Not yet…

AncestryDNA launched its new feature, New Ancestor Discoveries, this week, and the pixels had barely started showing up on our screens before the outcry began.

The theory here is that AncestryDNA can take your DNA and compare it to the DNA of other people in the database and, based on the DNA alone, identify at least some of your ancestors.

AncestryDNA is actually promising just that:

Now with the easy-to-use AncestryDNA test, customers will have the unique ability to find their ancestors, who lived hundreds of years ago, using just their DNA. Only possible through the groundbreaking work of the AncestryDNA science team, New Ancestor Discoveries is a technical innovation that combines the latest in genetic science, new patent-pending algorithms, and access to AncestryDNA’s extensive database to push the boundaries of human genetics, and help people find ancestors from their past using just a DNA test, no genealogy research required.

“This is the biggest advancement in family history since we introduced our Hint feature, the Ancestry shaky leaf, which scours billions of historical records to automatically find new information about your family,” said Tim Sullivan CEO of Ancestry. “Now, through a simple DNA test, AncestryDNA is fundamentally revolutionizing the way to discover your family history, transforming the experience by making it faster and easier to go further into your family’s past, and instantly discover new ancestors you never knew you had.”

New Ancestor Discoveries are revealed through a unique combination of AncestryDNA results and the millions of family trees shared by Ancestry members. First, living cousins of each AncestryDNA member are found and organized into family networks, called DNA Circles, which bring together groups of people who are genetically related to the same ancestor. When a new AncestryDNA customer is connected into that DNA Circle, it’s likely they also share that same ancestor. As a result, it is now possible to simply take the AncestryDNA test and see the name of an ancestor from your family’s past appear in your DNA results.

“It is effectively a shortcut through time — you take the test today and we tell you who your ancestors were, for example, in the 1700s. You don’t need to research records or build a family tree — AncestryDNA now transports you to the past,” said Dr. Ken Chahine, SVP and GM of AncestryDNA. “It’s a combination of three things that allowed us to achieve this breakthrough innovation: 1) millions of family trees created by Ancestry members, 2) the fastest growing genetic database in the world, currently with more than 800,000 genotyped members and 3) a dedicated team of scientists who are pushing the boundaries of genetics and statistics to help people make family history discoveries in ways never before possible.”1

Um… let’s just say not so fast here.

Hello I Am Waiting words on a nametag sticker to illustrate bein

Because what’s really happening here is that you’re being connected to specific “ancestors” by being linked to people who’ve tested with AncestryDNA and who’ve put their family trees online. The end result is that you’re being linked to folks who may or may not be descended from the same people you’re descended from at all. They may be linked to some collateral relatives of yours; they may be related to you in a different line of descent altogether that has nothing to do with the new “ancestor” who’s been “discovered.”

Case after case has already been posted where the new ancestor being discovered isn’t — cannot possibly be — an ancestor at all.2 Some collateral relative, maybe. Ancestor, no.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not jumping on the “go after AncestryDNA with a hatchet” bandwagon here. What AncestryDNA is trying to do is go after what is absolutely the Holy Grail of genetic genealogy: it’s trying to figure out how to identify ancestral lines using using combined DNA and family tree data on a macro scale using the computational power of modern technology.

If we ever could come up with a combination of carefully-analyzed DNA data and carefully-documented paper-trail genealogical evidence, we would have the best of all possible genealogical tools right at our fingertips. At that point, someone who tested and who matched in a scientifically and genealogically validated way to that documented DNA tree might very well discover new ancestors.

As any genealogist who’s ever tried to use DNA in family research can attest, even trying to do this matching of DNA data and genealogical evidence on the micro scale of a single family is not an easy task. It may turn out that, even with the best computers and scientific minds of the 21st century, doing it on the bigger scale isn’t possible.

But we can’t find that out if we don’t start trying.

So I applaud AncestryDNA for trying.

Where I part ways with AncestryDNA is over the hype — those promises made in the advertising quoted above.

Because we don’t yet have a databank of carefully-documented paper-trail genealogical evidence to link DNA results to, the notion that “people (can) find ancestors from their past using just a DNA test, no genealogy research required” or that you “don’t need to research records or build a family tree” is — to put it mildly — simply patently absurd.

Until we have that databank of carefully-documented paper-trail genealogical evidence, even if we were 100% sure of the genetic link between people who’ve tested, we’d still need to confirm the specific line shared with any match by a combination of traditional paper-trail research and DNA triangulation.

Unless we have that databank of carefully-documented paper-trail genealogical evidence, call me still waiting.


