Serendipity strikes again

So the semi-annual meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Board for Certification of Genealogists® is underway in Salt Lake City and, as is the BCG custom, Board-certified genealogists donated their time yesterday to offer free lectures to the genealogical community.

Held in the Family History Library (FHL), the lectures are — first and foremost — BCG’s way to say thank you to the FHL and its staff for everything they do for us year in and year out. By sharing our knowledge with them, we hope to repay to some degree the many times they have shared their knowledge with us and with all genealogists everywhere.

The Legal Genealogist had the privilege of being the lead-off lecturer, doing a reprise of a topic I presented at the National Genealogical Society conference in Richmond in May: Shootout at the Rhododendron Lodge: Reconstructing Life-Changing Events.

It’s a presentation I dearly love, for many reasons: it’s got a great story — a firefight between good guys and bad guys in which the Bath County, Virginia, sheriff was shot to death; it’s got a lot of twists and turns — demonstrating why reasonably exhaustive research is so key to excellence in genealogy; and it’s a story where — if the shootout had ended just a little differently — my family would be so very different today.

Because, you see, when that sheriff set out that night in December 1929 to track down the men who’d been involved in a bar fight, he didn’t go off alone. He had picked a local man to back him up, had deputized him on the spot… and that local man was right in the middle of the gunfight that broke out when the two groups met in the darkness.

The on-the-spot deputy — who survived the night’s gunfight — went on to marry and have children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

One of those grandchildren is my brother-in-law Mike, husband of my youngest sister. And two of those great grandchildren are my nephew and niece, Thomas and Rose.

It almost would have been enough genealogical serendipity that the lecture was yesterday, which happened to be my niece Rose’s birthday. Kind of cool to be talking about her great grandfather while she’s celebrating with her Dad.

But that was barely the start of it.

In the audience yesterday was another man named Mike. He’s a Facebook friend, a fellow genealogist, and one who has exactly the same Scottish last name as my brother-in-law. It had occurred to me once or twice in passing that I should ask this Mike if he’d ever thought about doing DNA testing; it would be fun, I thought, to see how Mike and Mike matched up.

I had the chance to ask that question yesterday and got one whale of a surprise for an answer.

Mike in the audience — call him MikeA — and Mike my brother-in-law — call him MikeB — are cousins.

Close cousins.

Where it counts.

In their genes.

Here’s the 12-marker YDNA match-up between MikeA (on the bottom) and MikeB (on the top):


They’re both in what’s called the Western Atlantic Modal Haplogroup: “the most frequently occurring 12-marker Y chromosome haplotype associated with haplogroup R1b1a2.”1 In other words, they’re both absolutely typical men of European ancestry.2

Now at 12 markers, there’s not a whole lot more than could be said. At 12 markers, an exact genetic match means the Mikes have a good chance — about 95% odds — of sharing a common ancestor within 29 generations.3 Give or take a few, figuring an average of 25 years per generation, that’s about 725 years. Not exactly within the usual genealogical time frame.

But neither of the Mikes stopped at 12 markers. Let’s look at the next set of 13 markers:


Oh, boy. So far so good — a 25-for-25 marker match, sharing a surname. That ups the odds quite a bit. With that kind of match, we’ve got a 95% chance of the Mikes sharing a common ancestor within 13 generations.4 Again figuring about 25 years per generation, about 325 years.

Better, for sure. But still pushing the limits of genealogical time. We think we know the original immigrant ancestor here, a man who died in late 1748 in Prince William County, Virginia. But wouldn’t it be nice to get even closer?

So… take a look at the next set of 12 markers — both Mikes have tested to the 37-marker level:


Oh yeah. A 37-for-37 marker match, sharing a surname.

The odds now? About a 95% chance that they share a common ancestor within seven generations5 — as little as perhaps 175 years. And the odds are about 90% that the common ancestor will turn up within five generations6 — roughly 125 years.

We’ve got our eyes on one particular man — a Loyalist — or one particular son of that Loyalist as likely candidates for the most recent common ancestor, and we’ve sure got some paper trail work to do to try to narrow down the odds.

But then there is that whole other set of odds. The odds that MikeA would be sitting there in the audience yesterday, listening to another part of the family story of his cousin, MikeB.

I can’t even begin to calculate that.

I love genetic genealogy… especially when serendipity strikes.


  1. ISOGG Wiki (, “Western Atlantic Modal Haplotype,” rev. 5 Mar 2014.
  2. What does the WAMH badge on my personal page mean?,” The Family Tree DNA Learning Center, Family Tree DNA ( : accessed 11 Oct 2014).
  3. Ibid., “Paternal Lineages, Y-DNA12.”
  4. Understanding Your Y-DNA25 Results,” Family Tree DNA ( : accessed 11 Oct 2014).
  5. Paternal Lineages, Y-DNA37,” The Family Tree DNA Learning Center, Family Tree DNA ( : accessed 11 Oct 2014).
  6. Ibid.
Posted in DNA | 20 Comments

Still no answers

It was 132 years ago today that one of the family’s mystery ladies passed out of this world, taking her secrets with her.

We know her first name — Nancy. And — as The Legal Genealogist first reported nearly two years ago — almost everything about her is a mystery.1

We have evidence of her birth and death dates — 12 January 1786 and 11 October 1882 — only from her tombstone, in the Baker Cemetery, at the old Baker Community near Long Creek in southern Parker County, Texas.2 There isn’t any other evidence to support either the birth or death dates.

