Genealogy Blog

Guide to New York Genealogical Research Now Available

24 Feb 2015

One of the great pleasures of attending conferences is going to the exhibit halls where vendors cram their stands with the latest in books, software, services, organization memberships, and other products. Unfortunately, our stand in the hall was so busy that I barely had a chance to leave this time, so I did not get to explore as much as I usually do. But I know that one of the biggest successes in the exhibit hall was the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society’s new guide to New York genealogical research.

Awhile back I wrote about the book as it was going off to the printer. The printed books have now arrived, and the NYG&B completely sold out the stock they brought with them to Roots Tech. Three years in the making, this book is the Bible for researching your family anywhere in the state of New York. Whether your family was part of the early Dutch settlers, migrated to or through New York from New England after the American Revolution, or lived in New York City after migrating from Europe, this book will help your research.

The New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer is truly a collaborative effort. The project has included the work of more than 100 individuals as authors, editors, contributors, reviewers, and production people. The result is an 840-page masterwork (including a 30-page index) that provides everything you need to know about researching in the Empire State. Included in this group is Ruth A. Carr (former head of the Milstein Research Division at the New York Public Library), Laura Murphy Degrazia, Karen Jones, Henry Hoff, Terry Koch-Bostic, Anita Lustenberger, Suzanne McVetty, and Jane Wilcox. [note.: I also served as a reviewer and contributor on the book, but I would be equally excited about it had I never participated in the project.] The historians for every county provided assistance in verifying information for their areas. The single most significant contributor, however is Harry Macy, Jr. Former editor of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Harry is widely recognized as the dean of New York genealogical research. He edited and reviewed the book multiple times as it was being compiled.


NY Research Guide


Part One has seventeen chapters on researching: Colonial Era; Vital Records; Census Records; Immigration, Migration, and Naturalization; Court Records; Probate Records; Land Records and Maps; Military Records; Cemetery Records; Business, Institutional, Organizational Records; City Directories and Other Directories; Newspapers and Periodicals; Tax Records; Peoples of New York; Religious Records of New York; National and Statewide Repositories & Resources; and Reference Shelf for New York Research.

Part Two contains guides to every county in the state. For each county there is:

  • A cover page with maps of the county
  • Gazetteer of past and present place names
  • Repositories and resources for that county
  • Selected bibliography and further reading
  • Online resources

The counties are listed in alphabetical order, with the exception of the New York City counties. Because the five counties from the city are so intrinsically linked to each other, Bronx, Kings, New York, Queens, and Richmond counties are grouped together at the end of the county section. There is also a separate section for resources specific to Long Island. The thirty-page index cross-references all of the place names listed in the county gazetteers.

The book is now available from the NYG&B at three price levels. Members of the society can purchase the book for $65. Libraries and societies can purchase it for $75. Non-members can purchase it fro $85. Keep in mind that the member discount covers almost 30% of an annual membership. You might consider joining the society for a year to explore other valuable membership benefits. Get more information and order the book at

5 Free Resources for Identifying Locations

21 Feb 2015


One of the most important parts of researching your ancestors is locating them. Knowing where they lived is the critical first part. Without this, it is impossible to find other records. Here are five free resources for identifying locations your ancestors may have lived.

Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names
The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has a mission “to further knowledge and to advance understanding of the visual arts.” As part of their work, the institute has created a database of names from around the world. Although the purpose is to aid art historians and catalogers in their work, it is available online for anyone to use.

Geographic Names Information System
The GNIS was created by the United States Geological Survey and the United States Board on Geographic Names. It contains information about current and historical “physical and cultural geographic features” in the United States. Locations are defined by state, county, USGS topographic map, and geographic coordinates.

USGS Historical Topgraphic Map Explorer
This is another great project of the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS creates the official topographic maps for the entire nation. They have taken historical maps through current maps and loaded them onto a website. Simply enter a location, then select a map year from the timeline. Maps date back to 1890.

USMA Library Digital Collections
The United States Military Academy has a long history at West Point dating back to 1802. The library has extensive collections of maps, many predating the founding of the academy. Now many of these are available for free to use as part of the library’s digital collections effort. The viewer allows users to zoom in to examine the maps in great detail in a very legible manner.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center
The Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library has extensive cartographic holdings dating back to the 15th century. The center holds 5,000 atlases and 200,000 historical maps. As part of preservation efforts, many of these maps are being digitized and made available online.

