Court records out and about

The Legal Genealogist had a lot of fun last night speaking to a great group of engaged genealogists at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Supreme Court BuildingIt’s a fabulous repository, and one that holds a truly mid-boggling array of information about folks not just from the City of Brotherly Love but from all over — one of the earliest holdings of the HSP dates back to the Italian Renaissance and bears the original signature of Lorenzo de Medici dated 1479. So it’s well worth a visit for any genealogist.1

We got to talk about private laws and all those rogues and rascals in our family trees and, as often happens, someone had the question.

“If I know my ancestor was in federal court,” the question runs, “where will I find the records today?”

And the answer is not quite so easy.

Yes, there is no doubt that any records that remain of federal court cases should be held by the National Archives.

The problem is… which National Archives?

Here’s the deal. There are three major record groups at the National Archives that hold the records of the United States courts:

Record Group 267 holds the Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, ranging from very early cases of appeals from state courts of ship prize cases from the Revolutionary War all the way up to more modern Supreme Court case files.2

Record Group 276 holds the Records of the United States Courts of Appeals, the intermediate appellate court — the one court to which everyone has a right to appeal.3

Record Group 21 holds the Records of District Courts of the United States — the basic trial-level court records from around the United States from the earliest days up to the latest ones that aren’t still being held by the courts for their own use.4

Now it’s relatively easy to figure out where to find the Supreme Court records in RG 267: some of these materials are on microfilm (see Microfilm Publications M162, M214, M215, M216, M217, M408, and T57), a few are at Archives II in College Park, Maryland, but the vast majority are textual records held at Archives I in downtown Washington, D.C.

But for the other two big record groups? Oy… Not so easy. Because the records are held at regional NARA repositories around the United States. And to get to the records, you need to get to the right regional NARA branch. So here’s a cheat sheet:

Federal Trial Courts

NARA Facility Federal Trial Court Records from:
Atlanta Alabama; Florida; Georgia; Kentucky; Mississippi; North Carolina; Puerto Rico (some); South Carolina; Tennessee
Boston Connecticut; Maine; Massachusetts; New Hampshire; Rhode Island; Vermont
Chicago Illinois; Indiana; Michigan; Minnesota (some); Ohio; Wisconsin
Denver Colorado; New Mexico; Utah; Wyoming
Fort Worth Arkansas; Louisiana; Oklahoma; Texas
Kansas City Iowa; Kansas; Minnesota (some); Missouri; Nebraska; North Dakota; South Dakota
Los Angeles Arizona; California (Central); California (Southern District); Nevada (Las Vegas)
New York New Jersey; New York; Puerto Rico (some)
Philadelphia Delaware; Maryland; Pennsylvania; Virginia; West Virginia
San Francisco American Samoa, California (Eastern); California (Northern); California (Southern Circuit); Guam; Hawaii; Nevada (Reno and all naturalizations); Trust Territory of Pacific Islands
Seattle Alaska; Idaho; Montana; Oregon; Washington

Federal Courts of Appeals

NARA Facility Federal Appeals Court Records from:
Boston U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
New York U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
Philadelphia U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
Philadelphia U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
Fort Worth U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
Chicago U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
Chicago U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
Kansas City U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
San Francisco U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Denver U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
Atlanta U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Archives I U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia

We’ll leave for another day the fact that there are other record groups with court records, too. Like Record Group 116, with the records of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and Record Group 123, with the records of the U.S. Court of Claims, and Record Group 172, with the records of the U.S. Commerce Court, and…

Just the basic trial and appellate courts will be enough to get you started…


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “HSP: research outside the box,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 19 Mar 2015 ( : accessed 7 Oct 2015).
  2. See generally “Records of the Supreme Court of the United States,” Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, web version, ( : accessed 7 Oct 2015).
  3. See generally ibid., “Records of the United States Courts of Appeals.”
  4. See generally ibid., “Records of District Courts of the United States.”
Posted in Court Cases, Resources | Leave a comment

The Police Blotter

In the first week of October 1858, some 48 men and women were arrested in the City of Memphis, Tennessee, and their names and their alleged offenses carefully inscribed into the blotter of the Memphis Police.

blotterJohn Leary, on October 1, 1858, fighting.

Edward Michel, on October 2, thief.

Patrick Ward, on October 4, drunk.

Thomas Numan, on October 7, disorderly.

All told, 45 free men and women and three slaves (Delorah, a slave of W Hayden, drunk; Ruben, a slave of Dr, Frazier, no pass; Amanda, slave of Mrs. Childs, fighting) were rounded up and recorded in this marvelous record book, which is now digitized by the Shelby County, Tennessee, Register of Deeds and available for anyone to research.1

Eight for fighting. Four for disorderly conduct. One thief. A bunch of drunks. But by far the biggest group rounded up: the vagrants.

Some 19 people — all male — all arrrested in those first seven days of October 1858 — all charged with the same offense. They were vagrants.