If the 1850 census of Pulaski County, Kentucky, is right, she was born in North Carolina, but her birth year would be 1788, not 1786.3 If the 1880 census of Parker County, Texas, is right, she was born in South Carolina, but she’d have been born in 1779.4

We don’t have a single solid clue as to who Nancy’s parents were. I’ve found no evidence at all to support undocumented online family trees that suggest her maiden name might have been Davis.

We know she married Jesse Fore — her tombstone tells us that much5 — and that seems to be pretty well corroborated by evidence linking her to her children, and particularly her daughter Nancy Catherine “Kate” (Fore) Baker.6 Nancy was living with Kate and her husband Josiah Baker at the time of the 1880 census and was enumerated as the mother-in-law of the head of household, Josiah.7

The only direct evidence as to when and where Nancy and Jesse married appears in a pension application Jesse filed for service in the War of 1812, where he said he married in Buncombe County, North Carolina, in 1815. The hitch is that he named his wife from that marriage as Sallie8 — nickname for his second wife Sarah, whom he married in Georgia in 1855. So it’s hard to put much faith in that information, recorded so many years after the fact when Jesse was in his 80s.

Indirect evidence supporting a marriage around 1815 comes from the birth years of Nancy’s and Jesse’s children. The oldest, Joseph, was born around 1816;9 their second child, my 2nd great grandmother Mary “Polly” Fore, was born around 1818.10

And we can add to the mix that Nancy clearly ended up in Parker County, Texas, along with a number of her children — Kate (Fore) Baker, Polly (Fore) Johnson and George Washington Fore, for certain.

And that is where the biggest mystery of Nancy’s life comes into play: why and when and with whom did Nancy come to Texas?

You see, though Nancy’s tombstone identifies her as the widow of Jesse “Four,” and though Jesse was indeed dead by the time Nancy died,11 Nancy and Jesse hadn’t lived together since sometime in the early 1850s. Sometime between 1850, when Jesse and Nancy were enumerated in Pulaski County, and 1855, some irrevocable split occurred, with Jesse staying in the east and Nancy heading west.

And we know that because we know that Jesse masrried that second wife, a widow by the name of Sarah Nicks, in June of 1855 in Union County, Georgia.12

Now we know that the Bakers had pulled up stakes in Pulaski County in the early 1850s,13 heading first to Louisa County, Iowa, where Josiah and Kate’s son James was born in 1853,14 and then to Parker County, Texas, where the family begins to appear in the records by the mid-to-late 1850s.

There is no divorce recorded for Jesse and Nancy in Pulaski County, Kentucky, where Jesse was on the tax rolls in 1850 and 1851, or in Union County, Georgia, where Jesse married in 1855. Nor is there any legal action by Nancy in Texas in the Parker County records that survived an 1874 courthouse fire.

But even if I could find the records of what happened to their marriage, there are questions I have for which there may never be any answers.

What happened back in Pulaski County that made a woman in her 60s leave her husband of more than 30 years to head west the way Nancy did? Did she face a terrible choice between her husband and her children… or was it a relief to be free of Jesse?

Did she accompany Josiah and Kate? Did she go out later with Polly Johnson and her family? Or with her son George?

And what about Nancy’s life after she left Jesse? Was she happy there in Parker County — a frontier area still plagued by Indian attacks well into the 1870s? Did she ever regret the choice that she made?

Did she ever think of the man she left behind?

I would still give my right arm for a time machine… or a diary…


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “The mysteries of Nancy Fore,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 12 Jan 2013 ( : accessed 10 Oct 2014).
  2. Baker Cemetery (Baker Community, Parker County, Texas; on Baker Road approximately four miles south of the intersection with Doyle Road, Latitude 323503N, Longitude 0974338W), Nancy C. “Four” marker; photograph by J.G. Russell, 3 May 2003.
  3. 1850 U.S. census, Pulaski County, Kentucky, population schedule, Division 1, p. 7 (back) (stamped), dwelling 106, family 106, Nancy Fore; digital image, ( : accessed 20 March 2007); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 217.
  4. 1880 U.S. census, Parker County, TX, population schedule, Justice Precinct 6 , enumeration district (ED) 139, p. 458(B) (stamped), dwelling 12, family 12, Nancy Fore, mother-in-law, in Josiaha Baker household; digital image, ( : accessed 12 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1232; imaged from FHL microfilm 1255323.
  5. Baker Cemetery, Nancy “Four” marker.
  6. A history written by Josiah and Kate’s grandson Elma Baker documents this branch of the family. Elma W. Baker, The Rugged Trail, Vol. II (Dallas, Texas : p.p., 1973), 81 (citing Family Bible of Lela Fay Jones, Lubbock Texas).
  7. 1880 U.S. census, Parker Co., Tex., pop. sched., Justice Precinct 6, ED 139, p. 458(B) (stamped), dwell./fam. 12, Nancy Fore, mother-in-law, in “Josiaha” Baker household.
  8. Declaration of Soldier, 27 March 1871, Jesse Fore (Fifer, Capt. Gaffney’s South Carolina Militia, War of 1812), soldier’s pension application no. 4553, certificate no. 7041; Case Files of Pension and Bounty Land Applications Based on Service Between 1812 and 1855; Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1960; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  9. A male child age 10-14 was in the Fore household in 1830. 1830 U.S. census, Buncombe County, North Carolina, p. 254 (stamped), line 6, Jesse Fore household; digital image, ( : accessed 12 May 2004); citing National Archive microfilm publication M19, roll 118. That this oldest son was Joseph was reported by his niece, Martha A. “Mattie” Fore Gough.
  10. Polly was shown as age 32 in 1850. 1850 U.S. census, Pulaski Co., Ky., Somerset, pop. sch., p. 2 (back) (stamped), dwell./fam. 27, Mary Johnson.
  11. Affidavit of Claimant, 3 May 1879, Sarah Fore, widow’s pension application no. 36249, certificate no. 25298, service of Jesse Fore (Fifer, Capt. Gaffney’s South Carolina Militia, War of 1812); Case Files of Pension and Bounty Land Applications Based on Service Between 1812 and 1855; Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1960; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Josiah and Kate were still in Pulaski County in 1850. 1850 U.S. census, Pulaski Co., Ky., Division 2, p. 82 (stamped), dwell./fam. 107, Josiah A. Baker household.
  14. Obituary, James R. Baker, Lovington (N.M.) Leader, 12 Feb 1937.
Posted in My family | 18 Comments

