New Ancestry Academy course

When Ancestry launched Ancestry Academy back in April, it did so with a lot of hoopla, a core of course offerings and a promise.

The hoopla — a description of this new entry into the genealogical-education-at-home field — included the fact that this was “a new educational website that offers exclusive, high-quality video courses taught by genealogy and family history experts. Ancestry Academy courses cover a wide range of relevant family history topics and offer something for genealogists of all levels.”1

RecDeathCourses are “broken into a series of short lessons that let you learn when you want and how you want. Watch a course all the way through or pick and choose the lessons most interesting to you.” And there are short quizzes you can take at the end “to make sure you’re getting the most out of every course.”2

The initial course offerings included included things like “DNA 101: An Insider’s Scoop on AncestryDNA Testing,” with Anna Swayne. Or “And Seek and Ye Shall Find: Become an Ancestry Search Expert,” with Anne Gillespie Mitchell. They were focused mostly on Ancestry resources, and were — and remain — mostly free. Subscriptions are $11.99 a month or $99.99 a year to access all courses, and access to Ancestry Academy is included in Ancestry’s new All Access subscription.3

Each course is introduced in a brief segment that’s a conversation between the instructor and Laura Prescott, Director of Ancestry Academy, and you can find a good overview of how Ancestry Academy works and what to expect in the review by Pam Cerutti at Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter.4

And that promise to add new courses regularly? It’s been kept. With courses like “Who is That Tick Mark? Using Early Census Records,” with J. Mark Lowe. “Brother vs. Brother: Exploring Civil War Ancestors,” with Amy Johnson Crow. “The Mystery of Manuscripts,” with Pamela Boyer Sayre. “Tracing French-Canadian Ancestors and Learning Their Stories,” with David Ouimette.

And, now, one more new one. “The Records of Death: Using Probates in Family History.” Presented by The Legal Genealogist.

The course description says it all:

The probate process, where courts supervise the passage of property from one generation to another, is a rich source of genealogical information. Whether your ancestor left a will or died without one, whether rich or poor, landowner or tenant, male or female, there may well be records of death that provide invaluable clues. Understanding those records, and the laws under which they were created, is essential to any complete family history.5

In addition to the introductory and wrap-up dialogues with Laura Prescott, the course has 10 segments:
The Lingo of Probate Law; Estates with a Will: Procedures; Estates with a Will: Records; Estates without a Will: Procedures; Estates without a Will: Records; Special Records of Widows: Dower & Set-asides; Special Records of Children: Guardianships & Indentures; Finding Probate Records; Using Probate Records; and Limits of Probate Records.

It was a blast to put the course together, and great fun working with Laura and her team.6

Come check out Ancestry Academy. As EOGN editor Pam Cerruti notes, “the content is robust and has something to offer all levels of genealogists.”7


  1. Introducing Ancestry Academy, a New Way to Learn About Family History,” Ancestry blog, posted 16 Apr 2015 ( : accessed 2 Aug 2015).
  2. Ibid.
  3. That includes access to and as well.
  4. Pam Cerutti, “Hands on with Ancestry Academy,” Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, posted 1 July 2015 ( : accessed 2 Aug 2015).
  5. The Records of Death: Using Probates in Family History,” Ancestry Academy ( : accessed 2 Aug 2015).
  6. I would kill for permanent access to the hair and makeup person…
  7. Cerutti, “Hands on with Ancestry Academy.”
Posted in General | 4 Comments

Serendipity strikes twice

It’s always so nice… so very nice… when the genetic evidence lines up with the documentary evidence. Taking the two together, combining the paper trail and the clues hidden in our own genetic code, can provide a confidence level for answers to questions that we simply couldn’t have reached in any other way.

And sometimes… sometimes… serendipity plays a role.

Genetic QuestionsA case in point from The Legal Genealogist‘s own family comes from the effort to identify a second great grandmother where the evidence of her parentage was utterly inconsistent.

My great grandfather Jasper Carlton Robertson died in Tillman County, Oklahoma, in 1912. His death certificate identifies his mother as Isabella Gentry.1 Other family records say her maiden name was Rankin,2 and the International Genealogical Index used to say her name was Pugh.3 Since Isabella and her husband, Gustavus Robertson, were married before the 1850 census,4 we’ve had a fun chase trying to trace Isabella’s family back in time through burned courthouses and non-existent records.