The dictionary definition of a vagrant was a “wandering, idle person; a strolling or sturdy beggar. A general term, including, in English law, the several classes of idle and disorderly persons, rogues, and vagabonds, and incorrigible rogues.”2 It’s not much different today: “one who has no established residence and wanders idly from place to place without lawful or visible means of support.”3

You’ll find vagrancy in the Tennessee statutes as far back as the very first compilation of its laws. Vagrants were not to be tolerated, were to be chased out of the county, were to be whipped, bound to jail or to good behavior.4

By 1831, there was a whole section of the Tennessee code devoted to idle and disorderly persons, and under its provisions:

Any person or persons who have no apparent means of subsistence, or neglect applying themselves to some honest calling for the support of themselves and families, every person so offending, who shall be found sauntering about neglecting his business, and endeavoring to maintain himself by gaming or other undue means, it shall and may be lawful for any justice of the peace of the county wherein such person may be found, on due proof made, to issue his warrant for such offending person, and cause him to be brought before said justice, who is hereby empowered, on conviction, to demand security for his good behaviour, and in case of refusal or neglect, to commit him to the jail of the county for any term not exceeding five days, at the expiration of which time he shall be set at liberty if nothing criminal appears against him; the said offender paying all charges arising from such imprisonment; and if such person shall be guilty of the like offence from and after the space of thirty days, he, so offending, shall be deemed a vagrant, and be subject to one month’s imprisonment, with all costs accruing thereon, which if he neglects or refuses to pay, he may be continued in prison until the next court of the county, who may proceed to try the said offender, and if found guilty by a verdict of a jury of good and lawful men, said court may proceed to hire the offender for any space of time, not exceeding six months, to make satisfaction for all costs, but if such person or persons so offending, be of ill fame, so that he or they cannot be hired for the costs, nor give sufficient security for the same and his future good behaviour, in that case it shall and may be lawful for the said court to cause the offender to receive not exceeding thirty nine lashes on his bare back, after which he shall be set at liberty, and the costs arising thereon shall become a county charge; which punishment may be inflicted as often as the person may be guilty, allowing thirty days between the punishment and the offence.5

And, the law went on:

It shall not be lawful for any person or persons of ill fame or suspicious character, to remove him or themselves from one county to another in this state, without first obtaining a certificate from some justice of the peace of said county, or captain of his company, setting forth his intention in removing, whether to settle in said county, or if travelling, to set forth his business and destination, and if such traveller should be desirous to stay in any county longer than ten days, he shall first apply to some justice of the peace of said county for leave, and obtain a certificate for that purpose, setting forth the time of his permission, and if such person shall be found loitering in said county after the expiration of his permit, or fail to obtain the same agreeable to the true intent and meaning of this act, such person or persons so offending may be apprehended by any person or persons, and carried before some justice of the peace, who may enquire into his character and business, and fine him at his discretion not exceeding ten dollars; but if said traveller shall be found on examination, to be a person of ill fame, and there is reason to suspect he is loitering in said county for evil purpose, attempting to acquire a living by gambling, or other bad practices, such justice shall have power to commit any person of like character, until he shall find good and sufficient seeurity for his good behaviour, for any time not exceeding ten days, and said justice of the peace, or court of the county shall proceed against such offender in the same manner as is heretofore prescribed for vagrants.6

Things hadn’t changed much by the time the Memphis Police Blotter was being created in that first week of October 1858. The statutes in effect at the time tell us exactly what a vagrant was in 1858 — in other words, if we find our ancestor’s name in that police blotter, we know exactly what he (or, in some rare cases elsewhere in the volume, she) was being charged with.

The law at the time began by defining as misbehavior conduct whereby a person “having no apparent means of subsistence, neglects to apply himself to some honest calling; or who saunters about neglecting his business; or who tries to maintain himself by gaming or other undue means; or who keeps or exhibits the gaming table commonly called a b c, or e o, or a faro bank, or any other gaming cloth, table, or bank, of the same or like kind, under any denomination whatever.”7 And repeating the offense of misbehavior within 30 days after a first offense… then the person “shall be deemed a vagrant.”8

In short, idling and loitering about without any clear occupation was going to get you locked up. And doing it twice was a major mistake.


  1. Memphis Police Blotter 1858-1860; digital images, Shelby County Register of Deeds ( : accessed 6 Oct 2015).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1210, “vagrant.”
  3. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 6 Oct 2015), “vagrant.”
  4. See Edward Scott, compiler, Laws of the State of Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn. : Heiskell & Brown, printers, 1821); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Oct 2015).
  5. §1, “Idle and Disorderly Persons,” in John Haywood and Robert Cobbs, compilers, The Statute Laws of the State of Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn. : F.S. Heiskell, 1831), I:146; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Oct 2015).
  6. Ibid., §2, at 147.
  7. §1710, Code of Tennessee (Nasvhille, Tenn. : E.G. Eastman & Co., State Printers, 1858), 359; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Oct 2015).
  8. §1712.
Posted in Legal definitions, Resources, Statutes | Leave a comment

Genealogy cruises

So, people ask, why should we consider going on a genealogy cruise?

It’s a question that leaves The Legal Genealogist completely baffled.

Why wouldn’t you consider going on a genealogy cruise?

Consider, for example, the Alaska cruise offered just a month ago by the Federation of Genealogical Societies. It departed from and returned to Seattle, and the ports of call were Juneau, Skagway, and Victoria, British Columbia.

The genealogy part of the cruise was amazing:

Elizabeth Shown Mills speaking on Finding Females: Wives, Mothers, Daughters, Sisters & Paramours; Okay, I Got the Neighbors: Now What Do I Do with Them?; Using Evidence Creatively: How to Spot Clues and Demand Answers from Run-of-the-Mill Records; Smith & Jones: Problem-Solving with Families of Common Names; and Margaret’s Baby’s Father & the Lessons He Taught Me: Illegitimacy, Name Changes & More.

D. Joshua Taylor speaking on Tracing Eastern Origins of Western Families; Beyond Belief: The Wealth of Genealogical and Historical Societies; Treasures in the Archives: Using Archive Grid; and Society Management: Creating a Website for Your Society.

