Not a “potential descendant”

Dear AncestryDNA,

No, actually, I’m not a “potential descendant” of Simon Shew.

Shew.circleI don’t know how I can make it any clearer in my family tree — and I don’t know that you’d care if I did — but Simon isn’t one of my ancestors.

You can put me in as many circles as you want, but that isn’t going to change the fact that — have I said this already? — Simon isn’t one of my ancestors.

Now I’m not disputing that Simon’s descendants and I ought to be sharing a fair chunk of DNA. But it isn’t because of even the slightest possibility that I am a “potential descendant” of Simon Shew.

It is, instead, because of who Simon Shew’s parents were — and who his wife’s parents were — and the fact that all four of those people are in fact my ancestors while Simon and his wife are not.

Got that?

Let’s look at the paper trail here.

Once upon a time, in western North Carolina, a man named Boston Shew married a woman named Elizabeth Brewer. He took out a marriage bond in Wilkes County in October 1816;1 later census records support the conclusion he and Elizabeth actually did marry.2

By 1820, Boston had two children under age 10 in his household — one boy and one girl.3 By 1830, there were two boys and four girls.4 In 1840, there were three boys and five girls.5

By 1850, Boston had moved his family to Cherokee County, Alabama. There, the census and other evidence lets us put names on the sons who had been so steadily recorded as tick marks in earlier years: Simon, the first-born, born around 1819 in North Carolina;6 Daniel, the second son, born around 1826 in North Carolina.7

Simon and Daniel met and married local girls and were enumerated side-by-side on the 1850 census. By that 1850 census, Simon and his wife Sarah already had three children: Charlsey, age 3; Emily age 2; and two-month-old Nancy. Daniel and his wife Margaret had one child, one-year-old William.

The families were still enumerated living side-by-side on the 1860 census of Cherokee County — but with huge changes. Simon and Sarah had added a passel of children: Charlsey, Emily and Nancy were joined by John, Elias, Amanda, Lucinda and Henry.8 Their cousin William had picked up two siblings — Gilford and Martha Louise — but they had lost their father. Margaret was shown as head of that household in 1860.9

So where do I fit in? I descend from Martha Louise. Daniel’s daughter. Not Simon’s. Daniel is my third great grandfather. Simon is my 3rd great granduncle. Their parents — Boston and Elizabeth (Brewer) Shew — are one set of my fourth great grandparents. Any Shew genes that I share with any of Simon’s descendants come from common descent from Boston and Elizabeth.

So why am I in a circle with Simon Shew’s descendants at AncestryDNA?

Because AncestryDNA sees two things: (1) there are a whole lot of people who descend from Simon who share a whole lot of DNA with me; and (2) Simon is in my tree and in theirs.

What AncestryDNA doesn’t see is what’s not in the trees of most of Simon’s descendants.

What’s not in those trees is that Simon’s wife is the sister of Daniel’s wife. Sarah (Battles) Shew and Margaret (Battles) Shew were sisters, children of William and Ann (Jacobs) Battles.

Most family trees show Sarah’s maiden names as Botten — a misreading of the death certificate of Sarah’s son Elias Grogan Shew. It’s indexed that way on Ancestry10 — but the original clearly reads Battles.11

In other words, all of Simon’s and Sarah’s children were double-cousins to all of Daniel’s and Margaret’s children — and all descendants on both sides can be expected to show a closer genetic relationship as a result.

And that in a nutshell is why DNA by itself doesn’t solve family mysteries. Only when it’s combined with the paper trail does it become evidence.


  1. Wilkes County, North Carolina, Marriage Bond, 1816, Boston Shew to Elizabeth Brewer; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  2. See e.g. 1850 U.S. census, Cherokee County, Alabama, population schedule, 26th District, p. 6(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 75, Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 12 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 3.
  3. 1820 U.S. census, Wilkes County, North Carolina, population schedule, p. 494 (stamped), Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 25 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M33, roll 83.
  4. 1830 U.S. census, Wilkes County, North Carolina, p. 335 (stamped), Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 14 July 2002); citing National Archive microfilm publication M19, roll 125.
  5. 1840 U.S. census, Grayson County, Virginia, p. 305 (stamped), Boston “Shoe” household; digital image, ( : accessed 20 Nov 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication M704, roll 555.
  6. 1850 U.S. census, Cherokee Co., Ala., pop. sched., 27th District, p. 136(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 1054, Simon Shew.
  7. Ibid., dwelling/family 1055, Danl Shew.
  8. 1860 U.S. census, Cherokee County, Alabama, Division 1, population schedule, p. 315(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 828, Simon “Shoe” household; digital image, ( : accessed 23 May 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 5.
  9. Ibid., dwelling/family 829, Margaret “Shoe” household.
  10. See “Alabama, Deaths and Burials Index, 1881-1974,” entry for E Grogan Shew; ( : accessed 23 May 2015).
  11. Alabama State Board of Health, Death Certificate No. 16698, E. Grogan Shew, 14 July 1934; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Montgomery.
Posted in DNA | 7 Comments

Putting names to faces

A little less of a mystery.