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

Flush, our ancestors generally weren’t.

Well, okay, maybe yours were. After watching the Anderson Cooper segment of Finding Your Roots this week1, The Legal Genealogist is reminded that there are some folks out there whose ancestors weren’t peasants the way mine were.2

3D Man Broke BusinessmanBut for many of us, at one point or another, we encounter an ancestor whose pockets were empty: so much so that he ran afoul of the laws of the day.

The law was rarely kind to the man, or occasional woman, who couldn’t pay debts as they came due. Debtors were often subject to transportation to a distant land, and colonial America was a common destination for English debtors.3

In America, debtors were often sent to jail — debtors’ prisons — as late as the middle of the 19th century. In Baltimore, Maryland, for example, some 590 debtors were sent to jail in the year ending November 1849.4

And there are two words we often see in records we find about our financially-challenged ancestors. One is bankrupt. And the other is insolvent.

Today, they’re pretty much used interchangeably in the law — but that wasn’t always the case. So let’s look at those two terms as we might run across them in the records.

An individual was considered insolvent when he couldn’t pay his bills. The dictionary definition is “one who cannot or does not pay; one who is unable to pay his debts; one who is not solvent; one who has not means or property sufficient to pay his debts.”5

And an individual was considered bankrupt when the law allowed his creditors to step in and act against him in a particular way. Again, the dictionary definition is a “person who has committed an act of bankruptcy; one who has done some act or suffered some act to be done in consequence of which, under the laws of his country, he is liable to be proceeded against by his creditors for the seizure and distribution among them of his entire property.”6

You can see the difference here, right? An ordinary person might often be insolvent — unable to pay his bills. But that person was usually dealt with on a one-to-one basis versus a particular creditor. If the creditor decided to sue, or get a judgment for debt, then the debtor and the creditor would fight it out one on one.

In a bankruptcy case, all of the creditors gang up on the debtor, and all fight it out at once. And historically it was a rare case when the law stepped in and declared a person bankrupt. Most of the time, a bankruptcy was forced on a debtor who was in business, not just a local joe.

But that doesn’t quite explain what the big difference was between the two, in the kinds of records we’ll see as genealogists. For us, we’re going to see it in who asked the courts to act. “(I)nsolvent laws operate at the instance of an imprisoned debtor; bankrupt laws, at the instance of a creditor.”7

Here’s the way it’s explained by Black in his Law Dictionary:

The leading distinction between a bankrupt law and an insolvent law, in the proper technical sense of the words, consists in the character of the persons upon whom it is designed to operate… (A) bankrupt law, in its proper sense, is a remedy intended primarily for the benefit of creditors; it is set in motion at their instance, and operates upon the debtor against his will, … although in its result it effectually discharges him from his debts. An insolvent law, on the other hand, is chiefly intended for the benefit of the debtor, and is set in motion at his instance, though less effective as a discharge in its final result.8

So when our ancestors were in the courts as alleged bankrupts, it’s because their creditors wanted it. They wanted to be able to take all of the debtor’s property and divide it up among themselves, leaving the debtor with nothing — but also with no debts.

When our ancestors were in the courts as insolvents, they were the ones who wanted to be declared insolvent, because getting that designation would free them from the debtor’s jails.

In both cases, the ancestor was still broke. But the reasons for being legally considered to be broke were different.


  1. See “Our American Storytellers,” Finding Our Roots, PBS ( : accessed 8 Oct 2014).
  2. Anderson Cooper’s mother was Gloria Vanderbilt. Yes, that Gloria Vanderbilt. See ibid.
  3. See Acts of Geo. II, chap. 31 (1743), in Danby Pickering, ed., The Statutes at Large from the 15th to the 20th Year of King George II, vol. 18 (Cambridge, England: printed by Joseph Bentham, 1765), 142; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 8 Oct 2014).
  4. See Prison Discipline Society, 26th Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society (Boston : T. R. Marvin, 1851), 93; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 8 Oct 2014).
  5. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 629, “insolvent.”
  6. Ibid., 118-119, “bankrupt.”
  7. Ibid., “bankruptcy.”
  8. Ibid., 119, “bankrupt law.”
Posted in Legal definitions | 11 Comments

The case of the disappearing “matches”

Yes, actually The Legal Genealogist is aware that it isn’t Sunday, so it’s unusual to have a post about DNA appear in this space.

But AncestryDNA hosted an informational session with a number of genetic genealogy bloggers and educators yesterday, and there’s a major development in the works that folks who have tested with AncestryDNA need to know about — and begin to understand — as soon as possible.

