Genealogy Blog

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23 Aug 2014

Do you have any ancestors who fought in WWI?



Five Things I Learned in School About Genealogy

22 Aug 2014


This is back to school time. I remember a special August more than thirty years ago when I arrived at the University of Massachusetts for my first band camp. Little did I know then how much college and the band would impact my life. And decades later, I still keep up with numerous friends from that time. And many of the lessons I learned in school are ones that I use in genealogy all the time. Here are a few of them.

1. Be an information sponge.

School is a time for learning. So many new opportunities open up to us to learn about subjects that mean something to us (as well as more than a few subjects that we probably don’t care about, but could use). We benefit most when we open up to the various opportunities available to us. As genealogists, we benefit from all kinds of learning. Working with experienced researchers; taking classes; attending seminars and workshops; reading blogs, magazines, and journals; and many other opportunities teach us how to become better at finding our ancestors.

2. If it doesn’t fit, change your tactics.

It continues to amaze me that in this country we ask 18-year-olds who are entering college to pick a major concentration that will be what they do for the rest of their life. Who knows at that age? It is one of the major ironies of my life that I wanted to be a history major in college, but thought I would never be able to find a job where a history major would come in handy. Instead, I changed my major numerous times. At various times in college my major was computer science, communication studies, and legal studies before settling into political science with a minor in history.  When I didn’t like the direction I was taking, I changed directions. The same thing should hold true for genealogical research. If a particular avenue isn’t working, switch to something different. A new approach may help you solve the problem.

3. If you make a mistake, learn and move on.

Lord knows I, like most college students, made my share of mistakes. We’re human. Everyone makes mistakes. Certainly most genealogists have had the experience of breaking out the chain saw and hacking a few limbs off the family tree. The important thing is to accept the mistake. Even the most experienced genealogists have had to do some pruning. Often it is through no fault of your own, but simply because new evidence has been uncovered and shed new light on existing facts that end up changing or eliminating relationships. Don’t cling to incorrect family members. You never know what exciting things you will find in the new banches.

4. The more you apply yourself, the better your results will be.

In this day of computers and technology, more and more genealogists are relying on the technology to do the research for them. If a system tells them that something is a possible match, they take it as gospel and graft it onto the family tree. While these things clues are important, they should be treated as what they are: clues for further research to prove that they are correct. The same goes for those who blindly download GEDCOM files from others and attach the data to their own tree. Roll up your sleeves and get to work verifying information before accepting it as true. It is the only way to be certain the people in your family tree are actually your ancestors.

5. Friends made here are friends for a lifetime.

Three decades later, I still count friends I made in high school and college as near and dear to my heart. We remain close even if we lose touch for periods of time. Facebook has helped dramatically, especially during times of shared loss. The same is true of genealogists. I remain friends with people I met when I first started researching my family back in the 1980s. Who else will put up with all of your stories other than genealogists? But we also help each other. We listen and offer feedback. We bounce ideas off of each other. And we share resources and opportunities with each other. Get out from behind the computer and get involved with your local genealogical and historical societies. You will be ever the richer for it.


Mocavo’s Back to School Special: Free Access to Universal Search Weekend

21 Aug 2014


What better way to top off Mocavo’s Back to School Week than with an Open Access to Universal Search weekend? Usually you need to be a Mocavo Gold member to search all of our databases at once, but for this weekend only, you can search more than 420,000 databases to your heart’s content. Kick start your research today and see who you will discover.

Start Searching Now

If you would need a little help getting started, check out the Mocavo Gold Faceted Search Tutorial.

Don’t forget, you must be logged in to your Mocavo account to take advantage of the Open Access weekend.

These premium search features are generally available to Mocavo Gold members. If you decide that you enjoy the premium features of Mocavo Gold, consider joining our revolution and becoming a part of the Mocavo Gold community.

We wish you a successful weekend full of discoveries!

Why Your Brain Makes Typos

19 Aug 2014

I admit to being a bit of a nerd. One of the ways I satisfy my nerd impulses is to read magazines like Condé Nast’s Wired. There are always so many interesting stories, like a recent one on The Strange Blowpipe 19th Century Minuers Used to Analyze Ore.

As a writer, I was particularly intrigued by a story that ran last week about spelling errors. Nick Stockton is a technology and nature writer and has written for The Atlantic as well as Wired and numerous other publications. Last week Wired published his piece “What’s UP with That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos.”


Catch Typos


We all hate typos in our work. Whether it is a Facebook post, an email, a text message, or when writing your family history, spelling errors drive us crazy. In Stockton’s words:

“Typos suck. They are saboteurs, undermining your intent, causing your resume to land in the “pass” pile, or providing sustenance for an army of pedantic critics. Frustratingly, they are usually words you know how to spell, but somehow skimmed over in your rounds of editing. If we are our own harshest critics, why do we miss those annoying little details?”