Serendipity came into play in this research at one point, some 11 or 12 years ago, when I discovered that a Maxine Smith and Clarence Wilson had written a piece on the man I thought might be Isabella’s father for the bulletin of the Rankin County, Mississippi, Historical Society. I couldn’t get the original bulletin but was able to put my hands on a copy.5 It listed the children, and even said one Gentry daughter married a Robertson, but it had the daughter’s first name beginning with a G and the son-in-law’s first name beginning with an I. If true, this couldn’t be my Isabella’s family. But I couldn’t find out where they’d gotten the information identifying the children.

I tracked down every piece of information I could find linking the Wilsons to the Gentry family and found that Jacob Elijah Gentry, grandson of my candidate father, had a daughter Willow Isabel Gentry6 who married a James Otho Wilson, and they were the parents of Clarence and Maxine.7 The only clue I had to their whereabouts around 2001 or 2002 was that the Wilson family was involved in some way with a radio station in Oregon.

I emailed the radio station, explained who I was and who I was looking for, and as the days stretched into weeks without a reply, I pretty much forgot about it.

And then late one day in early November, 2002, came an email from Jim Wilson. Clarence, he said, was his oldest brother, Maxine his older sister. He knew about Clarence’s and Maxine’s family history research.

It turns out that Maxine had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to make one more trip to the old family stomping grounds. She and Clarence had rented a camper and taken off through Texas, Oklahoma, and back ultimately into Mississippi. They had done the family research on the trip; Jim thought it kept Maxine alive to work on the article about the family history.

By 2002, Maxine had long since passed on, and Jim didn’t think Clarence could help much — he was nearing 90 years old by then — but he gave me the address of Clarence’s daughter where Clarence was then living. I wrote her a letter and asked if she thought perhaps Clarence and I could talk.

The phone rang one day not long after, and it was Clarence’s daughter. No, she said, he just wasn’t up to a conversation. But just that morning, just before my letter arrived, she had put all of the research notes from his and Maxine’s family history trip into the trash. She didn’t think the trash had been collected yet. Did I want them?

Hidden away in one battered old blue notebook, a single hint to a record it would have taken me years to have found otherwise. The documentary evidence now pointed to Elijah Gentry as Isabella’s father.

Now fast forward to 2015, and serendipity strikes again — this time in the DNA evidence. In my match list at AncestryDNA, up popped a DNA cousin named Brad. Not someone I asked to test, but someone who decided to test on his own.

Whose mother was Maxine Wilson.

And whose maternal grandmother was Willow Isabel (Gentry) Wilson.

Brad graciously consented to let me transfer his raw data to Family Tree DNA where we can actually see how his DNA compares to my closer relations:8


The matches here in this first graphic are between Brad and one of my uncles, two aunts and a cousin in that Gentry line.


And the matches here in this second graphic are between Brad and two other key Gentry cousins.

The DNA backs up the paper trail.

At a confidence level that neither, alone, could have achieved.


  1. Oklahoma State Board of Health, death certificate 3065 (1912), Jasper C. Robertson; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Oklahoma City.
  2. Texas State Board of Health, death certificate 1583 (1952), Mrs. Mattie Crenshaw; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  3. It no longer says that, thankfully. But it did. See Karen Brode, “IGI Index,” Rootsweb CLANBOYD-L Archives, discussion list, 7 Sep 2002 ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012).
  4. 1850 U.S. census, Winston County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 373 (stamped), dwelling 809, family 816, Isabella “Robinson”; digital image, ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 382.
  5. In 2011, I was able to get a photocopy of the original manuscript contributed by Maxine Smith to the Rankin County Historical Society, now in the vertical files of the Rankin County Library, Brandon Genealogy Room.
  6. 1910 U.S. census, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, Castle, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 137, p. 135-B (stamped), sheet 1-B, dwelling/family 9, Willow Gentry in Jacob Gentry household; digital image, ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 1265.
  7. See 1930 U.S. census, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, Castle, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 4, page 33-A (stamped), sheet 3-A, dwelling/family 53, Clarence E. and H. Maxine Wilson in J. Otho Wilson household; digital image, ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 1917.
  8. The lack of analytical tools at AncestryDNA continues to be a source of frustration… See generally Judy G. Russell, “The raw story at AncestryDNA,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 24 Mar 2013 ( : accessed 2 Aug 2015). … But I digress.
Posted in DNA | 14 Comments

Happy birthday, Phoenix!

It was one of those conversations you never forget.

The Legal Genealogist‘s niece, Bobbi, had called just before Christmas to say she’d pretty much given up on having a second child.

It had been more than five years since her daughter Sydney was born and, despite their best efforts,1 no second child was happening.

And, she said, she was starting to feel that it was for the best. Sydney was in school all day. Her time was starting to be her own again. She was thinking of finally going back to school and taking some classes she wanted to take.