Ancestry1Now let’s review what we’re talking about here: the AncestryDNA test is an autosomal DNA test. It looks at the kind of DNA that you inherit equally from both of your parents: you get 22 autosomes1 (plus one gender-determinative chromosome) from your father and 22 autosomes (plus one gender-determinative chromosome) from your mother, for a total of 23 pairs of chromosomes. So this is a test that works across genders to locate relatives — cousins — from all parts of your family tree.2

Ancestry was the last of the three major testing companies to get into the business of testing autosomal DNA, but it has become one of the biggest — if not the biggest — player in that market in the two years since its product launched in May 2012.

One of the things that has set AncestryDNA apart from the other testing companies was a decision to err on the side of inclusion in listing people as matches. Where both Family Tree DNA and 23andMe have fairly tight criteria for declaring two people who’ve tested to be genetic matches, AncestryDNA has had much more liberal criteria.

That has resulted in a much longer match list at AncestryDNA than you’ll find at either of the other two companies — but it’s also resulted in a lot of people being on your match list who really aren’t your genetic relatives at all. The term for those folks: false positives.

So here’s the challenge: how do you eliminate, or at least reduce, the number of false positives without creating the opposite problem — eliminating some people who really are genetic relatives? The term for those folks is false negatives and, from a research standpoint, it’s worse to lose a real match than it is to have to wade through bad ones.

AncestryDNA yesterday outlined its plan for a new matching system which it expects to roll out by the end of 2014. And it’s going to come as a big surprise to a lot of users, especially those of us who have any colonial American ancestry (and who therefore have these long match lists at AncestryDNA):

Our numbers of matches are about to drop like a rock.

And that, folks, is going to be A Good Thing.

The new matching system begins with a better, deeper, more accurate analysis of the data that helps define who is and who really isn’t genetically related.

One part of the new analysis is through the identification of some parts of our genetic code that really don’t mean anything at all. Some pieces of DNA that we once thought meant we were genetic cousins we now understand just mean we’re all human, or all Scandinavian, or all African. By taking those pieces out of the matching system, AncestryDNA will eliminate many of the false positives.

In some cases, someone who has tested with AncestryDNA may lose hundreds of matches by the better definition of the people who really fall into this false positive category. In other cases, the number may drop by thousands. In my own results, for example, AncestryDNA currently reports more than 12,000 matches. I expect the new reporting system to drop that to fewer than 1,000 matches.

The other big part of the new analysis is in the way AncestryDNA looks at the bits and pieces of our genetic code that we use for genetic genealogy testing. Since it doesn’t look at all of our DNA, but only parts of it, autosomal DNA testing relies on making some educated guesses about the parts of it the test itself doesn’t look at.

In a way, it’s like reading a book with only some of the words showing up on the page; the analysis system has to guess at what the missing words are. The better the guesses are, the better the results are. So part of the new system is a better way of thinking about what the missing words are likely to be — and in what language. If I’m 100% European, for example, the system shouldn’t conclude that the missing DNA words are in an Asian language.

Emphasizing the right missing words means the people who show up on our lists as matches will be better matches. More accurate. More likely to really be our cousins.

Now one of the things we hope for is a way to capture the lists of people who are now on our match lists (false positives and all), and especially a way to capture the lists of people who show up in our shaky leaf hint lists even if they are false positives. It’s a data set some of us may want to preserve and use in the future. The AncestryDNA representatives at yesterday’s meeting were receptive to the idea — it hasn’t been promised, but we are keeping our fingers crossed and pushing as hard as we can.

So… what does this all mean?

It means that one day in the not-too-distant-future those of us who’ve tested with AncestryDNA are going to log into our accounts, open our DNA results and the number we see on the graphic highlighted here — of pages of matches — is going to be an awful lot smaller.

Instead of 260 pages of matches, with most of them being false positives, I expect to see perhaps as few as 20 pages, with most of them being pretty darned good matches — real genetic cousins to work with and, with luck, advance our mutual understanding of our common ancestry.

Get ready. This change is coming. But this part of what AncestryDNA has planned — the smaller, or shorter, match list — is not a bad change.

This is a case where less is really more: more useful, more powerful, more accurate.

Watch this space for more info …


  1. “An autosome is any of the numbered chromosomes, as opposed to the sex chromosomes. Humans have 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes (the X and Y).” Glossary, Genetics Home Reference, U.S. National Library of Medicine ( : accessed 6 Oct 2014), “autosome.”
  2. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Autosomal DNA testing,” National Genealogical Society Magazine, October-December 2011, 38-43.
Posted in DNA | 59 Comments

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

It’s one of those words even The Legal Genealogist can look at… and be led astray by.

The term apostille just plain flat out looks like it ought to involve something to do with the Postal Service, doesn’t it?

johnny_automatic_lettersAnd, I suppose, since it’s something that really is used when an item is sent from place A to place B, it’s not an entirely unreasonable thought.

But it honestly doesn’t have anything to do with postage stamps or mail and you can’t get one at the Post Office.

Nor, I regret to say, can you realistically hope for any help in figuring it out by going to my usual go-to source for legal definitions. Black’s Law Dictionary simply defines an apostille as an “addition; a marginal note or observation.”1

Um… not exactly.