A little more of one.

Until last night they were, simply, Gretel and Adelheid.

I knew that they were sisters to my grandmother — children of Carsten H. W. Nuckel and Juliane Margarethe Smidt — but had no idea what their full names were. Or when they married.

Nuckels1All I really had was the photograph you see here.

Adelheid, on the left, married Heinrich Thoms and had a daughter Henni; Gretel, on the right, married Amko Lauterbach and had a daughter Erna.1

Today, I know their full names. And their husbands’ full names. And the years when they married. And even when one of them died.

And that is so much of a gift, in the puzzle that is my father’s family.

I never met a single one of my father’s relatives. He was German-born, and downright secretive about his family who, I was led to believe, had all died long before I was born.

He and his parents, my grandparents, had come to America in 1925,2 and I knew both of his parents had in fact died before I was born. His father, Hugo Ernst Geissler, died in 1945;3 his mother, Marie Margarethe (Nuckel) Geissler, died in 1947.4

I’d only ever heard of two relatives, anywhere, whether in Germany or in America, during my father’s lifetime, and they were referred to only as Tante Anna (Aunt Anna) and Tante Liesl (Aunt Liesl). It turns out that Anna — Anna (Graumüller) Zons — was actually my grandfather’s aunt, and Liesl — Elisabeth (Graumüller) Marks — was her niece and my grandfather’s cousin.

But, I discovered, both had been alive when I was a child, and — it turned out — there had been a whole passel of relatives I’d never heard about, on both my grandfather’s side and my grandmother’s side.

Like, just to name two examples, Gretel and Adelheid.

But I did something earlier this year I’d been meaning to do for a long time: I joined Die Maus — die Gesellschaft für Familienforschung e. V. Bremen — the Bremen Genealogical Society.

If you have ancestors who came from the area of Bremen, Germany, this really is the society to join. It has a ton of information on its website, much of it open to access by anyone, members or not. There are the Leichenbücher der Stadtgemeinde Bremen von 1875 – 1939, for example — the funerary books of the City for the years 1875-1939, recording burials in the city’s cemeteries. The Bremer Einwohnerverzeichnis von 1812 — a civil registration list of residents in 1812. And a whole lot more that anyone can access.

And then — and then — there are members’-only databases…

Members’-only databases that I finally stole some time with late last night.

Members’-only databases where I came face-to-face… well, name-to-name… with Gretel and Adelheid.

Adelheid was Gesche Adelheid Nuckel, who married Heinrich Diedrich Thoms in 1920.5

Gretel, it turns out, is the call name — the nickname — of Marie Juliane Margarethe Nuckel, who married Amko Gecke (or Geike) Lauterbach in 1917.6

Armed with those complete names, it was easy to go back to the funerary books database… and to the members’-only part that gives you access to data from 1939 to 1959.

Heinrich Thoms, I discovered, died in April 1939, at the age of 40 years, 11 months and 16 days. Born 28 April 1898 in Bremen. Died 12 April 1939. Buried 17 April 1939.7

Amko Lauterbach died in 1947, at the age of 56 years and four months. Born the 13th of September 1890 in Campen, he died 21 January 1947 and was buried — if the record is correct — 25 April 1947.8

So much for the uncles. Both gone before I was born.

But the aunts… oh, they are another story altogether.

For Adelheid… it turns out that Adelheid lived well into the 1950s. The records show she was born 28 October 1898, and died 13 February 1958, at the age of 59 years and three months. She was buried 21 February 1958.9

And there is no entry in the database — which ends in 1959 — for Gretel. The last available Bremen City Directory online shows a widow Marie Lauterbach living on Beverstedter Strasse in 1955…10

In other words… unless she moved out of Bremen at the end of her life… Gretel could still have been alive into the 1960s there in Bremen.

My father’s family, as the King said in “The King and I,” is “a puzzlement.”

But a little less so today as to Gretel and Adelheid. Who they were. When they lived.

But a little more of one today as to them as well…

How long did they live… how did they live… what were their lives like…?

And perhaps the most perplexing part of all… My family lived in Europe for a year when I was a child. My father’s job took us to The Hague, in The Netherlands. According to Google Maps, it’s not even 400 kilometers — less than 250 miles — from The Hague to Bremen.

I was too young to remember… too young to know…

Did we ever visit them? Did they visit us?

And if not, why not?

“Is a puzzlement,” for sure.