  1. AncestryDNA Launches Revolutionary New Technology to Power New Ancestor Discoveries: Latest Breakthrough in Consumer Genetics Connects People to Ancestors Dating Back to the 1700s Using Just Their DNA,” News Room,, posted 2 Apr 2015 ( : accessed 4 Apr 2015).
  2. See e.g. Roberta Estes, “Ancestry Gave Me A New DNA Ancestor – And It’s Wrong,” DNAeXplained, posted 3 Apr 2015 ( : accessed 4 Apr 2015). Also, Elizabeth Wilson Ballard, “AncestryDNA Has Now Thoroughly Lost Its Mind,” Diggin’ Up Graves, posted 2 Apr 2015 ( : accessed 4 Apr 2015).
Posted in DNA | 44 Comments

How do the errors grow?

So… there it is, big and bold as brass in The Legal Genealogist‘s database.

Baker, Mary Almira.

embarrassedBorn 2 April 1854 in Iowa to David Davenport Baker and his wife (and half-first-cousin) Mary (Baker) Baker.

Nicely and neatly attributed to a book of family lore that I know darned good and well is chock full of a combination of great information and abymsal errors.1

You’d have thought that perhaps I’d have checked and doublechecked and redoublechecked anything from that book.

You’d have thought that I’d have looked at all the records.

And I thought I had done that before entering that information.

Baker, Mary Almira.

Except that that’s not what the census records say.

In 1860, the family was enumerated in Kickapoo, Leavenworth County, Kansas. Father, mother and seven children. David was shown as a 41-year-old farmer, born in Indiana; Mary was shown as age 51, also born in Indiana. William was shown as age 19, born in Illinois; John as age 18, born in Kansas; and the younger children — Martin, age 16; Susan, age 15; Nancy, age 10; James, age 9; and Martha, age 6 — were shown as born in North Carolina.2

Um… Martha, age 6?

Can’t be right. And, after all, look at all those other mistakes. David and Mary were born in North Carolina where they were married in 1838.3 Most of the kids should have been born in North Carolina or Kentucky, where the family was in 1850.4 They never lived in Indiana or Illinois, weren’t in Kansas in time for John to be born there, and were gone from North Carolina before the youngest were born.

So we’ll just forget that.

In 1865, the Bakers were still in Kansas, enumerated on the state census that year. David age 45, Mary age 59. Children still living at home were John F., 22; Martin A., 21, a soldier in Company A of the 11th Regiment; Nancy, 15; James, 14; and Martha, 11.5

Um… Martha, age 11?


Then in 1870, the family was in Walnut Township, Atchison County, Kansas. David was shown as age 52, a farmer born North Carolina; Mary was 64, born North Carolina. Only two children at home now: James, 18, born Kentucky; and Martha, age 16, born Iowa.6

Um… Martha, age 16?


So… back to the book of family lore to see where in the world the author got the idea that her name was Mary.

And you know what I found, right?

Nicely and neatly recorded with only one tiny little typo?

“Mattha Almira Baker.”7


And we wonder sometimes how these errors creep into family history…

Excuse me, please… I have some database errors to correct.


  1. Elma W. Baker, The Rugged Trail, Vol. II (Dallas, Texas : Metcalf Printing, 1973).
  2. 1860 U.S. census, Leavenworth County, Kansas, Kickapoo, population schedule, p. 236 (penned), dwelling 2264, family 1964, David D. Baker household; digital image, ( : accessed 3 Apr 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 350.
  3. Macon County, North Carolina, Marriage Bond, 1838, David Baker to Mary Baker; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  4. 1850 U.S. census, Pulaski County, Kentucky, population schedule, p. 96 (stamped), dwelling/family 318, David Baker household; digital image, ( : accessed 3 Apr 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 217.
  5. 1865 Kansas State Census, Leavenworth County, Kansas, 3rd Ward, population schedule, p. 89 (penned), dwelling 407, family 641, David D. Baker household; digital image, ( : accessed 3 Apr 2015); citing Kansas State Historical Society; Topeka, Kansas; 1865 Kansas Territory Census; Roll 5.
  6. 1870 U.S. census, Atchison County, Kansas, Walnut Twp., population schedule, p. 354(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 29, D D Baker household; digital image, ( : accessed 3 Apr 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 428.
  7. Baker, The Rugged Trail, Vol. II, at 73.
Posted in My family | 7 Comments

150 years ago today

Let us all stop at some point in our busy lives today for a moment of silence.

Today, 3 April 2015, marks the 150th anniversary of the fall of Richmond.