You see, an apostille is “a government-issued certification that authenticates a public document for use in a foreign country.”2

You’ll see the term used today by various state and national governments to mean “a form of authentication issued to documents for use in countries that participate in the Hague Convention of 1961.”3

But it’s also the type of document you’ll find in older cases whenever there was an international issue. You’ll see it, for example, in a probate file where one of the heirs was not from the United States. Documents sent from, say, Germany to Illinois for use in distributing an estate need to be proved to be authentic, and the method used is and has long been the apostille.

It’s generally a stamp (under both the 1961 Hague treaty and under prior practice between the United States and other countries) attached to the document where the official role of everybody in the document’s chain gets verified.4 The local clerk might swear to the claimant’s signature, then a local judge verifies that the local clerk is the local clerk, and a higher judge verifies that the local judge is the local judge and so on up the governmental food chain.

If this sounds familiar, think about the times you’ve seen something like this in, for example, pension files, where the county clerk certifies a document, then the county judge verifies that the county clerk was the county clerk and so on.

Where will you find the apostille in any given case? It should be attached to the document or documents at issue. If the document came from a foreign country for use in an American proceeding, it should be in the court file here. And if it was issued in the United States for use in a foreign proceeding, it should be in the court file there.


Enough to make you go postal, maybe…


Image: User Johnny Automatic,

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 77, “apostille.”
  2. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 6 Oct 2014), “apostille.”
  3. See, e.g., “What is an Apostille?Corporations, Washington State Secretary of State ( : accessed 6 Oct 2014).
  4. See Wikipedia (, “Apostille Convention,” rev. 18 Sep 2014.
Posted in Legal definitions | 12 Comments

Why DNA test?

The question came up yesterday afternoon, as it so often does, when genetic genealogists try to caution against thinking that DNA testing is the be-all and end-all of research.

The Legal Genealogist was sitting in on a panel discussion on DNA testing at the Minnesota Genealogical Society’s North Star Conference, and joined the panelists in talking about the need to consider DNA results as just one more data source, to think about the possibility that some results in the speculative category could be false positives and not real genetic relatives at all.

That’s a problem especially at AncestryDNA where there aren’t any good analytical tools to see just exactly where in our DNA we and a match may have an overlap and where the default setting is to include a great many possible matches in the speculative category: people who may very well be false positives.

So, an attendee asked, if he didn’t have a specific question he wanted to answer, and there were all those speculative cases to wade through, and nothing he really thought DNA might particularly help with, why should he do DNA testing?

I can’t answer for him.

But I sure can answer for me.

And this graphic, right here, is enough of an answer for me, even at AncestryDNA where the tools don’t rise to the level of the other DNA testing companies:


I tested at AncestryDNA, and for the record at every other major genetic genealogy testing company I could test with including Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and even the National Geographic Genographic 2.0 project.

I had no specific issue I wanted answered by testing at AncestryDNA, no theory I was trying to test, no second kit I was sending in for a possible cousin to see if our lines really were from the same family.

I tested with AncestryDNA mostly to see how their system worked, to be able to answer reader questions about it, to satisfy my own curiosity.

And, one morning, I logged into my AncestryDNA account and the graphic you see above is what greeted me.

You can see that this is a fairly close cousin and — assuming that the paper trail research is correct (and, in this case, it is) — we both descend from Gustavus and Isabella Robertson.

What makes this result so welcome and so extraordinary is that this third cousin’s ancestor William, oldest of the Robertson sons, had disappeared from my research radar with records that abruptly ended in the 1880s. He, his wife, his one daughter from the 1880 census might all have been captured by aliens. We simply couldn’t find any trace of them.

It was wonderful to be able to reconnect with this branch of the family. This cousin hadn’t known anything about his William’s grandparents, so I was able to take him back beyond Gustavus and Isabella. And what did I get from this connection?

Well, we can start with the sheer pleasure of reuniting two branches of this family. Of being able to add data about William’s line to the overall family tree.

But there was so much more than I gained.

You see, when I found out where William had gone after he disappeared from the counties where the rest of the family was, I checked the records in the places where — I thought — only William had gone.

And found that, in the years between the censuses, my own great grandfather — William’s baby brother Jasper — and their father Gustavus had also gotten land grants together in a part of Texas where I would never have thought to look.

Jasper and Gustavus didn’t stay there; both of them ended up giving up their land — to William in one case, to the husband of a sister in another case.

It’s a chapter of Jasper’s life I might never have known about if it hadn’t been for this DNA test. I wouldn’t have even known to look for it if I hadn’t gone ahead and done FAN club research (friends, associates and neighbors) after reuniting with William’s line.

And that, my friends, is why we do DNA testing.

Because we never, ever know what might be waiting for us if we do.

And that leap into the darkness of the unknown can end up shedding so much light on our own family history.

Posted in DNA | 16 Comments

That birthday…

He was, without exaggeration, the perfect kid to have at the tail end of a very long sibling parade.

Bill01If you were getting ready to head off in the car, he would always ask the same question: “Can I go?”

If you said no, he’d smile and say, “Oh. Okay.”

If you said yes, he’d smile and say, “Oh. Okay.”

And, either way, it really was okay.

Even today, in all but the most vexing of situations, the words that we used to use to define the old personality type that was called phlegmatic fit him pretty well.

He really is “thoughtful, reasonable, calm, patient, caring, and tolerant.”1

And he is my brother.

My baby brother.

My brother Bill.

He was named after our mother’s oldest brother, though my German-born father insisted on the formal William rather than the Southern U.S. version my uncle bore through life — Billy. But he was always called Billy, or Bill, or even — and to this day still by some of our aunts and uncles — Little Bill, to distinguish him from our uncle.