  1. That much was written on the back of the photograph you see here. The annotation is in my father’s handwriting; the caption heading is “Mom’s Folks Bremen 1932.” If you’re a descendant of one of them, please contact me!
  2. Manifest, SS George Washington, Jan-Feb 1925, p. 59 (stamped, lines 4-6, Hugo, Marie and Hugo Geissler; “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, ( : accessed 22 May 2915); citing National Archive microfilm publication T715, roll 3605.
  3. Illinois Department of Public Health, death certificate no. 1145, Hugo Geissler, 13 Jan 1945; Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield.
  4. Illinois Department of Public Health, death certificate no. 12011, Marie Geissler, 12 Jan 1947; Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield.
  5. Bremen Standesamt (City Register) 1920, Nr. 693, Bd. 2, Heiratsregistereintrag (Marriage Register entry) Nuckel-Thoms; “Standesamtsregister,” (City Register), Die Maus – Family History and Genealogical Society of Bremen ( : accessed 22 May 2015).
  6. Ibid., Bremen Standesamt (City Register) 1917, Nr. 198, Bd. 1, Heiratsregistereintrag (Marriage Register entry) Nuckel-Lauterbach.
  7. Ibid., “Die Leichenbücher der Stadtgemeinde Bremen von 1875-1939” (Funerary Records 1875-1939), entry for Heinrich Diedrich Thoms, citing Bremen Standesamt 1939, Seite (page) 332, Nr. 1532.
  8. Ibid., entry for Amko Geike Lauterbach, citing Bremen Standesamt 1947, Seite 111, Nr. 352.
  9. Ibid., entry for Gesche Adelheid (Nuckel) Thoms, citing Bremen Standesamt (City Register) 1958, Seite (page) 234, Nr. 717.
  10. Bremer Adressbuch 1955 (Bremen: Carl Schünemann : 1955); digital images, “Bremer Adressbuch,” Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Bremen ( : accessed 22 May 2015).
Posted in My family | 13 Comments

Registration deadlines coming up fast

In just a little less than two weeks, genealogists will converge on Burbank, California, for what anyone who’s ever been there will agree is one of the most fun genealogy conferences around: the Southern California Genealogical Society’s Jamboree.

SCGSspeakerJamboree starts Thursday, June 4, with a full day of DNA education, plus hands-on genealogical workshops, and continues with three full days — Friday June 5 through Sunday June 7 — of more genealogical education, in beautiful southern California.

It’s an amazing opportunity to expand genealogical horizons — and with a group of people who are just plain fun to be around.

Jamboree and DNA Day is an annual event that truly has something for everything.

On Thursday, June 4th, SCGS and the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) co-sponsor Genetic Genealogy: DNA Day Plus!, with a full line-up of DNA education — some of which will be livstreamed for registrants who can’t make it to Burbank to be there in person.

More than 20 sessions of DNA learning are offered that day, ranging from techniques and tools for understanding DNA results to the law and ethics of DNA testing. And six of those sessions are available for livestreaming at $20 per session, or $99 for the entire day’s livestream.

More information on the DNA Day livestreaming can be found here on the SCGS blog. You can register for the livestreaming here.

Thursday, June 4, is also the day for special hands-on events: tours and workshops such as “Order in the Court: Hands-On with Court Records” taught by The Legal Genealogist, “Who in the World was Hjalmar? A Hands-on Problem Solving Workshop” taught by my friend and colleague J. H. Fonkert, CG, and “Creating a Digital Genealogy Scrapbook” taught by Barb Groth. (Registration for these workshops is required! Click through to the page for members or non-members as appropriate.)

There’s more — much more — starting Friday, June 5th: African-American research, Eastern European research, telling family stories, best practices of genealogical research, technology for genealogy and … and… and…

But online registration — with its online discount — closes at the end of the day tomorrow, May 23, so it’s time to make that decision and get going to Jamboree!

Of course there are folks who simply can’t get off from work, or away from the kids, or other responsibilities. And Jamboree always has something for everybody. So in addition to DNA Day Livestreaming, there will be livestreaming of other presentations during Jamboree. More information will be forthcoming on the livestreaming schedule on the SCGS Jamboree Blog.

So … will I see you in Burbank? Hope so!

Posted in General | Leave a comment

One more set identified

As those who joined The Legal Genealogist and Legacy Family Tree Webinars yesterday for “Martha Benschura: Enemy Alien” know now, when the United States entered World War I, a new rule was imposed on citizens of countries with which it was at war.

Section 4067 of the U.S. Revised Statutes, in effect when the United States entered World War I, provided that “all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of a hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies.”1

aliensThen Presidential Proclamation 1364, issued 6 April 1917, warned: “If necessary to prevent violation of the regulations, all alien enemies will be obliged to register.”2

By the Presidential Proclamation of November 16, 1917, registration of “[a]ll alien enemies,” women included, was required.3

So early in 1918, thousands upon thousands of German and Austrian nationals, residents of the United States but not naturalized, completed Registration Affidavits to comply with the law. Each individual, male and female, over the age of 14, completed a form that called for a ton of information:

• Name
• Present residence and length of residence there
• All other places of residence since 1914
• Birth place and date
• Employment since 1 January 1914
• Emigration information
• Names of parents and, if living, their residence
• Family details (spouse and children)
• Whether any male relatives were fighting for or against the United States
• Draft registration information and prior military service
• Naturalization status
• Criminal history
• Physical description
• Photograph
• Finger- and handprints

Every genealogist’s dream record, isn’t it?