More Genealogy Copyright Issues

20 Feb 2015


Copyright issues are a major problem in the genealogical community. Genealogical speakers are the backbone of learning in our field. We traverse the country giving presentations that help people learn the methods and techniques for researching their family history. Often we barely cover our costs for all of this. We do it not because we are getting wealthy, but because of the pleasure we feel when we see the light turning on in someone’s eyes as they finally understand a concept. And it continually astounds me to see the number of people who try to steal our work.

Last fall I was giving a presentation at a location not to be mentioned (in order to protect the guilty). A woman in the audience kept standing up to take pictures of the images on the screen. I asked her, politely, not to do it anymore. She then continued to take photographs while sitting. I had to stop the presentation again, and remind her that I had asked her to stop, and I would not continue until I saw her put the camera down on the floor.

She was not happy with me, and couldn’t understand why I asked her to stop. I explained that, personal use or not, she was violating my copyright. Even if the information itself was in the public domain, the way I presented it, the words I used, the design of the slide on the screen, are all protected.

I rarely give permission to have my presentations video recorded. I do allow professional companies brought in by societies to record their programs. These recordings are also protected by copyright, and the distributors are aware of that and put protections in place to protect my rights.

Many think that because they are in attendance, they can record or photograph anything they like. This is not true. Likewise, attendees are not free to do what they will with any handouts given to them during seminars and conferences. Also not true.

Judy Russell had similar frustrating experiences last week at the FGS/RootsTech conference. She wrote two posts this week to clarify things for genealogists. Copyright and the Genealogy Lecture explains the ethical and legal issues involved. And the follow-up  Credit and Copyright answers the questions of whether or not it is acceptable to use materials as long as credit it given to the author.

I’m certain that the average person does not mean to violate a speaker’s copyright, but that doesn’t make it correct. And others who think it is fair to take recordings and handouts and share them with their friends are quite mistaken. Realize that breaking the law makes a person open to a lawsuit, and who wants to deal with that? Respect the rights of speakers so that they can continue to provide excellent, high-quality education for everyone.

New Collaboration Results in Joint Publication

18 Feb 2015

One of the favorite things about the mail is receiving the many historical and genealogical journals to which I subscribe. Today’s post brought a pleasant surprise. The January issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (PMHB) is a very special issue. It was published in collaboration with Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies (PHJMS).


PMHB Cover


PMHB is the journal of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Located in Philadelphia, HSP is one of the oldest historical societies in America. It was founded in 1824, and now contains 600,000 printed works and more than 21 million manuscript and graphic items. PMHB is HSP’s scholarly journal, published quarterly since 1877. It publishes “original research or interpretation concerning the social, cultural, political, economic, and ethnic history of Pennsylvania, or work situating Pennsylvania history within comparative regional or international contexts.”

PHJMS is a publication of the Pennsylvania Historical Association (PHA), published in conjunction with the Pennsylvania State University Press. PHA was founded as a group for all historians interested in Pennsylvania, independent of any geographic or institutional affiliations. PHJMS publishes current scholarship on the history of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region, including annotated documents.

Several years ago, the editors of the journals had the idea to do a joint publication. The PHJMS editor, Bill Pencak, quickly suggested that the focus be on teaching Pennsylvania history. PMHB editor Tamara Gaskell agreed, and the project was set in motion. This joint issue contains six very special articles by leading historians:

  • “A Century of Teaching with Pennsylvania’s Historic Places” by Seth C. Bruggeman
  • “Three Miles, Two Creeks: Local Pennsylvania History in the Classroom” by Edward Slavisbak
  • “Pennsylvania’s Past from a Unique Perspective: Oral History” by Mary Carroll Johansen
  • “Teaching the Religious History of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia” by R. Scott Hanson
  • “An Authentic Archival Experience for the College Classroom in the Digital Age” by Kathryn Shively Meier and Kristen Yarmey
  • “The Blood Demonstration: Teaching the History of the PHiladelphia Welfare Rights Organization” by Kim Gallon

This collaboration is an excellent idea. Not only does it promote excellent scholarship, it provides exposure of each organization’s membership to the benefits of the other. This may lead to increased membership for both groups.

Think about the organizations you belong to or know of. Are there any possibilities of a similar collaboration? Perhaps such a publication could promote greater awareness for both groups, but a greater understanding between the fields of history and genealogy.

Dealing with the Ancestral Black Sheep

07 Feb 2015

We all have black sheep in our families. The cause of their being an outcast varies from simple things, such as those who left the family over petty squabbles or for other reasons. Sometimes they committed white collar crimes such as fraud. Other times their misdeeds may be darker. What do you do when your family was associated with some of the darkest crimes in the history of humanity?