And, of course, as he’s gotten older, he’s sometimes been called Mr. Bill.

Bill03And it’s that “getting older” part that’s the issue. He is, you see, oh yes he is reaching one of those milestones in less than 48 hours.

There’s no way to describe Bill except as a study in contrasts.

He is both one of the most gentle men I have ever known… and one who was totally successful in a 20-year career as a United States Marine Corps officer.

He is a man who wore leathers and rode a motorcycle… and one who, without the slightest self-consciousness, allowed the tears to run down his face in a moment of total bliss as he cradled his sleeping newborn son.

That last one will forever be one of my most enduring memories of this brother. I flew out to California when his son, my nephew Dennis, was about 10 days old and sat quietly watching this scene. But despite its power, I can’t think of this one memory without thinking of all the other memories I have of Bill over all the years of his life.

How he somehow learned the words to the song “Little Bird, Little Bird” from the musical Man of La Mancha.2 It still makes me giggle to remember the raunchy tone of this suggestive taunting tune being belted out by a two-year-old boy.

Bill04How our mother couldn’t tolerate the idea of her last two sons — born in June and October some 16 months apart — being two years apart in school, since Warren had been old enough to start kindergarten at age 5 with his June birthday, but Bill would have had to wait until he was almost six. So — to the dismay, I’m sure, of future genealogists — she fudged his birth certificate to make him look just a few days older so he could start school only a year behind his brother.

How Bill put up with being teased by Warren, who wasn’t any bigger than Bill was despite being 16 months older. And put up with it. And put up with it. Until the day when he’d finally had enough and hauled off and let Warren have it right in the kisser. How both of the boys were totally startled when — instead of them being separated and reprimanded — the whole family broke into laughter and applause.

How Bill couldn’t quite get the hang of pronouncing the letter R, and so got the opportunity to charm years worth of school speech therapists as well as teachers.

How he handled, with grace and style, being dragged from his birthplace of New Jersey to Texas and then to Virginia as our parents’ marriage disintegrated and finally ended when he wasn’t yet 10. How he handled the back-and-forth visits, and never once even hinted at the pain the disruption was causing him.

Bill.DennisHow he excelled in school, getting himself into college and then into the Marine Corps’ special program for future officers that paid his way through Georgia Tech. How he later picked up a master’s degree at the Naval Postgraduate School.

How he has grown into such a good and decent man. How he adores — and is adored by — his sons. How, through thick and thin, he and their mother have been first and foremost and forever friends.

How he has always been there, for each of us, whenever we have needed him. Being there, with our brother Fred, when our mother drew her last breath. Being there to hold my hand as we sat in the waiting room while our much-loved sister had open heart surgery (and is doing fine today, thank you for asking). Being there as the strong arm for a beloved aunt to lean on at the funeral of her niece, our cousin.

Bill05And how, on Monday… just two days from today … less than 48 hours away … the little brat will turn 50.3

Oh, no, Mr. Bill!

I have no idea how that can possibly have happened.

No clue where those 50 years have gone.

I can’t be old enough to have a baby brother who’s 50.

He can’t be old enough for AARP.

Not that it bothers him, I’m sure. You can ask him yourself, if you’d like.

But I can guarantee you what he’d say.

He’d smile and say, “Oh. Okay.”

And, of course, it really is okay.

Happy 50th, Bill.


  1. Wikipedia (, “Four temperaments,” rev. 22 Sep 2014.
  2. See “Little Bird, Little Bird,” SongFacts ( : accessed 3 Oct 2014).
  3. Yes, that really does mean that my oldest brother and my youngest brother are 20 years apart in age. See Judy G. Russell, “Finding Evan,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Sep 2014 ( : accessed 4 Oct 2014). Twenty years and 10 days to be exact. Same father, different mothers, so it’s not quite as bad as it may seem.
Posted in My family | 13 Comments

One more to bookmark

The Legal Genealogist usually doesn’t advise people that there’s something they have to add to their reading list.

I figure genealogists all have a list as long as our arms, online and off, and we don’t often need help in that category.

Jstor.dailyBut there’s a new offering that’s irresistable — and way too good to keep to myself.

It’s called JSTOR Daily, and I’ve already added it to my reading list.

The email announcement I received says it’s “a new online magazine that offers a fresh take on our world. JSTOR Daily draws connections between the stories you read about in your favorite news publications and the material housed on JSTOR.”1

And, it added, “In addition to daily blog posts, we’ll publish one captivating long read each week, as well as interviews with scholars about their work, and much more.”2

Now JSTOR, in case you’re not familiar with it, is:

a not-for-profit organization, founded to help academic libraries and publishers.

JSTOR is a shared digital library created in 1995 to help university and college libraries free up space on their shelves, save costs, and provide greater levels of access to more content than ever before. More generally, by digitizing content to high standards and supporting its long-term preservation, we also aim to help libraries and academic publishers transition their activities from print to digital operations. Our aim is to expand access to scholarly content around the world and to preserve it for future generations. We provide access to some or all of the content free of charge when we believe we can do so while still meeting our long-term obligations.