The hitch, of course, is that not all of these records survive — most don’t — and there isn’t any one central repository. You can’t just contact the National Archives and ask for Great Grandma’s alien registration form. Oh, some are in the National Archives, for sure — affidavits from Kansas and Arizona are NARA Record Group 118, Records of U.S. Attorneys and Marshals, along with a few from North Carolina and Louisiana. The Kansas affidavits have been digitized and are available on and

But most of these records were locally held and, if they survive at all, they’re still at the local level. Registration forms for San Francisco, for example, are held by the San Francisco Public Library (and, fortunately, have been digitized by Minnesota records are on microfilm at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul and at the Iron Range Research Center in Chisholm, Minnesota.

But there are bound to be others — not so well known, not so easy to find. Everyone who works with these records knows that the big problem for these World War I era records is finding the ones that do survive.

And almost as soon as the webinar ended, my email program pinged and in came a very welcome bit of information from reader Renee Carl of Washington, D.C., who noted that the Fort Wayne-Allen County (Indiana) Historical Society has some of these records from Fort Wayne, Indiana — and there’s a finding aid online at the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center website here: Genealogical Records of German Families of Allen County, Indiana, 1918.

The information is described this way:

The information transcribed in this data file came from the “Enemy Alien Registration Files” created by the Fort Wayne Police Department in 1918. A four page form was filled out which included a photograph, signature, and fingerprints along with other data. These forms (approximately 1,500) still exist and are part of the collections held at The History Center (Fort Wayne-Allen County Historical Society). The title at the top of the form is “United States of America, Department of Justice, Registration Affidavit of Alien Enemy.” Fort Wayne residents who were German or Austrian, and not American citizens were required to file.4

So at the Genealogy Center website, you can — for example — search for names that include “Schmidt” and get 11 hits for people whose names are, or include, Schmidt (from Messerschmidt to Waldschmidt and everything in between). Click on one of the links, and it takes you to the page of the original transcript where the information appears. An explanation of the abbreviations used appears at the top of each page.

And, of course, as good genealogists, we don’t want to use derivative sources when the originals are out there, so… looks like some folks with Indiana ancestors are going to need to join the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society: $35 a year for individuals, $30 for seniors. A single visit to its History Center to check out your family’s records will cost you $6 if you’re under 65 and $4 if you’re over.

A bargain, either way, given the goodies that await in these affidavits…


  1. See U.S. War Department, Committee on Education and Special Training, A Source-Book of Military Law and War-Time Legislation (St. Paul, Minn. : West Publ. Co., 1919), 643-644; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 20 May 2015).
  2. “A Proclamation,” 40 Stat. (Part II) 1650, 1652 (6 Apr 1917).
  3. “A Proclamation,” 40 Stat. (Part II) 1716, 1718 (16 Nov 1917).
  4. Genealogical Records of German Families of Allen County, Indiana, 1918; Allen County Public Library, Genealogy Center ( : accessed 20 May 2015).
Posted in Resources | 4 Comments

Military naturalizations

It’s a single volume in the records of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

mil.natVolume 122, it is, of the naturalization records of the court.1

On the left hand inside cover is a copy of a letter dated 28 July 1919. It is from the Office of the Chief Examiner, Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Labor, addressed to the Clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

It reads, in part:

Advice has just reached this office that the Act of Congress quoted hereunder was approved by the President on July 19, 1919:

“Any person of foreign birth who served in the military or naval forces of the United States during the present war, after final examination and acceptance by the said military or naval authorities and shall have been honorably discharged after such acceptance and service, shall have the benefits of the seventh subdivision of section 4, of the act of June 29, 1906, 34 Statutes at Large, part 1, page 596, as amended…”2


And what does that mean? Because if you turn to 34 Statutes at Large 596, and skip over to section 4, guess what? There’s isn’t any seventh subdivision.3

For that, you have to find the as amended part — because that seventh section wasn’t added until 1918 and — stripped of a great deal of boilerplate — what it says is this: if you served in the American Army or Navy or Philippine Constabulary during World War I and you were honorably discharged, you could be naturalized without first filing a declaration of intent to become a citizen and without proving that you’d lived in the United States for five years.4

It was, then, a way for military veterans to get to become citizens faster and with fewer prerequisites and less paperwork than anyone else.

So… did anybody actually take advantage of this law?