All in all, she said, it was probably a good thing that Sydney was going to be an only child.

And, of course, you can write the rest of this story yourself, can’t you?



Phoenix will be nine years old tomorrow. His older sister is 15.2 And there’s a younger sister who was added to the mix just as unexpectedly as her brother.

Happy birthday, Phoenix!

Families are such fun…


  1. No, actually, I didn’t ask for any details, and you shouldn’t either. It’s rude.
  2. Heaven help us! A teenager! She’s a really good kid, just a teenager! Yikes!
Posted in My family | 6 Comments

Where’d that come from?

Time and time again, it appears in the law books and, so, in the records genealogists use.

The phrase a year and a day.

Year-daySomething had to be done within a year and a day, as for example that the owner of a shipwrecked vessel had to apply to any salvagers to get his property back within a year and a day from the time the goods were seized or the salvage belonged to the King.1

Or it was only valid if it lasted a year and a day, as when a tinner had been in possession of a tin-work for a year and a day, he had a right not to be dispossessed of the property without a court order.2

Or it only had some specific legal effect if it happened within a year and a day, as when the issue is how long after a wounding the death could occur and the crime would be considered murder — at common law, the wound had to cause death within a year and a day.3

And, yes, it is a defined term in the law dictionaries:

This period was fixed for many purposes in law. Thus, in the case of an estray, if the owner did not claim it within that time, it became the property of the lord. So the owners of wreck must claim it within a year and a day. Death must follow upon wounding within a year and a day if the wounding is to be indicted as murder. Also, a year and a day were given for prosecuting or avoiding certain legal acts; e. g., for bringing actions after entry, for making claim for avoiding a fine, etc.4

This period of time is particularly recognized in the law. For example, when a judgment is reversed, a party, notwithstanding the lapse of time mentioned in the statute of limitations pending that action, may commence a fresh action within a year and a day of such reversal; … again, after a year and a day have elapsed from the day of signing a judgment, no execution can be issued until the judgment shall have been revived by scire facias.5

So what’s with this “year and a day” thing anyway?

Why not just a year?

Why not, say, two years?

The Legal Genealogist has no real clue.

I mean, it’s perfectly reasonable to set some time frame within which things have to be done or have to happen. There has to be an end point — some fixed time — so people know what to expect. In the law, these are called limitations periods, and you’ll often see a reference to a statute of limitations: a law “prescribing limitations to the right of action on certain described causes of action; that is, declaring that no suit shall be maintained on such causes of action unless brought within a specified period after the right accrued.”6

And the time period itself is, or at least was, perfectly reasonable when it was originally fixed hundreds of years ago. When the common law was developing, for example, medical science was in its infancy and being sure that a death was due to this wound and not that illness was practically impossible after some time had passed. So the year-and-a-day murder rule was followed, though it’s largely been abolished today when cause of death is so much easier to determine.7

But why a year and a day?

One modern legal dictionary says the term meant “from any date until the same date in the following year, e.g. from January 1 to January 1 of the following year” and “arose because a year from January 1 would traditionally run through December 31, not January 1.”8 That’s not very helpful, really.

In one non-legal dictionary, the Collins English Dictionary, it says that it’s “a period fixed by law to ensure the completion of a full year.”9 That’s not much better.

The closest I can come to a real explanation is this one: “The time span of a year and a day … makes it clear that the time is precise; ‘a year’ is sometimes used to mean approximately a year, but a year and a day makes it clear that the exact time is indicated.”10

And that, you will find, appears in an utterly unexpected source, a wiki called TV Tropes. A website that describes itself as “a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction,” and where tropes are described as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.”11

Is it right? I dunno. But it makes perfect sense to me. A common understanding, of a common law concept, understood well enough that we can reasonably rely on it.

And as a working theory, I’m going with it.


  1. See Charles Petersdorff, A Practical and Elementary Abridgment … and … Treatise on … the Common Law, 15 vols. (New York: W.R.H. Treadway & Gold & Hanks, 1832), 15:356; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 29 July 2015).
  2. J. Tregoning, The Laws of the Stannaries of Cornwall… (London: p.p., 1808), 45; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 29 July 2015).
  3. See Nathan Dane, A General Abridgment and Digest of American Law, 8 vols. (Boston: Cummings, Hilliard & Co., 1824), 7:121; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 29 July 2015).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1251, “Year and Day.”
  5. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society ( : accessed 29 July 2015), “Year and Day.”
  6. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 1122, “statute of limitations.”
  7. See generally the discussion of the rule and its abolition in Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 451 (2001), where the Supreme Court upheld Tennessee’s retroactive abolition of the rule.
  8. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 30 July 2015), “Year and a day.”
  9. Collins English Dictionary ( : accessed 30 July 2015), “year and a day.”
  10. TV Tropes Wiki (, “Year and a day,” rev. 26 June 2015.
  11. Home Page, TV Tropes ( : accessed 30 July 2015).
Posted in Legal definitions | 13 Comments

Last chance to speak out

You may have read, earlier this week, that the Arizona State Library’s genealogy collection is under major and imminent threat of being lost.