JSTOR currently includes more than 2,000 academic journals, dating back to the first volume ever published, along with thousands of monographs and other materials relevant for education. We have digitized more than 50 million pages and continue to digitize approximately 3 million pages annually. Our activities, our fee structure, and the way we manage the service and its resources reflect our historical commitment to serve colleges and universities as a trusted digital archive, and our responsibility to publishers as stewards of their content. This underlying philosophy at JSTOR remains the core of our service even as we continue to seek ways to expand access to people beyond academic institutions.3

If you have access to JSTOR through your community or academic library, JSTOR has extremely rich and deep content in categories ranging from world culture to law. If you don’t, then as an individual, we can access some free offerings from JSTOR, with an ability to save a very small number at a time of articles to a personal library. And there’s a paid option called JPASS, for $19.50 a month or $199 a year, with unlimited access to about 85% of the journals JSTOR has.4

Okay… so why am I recommending this JSTOR Daily thing? Because the content is just plain cool. And every article is documented with links to JSTOR content that may give us some ideas of where to go to find out more.

Right now, articles on the site include:

• a column called “(Un)Catalogued”, written by historian Megan Kate Nelson, where she will focus on “all … kinds of questions of archival collecting, digitization, and research.” On the site right now is the introductory piece, “(Un)Catalogued: Adventures in Historical Research,”5 and her latest column, “(Un)Catalogued: Finding Your Place by Looking at Maps.”6

• an article about the Canadian government’s announcement that it found one of the ships of the Franklin expedition to the arctic, lost in 1845.7

• an historical look at ostentatious homebuilding — beginning in mid-18th century Massachusetts.8

• a piece on gender roles and housework, with some surprising research into the issue.9

• A piece on the influx of animals such as coyotes into suburban and urban areas.10

This content is for our personal use only — the site’s terms of use provide that “readers may display and print for your personal, non-commercial use portions of content from JSTOR Daily. You may not otherwise alter or use any of the content without ITHAKA’s prior written consent nor may you undertake any activity such as computer programs that automatically download or export JSTOR Daily content and that may interfere with, disrupt or otherwise burden the JSTOR Daily server(s) or any third-party servers being used or accessed on connection with JSTOR Daily. You may use a hypertext link or any other ITHAKA provided method of linking to our content so long as the link does not state or imply any sponsorship or endorsement of your site by us or any other affiliation with JSTOR Daily.”11

This is nice stuff — with some good ideas about where to go for more information. And you can get it delivered by email through the JSTOR Newsletter.

Highly recommended.


  1. Email, “Introducing JSTOR Daily,” JSTOR Daily to the author, 1 Oct 2014.
  2. Ibid.
  3. About JSTOR,” JSTOR ( : accessed 1 Oct 2014).
  4. The JPASS Collection,” JSTOR ( : accessed 1 Oct 2014).
  5. Megan Kate Nelson, “(Un)Catalogued: Adventures in Historical Research,” JSTOR Daily, posted 18 Sep 2014 ( : accessed 1 Oct 2014).
  6. Ibid., “(Un)Catalogued: Finding Your Place by Looking at Maps,” posted 25 Sep 2014).
  7. Margaret Smith, “Lost Franklin Expedition Ship Found by Canadian Scientists,” JSTOR Daily, posted 30 Sep 2014 ( : accessed 1 Oct 2014).
  8. Livia Gershon, “Homes of The River Gods: The History of American Mansions,” JSTOR Daily, posted 1 Oct 2014 ( : accessed 1 Oct 2014).
  9. Hope Reese, “Housework, Gender Roles, and Sex: It’s Complicated,” JSTOR Daily, posted 1 Oct 2014 ( : accessed 1 Oct 2014).
  10. Laura Allen, “Keeping Up with the Carnivores,” JSTOR Daily, posted 24 Sep 2014 ( : accessed 1 Oct 2014).
  11. ,” JSTOR Daily ( : accessed 1 Oct 2014).
Posted in General | 16 Comments

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

He was, the record shows, some 74 or 75 years old, living with his son Jeremiah. He had some money coming to him from a mortgage on some property in New York, and had a few hundred dollars in cash of his own.

spendthriftAnd, the record makes it abundantly clear, he was steaming mad.

His name was Ezra Gladding. He lived in the town of Romulus, in Wayne County, in what was then the Territory of Michigan, and he was not at all happy with a label that had been stuck on him by the Probate Court in 1835.

The label: spendthrift.1

The application was made to the Probate Court by the Overseers of the Poor of the town on 1 May 1835:

The memorial of the Overseers of the Poor, of the town of Romulus in said County — respectfully sheweth — that Ezra Gladding of said Township has been a resident therefor for near two years, during which time, he has lessened and wasted his means, whenever it reached him, by excessive drinking and debauchery –

Your Memorialists further state, that they are apprehensive, the said Ezra, will become a charge to the town, if left to the management of his own concerns — & therefore pray that Yr Honor may appoint a Guardian to him & such other relief in the premises as may be fit –2

On 30 June 1835, the Court ordered that Gladding be notified of the application, and on 23 December 1835, Hale Wakefield was named guardian of Ezra Gladding a Spendthrift of the Town of Romulus.3

And that’s when the fur started flying.

First there were all kinds of accusations by Wakefield against Jeremiah Gladding, that Jeremiah was collecting money for his father and giving it to him.4

Then there were all kinds of accusations by Jeremiah and Ezra against Wakefield, that Wakefield was lining his own pockets at Ezra’s expense.5

It’s one of those wonderful kinds of court records that add so much color to a family history.

But what’s with this spendthrift bit?

The term itself had a very specific meaning in the law. A spendthrift was a “person who by excessive drinking, gaming, idleness, or debauchery of any kind shall so spend, waste, or lessen his estate as to expose himself or his family to want or suffering, or expose the town to charge or expense tor the support of himself or family,” and the term included included “every person who is liable to be put under guardianship, on account of excessive drinking, gaming, idleness, or debauchery.”6

And just how was someone liable to be put under guardianship, and why?