About 150 or so, in just this one district (and every district should have its own records of these), between the 23 July 1919 naturalization of Barbabeo Di Barnabei, an Italian national, who served in the Hospital Detachment, Medical Corps, at Hoboken, New Jersey, and got support for his naturalization from his sergeant and his colonel5 and the 26 March 1923 naturalization of Peter Thode Hipsman, a Danish national, who served in the U.S. Army and was discharged 11 June 1919.6

Each of the records, then, tells a double story: a story, first, of an immigrant, with the usual wonderful genealogical information about date and place of birth, arrival in the U.S. and the like; but a story as well of military service, often with specifics about the unit and the time frame — for soldiers whose records may have been lost in the 1973 fire at the Federal Records Center in St. Louis.7

It’s here that you can find that:

• Michael DeRoma, born in Italy, served in Company L of the 348th Infantry.8

• Simon Finkel, an English national, served as a baker in the 332 Quartermaster Corps.9

• Angelo Cocchiola of Italy served in Company G, 140th Regiment, U.S. Army.10

• James Thomas Kiernan, born in Ireland, served in Company M, 305th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army. 11

• Italian-born Mariano Leggio served in Company M, 60th Infantry, U.S. Army.12

• James Joseph Cicero, a native of Italy, served in Company D, 12th Machine Gun Battalion, U.S. Armty13

• Cardinal Wolseley Ingram, born in Barbados, West Indies, served in the 9th Regiment, New York Coast Defense Command, and then Battery A, First Battalion, Trench Artillery “and sailed for France on January 4th, 1918.”14

• Welshman Archibald Morewood Seymour served in Battery D, 12th Field Artillery, U.S. Army.15

• Arcangelo Nigro, a native of Italy, served in Company A, 501st Engineers, U.S. Army.16

• And Irish-born Margaret Elizabeth Bagley got her citizenship without the usual formalities because she served in the Army Nurse Corps.17

With this kind of detail on an ancestor’s service, we can get a unit history and perhaps fill in some of the gaps despite the fire.

Not to mention having the genealogical data that a naturalization document produces all by itself.

A double win, in a thin volume of court records.


  1. Volume 122, Naturalizations, Military Book; U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; digital images, “New York, Southern District, U.S District Court Naturalization Records, 1824-1946,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 19 May 2015).
  2. Ibid., inside front cover, Letter, Chief Examiner, Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Labor, to the Clerk of the U.S. District Court, 28 July 1919.
  3. §4, “An Act To establish a Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, and to provide for a uniform rule for the naturalization of aliens throughout the United States,” 34 Stat. 596, 598 (28 June 1906).
  4. “An Act To amend the naturalization laws and to repeal certain sections of the Revised Statutes of the United States and other laws relating to naturalization, and for other purposes,” 40 Stat. 542 (9 May 1918).
  5. Volume 122, Naturalizations, Military Book; Petition for Naturalization, Barbabeo Di Barnabei, No. 30151, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; digital images, “New York, Southern District, U.S District Court Naturalization Records, 1824-1946,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 19 May 2015).
  6. Ibid., Petition for Naturalization, Peter Thode Hipsman, No. 30281, Southern District of New York.
  7. See “The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center,” National Archives at St. Louis, ( : accessed 19 May 2015).
  8. Volume 122, Naturalizations, Military Book; Petition for Naturalization, Michael DeRoma, No. 30169, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; digital images, “New York, Southern District, U.S District Court Naturalization Records, 1824-1946,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 19 May 2015).
  9. Ibid., Petition for Naturalization, Simon Finkrel, No. 30191, Southern District of New York.
  10. Ibid., Petition for Naturalization, Angelo Cocchiola, No. 30200, Southern District of New York.
  11. Ibid., Petition for Naturalization, James Thomas Kiernan, No. 30208, Southern District of New York.
  12. Ibid., Petition for Naturalization, Mariano Leggio, No. 30214, Southern District of New York.
  13. Ibid., Petition for Naturalization, James Joseph Cicero, No. 30229, Southern District of New York.
  14. Ibid., Petition for Naturalization, Cardinal Wolseley Ingram, No. 30243, Southern District of New York.
  15. Ibid., Petition for Naturalization, Archibald Morewood Seymour, No. 30251, Southern District of New York.
  16. Ibid., Petition for Naturalization, Arcangelo Nigro, No. 30261, Southern District of New York.
  17. Ibid., Petition for Naturalization, Margaret Elizabeth Bagley, No. 30234, Southern District of New York.
Posted in Resources, Statutes | 2 Comments

Three states, one case

Probate records are among the best genealogical records that exist.

When there is a will, it’s usually the case that the deceased names family members who are to receive his property after his death and does so with some indication of their relationship.

When there isn’t a will, the law uses relationships to determine who’s eligible to receive the deceased’s property after his death and the mere fact that we can find out who got what will often tell us how people were related to each other.