AZ.flagThe Legal Genealogist reported on Monday that: “Unless something changes — and fast — the Arizona State Library Genealogy Collection — a vast collection of more than 20,000 volumes, many of them irreplaceable — is about to be lost to public access.”1

The genealogical community was asked to step in and speak out on behalf of this collection, by emailing Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan (, Arizona State Librarian Joan Clark (, Digital Content Director Laura Stone (< This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. >), and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (Contact Governor Ducey), to let them know how important the collection is nationally as well as to the people of Arizona.

If you did, you may have gotten a response assuring you that nothing really was going to be lost, that the collection was just being moved, and that genealogical access would continue in a new location — business as usual.

And if you believed that, I have a bridge to sell you.

Please go to this link — an article in the Arizona Republic by staff writer Mary Jo Pitzi. Read what’s really going to happen to this collection:

a small portion of the 20,000-item collection will open to the public at the Genealogy Center at the Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building. … The new center will have fewer tangible materials than the current collection. Most of the new Genealogy Center will consist of online databases available for free to the public at three computer terminals. The library staff is moving the most-used reference books, such as a collection of volumes on Mayflower families and materials covering territorial days. But the bulk of the items now readily available in the 77-year-old library will be either placed in archival storage, offered to outside groups or otherwise disposed of2

Read that last sentence again, and tell me this is a good thing for Arizona.

The move is scheduled for tomorrow.


July 31st.

If you care, if you want to be heard, today is the day to act.

This is literally a “speak now or forever hold your peace” moment for this collection.

Again, you can email Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan (, Arizona State Librarian Joan Clark (, Digital Content Director Laura Stone (< This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. >), and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (Contact Governor Ducey), to let them know how important the collection is nationally as well as to the people of Arizona.

But do it today.



  1. Judy G. Russell, “Raising Arizona,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 July 2015 ( : accessed 30 July 2015).
  2. Mary Jo Pitzi, “Researchers lament Arizona genealogy library’s sudden downsizing, relocation,” The Arizona Republic, posted 29 July 2015 ( : accessed 30 July 2015).
Posted in Records Access | 17 Comments

SSN follow-ups

Yesterday’s post about Social Security numbers brought in a flurry of information tidbits and additional questions… all of which are too good to leave in the comments section.


The tidbits.

First, from Ancestry‘s Chad R. Milliner, the tidbit that — starting in 2011 — new Social Security numbers (SSNs) began to be randomized so that the first three digits of new SSNs issued after 25 June 2011 won’t tell you where the person applied for or was living when the SSN was issued. Chad refers us all to the Social Security Administration website and its explanation of Social Security Number randomization there.1 Pity the poor 22nd century genealogist…

Second, from Israel Pickholtz, the tidbit that the Social Security Bulletin published a brief explanation of what the numbers meant — with a useful chart of what the first three digits used to mean — in 1982.2 He published a link to it on his blog recently.

And then the questions… mostly from a new-found cousin-by-marriage Ruth Cattles Cottrell,3 who is clearly having some trouble finding one or more Social Security records that she’d like to find — and might expect to find.

• “During the first 20 years (@1936-@1956) were there groups of people that were excluded from signing up or drawing benefits such as women who never held formal jobs? Was signup perhaps limited only to males who held formal jobs? Or to people who filed tax returns?”

Yup, there were loads of folks who didn’t have to register and didn’t qualify for benefits: “the original Social Security Act had excluded some types of employment from coverage, such as agricultural workers, domestic servants, casual labor, maritime workers, government employees, and the employees of philanthropic, educational, and similar institutions. The self-employed were also excluded from coverage. Seventy years ago, these exempt workers comprised about 40 percent of the working population.”4 Under the law, “Initially, only employees working in covered employment and aged 64 or younger were eligible to obtain an SSN.”5

Eligibility and benefits expanded steadily over the years. In 1939, for example, wives and widows over age 65 and children under age 16 began to be eligible to receive dependent benefits.6 In 1950, the program covered “regularly employed farm and domestic workers, self-employed workers (except farmers and professionals), federal civilian employees not under a federal civil service retirement system (e.g., temporary employees), Americans employed outside the United States by American employers, and workers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Not-for-profit organizations could elect coverage for their employees (except ministers). State and local governments could elect coverage for their employees not under public employee retirement systems.”7 Amendments in 1954 expanded coverage to include “self-employed farmers, most professional self-employed workers, and most homeworkers.”8

• “When was a SS# required to file a federal tax return?”