The account of the hours from the time Jefferson Davis ordered the evacuation of the Confederate government from the City of Richmond on the morning of Sunday, 2 April 1865, to the moment in the early morning hours of Monday, 3 April 1865, when the Union troops entered the city, is chilling:

By early spring 1865 the citizens of Richmond had become used to the threat of capture by the Federal army whose soldiers the Richmond newspapers described with great imagination as the vilest of humanity. Richmond had endured some frighteningly close chances, and its inhabitants had grown accustomed to the sound of artillery fire from just ten miles outside the city. Their faith in Robert E. Lee was so complete that they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he would never allow Richmond to be taken. …


Lee had always felt constrained by the duty to defend the Confederate capital. But abandoning it, he knew he could move more freely. So when General Philip Sheridan’s troops overran Confederate defenses at Five Forks on Saturday April 1, Lee made the decision to abandon the Petersburg defenses and, in doing so, to abandon Richmond.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had discussed the probability of quitting Richmond with Lee a month earlier, and he had already sent his wife and family out of the city. Despite these precautions, Davis still believed Lee could stave off disaster.

I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.
–General Lee’s telegram to President Jefferson Davis

Davis read General Lee’s telegram while attending Sunday morning church service. He immediately issued the first orders for the Confederate government’s evacuation. Word spread across the city. Lawley reports, “…quickly from mouth to mouth flew the sad tidings that in a few hours Richmond’s long and gallant resistance would be over.” Officially, the citizens of Richmond did not hear anything for hours, but they could not help but notice the fires in front of the government offices as official documents burned. …

All through the night preparations for fleeing from the city kept the Richmonders busy. When the last Confederate soldiers rode across the pontoon bridge to catch up with Lee’s troops, those left behind believed they would return soon, to take the city back from the Yankees. In the city small fires of documents still burned. …

The fires, though, grew out of control, burning the center of the city …

Embers from the street fires of official papers and from the paper torches used by vandals drifted. The wind picked up. Another building caught fire. The business district caught fire. …

The Union cavalry entered town. … Union General Godfrey Weitzel … ordered his troops to put out the fire. The city’s two fire engines worked, bucket brigades were formed. Threatened buildings were pulled down to create firebreaks. Five hours later the wind finally shifted, and they began to bring it under control. All or part of at least 54 blocks were destroyed, according to Furgurson. Weitzel wrote “The rebel capitol, fired by men placed in it to defend it, was saved from total destruction by soldiers of the United States, who had taken possession.” And the city rested.1

Now The Legal Genealogist is way too much of a Yankee to be mourning the impending end of the Confederacy that the fall of Richmond foretold. My Texas-born-and-bred grandfather referred to this Colorado-born grandchild as a “damnyankee” — one word, of course — for my north-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line attitudes.

It’s just that I am too much of a genealogist — and way too much of a descendant of Virginians — not to be mourning what we lost in those fire.

The loss of all those records.

You see, so many Virginia counties believed their courthouses would be burned by the Yankees as battle after battle was fought on the soil of the Old Dominion. So to preserve and protect the records so near and dear to our genealogical hearts — deed books, will books, court minutes, vital records and more, the counties carefully boxed them up and sent them — for safekeeping — to the city they were sure would never fall.

They sent them to Richmond.2

Where, during that terrible 24 hours before the city officially fell to the Yankees, the Confederate Government set some records on fire — and the spread of the fire took out the rest.

Records loss from the Richmond fire is simply staggering, among them some or all of the records of:

• Elizabeth City County
• Gloucester County
• Henrico County
• Hanover County
• James City County
• Mathews County
• New Kent County
• Richmond City
• Warwick County3

So let’s have a moment of silence today for the fall of the City of Richmond.

And the catastrophic loss of colonial and early statehood records that terrible time, 150 years ago today.


Image: “The fall of Richmond Va. on the night of April 2nd” (New York: Currier & Ives, c1865); Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress ( : accessed 2 Apr 2015).

  1. The Fall of Richmond, Virginia,” Civil War Trust ( : accessed 2 April 2015) (emphasis added).
  2. Carol McGinnis, Virginia Genealogy: Sources and Resources (Baltimore, Md. : Genealogical Publ. Co., 1993), 155.
  3. Lost Records Localities: Counties and Cities with Missing Records,” Library of Virginia ( : accessed 2 Apr 2015).
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

A rare turn of phrase

The Legal Genealogist often joins the rest of the genealogical community in whining about legal Latin.

GreekBut the Romans are not the only ones we have to blame for obscure language in legal documents we come across.

And sometimes what we come across just leaves us shaking our heads.

A case in point comes from an opinion of the United States Supreme Court.

The case — Kungys v. United States1 — is an interesting case, all by itself. It involved an attempt by the government to denaturalize — take away the naturalized citizenship — of a man accused of participating in World War II atrocities and of lying in his initial papers seeking to come to the United States from Europe after the war.

The government advanced three reasons at the trial court level why this naturalized citizen, Juozas Kungys, should be stripped of his citizenship: first, his participation in the atrocities; second, that he had made false statements about when and where he was born, his wartime occupations, and wartime residence; and third, that he lack good moral character because of the lies.