The truth is that it has nothing to do with how smart we are. It has to do with how our brains work. When we are writing, our brains takes the simple parts like pushing keys to make words and sentences, and automates them so that they can focus on the more complicated tasks of conveying our ideas in the overall work of sentences and paragraphs. Thus, it is fairly easy to accidentally type the wrong letters.

This is the same reason why we cannot edit ourselves. When you proof your own writing, your brain already knows what you were trying to say. Because of this, we may see things that aren’t really there, and we can easily miss typographical errors and worse.

This is why editors and proofreaders exist. To review our work and help us from putting anything out with a big mistake in it. One of the suggestions Stockton received from an expert is that if you want to try to catch your mistakes, to make it look very different by changing fonts or background colors to make it more challenging for your brain. The best way, however, is to have someone else review your work for you. That way you won’t have to trick your brain. Read the entire piece for more information.

100 Years of Countless Bad Hairdos, Prom Queens, and Priceless Memories

18 Aug 2014


It’s that time of year when summer vacation ends and children across the country return to their classrooms for another school year. Mocavo wants to help you celebrate with our Back to School Week, highlighting some of the community’s favorite yearbook collections and pictures. Throughout the week, make sure to check out our Facebook page to see what some of your favorite celebrities looked like during their awkward years.

And don’t forget, as a Mocavo community member, you have access to the largest free online collection of yearbooks. That’s free access to more than 8.3 million pages of cheesy grins, bad hairdos, and heart-warming memories. See what your ancestors looked like, what their passions were, and what they dreamed for the future.

Browse Yearbooks Now

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Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, August 15, 2014

15 Aug 2014

This week’s roundup of stories comes to us courtesy of Facebook. Many of my friends post interesting (as well as humorous) links, so for this week’s collection I browsed over Facebook to see what had interested my friends. I hope you find these stories as interesting as I do.

The first story, posted on Feedbox, was posted by my friend Thomas MacEntee. Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, painted in 1796, was commissioned as a gift for the William Petty FitzMaurice, the Marquess of Lansdowne, who was British Prime Minister during the final years of the American Revolution. Today known as the Lansdowne Portrait, it was saved by Dolly Madison during the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. Today it hangs in the East Room of the White House. And it contains a rather drastic error in it. Find out what the error is and why it is there in One of the Most Famous Paintings in the White House Has a Huge Spelling Error.


Lansdowne Portrait from Wikimedia Commons.

Lansdowne Portrait from Wikimedia Commons.


Thomas posted another interesting story this week about how technology has changed the way people interact. Children today now spend almost 7.5 hours staring at computers. And 87% of teachers report that they now are more easily distracted and have short attention spans. Alok Deshpande, founder of Umenta/StoryCall (a company that help families preserve and capture their stories), wrote an interesting post providing five suggestions for the best ways to reach younger generations with your stories. Read more in Bridging the Generation Gap.

Elizabeth Shown Mills shared an interesting post this week written by Rita J. King and shared on LinkedIn. King is a cofounder of Science House, an organization that helps organizations foster collaboration. She shared five very valuable tips for writers. They apply whether you are writing fiction or your family history. Discover more in Kill Your Darlings: Five Rules for Writers.

My friend Mark Andrew Davis provided a link to a post in the New York Times blog, The Upshot. Gregor Aisch, Robert Gebeloff, and Kevin Quealy took census information from the University of Minnesota Population Center to create some very interesting graphic charts. State by state, they chart the places of birth of the population and how it changed from 1900 to 2012. Each chart has a sliding bar to show you what the numbers were in any given census year. Check out your states of interest in Where We Came From, State by State.

Finally comes a post from my friend and former NEHGS colleague, Chris Child. This week the world suffered an incredible loss with the death of comedian Robin Williams. Chris enjoys researching famous individuals and public figures. Chris has done some interesting work that shows Robin was a cousin of three United States presidents through their common descent from William Armistead of Virginia. Get the details at Notes on Robin Williams’s Ancestry.

Mark the Milestones in Your Ancestors’ Lives

14 Aug 2014


Vital records are a crucial piece of family history research. These important records reveal details about the significant milestones in your ancestors’ lives including births, marriages, and deaths. You can discover an ancestor’s full name, date, place of an event, and much more.

Start exploring your ancestors’ milestones now.

View Birth Records, Marriage Records, or Death Records

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Creating Your Legacy

13 Aug 2014

My friend Nick Gombash is a professional genealogist who specializes in Hungarian and German research. He is extremely well-informed, and has helped me on more than one occasion. Once he helped me with a friend’s ancestry. I gave him the names of a couple married in Bohemia in the mid-nineteenth century. He found the marriage record in a small village within an hour (a task that would have taken me considerably longer no doubt).