The Internal Revenue Service began using the SSN for federal tax reporting in 1962.9

• “Why would there be no record of a man who was @66 years old in 1936 who died in 1947 ever having a SS#?”

The dates and categories set out above pretty much explain it. The system was intended to cover employees under age 64, and Ruth’s guy was older than that. Chances are pretty good, unless he held regular paid employment as an older man and decided to register anyway, that he wasn’t covered, never received benefits — and never got any SSN.

• “And lastly, any idea whether the database just released” — the Ancestry database of “U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007” — “is complete or is there more to come?”

Great question — and one for which I have no clue as to the answer. Ancestry‘s source information is pretty sketchy, simply citing as original data “Social Security Applications and Claims, 1936-2007.” There are clearly fewer overall records here than in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) — roughly 49 million, or about half the number in the SSDI — but then there are also some folks in this index who aren’t in the SSDI. So it’s worth checking both — and hoping for more down the road.


Image: Modified from Wikimedia Commons.

  1. See “Social Security Number Randomization,” Social Security Administration ( : accessed 28 July 2015).
  2. Meaning of the Social Security Number,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 45 No. 11, 1982); PDF version, Social Security Administration ( : accessed 29 July 2015).
  3. See Judy G. Russell, “The unexpected cousin,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Sep 2014 ( : accessed 28 July 2015).
  4. Carolyn Puckett, “The Story of the Social Security Number,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 69 No. 2, 2009; online version, Social Security Administration ( : accessed 27 July 2015).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Geoffrey Kollmann, “Social Security: Summary of Major Changes in the Cash Benefits Program” (2000), Legislative History, Social Security Administration ( : accessed 28 July 2015).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Puckett, “The Story of the Social Security Number,” Exhibit 2, “Legislated and regulatory requirements for using Social Security numbers (SSNs), 1943–2008.”
Posted in General, Resources | 13 Comments

A timely question about getting the SSN

Reader Amy Jacobsen asks a great question that just happens to be very timely.

“I am having trouble understanding my Grandmother’s Social Security number on her death certificate,” she writes. “I would like to know the best way to get a copy of her Social Security number so I can read it better.”

Social_security_cardIt’s a great question because it’s a question a lot of us might have: how do we get a Social Security number of a parent, or grand parent, or great grandparent?

And it’s timely because there’s a new resource available that might help.

Let’s start with the basics.

The Social Security system began during the Great Depression, and the Social Security number (SSN) was created then — in 1936 — to help track the earnings histories of workers. By roughly 2008, more than 450 million SSNs had been issued.1

The numbers are in part geographic: until 1973, the first three digits were assigned based on the state where the person applied for the number for the very first time; since 1973, those first three digits are based on the zip code of the mailing address used in the application.2

And if you’re the kind of history geek that The Legal Genealogist is, you may want to know that the lowest possible SSN ever issued was 001-01-0001, and it was issued on 24 November 1936 to Grace D. Owen of Concord, New Hampshire.3

From 1936 to 1971, absolutely no proof of identity was required from anyone applying for a number. It was simply assigned based on what the person said. In 1971, evidence of identity was required; in 1972, age, identity and citizenship status had to be proved; more requirements have been added over time.4

Now we all know, as the Social Security Administration says, that the purpose of the number was and is to track worker earnings5 — but that it’s also been used for almost every conceivable other purpose to help identify and distinguish people. Which makes it amazingly useful to genealogists — a simple way to tell this John Smith from that John Smith.

So… where can we find these numbers for our deceased family members?

First, look through our family papers. It’s likely that we’ll find the SSN all over the place, and we may even find our loved one’s original Social Security card. It’s sure worth checking there first, before any other option.

Second, for some of our family members who died before March of 2014, we can check the various sources online for the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). That includes the versions of the SSDI on, at and at, among others. (Check Cyndi’s List for a list of possible online sources.)

The SSDI doesn’t include everybody who ever had a number, and because of changes in federal law won’t include anyone who died after March 2014 until three full calendar years after the death.6 And some online sources won’t include the SSN for anyone who died within the last 10 years.