There were all kinds of twists and turns in the case: the government failed to produce the kind of evidence the trial court could consider about the atrocity allegations; the trial court rejected the false statements claim because, it said, the kinds of false statements weren’t material, and since they weren’t material, they didn’t show bad moral character.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court about the atrocity allegations, but disagreed on the question of whether the false statements were material.

So when the case got to the Supreme Court, the whole thing came down to one real point: what did the term “material” mean in this context?

And that’s where the oddball case in point came in.

The opinion in Kungys v. United States, authored for the majority by Justice Antonin Scalia, solemnly concluded that: “The term ‘material’ in (the immigration statute) is not a hapax legomenon.”


What the heck is a “hapax legomenon”?2

I’ll tell you right now, don’t bother looking in the Latin-to-English dictionaries, because it isn’t a Latin-derived term. It’s Greek.

And don’t bother looking in the law dictionaries, either: the term isn’t there.

Np, you’re going to have to go to the regular dictionaries for this one, and there you’ll find that it’s a “word or form occurring only once in a document or corpus,”3 or a “term of which only one instance of use is recorded.”4

So what Justice Scalia was saying was that the word was used in many parts of the law, and had a generally known meaning that shouldn’t be monkeyed with in the context of the immigration laws.

He chose to do it with a term that nobody else was likely to understand without looking it up.

Because, you see, the term “hapax legomenon” is a hapax legomenon.


Even to this genealogist with a law degree, the language of the law is occasionally a mystery…

Oh, and by the way… Kungys voluntarily surrendered his citizenship to avoid deportation and died in the United States in 2009.5


  1. Kungys v. United States, 485 U.S. 759 (1988).
  2. Friend and fellow genealogist Vicki Wright suggested on Facebook that it sounded like a Harry Potter curse. Facebook, comment on J. Russell status by Vicki Wright, posted 31 Mar 2015.
  3. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 1 Apr 2015), “hapax legomenon.”
  4. Oxford Dictionaries Online ( : accessed 1 Apr 2015), “hapax legomenon.”
  5. See Wikipedia (, “List of denaturalized former citizens of the United States,” rev. 29 Mar 2015. See also Social Security Death Index, entry for Juozas Kungys (1913-2009), ( : accessed 1 Apr 2015).
Posted in Legal definitions | Leave a comment

Fare thee well, friend

Today, we are told, is the first day of the rest of our lives.

LouSzucsAnd The Legal Genealogist joins the rest of our community today in wishing the very best to one of our very best as she begins the rest of her life.

Today, you see, is the very first day that Loretto Dennis Szucs, known as Lou, will be officially retired from Ancestry, where she has served for nearly 30 years, most recently as Vice President of Community Relations.

And for every one of those years, Lou has been Ancestry’s best ambassador to the genealogical community — the very best that company has had to offer.

At the same time, she’s worked tirelessly, quietly, powerfully, to be the genealogical community’s best voice to the corporate types at Ancestry.

First and foremost a genealogist herself, Lou is the author or editor of books you and I use — or ought to be using — on a daily basis:

The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, with Sandra Luebking;1

Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records, with Matt Wright;2

Ellis Island: Tracing Your Family History through America’s Gateway;3

They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethic Origins;4

And The Legal Genealogist‘s favorite, with my German ancestors settling there in the Windy City, Chicago and Cook County Sources : A Genealogical and Historical Guide.5

For this work, and for so much more, she has been honored repeatedly, by the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors (ISFHWE) as the first recipient of the Myra Vanderpool Gormley Award of Merit, by the Utah Genealogical Society with its Silver Tray Award and as a Fellow of that Society, by the Federation of Genealogical Societies with its David S. Vogels Jr. Award, by the Illinois Genealogical Society, by the National Genealogical Society… by so many others.

And even all that isn’t enough to begin to say thank you for all Lou has done. So much of it behind the scenes, out of the limelight. She has been an archivist, a genealogical society leader, a spokesman for genealogists and to genealogists, at the same time she has been a wife and a mother and a good friend — a hero, in Megan Smolenyak’s words6 — to so many of us.

Thank you, Lou.

And fare thee well, friend, as you begin your journey today into the rest of your life.


Image: Juliana Szucs,

  1. Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors, Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006).
  2. Loretto Dennis Szucs and Matthew Wright, Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records (Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2002).
  3. Loretto Dennis Szucs, Ellis Island: Tracing Your Family History through America’s Gateway (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2000).
  4. Loretto Dennis Szucs, They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethic Origins (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998).
  5. Loretto Dennis Szucs, Chicago and Cook County Sources : A Genealogical and Historical Guide (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1986).
  6. See Megan Smolenyak, “Lou Szucs: Genealogical Hero,” Huffington Post Blog, posted 31 March 2015 ( : accessed 31 Mar 2015).
Posted in General | 2 Comments

The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

Some of the most important types of records we ever come across as genealogists are estate records. All the kinds of documents that get created when someone dies: wills, inventories, petitions for partition, and more.