David E. Rencher speaking on Society Management: How Will Our Society Survive?; Tracing Immigrant Origins for Irish Ancestors; Documenting a Nation’s History Using the Resources of FamilySearch; Framing the Problem for Overseas Research; and a two-part workshop, Reconstructing the Neighborhood for Rural Dwellers In Ireland and Reconstructing the Neighborhood for City Dwellers In Ireland.

The Legal Genealogist speaking on Beyond X and Y: The Promise and Pitfalls of Autosomal DNA Testing; Making a Federal Case Out of It; The Gentlemen Judges: Justices of the Peace; and then a two-part workshop, Order in the Court – Hands-On with Court Records.

Cherie Bush not only speaking on Society Management: Partnering with Public/Private Libraries but gamely bringing the spouses and newbies along with a terrific overview of an Introduction to Genealogy.

Beyond that, there’s the cruising. The chatting with others who share your interests. The shows. The music. The food. Oh… the food…

And then there are the days you’re not at sea… or if you’re at sea, you’re at sea staring at some of the most amazing scenery the planet has to offer. Don’t believe me? Let me offer just a few examples from my own photos (you can find the whole gallery here):

Guess where we were…

Sawyer Glacier, Tracy Arm Fjord

“Thar she blows”: an orca near Victoria, British Columbia

The tail of a humpback whale near Victoria, British Columbia

The whole trip was amazing, and we as genealogists have some terrific options. Heritage Books offers cruises, one coming up later this month through the Panama Canal. Legacy Family Tree has an annual cruise and its 2016 cruise is to Alaska. Unlock The Past cruises has an amazing line-up of cruises around the world, and I’ll be one of the speakers on its 10th cruise, to New Zealand and Australia in early 2016.

And, I sure hope, there will be more in the future from FGS.

So when people ask why they should consider going on a genealogy cruise, you now know the answer: why wouldn’t you consider going on a genealogy cruise?

Posted in General | 9 Comments

Enough with the hype

You knew it was coming.

You knew it was inevitable.

You knew that sooner or later somebody was going to come up with the idea of adding that little button somewhere in the vicinity of AncestryDNA’s ethnicity estimates.

The little button that reads “Share.”

If The Legal Genealogist were to hit that button, right now, up will come this set of options:


And that lets you, if you choose to, share your ethnicity estimates on Facebook, or by email, or by copying and pasting the link provided anywhere you want.

If you select the email option, you’ll get this pop-up on your screen:


All you need to do is enter whatever email addresses you’d like in the line for Email address and hit the Send Invitations button. It will send out an email to all those whose email you’ve entered giving them a link to click to go to your results page.

A.FB If you select the Facebook option, and you’re logged in to your Facebook account, it’ll populate a Facebook post for you like the one you see here to the left. All you need to do is add your own comment to go along with it and hit the Post to Facebook button.

Now, don’t get me wrong, please:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with sharing your ethnicity estimates anywhere you want to.

It’s an interesting tidbit of information and, frankly, the singular reason why some people do DNA testing. They want to see those percentages. Even the idea of getting these percentages is what helps us convince some cousins to go ahead and do the DNA tests we’d really like them to do.

Where the line needs to be drawn is on the hype that goes along with those estimates.

Because there is one word you don’t see anywhere here. Not in the page that gives you your options. Not in the post that goes on Facebook. Not in the message that goes along with the invitation if you choose the send-by-email option. Not in the copy-and-paste code, either.

It’s the word “estimate.”

When you click on the Share button, it tells you that you’re about to “Invite your family and friends to see what your DNA says about your ethnicity.”

If you post via Facebook, it tells your family and friends that what they’re seeing are your “Ethnicity Results” and, it adds, “AncestryDNA helps people discover their unique heritage.”

And if you accept the default version of the email message AncestryDNA sends out when you opt for the send-by-email version, the email will say “I took the AncestryDNA test and would like to share what I found. It shows my ethnic origins and where my ancestors once lived.”

Oh, please.


No, it doesn’t.

Well, okay, it might show those origins and where your ancestors lived, if you happen to be one of the lucky people whose genetic origins are not all jumbled up from generations of mixing English and Irish and German and French. If all of your ancestors on both your mother’s side and your father’s side came from the same place generation after generation, century after century. If there’s no room for doubt based on what reference population your results are compared to or the statistical algorithm chosen for the comparison.

For the rest of us, however, these are not “results” that show origins and residence locations. They are estimates only, and estimates with some serious limitations.

Let me repeat, once more, that we have to keep in mind what these admixture tests do: they take the DNA of living people — us, the test takers — and they compare it to the DNA of other living people — people whose parents and grandparents and, sometimes, even great grandparents all come from one geographic area. Then they try to extrapolate backwards into time. Nobody is out there running around, digging up 500- or 1,000-year-old bones, extracting DNA for us to compare our own DNA to.

So coming up with these percentages in these tests requires this fundamental assumption: that the DNA of the reference populations — those groups whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents and more all come from the same area — is likely to reflect what we might see if we could test the DNA of people who lived in that area hundreds and thousands of years ago.

In other words, these percentages are:

• estimates,

• estimates based on comparisons not to actual historical populations but rather to small groups of people living today, and

• estimates based purely on the statistical odds that those small groups tell us something meaningful about past populations.

The key word here: estimates.

The key word you don’t see, anywhere, in this new sharing feature.

I suppose from an advertising perspective “what your DNA says about your ethnicity” works better than “what our algorithm estimates your DNA says about your ethnicity based on the reference populations we have.” And it’s easier to sell the idea that a DNA test “shows my ethnic origins and where my ancestors once lived” than that it “suggests possible components of my ethnic origins and where a small subset of my genetic ancestors may lived or at least passed through for a time.”