Even with those limitations, it’s still a good place to look, entering as much information as we have about a family member into the various search fields.

Third — and here’s the timely part, at least for Ancestry subscribers — there’s a new index that just came online recently at Ancestry. It’s called the “U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007.” It too won’t include the actual SSN of anyone who died within the last 10 years, but the index (according to its description on Ancestry) “picks up where the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) leaves off by providing more details than those included in the SSDI.”

Finally, you can file a request with the Social Security Administration itself for a copy of the person’s original application for the SSN (called the SS-5 form) as long as the person died more than three years ago. Because of that change in the law, the SSA won’t provide any information for anyone until three full calendar years have passed since the death.

You will need to include every bit of information you have about the person, pay the extra fee ($29 without the SSN, as opposed to $27 with the SSN) — and I’d suggest you make the request on paper, not online, because of the SSA’s privacy rules.7

And once you get any SSN, for anyone, at any time, don’t forget the privacy issues here: SSNs are used today to identify living people, and we should never ever ever post or share any SSN online or in email or anywhere else where it could possibly be misused. A little common sense, a little caution… always the way to go.


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Carolyn Puckett, “The Story of the Social Security Number,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 69 No. 2, 2009; online version, Social Security Administration ( : accessed 27 July 2015).
  2. Kimberly Powell, “Social Security Number Allocations by Location,” Genealogy ( : accessed 27 July 2015).
  3. “The First Social Security Number and the Lowest Number,” Social Security Administration ( : accessed 27 July 2015).
  4. Puckett, “The Story of the Social Security Number,” Exhibit 1, Changes in Social Security card evidence requirements, 1936–2008.
  5. Ibid.
  6. See generally Judy G. Russell, “SSDI access now limited,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Dec 2013 ( : accessed 27 July 2015). Also, ibid., “SSDI: The fat lady sings,” posted 19 Dec 2013.
  7. See generally ibid., “Ordering the SS-5,” posted 31 May 2013.
Posted in Records Access, Resources, SSDI | 18 Comments

The consciousness of its Secretary of State, at least

Another major genealogical collection is under major and imminent threat of being lost — this time in Arizona.

AZ.flagUnless something changes — and fast — the Arizona State Library Genealogy Collection — a vast collection of more than 200,000 volumes (correction: 20,000), many of them irreplaceable — is about to be lost to public access.

So our help is being sought in educating Arizona officials, and particularly the Secretary of State there, as to the value of maintaining this priceless resource.

Here’s a description of this amazing collection from Daniela Moneta, former Arizona State Library Genealogy Librarian:

The Genealogy Collection started when Arizona was made a Territory by President Lincoln on Valentine’s Day in 1863. The Governor of the new territory was assigned to purchase books for the Territorial Collection. This is when many of the genealogy books were purchased. These books were sent by buckboard to the new capitol in Prescott. The Territorial Collection moved to Tucson, back to Prescott, and eventually ended up in Phoenix where it is today. The collection built steadily from then on to include sets of the colonial records from all states. The largest collection of genealogy books in the Arizona Genealogy Collection are for Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, etc. The Arizona books in the collection are the most complete in the country and available for reference by mail from the Genealogy staff. Many of these books still have the Arizona Territorial stamp in them. The collection is now over 200,000 volumes (correction: 20,000 volumes) that the people of Arizona and people from other states use to do their genealogy.

And now here’s what’s going on:

The Secretary of State of Arizona, who oversees the State Library, wants the space now occupied by the genealogy collection for other uses. Under the misguided notion that everything genealogists really need to use is online, the original plan was to simply close the collection. Pushback from the genealogical community has resulted in a plan to move the collection to the State Archives.

The hitch, of course, is that the State Archives doesn’t have room to make this 200,000+-volume collection accessible to the public. If this move goes forward — and it could be as early as this Friday, July 31st — the collection will most likely end up in storage … and ultimately piecemealed out or lost forever.

The Arizona genealogical community asks for our help, in emailing Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan (, Arizona State Librarian Joan Clark (, Digital Content Director Laura Stone (< This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. >), and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (Contact Governor Ducey), to let them know how important the collection is nationally as well as to the people of Arizona.

If you live in Arizona, your voice is particularly important, since politicians listen to constituents a lot more than they do to those they consider outsiders.

But if you have roots in Arizona, your voice is almost as important: tell them how valuable it is to have a collection like this to attract tourists and others — like you — who’ll spend money there!

And if you have ever used the collection, for any reason, tell them how important it is to maintain this priceless resource.