And all kinds of terms get used in those documents that can be as confusing as all get out. And very little is more confusing than the concept of who gets what from a will.

Part of the problem is the use of terms like “children” and “issue” and “heirs.” And it gets even worse with the use of terms like “per capita” and “per stirpes.”

Though The Legal Genealogist has tackled this before,1 it’s a topic that keeps coming up, so let’s see if we can make sense of this.

Let’s say that John and Mary have three children, two boys and a girl — Adam, Brenda and Charlie. Adam and Charlie are crusty old bachelors who never marry. Brenda marries and has two children, a son Dan and a daughter Edna. By the time John and Mary pass on, Brenda has also died, so the living members of the family are Adam, Charlie, Dan and Edna. The family would look like this:

(Living persons in red)

Now let’s say John is the last of the parents to die, and he leaves a will written years before, when Brenda was still alive. How his estate gets split up among his four living descendants depends on the words that were used in the will.

He might have said he wanted his estate to go to his children. In the law, as in common every-day usage, that means Adam, Brenda and Charlie. The word “child” in the law of wills, descent and distribution “is used strictly as the correlative of ‘parent,’ and means a son or daughter considered as in relation with the father or mother.”2

Or he might have said he wanted his estate to go to his issue. Now that’s a little different. In the law of wills, descent and distribution, that means “all persons who have descended from a common ancestor,” so it’s “not only a child or children, but all other descendants in whatever degree.”3

Or he might have said he wanted his estate to go to his heirs. And that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The problem is that the word is usually used when there isn’t a will; heirs are those who “succeed…, by the rules of law, to an estate in lands, tenements, or hereditaments, upon the death of [an] ancestor, by descent and right of relationship.”4

It’s a pretty safe assumption that, unless he said something specific to indicate a different intent, John would have wanted his estate to be divided among all of his descendants. That’s the usual presumption in the law.5

But how should it be divided? That’s where those other terms come into play.

The term per capita means, literally, “by heads” and refers to individuals. And when it comes to an estate, “the persons legally entitled to take are said to take per capita when they claim, each in his own right.”6 It means the same thing when the term used is share and share alike — in equal shares or proportions.7

By contrast, the term per stirpes means “by roots or stocks” or “by representation” where “a class or group of distributees take the share which their stock (a deceased ancestor) would have been entitled to, taking thus by their right of representing such ancestor, and not as so many individuals; while other heirs, who stand in equal degree with such ancestor to the decedent, take each a share equal to his.”8

And if John didn’t use either of those terms or concepts, the law would usually look at the classes: children would be one class; grandchildren a second class. Those in each class would take per capita; those who took by representation of a higher class (Dan and Edna taking Brenda’s share) would take per stirpes.

So how does this work? Like this:

“And I leave my estate…” “to my children
per capita”
“to my issue
per capita”
“to my children/issue
per stirpes”
“to my heirs” “to my heirs
share and share alike”
Adam (living) one half one fourth one third probably 1/3 one fourth
Charlie (living) one half one fourth one third probably 1/3 one fourth
Dan and Edna, children of Brenda (dec’d) nothing Dan, one fourth
Edna, one fourth
Dan, one sixth
Edna, one sixth
Dan, prob. 1/6
Edna, prob. 1/6
Dan, one fourth
Edna, one fourth

There are exceptions, of course; sometimes unless it was clear that a deceased child’s children were deliberately excluded, even saying “to my children per capita” wouldn’t exclude the grandchildren. That’s a matter that could vary from state to state, and even today it’s often different between states and American law can differ from the rule in England and British commonwealth nations.

But this will get you started when you’re poking around in that 18th or 19th century will…


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Per capita, per stirpes,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 10 Sep 2012 ( : accessed 30 Mar 2015).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 200, “child.”
  3. Ibid., 645-646, “issue.”
  4. Ibid., 565, “heir.”
  5. See e.g. Cook v. Catlin, 25 Conn. 387, 390-392 (Conn. 1856).
  6. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 169, “capita”; ibid., 885, “per capita.”
  7. Ibid., 1089, “share and share alike.”
  8. Ibid., 887, “per stirpes.” That second word is pronounced stir’-pees.
Posted in Legal definitions | 13 Comments

A little piece of it, anyway

So… for those who like The Legal Genealogist have ancestors who passed through Oklahoma, it turns out there’s a way for us to own a little piece of Oklahoma.

A piece that we can absolutely use, in a reel way, for our own research.

And no, actually, that isn’t a typo.

You really can own a reel… or a digitized version of it, your choice.