SmithBut there’s one hard fact about probates that The Legal Genealogist was reminded of last night, poking through court records again.

The very best records may not always be where you expect them to be.

Case in point: one Thomas Smith, who died on 7 May 1882 in Delaware County, Iowa.1 In his will, he identified himself as a resident of Coffins Grove Township, Delaware County, Iowa but “late of Winnebago County State of Illinois.”2 He left everything to his wife Matilda and named her as executrix of his estate.3

Matilda received letters testamentary in 1883 from the probate court in Delaware County, Iowa — but she didn’t live there. She was living, at that time, back in Winnebago County, Illinois.4 That’s where the family was enumerated in the 1880 census;5 it may be where her family was located.

Many of the records were originally filed in the Circuit Court for the 9th Judicial District of Iowa — the court with probate jurisdiction where Smith died.6 The case file shows that it was Thomas’ brother, John H. Smith, who was an Iowa resident, who filed the paperwork starting in July 1883 to have Matilda authorized to act for the estate in Iowa.7

But the will — indeed, the entire probate file — makes it clear that the estate really only had one asset: land in the Dakota Territory. Nothing in Illinois. Nothing in Iowa. So on the 14th of December 1883, a set of papers sealed by the clerk of the Circuit Court was sent to the Dakota Territory for use there.8

That’s where you get the rich detail about the land in Sections 25 and 26, Township 101 North, Range 49 West. With papers that began their journey in Illinois, from Matilda, and in Iowa, from Thomas and John.

We need to chase those probate files down everywhere the deceased owned property — even if it means checking the records of three different states.


  1. Minnehaha County, South Dakota, Probate Case File No. 55, Thomas Smith (1883-1886), Letters Testamentary, issued 11 Dec 1883; digital images, “South Dakota, Minnehaha County Probate Case Records, 1873-1935,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 18 May 2015).
  2. Ibid., will of Thomas Smith, dated 2 May 1883.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., Oath as Executrix, 10 Dec 1883.
  5. 1880 U.S. census, Winnebago County, Illinois, Rockford, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 227, p. 149(B) (stamped), dwelling 392, family 415, Thomas Smith household; digital image, ( : accessed 18 May 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 261.
  6. See Minnehaha County, South Dakota, Probate Case File No. 55, Thomas Smith (1883-1886), Certificate of B. W. Lacy, Judge of the Circuit Court, 20 Dec 1883 (describing his court as “a court of record having … jurisdiction in Matters relating to the Probate of Wills and the Settlement of Estates”); digital images, “South Dakota, Minnehaha County Probate Case Records, 1873-1935,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 18 May 2015).
  7. Ibid., Application of John H. Smith, 23 July 1883.
  8. Ibid., case file no. 55.
Posted in Court Cases, Methodology | 8 Comments

Free webinar tomorrow

Genealogists tend to be the storytellers of the family. The ones who ferret out, record, and pass on the details.

JeanneBloom2-2But how do we do that — and do it well? What’s needed in the story to explain just how this genealogical tale all hangs together?

In particular, how do we ensure that the story we’re passing on is up to standard? That it meets the best practices of our field of genealogy?

Come find out tomorrow night when Jeanne Larzalere Bloom, CG, offers her insights on “The Family Tapestry: Integrating Proof Arguments into the Genealogical Narrative” in a free webinar presented by the Board for Certification of Genealogists starting at 8 p.m. Eastern time tomorrow, Tuesday, May 19th.

Now, two points right off:

First, you need to register in advance for this webinar. The link to do that is here.

Space is limited for this free live webinar. Registration does not guarantee a space; you may need to log in early to be sure to get a seat online for the live webinar. A recording will be available afterwards if you don’t manage to get in for the live presentation.

Let me repeat that so there’s no misunderstanding: you must register in advance but registering doesn’t guarantee a space. All webinars work that way, so come early to have the best shot at getting in for the live presentation.

And if you do come early, you’ll get to hear Jeanne use the language of weaving and the work of distinguished philosopher Stephen Toulmin to deal with this perennial issue of incorporating proof arguments when we write up genealogical research. It’s a key question for folks considering certification and looking at writing up a portfolio, and impacts any genealogist who wants to write the family story.

Jeanne is the president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists and a full-time professional researcher specializing in Chicago and Cook County, Illinois, forensic genealogy, problem solving, and multi-generational family histories. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a second-year certificate from the University of Chicago’s publishing program. Her interest in genealogy began much earlier. Rather than having her grandmother read her a story before naptime, Jeanne would ask to hear a story about when she was a little girl.

For more information on past offerings in BCG’s webinar series, please visit

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It was probably inevitable the moment the very first headline appeared online, inaccurately accusing Ancestry of handing over DNA data without a court order.

smgfThat never happened, but the mere accusation that it did was enough.

And the entire genealogical community took the hit.