But the reality is that we’re much better off sharing with our families and our friends what DNA testing really can do, and do very well and very accurately: help us find cousins to collaborate with, share research with, document our family histories with.

Enough with the hype.

Posted in DNA | 41 Comments

The name’s not the same

It was a lesson not to be forgotten, taught by Uncle Ray.

RayHe was The Legal Genealogist‘s uncle by marriage, the husband of my mother’s sister Carol. And, I remember, as I was just learning to carefully document the members of my own family, I was trying to find out exactly who his parents and siblings were.

In other words, as a baby genealogist, I was trying to find him in the census records.

This was purely collateral research, of course, not anything I really needed to know. After all, I thought, there wasn’t much I didn’t know about Ray; I’d known him most of my life.

He’d married my Aunt Carol in 1953,1 and I can’t remember a time in my growing-up years when he wasn’t part of all of our lives. Ray and Carol always lived either in Virginia or in North Carolina — easy driving distance from my grandparents’ Virginia farm — and he and Carol and my cousins Barbara and Philip are always there in all the photos taken as I was growing up.

But we had lost Ray early… born 91 years ago this coming Monday, on 5 October 1924, he was not yet 68 when he died in January 1992. He was buried at Byrd Memorial Methodist Chapel in Kents Store, Virginia.2 These days, Carol lies next to him, and they are surrounded by members of my mother’s family.

And — I remember thinking — how hard could it be to find him? Unlike some of the people I was trying to chase in my family history — like my fifth great grandfather John Jones — somebody named Ray Childress shouldn’t be all that hard to find in Virginia.



The first thing I encountered was that nasty little rule that says census records won’t be available for 72 years after the year in which it was taken.3 Since Ray was born in 1924, the first census he might be recorded on would be the 1930 census. Not available until 2002.

And I remember when that census finally became available… and then finally was indexed… and finally went looking.

And looking.

And looking.

There are somewhere on the order of 20 or so Childress families on that 1930 census in the area of Virginia was Ray was born. Among them, living in those households, they had roughly an equal number of boys of an approximate age to be Ray.

And not a single solitary one of them was named Ray.

Had to be a mistake, right?

So I did it the hard way.

I read that census record, line by line, page by page, looking for an unindexed (or inaccurately) indexed Childress family.

And came up empty.

So I expanded the search. I went out beyond the independent city where I knew Ray had been born and looked in the adjacent counties.

And came up empty.

Expanded the search again — somewhere in the Commonwealth of Virginia, there had to be a census record for Ray Childress in 1930.

And came up empty.

I can’t tell you how many times I put this aside and came back to it, sure that if I just searched a slightly different way I would find Ray Childress in that census record.

And, of course, you can tell me what kind of a ditz I was for not going back to my Aunt Carol, or to some other source than what I “knew” from having been around Ray all of my growing-up years.

Because you already know the way this story ends, don’t you?

His name wasn’t Ray.

Not his first name.

Not his middle name.

Not Ray at all, except to the family.

When I finally got around to doing genealogy the right way — gathering facts and documents instead of going with what I “knew” to be true — I carefully documented that Miller Hamilton Childress, affectionately known as “Ray” to the family, was born 5 October 1924 in Lynchburg, Virginia,4 the fifth child and third son of Thomas Henry Childress and Dora Bell Moore.5 He lived there throughout his childhood,6 and until he joined the U.S. Navy on 31 August 1942, just before his 18th birthday.7 And he returned there when he was discharged 9 November 1945.8


It’s a hard lesson to learn, as a baby genealogist, that just because two records talk about someone of the same name (my John Jones, for example) doesn’t mean they refer to the same person. We all eventually learn not to make assumptions just because the name’s the same.

But it may be a harder lesson still that just because we “know” what the name is, maybe, just maybe, the name’s not the same at all.


  1. Interview of Carol (Cottrell) Childress (Kents Store, VA), by the author, 28 Mar 2004; notes privately held by the author.
  2. Byrd Memorial Methodist Church Cemetery (Kents Store, Fluvanna County, Virginia; on Venable Road (Route 601), approximately 1000 feet east of the intersection with Kents Store Way (Route 659), Latitude 37°52’43″N, Longitude 78°07’27″W), Ray Childress marker; photograph by J.G. Russell, 22 Dec 2002.
  3. See “The ‘72-Year Rule’,” U.S. Census Bureau ( : accessed 2 Oct 2015).
  4. See Social Security Death Index, entry for Miller H. Childress; ( : accessed 4 Oct 2013).
  5. See 1930 U.S. census, Lynchburg City, state, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 18, page 160(A) (stamped), sheet 14(A), dwelling 231, family 258, Miller H Childress; digital image, ( : accessed 4 Oct 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 2468
  6. See ibid. Also 1940 U.S. census, Lynchburg City, Virginia, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 111-35, sheet 4(B), household 70, Miller H Childress; digital image, ( : accessed 4 Oct 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 4309.
  7. “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010,” database, ( : accessed 4 Oct 2013).
  8. As to the discharge, ibid. As to his residence, see e.g. Hill’s Lynchburg City Directory 1950 (Richmond, Va. : Hill’s Directory Co., 1950), 35, entry for Miller H Childress; digital images, ( : accessed 4 Oct 2013).
Posted in My family | 14 Comments

What really was lost in 1897

Given The Legal Genealogist‘s deep German roots (my father was born in Germany and emigrated as a child), it’s always a pleasure to speak to the German Genealogy Group in New York, and last night was no different.

Great group, great questions, and a lot of fun, especially since I was able to talk about the twists and turns of trying to research the German side of my family. I’m always grateful for the opportunity to speak to the German Genealogy Group.