OHC.newsI was out in Oklahoma City this past weekend for the spring seminar of the Oklahoma Genealogical Society. Great group of people and I can only hope the attendees had half as much fun as I had.

It was held in the absolutely gorgeous meeting room of the Oklahoma History Center, the combination museum and research library of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

And I had the great good fortune on Friday to have a tour of the collections of the Oklahoma History Center, guided by Laura Martin, Deputy Director of Research.

There aren’t enough words to describe the joy anybody with Oklahoma roots will experience in that facility. The sheer scope of the records dating well before statehood and continuing up to today is stunning.

From some of the very earliest extant records on the Indian tribes of Oklahoma (there are school records going back into the 1840s) to court and probate records to oral histories to a photographic collection covering just about every aspect of life in Oklahoma, the holdings are a researcher’s dream.

But then there are the newspapers.

Oh… the newspapers.

You see, one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Oklahoma Historical Society back in 1893 was the desire of the territorial newspaper publishers to preserve the newspapers they were putting out: the Society was actually founded by members of the Oklahoma Territory Press Association.1

As a result, there has been a concerted effort to obtain and preserve as many of Oklahoma’s newspapers as possible. The Oklahoma History Center holds somewhere in excess of 90 percent of all newspapers ever published in Oklahoma. Even before it became Oklahoma. Here’s the description of the newspaper collection from the website:

The Oklahoma Historical Society has served as the centralized repository for records dealing with the history of Oklahoma since before statehood. OHS has the largest collection of Oklahoma newspaper titles on microfilm. Titles date from 1819 to the present.

The newspaper collection consists of over 4,400 titles on approximately 33,000 reels of microfilm (of which 28,000 reels were produced in-house.) OHS has the oldest, largest, and most complete collection of newspapers available within the State. All microfilm is available for viewing, free of charge, at the OHS Research Center located in the Oklahoma History Center. OHS materials are non-circulating; we do not participate in the interlibrary loan program.2

That last sentence breaks your heart, doesn’t it? It’s all there… but you can’t get to it if you can’t get to Oklahoma City.

Except that you can.

First off, the Oklahoma History Center has digitized hundreds and hundreds of newspapers and, through its Gateway to Oklahoma History, has put hundreds of thousands of newspaper pages online. From the Altus Times-Democrat (1,193 files from 1903 to 1921) to the Yukon Sun (596 files from 1905 to 1922), what you need for your family history may already be online.

Second, if all you need is a single article from a single newspaper — say, an obituary — the Oklahoma History Center will retrieve it for you for a fee of $10 (you have to have the exact date — the research fee covers one search of one day of one newspaper). You can get more information through the Research Requests/Genealogy Orders & Fees page.

And between those two possibilities, you may just find what you’re looking for.

But what if you don’t?

What if what you really need is, say, the not-yet-digitized Frederick (OK) Free Press for the year 1903? Or the Frederick Weekly Enterprise of 1911-1914 (just to name two newspapers where I hope to find evidence of my own Oklahoma family members)?

What if you want to be able to read every copy of those newspapers during those years?

You can buy that reel of microfilm. Any reel of microfilm can be duplicated for a fee of $75, plus $5 shipping, through the Microfilm Orders page.

And for a little bit more — roughly $100 — the Oklahoma History Center will digitize it for you… and, if the original films are good enough, they’ll even make the digitized files word-searchable.

Now trust me — I get it — $100 isn’t exactly chump change and there may be four or five or six reels of microfilm that you really want.

But think about it for a minute. What would the airfare cost? Car rental? Meals? A single night in a motel on the outskirts of Oklahoma City — you don’t even want to think about the rates in the brand-new downtown hotels — will set you back the same thing as one of these.

It’s not as good as being there. Trust me on that. I’m already trying to figure out how to clear a week from my schedule to get back there, plant myself at one of the microfilm readers, and immerse myself in my family’s history.

But if life gets in the way, as it so often does, isn’t it nice to have options?


  1. About: History,” Oklahoma Historical Society ( : accessed 29 Mar 2015).
  2. Newspaper Archives,” Oklahoma Historical Society ( : accessed 29 Mar 2015).
Posted in General, Resources | 2 Comments

Why David and not Dorothy?

AncestryDNA has taken the position from the very beginning that individual users of its DNA product don’t need certain information.

We don’t, it contends, need to know what segments of DNA we might share with a person who is our match in the AncestryDNA system.

And we don’t, it contends, need to know who else in the AncestryDNA database we and a match might have in common.