Rainer Hoess was born in the 1960s. When growing up, he didn’t know much about his father’s family. They were never discussed. But the answers started coming one day when he found a book in the family’s library: Commandant of Auschwitz, the autobiography of Rudolf Hoess.

Hoess joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and became a member of Hitler’s SS in 1933. In 1934 he was attached to the Dachau concentration camp. In 1938 he became the adjutant at Sachenhausen before being appointed commander of the new camp at Auschwitz in 1940. In 1943 he was appointed chief inspector of all concentration camps. During his service he specialized in developing new methods of killing. In 1945 he fled and went into hiding. He was captured in Germany in 1946, and was hanged on a gallows at Auschwitz in 1947. Rainer’s father was one of Rudolf’s sons. Suddenly Rainer had to deal with the knowledge that his grandfather was one of the most notorious murderers in human history.

Rainer is part of the next generations that have had to deal with what their parents and grandparents did. Those that committed the atrocities are now mostly deceased. But they have left a legacy that is difficult to deal with. As Rainer Hoess says “I know my heritage. I can’t change it.” But he, like many others, is moving to create a new world.

Manfred Rommel was the son of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. He became mayor of the city of Stuttgart. During his tenure he fully supported the rights of immigrants in Germany among many other accomplishments. He earned many awards for his distinguished public service, including Commander of the British Empire.

Martin Pollock’s father was an officer in the SS and the Gestapo. His research uncovered the ruthlessness of his father, who often ordered his men to kill Jews. Although he himself feels no guilt, he does feel responsibility to be certain the stories are told so they are never forgotten.


Black Sheep


These people have to live every day of their lives being associated with brutal atrocities. They, also, unfortunately, are judged by the actions of their family members. But is it fair to judge individuals for the actions of their ancestors?

Rainer Hoess now works to spread the word about the Nazi atrocities. He wants to be certain that they are never forgotten. And, more importantly, that they are not repeated. He has long spoken out against the kind of religious extremism that is now spreading across Europe, the Middle East, and even the United States.

When it comes to your own ancestors, remember first that you should not judge. Unless you walked in their shoes, you have no idea what motivated them to do things. And, unless you personally are doing the same things, they are no reflection on you. You cannot change your ancestors and their actions. You cannot directly change your descendants and their actions. The best you can do is to live as the best example you can of the people you would like them to be. Remember to tell your stories, and your ancestors’ stories, including the ones that you find distasteful. It is only by including those stories that the fullest possible picture of your family can be known.

Help the Smithsonian Make Their Collections More Accessible

04 Feb 2015

The Smithsonian Institution was created in 1846 under the will of James Smithson, a British scientist to create “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” It has operated ever since, free to the public. The complex in Washington includes nineteen museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo, and is the largest of its kind in the world. And in the 21st century, the Smithsonian is moving into the virtual world. Over almost 170 years, the Smithsonian has collected 137 million items. And now the staff would like you to help the Smithsonian make their collections items more accessible to the public. Part of the effort to digitize is recruiting ordinary individuals like you and I to assist them.


Smithsonian Transcription Service


The Smithsonian has invested heavily in creating an online transcription center to allow interested individuals to contribute to making materials available. This is a massive project, with contributions from across the institution, including:

  • Anacostia Community Museum Archivs
  • National Anthropological Archives
  • National Museum of American History
  • National Museum of Natural History
  • Smithsonian Institution Archives
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries

The site provides access to digital images that volunteers can transcribe. Each page is transcribed by two volunteers in a double-verification process. Collection experts from the Smithsonian then review the transcription before making it available to the public. Millions of pages have so far been digitized, and they are making their way through the system for transcribing.

Signing up is a simple process. Simply create a username, enter your email address, and verify you are not a robot. Then you get to work. You can browse projects by repository, or by a half-dozen categories:

  • American Experience
  • Biodiverse Planet
  • Civil War Era
  • Field Book Project
  • Mysteries of the Universe
  • World Cultures.

Among the fascinating subprojects are letters of Mary Cassatt, George Catlin, Winslow Homer, William de Kooning, and Grandma Moses.

If you are looking for a new volunteer project, the Smithsonian Institution is a great place to invest your time. Not only will you be helping yourself and other genealogists, but historians present and future will also be the beneficiaries of your work when they study all aspects of American history and culture. Check out the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers website  and browse the available projects for more information.


Solving the Problems of Adoptees: Non-Paternal Events and DNA Testing

02 Feb 2015

As genealogists have incorporated DNA testing into the research process over the last few years, amazing strides have been made. Increased precision in testing as well as an increase in the variety of tests available have produced many new clues for research. But in addition to breaking down brick walls, DNA can introduce new possibilities for the research. And sometimes these can be very challenging.