You already know the answer.

You even, The Legal Genealogist will bet, know where to look for the specifics.

It’s the law. In this case, the laws of the Territory of Michigan, in effect at the time of the Gladding case:

Whereas, to the dishonor of human nature and the great injury of society, individuals oftentimes spend, lessen, or waste their estates by excessive drinking, gaming, idleness, and debauchery, and thereby involve themselves and families in distress, misery and ruin, and subject the counties or townships to which they belong, to expense and charge, for their maintenance and support ; Be it therefore enacted, That when any person, by excessive drinking, gaming, idleness, or debauchery of any kind, shall so spend, waste, or lessen his or her estate, as thereby to expose himself or herself, or his or her family, or any of them, to want, or suffering circumstances, or shall, by thus spending, wasting, or lessening his or her estate, endanger or expose the county or township to which he or she belongs, in the judgment of the overseers of the poor of the township, to a charge or expense for the maintenance and support of him or her, or his or her family, or any of them, the overseers of the poor of the township, or a major part of them, shall in such case lodge a complaint with the judge of probate of the county to which the person spending, wasting, or lessening his estate, as aforesaid, doth belong ; and if it shall appear to the said judge of probate, that the person complained of comes within the description of this act, and has had due notice of the complaint exhibited against him or her, as the case may be, then, and in that case, the said judge of probate shall appoint the overseers of the poor, or other suitable and discreet person or persons, guardian or guardians, to such person, and no sale or bargain of any personal or real estate, made by such person or persons, after the appointment of guardianship, as aforesaid, shall be held valid in law ; and the guardian or guardians that may be thus appointed, shall, in discharging the duties of their appoinment, pursue the same method, and be under similar obligations for a faithful discharge of their trust, as guardians appointed for lunatics, ideots, or for persons non compos mentis.7

Note that the kicker here is the risk that the town or the county or the jurisdiction at some level will end up footing the bill for the spendthrift and/or his family. It’s not so much social welfare, to care for the spendthrift, as much as it is preventive medicine, so the taxpayers don’t end up paying.

Many jurisdictions had these laws; you’ll find both statutory provisions and court records on spendthrifts in both colonial and early state records all over North America.

These days, about the only remnant you’ll find is what’s called a spendthrift trust: “a trust designed so that the beneficiary is unable to sell or give away her equitable interest in the trust property. The trustee is in control of the managing the property. Thus, the beneficiary of the trust is not in control of the property and her creditors cannot reach those assets.” 8

And Ezra Gladding?

Well, Hale Wakefield gave up, sold out and moved on, and on the 6th of December 1836 the court removed Wakefield as guardian.

There’s nothing in the file about Gladding’s behavior after that.

You kind of have to hope he had some fun, though…

At least lifted his glass in the judge’s direction…


Note: The Latin phrase Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is usually translated as “who will watch the watchmen?” or “who will guard the guardians?” See Wikipedia (, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?,” rev. 22 Sep 2014.

  1. Wayne County, Michigan, Probate Court, Probate estate packet 676, Ezra Gladding, Spendthrift (1835); Wayne County Courthouse, Detroit; digital images, “Michigan, Probate Records, 1797-1973,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 30 Sep 2014 2014).
  2. Ibid., Memorial, 1 May 1835.
  3. Ibid., Notice, 30 June 1835; and Guardian Bond, 23 December 1835.
  4. Ibid., Petition by Wakefield, Guardian, 17 June 1836.
  5. Ibid., Order to Wakefield to show cause why he should not be removed as guardian, 9 July 1836.
  6. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1115, “spendthrift.”
  7. §7, “An Act empowering the Judge of Probate to appoint Guardians to Minors and others,” 12 April 1827, Laws of the Territory of Michigan, Condensed, Arranged, and Passed by the Fifth Legislative Council (Detroit: p.p., 1833), 304-305; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 Sep 2014).
  8. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 30 Sep 2014), “Spendthrift Trust.”
Posted in Legal definitions, Statutes | 2 Comments

Records of the Chancery Courts

There’s only ever been one court that’s had doing what’s fair as part of its official mission: the chancery court.

Webinar.10.1With different names in different states (and countries), it was often the go-to court for cases of divorces, guardianship, real property partition and more. Exactly the kinds of cases that tended to produce information we can really use as genealogists.

Sound like sometime you’d like to know more about?

Well, then, tomorrow is your lucky day.

Because tomorrow, Wednesday, October 1st, is when The Legal Genealogist presents The Fair Court: Records of Chancery Courts, a free webinar sponsored by Legacy Family Tree.

We’ll talk about the differences between the two basic types of courts — law and equity — and what kinds of cases were considered equity cases and so ended up in chancery courts.

We’ll talk about the reasons why so much genealogical information tended to be included in the records of these kinds of cases.

And we’ll talk about what kinds of records these cases created and some of the places where they can be found.

As always, you need to register in advance if you want to participate in the webinar live (it’s at 2 p.m. EDT, 1 p.m. CDT, noon MDT and 11 a.m. PDT).

But if you can’t clear your calendar for that block of time, remember that Legacy Family Tree webinars are available, free, for seven days after each webinar, and then available for purchase (individually or as a subscription package) so you can review the information more slowly, in more depth, at your own pace.

See you tomorrow!

Posted in General | 1 Comment