No, Ms. Secretary of State, it’s not all online. We need the books. Arizonans deserve to have the books. Keep the books, and keep them accessible.

Please speak out, and help save the Arizona State Genealogy Library!

Posted in General | 22 Comments

Not happy with the AncestryDNA deal?

The announcement came in just about a week ago, that AncestryDNA had finally begun to do what The Legal Genealogist and many others have long expected it would do: monetize its huge and fast-growing DNA database.


The press release, entitled “AncestryDNA and Calico to Research the Genetics of Human Lifespan,” was issued July 21st, and announced that:

AncestryDNA, an industry leader in consumer genetics, and Calico, a company focused on longevity research and therapeutics, today announced an effort to investigate human heredity of lifespan. Together, they will evaluate anonymized data from millions of public family trees and a growing database of over one million genetic samples. Financial terms have not been disclosed.

AncestryDNA and Calico will work together to analyze and investigate the role of genetics and its influences in families experiencing unusual longevity using Ancestry’s proprietary databases, tools and algorithms. Calico will then focus its efforts to develop and commercialize any potential therapeutics that emerge from the analysis.

“On the heels of our AncestryHealth launch and our one million genotyped customers milestone for AncestryDNA, we’re excited to announce this collaboration with Calico to research and develop life changing solutions,” said Ken Chahine, Executive Vice President and Head of DNA and Health. “We have laid the groundwork for this effort through the combination of an unmatched family history database, one of the fastest growing genetic databases, and a strong and talented team of computer scientists and professional genealogists.”1

And then came the paragraph that broke the bank for me: “AncestryDNA can provide access to a unique combination of resources that will enable Calico to develop potentially groundbreaking therapeutic solutions. The extensive research period will identify common patterns in longevity and human heredity through pedigree data.”2

Pedigree data. Not genetic data. Family trees. Not just my genes and my SNPs and my quirks. But the genes and SNPs and quirks of those who may be linked to my tree. People whose data I may have entered. People who didn’t ever think that their history, their lives, their predilections towards specific conditions might be disclosed.

Now — to be fair — AncestryDNA has disclosed in very plain very simple English from the outset that anyone who gives consent for AncestryDNA to use data in its research studies is consenting to the gathering and use of every bit of data Ancestry has on us, including “genealogical pedigrees, historical records, surveys, family health data, medical and health records, genetic information, and other information…”3

And in response to the question “What information will be collected?”, the Informed Consent form makes it abundantly clear:

The Project will collect Information (as defined above) consisting of genealogical, genetic, and health information. “Genealogical information” is your pedigree, ethnicity, family history, and other information about you and your family that you provide, gleaned from documents and information on’s family of websites and other locations, or is otherwise publicly available. “Genetic information” is your genotype that is discovered when AncestryDNA processes your saliva, is otherwise provided by you, or is gathered by us with your consent. Genetic information is in your DNA, and it is what makes you different from everyone else. DNA controls things like the color of your hair or eyes and might make you more likely to get certain diseases or affect whether a drug helps you and/or gives you side effects. “Health information” is health-related information provided by you (if you choose to use the AncestryHealth tools and agree by accepting the Informed Consent) such as responses to our family health questionnaire(s), medical conditions, diseases, personal traits, and other information, medical records and electronic health records you either upload or provide consent for our gathering; documents on’s family of websites and other locations; and/or information available via publicly available documents.4

So nothing has been hidden in terms of what the consent form covers. Opt in to this research, and you’re giving AncestryDNA about as close to carte blanche to collect intensely personal information about you — and about your family members — as it’s possible to construct legally.

What hasn’t been so clear is that you don’t have to agree to participate in the research project in order to test with AncestryDNA. Here’s what the essential part of the web page looks like today to activate an AncestryDNA test kit:


So you can see that the checkbox for opting-in to the research project appears sandwiched in between a box most people want to check — to get their ethnicity percentages — and a box all people have to check — to accept the terms and conditions.

Nowhere on that page does it say in plain terms that you don’t have to check that box. For the longest time that page didn’t even distinguish with the asterisk between required agreements and optional agreements. And even now, nowhere on that page does it say what information you’re consenting to disclose if you do check that box.

Yes, we all should know better than to simply click a checkbox. Yes, AncestryDNA has a hot link to click through and actually read the Informed Consent document and the terms and conditions. Yes, we should read every word.

And the simple reality is, most of us don’t bother reading all this stuff. Most of us don’t bother reading any of it. We just click click click.

So when AncestryDNA says that many hundreds of thousands of its more than 1 million test takers have agreed to participate in the research study, I don’t believe for one minute that more than a tiny fraction knew that (a) they didn’t have to agree and (b) if they did agree, they were agreeing to disclose every last jot and tittle of their family history.

