were at least as likely to migrate alone.

When you come across such stories in your research, take them with a grain of salt. Look for evidence of your ancestor. If there is evidence of brothers coming together, you will find it. If not, the likelihood is that there were no brothers. He arrived alone. But if you go looking for three brothers arriving, you might not see your actual ancestor right there in the  records, because you are looking for something else.