Ellis.fireBut a question came up during the Q&A after last night’s session that suggests a bit of a misunderstanding of what records do and don’t exist — and do and don’t survive — for immigrants to the United States, as the result of a fire at Ellis Island in 1897.

Wasn’t it true, the questioner asked, that all immigration records for all U.S. ports were lost in that Ellis Island fire?

Um… no. Only New York records, and only some New York records.

But weren’t all the records from all ports gathered together at Ellis Island, the questioner persisted.

Um… no. Only New York records, and — again — only some New York records.

Thank heavens.

First, a bit about immigration law and records.

Before 1855, immigrants who arrived in the United States by ship didn’t have any formal processing that might create records at all. The only records that these newcomers were arriving at all were customs lists of passengers, required first by the Steerage Act of 18191 and then by an 1855 act,2 both of which focused on the safety of the ships and their passengers — not on immigration.

When processing of immigrants did begin at the Port of New York in 1855, it wasn’t by the federal government — or even at a federal facility. The immigration station we all know as Castle Garden was a New York state and city facility, established under state law as a receiving station for immigrants.3 So the records created at Castle Garden in this reception process were New York State records.

In 1882, Congress adopted the Immigration Act of 1882 that authorized the Treasury Secretary to contract with the states for enforcement of that law.4 Castle Garden continued to operate under a contract with the federal government, and the records continued to be New York State records.

In 1890, the Treasury Department terminated its contract with New York and took over control of immigration through the Port of New York. New York State wouldn’t give Castle Garden to the feds, so a new federal facility was opened in April 1890 at the Barge Office near the Battery in lower Manhattan.5 A year later, in 1891, a federal law created the office of superintendent of immigration and made it a permanent requirement that immigrants be examined by federal immigration officers.6

So the records up until 1855 were customs lists of passengers, kept by the federal government. From 1855 to the opening of the Barge Office facility in 1890, there were those same customs lists and, in addition, New York State records of immigrants. From 1890 on, there were passenger lists from arriving ships as part of federal immigration records… and there were still those customs lists.

Now the Barge Office wasn’t nearly big enough to handle the volume of immigration to New York. That’s what led to Ellis Island.

Ellis Island — an island in New York Harbor — was originally the site of a military fort named Fort Gibson in honor of a War of 1812 officer. It came into federal ownership in 1808. It didn’t begin its role as the gateway for immigrants to the United States until a newly-constructed federal immigration station — built of Georgia pine — opened there on 1 January 1892.7

You did read that part about Georgia pine, right? Sigh

During the early morning hours of June 15, 1897, a fire on Ellis Island burned the immigration station completely to the ground. Although no lives were lost, many years of Federal and State immigration records dating back to 1855 burned along with the pine buildings that failed to protect them.8

But what records?

Here’s the good news. It wasn’t, as the questioner last night was certain, all of the records of all of the ports of the United States. Only New York records were at Ellis Island, not records from — say — New Orleans or Baltimore or San Francisco.

Now here’s the bad news. It did include those New York State records. The feds had gotten the State of New York to turn over the administrative records from Castle Garden to consolidate all of the immigration records in one location. So the New York State records from 1855-1890, the Barge Office records from 1890-1891, and the records created at Ellis Island from 1892-1897 — they were all at Ellis Island when it burned.

But — thank heavens — it wasn’t all of the New York records.

Because the Customs Service still had its lists of passengers — those customs lists required by the Steerage Act of 1819. And those records, we can all be eternally grateful, were not at Ellis Island in June of 1897.

The customs lists have been microfilmed, they’re on Microfilm Publication M237 of the National Archives (Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, 1820-97)9 and the microfilmed records are now online at and at

So… no, all immigration records for the early United States were not burned in the Ellis Island fire.

Yes, some New York records were lost forever in the flames at Ellis Island.

But, fortunately for us as genealogists, no, not even all New York records were lost in that fire.



  1. “An Act regulating passenger ships and vessels,” 3 Stat. 488 (2 March 1819).
  2. An Act to Regulate the Carriage of Passengers in Steamships and other Vessels, 9 Stat. 715 (3 March 1855).
  3. Carolyn L. Barkley, “Before Ellis Island: Passenger Arrivals at Castle Garden, New York,” In Search of Our Common Heritage, ( : accessed 2 Oct 2015).
  4. An act to regulate Immigration, 22 Stat. 214 (3 Aug. 1882).
  5. See Gene Aksamit, “Closing of Castle Garden,” The Compass: Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild ( : accessed 2 Oct 2015).
  6. “An act in amendment to the various acts relative to immigration…,” 26 Stat. 1084 (3 March 1891).
  7. Ellis Island History,” Ellis Island Foundation ( accessed 2 Oct 2015).
  8. Ibid., “Ellis Island History: Ellis Island Burns and Years of Records Lost.”
  9. National Archives, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, 1820-97, Microfilm Publication M237 (Washington, D.C. : National Archives & Records Service, 1962).
Posted in Resources, Statutes | 5 Comments

A big records access win

Sometimes, in the genealogical community, it seems like we lose every battle of importance when it comes to records access.

Stop No AccessWe lost the fight to keep the Social Security Death Index fully open — and now can’t access any records within three years of an individual’s death.1

We just lost the fight to keep marriage records open in Kansas. The Kansas Supreme Court adopted new rules, effective tomorrow, that greatly restrict access to marriage records and redact information of enormous value to genealogists, such as the mother’s maiden name.2

But that’s really more a matter of perception than reality. The reality is that we win more than we lose, and thanks to a group called Reclaim The Records — a new not-for-profit group of genealogists, historians, researchers, and open government advocates — we just won another big one.