AncestryDNA will tell us everything we need to know, it contends, by giving us DNA Circles.

compareDNA Circles, it tells us, “re-imagines what matching can do. It goes beyond finding a common ancestor with your DNA matches and can link you to additional AncestryDNA members with the same common ancestor thus creating a Circle of people who are all related.”1

We don’t need to have any of the information that explains the links between the people in the DNA Circles because, after all, AncestryDNA has “trained the computer to do the hard stuff like DNA matching, tree comparisons, and triangulation for you.”2

So why am I sitting here this morning, thoroughly frustrated and unable to figure out one simple question: how can a third cousin be in a DNA Circle for our both of our shared 3rd great grandparents and in a DNA Circle for our shared 4th great grandfather but not in a DNA Circle for our shared 4th great grandmother?

Our mutual line of descent is shown in the graphic above. Both of us have Martin Baker and Elizabeth Buchanan as our third great grandparents, and David Baker and Dorothy Wiseman as our fourth great grandparents, and both of us have all of them in our Ancestry family trees.

As for our shared fourth great grandmother, David’s Ancestry tree lists Dorothy as born 5 Feb 1765 probably in South Carolina and died 23 August 1855 in Bakersville NC. Her parents, he says, were William Wiseman and Mary Davenport.

My Ancestry tree lists Dorothy as born 5 Feb 1765 probably in South Carolina and died 23 August 1855 in Bakersville NC. Her parents, my tree says, were William Wiseman and Mary Davenport.

In other words, the tree data is exactly the same.

That sameness shows up in the DNA Circles for our third great grandparents Martin and Elizabeth — everything matches. It gets wonky when we get to that fourth great grandparent generation.

I have 17 people in my DNA Circle for David Baker and fewer for Dorothy Wiseman. That makes sense because David Baker had two wives, and some of those in the David Baker circle are descended from the first wife, Mary Webb, and not Dorothy, who was the second wife.

Of the six people who are in the David Baker circle but are missing from the Dorothy Wiseman circle, five fall into the category of “descended from Mary Webb.”

One doesn’t.

That’s my third cousin David.

And AncestryDNA gives me absolutely no idea why.

I suppose it could be because cousin David matches me and some other members of the David Baker circle but not some of the other members of the Dorothy Wiseman circle.

That could be, but I can’t tell, because AncestryDNA doesn’t give me a way to see who else cousin David and I have in common.

I suppose it could be because cousin David matches me in a different segment than I match the members of the Dorothy Wiseman circle.

That could be, but I can’t tell, because AncestryDNA doesn’t give me access to any of the segment data to make that kind of analysis.

So cousin David and I are a match, and we both have the same descent from the third and fourth great grandparents, and I’m in circles for all four — and he’s in my circles for three of the four — and I have no idea why.

So tell me, once again, why I don’t need those analytical tools, AncestryDNA.

Because I can’t square these circles.


  1. Anna Swayne, “New AncestryDNA Technology Powers New Kinds of Discoveries,” Ancestry Blog posted 20 Nov 2014 ( : accessed 28 Mar 2015).
  2. Ibid.
Posted in DNA | 40 Comments

RIP little cousin

He was just a little boy, just two days past his sixth birthday.

And he died a horrible death.

What today would be a preventable death.

Ralph Livingston of Hollister, Oklahoma, was The Legal Genealogist‘s first cousin twice removed: his father Arthur Carlton Livingston was the brother of my great grandmother Eula (Baird) Livingston Robertson.

I had photographed his grave at the Frederick, Oklahoma, City Cemetery years ago, and knew from family that this little boy — Arthur’s first-born child — had died of blood poisoning on 17 March 1927.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. That I found yesterday in the stunning collection of newspapers held by the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City, the fabulous research library and museum of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

The Society was founded in 1893 by members of the Oklahoma Territory Press Association, in large part to collect and preserve the papers they had published.1 Its Oklahoma History Center, which houses that newspaper collection (and so much more), opened in 2005.2

And it is there that the rest of the story was told, in the pages of the Frederick (Oklahoma) Press issue of 22 March 1927:

RalphFuneral services were held at the First Baptist Church in Frederick Friday afternoon for Ralph Livingston, 6, son of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Livingston of Hollister, who died at the Tillman County hospital Thursday night, after an illness of several weeks. Rev. T. P. Haskins, pastor of the Frederick Baptist church, and Rev. J. F. Curtis, pastor of Hollister Baptist church, were in charge of the funeral.

“A large number of friends of the deceased gathered at the church to pay their respects to the boy, and a beautiful floral offering was made.

“Ralph died as the result of blood poisoning and erysipelas and other complications, which began with a diseased leg and followed his body to his face.

“Burial was made in the City cemetery.3

Oh ouch.