For those who did, terrific! If you’re on the cutting edge of science and want to contribute to all studies everywhere and you know your family is good with this, checking that box was the right thing to do.

But for those of us who are discomfited by this commercialization of data that doesn’t belong exclusively to us… what do we do? What can we do?

We can opt out.

The AncestryDNA informed consent agreement isn’t a sign-it-once-and-you’re-stuck-forever deal. If you checked that checkbox and are uncomfortable with the idea that your family tree data could be disclosed to a commercial company, even with identifying names and the like removed, you can change your mind:

You can decide not to be in this Project and, at any time, you may choose to withdraw some or all of the Information you provided by sending a request to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .5

That won’t retrieve any data that’s already been used for research before you opt out, and “any study results or findings that have been published prior to this date cannot be reversed, undone, or withdrawn.”6

Should you opt out? That’s up to you. You’re the only one who can decide how you feel about the idea of a commercial company having access to your family tree data, even anonymized data.

I can only tell you that, the more I thought about it, the more I thought about the launch of AncestryHealth (collecting family health data linked to family trees), the more I thought about the kind of information that could be collected about other members of my family who never personally consented — who may not even know there’s such a thing as — I felt that I’d been pushed beyond my comfort zone.

I have opted out.


  1. Ancestry, “AncestryDNA and Calico to Research the Genetics of Human Lifespan,” 21 July 2015, Press Releases, ( : accessed 25 July 2015).
  2. Ibid.
  3. AncestryDNA Informed Consent, AncestryDNA ( : accessed 25 July 2015).
  4. Ibid., paragraph 2, “What information will be collected?”
  5. Ibid., paragraph 12, “How do you withdraw from this Project?”
  6. Ibid.
Posted in DNA | 84 Comments

A soul lost to a devastating illness

When the telephone rings at five o’clock in the morning, you know the news is not going to be good.

And that morning in June, 10 years ago, The Legal Genealogist‘s family had been expecting some bad news.

My mother’s oldest brother, my Uncle Billy, was born in 1919, and had been ailing for some time. He had had ups and downs, and more downs than ups there in 2005.

So when that phone rang, and when I heard a cousin’s voice on the other end of the line, I was sure that’s what she was going to tell me. That we had lost a member of our family.

And we surely had.

But not the family member we had been expecting to lose.

“We’ve lost Meredith,” my cousin said.


Laughing giggling dancing Meredith.

Caring daring questioning Meredith.

Whirling twirling grab-your-hand-and-pull-you-in Meredith.


First cousin once removed. Daughter of my cousin Kay. Sister of my cousin Barrett. Granddaughter of my Aunt Cladyne. An integral part of all of our lives.

A young woman full of promise. An honor graduate of North Carolina’s Guilford College. An avid environmentalist. An outspoken political activist.

A young woman I had spoken to not three weeks earlier to plan a whirlwind “come up to New York and we’ll do Broadway” visit.

A young woman just weeks away from her 30th birthday — the reason why we were planning that New York visit.

And … sigh … a young woman suffering from the clearly genetically-based depressive illness that has plagued my family for generations.

It has manifested in some of us as simple clinical depression, if anything about clinical depression can be described by so gentle a word as “simple.” In some of us, in more complex forms — bipolar disorder, or dissociative disorder with depressive symptoms.

We know it’s been in the family for several generations. My grandmother’s Uncle John was committed to the Texas State Asylum in 1884. He’s not the only one in the family we can trace this through, not the only one who spent time in hospitals because of it, not the only one to die because of its ravages.

Those of us who have felt its power don’t talk about it outside of the family. We understand, only too well, that it is a biological disease related to biochemical factors many of us have inherited. But we also understand, only too well, that we are, still today, living in a time when just the words “mental illness” are regarded as disqualifying. If you don’t believe that, you don’t remember Senator Thomas Eagleton…

But what we learned with Meredith is that those of us who have felt its power need to talk about it more — much more — at least inside of the family.

To understand its genetic origins.

To understand — and be able to watch for — its symptoms.

To understand its risks.

To understand that, sometimes, we will win against its power.

And to understand that, sometimes, no matter what we do, no matter what we try, no matter what anyone does… we will lose against its power.

The way we lost Meredith.


Laughing giggling dancing Meredith.

Caring daring questioning Meredith.

Whirling twirling grab-your-hand-and-pull-you-in Meredith.


Who would have been 40 years old yesterday.


Posted in My family | 59 Comments