Back in 2010 he wanted to find a way to help others who were researching their Hungarian ancestors. His solution was to found the Hungary Exchange. The exchange is a place for these researchers to come together and collaborate on information. More than 1,500 people are now part of the Hungary Exchange forum on Facebook.

In addition to the forum, volunteers have created a number of databases that people can search for free. First is a surname database to facilitate collaboration between individuals researching the same families or the same locations. Additional databases include extracted information from census and taxation records, civil registrations, parish records, and nobility records among others. The databases are organized by county. There are also some databases for places in the U.S. where Hungarians settled in larger numbers, such as Illinois, Michigan, and Pensylvania.

There are also a number of research aids and guides to help researchers:

  • A Guide to Hungarian Parish Registers
  • Digital Books
  • Given Names in Hungarian, English and Latin
  • Hungarian Surname Meanings

There are also links to a large number of resources available online for researching Hungarian resources.


Hungary Exchange


Nick is a very resourceful man, and has worked hard to build the Hungary Exchange into a valuable resource, and this week he had a new idea. This is one that all genealogists should consider.

A good friend of Nick’s was a genealogist for many years. She passed recently and left her library of books to him. After selecting a few volumes for his own personal library, he decided to sell the rest to raise money to support the Hungary Exchange.

This is a not insignificant collection, either; it includes hundreds of volumes. And not all of the books deal with Hungarian research. Many deal with Illinois, Indiana, New England, and other American localities. Some are historical in nature, and some are general genealogical methodology. He researched the titles through online booksellers to get an idea of the value, and created a list, which he posted online for all to see. Proceeds will go to support the work of the exchange. Any books that remain unsold will be donated.

What a great idea. What will you do with your own personal library when the time comes? Think about following Nick’s lead. You can leave them to a Society, or have your executor sell them and donate the money to organizations you want to support. What a terrific way to continue your legacy. I’m very proud of Nick and his work, and all that he has accomplished. He is only in his twenties now; I can’t wait to see what other new ideas he comes up with in the future. And if you’re in the market for a book, check out the list and see if any titles interest you.

O, Captain, My Captain!

12 Aug 2014

The world is a lot less funny today. It seems like only yesterday that I was watching a crazy man in a red jumpsuit wander in Milwaukee and get into a contest with Arthur Fonzarelli. Robin Williams was absolutely hilarious, and it was the beginning of an incredible love affair between Robin and the public. And his untimely death is a reminder to us all.

Robin was an incredible talent. While initially famous for his comedic abilities, he also was an amazing dramatic actor. For me, one of his most seminal films came in 1989, Dead Poets Society. His character was John Keating, an English professor at a private school, who taught his students not only to read poetry, but to live life. In his initial scene, he enters the room whistling Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. He takes his students into the hallway, and asks one of them to read Robert Herrick’s poem To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may; Old time is still a-flying: And this ame flower that smiles to-day; To-morrow will be dying.”

He has them look at pictures of former students from the nineteenth century. He points out that the one thing that all those students have in common is that they are now “food for worms.” He encourages his students with the words Carpe Diem (Seize the Day). He wants each of them to live an extraordinary life.


Robin Williams Dead Poets Society


Nobody knows better than genealogists how fleeting life can be. Or what each of us lives with on a day to day basis. We take bits and pieces of information to put together a version of our ancestors’ lives, but often we are missing the significant details.

Many think that living an extraordinary life means that we must be rich or famous. This is not true. We, each of us, get to define what extraordinary means to us. But we all too often forget, and get caught up in the drift of life. As we move through the stages of life, we sometimes get complacent and lose track of what we really want. To have an extraordinary life, we simply need to look back on what we want, and work to get it (which is not to say we don’t modify our desires and goals along the way).

When Dead Poets Society was released, I was not long out of college and trying to determine what I wanted to be. I decided that it was time to try same crazy new things, so I quit my job and moved to the big city of Boston. Since then, I’ve marched for civil rights on the streets of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. I’ve worked to get laws and other protections in place to prevent bullying and youth suicide. I’ve performed with incredibly talented people, across the country and around the world to audiences of up to hundreds of thousands of people. I even got to sing on stage at Carnegie Hall. I’ve visited almost every state, and sixteen countries on three continents. And I make my living by helping people find their family stories, to help them discover where they come from.

In the movie, Keating quotes Walt Whitman: “the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” He then turns to his students and asks “What will your verse be?” The movie ends with Keating leaving the school, and his students climbing onto their desks, promising to look at life from a different angle, and calling him “O, Captain, My Captain!). Robin Williams left not only a verse, but an entire musical arrangement. And now I ask you “What will YOUR verse be?” Whatever it is, write it down. Be certain that future generations know the things that were important to you, and what was not. Let them know what your extraordinary life was like for you.