In January 2015, Reclaim the Records made a formal request under the New York Freedom of Information Law for access to the 1908-1929 index to marriage licenses and affidavits for the City of New York, held by the New York City Municipal Archives. It describes these records as a “lesser-known but very important record set. This set was kept by the NYC City Clerk’s Office, and it is the 1908-1929 application, affidavit, and license for a marriage, a totally separate three-page document that is generally dated a few weeks before the actual marriage took place.”3

And, the group explains, this record set is really useful for several reasons:

• The document contains the witnesses’ addresses; the regular marriage certificate does not. This is useful information, as witnesses to a marriage may have been family members.
• The document usually lists a more specific town of birth for both the bride and the groom; the regular marriage certificate often just lists the country of birth. Being able to narrow down a place of birth to more than just “Italy” or “Russia” is, of course, incredibly helpful.
• The document lists both the bride and groom’s father’s and mother’s country of birth; the regular marriage certificate does not.
• The document lists the names of any former spouses of the bride or groom, living or dead; the regular marriage certificate does not.
• The document lists, if the bride or groom is divorced, when and where divorce or divorces were granted; the regular marriage certificate does not.
• The document lists the bride’s occupation; the regular marriage certificate does not. Sometimes the actual employer name and address is given for both parties in the marriage, too; again, the marriage certificate does not.
• And perhaps most importantly, this document usually has three different sets of handwriting in it! This certainly helps researchers who have had to deal with records that were semi-illegible or perhaps had “creative” spellings of names and places.4

Now the simple fact is, these records are obviously and clearly public records. Anybody can get a copy of any one of these records by going to the New York City Municipal Archives. But the index to the records isn’t available anywhere, to help point people to the records themselves. So Reclaim the Records made the request for the index, 48 rolls of microfilm.

Initially, the Archives said yes. Then it said no. Without explaining why it changed its mind. The New York State Committee on Open Government weighed in, on the side of the genealogical community: these are, it said, open records. The Archives still said no.

So Reclaim the Records went to court.

And, it announced today, it won.

To put it more bluntly, the Municipal Archives threw in the towel and settled.

You can read all about it in Reclaim the Records’ very first newsletter, online here.

And you can read there about Reclaim the Records’ plans for more efforts to open public records to public access in the future. And take a gander at its To-Do List from around the country. It’s weighted towards New York, New Jersey and Illinois right now — but welcomes input from everyone everywhere: “we’d like to add information from all fifty states, and eventually other countries too.”

And you can read there and on the Reclaim the Records website about how you can help.

Not with money.

But with a little bit of your time, and with your public support of public records.

Follow Reclaim the Records on Twitter (it’s @ReclaimTheRecs). Like its page on Facebook.

And speak up. Among other things, take the records survey and report “historically or genealogically important public records that have limited public access, or no public access.”

Speak up in favor of public access to public records.

Speak up whenever public records are threatened.

Reclaim the Records won a big one, but it can’t fight this fight alone.

Public access to public records is a fight we all need to support.


  1. Corrected: See Judy G. Russell, “SSDI access now limited,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Dec 2013 ( : accessed 30 Sep 2015).
  2. See Kansas Supreme Court Order 2015 SC 82 and Kansas Supreme Court Order 2015 SC 83, effective 1 October 2015.
  3. Frequently Asked Questions: Which records are you requesting?,” Reclaim the Records ( : accessed 30 Sep 2015).
  4. Ibid., “Why is this 1908-1929 ‘Application, Affidavit, and License’ record group so useful to genealogists and researchers?”
Posted in Records Access | 9 Comments

A Case Study of Memorials for Union Soldiers

Guest post by Jake Fletcher

If your ancestor was an officer for the Union Army during the Civil War, there is a good chance his immediate family and the community published a memorial in his honor. Communities would also compile similar publications for women who worked in field hospitals and even civilians who did not fight, but advocated for the Union. Several hundred volumes of these published memorials and circulars are available free on Google Books and Internet Archive.1

Any genealogist whose Civil War-era ancestor has such a published memorial has acquired a valuable family document from that time. These memorials often included transcriptions of letters and correspondence between the soldier and his family, military leaders and the soldier’s family, and community members who spoke highly of the person — documents that could provide incredible detail when telling the narrative of the soldier’s life before and during the war.

BurnhamIn the Memorial of Lieutenant Howard M. Burnham, for example, the researcher discovers that the soldier was born 17 March 1842,2 the son of R. H. Burnham, Esq., of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and a grandson of the late Elisha Burnham, a merchant. His mother was a daughter of the late Samuel Mather of Connecticut, a descendant of Cotton Mather. He enlisted in the Union Army in April 18613 and was promoted to lieutenant, then first lieutenant, in an artillery command.4 He was 21 years old when he was killed in action at the Battle of Chickamauga, on 19 September 1863.5 He was the first-born and only son of the Burnhams.6

But there is more that can be gleaned from these memorials, taken as a whole, when we review them with a critical eye. In Standard 35 of Genealogy Standards, the Board for Certification of Genealogists reminds us that genealogists should always “appraise” the history of each source we use for its “purpose.”7 Studying these memorials for Union soldiers killed in action demonstrates the importance of this requirement. By appraising the memorials for their purpose, we are able to determine the extent to which we may rely on them as genealogical evidence and the extent to which they provide evidence of the Protestant print culture of the time.

Putting these memorials into the context of their time, we see that, upon surviving American’s early years as a sovereign nation, roads to the west opened up and free enterprise was expanding. The era of the individual’s ability to pursue happiness had arrived.