Because it really was probably inevitable that Ancestry would decide to cut its losses, limit its future exposure to that kind of false publicity, and shut down one of the most valuable genetic genealogical databases that’s ever been created.

This week, Ancestry shut down the Sorenson Molecular Genetics Foundation database that had been available at

The announcement came without warning, appearing at the website without other notice:

We regret to inform you the site you have accessed is no longer available.

Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) was founded in 2000 with the philanthropic goal of helping connect mankind. It was the organization’s goal through the sharing of genetic data, to show how the similarities we possess are greater than our differences. The site was created in the spirit of openness and it is in that spirit AncestryDNA purchased the DNA assets from SMGF to further its mission and support the intentions on which it was founded. Unfortunately, it has come to our attention the site has been used for purposes other than that which it was intended, forcing us to cease operations of the site.

We understand the site has been a helpful resource for genealogists and plan to advance the original vision of Mr. Sorenson by continuing to develop tools like ethnicity estimates, matching, DNA Circles, and New Ancestor Discoveries, which are connecting mankind. There are no plans to destroy the DNA that was contributed, but have no plans to make the service available in the future.

Ancestry is committed to helping people understand their family’s unique story and through AncestryDNA, make new discoveries about their family’s past and cultural roots. Like the original founders of SMGF, Ancestry also believes one can have a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. Through our continued work on family history and DNA, we will encourage the same mission of SMGF in hopes of making the world a smaller, more relatable place.1

Now in case you missed it, here’s the reality of why we just lost access to this database: “it has come to our attention the site has been used for purposes other than that which it was intended.” A single documented case of access by police looking for a murderer. A single case where the end result was that a person suspected was cleared by DNA evidence.2 A single case — and we have all lost.

Talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater!

This isn’t the first time Ancestry has reacted that way. Years ago, a spate of publicity falsely suggesting that identity theft was being aided by access to the Social Security Death Index at Ancestry and its free property Rootsweb caused Ancestry to take the SSDI off of Rootsweb completely and to redact some of the Social Security numbers from the records even behind the Ancestry pay wall.

In both cases, there were other options available that could have retained more — or at least some — access to the information without simply shutting things down. Those options wouldn’t have been as easy, but the fact that the kneejerk reaction (“just close it down”) is easy doesn’t make it right.

The Legal Genealogist knows better than to think we have any hope of reversing the Ancestry decision. There is no profit potential to this profit-making corporation in keeping the SMGF database available to the public and, thanks to fearmongering and bad reporting, a real downside to doing so.

But there is one aspect to this loss that Ancestry should address, can address, ethically and morally must address: the loss to families of data that cannot be replaced.

The fact is that there are samples in the Sorenson database that are irreplaceable: the people whose samples were reviewed are deceased; their DNA can no longer be obtained. The families who contributed those samples had no notice that the database would be shut down. They didn’t know they were about to lose their own results and the results of their searches of the database.

Had Ancestry given them notice — had it told the genetic genealogy community this was coming — the families could have saved the search data that is of vital interest to them.

We all understand that we’re not going to have unlimited access to this database in the future. But what we’ve lost is part of our past. And it’s a loss Ancestry can prevent by allowing limited access to the database by the families whose data was collected for it.

Just reopening the SMGF database for a brief time — 30 days, even two weeks — with notice to SMGF contributors and the genetic genealogy community would go a long way towards reducing the devastating impact of this loss.

We don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Ancestry, are you listening?

Ancestry, show us that you can be a good steward of DNA data.

Ancestry, show us that you care.


  1. Sorenson Molecular Genetic Foundation ( : accessed 16 May 2015).
  2. For more background, see Judy G. Russell, “Facts matter!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 May 2015 ( : accessed 16 May 2015).
Posted in DNA | 23 Comments

Updated edition available late May

One of the key elements of doing genealogy the right way is making sure we cite our sources.

EE3It’s not just to make sure we can follow the breadcrumbs back to wherever we found a particular piece of information, but rather because it’s really the first step in the analysis of the source we’re using.

Why do we believe this source? How did the person who created this know? Is this an original record — created at or near the time of the event — or a derivative record that may have been recreated from an original but years later? Is it handwritten or typed? Where was it kept after it was created? Who owns it now?

All of those questions have to be answered before we can craft a citation for this source… and all of them are critical questions for testing the credibility of any bit of information we might find in that source.

So… how do we begin?

By learning the rules of the road… the right way to cite our sources and to analyze the information those sources may offer.

And nobody and nothing sets out the rules of the road better than Elizabeth Shown Mills in her groundbreaking work Evidence Explained.

Which, we learned yesterday here at the 2015 National Genealogical Society Conference in St. Charles, Missouri, has been updated to its third edition — and you can buy it now for release in late May.