By now we are all familiar with the term “Non-paternal Event.” This is the term used when an individual’s surname does not match the y-DNA. It means that somewhere along the way, the man presumed to be the father of a son did not actually father that child.

Unfortunately, researchers are too often quick to look to the mother as the source of the problem. She is often thought to have cheated on her husband. While did happen, it is not the only possibility, and we must be careful to include other possibilities as well. Among the other reasons for a non-paternal event are:

  • Mother was pregnant by another man at the time of the marriage.
  • Child took the surname of a maternal relative to honor him and perpetuate a surname that was about to disappear.
  • An apprentice, orphan, or other child was adopted into the family.
  • Child was the product of a rape.

Part of the challenge in answering the question is in the extensive testing that must take place to determine in which generation the event occurred. Starting with the person tested, and going back to the immigrant ancestor, the break could enter at any point. The only way to know for certain is to test multiple individuals at every generation until the break is found.


DNA and Adoptees


There is another way of looking at these events, however. Adoptees often have a difficult time determining their origins. Laws prohibit access to information on birth parents, leaving adoptees and their descendants with many questions. DNA testing companies, however, are offering a way around these laws.  Combining with online family trees, many adoptees are able to find their birth family. The Washington Times recently ran a story on this subject.

Whether the adoption was today, or two hundred years ago, DNA can help you identify the birth lineage of your ancestors. If you have this type of problem, start mapping out a plan for testing to combine with traditional resources to identify your true ancestors. And realize that you may never know the true circumstances behind the non-paternal event, so do not judge your ancestors so hastily.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, January 30, 2015

30 Jan 2015

This week’s roundup of genealogy news includes copyright, online family trees, British newspapers, a genealogy butler, and a century-old mystery.

Copyright is a serious issue for genealogists. Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, discusses it often. This week she announced a valuable new reference. The third edition of the Compendium of U. S. Copyright Practices has been released by the U.S. Copyright office. As Judy says, “anyone who uses writings or photographs or other copyrightable materials would be well-advised to grab a copy as well.” Find out why Judy says this in The Compendium.

Debbie Mieszala had a great discussion this week on the Advancing Genealogist. Debbie discusses some of the pitfalls and problems of online family trees. In particular, she focuses on “smash and grab genealogy.” These are genealogists who want to take information without either researching or evaluating what they have found. Find out more in Smash and Grab Genealogy, or Deciding Whether to Post an Online Tree.

Dick Eastman shared a very important announcement with us this week. The British Library has been working on a very special addition. This week the BL announced the opening of a very special new location in West Yorkshire. This state-of-the art building offers some very modern preservation features while providing access to 60 million newspapers. Check out the details in British Library Opens National Newspaper Building.

The Los Angeles Times ran a story recently about Helen Kelly. Kelly offers a special tour for those researching their roots in Ireland. Kelly bills herself as a genealogy butler, and works to help your trip to be as successful as possible. Read more in Ireland: Trace Your Roots with a Genealogy Butler.

Finally this week comes a story from Everett, Washington, about a family mystery. Elton Erford was born in Nebraska in 1897, and died in 1949. Throughout his life, which traversed two world wars and the great depression, he carried a $10 bill printed in 1880. In 1880, that would have been worth almost $1,000 in today’s money. The big mystery is why did he carry it? Read more in Family History, Mystery in 1880 $10 Bill.

Ten Dollar Mystery


Epigenetics at Work: the Blizzard of ’78 and the French Toast Alert System

27 Jan 2015

When I think of my ancestors living through winters in French-Canada, I realize how strong those men and women must have been. Challenging enough to live on the frontier, but to think of them doing it without modern tools, heat, food, etc., it is truly incredible. The northeast is currently getting by a blizzard of historic proportions. The last storm of this size recorded in Boston was in 2013, but the one that gets the most press, and lives strongest in our memory, is the great Blizzard of ’78. For those of us who lived through it, it was scary yet exciting; and very, very challenging. And a great example of epigenetics.

The severity of the storm was due to a confluence of circumstances that rarely occurs. The initial forecasts called for a typical nor’easter. For those who do not live in New England, a nor’easter is strong storm with very heavy precipitation and hurricane-force winds, and blizzard conditions (severe winds causing blowing snow that creates low-to-zero visibility lasting more than three hours). The names comes from the fact that the storm rides up the coast and the bands of wind and precipitation come circling around on land from the northeast. The storm was supposed to hit on Monday and last for a day.