Americans in the antebellum period were much “softer” religiously than the Puritans or Colonial Americans. They took child development and the family’s role much more seriously. Part of a mother’s domestic role during that time involved nurturing a child with good Christian habits and decision-making. In contrast, fathers were supposed to work and lead their sons by example. Many Americans had foregone the idea of predestination, the belief that an individual is born inherently good or evil.8

Almost overnight, the Civil War challenged these assumptions. College students and young professionals with bright futures were killed; their families left to understand the senseless loss of their child. This, then, was the context in which the memorials were written, and looking at a broad selection of these popular tracts provides insight into the Union’s religious and political mindset during the Civil War.

As pillars of the community, theologians and ministers needed to rally support for the Union cause as the casualties mounted. American Protestants constructed a narrative of the soldiers that justified their death using God’s providential reasoning. The concept of providential reasoning is the belief that God determines all actions in the external world.9 Ministers interpreted the soldier’s death as a gift rather than a loss, based on the assumption God had predestined these soldiers to sacrifice their lives for the country. In order to calm the people, they had to convince them the soldiers died gracefully under the watch of God. Themes of crucifixion and atonement convinced readers the soldier had transfigured into a beacon standing next to God that was for future generations to follow. “His name is enrolled among those of the nation whom posterity will not willingly let die.”10

These memorials, then, were not a tribute to the soldier as much as they were an instruction pamphlet on Christian morals applied to the circumstances of War – or moral-didactic literature.11

Thus, the one characteristic that stands out is that the same type of descriptive language was used as to virtually every one of those memorialized. Each young man was described as showing an early desire for military service, a patriotic enthusiasm, and deep Christian beliefs. The memorial for Lieutenant Burnham, for example, describes young Howard as having “evinced in early boyhood a taste for military pursuits” in the process of which he was “unconsciously fitting himself for his career.”12 At the same time, he showed impressive “acquaintance with the bible”, exemplifying his strong Christian faith.13 Burnham’s memorial, like others of the time, sounded the repeated theme that the soldiers faithfully performed their filial duty to God to the very end. Similarly, Rev. Nathaniel Butler from his pulpit in Rockland, Maine, assured the mourning community that Hiram G. Berry died without a “stain of cowardice.”14

Many Americans such as Dr. Henry Bowditch of Boston, Massachusetts, seemed to be comfortable juxtaposing the horror of losing a child to war and the necessary sacrifice as ordained by God. Upon losing his son Lt. Nathaniel Bowditch, Dr. Henry Bowditch printed a circular in Boston pleading the Union Army to organize an ambulance system because his son was “left to suffer and die.”15 Two years later, he compiled a memorial for his son Nathaniel that assured his son’s death ended in “serenity.”16 In Boston, Rev. Clarke proclaimed at the funeral of Lieut. Bowditch, “This is not death; it is the revelation before of the life to come.”17

My application of this specific genealogy standard to these memorials led me to consider if understanding a source’s purpose could include the role of religion, culture, and politics played in the document’s creation. Studying the significance of these memorials also highlights that, without this crucial source analysis, genealogists could very well miss some important details and hinder their research. Published memorials give researchers an insight into how our ancestors dealt with casualty and how they remain dignified amidst so much loss. In the same way that genealogists and folk anthropologists study motifs on gravestones to document a culture’s understanding of death, memorials and print circulars from the Civil War Era are cultural artifacts that provide evidence of America in a theological crisis.

At the same time, when we understand that these documents were more than mere memorials to the deceased but were also examples of religious “print culture,” we can see that memorials such as these should be scrutinized carefully before they are taken as historical fact.

About the Author

Jake Fletcher is a genealogist and blogger. He received his Bachelor Degree for History in 2013 and is now researching genealogy professionally. Jake has been researching and writing about genealogy since high school using his blog page Travelogues of a Genealogist. The Legal Genealogist is pleased to offer Jake this venue for this thoughts, which he was kind enough to share with us all.


  1. I have been unable to find a complete inventory, but many have been digitized by Harvard University. When searching on Google Books or Internet Archive, search the word “memorial” or “memoir” with “Union Army” or “Civil War”.
  2. Memorial of Lieutenant Howard M. Burnham (Springfield: Samuel Bowles & Co. printer, 1864), 45; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  3. Ibid., 46.
  4. Ibid., 28-29.
  5. Ibid., 29-33.
  6. Ibid., 35.
  7. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn. : Ancestry, 2014), 21-22.
  8. For more on child psychology in antebellum America, See Mary P. Ryan, Cradle of The Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York 1790-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 69. For a historiography of Calvinism, see Daniel Walker Howe, “The Decline of Calvinism: An Approach to Its Study,” 14 Comparative Studies in Society and History (Jun 1972): 307.
  9. Charles Hodge, “Scriptural Doctrine of Providence”, cited by Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as A Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 78.
  10. C.M. Tyler, Memorials of Lieut. George H Walcott (Boston: Mass. Sabbath School Society, 1865), 1; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  11. Moral-didactic genre refers to a specific type of print culture from the American Antebellum period (1820s-1860) and entails a story in which one finds God through his or her actions and is able to find salvation. Mary Kelley, “Pen and Ink Communion’: Evangelical Reading & Writing in Antebellum America”, 84 New England Quarterly (December 2011): 555.
  12. Memorial of Lieutenant Howard M. Burnham, 8.
  13. Ibid., 13.
  14. Discourse Delivered at Rockland, Maine: Funeral of Maj. General Hiram G. Berry (Portland: David Tucker, printer, 1863), 10; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  15. Henry I. Bowditch, A Brief Plea for an Ambulance System for the Army of the United States (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1863), 6; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  16. Henry I. Bowditch, Memorial (of Lt. Nathaniel Bowditch) (Boston: John Wilson & Son, printer, 1865), 2; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  17. Ibid., 48.
Posted in General, Methodology, Resources | 3 Comments

No super moon eclipse here

There will be no genealogy in The Legal Genealogist today.