The announcement from Genealogical Publishing of Baltimore, Maryland, notes that:

Eight years have passed since the first edition of Evidence Explained, the definitive guide to the citation and analysis of historical sources — a guide so thorough that it leaves nothing to chance. Yet advances in genealogy and history research, changes at major repositories and online information providers, and the ever-evolving electronic world have generated new citation and analysis challenges for researchers. While countless websites now suggest ways to identify their offerings, few of those address the analytical needs of a researcher concerned with the nature and provenance of web material, whose numerous incarnations and transformations often affect the reliability of their content.

Like the previous editions of Evidence Explained, the third edition explains citation principles for both traditional and nontraditional sources; includes more than 1,000 citation models for virtually every source type; and shows readers where to go to find their sources and how to describe and evaluate them. It contains many new citation models, updates to websites, and descriptions and evaluations of numerous contemporary materials not included in earlier editions.

The new edition — 888 pages, indexed, hardcover — adds attention to genetic genealogy sources including a discussion of privacy standards for genetic research, offers the updated and expanded “3×3″ Evidence Analysis Process Model, and takes on challenging citation problems like citing online materials we find through the Wayback Machine at Internet Archive and more.

Conference attendees can order the book from the publisher’s booth (under the banner) in the Exhibit Hall and non-attendees will be able to order directly from the publisher’s website. (The link at the website now shows the second edition as out-of-print, but you can put your name on a “notify me” list here.) Other booksellers, such as Maia’s Books, will also carry it.

The new version is $59.95 plus postage and handling — and conference attendees get a break there: that figure is a whopping one cent.

Evidence Explained 3.

My copy has already been ordered. Is it late May yet?

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Some things to look forward to

It can be really hard, on the days when a major genealogical conference is going on halfway across the continent, to be stuck at home, at work, away from all the fun.

And it may seem like missing the 2015 National Genealogical Society conference — now ongoing in St. Charles, Missouri — is a greater loss than usual this year.

That’s because we often can console ourselves if we have to miss the spring NGS conference by promising to reward ourselves with the late summer conference of the Federation of Genealogical Societies.

This year, of course, FGS held its annual conference in conjunction with RootsTech in February and so that’s not available as the consolation prize for 2015.

What do we do now?

What can we give ourselves as a genealogical education treat to make up for having to work or care for family or meet other obligations?

The Legal Genealogist has two suggestions:

North to Alaska!

Think for a moment about the excitement of a genealogy conference: a range of speakers offering guidance on a range of topics we need to know about for our research.

cruise-shipThen think about the pleasures of cruising: every minute catered for by ship crew and staff, gourmet meals, and fascinating ports of call.

Put the two together and what have you got?

Genealogy cruising… with the Federation of Genealogical Societies, setting sail on 28 August 2015 from Seattle through the Alaska Inside Passage and back.

The speaking team for this conference is first-rate: Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA; David E. Rencher, AG, CG, FIGRS, FUGA; D. Joshua Taylor, MA, MLS; and some Legal Genealogist type person… me! We’ll cover everything from DNA to methodology to Irish and British records and so much more.

Add in the cruising — to Alaska’s inside passage, Tracy Arm Fjord, Seattle as the beginning and end point — a gorgeous city in its own right, Victoria in British Columbia with world-famous gardens and its walkable inner-city streets, and Juneau and Skagway and… — and this is a cruise not to be missed.

Ready to book? Reservations information can be found here and both conference registration and cruise reservations are going fast, so book now!

More information overall is on the FGS cruise website.

Come on along!

North to New York!

FGS is also a co-sponsor of a land-based alternative on the other coast in September: the 2015 New York State Family History Conference, to be held September 17-19 at the Syracuse/Liverpool Holiday Inn in Liverpool, New York.

2015 NYSFHC LogoThis three-day, three-track conference of the Central New York Genealogical Society and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society is the premier event for New York area genealogists and those with research interests anywhere in the New York area.

Its wide-ranging program addresses the special -– and sometimes daunting –- challenges of researching New York families that stems from the Empire State’s long and complicated colonial and state history, immigration and migration patterns, population diversity, records loss, and the idiosyncrasies of the creation, archiving and dispersal of records in 62 counties.

The speakers who will be featured during this major conference include Blaine Bettinger, Ph.D., The Genetic Genealogist; Laura Murphy DeGrazia, CG, FGBS, former editor of the NYG&B Record; Dick Eastman of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter; Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, FASG, co-editor of the NGS Quarterly; David E. Rencher, AG, CG, FIGRS, FUGA,; D. Joshua Taylor, President of the Federation of Genealogical Societies; Jane Wilcox, member, NYG&B Record editorial board, and host of the Forget-Me-Not radio program; Curt B. Witcher, Allen County Public Library; and even The Legal Genealogist.

The early bird registration discount is only available until May 31st, so register soon!


Two great choices to make you feel better … at least a little bit … about not being in St. Charles this week.

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