It turns out that erysipelas is a streptocaccal bacteria infection that often starts with some sort of cut in the skin. It occurs on the legs most of the time.4 The disease has been “traced back to the Middle Ages, where it was referred to as St. Anthony’s fire, named after the Christian saint to whom those afflicted would appeal for healing.”5

In untreated or severe cases, “(t)he bacteria may travel to the blood … This results in a condition called bacteremia. The infection may spread to the heart valves, joints, and bones.”6

When erysipelas does spread that way, it causes pain. A lot of pain.

When treated with modern antibiotics, the disease can be cured. A solid round of penicillin could knock out most erysipelas. But penicillin wasn’t available for widespread use until the 1940s — years after Ralph’s illness.7

And in those days before penicillin and other drugs became readily available, erysipelas killed.

Those believed to have died from erysipelas include Norborne Berkeley, a royal governor of Virginia; John Stuart Mill; and Pope Gregory XVI.8

And one little six-year-old cousin.

For the want of something we take so very much for granted today… a simple antibiotic…


  1. History of OHS,” About : History, Oklahoma Historical Society ( : accessed 27 Mar 2015).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Frederick (Oklahoma) Press, 22 March 1927, p.1, col. 7; digital images, Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City.
  4. Erysipelas,” MedlinePlus, National Institutes of Health ( : accessed 27 Mar 2015).
  5. Loretta Davis MD, et al., “Erysipelas,” Medscape ( : accessed 27 Mar 2015).
  6. Erysipelas,” MedlinePlus.
  7. Wikipedia (, “Penicillin,” rev. 24 Mar 2015.
  8. Wikipedia (, “erysipelas,” rev. 17 Mar 2015.
Posted in My family | 12 Comments

Those 1890 statutes

The Legal Genealogist is heading off to Oklahoma tomorrow, to speak at the Oklahoma Genealogical Society conference on Saturday and — with any luck at all — to track down some elusive Tillman County ancestors in the newspaper collection of the Oklahoma History Center.

OK.lawIn preparing for this trip, I was doing my usual routine of poking around in the local statutes and came across something that really reinforced a point I try to make all the time.

The common law wasn’t really all that common in huge parts of the United States.

Huge swaths of the United States were once under the control of the French or the Spanish,1 and the legal tradition they brought with them when they came into the Union was the tradition of the civil law — the law based in the 6th century Justinian Code2 — not the English common law.

And remnants of that civil law tradition persisted for a time — sometimes even to today — in the laws of the newly created territories or newly admitted states.

Case in point: Oklahoma.

The land that eventually became the State of Oklahoma was first part of the French territory known as Louisiana. It “did not become part of the United States until 1803, when the new American republic acquired the Louisiana Purchase. The U.S. Congress divided the purchased domain into two territories: Orleans in the south and Louisiana in the north. The Territory of Louisiana included what is now Oklahoma and had its administrative center at St. Louis. In 1812 northern Louisiana became the Territory of Missouri; in 1819 southern Louisiana, including Oklahoma, was organized as the Territory of Arkansas. The territorial governors of Arkansas exercised administrative jurisdiction over Oklahoma for the next thirty years.”3

On 2 May 1890, the Territory of Oklahoma was created in what’s generally called the Organic Act.4

And when the Territorial Legislature met in 1890, it passed a whole set of statutes — the very first official laws of the Territory of Oklahoma.5 And some of those very first official laws make it crystal clear that the template on which they were based was the civil law, not the common law.

In the common law, the language typically used to describe the process of property descending from one generation to another is probate,6 and where the deceased leaves no will the specific term used is descent.7 In the civil law, the term for the descent of property from one generation to another without a will is succession.8

Guess which word the Oklahoma Territorial Legislature used in its very first set of statutes?


Succession, defined in the statute as “the coming in of another to take the property of one who dies without disposing of it by will.”9

There are other bits and pieces like this scattered throughout the statutes, but just this one word serves as a powerful reminder that this nation’s legal heritage — like its genetic heritage — is a blend.


  1. See generally Wikipedia (, “United States territorial acquisitions,” rev. 17 Mar 2015.
  2. See “Roman Legal Tradition and the Compilation of Justinian,” The Robbins Collection, Boalt Hall ( : accessed 25 Mar 2015).
  3. Westward Expansion, 1803–1861,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Oklahoma History Center ( : accessed 25 Mar 2015).
  4. “An act to provide a temporary government for the Territory of Oklahoma, to enlarge the jurisdiction of the United States Court in the Indian Territory, and for other purposes,” 26 Stat. 81 (2 May 1890).
  5. See The Statutes of Oklahoma 1890 (Guthrie, Okla. : State Capital Printing Co., 1891); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 25 Mar 2015).
  6. See generally Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 945, “probate.”
  7. Ibid., 359, “descent.”
  8. Ibid., 1133, “succession.”
  9. Chapter 88, article 4, The Statutes of Oklahoma 1890, at 1211.
Posted in Legal definitions, Statutes | 2 Comments