The nor’easter reached hurricane-force winds of more than 85 miles per hour (with gusts going more than 110). It reached New England on February the evening of February 6. This was the night of a new moon, when tides are at their highest. The storm started inflicting devastating damage on coastal towns. A normal nor’easter lasts for six to twelve hours before dissipating. But this storm was anything but  normal. A high pressure system had worked its way down from Canada. It trapped the storm over New England for three days. An unprecedented thirty-three hours of precipitation hammered New England. In addition, a rare vertical formation of storm clouds resulted in thundersnow, with thunder and lightning across Long Island and Southern New England, where I lived.

It hit so fast and with so little warning that many people were trapped on highways trying to get home. Cars were abandoned everywhere as people sought shelter. At times during the storm, snow was falling at a rate of 4 inches per hour. By the time it was finished, more than 27 inches fell across New England.

The cleanup took days. Roadways blocked with snow and abandoned vehicles made the work slow and difficult. Some people did not get home for days. Although the storm ended on Wednesday, it took through the rest of the week to get things cleaned up in the aftermath. I remember walking through my neighborhood, a fairly typical suburban area. Snow was piled at the corners in drifts more than 10 feet high. There was simply no place to put it.

Fortunately, nowadays weather forecasting has gotten much better. We have warnings and are able to prepare. But the effects of the storm are still felt here in New England. It is certainly a great example of epigenetics at work. People tend to overreact to storms here now. Nobody really believes that the storms will be that short. They descend on supermarkets in hoards to stock up on food as if they will be locked up for weeks. And this happens even to people who were even born in 1978, as well as those who lived nowhere near New England during that year.

This has given rise to a standing joke that is now spreading to other areas of the country: the French Toast Alert System. The joke arose because for whatever reason, the three things that get cleaned out first at the supermarket are bread, eggs, and milk (a.k.a., the ingredients one needs to make French toast).  It even has its own Twitter account and Facebook page. FYI, the French Toast Alert System is supposed to remain at the Severe level through Wednesday morning. I hope you stocked up!

French Toast Alert System

Medical Technology Changing the Rules of Genealogy

24 Jan 2015

Humans have always lived in an ever-changing world. From the time our ancient ancestors hunted wooly mammoths, we have adapted to fit our environments. But at no other time in human history have things never moved so quickly. When my grandparents were born, the United States had not yet gotten embroiled in Word War I.  The average life expectancy for men was 52 and for men, 55. Horse-drawn carts still brought groceries, milk, and other wares through the streets. Houses were heated with coal, and cast-iron stoves were used for cooking. By the time my grandparents died in the early years of this century, science fiction had become a fact of life. We use microwave ovens to cook our food. We carry around our own personal communication devices that look just like communicators from Star Trek.

Modern medicine has created many miracles. We can cure, or at least treat, dangerous diseases that in the not too distant past had no treatments at all. And we can now help people achieve things that were previously not possible, due to age or physical conditions. These changes in medical technology now require us to change some of our basic research methodology. I was reminded of this recently when reading the AARP Bulletin.

One article talked about women having children later in life; much later than we have experienced in the past. One of the women interviewed was Sarajean Grainson. She and her husband David have quite the family. Sarajean already had three children from a previous marriage, and now they are also raising their 8-year-old son Luke and two 5-year-olds, Matthew and David. The twist? Sarajean is 59 years old. She was 51 when she gave birth to Luke, and 54 when she gave birth to the twins. And this is becoming more and more common.


Older Women Having Babies


As a rule, Anglo women rarely have given birth later than their early forties. And even women in other cultures who might remain fertile longer rarely had children after their late forties. Now, thanks to in vitro fertilization, age is becoming less of a restriction. The oldest known birth mother to date is Rajo Devi Lohan of India (as far as we know, she is not related to Lindsay) who was 69 years old when she gave birth.

All of the rules we used to follow now have to be reevaluated. We can no longer rule out older women as mothers. In the old days, when we saw a 74-year-old woman as the mother of a five-year-old, we knew it was a mistake. Such is no longer the case.

Advances in medicine and technology mean that genealogist will now have to re-evaluate many of our standing guidelines. And as things change more and more, we shall have to keep re-evaluating them. For example, it is no longer uncommon to see someone living to be more than 110 years old, either.

Another can of worms for genealogists is opened up by in vitro fertilization. Donor eggs and donor sperm are now frequently used to help couples have children. In the future, “non-paternal events” will become more common. But the reasons behind them will be less scurrilous. And how will people know the difference, unless it is well-documented by the parents.

As technology continues to bring changes to our lives, it is important to remember how they impact our genealogical research. Long-standing rules of research need to be re-evaluated in light of these changes. And extra care must be used to prove kinship connections going forward.