I’m pouting.

Because my personal family history pages came up blank last night.

You see, in case you didn’t notice, Mother Nature did something spectacular last night.

It was a total eclipse of a super moon.

Supermoon Lunar EclipseA super moon occurs when the moon is at perigee — closest to the earth — when it is full. When that happens, the moon appears biggest and brightest to those of us stuck here on the ground.1

And a total eclipse? That’s when the earth is between the sun and the moon and casts its shadow on the moon, completely covering the moon.2

Now a super moon by definition isn’t all that rare: they recur in cycles of 14 lunar months, so we’ll get another one on the 14th of November 2016.3

And a total eclipse isn’t all that rare, either: on average, every geographical location on the planet will have the pleasure of a total lunar eclipse about once every 2.3 years.4

But a total eclipse of a super moon? That is rare. We won’t see the next one of those until 2033.5

I couldn’t find a ready reference to see whether that one, in 2033, will be visible here where I live in Central New Jersey.

And … sigh … we here in Central New Jersey didn’t see the one last night either.

Mother Nature did her “nyah nyah” thing and socked us in with a cloud cover. Some parts of the area did get at least partial visibility — but not here.


So today’s blog is brought to you courtesy of 17 U.S.C. §105, the section of the U.S. Copyright Act that provides that “Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government.” Because Bill Ingalls, the photographer who took the image featured in today’s blog, is the chief photographer of NASA, the images he takes as a U.S. government employee on behalf of the U.S. government are in the public domain. (His personal images, of course, are his property and he does have a copyright on those.)

Sigh… this part of my personal family history is downright disappointing.


Image: Bill Ingalls, NASA, “Supermoon Eclipse in Denver, Colorado.”

  1. See “Sunday’s supermoon is closest of 2015,” EarthSky ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  2. Robert Roy Britt, “Lunar Eclipses: What Are They & When Is the Next One?,”, posted 18 Sep 2015 ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  3. Sunday’s supermoon is closest of 2015,” EarthSky
  4. Joe Rao, “10 Surprising Facts About Lunar Eclipses,”, posted 27 Sep 2015 ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
  5. Andrew Fazekas, “Rare Super Blood Moon Total Eclipse: How to See It,” National Geographic: Starstruck, posted 25 Sep 2015 ( : accessed 28 Sep 2015).
Posted in General | 21 Comments

GenealogyInTime’s 2015 list

Still wondering if DNA is really part of mainstream genealogy?

Wonder no longer.

GenealogyInTime Magazine just published its list of Top 100 Genealogy Websites of 2015.1

top 100 genealogy website 2015This is a list that “profiles and ranks the best ancestral websites based on their internet traffic (as measured by Alexa, the internet traffic people).”

And, the magazine explains, “The popularity of a website is measured by Alexa along three dimensions: how many people visit a website, how much time is spent at the website and how much content is consumed. It is not based solely on how many people go to a particular website. The time spent on a website and the amount of content that is consumed are also important factors when ranking websites.”

Among the Top 100:, in the number one position, not specifically because of its DNA offerings, but you have to believe that its heavy move in that direction — it went over the million mark in people who’ve tested with AncestryDNA earlier this year2 — contibuted at least something to that top ranking.

Family Tree DNA, in the number 14 spot, reflecting its dominant role as the DNA testing site for serious genealogists.

GedMatch, in the number 31 position, and that can only be due to the fact that it offers tools that many of those who’ve tested with AncestryDNA don’t have anywhere else and need in order to make effective use of their test results.

As always, the list is top-heavy in sites that provide access to records, newspapers and family trees, so, as always, only a few blogs made the list in 2015:

Eastman’s Genealogy Newsletter, at number 28;

• Australia’s Gould Genealogy, at number 87;

Geneabloggers, at number 89;

Canada’s Anglo-Celtic Connections, at number 97;, at number 99.

And there’s one more blog that made the list for the first time here in 2015: The Legal Genealogist, coming in at number 86.

Now anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that DNA is only one of the topics that’s covered here. So DNA posts aren’t going to be the only reason why the blog made the list.

Still, I can’t help but think DNA is a big reason why some readers come to this blog, and why they come back to it. Because I have the statistics on what individual posts have been the most popular in the going-on-four-years of The Legal Genealogist‘s web life. And from the top 20 individual postings ever made at this blog, 13 focus on DNA issues:

1. 2014: Most bang for DNA bucks
2. 2015: Most bang for the DNA buck
3. Gedmatch: a DNA geek’s dream site
6. A DNA test not to bother with
8. Update: More bang for DNA test bucks (July 2013)
9. NY and MD limits on 23andMe
10. More bang for DNA test bucks (May 2012)
11. The raw story at AncestryDNA
12. DNA and the locks of hair
17. Opting out
18. First looks at AncestryDNA
19. Facts matter!
20. Admixture: not soup yet

So… is DNA really part of mainstream genealogy?

Wonder no longer.

You bet it is.


  1. Top 100 Genealogy Websites of 2015,GenealogyInTime Magazine ( : accessed 26 Sep 2015).
  2. Judy G. Russell, “One million strong,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 July 2015 ( : accessed 26 Sep 2015).
Posted in DNA, General | 4 Comments